Kevin Gorman: Antonio Brown deal a disaster for Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed Antonio Brown to abandon his team, talk his way out of town, sabotage his trade value and still end up with a new contract that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver with $30 million guaranteed.
For their troubles, the Steelers got the equivalent of Martavis Bryant and Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders in what will go down as not just a terrible trade but an NFL cautionary tale on how not to handle contract and trade negotiations with high-end talent.
That all the Steelers could manage was third- and fifth-round picks in return for a seven-time Pro Bowl and four-time All-Pro wide receiver who was good for a minimum of 100 receptions, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns the past six seasons makes the deal look like a disaster.
Everyone from team president Art Rooney II to general manager Kevin Colbert to coach Mike Tomlin has to be embarrassed for how they were publicly played by Brown and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, in a deal where the Steelers were supposed to hold all of the leverage.
NFL owners have to be horrified at the precedent set by a petulant player who sat out the season finale, left at halftime, skipped exit interviews, mocked management, ridiculed Ben Roethlisberger at every opportunity and still got exactly what he wanted.
Brown had no shame in making a mockery of the Steelers, one of the league’s flagship franchises, and the Rooney family, one of its model owners. He did this to the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2010, signed him to a five-year, $42.5-million contract in ’12 and gave him a four-year, $68 million extension in ’17, with a $19 million signing bonus.
Despite having three years and $39 million remaining on that deal, Brown orchestrated a way to demand a new contract by announcing his next team would play by his rules. He did so while portraying Roethlisberger as a villain, himself as a victim and the Steelers as penny-pinching owners now left with $21.12 million in dead salary-cap space.
Brown did so with a smile on his face, laughing all the way to the bank.
It was a sign the Steelers’ way of doing business is over. They played hardball with Le’Veon Bell, placing the franchise tag on the All-Pro running back two years in a row. Bell balked at playing under it a second time last season, and Brown borrowed a page out of that playbook. He made life miserable for the Steelers, becoming a migraine until he got what he wanted.
Soon, the Steelers will announce a contract extension for Roethlisberger. They will reward the 37-year-old with a deal worth at least $20 million a year because this is the NFL, and that’s what franchise quarterbacks command. But he won’t have the luxury of playing with All-Pros at running back and receiver, as Bell and Brown were arguably the best players at their positions.
But Bell and Brown committed the cardinal sin of putting themselves ahead of the team. That’s life in today’s NFL, where players are demanding and commanding more guaranteed money, and they set a dangerous precedent that has to have owners trembling with trepidation.
We can blame that on Tomlin for his laissez-faire approach to the locker room and social media, allowing his players too much freedom. We can blame that on Colbert for getting a third- and fifth-rounder in return for a productive player in his prime. We can blame Rooney for overseeing all of this mess with a gentle touch instead of an iron fist.
But the Steelers have bigger problems than whom to blame. They have to restore order in an organization that owns six Lombardi Trophies, if they ever want to win another Super Bowl. Rooney needs to lay down the law. Tomlin needs to create accountability. Colbert needs to find a receiver who can make up for Brown’s production.
That the first reaction from the Steelers was an “I’m ready” tweet by JuJu Smith-Schuster, who threw shade at Brown by posting a photo of himself catching one of his two touchdowns against the Raiders with Brown in the background, showed the social-media mess isn’t going away by trading Brown. Smith-Schuster better be ready, because the Steelers’ receiving corps now consists of him, second-round pick James Washington and Switzer.
The Steelers need to either draft a receiver or sign a free agent, if not both. They were celebrated for getting a coup when they traded Bryant, who was a violation shy of a lifetime ban, to the Raiders for a third-round pick last year. They traded a fifth-rounder for Switzer, the slot receiver and return specialist, and a 2019 sixth-round pick.
But so much more was expected in return for Brown, before a possible deal with the Buffalo Bills fell apart. That trade reportedly would have involved swapping the Nos. 9 and 20 picks and the Steelers receiving a pair of mid-round picks. It emboldened the Raiders to protect their three first-round picks (Nos. 4, 24 and 27) and part with a package that left a lot to be desired.
The Steelers have a history of finding standout receivers in the middle of the draft, from Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders in the third round to Bryant in the fourth and Brown in the sixth. But they have had major misses in receivers Sammie Coates, Dri Archer and Markus Wheaton.
The Steelers are left looking for another overachiever who becomes the NFL’s most prolific pass-catcher but brings none of Brown’s baggage, if such a player exists. It sounds about as mythical as the Steelers’ standing on Sunday as the NFL’s model franchise.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .