Ring would put Antonio Brown on par with Steelers' best
Fresh off a calf injury that shortened his regular season, Antonio Brown returns to the Steelers on Sunday trying to capture the kind of postseason stardom that separates him from the greatest receivers in franchise history.
Brown's quest for his first Super Bowl appearance in seven years and his first time hoisting the Lombardi Trophy begins when the Steelers play the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.
If Brown has his way, it will be the first step toward a seventh NFL championship for the Steelers and one that puts his name alongside Super Bowl wide receiver heroes Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward.
“We have to find a way to win this one,” Brown said this week upon returning to practice after missing two full games and half of another with a lower-leg contusion. “Win this one, win the next one, win the next one.”
Brown's legacy includes the type of productivity that could fill a Tolstoy novel when listing all of his regular-season accomplishments. He has the most receptions (582) and receiving yards (7,848) in any five-year span in NFL history, and this year he became the first receiver with at least 100 catches in five consecutive seasons.
His name can be found on all-time lists that include such luminaries as Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Larry Fitzgerald.
In the franchise annals, Brown has soared past Swann and Stallworth in most statistical categories and, if healthy, will eclipse Ward for the most receptions and receiving yards by the time his contract expires after the 2021 season.
What's lacking for Brown, of course, is hardware. Swann and Stallworth were four-time Super Bowl champions, and Swann won an MVP in Super Bowl X. Ward is a two-time champ, winning the MVP in Super Bowl XL.
Since 2010, his rookie season, the closest Brown has come to getting back to the Super Bowl was last season. He had 18 catches and averaged 103 receiving yards in three playoff games that ended with the Steelers bowing out in the AFC championship game.
“I've had to persevere through some situations, and to be here today, on my feet standing, I'm extremely grateful,” Brown said, referring to how his regular season was cut short. “I'm ready to play football.”
Swann and Stallworth, the two Steelers wide receivers with busts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, would like nothing more than to see Brown play again on football's biggest stage.
“He's an extraordinary talent,” Stallworth said. “I can't think of anything Antonio doesn't do well. He catches the ball. He catches it at the high point. He runs with the ball afterward. He's a student of the game. He keeps his body in good shape, and he's growing and maturing.
“I think he will continue to assault the record books and demolish a lot of records we thought would never be approached.”
Swann and Stallworth got a chance to watch Brown up close Nov. 26 when they were among the 27-member inaugural Hall of Honor class that was recognized prior to the Steelers' game against the Green Bay Packers.
That night, they watched Brown catch 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 victory. He made perhaps the best catch of the NFL season, his toe-drag catch along the sideline in the waning seconds that set up the winning field goal.
“It's always a pleasure to come back here and watch the wide receivers in Pittsburgh,” Swann said. “John and I left, then Louis Lipps was here. Hines was here. Since we left, everybody was saying, ‘Who's the next receiver?' Each one has been unique and different.
“Antonio Brown is Antonio Brown. He's not as big as me or John. But he's quick. He's fast. He works incredibly hard at his craft, and he's eager to do well and be the very best at what he does.”
Swann recalled attending a Steelers game several years ago when Brown approached him on the sidelines during warmups. Brown asked Swann if he could rub his hands.
“Let me get some of that magic,” Swann recalled Brown saying. “I said to him, ‘You only have one job. What you have to do is go out there and make people forget about the receivers who used to be here and have them remember that you are carrying the torch and getting it done.'
“I think he's done that.”
Stallworth and Swann played in an era when wide receivers didn't have the route-running freedom that exists in today's NFL. Defensive backs could be more physical and take more liberties before the pass was in the air.
Could Brown have held his own in the 1970s?
“I think so,” Stallworth said. “He has the strength to play in any era. In my era, (players) tended to push people around a little more, but I think he's a strong enough guy and can probably withstand that pushing around.”
Brown's winning touchdown in the Christmas game against Baltimore last season — the Immaculate Extension, when he pushed through three defenders to stretch the ball over the goal line — is a shining example of the strength he possesses in his 5-foot-10, 181-pound frame.
“When everybody knows you need a play and everybody knows you want to get the ball to AB, he still comes up with the catch and still comes up with the play,” Swann said.
Swann and Stallworth won the Super Bowl for the first time in their third NFL seasons. They were both out of the NFL by the time Brown was born in 1988.
Ward's postseason lineage is more in tune with Brown's. Like Brown, he lost in the AFC championship game in his seventh season. The next year, he won the Super Bowl and was named MVP.
“He brought a lot of tenacity and hunger and was goal driven,” said Brown, whose career overlapped with Ward's for two seasons. “He told me to always be hungry.”
The hunger is real for Brown, who hopes he has three more games this season in which to whet his appetite.