Kevin Gorman: Steelers have no choice but to trade Antonio Brown
As Mike Tomlin was talking about Antonio Brown, the All-Pro receiver was mocking him on social media and erasing whatever was left of the invisible line he had crossed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That Brown appeared on a video with James Harrison, one of Tomlin’s harshest critics since being cut by the Steelers, was a betrayal beyond Brown’s self-centered antics before a must-win season finale with playoff implications.
Tomlin had a lengthy explanation for what went down last week, when Brown was excused from practices but skipped the Saturday walkthrough and was benched for the Bengals game at Heinz Field. But Tomlin couldn’t defend Brown and didn’t bother to try when asked if the Steelers superstar had let his teammates down by going radio silent.
“Absolutely,” Tomlin said, “when we’re talking about our darkest hour, when we’re talking about playing to win a game and needing other dominoes to fall to be in the tournament and the guy not communicating, that is a real element of discussion, certainly.”
When asked pointedly if Brown quit on the team, Tomlin said “you can describe it in whatever ways you want to describe it …” and followed with a long-winded answer about ineffective communication. Nor did Tomlin have a definitive answer for whether Brown left Heinz Field at halftime.
Here’s the short version: Yes, Brown quit on the Steelers.
Now, the Steelers have reached the point of no return with Brown. They have no choice but to trade him, despite the dead-space hit of $21.12 million to their salary cap next season, despite eliminating the savings from Le’Veon Bell not signing his $14.5 million franchise-tag tender.
The Steelers could save a $2.5 million roster bonus, plus his $12.6 million salary for 2020, by trading Brown in March. They could save more money by waiting until after June 1. But they will have to invest in a receiver through free agency or the draft before then, and consider it addition by subtraction.
Brown is the first player in the NFL history to record six consecutive 100-catch seasons, and he is coming off a season in which he had 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and a league-best 15 touchdowns. He will go down as the greatest receiver in franchise history and, without question, the most mercurial.
But his dynamic play no longer outweighs his divisiveness, not after he deserted teammates at their “darkest hour” and publicly undermined the coach who had been his greatest ally. The Steelers know they can’t bring him back into a frustrated and fractured locker room and maintain any accountability, let alone credibility with their team.
Tomlin’s final news conference of the 2018 season was a scene in itself, with reporters shouting questions over one another. While Tomlin handled himself with aplomb, accepting responsibility for a 9-6-1 season that fell short of the playoffs for the first time in five years, he also appeared defeated instead of defiant and more contrite than confident.
“When you lack success, when you fail, change is a part of it,” Tomlin said. “So, yes, change is going to be a part of it moving forward.
“We’re not going to be resistant to change in any facet. We’re not going to be resistant to accountability in any facet. We’re not going to be resistant to taking ownership over what has transpired because that’s not conducive to us moving forward. Part of moving forward is just wallowing in it, to be quite honest with you. So we’re going to wallow. And meet. And talk. And plan. And proceed.”
While Tomlin was wallowing, Harrison was promising an exclusive interview with Brown on video as the sound of Tomlin’s voice played in the background. Brown is a social-media star with 3.1 million followers on Instagram and 1.3 million on Twitter, and his Facebook Live video from a celebratory locker room after a playoff victory over the Chiefs was one instance of Brown putting himself before the team.
Harrison also posted this quote: “What you permit, you promote. What you allow, you encourage. What you condone, you own.”
Tomlin allowed Brown to get away with that locker room livestream video and much more.
On Wednesday, Tomlin said he “certainly” needs to be more of a disciplinarian, saying he starts “with the thumb” when pointing at problems. Tomlin said he embraces the challenges that come with the off-field distractions the Steelers have dealt with as part of the job description in today’s NFL.
“I don’t run away from it. As a matter of fact, I embrace it,” Tomlin said. “I never used those things as an excuse, in terms of our performance and things of that nature. That’s just not how I’m wired.
“When you’re good, you find ways to overcome them and minimize them. You make them less of a story. When you lose, they become the story. But they may be ever-present.”
Win or lose, the distractions were ever-present with Brown. But the numbers showed he was worth it, until he wasn’t. In the Steelers’ darkest hour, he quit on his team. Now, there needs to be accountability.
It’s time for a change, time for the Steelers to move forward.
The Steelers might not be better without Brown, but they’ll be better off.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.