Antonio Brown reportedly didn’t show up for work Monday, missing meetings and a film review with his Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s a story, but it’s not a totally new one. There’s always some drama with the Steelers, just like there’s always some injury with Ben Roethlisberger. Tune in this week to see how coach Mike Tomlin continues to react to the absence.
(On Tuesday, Tomlin told reporters of Brown: “We will talk about it and other things. I’m not going to get into whether he was excused or not.”)
It always seems to work itself out in Pittsburgh. We’ve seen it before.
What we haven’t seen is how these Steelers react to losing.
We may see that now.
The year Brown entered the league, in 2010, the Steelers went 12-4 and won the AFC championship. The next season, they went 12-4. They then had two 8-8 seasons and then won 11 games, 10 games, 11 games and 13 games. They are the closest thing to the New England Patriots in the league. But like the Patriots, the linchpins are graying. Roethlisberger is 36. Brown is 30. The 2018 team opened the season in Cleveland and couldn’t win there. Then the Steelers came home and gave up 42 points in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. All this is coming off a home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which the Steelers yielded 45 points. And the next stop is Tampa and the sizzling Bucs with a suddenly explosive offense. Even if Pittsburgh gets Le’Veon Bell back, the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier remains devastating for the Steelers’ defense, and there may be no easy remedy for that.
Which brings us back to Brown.
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) September 19, 2018
He is one of the most popular players in the sport – at least in the same stratosphere as Tom Brady and Odell Beckham Jr. – and his Instagram is a constant display of flash. Yet part of him is still an undersized receiver who was desperate to catch on at Central Michigan after being kicked out of FIU because of an on-campus spat with security. In Mt. Pleasant he was taken in by then-assistant coach Zach Azzanni and his wife Julia. They saw a turbulent person with an infectious smile and a lot of raw emotions.
“Behind being mad,” Julia said of Brown, “there was this hurt little kid.”
Zach Azzanni put it this way: “He didn’t trust a lot of people. He was always pushing the envelope. No one taught him how to respect people, how to be a man.”
This was a long time ago, of course. Brown is now a wealthy superstar with a family and 10,000 receiving yards as part of a Hall of Fame resume. But that doesn’t mean he’s any less sensitive. IG pics can go only so far in providing a barrier to the sting of criticism. A recent feature story in The Undefeated poked holes in the carefully crafted “AB” image and Brown reacted by physically threatening the reporter (he later apologized). Then he was spotted on the sideline barking at assistant coaches on Sunday. And when a former Steelers employee suggested on Twitter that Brown was fortunate to land in the same offense as Big Ben, Brown shot back in his own tweet: “Trade me and find out.”
Now Brown was absent for a day from the Steelers’ building. It’s probably not the beginning of some permanent rift. Brown is not a shirker, not a quitter. However, the B’s – Brown, Ben, Bell – have always been able to paper over any schisms with winning. There haven’t been pressing questions that last more than a week or two in Pittsburgh. But now Bell has been gone for more than a week or two, Brown has but one touchdown, and Big Ben has been dealing with an injured elbow. There is urgency, and some heat from the improving rivals in the division. Worse yet, there might not be anything the big three can do to fix the real problem, which is on defense.
It’s a recipe for frustration, if not something more corrosive. Who rights the ship? Ben? Brown? Tomlin? A win on Monday night, with the nation watching, will heal a lot of egos. A loss, and the Steelers would have to run the table to match their win total from last season.
The star receiver avoiding the team complex on Monday is only the latest intriguing episode of a long-running series. The next episode, on Monday in Tampa, is where the real drama may start.
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