How Antonio Brown's spat with the Steelers was all about money – and Odell Beckham Jr.

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist


In late February of 2017 – in one of the social media time capsules that often illustrate the fleeting stability of NFL relationships and contracts – Antonio Brown was resolute. Fresh on the heels of a four-year, $68 million contract extension that briefly made him the highest-paid wideout in the NFL, he announced his stay in Pittsburgh as permanent.

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“Steelers for life #Boomin”, Brown tweeted that Feb. 27, above a smiling photo of himself and agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus.

Barely two years later, Brown went to Instagram for his change of heart – same agents, less impressive attire, entirely different message. Captioned “At work”, Brown snapped a photo of the two men hovering over a laptop and binder and calculator, both apparently trying to free him from that previous “for life” proclamation.

Inside that flip-flopping timeline, which ultimately ended with Brown’s unofficial trade to the Oakland Raiders, there is one important person missing. The change agent that mattered most, really. More so than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, coach Mike Tomlin or any member of the Rooney family. That person?

Antonio Brown felt there was a double standard in the Steelers' treatment of him compared to Ben Roethlisberger, and it played a role in the melodrama. (Getty)
Antonio Brown felt there was a double standard in the Steelers' treatment of him compared to Ben Roethlisberger, and it played a role in the melodrama. (Getty)

Odell Beckham Jr. And most specifically, his money.

If Steelers fans are looking for the factor most responsible for the exit of Brown, they should affix themselves on Beckham and the market-setting contract extension he signed with the New York Giants in the summer of 2018. Because as much time as we spent talking about Brown’s social media antics or his relationship within the organization, it was the money that changed the marriage.

Simply put: Brown wanted one more significant (and guaranteed) bite at the financial apple and the Steelers had no more fruits to offer. Not with three years left on a contract that had doled out a $19 million signing bonus in 2017. Not with a young star like Le’Veon Bell having failed to secure his own table-setting bag in Pittsburgh. And most definitely not with Brown turning 31 this offseason, just as his continuing soap opera plunged to new depths.

Naturally, we concentrated on that soap opera a great deal the last few months. And how could we not? Brown was butting heads with the media, his quarterback and his coach, all while playing out a large portion of the drama on his social media accounts. He was accused of quitting on the Steelers in their final week of the season, and his long-running penchant for seeking attention suddenly became a fatal flaw that was too much to bear.

Yet, the only thing that truly changed here was the money and the age to attain it. It’s not like the Steelers and Brown hadn’t dealt with some troubling problems before that 2017 extension. Yet the two sides came together anyway, supposedly for “life”… or until another wideout set a new financial bar that made Brown’s deal – and guaranteed money – look like a hefty mistake. Which is exactly what that last extension was. A mistake. For both sides.

First, Brown and his representation should have known the landscape-altering Beckham deal was coming. Not to mention a litany of other free-agent deals that would blow $19 million in guaranteed money out of the water. Signing that deal was akin to setting the relationship between the wideout and the franchise onto the train tracks. Just because you couldn’t see the train in the winter of 2017 didn’t mean it wasn’t coming one year later. Yet Brown and his agents did the deal, possibly even knowing this day would eventually come.

Which brings us to the Steelers. Since the signing of the last labor agreement and the significant expansion of the salary cap, Pittsburgh’s way of doing business has gotten archaic quickly. Yes, it’s a franchise that plays out most of the deals that it signs. But the stern refusal to budge on guaranteed money is something that has begun to sting when it comes to top-level negotiations. It’s part of the reason things went so badly with Bell the past two years. It’s also part of why the relationship with Brown went sideways. Because there was simply no way he wouldn’t be irked about his $19 million in guaranteed money once he saw the avalanche of guarantees elsewhere.

With those two realities in mind, this impasse was always coming. From the very moment Brown signed his extension in 2017 and touted his status as a Steeler for life. The only question was how bad the two sides let it get. Once the Beckham deal landed in the summer of 2018 with a whopping $41 million in guaranteed money, Pittsburgh had to know there was going to be a problem with Brown.

And there were only two options on the table: do nothing and hope Brown wouldn’t force the situation into a standoff; or figure out a way to adjust his deal during the 2018 season, adding some guarantees into 2020 that would keep him happy.

Odell Beckham Jr.'s guaranteed money was always going to impact Antonio Brown's thinking, and Pittsburgh didn't do enough about it. (Getty)
Odell Beckham Jr.'s guaranteed money was always going to impact Antonio Brown's thinking, and Pittsburgh didn't do enough about it. (Getty)

The Steelers followed their business model and stood pat. In turn, Brown became even more sensitive to every single slight or perceived element of disrespect when it came to how ownership dealt with him versus other players. And one player most especially: Roethlisberger.

Don’t have any illusions about that latter point, either. Over the length of his career, Roethlisberger has had his fair share of drama. Yet he was rarely scorched like Brown in recent seasons, despite publicly criticizing teammates on a number of occasions. In Brown’s mind, that smacked of a double standard that was hard to take when Roethlisberger wasn’t always playing at an elite level and yet was a team priority for his next new contract.

These are the things that scuttle good relationships, and they are hardly as black and white as they are made out to be during the uglier moments of discontent. More often than not, money is used to resolve problems. And if that’s not an option, a divorce is typically what comes next. Especially if one or both of the sides seem intent on poisoning any shot of reconciliation.

Brown went that route over the past few weeks. And before that, elements of the Steelers franchise, from the quarterback to the coach, sped up the process by airing out their own hurt feelings and criticisms. In the end, Pittsburgh got below-market return for an above-market player. And Brown got his money from the Raiders, putting him back onto a landscape that could compete with Beckham’s deal in the coming year.

That’s what this was all about – the age-old NFL soap opera, driven by money. Who wants it … who’s willing to give it … and the entire mess that occurs in between.

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