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Seven years before it kept going wrong in Oakland at every turn – the frozen feet, the helmet, the missed practices, the fines and finally, Wednesday’s explosion with Raiders general manager Mike Mayock – members of the Pittsburgh Steelers saw a significant red flag. The kind that has been coming up more in recent months, as inquiring minds have picked up the phone and started picking through the granular remains of Antonio Brown’s relationship with the only franchise that has hosted his greatest years.
After all, Brown didn’t get to this point overnight. The player he is for the Raiders – or the problem he has become – begs some questions. Specifically:
How long was this going on in Pittsburgh?
Why did it take nine years to unravel there, but only a few months in Oakland?
A heated incident with Dick LeBeau, Steelers defense
The answers are complicated and sometimes speculative. But when you speak to sources who had a seat at the Steelers’ table, it’s clear that Pittsburgh was juggling Brown behind the scenes for years, and the willingness of the coaching staff and front office to deal with his issues are what kept things so quiet for so long.
But before getting to that, you have to go back to that first red flag in August of 2012.
“Yeah, there was an incident where you kind of saw what was coming,” said a Steelers source who overlapped a large portion of Brown’s career. “Back in 2012, the day of practice when he got that first big contract extension.”
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Brown’s run-in with Mayock on Wednesday apparently wasn’t the first time in his career he had an open confrontation that created an uncomfortable scene.
“He came out the day after he signed that extension [in 2012] and he was riding everybody – yapping at everyone,” the source said. “Saying things about how he was the franchise and telling people not to touch him during practice. Saying it to the defense and yelling at the defensive coaches.
“At one point it started getting really heated. It was really tense. You could feel it. So [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau kind of intervened and AB snapped on him and started cursing him out. He was screaming at Coach LeBeau.
“Guys were just looking at each other like, ‘Is this dude serious right now?’ It almost started a fight. [Safety] Ryan Clark and [cornerback] Ike Taylor and [safety] Troy Polamalu were hearing all this and so was the crowd at practice. You could tell the crowd could hear it by their reaction to it. That’s how bad it was.”
The source continued: “I saw Troy get seriously pissed off maybe twice, and this was one of those two times. Troy was so mad, he says to wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, ‘The receivers are live [targets] the rest of this period.’ Which was Troy’s way of saying, ‘We’re going after this guy.’ ”
It’s not the first time this moment has been aired out. The source’s description of that practice overlapped with a similar account from Clark, who described the same practice on ESPN last January. Clark claimed he nearly came to blows with Brown over his treatment of LeBeau. He also criticized Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for allowing Brown to attack a respected member coaching staff.
“This is a situation that Coach Tomlin has allowed to get out of hand,” Clark said on ESPN in January, prior to Brown being dealt to the Raiders. “So now you have to think about [trading] him. It’s been something that has been weighing on this team all year.”
How Steelers managed Brown before it fell apart
In light of Brown’s incident with the Raiders on Wednesday, the story was passed on again as an anecdote. One that arguably speaks to the sticky intersection of money, ego, talent and authority that appears to suddenly be a relevant conversation with the Raiders.
Brown has the money, ego and talent. The question is whether the Raiders can or will express the authority at their disposal to either move on from him, or set down a stringent set of expectations that ends whatever nonsense has been taken up to this point. A deep well of issues that have taken root in multiple incidents – whether it’s how Brown reacted to having to change his helmet, or subsequently skipping practices, or openly challenging the front office by posting his fine letter on his Instagram account. Not to mention what may be the final straw, which might have come when he engaged in the reported confrontation with Mayock.
Keep in mind, this isn’t all that has been alleged about Brown this preseason. The NFL Network’s Mike Silver also reported that Brown “has frustrated his new bosses by showing up late to numerous meetings and by often appearing unfocused in them. … Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.”
That report from Silver dovetails with many of the criticisms that were held below the surface with the Steelers. Those included complaints that Brown seemed to verbalize a need to be constantly recognized and applauded for his greatness. Or that he became obsessed with social media and hungry for the attention of those who followed his platforms. Criticisms that seemed to gain legitimacy when Brown secretly livestreamed a postgame speech by Tomlin after a playoff win in 2017, which included the coach calling the New England Patriots “a- - - - - - -”.
Of course, according to the Steelers source, there was more. He said Brown had a penchant for running on his own timetable, being late for meetings or other functions. And like the scenario Silver described with the Raiders, the source said Brown was often glued to his phone in the team’s facility, although to be fair, heavy cellphone use and an obsession with social media is a complaint that teams have more often than in year’s past. Whether it’s a problem now might rest largely on how the staff views it.
“I think the problem Antonio has now is the head coach and general manager who were able to handle that part of his personality the best traded him away,” the Steelers source said. “Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert were the best guys he could have asked for when it came to stomaching that from him. And he left.”
A big key, according to the source, was that Brown had a close relationship with Steelers owner Dan Rooney in his corner. Rooney was someone who supported Brown, took the time to understand him and reason with him, all of which left a void of sorts after Rooney died in 2017. And as things unraveled between Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the source said he believes Brown took it hard when the franchise felt like it was in a “Ben or Antonio” quandary and ultimately chose Roethlisberger.
Did that ultimately take Brown’s head out of football?
As the Steelers source put it, maybe he has never recovered from that blow, not to mention leaving him grasping in Oakland for someone to support him unconditionally and offer him the breaks and respect he typically received in Pittsburgh.
“The problems with him in Pittsburgh, yeah, he was late for a lot and he was on his phone for a lot,” the Steelers source said. “But was still into it. He still wanted to be there and wanted to play football. He was notoriously late for all kinds of things, but what’s more important: him being late for a meeting or him catching 10 [balls] for 180 [yards] and two touchdowns?”
Of all the questions about Antonio Brown, that might be the one that has never gone away. He might be the same guy he has been for years – prone to missing practices, being late or even occasionally flying in the face of authority or engaging in a heated confrontation with someone like a coach or general manager. But he also might be the best talent the Raiders have, just like he often was with the Steelers.
Which just puts Oakland in the same spot Pittsburgh was in a few months ago: figuring out the math of what is important and what isn’t, and whether the answer to that question means this relationship has already run its course.
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