Every offseason, there's one story that dominates the airwaves from February to September. In years past, it's been Le'Veon Bell's franchise tag situation with the Steelers. The story of this upcoming offseason will likely be Antonio Brown's disintegrating relationship with the Steelers, which has cast Brown's future in Pittsburgh very much in doubt.
But we don't need to wait until the Super Bowl ends next Sunday to start digging into the story. The story already started immediately after the Steelers' season ended in Week 17, when Brown didn't practice, got benched for the season finale, and The Steelers have acknowledged that Translation: Hit them up with trade offers.
We've been writing about it ever since. And on Thursday, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler dropped an extremely well-reported story on Brown's relationship with the Steelers and vice versa. In his story, Fowler spoke with nearly 20 current and former Steelers players, some of whom were unnamed. His story paints a very nuanced portrait of the relationships between Brown and his teammates, Brown and his quarterback, and Brown and his coach. It doesn't portray Brown, Mike Tomlin, or Ben Roethlisberger as the villain. It demonstrates how Brown has a complicated relationship with both his coach and quarterback, while most of his teammates have come to love him.
Be sure to read the entire story here, because it's well worth a read.
Below, you'll find a few of our takeaways from the story.
1. This has been "brewing for years"
ESPN's story makes it absolutely clear that there's been tension brewing for a long time. According to the players Fowler spoke with, Brown has a history of showing up late to meetings and warmups before games, and also didn't stay with the team at training camp. He had his own place nearby. And for the most part, Tomlin didn't punish Brown because he knew Brown would come through during games.
"[Tomlin] essentially told the group, we'll tolerate it now because of what he brings on the field, but the minute production stops, you don't overlook it," one ex-Steeler said of Brown's tardiness issues, which was confirmed by other players.
Brown's production has yet to drop off. This past season, he caught 104 passes for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. Since 2011, he's averaging 1,380 yards and over nine touchdowns per season. He's still one the game's best receivers -- if not the best. But the Steelers appear to have reached the breaking point regardless of his continued production.
"This has been brewing for years," one ex-teammate said. "It's just now coming to the surface.
"And it's probably over."
2. Brown's teammates love him
Despite Brown's habit of showing up late for meetings, teammates love him.
"He shows up late with a big smile on his face," said Doug Legursky, a former teammate of Brown. "You're not even mad."
"Who gives a f--- if he's 15 minutes late to a meeting?" a current Steelers player said.
Other players pointed out that Brown always worked hard during practice.
"Stupid competitive -- never takes a day off, he's full speed," former Steelers receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "I know he's not an a--h--- like [media and fans] are portraying him to be. He worked to have those cars."
Despite Brown's practice of staying offsite for training camp, the team didn't hate him for it. They "admired him for it," an ex-teammate said.
And teammates still love him today, even as all of this drama unfolds.
"I don't like seeing A.B. blamed for all this," one current Steeler said. "To me, he's not the problem."
3. Brown's relationship with Big Ben, Tomlin is complex
This is probably the biggest takeaway. It's why the story has reached the point where Brown might not ever play for the Steelers again.
Brown's relationship with Big Ben has always been complex. Former Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton told ESPN that the duo has a "love-hate relationship." This season, teammates noticed they were "butting heads," linebacker Bud Dupree said. Dupree also said that teammates didn't want to pick sides in the fight.
Part of the problem, according to Fowler, is that Brown would sometimes go off script with his route running and Roethlisberger started to find JuJu Smith-Schuster more trustworthy. Smith-Schuster led the team in catches and receiving yards. In late November, Big Ben criticized Brown for his route running, but Brown shrugged it off at the time, saying Fowler reported in his story that Brown was "privately bothered" by Big Ben's comments.
That makes it seem like Big Ben erred in taking his criticisms public. But another Steelers player said that "If anything, Ben is really easy on him and always blames himself when a mistake happens between the two." So, there's that.
As for the relationship between player and coach, it seems like Tomlin tried his best to walk a very narrow line between being too hard and too soft on his star receiver. According to players, Tomlin fined Brown sometimes for his tardiness, but not as much as he could've.
"Tomlin basically could have fined A.B. every day if he wanted to," one ex-teammate said.
And Tomlin might've been too lenient with him.
"As the leash gets longer, [Brown] gets the feeling that he can do whatever he wants," said an ex-Steelers player. "That's where Tomlin might have wished he would have squashed this earlier."
4. We still haven't heard from Brown
That's something to keep in mind. This story has been told through the lens of those who have shared a locker room and field with Brown, and Fowler did a tremendous job getting all of their perspectives and presenting a nuanced picture of what went wrong.
But it's all coming from people who aren't Antonio Brown. We've still yet to hear from Brown about all of this. However meaningful his silence is, we've yet to hear his side from him.
"A.B. feels he is being pushed over the ledge but everyone is blaming him for acting out," former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "Not saying he's not wrong for walking away, but we haven't heard his side of the story."
While Brown hasn't spoken on the topic yet, he is talking a ton on social media.
5. Where might he go?
Glad you asked!
Steelers president Art Rooney II has already acknowledged thatIt won't be easy, because it'd involve the Steelers eating a whole bunch of dead money in addition to giving up arguably the best receiver in football, but it's a very real possibility.
Just ask Brown.
Open for business— Antonio Brown (@AB84) January 24, 2019
Luckily, 49ers.. Leading the way? The
On that note, check out what Brown posted to Instagram on Friday.
Buckle up. After the Super Bowl, a long offseason awaits. The Brown-Steelers situation figures to be the defining story of the offseason.
It's not often one of the best skill-position players becomes available on the trade market. As ESPN's story demonstrates, a lot of things had to happen for this to even become a possibility. But those things did happen. Brown is available for trade. And the Steelers are open to the idea.
The story, which is years in the making, is only just beginning.