Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during his Wednesday press conference that there had been no formal trade request from Antonio Brown, and wouldn't speculate on the wide receiver's future in Pittsburgh. But when asked if Brown quit on his team, the 12th-year coach's response spoke volumes about the relationship:
"You can call it what you want."
All hell broke loose on Monday when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the team benched Brown after a midweek practice blowup with a teammate. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, who identified that teammate as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, reported Tuesday that Brown in part because of issues with Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
Tomlin opened his press conference by laying out a timeline of events involving Brown. Last Wednesday, Brown expressed soreness in his knee and Tomlin, as he often does with veteran players, gave him the day off. On Thursday, Brown said he still felt discomfort, and reiterated as much on Friday, which prompted the Steelers to send Brown for an MRI. That's why, according to Tomlin, Brown was listed as questionable ahead of the Week 17 game against the Bengals.
Tomlin said he couldn't get in touch with Brown on Friday evening or Saturday when Brown was a no-show for the walkthrough practice. At that point, "it became something altogether different," the coach said, referring to the decision to not play Brown against the Bengals. On Sunday morning, Brown's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, called Tomlin to say Brown felt better and was ready to play.
"It doesn't work like that," Tomlin said he told Rosenhaus, and that while Brown wasn't going to suit up he did want to meet with the receiver prior to the game. That was the last time the coach had spoken to the player.
Brown never got that MRI either.
"More than anything, there was a lack of communication and I was an active participant in that because I was preparing for the game," Tomlin said of what is now the biggest offseason storyline in Pittsburgh, continuing, "We take his lack of communication, lack of presence -- especially on Saturday -- as something significant and it will be handled."
So how will the team proceed with one of its best players?
"I'm gonna address him [Brown] and the circumstances but to be quite honest with you, we're going to information gather and deal with it like we do in all circumstances ... we're gonna deal with it appropriately and in-house," Tomlin said.
Tomlin believed Brown was battling injuries, though he wouldn't speculate on whether he can trust him. The coach didn't hesitate when asked if one player, even one of the best in the league, can become more trouble than he's worth.
"Certainly," Tomlin said.
Tomlin was also open to changing his approach with players, becoming more of a disciplinarian if that's what's needed.
"I'm talking about taking a step back and [evaluating]," he said. "I'm not just talking about the players i start with [myself]. That line of thinking is very necessary ... starting with me."
Part of that evaluation will include changes to the roster but also possibly his staff. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has been under fire after the Steelers' defense struggled late in the season when the team lost four of five.
"Change is a part of it," Tomlin said. "I don't run away from that. My staff doesn't run away from that. I'm acknowledging that change is a part of what we're doing."
Meanwhile, Brown was active on social media during Tomlin's presser, tweeting out this message:
And also appearing with former Steelers linebacker James Harrison to talk up "a big interview" in the near future.
Depending on what happens in the coming weeks and months, this team could look completely different than the one that walked off the field in Week 17. After a 7-2-1 start, the Steelers limped to a 9-6-1 finish and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013.