Pittsburgh’s season is over, but their nightmare season won’t end. However, unlike many of Pittsburgh’s issues this year, its latest headache can’t be blamed on the referees. Antonio Brown has requested a trade, according to CBS’s Jason La Canfora (though, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport casts doubt on just how formal Brown’s trade “request” is). Just as the mystery surrounding running back Le’Veon Bell’s future with the team finally faded away, Brown’s fate is now up in the air.
If you spent New Year’s doing something other than following Pittsburgh’s drama on social media, you may be confused about how we got here. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Monday that Brown missed Pittsburgh’s Week 17 game against the Bengals not because of the knee injury described by the team, but because of extracurricular activity earlier in the week. Brown reportedly had a disagreement with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at practice on the Wednesday before the game and threw a football toward him, then opted out of practice the rest of the week, skipped a team meeting on Saturday night, and chose not to play on Sunday. The Steelers topped the Bengals, 16-13, but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 because they didn’t have control of their own destiny: The Ravens beat the Browns to win the division and the Colts snagged the final AFC wild-card spot.
During a radio appearance on New Year’s Day, Roethlisberger disputed that there was an incident between him and Brown last week. “If there was a blowup or something, I sure as heck didn’t see it,” he told a Pittsburgh radio station on New Year’s Day.
Before Roethlisberger tried to quell the fire, former Pittsburgh safety and now ESPN analyst Ryan Clark poured gasoline on it in a shockingly blunt conversation with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on Monday night. Clark, who overlapped with Brown and multiple current Pittsburgh coaches and starters in his eight years as a Steeler, said that the Steelers cannot co-exist with Brown. Clark also noted that he saw the problem back in 2012, when he told a coach that by giving Brown a big contract the team was going to “create a monster.”
“This is where Mike Tomlin has to put his foot down and shop Antonio Brown,” Clark said Monday.
Since 2012, when he signed the second of his three NFL contracts, Brown leads the league in targets (1,132), receptions (752), receiving yards (9,932), and receiving touchdowns (72, which is 14 more than the second-place Dez Bryant in that span). Those absurd numbers, however, aren’t the only reason why a trade is unlikely. Brown has a cap hit of $22.2 million in 2019, but if the Steelers trade him, the team will still have a cap hit of $21.1 million. So unless Pittsburgh is willing to use more than $20 million of its cap space to let Brown play for a different team, he’s going to remain a Steeler this year. The numbers don’t make it much easier to trade Brown in 2020 either, when the Steelers would still eat more than $14 million in cap space. It’s tough to imagine the team yielding to Brown’s will so easily considering the rigid stance Pittsburgh took with Bell.
If Pittsburgh did decide to part with Brown, they could ask for a monster haul—the Giants reportedly wanted two first-rounders for Odell Beckham Jr. last offseason, and that would surely be where Pittsburgh starts. While Beckham is younger than Brown, he hasn’t matched Brown’s consistency, and Brown, 30, could see his technically masterful receiving style age well. Trading Brown would be the highest-profile wide receiver trade since Randy Moss was traded twice in the mid-2000s.
Perhaps a team could convince Pittsburgh to pivot from the Killer Bees era and eat the cap space if they offered enough draft capital, but it seems likely that Brown is probably going to remain in Pittsburgh for the short term. That doesn’t mean the Steelers’ problems aren’t real. Head coach Mike Tomlin’s job may depend on making the playoffs in 2019. Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards this season, but he is entering the final year of his contract and has mulled retirement the last few offseasons. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is among the best in the league, but guard David DeCastro will be the only member of the unit still in his 20s next year. If Pittsburgh returns to contender status with a playoff run in 2019, the victories will likely cure the ills that plagued Pittsburgh this season (nothing brings a locker room together like Ws). But if the team doesn’t tap into its potential in 2019, the divides between players could grow into chasms, and wholesale changes could come much quicker than expected by 2020. Brown may want out of Pittsburgh, but if the team doesn’t start winning, he might end up the last one left standing.