NFL Nation

NFL Nation
NFL Nation

PITTSBURGH – A tardy Antonio Brown slipped into another Pittsburgh Steelers team meeting through the backdoor.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin revealed to his team what most already knew in regard to his prolific star receiver.

“[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,” said one ex-Steeler who played with Brown for three seasons, recalling a story that multiple players confirmed.

That philosophy proved easier said than done. Brown’s production – 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards in six consecutive seasons – hasn’t stopped, but the team reached a boiling point.

Antonio Brown Saga

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Brown drew the ire of the organization in Week 17 when he skipped Saturday’s game preparation, prompting Tomlin to bench Brown for the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. Brown also got upset during a midweek session. During his end-of-year news conference, Tomlin said there might come a point when Brown’s antics outweigh his ability as a player.

And now, with the Steelers publicly shopping the most prolific receiver in franchise history, not even Brown’s league-high 15 receiving touchdowns can camouflage the frustration from all sides.

Tomlin once navigated a successful coach-player relationship but faces questions about what went wrong.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has broken records with Brown but hasn’t been afraid to criticize him publicly, which some believe has affected the dynamic.

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“This has been brewing for years,” one ex-teammate said of Brown’s issues. “It’s just now coming to the surface.

“And it’s probably over.”

After interviews with nearly 20 former or current teammates of Brown, either on the record or on condition of anonymity, here’s an unfiltered look at Brown’s tenure as a Steeler, his layered relationship with the quarterback and head coach, and what might be next.

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“Tomlin basically could have fined A.B. every day if he wanted to,” one ex-teammate said.

Brown was not made available for comment after interview requests through representatives.

Though most players acknowledge punctuality was not Brown’s strength, he was around when the game plan was installed. He wasn’t skipping whole days.

He used his megawatt personality and infectious work ethic to soften any issues. Hubbard said Brown once apologized to the team for being late to a meeting and said he’d do better.

“He shows up late with a big smile on his face,” said Doug Legursky, a Steelers offensive lineman from 2009 to 2012 and 2015. “You’re not even mad.”

And as one current Steeler points out, Brown takes care of his kids, is never in and out of nightclubs and works hard every day, so “who gives a f- if he’s 15 minutes late to a meeting?”

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On game days, players marveled at Brown showing up uncomfortably close to kickoff, rocking a mink coat while other players were in full uniform, and then having 150 yards receiving by the fourth quarter.

Through three contract restructures that served as money advances and with every stat sheet he blazed, Brown became virtually uncuttable and invincible.

‘Love-hate relationship’

For years, Roethlisberger and Brown had the chemistry, sheer talent and record-breaking production to offset their occasional issues.

“They’ve got a love-hate relationship – they’d love each other and hate each other at times, like all relationships,” said Markus Wheaton, a Steelers receiver from 2013 to 2016. “It’s usually a misunderstanding – something Ben did set A.B. off, or A.B. did that set Ben off. But they would get through it, and then it’s hugs and touchdowns.”

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One league exec classified Brown’s trade market as small but strong. A general manager believes both sides will reconcile.

Teams believed to be one piece away could consider giving up a first-round pick for him.

Meanwhile, Brown has done little to silence the rumors. He’s choosing to fuel them, deleting the Steelers from his Twitter profile and trading barbs with former Steelers on social media. He also has labeled the team as “indifferent” about him.

The team is taking a stand against the player who helped define a Steelers generation.

It used to be so simple, when Brown had a personal handshake with every teammate, when his energy was contagious.

“When I was there, you see [the occasional problem], but he always made up for whatever he did wrong,” Hubbard said. “He’d apologize. He was always back on course when things didn’t go right. It’s just scary to see where things are.”

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