SportsPulse: Antonio Brown is now a Raider. Our NFL insider Mike Jones breaks down how Oakland was able to pull off the massive trade and what’s next for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
We’ve just been reminded — again — that the NFL’s scale can slide suddenly and unpredictably.
In a league defined by perpetual motion, another tectonic shift occurred early Sunday morning just as our clocks were lurching forward. This time, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to take a bath in order to cleanse themselves of disgruntled Antonio Brown, who had obviously become more trouble than his prodigious abilities and production were worth.
General manager Kevin Colbert said at the scouting combine that he wouldn’t deal AB unless the Steelers received “significant compensation” in return for their star wideout. Apparently a third- and fifth-round pick qualify as significant (a term that probably had to be redefined internally after Brown put the kibosh on a trade to Buffalo) for a four-time all-pro and the only player in NFL history to catch 100 passes in six consecutive seasons.
Colbert also took issue “with the perception that there is huge drama within the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.”
Well, Kev, you might be right about that — finally — given you just dealt away arguably the NFL’s best receiver for a song while Le’Veon Bell, probably the league’s premier rushing-receiving hybrid, is about to bolt in free agency after leaving Pittsburgh high and dry in 2018 rather than play on the franchise tag a second time.
Make no mistake, the Steelers, who just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, are not a better football team today. Sure, there’s the “addition by subtraction” card that can (and surely will) be played now that two malcontents are on their way out of town. But it’s gonna be pretty hard to make that math compute given Bell is leaving for nothing (aside from a probable third-round compensatory draft pick in 2020) and Brown is departing for next to nothing.
The Steelers have long been one of the NFL’s flagship franchises, admired for their continuity, first-class reputation as an organization and, oh yeah, those six Lombardi Trophies. But Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin have whiffed while trying to manage two Pro Bowl egos, constantly forced to answer (and, often, not attempting to answer) for Bell’s suspensions and financial focus and Brown’s off-field shenanigans.
Now it’s time for damage control, which will only be harder given Pittsburgh’s brain trust lost sight of an NFL maxim that almost always proves true: Better to give up on a player a year too soon than a year too late.
Sure, it helps having some extra mid-round picks given Colbert still has holes to patch on the defensive side of the ball while needing to add fresh firepower to the offense — because as promising as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are, they ain’t Brown and Bell, and that could become painfully evident now that opposing defenses will recalibrate their efforts to stop those youngsters.
It’s also worth noting that, aside from plucking Conner in 2017, Colbert has a very spotty record lately while attempting to obtain talent in Round 3 — Cameron Sutton, Sammie Coates and Dri Archer being recent examples of players who failed to flourish. And by taking a $21 million cap hit in 2019 to purge Brown’s salary, it’s not even like Pittsburgh has the option to break from character and wade deeply into free agency in a bid to quickly reload around 37-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. (Speaking of locker room drama by the way …)
Meanwhile, with teams like the Browns, Colts and Chiefs poised to bloom into AFC powerhouses, the Steelers look far less capable of overtaking the Patriots or certainly beating them in the quest to become the first club to claim seven Super Bowl titles.
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Sustaining excellence in the NFL may be the most challenging front office obstacle in professional sports and often requires a “one step back, two steps forward” mentality for every franchise not based between Boston and Providence.
But it sure feels as if the Steelers have taken two steps backward this time.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis