In 2009, Santonio Holmes was at the peak of his career. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP followed that performance with a career season. His 79-catch, 1,248-yard year seemed to firmly entrench him as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top target.
That’s what made it all the more surprising when the Steelers opted to trade Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick. What prompted the trade was Holmes’ checkered past. The 2006 first-rounder was embroiled in a legal dispute regarding a nightclub incident and faced a four-game suspension heading into 2010 due to violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Nonetheless, many fans—myself included—were shocked the Steelers would part ways with such a valuable on-field contributor for such little compensation. Of course, the Steelers were able to turn that pick into two players by trading it to the Arizona Cardinals for Bryant McFadden and their sixth-rounder, but could an average starting corner and a late-round flier really replace Holmes’ production?
As it turns out, even without the inclusion of McFadden, the answer’s a resounding "yes." The Steelers would use that sixth-round pick to select Antonio Brown, a possession receiver who tore up the MAC at Central Michigan.
In three seasons as a Chippewa, Brown tallied over 3,700 yards from scrimmage, as well as 3,400 more as a return man on his way to becoming a two-time All-American. However, due to his small stature, unspectacular 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) and less-than-stellar competition, Brown slipped to the 195th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Despite being a late pick, Brown was able to contribute right from the jump. In his regular season debut, Brown returned the Tennessee Titans’ opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown on a savvy reverse play.
Aside from that big play, Brown had a relatively quiet rookie season. That is, until the playoffs started. In the divisional round, Brown made a stupendous 58-yard side-of-the-helmet catch on 3rd-and-19 to set up the Steelers’ win over the Baltimore Ravens. A week later, he caught a 14-yard third-down pass in the AFC Championship Game to halt a furious rally by the Jets.
Since breaking out in the postseason, Brown’s been a fixture in the Steelers’ starting lineup. And he hasn’t disappointed. In his three years as a starter, Brown has tallied 3,307 receiving yards. For comparison’s sake, that’s 1,966 more than Holmes, who’s been riddled with injuries in each of the last two seasons.
In 2011, Brown became the first player in NFL history to post more than 1,000 yards both receiving and returning on the way to his first team MVP. He also earned a Pro Bowl berth for his ability as a returner that same year.
After having somewhat of a down year in ’12, the Steelers opted to sign Brown to a five-year contract extension over Mike Wallace, who many anticipated would be offered a new contract. Wallace was, but he turned it down in favor of a bigger offer from the Miami Dolphins.
Wallace’s departure meant that Brown had become the team’s de facto top receiver—a role some thought he might not excel in.
So much for that.
With 101 catches, 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns, Brown’s set career highs in every major statistical category this year. Not only that, but that yardage total represent a single-season franchise best, and Brown’s got a shot to set the mark for receptions as well in this Sunday’s finale against the Cleveland Browns.
With two consecutive non-winning seasons secured, many have questioned whether the Steelers have the right people making personnel decisions. But the controversial move to trade Holmes, and how fruitful it’s turned out, proves there are still at least some capable decision-makers in Pittsburgh's front office.