Trading Antonio Brown Is the Only Way out of the Steelers' No-Win Situation

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2019

In this photo from Dec. 30, 2018, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown stands on the sideline before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin says he's disappointed in the behavior of star wide receiver Antonio Brown but added the team has not received any formal trade request from Brown's camp. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

The Steelers have backed themselves into a no-win situation. Again.

Antonio Brown reportedly wants out of Pittsburgh (according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports) after getting deactivated in the season finale due to the kind of misbehavior that would get him kicked off a junior high team. (While coach Mike Tomlin initially said last week that Brown's knee was feeling too uncomfortable to practice, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Brown expected to play Sunday.) The Steelers presumably want him out of Pittsburgh, too, due to a lengthening list of similar infractions.

Mike Tomlin refused to speculate about a trade in his end-of-season press conference on Wednesday, though he did describe a dysfunctional sequence of events involving missed walkthroughs and missed MRIs, which revealed as much about Brown's disregard for Tomlin's authority as Tomlin's inability to exert any. 

However you assign blameand there are so many fingers getting pointed in Pittsburgh these days that someone is going to poke an eye outBrown has become a clubhouse toxin. But cutting or trading him would eat up more than $20 million in cap space due to prorated bonus money from his 2017 contract extension.

Antonio Brown: can't live with him, can't afford to live without him.

If this predicament sounds familiar, it's because the Steelers painted themselves into a similar corner with Le'Veon Bell this season. The notes are a little different, but the melody is the same: outstanding player, lingering bad feelings, an absence when the team needed him. Money and opportunities squandered.

The Steelers used to be one of the best organizations in the NFL just a few years ago. Now they are the just the best organization in the league at locking themselves out of their own house in their pajamas. And they must allow themselves to get even worse to have any hope of ever getting better.

The Steelers must trade Brown. They will eat a heaping slab of cap space, they won't get market value (everyone knows they are motivated sellers), and the 2019 Steelers without Brown will look a lot like the Week 17 Steelers: barely good enough to beat the Bengals backups.

But the Steelers are kidding themselves if they think patching up their current roster dynamic for fiscal reasons will result in anything but more bad feelings and disappointing results.

Mike Tomlin told reporters on Wednesday that he sets the Steelers culture, but it is that culture that has Antonio Brown reportedly unhappy with the franchise.
Mike Tomlin told reporters on Wednesday that he sets the Steelers culture, but it is that culture that has Antonio Brown reportedly unhappy with the franchise.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Steelers' biggest problem right now is not Antonio Brown, just as it wasn't Bell at the start of the season. Their biggest problem is that they keep turning superstars into Browns and Bells. And the folks most responsible for this recurring problem are much harder to replace than one temperamental receiver.

"I foster and develop every aspect of our culture," Tomlin said Wednesday. "That's leadership." Actually, it sounds more like self-incrimination: Tomlin represents another no-win situation for the Steelers.

Tomlin's substitute-gym-teacher approach to managing the team's boldest personalities helped toxify the Bell situation (teammates felt free to rip the absent running back—and rip through his stuff), gave Roethlisberger license to become a combination quarterback/talk radio troll and transformed Brown into someone who makes Odell Beckham Jr. look like St. Francis of Assisi.

Firing Tomlin might have been an appealing option before a quarter of the league fired their coaches, creating a shortage of appealing replacement candidates. And any potential replacement would end up playing "bad cop" to Tomlin's "barely paying attention" cop: Like trading Brown, switching coaches would cause a lot of short-term pain.

In the past, offensive coordinator Todd Haley kept Bell, Brown, Roethlisberger and others united against him by being a pain in the butt to everyone and anyone. Tomlin intimated that a staff shake-up is possible, and he should be obliged to bring in a fresh pair of coordinators: someone with real authority on offense instead of an in-house yes-man, someone whose scheme wasn't figured out three years ago instead of Keith Butler on defense.

Maybe Tomlin rediscovers tough love after letting the locker room devolve into a game of high-stakes dodgeball this season. Or maybe he ends up hiring his replacement. One way or the other, the Steelers culture must change before the next apple sours the way Brown and Bell did.

That culture change must extend to the front office.

The Steelers' methodical contract-management philosophy served the team well in the past: They avoided hasty, expensive extensions and free-agent splurges while maintaining playoff-caliber continuity since the dawn of the salary-cap era 25 years ago.  

But the Steelers' tough negotiation tactics kept them tight against the cap while rankling big-name stars. Brown began angling for a contract extension in 2015 but did not get one until 2017. Franchise-tagging Bell backfired on everyone. And if this season taught us anything about the Steelers, it's that everyone in the locker room is acutely aware of how much money everyone else makes.

In making Brown and Le'Veon Bell wait for new contracts, the Steelers soured the view both players have of the organization.
In making Brown and Le'Veon Bell wait for new contracts, the Steelers soured the view both players have of the organization.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Top players don't like being told they have to wait until late in their contract cycles for extensions due to the team's accounting protocols. With key aging veterans (including linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert) and budding superstars (JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.J. Watt) in line for new contracts over the next few years, general manager Kevin Colbert and the front office will have to make some unpopular decisions about who gets fed—and who might get fed up if they are told to wait.

Speaking of aging veterans coming close to contract extensions, Roethlisberger is entering the last season of his contract.

With his "we have a bunch of No. 1 receivers [including Brown]," "I have earned the right to criticize" and hey, let's keep blaming Bell soundbites over the last few months, it doesn't take too much imagination to see that Roethlisberger is the gravitational center around which most of the Steelers drama revolves. But as a high-level franchise quarterback, he has diplomatic immunity: It doesn't matter how much blame is placed on him, because there's no reasonable mechanism for getting rid of him.

Roethlisberger, in other words, is yet another Steelers no-win situation. He's just the same one many teams find themselves in as their quarterbacks get older. (See: Packers, Giants, etc.)

The best thing the Steelers can do with Roethlisberger is strive to keep his future contract extension modest and team friendly, find a coach or coordinator to act as his personality lightning rod/boiling chip, hope he reacts well to the roster being built around him and (quietly) determine whether Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs or Prospect to Be Drafted Later can be groomed into an alternative.

The worst thing the Steelers can do is sign Big Ben and other 30-somethings to mammoth deals, tell the youngsters to wait their turns and watch themselves fade further into expensive, disgruntled irrelevance.

While Ben Roethlisberger has tried to downplay rumors of a rift with Brown, the Steelers QB hasn't always been quick to defend his teammates.
While Ben Roethlisberger has tried to downplay rumors of a rift with Brown, the Steelers QB hasn't always been quick to defend his teammates.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The wake of the Brown situation and the Steelers' elimination from the playoffs has been as distressing as the situation itself. Roethlisberger is downplaying any rift and scapegoating Bell. Tomlin sounded like he was trying to convince himself that he was still in control on Wednesday. Brown and James Harrison are threatening a tell-all video that would melt both Instagram and Western Pennsylvania. The organization sounds more interested in talking about the need for change than changing. 

The seeds of December's collapse have been sown for years. Too many superstars got to do whatever they wanted (except get paid when they wanted) for too long. Practices were too lax, the locker room a little too loose, game plans on both sides of the ball a little too leaky. Brown's eruption was a symptom of a long-gestating illness.

Trading Brown will hurt, but it will signal that the Steelers are willing to do what's necessary to heal.

Sometimes, the only way out of a no-win situation is to lose. That time has come for the Steelers. The sooner they start to cut their losses, the better.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.