PHOENIX — The Pittsburgh Steelers had obvious reasons to trade wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. His presence in Pittsburgh became untenable after he skipped work and disparaged the organization.
Brown wanted a new contract the Steelers were never going to give him. And keeping an All-Pro malcontent on the roster risked stunting the growth of young players such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
But some NFL decision-makers have been discussing the potential ramifications of the puzzling end to the Brown saga.
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Multiple high-ranking sources at the NFL owners meetings told ESPN that Brown forcing his way out of a contract with three years left might set a precedent that players can do what they want. One source went as far as to say that Brown essentially treating himself like a free agent, then getting a new deal with Oakland via trade, is “dangerous” for teams expecting players to honor contracts.
“It’s a problem. Other star players see this and might want to do the same,” one source said. “I know the Steelers had a difficult situation and needed to get rid of him. But they had other options.”
One option was clear-cut: Keep Brown on the roster, then fine him if he skipped minicamp, betting any retirement threats would be empty because Brown would owe more than $11 million in prorated signing-bonus money.
Instead, the Steelers inherited $21.12 million in dead money to deal Brown to Oakland in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks. Pittsburgh had Brown under contract for three more years at a total of $38.925 million. Now, Brown has a three-year deal with Oakland worth $50.125 million, including $30.125 million guaranteed.
Much of this was surprising from a well-respected franchise known for sound business.
“It was a very un-Steeler-like move,” one source said.
The Steelers aren’t apologizing for it. Coach Mike Tomlin said the relationship with Brown ran its course. General manager Kevin Colbert cited the Steelers’ upgraded draft capital. The team now holds four of the top 83 picks in April’s draft.
“We are in much better shape draftwise than we were prior to that trade,” Colbert said.
But for NFL players who want better contracts, Brown’s power play might as well be a rallying cry.
The Steelers have been a testing ground of sorts for star players with conviction to challenge the system. Running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season without signing his franchise tag because he believed the team’s contract structure — guaranteeing only the signing bonus — was a problem for players, especially running backs with shorter shelf lives. Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the New York Jets in the first week of free agency.
The way Bell sees it, aggressive pushes for guarantees won’t end anytime soon.
“I’ve seen too many injuries not to value that,” Bell said about the need for higher guarantees. “I’ve seen the Steelers pretty much cut Troy Polamalu, a future Hall of Famer. [Polamalu retired with two years left on his contract.] AB did what he felt was best for him. My situation was different, but we both wanted to get our fair value. That’s what every player wants.”
Several veteran NFL agents, however, say Brown’s methods are not reasonable for most of the league.
Brown is widely considered a top-10 player, and he did whatever possible to rankle the Steelers’ organization.
“He was crazy enough to pull this off,” one veteran agent said. “Most guys aren’t wired that way. The contracts and rules are in place.”
Meanwhile, NFL coaches are left to manage player relations in the midst of money disputes.
After 11 years with the Baltimore Ravens, coach John Harbaugh has learned to separate the business and football sides. Each player has his personal business that Harbaugh respects, but he knows what to say if a player asks for advice.
“Usually being a good teammate, competitor and playing really well takes care of the business side of it,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the advice you try to give guys. If you play really well, you’re gonna get paid. If you’re a good guy and a good leader and make everybody around you better, you’ll get paid even more. That’s usually a good business decision guys make.
“You make those [holdout] decisions at your own risk. I’m a coach. I believe in working hard, being productive, being a good guy, making people around you better.”
That’s what Tomlin wants too, citing the need for “good guys who want to be here” in the aftermath of the Bell and Brown departures. Tomlin also appears unfazed by NFL business. Despite helping draft Brown in the sixth round and coaching him for nine seasons, he summarized Brown’s behavior with a simple line: “I’m disappointed. I’ll leave it at that.”
Coaching in 2019 has Tomlin ready for just about anything.
“Players are changing,” Tomlin said. “I think the game evolves. I think we all evolve. Information and technology are a part of it. I think that’s just a sign of the times. I don’t think that is in any way revolutionary.”