FOXBOROUGH — If there’s an Antonio Brown user’s guide, the Pittsburgh Steelers were in no mood to share it with the Patriots. Mentions of their former teammate-turned-Raiders escapee-turned-Patriots principle-torching mercenary were met with tight-lipped dismissiveness and taciturn resentment.
Following the Steelers’ 33-3 Super Bowl-banner-unveiling beatdown inflicted upon them by the Patriots Sunday night, alluding to Brown was like emptying a salt shaker into their wounds. But it was also a reminder of what the Patriots are getting themselves into. The people who know him best, the people who enjoyed the most success with him, not only wouldn’t endorse him, they wouldn’t even acknowledge him. In the Steelers’ minds, Brown was like their offense Sunday night: nonexistent.
It’s easy to chalk that up to jealously or hurt feelings or Patriot-hating pettiness. But the reality is that Brown is equally adept at burning cornerbacks and bridges. He wears out defenses and teammates with his solipsistic act. He’s a pariah in his last two places of NFL employment despite being the best receiver in the NFL. New England better hope it can sprinkle Patriot pixie dust on Brown, and he becomes a team-first, “Do Your Job” disciple. Otherwise, importing AB is an unnecessary risk, at least if the season opener is any indication.
Without Brown, the Patriots delivered another rout of the Steelers, a favorite foil of the dynasty. The Patriots pieced together a potent passing attack with receivers Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and Phillip Dorsett while tearing apart Pittsburgh’s secondary. Tom Brady finished 24 of 36 for 341 yards with three touchdowns. The Brady-backed Dorsett delivered a career-high 95 yards receiving on four receptions in the first two-touchdown game of his career.
Brown is either merely a Darrelle Revis-like mutually-beneficial mercenary or one of the most selfish and self-destructive players in the NFL who signals the death of the Patriots’ value system.
The best part about Brown signing in New England is that the same people who called him selfish and clueless and railed against his self-absorbed antics and immature behavior in Pittsburgh as being emblematic of why the Patriots have gotten the best of their rivalry with the Steelers are now suffering from amnesia. They are going to claim that stuff was overblown, that Brown was misunderstood. Their entire opinion will change simply because he is wearing the preferred laundry of the Patriots. It happens every time.
If this were a normal job situation and Brown needed references from a former employer, he would be hard-pressed to get them from Pittsburgh, despite seven Pro Bowls and six straight seasons of 1,000 or more receiving yards and 100-plus receptions.
Here was an exchange yours truly had with Pittsburgh guard David DeCastro on Brown.
Q: What are the Patriots getting, for better or worse, with Antonio Brown?
A: I don’t know. I think they know that already. I don’t need to talk about it. I don’t think anyone here wants to talk about him anymore. It’s such a dead horse. I know it’s easy clicks for you guys, but I’m so tired of talking about the guy.
Q: It’s not about clicks. You guys are the guys that know him best. We don’t.
A: I’m sorry. I hate talking about him. I hate the circus that comes with the NFL.
All right, then.
DeCastro was one of the more expansive Steelers on Brown. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger offered a terse, “Whatever,” when asked about Brown coming to New England. Defensive end Cameron Heyward replied with two more words than the Steelers had points: “Nah, I could care less.”
The Steelers don’t know much about beating the Patriots, but they do know about life with Brown. What about any advice for dealing with Brown’s mercurial nature? Surely, the Steelers have that, right?
“Any advice? No, I do not,” said tight end Vance McDonald.
Sometimes what is not said speaks for itself.
The Patriots are taking Brown because they think he can help them lift a seventh Lombardi Trophy, Patriot Way and unselfish team ethos be damned. Al, err, Bill Belichick just doesn’t care and wants to Just Win, Baby. Belichick doesn’t prioritize football character, only talent. The rest of it is myth-making and window dressing.
Spare me the idea that Brown is Gordon insurance. That’s like saying the best way to put out a house fire is with flooding from a hurricane. Brown makes Kyrie Irving look like Nelson Mandela.
Brown is the foremost head case and headache in the NFL. The Steelers experienced this first-hand and have the scars to prove it. Brown bailing on them last season and then demanding a trade was the reason they had to trot out a receiving corps Sunday that looked not ready for prime time outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster. They should have been putting arguably the best tandem in the league on the field with Brown and JuJu, both of whom went over 100 catches and 1,200 receiving yards last season.
It was the emergence of Smith-Schuster, who had a team-high 111 receptions for 1,426 yards last season, that sent Brown into a resentful rage, incensed that Smith-Schuster was voted the team’s MVP by the players.
What’s it going to be like playing for a team whose philosophy is that the preferred receiver is the open receiver?
Since 2013, Brown has averaged 7.5 receptions per game, most in the NFL. Will he be OK with games in which he has five targets and four catches for 65 yards in a Patriots win, especially if it hinders him from earning the final $5 million of the one-year, $15 million deal with $10 million guaranteed he signed? This guy lives for his stats. He needs them like oxygen.
Guys like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss conformed because they wanted to be on a winner. Brown has played in a Super Bowl. Every year he was in Pittsburgh, he was on a team considered a Super Bowl contender. It never stopped him from acting up or acting out.
Winning won’t be the panacea this time.
“Everybody is a little different,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “Everybody has their own personality. The thing is that this is such a place that is big on camaraderie. Everybody being for each other, everybody sacrificing, and everybody just putting the team first.
“I think when he walks in the building, and he sees that, it’s just hard to do anything else, to do anything different.
“I mean, everybody is asking like is he going to . . . I think he’s going to be fine. I don’t want to speak for him. I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but this is an easy place to just come in here and just fall in line. Just put the team first and do your job. Catch footballs and win football games. That’s what we’re looking to do.”
But that’s the problem with Brown. He doesn’t just want to win. He needs his stats and constant attention and adulation. He puts his agenda above his team’s, as he did in Pittsburgh and during his controversy-filled cameo in Oakland.
The best-case scenario is a Revis-like success. The worst case is that he leaves his new teammates in New England feeling like his old teammates in Pittsburgh — bitter and colder than Brown’s cryotherapy frozen feet.