Um… what?

That’s the question undoubtedly in the forefront of many minds as it relates to Antonio Brown, a wide receiver who was heralded as the best in the National Football League not so long ago. While no one can question his legendary talent, even in the midst of a maelstrom of negative headlines, the fact is Brown’s stock has taken more hits in these last few months than a Deontay Wilder opponent. His story as a professional football player once read as inspiring and was used by coaches and parents around the country to motivate players into never giving up. 

After all, Brown bucked the odds and made it out of the Miami urbanscape — where he was born and raised — going on to become a star receiver at Central Michigan. From there, he was forced to again prove himself after being selected with the No. 195 overall pick — the 22nd of 27 wide receivers in his draft class — by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was viewed by many as undersized at the position. He’d buck the odds yet again, though, going on to dominate at the NFL level. Brown delivered an eye-popping 8,210 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns from 2011 through 2016. He landed a four-year, $68 million in February 2017 for his efforts. 

He’d go on to add another 1,533 receiving yards and nine touchdowns to his resume in 2017, but the air around him that once smelled fragrant was rapidly souring — deteriorating to the point where the usually forgiving and player-centric Steelers began to notice a tinge of mustard gas. Fast forward a bit to the 2018 season, and despite hitting the 10,000-yard mark for his career, headlines surrounding Brown were about anything but that achievement. It’s now August 2019 and Brown’s NFL legacy currently reads as the polar opposite of the once inspirational story it was, but more like a cautionary tale for all who would heed it. 

In looking at the timeline, which includes noting the rapidity of his character’s de-evolution, it’s enough to make even the most bombastic NFL players — past, present, and future — blush with an awkward level of discomfort.

January 2017 – The Facebook Live debacle

It was supposed to be a grand time in the city of Pittsburgh after Brown caught six passes for 108 yards to help push the Steelers past the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round in an 18-16 nailbiter. Instead, the story became what happened next in the locker room following the win. Brown pulled out his phone and live-streamed the locker room celebration on Facebook — in violation of league policy. This was also done in spite of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asking Brown to lay low a bit on social media, and his decision to do the opposite shone a light on head coach Mike Tomlin hurling at least one sharp expletive around about the next opponent to come — the New England Patriots in the AFC Conference Championship — for which he issued a formal apology via press conference.

Late January 2017 – Everything’s ‘fine’

Just one week later, the Steelers took action. Brown was reportedly fined $10,000 by the team for streaming Pittsburgh’s locker room celebration, as first reported by Jay Glazer. Tomlin informed his players during a team meeting this week that he was fining Brown. Tomlin disciplined Brown, but the matter was made worse when it was discovered Facebook had paid Brown $244,000 at the start of the 2017 season to create content for them. And so, his fall from grace in Pittsburgh began. 

It started with a slow boil at first, though, with the subsequent 2017 season being mostly “quiet” — aside from Brown battling injury. 

December 2018 – We talkin’ about practice?

Not yet eliminated from playoff contention and still in the running for the AFC North crown heading into their Week 16 battle with the New Orleans Saints, the Steelers had defeated the rival Patriots one week prior and felt good about finishing the season strong and carrying momentum into the postseason. The perennial Pro Bowler would go on to torch the Saints for 185 yards and two TDs on 14 receptions, but the next few days saw a displeased and apathetic Brown roaming the halls. 

A heated dispute with a Roethlisberger during a Wednesday walkthrough escalated to the point where Brown threw a football at the QB, and the wideout opted to then skip the remaining practices leading up to the team’s Week 17 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Brown was benched for that game, and while the official team stance was injury-related, the reality could neither have been further from the truth nor hidden anymore from the public eye. The reign of Brown in Pittsburgh was at an end, and the final chapter with the organization was messy. The world would never see Brown in a Steelers’ jersey again, and teammates would later reveal the end had been years in the making.

February 2019 – The anti-Valentine

Two days ahead of February 14, Brown took to his beloved social media accounts to both thank the Steelers’ fandom and proclaimed it was time to “move on“. It’s a sentiment the organization itself mirrored to a degree, but still had enough motivation to attempt a repair in the relationship. After all, Brown was still under contract for three more years and coming off of a 1,297-yard season, but the damage had already been done and no amount of Fix-A-Flat was going to reinflate that tire. The sidewall was completely shredded and the Steelers finally admitted it to themselves and everyone else. 

March 2019 – For whom the Bell tolls

The Brown decision was a difficult call made that much more challenging by the holdout of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, whom the team was also locked in a battle with. Ultimately, they opted to not place a transition tag on Bell — allowing him to walk in free agency — followed by swallowing their pride and beginning the task of looking for trade suitors for Brown.

It was the end of an era in the Steel City.

March 2019 – Trader Joe

As bold and braggadocios as ever, Brown made it clear he was fine never suiting up again for the Steelers. It was essentially, as he went on to describe it, his way or the highway.

“I don’t even have to play football if I don’t want,” he told Jeff Darlington of ESPN. “I don’t even need the game. I don’t need to prove nothing to anyone. If they wanna play, they going to play by my rules. If not, I don’t need to play. Obviously, I want the game, but I don’t need the game. It’s a difference.”

That’s not exactly the level of commitment to the sport potential trade suitors want to hear, but the ability of Brown was just too good to ignore for some clubs. With the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders all entertaining a possible trade for the mercurial wideout, it was the latter who emerged as frontrunner behind the scenes — albeit it with reservations of their own. The problem in Oakland was they had sent Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 via trade, and needed to secure a new No. 1 receiver. It also helped that head coach Jon Gruden was lathering at the mouth just thinking about what Brown could do for quarterback Derek Carr and an offense that ranked near the bottom of the league in passing during the 2018 season.

“[Brown] can run every route you dream up,” Gruden said in December preceding free agency. “I say that about other receivers, but he can run double move. He can run by you. He can run crossing routes. 

“He’s very good after the catch. What’s the greatest thing about this man, I’ve told all of our receivers, if you get a chance to watch him practice, you’ll see what unlocks the greatness in him. He’s the hardest-working man, I think, in football. Hardest-working player I’ve ever seen practice. 

“I’ve seen Jerry Rice. I’ve seen a lot of good ones. But I put Antonio Brown at the top. If there are any young wideouts out there, I’d go watch him practice. You figure out yourself why he’s such a good player.”

Some of those words would come back to haunt Gruden in ways he had never even dreamed of.

March 2019 – What can Brown do for you?

And so it went, however, the Raiders sent a 2019 third- and fifth-round pick to the Steelers in exchange for Brown only days after his questionable football commitment comments, and what should’ve been a fresh start rapidly become a bag of rotten fruit.

Brown had three years and about $39 million remaining on the massive contract extension he signed with the Steelers back in 2017. However, the star wide receiver had his eyes set on more. Trading for Brown meant restructuring his contract and adding more money to it — the Raiders knew that before acquiring him. Shortly after the trade, Brown negotiated a new deal with Oakland that will pay him $50.13 million over the next three seasons. This deal included another  $30.13 million in guaranteed money. 

May 2019 – The Hell-met

With the start of OTAs came a wind of change for Oakland, a team that finished 4-12 after awarding Gruden a 10-year, $100 million contract to climb down out of the ESPN Monday Night Football booth and return to their organization after a near-decade long hiatus from the game. Gruden and owner Mark Davis then convinced Mike Mayock to leave broadcasting to join them as new General Manager, and the organization felt things had rapidly begun to come together. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth, and for one key reason:

Brown didn’t like his helmet.

In what has become a story pulled right out of the most twisted Edgar Allen Poe poem, Brown was so irate about the NFL’s new policy that would essentially decertify his longtime helmet and force him into a new one that he clashed openly with coaches at OTAs over the issue. This included him reportedly storming out of practice and attempting to sneak his old helmet onto the field, going so far as trying to paint it to mirror the mandated helmets in the hopes no one would notice. 

Spoiler alert: They noticed, and it didn’t end well.

Following several exchanges over the issue, the team broke for summer break and believed HelmetGate was behind them going into training camp. 

Late July/Early August 2019 – Frozen 

The Raiders were wrong yet again about the mindset of Brown, because he was not done trying to take the field with his old helmet, and again he clashed with the coaches over it. This hadn’t been made public just yet, though, and mostly because there was an even more bewildering headline that emerged with the newly-acquired … well… headache. 

The team placed Brown on the Non-Football Injury list with a non-disclosed issue to start training camp, but they removed him immediately thereafter. Questions emerged surrounding the nature of Brown’s injury, and the truth turned out to be stranger than fiction.

The bottom of his feet were severely frostbitten after he entered a cryotherapy machine wearing improper footwear and he was sent to a foot specialist to determine the extent of the damage. Initially listed as day-to-day, Brown’s absence has since changed to what can only be described as indefinite, with conflicting reports now swirling about that claim he’s ghosted the Raiders and their attempts to communicate with him — with an alternate report claiming there have been discussions and he’s expected to return “soon”. He took to IG to post a stomach-turning image of the soles of his feet, revealing just how bad they looked.

The [additional] problem is it doesn’t truly matter at the moment when his feet heal because it’s rumored Brown threatened to never play football at all for the Raiders if he isn’t allowed to wear his old helmet. The Raiders have financial recourse if Brown holds true to his threat — with an arbitration hearing set to take place after he filed a grievance against the NFL — but nothing could’ve prepared the Raiders for this circus of events. 

This, of course, harkens back to March when he made it clear he doesn’t need football, and while the Raiders chose to ignore that — likely assuming it was simply angst hurled toward the Steelers — they’re finding out it’s simply how he feels. 

At the end of the day, it’s Brown’s way or the highway.

“I’m really not into dreams anymore, okay? I’m into f—– nightmares,” Gruden famously said on the latest season of HBO’s Hard Knocks, speaking on how important the Super Bowl is. “You gotta end somebody’s dream.”

Unfortunately for him, his own All-Pro receiver might be the one that ends his, and before the two could even roll out of bed.