Antonio Brown missed an important Week 17 game against the Bengals — and it may not have been because of an injury. Instead, the All-Pro wide receiver may have been held out of the game due to disciplinary issues that tie back to an increasingly volatile Steelers locker room. That’s not where the drama ends, either.
After the Steelers’ season finale, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writers Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette reported that Brown’s trip to the inactive list wasn’t due to a balky knee like head coach Mike Tomlin told the press that Sunday. Instead, his absence was a disciplinary reaction that came after a week filled with missed team activities and an argument with an unnamed teammate.
While the Steelers were able to win without their star wideout, a sputtering offense made things much more difficult that expected against a spiraling Bengals team. While that gave Pittsburgh the victory it needed to stay alive in the playoff race, the Ravens’ nailbiting win over the Browns clinched the AFC North for Baltimore and all but eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.
Since then, Brown has not spoken to anyone in the organization. Team owner Art Rooney II also told the Post-Gazette that while the Steelers would not release Brown this offseason, “all other options are on the table.” Brown took the small step of removing “Pittsburgh Steelers” from his Twitter bio.
This all culminated in an offseason trade to the Raiders, where Derek Carr will now have the duties of keeping his star wideout content.
What did the reports say about Antonio Brown’s Week 17 absence?
While Dulac and Bouchette don’t name who the confrontation was with, NFL Network scribe Aditi Kinkhabwala reported that multiple sources had told her Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had “a little bit of a disagreement” during Wednesday’s practice. According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Antonio Brown threw a ball towards Ben Roethlisberger before walking out of practice.
Was told this afternoon by a source during Steelers locker room clean out that Antonio Brown threw a ball near/at feet of Ben Roethlisberger and walked out of practice. Post-Gazette reporting Brown skipped Sat walkthrough and expected to play Sunday. He didn’t. @TheAthleticPGH— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) December 31, 2018
He did not attend practices the rest of the week, including Saturday’s walk-through practice, and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel. Brown never took the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown did not play in the season-ending game against the Cincinnati Bengals because he elected to sit out practice last week after an unspecified heated dispute with a teammate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned.
Several sources said the Steelers’ decision to not play Brown against the Bengals had nothing to do with any type of knee injury.
The disagreement occurred Wednesday morning during a routine walk-through practice that precedes their regular afternoon practice on the South Side. Brown became disgusted and threw a football in anger at one of his teammates, several sources said.
He did not attend Saturday’s walk-through practice and skipped the Saturday night meeting at the team hotel — the latest in missed meetings by the All-Pro receiver. Brown was never on the field for the start of the game against the Bengals and left Heinz Field at halftime, according to multiple sources.
Dulac and Bouchette’s report also suggested Brown showed up to the locker room on Sunday morning expecting to play, only to be shut down by Tomlin. This further annoyed teammates, who called Brown’s behavior “embarrassing” and “the worst I’ve seen.”
Brown got upset that Roethlisberger wanted to run a hot read over again during a walk-through, so coaches sent another player to run the play, a source close to the situation told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Brown got upset, left practice and talked with Roethlisberger afterward, telling the quarterback that he felt underappreciated and had issues with people in the organization, the source told Schefter.
However, Roethlisberger said the reports were blown out of proportion and that everything between Brown and him is fine — despite Brown not replying to any of his teammates’ texts in the past few days.
“That’s what baffling to me, people are making a big deal about a walkthrough on Wednesday, a fight between he and I,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “If there was a blowup or something, I sure of heck didn’t see it. I’m not sure where that comes from.”
Former Packers receiver and current NFL Network analyst James Jones said that he has heard that Roethlisberger and Brown have a bit of a shaky relationship and Roethlisberger could be an antagonizer to Brown.
“I have talked to a couple people in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and they told me this has been lingering on,” Jones said. “I’ve been told in meetings [Roethlisberger] would take shots at AB. Like, ‘I don’t got to throw you the ball,’ and things like that. Wednesday in practice, I heard he ran the wrong route, Big Ben threw the ball on the ground, said, ‘Get him out of here. Get somebody else in there,’ and that’s when AB was at his boiling point and that’s when he went off.”
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner refused to discuss Brown’s absence after he missed Thursday’s team activities, an out-of-character response toward a player working through an injury, but a telling one for a healthy scratch from the mid-week practice.
Months later, Brown would take to Twitter to expand on his issue with the veteran quarterback.
No conflict just a matter of respect! Mutual respect! He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone. It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth https://t.co/MsSyBVd3Ny— Antonio Brown (@AB84) February 16, 2019
That may not have been the only time, though.
“He left the team three times,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette said. “Once for a week in training camp that they covered up. They said he had an injury and he really didn’t. Once on a Monday after they lost to Kansas City and he threw a fit on the sidelines and didn’t show up Monday, and then at the end of the season.”
On an episode of ‘The Shop’ that aired on HBO on Mar. 1, Brown explained the final week.
“I’m a little banged up so I meet with coach Tomlin and I’m telling him, ‘Hey man I’m banged up so I’m gonna need some time to get right,’ and he was like, ‘If you’re banged up, you can just go home’,” Brown said. “Like you ain’t even gotta be here, so I’m like ‘Damn, that’s where we’re at?’
“I’m going to war for these guys, putting my life on the line but it’s an unknown when it comes to me just like right now with the write-ups. They control the narrative. We ain’t standing on good foundation, and they can just paint you any kind of way. That’s the thing people don’t know, it’s kind of a controlled environment to where they can kind of determine if they want to let me in or not.”
On his relationship with Roethlisberger, Brown on ‘The Shop’ claimed a clash of egos between the two. “I don’t have an ego,” he said. “I’m just trying to win.
“All year dude called me out. We’d lose a game and he’d be like, ‘AB should have ran a better route’,” Brown said. “That’s the type of guy he is. He feels like he’s the owner. Bro, tou threw that shit to the D-line, how the fuck am I running a bad route? You need to give me a better ball.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t hurt by Brown’s comments, apparently. In May, he returned to the airwaves to apologize for calling his former star receiver out in the past.
“I took some heat and deservedly so for some of the comments on that show and especially towards [Brown],” Roethlisberger told Andrew Fillipponi of 93.7 The Fan. “I genuinely feel bad about that and I’m sorry. Did I go too far after that Denver game? Probably. ...
”That’s the thing about media and social media, As soon as you say ‘sorry’ it only goes so far. You can’t take it back. And I wish I could because if that’s what ruined our friendship and relationship, I’m truly, genuinely sorry about that.”
What did Mike Tomlin say about Brown’s absence?
Tomlin met with reports for his end-of-the-season press conference and outlined what happened with Brown’s injury in the week leading up to the Bengals game. Tomlin said the wide receiver “expressed soreness in his lower body” on Wednesday, specifically his feet, ankle, and knee. On Thursday and Friday, Brown was still experiencing discomfort, so he was placed on the injury report and then was sent to get an MRI. Tomlin said that Brown did not end up going through with the MRI.
Tomlin said that Brown did not communicate with him on Friday evening and Saturday, as expected. It wasn’t until Sunday morning, when Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus reached out to Tomlin to let him know Brown was feeling better, that the team had any updates about Brown.
At that point, Tomlin told Brown that “the best thing was to be there and support his teammates.” Because Brown was MIA from Friday evening until Sunday morning, Tomlin said the team didn’t know the extent of his injury and that’s why he didn’t play.
“He was absent due to injury and lack of information,” Tomlin said.
The two spoke prior to the game, but they haven’t had any communication since. Tomlin added that he doesn’t know if Brown left the stadium during the game.
“Obviously we take his lack of communication, his lack of presence particularly on Saturday prior to the game, to be something that is very significant and it will be handled appropriately so. I’m not going to speculate on trades and things of that nature. We haven’t formally received a request in that regard, so I’m not going to speculate in terms of where the discipline might go and things of that nature. Just know that it’s going to be addressed, and it will be addressed, it needs to be addressed, for obvious reasons.”
This wasn’t the one time discord leaked through the seams of the Steelers’ locker room
Pittsburgh has courted drama throughout the season, though much of it came as a function of Le’Veon Bell’s year-long holdout in hopes of a lucrative long term contract. Bell’s absence put a strain on the rest of one of the league’s most talented offenses. While second-year back James Conner was able to pick up much of the slack, the club still struggled early and then spun out late as a 9-6-1 season ended without a playoff berth.
But while Bell may have been the focus of Pittsburgh’s locker room drama, Brown also made his issues with the franchise known throughout the season. A slow start led the All-Pro wideout to vent his frustrations both on the field and off. He wasn’t shy about expressing his concerns about Fichtner’s playcalling to his face in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs:
The following day, he’d take to Twitter to respond to a Steelers’ PR staffer’s praise of Ben Roethlisberger and his role in the team’s success. His since-deleted tweet was succinct: “Trade me let’s find out”:
Both Brown and his agent Drew Rosenhaus would deny Brown wanted to be traded out of Pittsburgh, but the wideout’s discontent was clear. He’d skip team meetings the following Monday, though those came with Tomlin’s blessing. He returned to practice the following Wednesday after dealing with private discipline from Tomlin and the rest of the Pittsburgh coaching staff.
Despite reports that Brown requested to be traded after the latest dustup, that doesn’t appear to be the case, as Tomlin said:
My understanding of the situation surrounding #Steelers WR Antonio Brown: As he exited the field in frustration on Wednesday, he yelled, "I’m done!" Then wondered why they don’t trade him. More venting in anger than anything. He has not made any actual trade request, officially.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 1, 2019
But just months later, Brown was packing his bags and preparing for life with Jon Gruden.