Did Smith-Schuster’s Team MVP Set Off Antonio Brown? And How Should the Steelers Handle Him?

It’s always been the little things that gnaw at Antonio Brown. It might be the ball not going his way. It might be something or someone rubbing him the wrong way. It might just be the wrong day.

Or it could be something as arbitrary as not being named team MVP.

Last week, Steelers players voted JuJu Smith-Schuster as the 2018 recipient of that award. This was in the aftermath of the Steelers’ Week 16 loss to the Saints, their fourth in five games and a defeat that took their playoff fate out of their own hands. Brown loaded the team on his back in that game, ringing up 14 catches for 185 yards and two scores, many of them spectacular and in critical situations, in the 31-28 loss in New Orleans.

Bitter? Sure he was. Or, at least, that’s what those in the organization believe—that he took the MVP snub personally, and that he carried that saltiness into work last Wednesday. It was there from the moment he walked in the building, and it boiled over in the much-discussed confrontation with Ben Roethlisberger at the morning walkthrough.

“He was just frustrated,” said one source. “The MVP vote—it’s those things that set him off. He was unreal in New Orleans, we still lost, and the vote comes out and it’s JuJu. So he shows up for work, he’s not voted MVP, he’s in a bad way, and that carried over into the walkthrough.”

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Eight days later, the talk on Brown is starting to shift from what happened to how the team might manage the cap ramifications of trading him, all while Brown seems to be putting a social-media heel turn into motion.

How did we get here so fast? It’s actually not that complicated.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a player to watch—and some you may not be thinking of—in each of the four wild-card round games, get you ready for college football’s national title game with a couple prospects to keep an eye on, and answer your questions on the coaching searches, one offensive coordinator’s candidacy in the race for those jobs, and the offensive rookie of the year debate.

But we’re starting with the Brown story, and where the relationship between one of the NFL’s flagship franchises and perhaps the greatest receiver in its history went sour. That starts with the background on who the Steelers have always been, and who Brown is.

Pittsburgh’s model for its coaches—one Tomlin fits into, as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did before him—calls for, first and foremost, a battleship commander, the type who can manage big personalities and big problems. That’s always allowed the Steelers to cast a wide net in talent acquisition, which routinely has added up to wildly gifted rosters. Building that way, of course, comes with risk.

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Then you have Brown, who brings with him some of the standard diva receiver characteristics. He’s tough, and competitive, and as one staffer said, “Hands down, he’s the hardest worker on the team. I couldn’t even tell you who number two is, that’s how easy it is to say that.”

The flip side of that is, he wants that work to equal results, and getting results means getting the ball. And when he doesn’t, it can be a problem. There are examples, those there explain, in every game, where Brown will run a flawless route, be impossibly open, and Roethlisberger will just miss him. That eats at Brown. “His work ethic and his me-against-the-world attitude is what makes him great,” one coach says, “but it also creates some issues.”

And to put one element together with the other, for certain players, there’s what’s been referred to internally in the Steelers building as “necessary tolerance.” Le’Veon Bell was afforded it. Martavis Bryant got it. Roethlisberger has it too. As does Brown.

So why did that combustible mix finally erupt this time around?

Brown has explained to those close to him that he didn’t feel some of his teammates were as invested in 2018 as he was, and it was showing up in their work, and he was fed up with it. The standard, as he saw it, was slipping. And his side of the story holds that his handling of last week—from the Wednesday outburst to the Saturday no-show—was a manifestation of how he felt about the state of the team.

Of course, that reaction put Tomlin—as good at managing conflict as any coach in the NFL—in a thorny spot. Sit the best receiver in the NFL against Cincinnati in Week 17, and risk killing the team’s fading playoff hopes? Or let him play and send the message to the locker room that talent trumps all? In taking the former path, Tomlin, and the Steelers, finally drew a line in the sand with Brown.

It was, essentially, showing him the point where his problems outweighed his production, and that there was a point where football could be taken away.

Maybe the Steelers hoped it’d be a wake-up call. Instead, Brown added another chapter to his recent list of erratic behavior. Earlier this year, he reportedly called a Steeler beat reporter a racist and threatened an ESPN writer in response to the story that made the claim. This time around he didn’t like how ex-Steeler Ryan Clark critiqued his behavior on ESPN and called him an “Uncle Tom” on Instagram.

So if Pittsburgh was going to have Brown back after this latest blow-up, there’s that background to deal with, and also the matter of how Brown’s current teammates would welcome him back after he abandoned them during what was, in effect, a playoff week.

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Could the answer be a trade? Yes, the Steelers would have to carry $21.12 million in dead money if they moved Brown. But he’s already on the books for $22.165 million, and the money left on his deal (three non-guaranteed years, $38.925 million) is reasonable enough to be attractive to another team. At this point, it would probably be hard to get proper value for a player who is clearly carrying baggage (and will be 31 next season).

But if the Steelers are motivated to find a buyer, they’ll find one. Or it’s at least not crazy to think there’d be enough interest to drum up a market.

And if you consider all of the above, maybe it’s not that crazy that we’re here after all. Maybe this was always the way it was going to end.

On to the weekend …

THE MMQB NFL PODCAST: Albert Breer and the team preview wild-card weekend and run through the coaching carousel. Subscribe on iTunes.

WEEKEND WATCH LIST

A player in the spotlight in each wild-card game:

Colts WR TY Hilton: The Texans have issues in two spots that will be addressed in the offseason. One issue, the offensive line, I believe they’ll be able to manage on Saturday. The other, the problem at cornerback, is another story. The Texans have been able to mitigate their corner deficiencies somewhat with their pass rush, but Indy’s improved offensive line is equipped to deal with that, which should put the Colts in a good position to attack the Houston secondary. And going to Hilton, who had 13 catches for 314 yards in two games against the Texans this year, will be one way to do it.

Seahawks S Tedric Thompson: Amari Cooper has cooled off down the stretch (last three weeks: 13 catches for 83 yards, no TDs, no gains of more than 11 yards), and the Cowboys have had to adjust. The last two weeks, that’s manifested in big plays for Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns. This approach should highlight the importance of the centerfielder in Seattle’s D—the promising Thompson, who’s returning after missing the last two weeks.

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Ravens DL Za’Darius Smith: Weird one? Maybe. But it was Smith’s work on Chargers G Mike Schofield that caused all kinds of problems for the Los Angeles offense two weeks ago—getting consistent inside pressure to take Philip Rivers out of his comfort zone. Smith finished with 1.5 sacks, four hits on Rivers, and a whole lot of havoc caused. And that’s not the only line-of-scrimmage matchup I’m going to give you to nerd out on this weekend …

Eagles RT Lane Johnson: Philly’s 2017 first-team All-Pro had a very up-and-down 2018. And just as he’s getting right, his biggest test of the year comes on a playoff stage—his assignment for much of Sunday afternoon will be to stop Bears banshee Khalil Mack from getting to Nick Foles. Philly’s invested a ton in its O-line. This will be one of those days it has to pay off.

TWO FOR SATURDAY

… Or in this case, Monday.

Alabama RB Josh Jacobs (vs. Clemson, CFP Championship, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET): He’s been overshadowed by star senior Damien Harris and super-talented sophomore Najee Harris, but to those in the program, and those evaluating its players, Jacobs is a real one. He set the tone in the Tide’s semifinal win over his home state Oklahoma Sooners, with 158 scrimmage yards on 19 touches. And one coach I talked to this week compared his style to that of Frank Gore. There’s also a benefit to the rotation he’s been a part of—he’s logged just 241 carries and 47 catches at Bama, so there’s a lot of tread left on his tires. “He’s a tough runner who doesn’t have notoriety for various reasons,” one AFC college scouting director said. “Wasn’t highly recruited, played mainly special teams early in his career, backed up Damien, there was Najee Harris’s fanfare coming into Alabama. But you turn on the tape and he’s hard not to notice.” He should join Damien Harris in going somewhere in the first three rounds of the draft in April, and he could have a shot at being the first back taken.

2019 DRAFT: With the selection order set for the first 20, how the front end of the draft could play out

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence (vs. Alabama, CFP Championship, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET): Among the insane numbers for a true freshman: 65.5% completion rate, 27-4 TD/INT differential, 8.4 yards per attempt, 155.2 passer rating. Yes, Lawrence is throwing to future NFL receivers like true sophomore Tee Higgins and true freshman Justyn Ross. But there’s no denying his talent, which comes up in discussions with scouts who haven’t even begun to look at him in depth. “Young, big, athletic, big arm,” said one AFC exec. “I haven’t studied him at all, but that jumps off the tape.” Of course, all of this should come with a warning label—we’ve said these things about freshmen quarterbacks in the past, and in some cases you wind up with a Christian Hackenberg. But Lawrence’s ability, at this early stage, looks like it’s on another level. And given the way Clemson has recruited around him, it’s fair to forecast that the trajectory he’s on will remain steady.

MAIL TIME!

From Tweeter In Chief (@tw33terinchief): How is [Adam] Gase a good fit for Jets?? Didn’t see any improvement for Dolphins while he was there.

I think a big part of this, Chief, is how he would mesh with the people in the building. And I think the fit is there from that perspective. The other piece, of course, is how he’d work with the quarterback. That’s where I think you can take this one over the top—Ryan Tannehill and Jay Cutler posted career-high passer ratings under Gase, Peyton Manning tells anyone who’ll listen how good Gase (who was his offensive coordinator in Denver) is, and he was even integral to making Tebowmania work, from a scheme standpoint, in Denver in 2011.

As for the Miami question, I’d say his biggest issue there was probably the way things worked structurally in the building. But the results were hardly a disaster. Gase went to the playoffs in his first season in Miami. His second year was marred by Tannehill’s ACL tear, his offensive line coach’s escapades and a hurricane. And his third year was about cleaning up the roster to fix what prevented the team from the weathering the storm of ’17.

Was he a roaring success? No. Was he a disaster?  No. And there’s enough good there to see why teams would think he’d be worth taking a second swing at it.

From T hard (@T_hard_91): Is [Le’Veon] Bell to Tampa just speculation on your part, or do you have sources saying he’s going there?

I said this on Colin Cowherd’s show, and I wanted to make sure people know—Colin asked me to predict the futures of Bell and Josh McDaniels. So I made educated guesses and put Bell in Tampa and McDaniels in Green Bay. Since those things got attention, I should probably explain.

On Bell, I’m going on what I heard pre-trade deadline. The market for Bell wasn’t strong, and Tampa was a team connected to him. Based on what the Bucs have offensively (Mike Evans, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen), and how second-round pick Ronald Jones failed to deliver on his draft standing, Bell makes sense in Tampa, pending the Bucs’ coach hire.

On McDaniels, it’s simple. I’ve heard him connected to the Packers for a while, and Green Bay needs a coach who can challenge Aaron Rodgers, push him, and give him new information. With a lot of candidates, the Packers would be projecting how a coach would handle that. With McDaniels, they wouldn’t be. He’s faced that situation every day, coaching Tom Brady. Gase, by the way, did too, in coaching Manning in Denver.

From James Krakowski (@JamesKrakowski): Baker [Mayfield] or [Saquon] Barkley for Offensive Rookie of the Year?? Surely got to be Saquon?

Sorry, James. This one’s not that hard for me, and it’s not Saquon. I love him, by the way. Transcendent talent. But Mayfield is without question the offensive rookie of the year. The sort of change he’s effected on the fly in Cleveland is rare, and his numbers aren’t too shabby either—he rang up an NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes. Add that to the degree of difficulty assimilating to pro football at quarterback, and this was a slam-dunk.

The flaw in Barkley? The same boom-or-bust dynamic we saw at Penn State. He had six 100-yard games in 2018 … and seven games where he failed to hit 50 yards rushing. Similarly, in his final college season, he had five 100-yard rushing games, and six in which he was held under 75 yard rushing. Some of that isn’t on him, of course. Some of it is.

From Michael Christopher (@Bigdogz1318): If you were the Jets owner, which coach would you hire and why? Who do you think they actually hire?

I applaud them for looking at Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. I can’t even begin to explain how many positive things I’ve heard regarding him over the last four months. Lots of NFL people—and specifically guys in the scouting community, who’ve been through Ames—believe he’s eventually going to be a huge success in pro football.

Assuming that ship has sailed, I like Gase’s fit there, and also wouldn’t mind a motivated Mike McCarthy. I think both those guys, and ex-Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, have a pretty legit shot at the job. It’ll be an interesting one to keep tabs on, because this could be owner Christopher Johnson’s one and only opportunity to hire a coach, and I know he’s not taking the responsibility lightly.

From Stew M (@CincyStew): If you were a Cincinnati fan looking for a new team upon the imminent hiring of Hue Jackson, who would you pick? Can’t be AFCN... too much animosity. Leaning towards Colts for proximity.

Stew, this is pretty harsh. Things ended about as badly as possible for Jackson in Cleveland, but I think a lot of the positives he’s brought to the table when he was hired in 2016 are still there. Things got so sideways with the Browns over the last three years that it would have been tough for any coach to make it work. And to be clear, Jackson absolutely has to shoulder some of the responsibility for that.

Anyway, I happen to think Vance Joseph is the likeliest candidate to land the Bengals job, given how the Brown family prizes familiarity (Joseph was Cincy’s DBs coach in 2014 and ’15). And it can be a good job, for the right person. The Bengals are a mom-and-pop operation, in both a good way and a bad way.

In a bad way, because they lack some of the infrastructure and resources (example: a small scouting staff) that are standard across the league. In a good way, because it’s a healthy building to work in, where your bosses will be patient and understanding, and have a ton of experience in pro football. Also, a big plus to working there—the presence of well-respected personnel chief Duke Tobin.

From Nathan Palmer (@palma4): Are you surprised at all the [Eric] Bieniemy love? Doesn’t call plays, one year of work and awful record at Colorado as OC? Product of K.C. talent?

I’m not surprised, Nathan. People respect Andy Reid’s word, and Reid has been aggressive in recommending Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, to other clubs. And remember, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy weren’t play-callers either. What Bieniemy does have is experience playing in the league, and leadership qualities that have been abundantly apparent to those who’ve been around him.

Does he get a job? I don’t know. But I’d bet he interviews well, and that’ll position him to get one.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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