Steelers' bungling of Antonio Brown saga further clears way for Patriots in AFC

Alex Reimer
March 11, 2019 - 1:08 pm

In subsequent years, the Steelers have lost two of the best playmakers in football for monetary reasons. As a result, they may have bungled their last chances to win a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger, further clearing the way for the Patriots to reach their fourth straight Super Bowl Sunday. 

Le’Veon Bell sat out last season after getting franchised for the second straight year, and will almost certainly sign elsewhere in free agency this week. Pittsburgh wound up replacing the bulk of his production with James Conner, who rushed for 973 yards in 13 games. But Conner did miss three games in December due to injury and didn’t gain more than 65 yards on the ground after Week 8.

Replacing Antonio Brown, who was reportedly shipped to the Raiders Saturday for a third- and fifth-round pick, will be even more difficult. JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the best young receivers in the game, but now he’ll move into the No. 1 slot, where he’ll garner more attention. It’s uncertain if James Washington, whom Roethlisberger called out last season for his drops, can handle regular reps. 

While Brown’s way of forcing his way out of Pittsburgh was unsavory –– missing practice and getting benched for his team’s last game of the season –– the Steelers must blame themselves for letting the situation spiral out of control. Following the 2012 campaign, the Steelers gave Brown a five-year, $42 million extension. Over the next four years, the 2010 sixth-round pick became one of the best wideouts in football. Yet, he was making little in comparison to his inferior peers. Ex-Brown running mate Mike Wallace, for example, inked a five-year, $60 million deal with the Dolphins during that span.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell offers an in-depth breakdown of Brown’s next negotiations, but basically, the Steelers didn’t give Brown more money until the last year of his contract. As an organization, they also only guarantee bonuses for the first year of a deal, instead of multiple seasons. 

In an effort to bump up Brown’s four-year, $68 million extension, the Steelers restructured his deal last year. They gave Brown $13 million upfront and also saved nearly $10 million on the cap. Of course, the Steelers are now paying for that, as they will surrender $21.1 million in dead cap money for Brown to catch passes in Oakland. It is the largest single-season dead money total for a player in league history.

With Bell and Brown gone, Ben Roethlisberger enters the final year of his contract with a depleted supporting cast and resources to improve it. The situations with Bell and Brown seemingly became unsalvageable at the end, but Pittsburgh didn’t have a long-term plan to keep either player. 

It’s one of the reasons why a supremely talented team with a Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t reached the Super Bowl in eight years.