With the latest return of Antonio Brown, this time for the Buccaneers in their surprise blow-out by the Saints on Sunday Night Football, it brought into focus how far he has fallen in such a short space of time – from perennial All-Pro in Pittsburgh to the controversy and scandal-plagued receiver who now struggles to keep his job in the NFL.
Bearing in mind the divorce with the Steelers was largely driven by Brown himself I decided to take a closer look at that decision with the benefit of hindsight, along with some of the other more significant examples of player-initiated break-ups of the 21st century.
Why did they do it? Were they justified? And do subsequent events suggest it was a good idea?
Antonio Brown & the Pittsburgh Steelers
It is easy to forget that less than two years ago Antonio Brown was arguably the best wide receiver in football, about to finish the season as the league leader in receiving touchdowns, and voted into his sixth straight Pro Bowl. He was prolific in Pittsburgh, reaching 100 catches in six consecutive seasons, and being named first-team All-Pro four times.
Then came the week leading up to the 2018 season finale and nothing has been the same since. An apparent feud with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, himself not exactly an easy character, reached a head during a Wednesday walk through, after which Brown was absent from practise. He turned up on game day, was omitted from the line-up and left the stadium at half time. Then the leaks started coming out.
Seemingly the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin had managed to keep the situation with Brown out of the media for some time, but once it was out there was no going back. Brown burned his bridges with his coach and quarterback, then demanded a trade and a new contract – which he surprisingly got when he was shipped to the Oakland Raiders.
From Brown’s perspective he wanted rid of Roethlisberger, he wanted a new environment, and he wanted more money. The opposing view was that his lack of discipline was indulged way too far by Tomlin, and that he was throwing a tantrum because his heir apparent JuJu Smith-Schuster had just been voted team MVP instead of him.Embed from Getty Images
Neither perspective suggests he was especially justified in creating the stink that he did, and unfortunately subsequent events have only served to reinforce that view.
Made the highest paid receiver in the league in Oakland, Brown was strange from the off. He damaged his feet in a cryotherapy machine, made a big issue about being forced to choose a new helmet, and got fined for skipping workouts. An altercation with general manager Mike Mayock eventually saw him released without playing a game.
After quickly signing with the New England Patriots, where he was expected to thrive under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, things took a dark turn when Brown was sued for alleged rape – the case is still unresolved. He played one game but was released again after further allegations.
Reports that he threatened the second accuser, combined with a no-contest plea to felony charges from an altercation with a moving company truck driver, landed Brown an eight-game suspension from the NFL which he has just completed before returning to the field for a second time.
So, three teams in two years and a reputation in tatters suggests that professionally Brown would have been better off making the best of things in Pittsburgh. But worrying issues from his private life suggest trouble may have been inevitable regardless.
Steelers 2010-18: Games – 130, Receptions – 837, Yards – 11,207, Touchdowns – 74
Since 2019-20 (at time of writing): Games – 2, Receptions – 7, Yards – 87, Touchdowns – 1
Le’Veon Bell & the Pittsburgh Steelers
In the same off-season as Brown, the Steelers’ other offensive playmaker, running back Le’Veon Bell, also left in slightly less explosive circumstances.
Over five seasons in Pittsburgh Bell had become one of the top offensive players in the league as a true duel-threat back. A multiple Pro Bowler and All-Pro, he was also one of the most heavily used players in the NFL, with his offensive touch total peaking at 406 for the 2017 season.
Having played that season under the franchise tag, Bell insisted on being given a long-term contract that reflected his workload. When he felt that did not materialise and the Steelers placed the tag on him again rather than let him test free agency Bell refused to sign it and decided to sit out the entire season.Embed from Getty Images
The Steelers realised there was no point in trying to tag him again and eventually he became a free agent in March 2019, before signing a four-year contract with the New York Jets.
Unlike the personal recriminations with Brown, Bell’s situation was all about business. He was an overworked, elite level running back who felt he was being undervalued. The Steelers offered him less than he felt he was worth but wanted to keep him from free agency so he ultimately took the nuclear option and sat out the year.
Teams tend to assume that players’ love of the game, or pay cheque, will prevent them from taking this option. Bell called the Steelers’ bluff.
Ultimately, the market for his services was weak on his return, so he had to go to the Jets for less than he had wanted from the Steelers, and after a season and a quarter as a poor fit on a bad team he was released. His production has not reached the Pittsburgh heights again and he is now playing on a single season deal once more, splitting carries for the current Superbowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
In hindsight he would perhaps choose to take one of the Steelers’ long-term offers, but at the time he was within his rights to back himself, and he did.
Steelers 2013-18: Games – 62, Carries – 1229, Yards – 5336, Touchdowns – 35,
Receptions – 312, Yards – 2660, Touchdowns – 7
Since 2019-20 (at time of writing): Games – 20, Carries – 280, Yards – 917, Touchdowns – 3
Receptions – 73, Yards – 526, Touchdowns – 1
Jamal Adams & the New York Jets
The most recent example on this list, and another cross-over with the previous one, Jamal Adams only managed to secure a trade to the Seattle Seahawks this summer.
One of the best young safeties in the league, Adams already has made the Pro Bowl twice in his first three seasons, and was a first-team All-Pro last year.
However, this was all while a member of the perennially terrible Jets, a fact that Adams has never been shy about expressing his displeasure with. Adams’ continual public complaints about the team, and especially head coach Adam Gase, eventually made his place on the team untenable.Embed from Getty Images
The fact that the Seahawks traded two first-round picks and more for Adams, despite Adams being almost certain to leave is amazing.
Adams’ behaviour in undermining his teammates and his coach so frequently will have won him few fans, but at the same time nobody seems to particularly like Adam Gase and the Jets are awful, so this one seems like six of one, half a dozen of the other.
He has so far missed most of the season with injury but the Seahawks are at least doing much better than the winless Jets.
Jets 2017-19: Games – 46, Tackles – 266, Sacks – 12, Interceptions – 2
Since 2020 (at time of writing): Games – 4, Tackles – 28, Sacks – 3.5, Interceptions – 0
Terrell Owens & the Philadelphia Eagles
When Terrell Owens arrived from San Francisco for the 2004 season, coming off four-straight Pro Bowls and one season removed from three consecutive first-team All-Pro votes, T.O. only had Randy Moss as competition as the best receiver in the NFL. He also had a reputation for being a difficult teammate.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb finally had the top target to take the Eagles the final step, after three NFC Championship Game losses in a row, and Owens finally had the top level passer he felt he deserved. And for a season it worked perfectly. Owens’ 14 touchdowns helped the Eagles to the number one seed in the NFC, and while he missed the playoffs with a broken leg the Eagles reached the Superbowl anyway. Owens defied medical advice to play despite his leg not being fully healed, catching nine passes for 122 yards as the Eagles narrowly lost to the Patriots.Embed from Getty Images
Following the Superbowl, Owens hired a new agent and began lobbying for a new contract which the team refused. Tensions rose throughout the following season, reaching a head when Owens had a fight with teammate Hugh Douglas in a training room and then publicly criticised McNabb. In response the Eagles suspended Owens for the rest of the season and released him following its conclusion.
Owens deserves some sympathy, in that his contract was probably not paying him as well as it should for his production, plus his reputation made the reaction to him more negative than it would have been for others.
But he was only one year into a seven-year contract which he had signed because he wanted out of San Francisco, and his deliberate antagonising of the team likely removed any leeway they would have been inclined to give him.
There are likely mixed feelings on both sides to this day. Owens joined the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys and again performed well for a few years, before a season each with the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, but never reached another Superbowl. He is now in the Hall of Fame.
Eagles 2004-5: Games – 21, Catches – 124, Yards – 1963, Touchdowns – 20
Since 2006-10: Games – 77, Catches – 362, Yards – 5399, Touchdowns – 52
Earl Thomas & the Seattle Seahawks
Earl Thomas was an elite safety in Seattle and the last remaining member of the Superbowl winning “Legion of Boom” secondary.
Having just come off his sixth Pro Bowl season with the team, Thomas reached the final year of his contract ahead of the 2018 season. He wanted either a new contract, that would make him the highest paid safety in the league, or a trade.
The Seahawks were not willing to pay Thomas that highly, but had not traded him and wanted him to play on the final year of his contract. Thomas responded by holding out for the entire off-season, but stopped short of the Le’Veon Bell route by returning just in time to start collecting his game cheques for the season.Embed from Getty Images
Thomas played so that he would be paid, and played very well, but did the bare minimum otherwise, skipping practise and admitting he was looking out for himself. Then when Thomas broke his leg against the Arizona Cardinals in Week Four and gave the finger to his own side-line as he was carted off, all chances of a resolution in Seattle were over.
He was probably justified in his stance in that the team wanted him to play with no long-term security and risk an injury which he subsequently got. But he may now look back and wish he had just lowered his price a bit.
Ultimately, he signed a big free agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens, but after one strong season things went off the rails. An off-season that saw his wife arrested for pointing a gun at him was followed by a pre-season where he was released for punching teammate Chuck Clark. He currently is without a team.
Seattle 2010-18: Games – 125, Tackles – 640, Passes Defended – 68, Interceptions – 28
Since 2019-20 (at time of writing): Games – 15, Tackles – 47, Passes Defended – 4, Interceptions 2
Looking at these examples it is hard to escape the conclusion that, for the all justification of the decision at the time, or lack thereof, the grass is not always greener. Settling for slightly less to maintain the benefits of where you are might seem like doing yourself a disservice, but it may ultimately end up the best option.
If it seems like disputes are unfairly weighted in favour of teams rather than players that is probably because they largely are.Embed from Getty Images
Whether it is a loss of form, catastrophic personal lives, unexpectedly short careers at subsequent teams, or simply never quite hitting the heights again, none of these examples currently have particularly happy endings for the players at their heart.
Perhaps Jamal Adams to Seattle will turn out to be a success, since it is hard to do much worse than play for the Jets currently, but even he has suffered from injury since his trade, and if he does succeed he will be somewhat of an outlier.