Steelers coach Mike Tomlin revealed to his team what most already knew in regard to his prolific star receiver.
"[Tomlin] essentially told the group, we'll tolerate it now because of what he brings on the field, but the minute production stops, you don't overlook it," said one ex-Steeler who played with Brown for three seasons, recalling a story that multiple players confirmed.
That philosophy proved easier said than done. Brown's production -- 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards in six consecutive seasons -- hasn't stopped, but the team reached a boiling point.
Brown drew the ire of the organization in Week 17 when he skipped Saturday's game preparation, prompting Tomlin to bench Brown for the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. Brown also got upset during a midweek session. During his end-of-year news conference, Tomlin said there might come a point when Brown's antics outweigh his ability as a player.
And now, with the Steelers publicly shopping the most prolific receiver in franchise history, not even Brown's league-high 15 receiving touchdowns can camouflage the frustration from all sides.
Tomlin once navigated a successful coach-player relationship but faces questions about what went wrong.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has broken records with Brown but hasn't been afraid to criticize him publicly, which some believe has affected the dynamic.
"This has been brewing for years," one ex-teammate said of Brown's issues. "It's just now coming to the surface.
"And it's probably over."
After interviews with nearly 20 former or current teammates of Brown, either on the record or on condition of anonymity, here's an unfiltered look at Brown's tenure as a Steeler, his layered relationship with the quarterback and head coach, and what might be next.
Brown and the Steelers held down an imperfect but thrilling marriage. Brown had his shortcomings, but he worked hard at practice and made brilliant plays look routine.
The man affectionately known as "A.B." was -- and in many ways still is -- beloved in the Steelers' locker room. The former sixth-round pick was good to teammates, sharing massage therapy with young players or hitting the trendy South Side area of Pittsburgh for fun with his receiver group.
"Everybody could cling to him," said Chris Hubbard, a Steelers offensive lineman from 2013 to 2017 before signing with the Cleveland Browns last offseason. "And he was cool with everybody. People in that locker room love A.B."
Ex-teammates usually start with the same line when discussing Brown: hardest worker they've ever seen.
Cobi Hamilton, a starting receiver alongside Brown in 2016, said he had multiple talks with Brown about "what s--- he had to go through to be where he is," and how homeless nights as a teen shaped him.
"Stupid competitive -- never takes a day off, he's full speed," Hamilton said. "I know he's not an a--h--- like [media and fans] are portraying him to be. He worked to have those cars."
Stephen A. bothered Big Ben isn't criticized like AB
Stephen A. Smith doesn't appreciate Antonio Brown being scrutinized while Ben Roethlisberger receives no blame for the Steelers' situation.
"Great teammate," said Martavis Bryant, a Steelers receiver from 2014 to 2017. "He showed me his whole game."
That helps explain why many teammates at the Pro Bowl have advocated for Brown's return, with defensive end Cam Heyward saying, "I want him in Pittsburgh with me." But a group of team leaders have privately discussed the situation, preparing for whatever happens with Brown, hoping for fewer distractions in 2019.
Linebacker Bud Dupree said players don't want to pick between Brown and Roethlisberger. Center Maurkice Pouncey likened the duo to brothers who are having issues. Multiple reports claimed Brown's frustration in a midweek walk-through during Week 17 was directed at Roethlisberger.
"I don't like seeing A.B. blamed for all this," one current Steeler said. "To me, he's not the problem."
The problem, according to the player, is that the Steelers' locker room issues play out too publicly, and who fixes it is "above my paygrade."
Those paid to clean up the mess -- Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II -- are sending a blunt message: Production is no longer enough.
Training camp is a slog. Every morning, Steelers players drag their sizable frames out of modest Saint Vincent College dorm rooms. Vets might get a room to themselves.
Brown had something more: an Airbnb-style rental home close to campus.
Several players say the general belief was that Brown did not sleep at Saint Vincent. Though players might get an occasional day off or time to see family, most agree Brown's setup was different.
They'd see him get dropped off in a black Mercedes or another luxury car sometime in the morning. Bryant said he never visited Brown's rental house but knew he had it.
Added an ex-Steeler who played multiple seasons with Brown: "We even admired him for it, like, 'How does he pull that off?'"
For all of Brown's tireless work on the field, he took full advantage of being a star player off it.
Several say Brown routinely showed up late to team meetings that set up the upcoming game week. If he was loosely on time, he might be the last one to walk through the door. One player went as far to say he didn't see Brown once in the Wednesday morning meetings during his one season with the team.
Players say Tomlin has a fine system that can range from $1,000 to more than $5,000. Brown, who has a $72.7 million contract and millions more in endorsements, remained unfazed. Two players recalled Brown and receiver Eli Rogers -- once nicknamed "Little A.B." by some teammates -- walking into the same meeting a few minutes late. Both were told to sit down, but they only remember Rogers getting fined.
Players said Brown was fined from time to time for his tardiness. Tomlin would usually announce the fines as late players entered.
"Tomlin basically could have fined A.B. every day if he wanted to," one ex-teammate said.
Brown was not made available for comment after interview requests through representatives.
Though most players acknowledge punctuality was not Brown's strength, he was around when the game plan was installed. He wasn't skipping whole days.
He used his megawatt personality and infectious work ethic to soften any issues. Hubbard said Brown once apologized to the team for being late to a meeting and said he'd do better.
"He shows up late with a big smile on his face," said Doug Legursky, a Steelers offensive lineman from 2009 to 2012 and 2015. "You're not even mad."
And as one current Steeler points out, Brown takes care of his kids, is never in and out of nightclubs and works hard every day, so "who gives a f--- if he's 15 minutes late to a meeting?"
On game days, players marveled at Brown showing up uncomfortably close to kickoff, rocking a mink coat while other players were in full uniform, and then having 150 yards receiving by the fourth quarter.
Through three contract restructures that served as money advances and with every stat sheet he blazed, Brown became virtually uncuttable and invincible.
For years, Roethlisberger and Brown had the chemistry, sheer talent and record-breaking production to offset their occasional issues.
"They've got a love-hate relationship -- they'd love each other and hate each other at times, like all relationships," said Markus Wheaton, a Steelers receiver from 2013 to 2016. "It's usually a misunderstanding -- something Ben did set A.B. off, or A.B. did that set Ben off. But they would get through it, and then it's hugs and touchdowns."
A picture of Brown and Roethlisberger hangs next to Brown's locker with a personalized message from the quarterback: "A.B., we are unstoppable." Not many NFL tandems throughout history can top their ability to win on broken plays or timing throws to the sideline.
But dynamic playmaking wasn't enough in 2018, and despite a relationship built on trust, teammates can't ignore warning signs.
"We just know they are heated at each other -- it's not Coach Tomlin, but two grown men ... butting heads," Dupree said.
Brown said all the right things publicly after Roethlisberger criticized him on his 93.7 The Fan radio show for not running a flatter route on a late-game interception in Week 12. But a source said Brown was privately bothered by the slights, which included Roethlisberger saying he wished he had thrown to JuJu Smith-Schuster on all four goal-line downs late in a road loss to Denver.
Roethlisberger has praised Brown on his radio show but also criticized his route running and his sideline attack on a Gatorade cooler in 2017.
Bryant McFadden, a Steelers corner from 2005 to 2008 and 2010 to 2011, doesn't remember Roethlisberger doing that when he played with him. In those locker rooms, he said, grievances were addressed internally.
"To limit distractions, maybe keeping things internal is best for the team," McFadden said. "Quarterback is a leadership position. As a leader, I think you should handle criticisms of players differently. It can cause separation."
Roethlisberger has defended his criticisms, saying a quarterback and team captain must motivate in different ways.
"Sometimes you just grab them off to the side, sometimes you have to be honest with them," Roethlisberger said in Week 13. "And so I think I've earned the right to be able to do that, as long as I've been here. And I'll be just as critical on myself in front of you guys as well."
Many players say Roethlisberger is not confrontational at the facility. Bryant called Roethlisberger a strong leader and teammate but "quiet sometimes," especially with young players who are proving their worth.
Teammates have seen Brown get frustrated when Roethlisberger tells him to turn down his music in the locker room. But one current Steeler said Roethlisberger goes out of his way to be gentle with Brown and did not set him off in Week 17.
"Ben and A.B. talk more than a lot of people on the team. ... I've never seen the dynamic between these two [that's demonstrative]," the current Steeler said. "If anything, Ben is really easy on him and always blames himself when a mistake happens between the two."
Despite the pair's 185 yards in Week 16, Brown left a walk-through the next week after the Steelers wanted to run a hot read again and sent another player into the lineup, a source close to the situation told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Brown talked with Roethlisberger afterward, telling the quarterback he felt underappreciated and had issues with people in the organization, the source told Schefter.
Pouncey said Brown did not throw a football at a teammate, as has been reported.
If Brown goes over on a slant when he's supposed to come under, or cuts inside instead of toward the sideline, it's not that he doesn’t understand route running, one current teammate says. He's an All-Pro receiver. Rather, his primary job is to get open, which sometimes means feeling out the defensive back and making an unanticipated move.
That can throw off a quarterback's timing, which was fine when Roethlisberger and Brown were at their peak connection and the team's second option wasn't elite. But the emergence of Smith-Schuster complicated matters. As he proved more trustworthy in the offense, Smith-Schuster earned 166 receiving targets in 2018, three fewer than Brown's 169. Smith-Schuster turned that faith into a team-leading 111 catches for 1,426 yards and the team-voted MVP award, which Brown previously won four times.
One team source believes Brown failed to show up that Saturday to prove a point: See what happens without me drawing those double-teams. The Steelers won 16-13 and failed to score on their first four drives. Smith-Schuster finished with five catches for 37 yards and a touchdown.
"I've seen A.B. and Ben going back and forth, but I've also seen them with their arms around each other, talking to each other," said Bruce Gradkowski, a Steelers backup quarterback from 2013 to 2015. "A.B. knew he needed Ben and Ben knew he needed A.B. Both are better with each other."
While Brown is known for his antics on the field, he's also known for his colorful commentary in the team facility. In one team meeting, a then-teammate overheard Brown asking why Tomlin was trying to "Martin Luther King me" over the fine coming his way.
Tomlin sternly asked him to clarify, the ex-teammate said. Someone told Brown to chill, and a small group of players looked at each other, not knowing how to respond.
Most players recognize the quandary NFL coaches face: Harsh punishments for the best players don't help on game days.
Will Johnson, a Steelers fullback from 2012 to 2015, said everyone is not treated the same in the NFL. "Players are paid to make plays," he said.
And everyone interviewed admires how Tomlin knows his players on a personal level. Not many understand Brown better than Tomlin, who has an ability to point players in the right direction without belaboring the message.
But Tomlin's special treatment of his star receiver may have backfired, one Steeler said.
"As the leash gets longer, [Brown] gets the feeling that he can do whatever he wants," said the ex-Steeler who played with Brown for multiple seasons. "That's where Tomlin might have wished he would have squashed this earlier."
Tomlin was not available for comment for this story but has publicly disciplined Brown in the past, most notably in January 2017 for Brown broadcasting Tomlin's postgame speech on Facebook Live after a playoff win in Kansas City. Even then, Tomlin warned Brown's antics might shorten his career in Pittsburgh.
Tomlin could be a stickler for rules when necessary, players said, but policing every on-field sprint or meeting tally would take attention from the big picture of winning. Multiple players believed fining Brown for conduct detrimental to the team -- which the Steelers didn't do in Week 17 -- would have gotten Brown's attention long ago.
"As the leash gets longer, [Brown] gets the feeling that he can do whatever he wants. That's where Tomlin might have wished he would have squashed this earlier." An ex-Steeler who played with Brown for multiple seasons
Asked about the Tomlin-Brown dynamic, Rooney II acknowledged things weren't perfect but the results were undeniable.
"The kind of bottom-line evaluation of that is this guy was a great football player in this league over multiple years," Rooney said. "So, as I said before, were there maybe things that we would've liked to have done a little differently or would have liked him to have done a little differently? The answer is probably yes, but he's one of the hardest-working players on the team, contributed to a lot of wins, and I think someday we'll maybe understand better kind of what happened here the last week of the season but don't really understand it right now."
When Tomlin took the Steelers job in 2007, he was 34 years old with a locker room full of leaders, particularly on defense. In that domain, players could mostly police themselves, McFadden said.
Today's Steelers locker room also has exemplary players, and although they don't expect a perfect room, they certainly want a smoother ride. Heyward said the team needs to "grow, put the petty stuff behind us" and find a way to work through issues.
"When [Brown] became a bigger personality, a superstar, now you have to have a personality that can relate to him," McFadden said. "When we were there, he had personalities that he had to respect. Everybody had to be treated the same way on the roster. A role player sees that and knows he's not any different. Now on that team, I'm not sure they have a personality that can uphold players to the Steeler standard."
Big Ben and Brown: What's next?
Brown's issues run much deeper than routes. Most believe they fall somewhere between respect and leverage, which he might never find in Pittsburgh, or anywhere.
In a quarterback-centric league, Brown won't win a power struggle with the 36-year-old Roethlisberger.
"We've already started talking to [Roethlisberger] and his representative about extending that contract," Rooney II said Wednesday on a conference call with Steelers Nation Unite members. "I think Ben has some good years left. I'd still say he's close to being in the prime of his career.
"Now that we're seeing quarterbacks around the league that are playing into their 40s, I'm not sure there's any reason that Ben can't play for several more years. We're looking forward to that."
Tomlin is due another extension soon -- he typically gets one every other summer -- and Rooney II has said the team would "cross that bridge" at a later date.
While Roethlisberger holds the cachet of two Super Bowl wins and a top-10 ranking in most all-time passing numbers, some recent Steelers privately wonder why Brown takes all the heat when they've seen Roethlisberger and others receive star treatment too. One recent teammate said he never heard Tomlin call out Roethlisberger in a meeting over his multiple years with the Steelers.
Multiple sources believe Brown has no interest in playing the scapegoat. That might explain why Brown seems intrigued by a new offense, to show he's not a Steelers creation. Brown has publicly flirted with the San Francisco 49ers, FaceTiming with Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and sending starry-eyed emojis to tight end George Kittle.
"A.B. feels he is being pushed over the ledge but everyone is blaming him for acting out," McFadden said. "Not saying he's not wrong for walking away, but we haven't heard his side of the story."
Said Wheaton: "He's a Hall of Fame player, and when he's not treated as such or feels there's any sort of disrespect -- foul play in his eyes -- he's gonna let you know. He's one to really speak his mind. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Would I go about it the way he goes about it? Probably not. But he's going to let you know."
Financially, trading Brown is not a daunting task. The move would leave the Steelers with an additional $1.045 million in salary-cap space -- $21.120 million in dead money offset by a $22.165 million cap hit off the books by his departure. That's hardly enough space to replace Brown -- even the notion of replacing arguably the game's best receiver is a bit silly -- so draft capital is crucial. Rooney II has acknowledged the Steelers will consider keeping Brown because of his talent.
One league exec classified Brown's trade market as small but strong. A general manager believes both sides will reconcile.
Teams believed to be one piece away could consider giving up a first-round pick for him.
Meanwhile, Brown has done little to silence the rumors. He's choosing to fuel them, deleting the Steelers from his Twitter profile and trading barbs with former Steelers on social media. He also has labeled the team as "indifferent" about him.
The team is taking a stand against the player who helped define a Steelers generation.
It used to be so simple, when Brown had a personal handshake with every teammate, when his energy was contagious.
"When I was there, you see [the occasional problem], but he always made up for whatever he did wrong," Hubbard said. "He'd apologize. He was always back on course when things didn't go right. It's just scary to see where things are."