Antonio Brown saga: What happened, Steelers' next move, trade chances

PITTSBURGH -- The only certainty with Antonio Brown's career with the Pittsburgh Steelers is his place in the record books.

Tony Toe Tap might be ready to place two feet in another locker room, a notion coach Mike Tomlin sounds open to embracing.

Brown has six straight 100-catch seasons, a contract worth more than $70 million, nearly a dozen endorsements and a Hall of Fame trajectory.

How did this go south?

Here's an attempt to answer the questions surrounding the latest Antonio Brown saga.

What is happening in Pittsburgh?

Brown is unhappy and has been so for quite some time. This can be traced to training camp, when Brown left town with a mysterious lower body injury and, upon returning, lashed out at a reporter over whether he was limping at practice.

He's left the team three times since August, missing multiple meetings during the regular season. He's been contentious with the media at times. And his flare-up on the sideline in Week 2 against Kansas City signaled problems bubbling under the surface.

Brown's going off on a teammate during Week 17 and skipping days of work set off a barrage of questions for Tomlin at his end-of-year news conference.

"This has been going on for a while, but this year it's gotten worse," one team source said. "People have covered it up and it's not getting covered up anymore."

An avalanche of issues in 2018 set the stage for an inevitable breaking point -- for Brown and the team.

Why is Brown so angry?

Signs point to a power struggle. Brown and Tomlin appear to have issues to sort through, and his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger remains under the microscope.

In the absence of details from Brown himself, here's one working theory offered up by a team source: Brown was trying to prove a point that the team would struggle without him: If JuJu Smith-Schuster can win the team MVP and get significant targets, see what happens when I'm not there?

Smith-Schuster, who had a breakout second season with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, recorded 37 yards and one touchdown on five catches in the finale against the Bengals.

Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show that Brown is one of his closer friends on the team and he wants him back. But privately Brown was not pleased with his quarterback's public critiques of his route-running after a Week 12 loss in Denver, and the emergence of Smith-Schuster has complicated Brown's future.

Does Brown want a trade?

The Steelers haven't received a formal trade request from Brown; Tomlin confirmed that Wednesday. But it's clear a trade has been on Brown's mind for quite some time. He even let everyone know that when he tweeted "Trade me let's find out" to a former Steelers public relations staffer in Week 3.

CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reported Tuesday that Brown has asked to be traded.

This theme isn't going away anytime soon, especially as opposing players shamelessly court him.

What are the chances the Steelers trade or cut Brown?

His contract makes that difficult, but it's not impossible.

Brown, 30, enters the third year of a five-year, $72.7 million extension that's already been restructured once.

Brown has a salary cap hit of $22.165 million this year, and if he's off the roster, the Steelers take on $21.120 million worth of dead money. The Steelers could separate that dead money into two seasons by designating him as a post-June 1 cut, making the 2019 hit $7.05 million. But the other $14.05 million would spill into 2020. The Steelers don’t have the luxury of a post-June 1 designation on a trade. It’s only for released players, each team can use two designations per year and the cap relief doesn’t kick in until June 2.

So, deferring the money means you have to deal with it later. But here’s where the Steelers can get creative: Cut Brown before paying the $2.5 million roster bonus, which is due on the fifth day of the league year, and save $15.1 in salary cap -- Brown’s $22.165 million cap number in 2019 minus the $7.040 million in dead money. Then, in 2020, the cap savings would be around $4 million -- take Brown’s $18.34 million cap hit off the books against the $14.08 million of dead money.

Are those savings worth losing an All-Pro in his prime and the taking on that dead money?

Either way, it’s a steep hit but might be necessary, depending how you use the money. Free agent linebacker help, perhaps?

The moves Brown is pulling only happen with a player who knows he’s difficult to cut, forcing the Steelers to rely on rookies with cheap contracts to produce like him.

Brown is due a roster bonus of $2.5 million by the start of the league year. If the Steelers would make a move, it would likely happen before then.

What recourse do the Steelers have in punishing Brown?

The Steelers can fine Brown for conduct detrimental to the team, or as one longtime NFL agent suggested, NFL players sign their contracts and receive signing bonuses under the stipulation that they uphold the merits of the collective bargaining agreement.

So perhaps the Steelers could come after part of that $19 million if they really want to drag this out.

Tomlin said Wednesday that he would keep any punishments in-house.

Of course, the NFL Players Association could be waiting with a grievance.

Brown was on the injury report and technically showed up to the stadium, presumably with the intent to play. Might be hard to prove he shouldn't be paid for that week.

Could the Steelers face disciplinary action for the injury report issue?

If the Steelers had overtly lied about Brown's injury status to cover up his antics, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports suggest, the league could investigate and take action against the Steelers, including a fine.

Tomlin made clear during his news conference that Brown expressed he had knee, ankle and foot soreness, so they listed him on the injury report and sent him for an MRI.

ESPN has sent an email to a league representative for comment. In 2017, the NFL investigated the Steelers for keeping Le'Veon Bell off the injury report with a groin injury, though nothing came out of that.

The injury report is designed to level the playing field, and listing Brown with a knee issue perhaps doesn't create a competitive advantage whether he had one or not. But at the least, the NFL should probably look into it.

How are teammates processing this?

Some were left speechless that Brown went ghost on the most important week of the year. "I don't know what to think," one player said. "It's an unfortunate situation."

Steelers defensive end and team captain Cameron Heyward appeared on WDVE Pittsburgh to discuss the saga.

"We all want AB here, but to be a part of this team, you can’t do that," Heyward said. "You don’t let your brothers down. I’m sure [GM] Kevin [Colbert], Coach Tomlin will be talking to him, but going forward that’s unacceptable. We all gotta be there."

Players can't exactly hold a team meeting in the offseason, but they don't need one to come to this conclusion: They want a smoother locker room in 2019.

Tight end Vance McDonald called chemistry "really big" for team success.

"If you don't have connections and camaraderie and that thing you can't measure among the team, it's huge," McDonald said. "It can elevate your team in such a dynamic way because you know the next guy to you means so much to you. It's absolutely important."

How does the presence of Roethlisberger and Tomlin affect Brown's future?

This question is significant for two reasons: Quarterbacks run the NFL, and Roethlisberger's recent comments about his relationship with Tomlin were revealing.

"When you are together with someone for a long time, there is a lot of respect there," Roethlisberger said. "You can almost say it has turned into a friendship as well just because you’ve been together for a while, so it's definitely evolved and changed. I think we communicate a lot, we talk about personnel, things like he’ll ask me about guys in the locker room and how they are doing. Just things that I get to observe during the day and I don’t feel shy about going in and talking to him about things."

Translation: Tomlin and Roethlisberger are aligned, and Brown's not going to win that battle.