Mike Mayock hadn’t rested since New Year’s Eve, the day he formally transitioned from make-believe television general manager to Oakland Raiders GM.
The longtime NFL Network draft analyst spent so much time inside the Raiders’ compound breaking down film and learning the job that coach Jon Gruden — the notorious workaholic — thought Mayock needed a break.
So Gruden, at the behest of Raiders owner Mark Davis, invited his GM and their respective significant others to Las Vegas for some relative R&R the weekend of March 8. After all, the new league year and free agency would be starting the following Wednesday.
Except their biggest job yet awaited them as soon as they touched down. Antonio Brown, the game’s best wide receiver, had undergone a tumultuous two months with the Pittsburgh Steelers and wanted out. He was available for trade and ready to negotiate exclusively with Oakland.
“Instead of having a nice double date, we dated [agent Drew] Rosenhaus and Antonio Brown,” Gruden said.
The Brown saga sent shock waves through the NFL because of the star power involved. Rarely is a player of Brown’s caliber available for trade, especially with three years left on his contract.
And the trade partners were at opposite ends of the spectrum with the player. While one NFL regime was imagining the possibilities with a new offensive weapon, another was in divorce proceedings with a player who disparaged them publicly, bizarrely dyed his mustache blonde and demanded more money after six straight 100-catch seasons.
Brown’s trade market didn’t promise a bevy of high picks. Even the Raiders, who coveted the instant offense Brown provided, were reluctant to part with significant capital.
That both sides made the best of an untenable situation with Oakland giving up third- and fifth-round picks in exchange for Brown, who was re-signed to contract that includes $30.125 million in guaranteed money.
“I’m not aware of a guy with three years left on his contract to get $11 million of new, real money and having another $30 million in guarantees, fully guaranteed,” said Rosenhaus, Brown’s agent. “I’d never seen that before with three years left and not adding years. … We’ve all seen how many guys are cut one year into a long-term deal. It’s been kind of a one-way system. In this particular instance, you had a player who said, ‘This isn’t an ideal situation for me.’ For guys around the league, this is a positive development for players. And they have Antonio Brown to thank for it.”
The deal might have been made in Vegas, but over two-plus months it made its way from Florida to Alabama to Buffalo.
Best to make ‘clean break’
While Steelers players were cleaning out lockers the day after the season ended with a 9-6-1 record, Brown already was thinking about where to store his cleats in 2019.
Rosenhaus first called Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert about Brown’s desire to be traded on Dec. 31, the day after the 2018 regular season, Rosenhaus told ESPN. Brown wasn’t in the building that day, and players were trying to make sense of an exhausting Week 17 in which Brown was not present for a day of work.
Brown’s relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin had deteriorated. In the final week, Brown believed he was made a scapegoat for the team’s problems and stayed true to his story that Tomlin sent him home because of his injury.
“It just didn’t seem realistic it would continue in a healthy way moving forward,” Rosenhaus said. “I reached out to Kevin and said there doesn’t seem to be a productive solution outside of a trade. No one wanted to rush into a hasty conclusion. The feeling was, if there’s a way to salvage this, let’s explore this. It really wasn’t something I don’t think the team wanted to do out of the gate. But it became apparent to the club it was in everyone’s best interest to get a clean break.”
Technically, this wasn’t a formal trade request. Privately, it was time to entertain life without Brown. By mid-January, Pittsburgh believed Brown, who will turn 31 in July, would have at least a decent trade market, possibly garnering a first-round pick. Multiple league sources at the time forecast a “small but strong” market, which played out over the next two months.
Colbert met with Rosenhaus twice in January — at the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19 in Florida and the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26 in Alabama — to discuss Brown’s future. By that point, the Steelers were prepared for anything but hadn’t begun shopping Brown in earnest.
First, the Steelers — most notably, team president Art Rooney II — wanted to hear from Brown directly. Corralling everyone involved for a meeting took time, with several scheduling “misfires,” Rosenhaus said. They settled on Feb. 19 at the West Palm Beach Airport. They arrived in separate cars, shook hands across from the terminal and headed to a meeting room.
“Once we all got together … really the summation of it was we are all disappointed that we are at this point,” Colbert said. “The point we made to Antonio was, ‘Look we love you as a player, we thank you for what you did for us for the past nine years. I am disappointed we didn’t get you a Super Bowl and I still think you are a Hall of Fame candidate.'”
Brown’s bizarre behavior on social media had been off-putting for the franchise. He grew the mustache, posted a highlight video saying goodbye to Pittsburgh before the team even agreed to trade him and criticized Tomlin and Roethlisberger publicly.
But the team remained patient, figuring the in-person meeting would curb those issues.
Brown highlighted to Rooney his “spectacular” nine years in Pittsburgh and requested they take a picture together.
“There was always a sense of doing things a right way,” Rosenhaus said. “Never at any point was there bad blood. And his commentary died down after that, out of respect for that meeting.”
All parties understood Brown would be a Steeler in 2019 if a trade partner couldn’t be found, Rosenhaus said. But they didn’t discuss contingencies because of confidence a deal would materialize.
Brown and Rosenhaus outlined criteria for the trade: A quality quarterback, a winning organization which would give Brown a new contract and a head coach with a sound offensive background and philosophy.
That new contract was a hurdle for many teams. Brown had deemed himself “Mr. Big Chest,” and that meant he wanted new guarantees on his remaining three years and about $39 million with Pittsburgh.
The New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans had legitimate interest at points during the process, according to a source. The New England Patriots were believed to have interest, but the Steelers had no plans to send an All-Pro to a perennial AFC favorite.
The belief was at least one team was willing to trade a first-round pick if the contract hadn’t been a factor, a source said.
The Steelers granted Rosenhaus clearance to speak with the Buffalo Bills early in the week of March 4. That meant the Steelers felt comfortable with draft compensation and it was time for Brown to get involved.
Rosenhaus spoke with general manager Brandon Beane on March 5, and Beane made clear then he would tweak Brown’s remaining deal but wouldn’t redo it. That was a non-starter for Brown, so both parties agreed it wouldn’t work and never revisited.
In the early hours of March 8, NFL Network reported the Bills were “closing in” on a deal for Brown, who quickly called any deal with Buffalo “fake news” on social media. Rosenhaus woke up in the middle of the night to the story and worked to clarify, knowing a deal was not in place.
“I never spent a lot of time with the Bills on this,” said Rosenhaus, who stressed Brown’s issue with Buffalo was solely contract-related, not an unwillingness to play there. “We were never close.”
That was too bad for the Steelers, whom a source said felt strongly about Buffalo’s package. Many around the league believed part of the package included swapping Pittsburgh’s No. 20 overall pick for Buffalo’s No. 9 pick.
By March 8, the Steelers didn’t have an overwhelming favorite and were simply looking for the best package.
Raiders get in late
Despite being linked to Brown since he first went on the market, the Raiders, who have three first-round draft picks and four picks in the first 35 selections, were not in on him until much later in the game.
Oakland made earnest efforts to land Brown on the afternoon of March 8, as the Steelers had granted Rosenhaus permission to speak with the team.
“When AB came into the picture, it wasn’t something that we necessarily planned for,” Mayock said. “I thought somebody would give [Pittsburgh] a first-round pick, and we weren’t willing to give up one of our three. So, when the Buffalo deal fell through and, all of a sudden, we had an opportunity to make a play for him, Jon and I were 100 percent in agreement that, at the right price, we had to go do it. He’s a game-changer. He’s one of two or three offensive players in the league you have to game plan for every week, talking about non-quarterbacks. So, we felt like it was something we had to do.”
Brown believes he has a few prime years left and is eager to prove he’s not a Steelers creation, which would benefit Oakland.
But Rosenhaus and Oakland were still trying to bridge the money divide by the evening of March 8. Rosenhaus left Brown’s house that night thinking a deal might be off completely and new teams would need to emerge. Rosenhaus declined specifics on the exact sticking point with Oakland, but he acknowledged both sides weren’t “on the same page” on the two key elements of the deal: new money, overall guarantees.
On March 9, Rosenhaus spoke with Colbert, who encouraged trying again with Oakland, according to a source. So Rosenhaus reconnected with Mayock in the evening for more fruitful talks. Rosenhaus worked from Brown’s large dining room table while the player waited for the green light to tweet out a photoshopped picture in a Raiders uniform.
Shortly after midnight March 10, Brown posted the image to #raidernation after both sides agreed to this deal: the Steelers acquired Oakland’s 66th and 141st picks in the 2019 NFL draft in exchange for Brown.
“Kevin Colbert from Pittsburgh did a great job in getting this thing close,” Mayock said. “Drew Rosenhaus was amazing because there were some times where I wasn’t sure if we were going to get there or not. Anytime you have a high-profile negotiation like this, there are points to be made by both sides. You have to get through some things. Drew did a great job keeping this thing alive.”
Of course, the Raiders had to ask about Brown’s ugly departure from Pittsburgh. They came away satisfied.
“I did do a pretty deep dive with some of the Pittsburgh people I know,” Mayock said. “But the point is, for the majority of his career, could you criticize him for wanting the football more? Sure. But tell me a great wide receiver that doesn’t want the ball, right? So, he’s got some of that in him. But at the end of the day, he was a positive force in that building for a lot of years. Whatever happened last year, happened.
“The way I look at it is the opposite — I look at it like … he’s a little pissed off, he’s got something to prove [and] I think he’s going to come out and prove it in Oakland next year and we’re going to be the beneficiaries.”
The connection between Gruden and Brown was instant. Mayock arrived to work and was delighted to see the two watching 400 clips of Brown’s play in Gruden’s office like “little kids in the laboratory” while Brown was in town to sign his deal.
Brown, though, did not see himself as a trailblazer in his introductory media conference on March 13, hours after the league year began.
“I’m not here to sell all the characteristics of what is this or what is that,” Brown told ESPN that day. “My actions will speak louder. I’m here with a lot of pressure. A lot of optimism. I’m just embracing it all. Obviously, I know there’s a lot of work to be done. Today is just the first day of getting started. I’m excited about the process. We’ve got a lot of things to show, a lot of things to do. Today is just the first day of getting those things started.”
A ‘disappointing’ breakup
Tomlin played a pivotal role in selecting Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, spent nine years watching his career explode and managed the player’s eccentricities almost daily.
But in the end, Tomlin summarized the breakup as simply “disappointing” and “unfortunate” before leaning on a cold NFL reality.
Ryan Clark goes off on Antonio Brown after his posts attacking JuJu Smith-Schuster saying that it is uncalled for.
“Change is a part of our business and we’re comfortable with the talent we have and our plan to add to that talent and develop that talent,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers have more chances to do just that. They didn’t get the first-round pick they coveted early in the process, but getting Oakland’s 66th pick was important because it was basically a late-second-round pick. Plus, the team — fresh off a year-long headache over Le’Veon Bell‘s holdout — wanted to move on from another disgruntled player.
Colbert isn’t concerned with how Brown’s behavior might have affected the trade market.
“I can’t estimate what their challenges were,” Colbert said. “We were excited to get a third and a fifth, especially as high as those picks are in those respective rounds. As I stated, now we have four picks in the top 83, and 10 picks in the top 219, so we are picking once out of every 21 picks, so we are in much better shape draft-wise than we were prior to that trade. … We found something that we were excited about and we made the deal without hesitation.”
Despite averaging 1,500-plus receiving yards a season since 2013, Brown was willing to throw away his connection with Roethlisberger in exchange for a Las Vegas star turn for the Raiders’ 2020 relocation.
The wounds are raw for Steelers fans. Years from now, perhaps healing can begin.
“He’s excited about being with the Raiders, but that won’t take away from the overwhelmingly positive experience he had in Pittsburgh during nine years with everyone affiliated with the team,” Rosenhaus said. “He wants to maintain a relationship with the Steelers as one of the best to ever put on the uniform.”