The Mixed Messages in Pittsburgh
2016 Postseason

The Mixed Messages in Pittsburgh

Mike Tomlin told his team to keep a low profile while wideout Antonio Brown broadcast the coach’s fiery, profane speech live on Facebook. What does it all mean for the Steelers going forward?

Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown.
Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Bill Belichick has an axiom that he often invokes in team meetings. It’s called the Category of What We Are Not Looking For. The Patriots’ coach may show his players video of another team botching a play, such as a mishandled spike in a two-minute situation. Or he may bring up something that happened outside the white lines that created a distraction.

Antonio Brown’s infamous Facebook live video from Sunday night would be a prime candidate. Perhaps Belichick will make mention of it this week while gaining the added benefit of bulletin board material.

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The video, since deleted off the receiver’s Facebook page but preserved in digital amber on the unforgiving Internet, was amusing and head-shaking. There was Brown, using his phone to broadcast the genuine scene inside the visitors’ locker room moments after his Steelers earned a trip to the AFC Championship Game with an 18-16 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The team gathered for a postgame prayer, and then coach Mike Tomlin began addressing the team—unknowingly for the world to see.

The way Tomlin came across in that unauthorized video—gruff, feisty, ticked off that the Patriots had a 36-hour advantage in recovery and preparation—is what makes him an excellent coach. And so was his message of laying low in the coming days. “Let’s say very little moving forward,” Tomlin told his players. “Let’s start our preparations. We spotted those a-------- a day and a half. They played yesterday. Our game got moved to tonight. We gonna touch down at 4 o’clock in the f------ morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for their a----.”

Oblivious, Brown kept grinning into the camera, smoothing out his hairdo and making his trademark “call God” gesture. When a second voice in the Steelers’ locker room, later identified as left guard Ramon Foster, added, “Keep cool on social media,” running back Le’Veon Bell looked back at Brown and laughed. Then a third voice, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, told the room, “Keep your mouth shut.” From there live stream went on for another 14 minutes, with Brown gleefully noting the growing number of viewers: 16,000 … 25,000 … 32,000 … 40,000.

Brown will likely be fined by the NFL; a league spokesman confirmed that there is a policy prohibiting coaches, players and other team football operations employees from using social media on game days starting 90 minutes before kickoff until after the postgame locker room is open to media and players have fulfilled their postgame interview obligations. When Brown began filming, the locker room was still closed to media. 

You can argue that Brown’s video, while almost comically self-absorbed, will have little to no bearing on how the No. 1 receiver and his teammates perform next week in Foxborough, Mass. On the other hand, the message coming out of the Steelers’ locker room mattered so much that the coach and two veterans specifically addressed that following the team’s biggest win of the season.  

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Tomlin never intended for his speech to be made public. He takes great care to cull his public message to sound like something while actually revealing nothing at all. And he’s a pro at it.

It’s NFL policy that head coaches must be available to media after every practice. And Tomlin is available to speak. But because he has mastered the art of filibustering press conferences, the beat reporters in Pittsburgh routinely pass on that availability, preferring instead to head directly to post-practice player interviews in the locker room.

And for a coach who isn’t afraid to mix it up with the opponent during games, Tomlin does a good job of keeping a lid on those exchanges. In December, during my reporting on an oral history of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, former Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott told a story about Tomlin circa 2007. Scott had been jawing with Steelers fullback Dan Kreider near the Pittsburgh sideline; he dared Tomlin to put Kreider in the game and run an iso play so they could go head-to-head. “You want him?” Tomlin boomed at Kreider, before sending out the fullback. When asked about that story, Tomlin smiled coyly. “I will never confirm,” he said.

That’s the long way of saying that there will probably be in-house consequences for Brown beyond a potential fine from the league. But as for the content of the video?

No one should care that Tomlin called his next opponent “a-------.” On Monday, the Steelers did their best to smooth things over without backing down. As Foster put it to reporters in Pittsburgh, “Everybody in this league is an a------.” Tomlin’s players no doubt love his fire as they prepare for the tall task of playing the Patriots on the road. More than anything, the rare look into a NFL locker room shows how much teams regard the challenge of going to New England and trying to win in January. To have a chance, you have to mind every little detail.

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