PITTSBURGH — The noise around Antonio Brown can become deafening at times.
Livestreaming from the locker room. Adopting an alternate persona. The tribute cleats that also happen to run afoul of league policy. The over-the-top touchdown celebrations that typically end with a letter from the commissioner’s office ending up in his stall tucked in the corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.
All that drama — most of it intentionally manufactured by Brown himself — is just part of the show for the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver, the one who has adopted “Business is Boomin” as his unofficial motto. It can also occasionally overshadow the substance that comes with all that style.
“For some people it’s, ‘Oh, AB is out there doing that stuff,'” new Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “Me, I look at the numbers.”
And Haden isn’t talking about the zeroes on the four-year, $68-millon contract extension Brown signed in the offseason. He’s pointing to the most productive four-year run by a wide receiver in NFL history.
Brown’s 481 receptions since the start of 2013 are a league record, tangible evidence of Brown’s durability, consistency and relentlessness. Haden spent the first seven years of his career in Cleveland watching Brown evolve from a sixth-round project into a superstar. When the Steelers picked up Haden last month, Haden couldn’t wait to peek behind the curtain to see if all the stories about Brown’s work ethic were true.
What Haden saw proved more impressive than the myth.
“He goes 150 percent every route, every practice,” Haden said. “Some guys honestly don’t practice as hard as AB. I had receivers (in Cleveland) that were really, really good. It’s just a different level. It’s the way he runs. He catches a 7-yard pass, he takes it 60 yards to the end zone. Then he jogs back to the line to do it again. People just don’t do that.”
Like Haden, wide receiver Justin Hunter started his career elsewhere, counting Jarvis Landry and Sammie Watkins among his former teammates while splitting time in 2016 between Miami and Buffalo. Brown, however, is unique.
“He’s a teacher, we’re the students,” Hunter said. “He does it by example. He does it with his words. All of it. Coaches always say, ‘look at him, because he’s doing it right.'”
Long ago, Brown started wearing game pants during walkthroughs, a gesture he considered a symbol of how seriously he took each and every rep. Soon enough, some of the other receivers joined in. Once exceedingly private about his off-the-field training habits, the 29-year-old has become decidedly more open about how he goes about his job.
Brown’s social media feed is a mix of product placement, motivation (just do a hashtag search for #Defeattheodds) and maniacal drills. Part of it is smart advertising. Part of it is a growing awareness of his impact. His jersey isn’t consistently among the NFL’s best sellers — ahead of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and buddies Julio Jones and Dez Bryant among others — for nothing.
Where Brown’s critics see selfishness, others see passion. Brown apologizes for none of it.
“What you see is what you’re going to get,” he said.
And, yes, some of it is going to be a bit much. Brown has stayed quiet about his plans for his first touchdown celebration of 2017, though his canvas will be considerably broad given the league’s decision to loosen up a bit.
Asked on Friday if he had something in mind should he reach the end zone on Sunday in the season opener against the Browns, he shrugged and said, “We’ll see. It’s to be determined.”
Maybe it’s because the sponsors haven’t decided. In one commercial released recently, Brown is doing “the Charleston.” In another, he’s busting a move with video game characters. Or maybe he’ll just come up with something on the spot. The only thing Brown knows is he won’t be twerking, still a no-no under the league’s updated policy.
Oh, well. The fact there’s so much anticipation is an indication of the fine line Brown walks. He’s inarguably one of the best players of his generation. And also a bit of a diva. In the Steelers locker room, there appears to be room for both.
“As long as I earn the respect of my teammates, players, coaches,” Brown said Friday. “These guys here know me, they understand me.”
And Brown understands there is something beyond touchdown dances and treating the team record book as his personal Wikipedia page. He’s got a lot of catches. A lot of touchdowns. A lot of swag. The one thing he doesn’t have is a Super Bowl. And with Roethlisberger working on a year-to-year basis, Brown knows time is running out.
“You guys worry about the numbers,” Brown said. “Our business is winning and we’re paid to win in here.”
If doing his thing in the end zone is a part of the journey, all the better. If his teammates are being honest, they can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
“Let him dance man,” Hunter said “He deserves it.”
NOTES: OLB Bud Dupree (shoulder) did not practice on Friday and is questionable for Sunday. … Reserve OL Jerald Hawkins (knee) is out.