PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' tradition with handling contracts was tested to the max with Antonio Brown, an otherworldly player who didn't exactly win in a push for a new deal, but certainly didn't lose either.
The Steelers had to navigate the desires of a receiver who had clearly outplayed his six-year, $43 million contract while clinging to the long-standing policy not to renegotiate until a player has one year left on his contract.
A contract restructure was always the middle ground, always the play. Brown knew that. In fact, in recent weeks, as Brown realized the team wouldn't budge on the policy, he privately hoped for what finally took place on Wednesday -- the team moving $4 million of 2017 base salary into 2016, bringing his season total to $10.25 million.
That places Brown just outside of the top-10 highest paid receivers, all of whom make $11 million or more this year. Brown can live with that. The Steelers did him a solid. They also, kind of, sort of negotiated without actually ripping up his deal in its entirety. This was a good-faith estimate all the way, setting the stage for a monster deal in 2017, when a 29-year-old Brown should still have two to three years of high-level production.
But since the Steelers also employed this same strategy last year, moving $2 million of 2016 money into 2015, Brown ended up getting an additional $6 million total out of what the team considers a non-negotiation. Not bad.
This allows the Steelers, at least publicly, to have it both ways, upholding the policy while keeping a highly productive player happy.
The last two Augusts have played out exactly the same way. First, word comes out that Brown would like a new contract. Then agent Drew Rosenhaus meets with the Steelers. The team makes clear its intentions, that only quarterbacks get the special treatment on contracts. Middle ground: Advance some money.
And let's be real about this. The Steelers aren't doing this to save $500,000 in cap space or for routine bookkeeping. This is to keep a star player motivated.
But not just any star. By separating himself as the game's best receiver and arguably a top-five overall player in the league, Brown set the stage for his own raise. That Brown keeps getting better, didn't hold out and expressed his desire for more without bashing the franchise went a long way in the eyes of the Steelers. That made negotiations -- er, restructuring talks -- more tenable.
NFL teams often worry about precedent -- if we give this guy money early, everyone will come knocking -- but that seems less of an issue here because of how good Brown is. Other players understand Brown is a special case, especially with the latest roster upheaval with the Steelers' offense.
I thought the Steelers would throw another $2 million Brown's way. That they offered $4 million instead highlights their respect for Brown as a player and teammate. In six seasons, Brown has won three team Most Valuable Player awards, as voted on by players. The team decided to remove any cloud of doubt hanging over this guy.
Now that Brown is guaranteed to make all but a few million of that original $43 million deal he signed in 2012, he's not the type to loaf. He wants all the catches. Think 200 targets this year.
And a lot more than $10.25 million in 2017.