We've never seen anything like Antonio Brown.
Or at least I have not seen another skill position player with the week in and week out consistency of the Steelers wide receiver since I entered the NFL as a rookie in 2001. It's ridiculous.
Now, to be clear, I'm not including quarterbacks in that conversation because, unlike facing a running back, tight end or wide receiver, a defensive coordinator can't really game plan in a way that "shuts down" a quarterback like he can one of the other skill position players. If I were, guys like Tom Brady and Drew Brees would obviously be in that conversation.
Instead, I'm talking about the guys who get the ball from the quarterback. In that category, the 29-year-old former sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan in 2010 is without a peer. Over the past five seasons, Brown has averaged 116 receptions, 1,565 yards (13.5 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns, and that doesn't even include the last three games of this season, which is significant when you consider the tear he is on.
He was at it again in a critical victory over the Ravens on Sunday night, catching 11 passes for 213 yards (amounting to nearly 20 yards per reception). What makes it even more impressive is that his Steelers needed every one of those catches, including all the big plays he made in the fourth quarter, to secure the win over their hated division rival. Most of those catches were of the spectacular variety, which he now makes look routine on a seemingly weekly basis.
As a former player, it's hard to put into words how impressive Brown's consistency is, but I'll try, anyway, to give a guy who has become the Joe Thomas of skill position players his proper due.
In fact, let's start there. Thomas received universal acclaim, including from yours truly, when he was on the field for his 10,000th consecutive snap earlier this season. It's probably the most impressive individual accomplishment I've witnessed since I've been a part of the NFL, but Brown's current run is a very close second.
The NFL is a mental and physical grind, and just to be out there for every game except one over the past five years is an accomplishment in itself for the 180-pound Brown. In a game played by giants, he is the equivalent of the Road Runner and every defense he goes up against is Wile E. Coyote doing everything they can to stop him without ever actually accomplishing the mission.
Which leads me to my next point, which is that even though you know the Steelers are going to throw the ball to Brown, you still can't stop it. It's unprecedented, at least over the past 15 years. Guys like Adrian Peterson have had tremendous seasons running the ball and Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones have been able to put up huge numbers catching it, but nobody has been as consistent as Brown. The guy is automatic.
Even though defensive coordinators spend the entire week game-planning in an effort to thwart the Steelers star, they are rarely successful. Even his worst game this season included four catches for 34 yards against the Ravens in Week 4, which may help explain his explosion on Sunday night.
In an NFL world in which fans are increasingly concerned about week-to-week production for their fantasy teams, Brown is the little engine that could. And always does.
Among wide receivers with first-team All-Pro selections, Jerry Rice (10) is of course still in a league of his own, but Brown is a lock for his fourth straight selection, which would put him in select company, as only Randy Moss (four) and Terrell Owens (four) have as many at the wide receiver position.
There have been some other special runs for skill guys in NFL history, including former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson's tear from 2002-2007 and a similar output from former Colts/Rams running back Marshall Faulk, but even those two had the option to run the ball, run routes from the backfield or split out as a receiver, which somewhat mitigates a defense's ability to key on them.
Not Brown. No. 84 may line up in different places in the formation to try to occasionally break free from being double-teamed, but even when he doesn't he still produces.
Pretty much every single week.