(Eds: With AP Photos.)By WILL GRAVESAP Sports Writer
The first time Jerricho Cotchery walked into Antonio Brown’s house, it was all the newly acquired Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver could do to avoid the exercise equipment scattered across the living room floor.
”It’s like he never stops working,” Cotchery said.
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Or ever stops producing for that matter.
In the midst of perhaps the finest season by a receiver in the franchise’s 81-year history, Brown was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years on Thursday.
Brown won the award in 2011 after making the Pro Bowl as a kick returner and a rapidly developing slot receiver. If anything, Brown has become more indispensable in the interim.
Entering Sunday’s season finale against Cleveland, Brown already owns the club record for yards receiving in a single season (1,412) and with 101 receptions has an outside chance to break Hines Ward’s mark of 112 catches in 2002.
Oh, and he’s still returning punts, including a 67-yard sprint for a touchdown in a 30-20 victory over Cincinnati two weeks ago that kept Pittsburgh (7-8) in the postseason mix.
”Once he gets the ball in his hands, everybody is holding their breath because something usually special happens,” Cotchery said.
It’s an ascension the Steelers bet on in the summer of 2012 when they signed Brown to a $42 million contract extension while Mike Wallace futilely held out for more money. Wallace eventually did get paid, inking a $60 million deal with Miami last spring.
So far, it appears Pittsburgh made the right choice. Wallace has 68 receptions for 905 yards and three scores for the Dolphins. When the Pro Bowl rosters are announced on Friday, Brown’s name will almost certainly be read. Wallace’s almost certainly will not.
Brown declines to draw any sort of comparison. He and Wallace are friends and two completely different players. Wallace relies heavily on his all-world speed, while Brown’s talents stem from his quick feet and his ability to make things happen in the open field.
Cotchery points to Brown’s near miracle play at the end of a 34-28 loss to the Dolphins three weeks ago as proof of Brown’s unique ability. Trailing by six with 3 seconds left, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Emmanuel Sanders for a 25-yard gain down the left sideline. While his teammates began to make a series of laterals across the Heinz Field turf, Brown hung out at the Pittsburgh 40.
”He was just kind of waiting in the corner while everybody was flicking the ball around, just waiting his turn like, `I’m ready, I’m ready,”’ Cotchery said. ”Then we were just watching.”
While Brown eventually got the ball and made a madcap dash to the end zone that ended when he inadvertently stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12, the list of players who would have gotten even that far is short.
It’s why Brown continues to do double-duty on punt returns, where his 13.4 yards per runback ranks third in the league. It’s a job Brown accepts eagerly even if he’s the only No. 1 receiver in the league who still plays a significant role on special teams.
Then again, there are few premier receivers who look like Brown. At 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, he’s the point guard to Calvin Johnson’s power forward. There was a time while Brown was in college at Central Michigan that he went to Ford Field to watch Johnson play for the Detroit Lions.
Five years later, Brown and Johnson were exchanging jerseys after a 37-27 win in Pittsburgh last month, a sign of mutual respect from one star to another.
”He is different than anyone I’ve coached,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. ”That goes back a ways. Generally, they (guys that line up on the outside) have been big-body guys. He is breaking the trend right now.”
It’s become a habit.
Brown admits he’s still fueled by the reality that 194 other players were taken ahead of him in the 2010 draft. Ask him why he thinks it took so long to be selected and he simply shrugs his shoulders and says, ”I’m not the scout.”
Maybe, but the insult – real or perceived – continues to irk him. It’s one of the reasons he’ll hop on the treadmill in the middle of the night, or head straight from practice to a nearby gym for another workout.
That doesn’t make him different than a lot of players, perhaps. It’s the consistency, however, that makes his teammates marvel. Brown has at least five receptions and 50 yards receiving in every game this year even as defenses have adjusted to slow him down.
”(His work ethic) just overflows into every other area,” Cotchery said. ”He comes in to develop more things in his game. He goes and puts it to work on Sundays. He doesn’t take a day off.”
NOTES: Sanders (knee), G David DeCastro (back), LB Terence Garvin (knee) and LB Jason Worilds (abdomen) did not practice Thursday.