The Pittsburgh Steelers have put their collective faith in the wrong person
An elite quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
NFL front offices dream about it. Fans revel in the thought of cheering for terrific athletes that can change the course of a game with one play.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had that. A three-headed monster that made up one of, if not the best offense in football. Ben Roethlisberger is an aging quarterback, albeit one with two Super Bowl’s to his name, and an incredibly troubling off-field history. LeV’eon Bell is the most dangerous runner in football without factoring in his ability as a playmaking receiver out of the backfield. Antonio Brown is a future Hall of Fame wide receiver, ranking among the best Steelers ever at his position.
One is already gone with news that the Steelers have verbally agreed to send Brown to the Oakland Raiders for two selections in the upcoming draft. After taking a year off following tumultuous contract negotiations that went stale, Bell is a free agent and is sure to be one of the first big names off the board.
Two out the door. One remains.
A 30-year-old in the prime, if not just past the peak of his career at the receiver position. A 27-year-old running back that, when healthy, is among the league’s best. And, a just-turned 37-year-old quarterback with significant mileage on his body, the aforementioned off-field problems, and one with a reputation for publicly calling out teammates.
Common sense would dictate that you keep the former and part ways with the latter. But that’s not football. That isn’t the “Rooney way.” That’s not how this league works.
However way you label it, the Steelers have put their faith and confidence in the wrong person.
Few posts of mine have been this difficult. As a Steelers fan, I waited to see how this was all going to play out. Of course, it started with Bell. Franchise tag after franchise tag. The same dance ensued after every playoff exit. Views on the running back position are very tricky and controversial. You either believe that all running backs have a shelf life — which usually ends around the age of 29 or 30 — and that front offices, coaches and owners are right to move on from certain players once they reach that plateau and subsequently start to regress. Or, you believe that you pay your best players regardless of any bias and that these athletes are deserving of guaranteed money for putting their brains and bodies on the line.
From a business perspective, as cruel and immoral as that first opinion is, I can see why Pittsburgh did what they did with Bell. Most of the time, if a front office and coaching staff build up a great offensive line, results from out of the backfield will follow. That is what the Steelers have managed to accomplish. DeAngelo Williams. James Conner. Jaylen Samuels. Bell. All these guys had success rushing the football, and a significant part of that is due to the guys in front of them.
That, ostensibly, is why the Steelers didn’t want to pay Bell big money*. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have asked for it. He’s not wrong for wanting more, and he’s certainly not wrong for expressing that.
But that’s history now. Conner was the next man up, and though he’s not nearly as talented as Bell, the Pittsburgh product had an excellent season. From a human perspective it’s daunting and dark, but from a football perspective, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and others must feel like they won.
But did they?
That remains to be seen. If Conner improves on the season that just passed, and or Samuels bursts onto the scene in 2019, it will help further strengthen their argument. If they falter, not so much. Whatever the result may be, the Steelers opted against locking up a game-changing talent because of an opinion based solely on the repercussions of a dangerous game.
*Early on Wednesday, Bell reportedly agreed to sign with the New York Jets on a four-year, $52.1 million contract with a max value of $61 million. Bell will earn $35 million in guaranteed money, making him the highest paid running back in football.
Brown always felt different. As the Bell drama played out, from the early stages, it always seemed like it was going to come to a divorce. When both sides failed to agree to a long-term contract and week one came and went without Bell reporting to the team, there was zero doubt in my mind that Bell preferred to sit out and make a statement than to return to the field and risk injury by playing. I can’t say I blame him.
With Brown, he was a leader. He was under contract. He’s a Steelers legend. Seven seasons of 1,000-plus yards and four with double-digit touchdown receptions. Number 84 is up there among the greatest receivers of this era, and he’ll be remembered as such, regardless of where his career trajectory goes in Oakland or elsewhere.
My opinion on Brown is very complicated. As much as I enjoyed cheering for Bell, he was here for a shorter amount of time. When I started cheering for the Steelers, Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress were the two receivers known across the league. Then came Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown eventually joined that group and developed into what he is today. Few could have predicted his unexpected rise from 6th-round draft pick to NFL star, but that’s what he’s gone on to do.
For years, Brown was the guy. He beat out Wallace and Sanders to earn the spotlight in Pittsburgh. Eventually, only he remained. And deservedly so. The Steelers, evidently with a knack at finding talent at the receiver position through the draft, tried to build beyond Brown in the years after his breakout, but few stuck. Markus Wheaton flamed out, and despite possessing immeasurable talent, off-field issues and suspensions have stalled Martavis Bryant’s career. Receiving always ran through Brown and despite his occasional fine for being overzealous in the endzone (which is a ridiculous and frankly stupid form of punishment) or live streaming a locker room discussion, he let his play do the talking.
That quickly changed this season. I am not from Pittsburgh, nor do I cover the team. I’m not around these players. I go off what I read, and many respected Steelers beat writers seem to have changed their tune on Brown as the season wore on. By now, we have all heard of the drama that forced Brown to sit out on week 17. I won’t try and go through all of it, because it’s a headache.
From what I have gathered, Brown naturally grew tired of the dynamic in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger, who I’ll get to, is known to maintain odd relationships with his receivers. One second you’d be left to believe that everything between Brown and Ben was great, and then, poof, that would change, and a report would come out such as this one, leading many to think differently.
I will be honest. At first, I didn’t agree with Brown. I thought his antics were extreme and it felt like he had given up on the team. Again, I don’t know or have the details, but his activity on social media led me to form a negative opinion on him, mainly because it seemed like he was ready to move on from a team he’d been apart of for so long. Too quick. It wasn’t right. The fan in me was not only bitter but hurt, because I, along with many others, had cheered Brown on for so many years.
But then I started to process it all a little more. I began to read into Roethlisberger and the Rooney’s, as well as Colbert, who started to address Brown’s reported trade request publicly. In time, I was able to see that Brown had a point.
First, it was Brown’s comments on Tomlin and Ben. I initially believed that to be bitterness on his part. Then, Colbert touched on the situation. It’s not hard to see where Brown is coming from, at least to some degree.
You don’t have to agree with how he expressed himself, but players should be entitled to that. If Brown feels as though the Steelers are blindly loyal to a player such as Ben Roethlisberger, it’s not ridiculous to form a similar opinion and, at the very least, understand why he was so adamant about it. The Steelers have backed their quarterback for years, through good and through very, very bad. But as soon as Bell hit 27 and wanted more money, and as soon as Brown got upset over a power struggle with his aging, banged up, and grumpy quarterback, they’re shipped out of town or let go. Sure, Brown asked for a trade, and yes, he may have had a hard time embracing JuJu Smith-Shuster’s rise to fame as an emerging number one receiver. Regardless of what side you’re on, Tomlin and the Steelers organization have been blatantly indebted to Ben for far too long, and I believe that Steelers people have — and would — go to the end’s of the earth to make Ben happy before any other player.
After a while, the bad taste in my mouth turned from sour to just plain rotten.
Ben Roethlisberger is seemingly impossible to cheer for. From this to this, to this, the man that is the Steelers starting quarterback lost me a long time ago. Football is heading in a brutal direction and has been for years. Ben is the epitome of that in many ways.
To many, none more so than the Steelers organization, he can do no wrong. He raped a woman and remained on the team, serving a six-game suspension that was reduced to four because that’s what the NFL represents. He almost killed himself on a motorcycle because he was careless and stupid and the Steelers did nothing about it. He’s called out teammates, including Brown and Bell on more than one occasion, and flirted with retirement after a disappointing playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, only to question why the Steelers drafted a quarterback, professing that Mason Rudolph would need to beat him out of the starting job before having any chance at making his NFL debut.
It’s become increasingly maddening to read about Ben’s accolades over the years because very little of that matters to me now. I was elated when the Steelers won two Super Bowls, but I was also quite young. I wasn’t exposed to or understood the magnitude of his actions off the field. I stopped cheering for him a long time ago.
Now, the Steelers are here. Bell is as good as gone, and the Brown trade will be made official in Oakland in the coming days. All the Steelers have to show for it are two draft picks — none being a first or second rounder — and $21 million in dead money owed to Brown who, by the way, will go from earning nothing in guaranteed money to $30.1 million next season. Surely, Bell will get some sort of compensation in terms of guaranteed cash when he signs a new deal elsewhere, but you can bet that the Steelers brass will comment on how this was “the best they could have done and hoped for with either player.”
Simply put, it’s pretty hard to make Jon Gruden and the Raiders look good these days. Pittsburgh managed to do the unthinkable.
It’s not a very fun time to be a Steelers fan. The organization went from rostering two of the most exciting players in franchise history to severing ties with both due to an eventual hatred between the player and coach/front office. Instead, the commitment goes to an often-injured quarterback that continues to get the benefit of the doubt from the front office and ownership. Tomlin has to be held accountable for his approach, which many lauded early on in his coaching tenure. It’s gradually evolved into a problem that has become more and more evident due to the underwhelming results on the field and lack of discipline off of it. The people in charge should be priding themselves on making better decisions for the present and future of the team. Once considered the second-best team in the AFC, the Steelers may not even be the second-best team in their division.
In a few hours, more football fans will wake up to the news of the Brown’s departure from Pittsburgh, and you can bet that some — perhaps many — will react by uttering something similar to this:
“What a headache he (Brown) was. I’m so happy the Steelers traded him.”
In most cases, the wording will be harsher, and less presentable. I’ve learned to not care as much about what others think, but when one of the organization’s best players leaves in this way, I can’t help but wish it had ended much differently.
The Steelers will open next season with Smith-Shuster as a building block to carry the torch; a terrific wide receiver in his own right. At only 21 years old, there’s more than a good chance that he ends up with his jersey in the rafters, too. But ultimately, that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — matter.
With these decisions, the Steelers are painting an obvious picture: Everything starts and ends with Ben Roethlisberger. He’s their guy. A once electrifying offense will be without two members that made people want to watch and not look away.
Now, looking away is all that I want to do.