Bryant has only himself to blame
My lasting image of the Steelers' playoff loss in Denver wasn't Fitzgerald Toussaint's costly fourth-quarter fumble.
No, it was the scene afterward in the visitors locker room as the despondent running back sat in his stall, his pads and uniform still on even 25 minutes after the Steelers' season had ended.
Without boom mics present or cameras rolling, Toussiant was quietly comforted by the much-taller teammate seated next to him, a player who had known his own share of hard times last season.
"Keep his head up," was the advice of Martavis Bryant on Jan. 23. "Know that all the fans are going to give him a lot of negativity.
"I've been through a lot this year as well. My situation was a lot worse than his. I got through mine and he'll get through his."
Here's hoping Bryant can get through his latest situation, a reported year-long ban after multiple violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy (Bryant's agent says the punishment is for missed, not failed tests). If that scene in a corner of a locker room in Denver isn't a lasting image of Bryant in a Steelers uniform, perhaps it should be. Although an appeal will be filed, it's doubtful we see the supremely talented, but troubled, star wide receiver on a football field anytime soon.
Sadly, Saturday's news hardly comes as a surprise. That went out after Bryant was suspended four games last September for previous drug policy violations.
Certainly it wasn't a surprise to the Steelers who were compelled to draft Sammie Coates in the third round last spring as insurance against such a scenario. That also explains why the Steelers handed Darrius Heyward-Bey a three-year contract last week after giving the wide receiver only one-year deals the previous two seasons. Or maybe it's why the Steelers were so quick to shell out $20 million to land tight end Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency.
A possibly enormous loss: The loss of Bryant would be enormous — there's no sugar-coating it — but the Steelers offense should get by without. They've got Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to go along with Coates, Heyward-Bey and Green.
The concern should be about Martavis Bryant, the person, not the football player. How does a 24-year-old with the world in his hands throw it all away for a cheap high?
The Steelers organization has bent over backwards for Bryant, supporting him publicly through last fall's suspension. He's been shown tough love by Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger -- remember the quarterback's "challenge" before the wild-card game at Cincinnati? -- and given encouragement by Antonio Brown and receivers coach Richard Mann. But, not even a stint in a Houston rehab center seems to have gotten through.
Mostly, Saturday's news is disappointing. And that is, as any kid who can remember being punished by their parents, a fate far worse than anger.
Thing is, Bryant isn't a bad kid. Just a kid with some real-world problems like so many other young men. Behind the tattooed exterior, is actually a very quiet, shy kid who Roethlisberger called a little brother. That same guy who showed remarkable maturity in consoling Toussaint was the same guy who a few weeks earlier was signing autographs at a Chippewa car dealership to help raise funds for an Ellwood City girl who received a multiple-organ transplant.
Sure, you can argue that marijuana laws are inconsistent or that Bryant shouldn't be punished more than, you know, actual criminals like Greg Hardy. And you'd have a point. A moot point, but a point.
The NFL plays by its own rules and it's Bryant's job to adhere to them. I was reminded of that when I interviewed Bam Morris in January for another story. The former Steeler had a message for the current team's headache.
"You're in a position to make a lot of money," said Morris, whose career was effectively ended by drug use. "You're in a position to do a lot of great things for a lot of great people. Playing football is a privilege. I didn't realize that until I got older. To make it there, it's a privilege to play. And it's a job and you have to treat it as such."
Bryant has to help himself: When Bryant reported to his first training camp he was still getting work done on a tattoo of the NFL shield with the words "fourth round" on his torso. Asked if it was odd to celebrate a mid-round selection, Bryant said he used the sleight as motivation.
But for all his on-field talent, the size, the speed, Bryant is fulfilling some of those dire pre-draft prognostications as a ne'er-do-well.
Any player, no matter how good, isn't worth the trouble if suspended 20 of 32 games as Bryant is facing. Maybe in Cleveland where the Josh Gordon circus is welcome, but not in Pittsburgh. Ask Bam Morris. Or Santonio Holmes.
That's not to suggest that Bryant can't still have a career or even a Hall of Fame career.
Cris Carter, another fourth rounder, was let go after his first three seasons in Philadelphia amid drug problems. That, despite recording 19 touchdowns and prompting Buddy Ryan to famously say that "all Cris Carter does is catch touchdowns."
The same knock has been lobbed at Bryant, who has 14 touchdowns in just two seasons, but he's shown that he is capable of more.
Maybe it is time for the Steelers to give Bryant the treatment the Eagles gave Carter 26 years ago. Again, not a bad guy, but a guy in need of help.
But not the Steelers, nor anyone else, can help Bryant until he's willing to help himself.