A season of selfishness saw the Pittsburgh Steelers go from Super Bowl contenders to playoff pretenders.
Or should they simply be considered playoff contenders and Super Bowl pretenders?
The latest disruption came courtesy of Antonio Brown, with reports that he requested a trade after being benched against the Bengals for skipping practices and team meetings last week.
Brown isn’t the only one to blame for the Steelers turning UPMC Rooney Sports Complex into Dysfunction Junction, but his reported blowup with Ben Roethlisberger at a walkthrough last Wednesday no longer can be shrugged off as the franchise quarterback and All-Pro receiver having a spotty WiFi connection.
“I’m not the coach or the owner, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan (KDKA-FM). “I love Antonio. I wish him nothing but the best. I hope he’s back here with me because he makes me better.”
That’s the contradiction: Roethlisberger and Brown are the team’s biggest stars and most important players, and their success is dependent upon each other. But they had as much to do with the Steelers’ shortcomings this past season as they did their success.
Constant drama a distraction: The constant drama has been a distraction and should be a source of embarrassment to the Steelers and the Rooneys, a proud organization and football family who have won six Super Bowl championships.
The selfishness started long ago but has spiraled out of control this season, when Le’Veon Bell refused to play for the franchise tag. The Steelers players had to answer for an All-Pro who abandoned the team for a personal payday, and that created a chasm in their locker room.
Now, the Steelers are so splintered that players pointed to a lack of accountability and attention to detail for their struggles. One veteran blamed backyard football and a willingness to rely too often upon winging it as issues for the offense.
That’s a direct shot at Roethlisberger, who led the NFL in attempts, completions and passing yards — setting team records with 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns — but also threw a league-leading 16 interceptions. For as good as Roethlisberger was in the fourth quarters, he led the Steelers to only six first-quarter points in going 1-2-1 in the first four games.
Big Ben has also raised eyebrows: For all of the distractions created by Brown — from lashing out at reporters to his trade-me tweet on social media to being the subject of both a lawsuit and a 100 mph speeding ticket — Roethlisberger also raised eyebrows with some of his offseason comments and decisions.
Roethlisberger second-guessed the Steelers for drafting a quarterback, Mason Rudolph, in the third round, suggesting they could have used help at other positions even though they already had selected wide receiver James Washington and offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor.
When Roethlisberger left voluntary OTAs for a family vacation, Brown followed suit. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, those were viewed as selfish acts. But Nos. 7 and 84 answer to no one in the Steelers’ organization, often acting as if they are bigger than the team, and that selfishness has a trickle-down effect on a locker room.
Tomlin, Colbert, Rooney all complicit: Shrug that off as superstar treatment, if you will, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is unapologetic about allowing a level of latitude for his superstar players. But superstars are supposed to win Super Bowls, and Roethlisberger and Brown have yet to win one together.
That has occurred on the watch of not just Tomlin but also general manager Kevin Colbert and president Art Rooney II. So, they all are complicit for allowing the circus to continue as long as it has, and if a change is to occur it must start from the top down.
The emotional response would be to make major changes, from firing Tomlin to trading Brown. But Tomlin is a good coach who never has had a losing season in 12 years with the Steelers, and Brown had 104 catches for 1,297 yards and an NFL-best 15 touchdown receptions.
“I’m blessed to play with him,” Roethlisberger said. “I owe so much of my success to him. … I think we’re frustrated because we want AB to play because he makes us all better. He had an amazing season this year, and he makes me who I am and makes all of us better.”
Trading Brown? Trading Brown might seem like a solution as he likely would fetch a first-round draft pick, if not two, and the Steelers have a knack for finding diamonds in the draft at wide receiver. But the Steelers struggled to replace Martavis Bryant as a No. 3 receiver this season, so you can imagine the difficulty of accounting for Brown’s production.
But that’s not the biggest problem. The Steelers can’t afford to trade Brown as it makes no sense for their salary cap. He accounts for a $21.12 million dead-cap hit next season, according to spotrac.com. Roethlisberger also enters the final year of his contract, so he and Brown could be bound together for at least one more season with the Steelers.
And they should be, given that they give the Steelers their best shot at winning a seventh Super Bowl. Repairing the relationship is easier than replacing a pair of future Hall of Famers who will go down as the most prolific players at their positions in franchise history. What a shame it would be if their legacy doesn’t include a Lombardi Trophy together.
Rooney needs to make it clear to Colbert and Tomlin and everyone else on the Steelers that the selfishness that sabotaged this season no longer will be tolerated. If that mandate doesn’t start with their superstars, it never will end with winning another Super Bowl.