Sticking to Sports: What is going on in Pittsburgh?

by Sam Stockton | 9/24/18 2:15am

Sticking to Sports: What is going on in Pittsburgh?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a mess. The season started with a tie in Cleveland against a Browns team that earned its first win since Christmas Eve, 2016 last Thursday night. Then Patrick Mahomes lit them up for six touchdowns and 42 points, leaving them 0-1-1 heading to Tampa to face a suddenly red-hot Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers. The Steelers’ star running back is currently holding out and appears unlikely to be part of the team after this season. Their star wide receiver did not show up to work last Monday.

The drama in Pittsburgh begins with the team’s four principal actors: head coach Mike Tomlin, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Unquestionably, all are among the best in the league at their jobs, yet their assorted off-field baggage seems an undeniable component of their on-field struggle.

Let’s start at the top with Tomlin, who took over the Steelers in 2007. Tomlin has done something few National Football League coaches ever approach: making his team a perennial contender over a lengthy period. Most NFL coaches never turn their teams into legitimate championship contenders; even fewer are able to do that on a year-over-year basis. Beyond New England, the obvious gold standard of sustained success in a salary-cap-restricted sport, the Steelers probably represent the most consistently successful NFL franchise of the 21st century, most of which has happened under Tomlin’s watch. In his 11 seasons, he has guided the Steelers to the playoffs eight times. He has won one Super Bowl, been to another and never won fewer than eight games in any season.

And yet, for all the on-field success, there is something decidedly un-Patriot like in the Tomlin Steelers, at least for the past few seasons. The Steelers create distractions for themselves in ways that the Patriots under Bill Belichick never would, and when you consider Belichick’s record against Pittsburgh, it becomes difficult to argue that there is no on-field correlation whatsoever. Whether it was Mike Mitchell declaring that the Steelers would romp over the Patriots in the AFC title game, only to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars the week before and cost themselves the chance to even play New England, or Antonio Brown going on Facebook live in the locker room after a win, the Steelers routinely exhibit off-field antics that seem antithetical to the comportment of a consistent NFL winner (i.e. that of the Patriots). A head coach’s job includes focusing his team and eliminating distractions and “bulletin board material” for opponents; here, Tomlin seems to be falling short.

Then you have Ben Roethlisberger. While Roethlisberger has never been the best quarterback in the NFL, he has been in the top tier of quarterbacks around the league for years. However, as with Tomlin, there are at least a few questions about the personality of the Pittsburgh signal caller. I would like to keep Roethlisberger’s legal issues out of this conversation not to diminish their significance, but instead to focus on matters that I feel more equipped to discuss. Foremost, while Big Ben is certainly an incredibly tough football player, his tendency to break out the walking boot after seemingly every loss seems exaggerated. It feels like time to give the narrative that Roethlisberger constantly plays through extreme injury a break. Again, I don’t doubt that Roethlisberger has played through injuries that would leave me bed-ridden for weeks, but at a certain point, this constant mention of some nagging injury, particularly after losses, has grown tiresome.

Beyond those two, there is the Steeler who has yet to get his season started: Le’veon Bell. Bell is holding out for more than his current $14.5-million franchise tag contract. By rule, if Bell does not rejoin the team by Week 11, he will not become a free agent this offseason as he otherwise would. The prevailing wisdom surrounding Bell is that he will rejoin the Steelers at that point and accept a prorated $6 million, while saving the wear on his body and then signing elsewhere in the offseason. By all means, this is well within Bell’s right. It is his body in question, and if he feels he is not being duly compensated, he should sit out. That said, it will be interesting to see if Bell, who plays what is arguably the least valuable non-special teams position in today’s NFL, will ever get the payday he is seeking on the free agent market. More interesting is Bell’s teammates’ reaction to his holdout. Veteran Steelers guard Ramon Foster had this to say on Bell, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: “What do you do? Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess, so we’ll treat it as such. I just hate it came to this.” Foster added, “He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as [tackle Alejandro Villenueva] is making, and we’re the guys who do it for him.” It is incredibly rare to see an NFL player comment, particularly in a judgmental fashion, on the contract of one of his teammates. To see a lineman do it about a running back to whom he dedicates his hard work is unthinkable and further illustrates the fact that perhaps this particular group of personalities simply isn’t destined for success.

Lastly, we have Antonio Brown. Without a doubt, Brown is one of the three best wideouts in football. His deft footwork makes him one of the league’s best route runners. Heading into this season, since 2015, he has just seven drops on 512 targets, an absolutely silly figure. However, Brown’s actions also prompt questions about whether his personality is hurting his team’s on-field success. Last year, he had his Facebook live incident. Already this season, he has threatened a reporter who wrote an investigative piece on his personal life, then posted a cryptic tweet some construed as demanding a trade, and then failed to show up for work after the disappointing loss against Kansas City. To put it simply, this just doesn’t happen in New England ­­— or if it does, those perpetrating it do not last.

But what about the team as a whole? As intriguing as it can be to discuss these four key components of the team, it is the overall success of the team upon which it must ultimately be judged. The Steelers could go on to win the Super Bowl this year, rendering all this speculation about the personalities of their stars trivial. However, when I look at the Steelers as a team, the issue seems to lie in their identity, or lack thereof, and that makes me fairly confident that this will not be the team to bring a seventh Lombardi to Pittsburgh.

A successful team, regardless of sport, has a particular means through which it dictates the terms of the game and sets itself up for success. This is what I mean by identity, the formula a team uses to win games. Classic Pittsburgh Steeler football connotes physical defense and a downhill running game. This hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh for several years. The Steelers have struggled on defense for some time now, and their offense relies heavily on Ben Roethlisberger’s backyard playmaking with his talented receiver group. To the extent that this constitutes an identity, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable one. When you couple that with what seems to be a dysfunctional array of personalities amongst their leading men, it seems Steeler fans are in for a long season.