The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t a better team without Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
The pair of draft picks they received for trading Brown to the Raiders and the money saved by parting ways with Bell could be used to upgrade the roster. But at the moment, Pittsburgh just lost a two-time All-Pro running back and a four-time All-Pro receiver and don’t have much to show for it.
Brown, Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger were the “Killer B’s” for the Steelers. Then that relationship deteriorated and now Roethlisberger’s the only one left.
It’s hard to blame Bell much for leveraging his situation into a trip to free agency without racking up much mileage. It’s a little easier to blame Brown for his issues with the Steelers that flared up late in the 2018 season and involved public complaints about Roethlisberger, who contributed to the Killer B’s demise by throwing teammates under the bus.
Either way, that era for the Steelers is over. The bright side for them is that maybe, possibly, perhaps they’re finally going to stop being such a dramatic mess.
Bell’s contract dispute stirred up “there’s no I in team” attitudes
When Bell opted against showing up in time for Week 1 of the 2018 season, a few members of the Steelers were pissed.
Ramon Foster on Bell turning down nearly $1M a week to not be here: "In the ultimate team sport we’ve created a league of individuals."— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) September 5, 2018
Steelers teammates not happy with Le’Veon Bell no show, led by vet G Ramon Foster, their player rep:— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) September 5, 2018
“What do you do? here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess so we’ll treatit as such. I just hate it came to this. “
Maurkice Pouncey on Le’Veon Bell’s agent suggesting he’d like to know #Steelers plan for the RB this year: “That’s just stupid. You can’t play football like that.”— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 5, 2018
That sharp criticism of Bell — from a pair of NFLPA reps, no less — was surprising considering it’s not the running back’s fault the Steelers held him hostage with franchise tags. It’s a bit of a complicated situation, but it was clear there was a schism in the locker room.
When Bell didn’t show up before his November deadline to play under the tag, his locker was ransacked by his teammates — although some players said it was all in fun.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why players on the team, almost all of whom make much less than Bell, were annoyed by the running back passing on a $14.5 million paycheck and not trying to help them win games (in a season when they just barely missed the playoffs). It didn’t help either that he sat out all of preseason in 2017 for the same reason. On the other hand, Pittsburgh wouldn’t let him reach the open market and made terrible long-term contract offers. His best chance at avoiding damage before finally becoming a free agent was to stay off the field altogether.
But even if you’d call Bell blameless, the situation will be different with James Conner. He made a Pro Bowl in 2018, will turn 24 in May, and is due to make less than $1 million in years three and four of his rookie deal.
Eventually, Pittsburgh will have a decision to make about the Bell replacement, but that can wait. For now, there’s no gigantic contract demands to pit the haves against the have nots.
Brown called the Steelers’ leader into question
When Brown disappeared in Week 17 of the 2018 season, there was confusion about whether or not he was injured or AWOL. In the next couple months, Brown made it very clear that part of his problem was Roethlisberger.
No conflict just a matter of respect! Mutual respect! He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone. It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth https://t.co/MsSyBVd3Ny— Antonio Brown (@AB84) February 16, 2019
He elaborated further in an appearance on HBO’s The Shop in a conversation with LeBron James and others.
“That’s the type of guy that he is,” Brown said of Roethlisberger. “He thinks he’s the owner. Bro, you threw that shit to the D-line, how the fuck am I supposed to run a better route? You need to give me a better ball.”
That barb was in response to Roethlisberger criticizing Brown for not running a flat enough route in the end zone on a game-clinching interception against the Broncos.
These issues were brewing for a while. Two years before that, Brown ran into some trouble by secretly broadcasting a NSFW speech by Mike Tomlin in the locker room on Facebook Live. Brown also had a problem with Roethlisberger in 2017 when the quarterback didn’t throw to him on what would’ve been an easy touchdown. The quarterback publicly criticized his receiver for that too.
“I just think that this is causing a distraction that none of us really needs,” Roethlisberger said on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 the Fan.
Pittsburgh decided it’s fine with Roethlisberger’s role in the discord
Maybe the Steelers’ 37-year-old quarterback shouldn’t be stirring things up by hanging his teammates out to dry on the radio. That isn’t going to stop, though — especially after Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the other “52 kids” on the team would be wise to shut up and listen.
Kevin Colbert emphatically endorsed Ben Roethlisberger's leadership, citing impassioned speech at halftime in Jax as one example. Colbert won't curb Big Ben sharing opinions on radio b/c "Ben’s the elder statesman. If the players were smart, they’d listen to him. he’s been there"— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) February 20, 2019
That’s probably not how leadership should work. But now Brown is gone, and unless JuJu Smith-Schuster or another young player on the team starts taking issue with Roethlisberger’s comments, the conflict is probably gone too.
The Steelers are reportedly working on an extension with Roethlisberger, so they’re unsurprisingly hitching their trailer to the longtime starter until his career ends.
Even if you support Bell for chasing his pursuit of the open market, and even if you side with Brown over Roethlisberger, and even if you think Roethlisberger always points the finger at everyone but himself, there’s no denying that some locker room issues for the Steelers just got ironed out.
Conner probably isn’t as good as Bell, and Smith-Schuster probably isn’t going to outperform Brown. But the Steelers have a pair of capable replacements who have avoided bad press. Although it’s not quite a fresh start, for the first time in a while the narrative around the Steelers will be about the team on the field instead of all the drama off it.