The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2018 season expecting to reach the playoffs, per usual, in part because of star running back Le’Veon Bell and star receiver Antonio Brown. By the end, they had neither player, and not because of injury. It was a fair enough representation why, for the first time in half a decade, January will go on without the black and gold.
Now Steelers coach Mike Tomlin needs to steady the unusually uncertain ship or his 13th season in Pittsburgh could be trouble, despite eight playoff appearances and one Super Bowl title for a franchise that is generally loathe to change coaches.
Or put it this way: the divisional rival Cleveland Browns, despite not even having a head coach, suddenly appear less dysfunctional. When was the last time that was true?
The latest challenge for Tomlin is his relationship with Brown, which has deteriorated into no relationship at all.
Tomlin effectively benched him Sunday after Brown didn’t show up for a couple of meetings Saturday, was non-communicative about why and reportedly had some kind of midweek dispute with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers managed to beat Cincinnati anyway, but their 9-6-1 finish wasn’t enough for the postseason.
It was a microcosm of the season, where a franchise that so often operates smoothly, was rocked by tumult and turmoil. Bell never showed up, preferring to sit out the entire season in an effort to sign a big contract this offseason. By the end of the year, Brown was gone too.
First, Brown and Roethlisberger got into it at practice. Since this is football and such things are fairly common, it shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Apparently it was.
The Steelers listed Brown as injured, but who knows if he really was. Tomlin told reporters Wednesday that he sent Brown for an MRI but the receiver never showed. He was MIA on Saturday too and the coach couldn’t get him on the phone for an explanation. When Brown’s agent called Tomlin on Sunday as said AB was indeed healthy enough to play, Tomlin said he told him to forget it.
“We don’t operate like that,” Tomlin said. “Playing wasn’t on the menu.”
Brown came to Heinz Field anyway. He spoke to Tomlin, who encouraged him to stick around and support his teammates. The Steelers hadn’t been eliminated from the playoffs at that point, after all. Everything was still on the table, Brown apparently left at halftime. And that was that.
Brown didn’t come to a season-ending meeting and has communicated only via social media, his preferred medium. Tuesday he posted a smiling picture of himself with a declaration that included: “My options may seem limited by people or circumstances. It is then that I remind myself I am in command of my attitude.”
“We take his lack of communication and lack of presence on Saturday as something to be very significant,” Tomlin said. “I’m not going to speculate on trades and things of that nature. I’m not going to speculate where discipline might go. Just know it will be addressed and needs to be addressed.
Tomlin was asked if Brown quit on his teammates.
“You can call it what you want,” he said.
Sure, here’s what it’s called: Brown quit on his teammates.
Tomlin was right to sit him on Sunday. That said, it’s now the coach’s job, fair or not, to fix the Steelers, either by mending a tattered relationship or finding some kind of trade value in a talent that the offense desperately needs if it is going to salvage anything from the final year(s) of Roethlisberger.
Brown is difficult. He isn’t the first player to be difficult and there are undoubtedly many unknown variables at play here. It certainly doesn’t speak well for the culture of the program when two star players basically quit, seeing no value in playing for the rest of the locker room, let alone their coach.
Pittsburgh is going to struggle to rebound in 2019, especially if both its star running back and receiver walk out the door. Yet there remains too much potential here to let it implode.
How Tomlin manages that is anyone’s guess. He’s barely communicating with Brown and Brown is apparently not communicating back at all.
AB is worth more in Pittsburgh than whatever someone will trade for him. Despite skipping the finale, he delivered a career-high 15 touchdowns. While there is no question he can change an offense, how much is some team willing to gamble on him? Oakland got a first-round pick from Dallas for wideout Amari Cooper, but Cooper, 24, is six years Brown’s junior and known for an exemplary attitude.
Pennies on the dollar won’t cut it.
Whether Tomlin can even get Antonio Brown to speak with him remains to be seen. Both have a lot of pride. Both also have a lot on the line.
Pittsburgh is, generally, the most stable of franchises, with steady leadership and team-first players contending, if not capturing, championships deep into winter.
Well, winter is here and so is some uncommon hardship. How Mike Tomlin decides to handle Antonio Brown, one way or the other, may determine everyone’s future.
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