Is it possible? Is it really happening?
The Pittsburgh Steelers could be drama-free in 2019. They can focus on football and not the tears of highly paid and highly talented toddlers.
They are likely to shed a pair of divas in receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell will likely leave in free agency — Brown is trying desperately to force a trade. The Steelers also parted ways with offensive coordinator Todd Haley last year — he and Ben Roethlisberger were not getting along (which caused drama). And Haley’s tenure in Cleveland seemed to prove he’s a problematic character.
As the Steelers head into a hypothetical playoff game next season, they won’t have their star running back threatening to retire if his contract situation doesn’t get resolved. They won’t have their star receiver fighting with their quarterback and missing practices.
And if you’re one that really believes that drama doesn’t rock a locker room, look at what happened while Bell and Brown threw self-interested tantrums. In the same week that Bell made his retirement threats, the Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Steelers in the playoffs after the 2017 season. While Brown was skipping practices, the Steelers skidded and missed the playoffs in 2018. Instead of taking leadership roles and helping the team, these stars apparently created challenging — and perhaps toxic — work environments that must have played a role in Pittsburgh’s disappointing seasons.
Let’s not blame them for everything. Coach Mike Tomlin is in charge of getting them in line — he can’t seem to do that. Their defense isn’t just a work in progress — it looked more like a demolition zone at times. But it’s hard not to imagine a committed Bell and Brown changing the story for the Steelers in seasons when they missed the AFC championship by three points in 2017 and missed the playoffs by one win in 2018. If Bell and Brown had been more constructive in voicing their frustrations, how would things have changed for the Steelers in these last two seasons? I’d say the seasons would have changed enormously.
So it’s time for Pittsburgh to say good riddance.
It’s worth mentioning, before diving into the skill players that can replace Bell and Brown, how dominant the Steelers offense can be, and should be in the coming season. They will be essential in creating space for James Conner and time for Roethlisberger to distribute the ball to playmakers. And even without Bell and Brown, the Steelers have playmakers.
An offense centered around JuJu Smith-Schuster, Conner and James Washington should be just fine. Smith-Schuster, in particular, seems ready to ascend into a leadership role after winning the team’s MVP award in 2018 and speaking openly about embracing the No. 1 role for Pittsburgh in the event of Brown’s departure. He’s absolutely capable.
Aside from suffering an injury, Conner exceeded expectations last year and put together a season on par with Bell’s past performances. Running back Jaylen Samuels, an interesting pass-catching weapon, sits behind Conner on the depth chart. Samuels surprised with over 100 rushing yards against the Patriots while filling in for Conner. Samuels could be an interesting gadget player for Pittsburgh to better use next season.
Then there’s Washington, whose emergence will require a little more faith than the rest. While Smith-Schuster and Conner have production and leadership qualities, Washington hasn’t been wildly impressive. In his rookie season, Washington had 16 catches on 38 targets. That’s not ideal, which may be why Roethlisberger called out Washington for a drop after a loss to the Denver Broncos. Roethlisberger didn’t give a harsh assessment — just a blunt one. Washington dropped a ball he was supposed to catch that would have changed the game. It’s important to remember that Washington is 22 years old, and is a 2018 second-round pick. While at college at Oklahoma State, he showed a unique ability to separate, particularly in the deep game. There’s so much room for him to grow. In Pittsburgh, a place where they’ve done almost no wrong in developing young receivers, Washington should impress in 2019.
The offense will have growing pains. Brown should be much more challenging to replace than Bell was, largely because receivers are generally harder to replace than running backs. But the Steelers are equipped to do so. If they can bring in more defensive talent in the draft, they can begin to galvanize a unit around T.J. Watt, Cameron Hayward, Joe Haden and Javon Hargrave. If Tomlin gains more respect and Roethlisberger avoids conflict (something he struggled to do with Brown and Haley), the Steelers could find success in 2019, even in a competitive AFC North and even without Bell and Brown.