Fresh Eyes: Part III
Tevin Jones; Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com*
by Ivan Cole
Question # 3: Will the road to a championship in 2019 run through the Steelers wide receivers room?
A week or so ago this would be a somewhat over the top question, but not by much. If you subscribed to the idea that the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown would be critical factors in the ability of the Steelers to compete then there is some relevancy here. Additionally, the circumstances for the receivers would be different those for the running backs, who have already had to cope with the absence of Bell. This brought to bear a series of complex questions concerning how this group, with JuJu Smith-Schuster as the centerpiece, would respond.
And then Darryl Drake passed away.
Team dynamics are complicated and often difficult to comprehend because they are often based, in part, more on the mystical than the scientific. We know and usually accept without much question that concepts such as ‘chemistry’ and ‘momentum’ can result in an organism which operates at levels higher or lower than the sum of its individual parts. Those with extremely long memories of the Pittsburgh sports scene may recall the dynamics of the more successful Pirates teams of the Sixties. The 1960 World Champions were known for consistently creating late game rallies to produce ‘come from behind’ victories. Later in the decade, kangaroo courts and totems such as the famous ‘green weenie’ helped propel them to successful seasons.
Take a group which would be under considerable scrutiny and pressure heading into the season in the best case, a group which is frighteningly young (Smith-Schuster, a third-year grizzled veteran is still all of 22 years old,) and then decapitate its leadership and stir in a healthy portion of grief. Perhaps I am being an alarmist and the response will be that they will muddle through the season somehow, just another cog in the wheel of the 2019 team. But this group, more so than others, has the potential to either be galvanizing and heroic or to crash and burn, taking the rest of the team along for the ride either way.
A word or two about the villains.
Unwelcome as it is, at least we can thank Death for being less than cruel in its timing. Looking at things from a cold, football-focused perspective, there is time to digest the loss and move forward. We can have faith that the culture of the Steelers is such that it can absorb this blow and not mishandle the steps to recovery.
And then there is Antonio Brown.
A lot of anger, some appropriate to the circumstances, some not, is being thrown in his direction. I am inclined to have a more compassionate take on the situation.
In his comments after Pittsburgh’s first preseason game Head Coach Mike Tomlin noted that for rookie cornerback Justin Layne the moment was “too big” for him. I don’t believe Tomlin meant this comment as a permanent judgment against Layne. In a similar manner I believe that the space of fame and celebrity Brown currently occupies is too big for him and likely most people.
It is not my intent to completely absolve Brown from the consequences of his behavior. Wide receivers seem particularly resistant to the culture of sacrifice and interdependence so essential to team sports.* There are also questions surrounding the potential levels of narcissism undergirding the desire to be the focus of daily public attention. On the other hand, these are not entirely self-made monsters. They are people subjected to temptations and pressures that are probably difficult for the average person to imagine. Let’s take a very simple example involving a cup of coffee.
It can be such a simple but meaningful gesture; a way to bond or break the ice in a relationship accessible to everyone. But bring the element of celebrity into play and things can get complicated and ugly. Consider the conflicting forces of unearned privilege on the one hand and unfair obligation on the other. Who pays for the coffee? Outside of Starbucks this isn’t even a relevant question. Normally there is no protocol of who buys based on the ability to pay. However, it is not hard to imagine someone believing that one party in this “transaction” is too wealthy to accept the gesture from their companion without being thought of being exploitative. And all this assuming the proprietor of the establishment will allow for either to pay (unearned privilege) and this in an important way neuters the purpose of the gesture.
Then there is the specter of hidden costs (unfair obligation) maybe in the form of a request for a selfie or an autograph. Or the question of whether topics discussed are accorded appropriate confidentiality. Then there are the intrusions of others. The most innocuous and brief encounter is an uninvited intrusion, tolerable in small doses but no doubt wearing as a steady diet over time.
This introduces a blind spot and area of fan complicity that can contribute to the pathology—sense of ownership and voyeurism. A fan took umbrage this week that Brown hadn’t reached out to the Drake family. Of course, no one knows whether this is true or not. What the fan was really asserting was that there had been no action available for public consumption. And what would the purpose of that be? It should be noted that the one public statement made by the Drake family this past week was a plea to respect their privacy. What would be the assumption behind the belief that the public was entitled to knowledge of the communications which did or did not transpire between the Brown and Drake families? Could this not be interpreted by some to be like the Pharisee who had someone play a trumpet every time he committed a good deed?
But let’s be clear, none of the preceding excuses Brown from behaving like a jerk. Among the intriguing questions going forward is whether, absent the benefits of the strong guardrails the Steelers organization has provided over the years, how far off the rails is Brown capable of careening? I fear we will learn in due course whether we want to or not.
In Part I of this series I wanted to stimulate a meditation on how the absence of certain individuals from last year might adversely impact the team in 2019. With the passing of Coach Drake add another candidate to the list: Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The areas of strength and vulnerability among the receivers have been rather consistent over the past several years. Talent hasn’t really been a problem. Credit can be split between the front office with its acquisitions and Ben Roethlisberger, who demonstrates one of the most important traits of a true franchise quarterback—he makes the surrounding talent better. Of the receivers who have left the organization in recent years only Emanuel Sanders has managed to maintain or improve on his level of productivity, no doubt due in large measure to the fact that he joined another franchise quarterback, Peyton Manning. It will be of some interest to see if AB’s productivity maintains or improves in partnership with Derek Carr. (Assuming, of course, that Derek Carr ever gets the opportunity to throw him a pass…)
As has been the common for this time of the year, I would be comfortable with any combination of up to nine different receivers on the current roster. We can quibble over our individual preferences, but that is all they would be, quibbles about preferences.
There are two issues that need to be addressed and solved. The first is the question of how JuJu handles the challenges of being a number one receiver, and the cascading impact down the depth chart. Two immediate impressions—say what you will about AB, it is undeniable he has been producing at a Hall of Fame-caliber pace. So even outstanding production from Smith-Schuster could seem to be a drop off in the eyes of some. On the other hand, as mentioned before, JuJu is still very young and probably has a huge upside.
What will also be important is the support that comes from the other receivers. As of this writing James Washington would appear to be up to the challenge, but that was the case last year as well. From there it is a bunch of guys with plenty of promise but some question marks as well.
However, it is the second issue, exacerbated by the loss of Drake, that is even more important going forward—leadership. In this sense, while what he can contribute on the field is crucial, the most important role for Donte Moncrief may be off the field. JuJu may need more support in this regard at this point in the process than he does on the field.
*Interestingly, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher blames fantasy football for the selfish, diva-istic nature of wide receivers these days. He may have a point, although I seem to recall this sort of behavior not being completely unknown prior to the rise of fantasy football as a pastime for the average person, thanks to the easy access to information granted us by the internet. Although honestly it’s pretty difficult to imagine anything comparable to the Antonio Brown saga which is still unveiling happening 20 years ago.
And speaking of the opposite of a diva, both by position and personality:
Next up: Alejandro Villanueva