INDIANAPOLIS — After Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert spoke to the three-deep throng of media that awaited him Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, it was apparent that Colbert came to the session with two main goals:
1. Do his best to tamp down the near-certainty of an Antonio Brown trade, in hopes of making interested teams ante up.
2. Convince the media that all the “drama” in Pittsburgh this past year was an aberration and overblown.
“I really don’t agree with the perception that there’s huge drama within the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room,” Colbert said. “Again, Coach [Mike] Tomlin treats our players like men. He gives them the opportunity to be a man, and he tries to grow them — not only as professional football players — but as fathers, as brothers, as men.
“So I have complete disagreement with the perception our locker room is anything but very functional.”
Technically, Colbert is probably correct about the “functional” part. After all, Pittsburgh — which is historically one of the most respected and well-run organizations in professional football — finished over .500 (9-6-1), and this was a down season. But everyone can see that no other organization in the NFL had more of the dreaded “distractions” in 2018 than the Steelers.
From the Brown meltdowns, to running back Le’Veon Bell’s year-long holdout, there was always something happening in Pittsburgh, and it all added up to the type of turmoil that eventually takes the focus off the franchise’s main focus: winning football games.
Current Steelers players and coaches would never readily admit that. They are professionals, which means they’re paid to do their job, regardless of the outside influence. But with every media firestorm, every weird story — and yes, the midseason ransacking of Bell’s locker is right up there on the list of strangest NFL stories I’ve ever seen — what the Steelers seemed to need most was stronger leadership amid the storm.
And it’s not just me who believes that, as longtime, respected former Steeler receiver Hines Ward basically said as much on the Yahoo NFL Podcast.
“For Pittsburgh, with all the talent they have, they beat [the] Patriots in [the] regular season and to miss the playoffs? That’s a reflection of the head coach and the players,” Ward said. “It’s not just all about A.B. and his shenanigans.”
Meanwhile, James Harrison, another longtime, respected Steeler, also hinted that Tomlin and the team captains need to do a better job, collectively, instilling discipline.
“Players police themselves to a certain extent, then you have people they look up to that are supposed to be appointed leaders of those men,” Harrison said. “But at the same time, you have guys above them — the head coach — and it has to be from the top down. Once you do that, I think it’s easier to have a common ground.”
So yes, those hoping to see order restored to the Steelers once Bell and Brown — their two biggest distractions — move on this offseason must first understand that the Steelers’ culture issues go deeper than that. Colbert refused to publicly acknowledge the amount of drama the Steelers were forced to navigate this past season, but I’ll trust the opinions of Ward and Harrison, who both played many years under Tomlin and understand the inner workings and culture of the place.
“We’ve got to have some rules and regulation from Mike Tomlin to delegate down to the players to know that one player is not more important than the team,” Ward said.
This can be accomplished by enforcing discipline equally across the board, said Ward, who even contrasted Tomlin’s decision to fine Brown for broadcasting a postgame celebration on Facebook Live — “a major no-no, and all he got was a fine?” Ward exclaimed — to Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s decision to bench star cornerback Malcolm Butler for the 2018 Super Bowl.
This also means reining in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be only more empowered with the impending jettison of Brown and Bell, the team’s other two megawatt stars. To Ward, Roethlisberger didn’t help himself or the team with his open critiques of Brown and other receivers during his weekly radio show, which violated an unspoken team rule when he played and set a bad example for younger players.
“You’ve got that ‘C’ on your chest and you’re calling people out in the media? What are the younger guys gonna do — call people out,” Ward said. “Think about it. Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up to camp; what’s the first thing the offensive linemen did? Talked about his money.”
Colbert unintentionally undercut any notions of reining in Roethlisberger when he said the quarterback has “52 kids under him” and that “if our players were smart, they’d listen to him” a week ago. Colbert clarified those comments Wednesday, adding that it was a simple reference to the fact Roethlisberger is the only Steeler remaining from their last Super Bowl team.
From it all, Colbert seemed to understand that if anything, the Bell and Brown situations — whether he wanted to acknowledge the turmoil or not — highlighted the need for internal organizational improvement, especially as it relates to managing big personalities.
“It’s a different world, social media has changed things, branding has changed things,” Colbert said. “So we have to do a better job of managing these young players as they grow into megastars, and that’s something I think we’re learning on the fly. It’s a little more relevant this year, obviously, because of Le’Veon’s situation and Antonio’s situation.
“But the lesson is, maybe we’ve got to catch these guys when they’re young, and again, Coach Tomlin is great at cultivating a young player into a young man.”
Colbert, from my vantage point, is still right about that, as Tomlin is still one of the league’s best coaches.
But if the Steelers are going to get back to their previous (and largely drama-free) glory in 2019 without two stars in Brown and Bell, it’s also clear it will take everyone in the organization’s leadership structure — starting with Colbert and ranging from Tomlin and his assistants to Roethlisberger — to step up, hold each other accountable and set the best example possible.
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