Now that the NFL Draft, the zenith of the league’s offseason proceedings, has come and gone, we’re left looking ahead to training camp, which seems like a lifetime away. To keep you engaged during this slow period—a period in which no news is certainly good news—we’re taking an in-depth, alphabetized look at the Pittsburgh Steelers; what they’ve done, where they are now, and where they’re headed. Through these semi-weekly musings, we’ll uncover and unpack some of the interesting storylines from last season and apply them to 2018. Last time, we discussed apathy, aspirations, and Alejandro Villanueva. This time, we’re focusing on birds, bees, and big babies.
As a circumlocutory means of getting around to discussing Ben Roethlisberger’s cantankerous remarks about rookie/potential heir quarterback Mason Rudolph, let’s start with a story about Brett Favre. In 2004, Favre, then a spry 35-year-old, guided the Green Bay Packers to a 10-6 record, made the Pro Bowl, and finished in the top five in the NFL in yards and touchdowns and in the top 10 in virtually every other meaningful, measurable quarterbacking category (to add an irrelevant—but remarkable and amazing—statistic, Favre was sacked only 12 times in 2004, which is impossibly ridiculous). That season, Favre’s 13th as a member of the Packers, culminated in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Wild Card game, a game that is best remembered as the one in which Randy Moss pretended to moon Lambeau Field’s crowd but is also notable because Favre threw four interceptions and subsequently hemmed and hawed about his playing future in his post-game press conference.
Favre ultimately decided against retirement and returned for his 14th season with the Packers. Joining Favre was Craig Nall, a career-backup and fellow Good Ol’ Boy from the deepest reaches of the American Southeast, as well as Aaron Rodgers, a prodigiously-talented rookie from the University of California who after an unpredictable and calamitous tumble down draft boards ended up falling in Green Bay’s lap at the bottom of the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. The Packers could not have been more delighted. Keeping Favre in town was a pleasant surprise—one that safeguarded their short-term competitiveness—but drafting Rodgers, a possible franchise quarterback who many scouts thought should’ve gone no. 1 overall, was the kind of fortuitous happening that could keep the franchise on a winning track for another 15 years.
But Favre did not share their enthusiasm, and he certainly had no interest promoting the development of his replacement: “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play; now hopefully he watches me and gets something from that,” Favre told reporters back in 2005. Rodgers would have to figure out all this quarterbackin’ stuff on his own—and he did, but not before Favre played three more seasons in Green Bay, throwing a poetically-fitting game-ending interception in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship in what was his final play in a Packers uniform.
Now, I don’t want to put the horse before the cart and explicitly claim that the Favre/Rodgers situation runs parallel to the one unfolding in Pittsburgh between Roethlisberger and Rudolph, but I do think there are a number of interesting similarities. On three separate occasions last season, Roethlisberger publicly hinted at retirement, much like Favre did after the 2004 playoff loss to Minnesota, ensuring that a 2017 campaign full of promise was also suffused with overtures of discomfort and the necessary “Is this gonna it it for Ben?” narratives. Notable, too, is the fact that Roethlisberger and Rudolph don’t seem to be particularly chummy yet. (In invoking the Rodgers/Favre story, I, for the sake of brevity, regrettably omitted some incredible vignettes from the early days of Rodgers’ tenure in Green Bay, which included him calling Favre “grandpa” and bragging that he dusted Favre in Wonderlic testing, so perhaps Favre was justified in his disdain, but I’ll digress.) It is also worth mentioning that, while Rudolph isn’t assumed to be the kind of franchise-altering player that Rodgers was, the Steelers did place a first-round grade on him, which could indicate that they might view him as being that kind of dude. (It is also possible—if not probable—that the Steelers pushed the Steelers have a first-round grade on Rudolph story in order validate their decision in drafting Rudolph in the first place, but I’ll digress once again.)
That Roethlisberger, like Favre, went from contemplating retirement and weighing his career one season at a time to assuring the Steelers that he’d like to play for another three or four or five years is excellent news if you’re a Steelers fan, but the timing of the “announcement” is awfully expedient. I’m not operating under any illusions that Roethlisberger or Favre or any other quarterback should serve as a one-man welcoming committee when their teams enlist their potential replacements, but I think it would be, like, neighborly for Roethlisberger to keep his fussy observations about his new teammate to himself. In addition to questioning Pittsburgh’s decision in drafting Rudolph and claiming that Rudolph better get used to riding pine, Roethlisberger, speaking to 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, offered his own version of Favre’s “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play” comment: “I don’t think I’ll need to [take Rudolph under my wing] now that he’s said that he doesn’t need me. So if he asks me a question, I might have to just point to the playbook, you know?”
Such a damning indictment of Rudolph deserves proper context. On the day he was drafted by the Steelers, Rudolph told the NFL Network that it wasn’t Roethlisberger’s job to “teach him anything,” which was not so much a verbal bomb against Roethlisberger as it was a unfortunately-phrased mishmash of gobbledygook uttered by an excited 22-year-old. Probably what Rudolph meant was that he, now a professional quarterback, didn’t want to burden a fellow professional quarterback with teaching him the ropes. Perhaps this was Rudolph’s own roundabout way of telling the team he will be a responsible, self-accountable professional. If Roethlisberger was insulted by this, then he needs to lighten up. If he was confused, he should’ve contacted Rudolph himself to seek some clarification.
This is all par for the course for Ben Roethlisberger, who has a demonstrated penchant for throwing teammates and coaches under the bus. Of course, having delivered a pair of Super Bowl trophies already and keeping Pittsburgh in annual contention for another affords Roethlisberger the ability to make whatever claims he wants to make with impunity, but that shouldn’t excuse him for being a whiny old curmudgeon.
I personally will be circling training camp on my calendar, because I am eager to see how this relationship unfolds. To conclude this section, I’d like to point out that we didn’t even make it one week after the draft before Steelers drama permeated the national discourse. Very on-brand for the Steelers.
While one member of the vaunted Killers Bs is spending his offseason complaining to Pittsburgh’s most annoying sports personalities about his new backup, the others have maintained comparatively low profiles. Le’Veon Bell remains active on Twitter, but his feed doesn’t contain nearly as many cryptic subtweets about his playing status as it did a year ago. Antonio Brown posts the occasional workout video, but his online presence is heavily rooted in branding and straightforward musings about LeBron James, Jason Witten, and wait, is that Antonio Brown gulping down a half-dozen raw eggs?
It is indeed and I could barf for real. So gross.
The remaining Killer B, Martavis Bryant—whose association with the Bs was more name-based than production-based—was shipped to Oakland on draft night for a third-round pick, a rare trade that actually and tangibly benefits both constituents of the transaction. The relationship between Bryant and the Steelers has been very bad and very poisonous for more than a year, and this mutual dissatisfaction was very likely on track to push Bryant out the door following this season, anyway, so getting a high draft pick—one that was used to select Rudolph—is about as advantageous as the Steelers could’ve hoped.
But there is no denying that Bryant would’ve played a significant role in Pittsburgh’s offense this season. Even if Bryant isn’t actively contributing to the offense—which was often the case in 2017, as evinced by Bryant’s 50/603/3 receiving statline—he is among the league’s most effective decoys. It is no coincidence that Brown’s worst statistical season occurred with Bryant sitting at home, suspended for the season for failing multiple drug tests, and that Brown, in the 36 games in which Bryant has lined up opposite from him, has been perhaps the most prolific receiver in league history.
It is true that Bryant, a physical marvel with limitless potential, did not transform into the kind of every-down game-changer that everyone thought he would become after he scored eight touchdowns and averaged 22 yards per catch in a truncated rookie campaign, but it is also accurate to say that Bryant made unseen, impossible-to-quantify contributions that will make him exceedingly difficult to replace. The Killer Bs will march ahead unabated, but the Steelers are going to miss Martavis Bryant very dearly in 2018.
The Steelers are 11-1 against the rest of the AFC North over the past two seasons, which is a Patriots-esque run of intra-division dominance. However, since the AFC North became a thing in 2002, no team has ever claimed the division crown three seasons in a row. That’s an unsettling realization if you’re a fan of the Steelers, who won the division in 2016 and 2017.
Listen here. The Baltimore Ravens are going to be a problem in 2018. I can feel it in my bones. Nothing about their roster sticks out as being especially imposing, and Joe Flacco hasn’t played particularly well since 2013, and John Harbaugh is no longer an elite football genius, but I am concerned nonetheless. Because Baltimore hasn’t had a serviceable NFL receiver since Steve Smith retired, they signed John Brown, Willie Snead, and Michael Crabtree. That is a good trio! This group is gonna cause some problems for bad secondaries!
Speaking of secondaries, Baltimore’s is good! Tavon Young, who starred as a slot corner as a rookie, missed the 2017 season after blowing his knee out in the preseason. He will be back Jimmy Smith’s Achilles tendon exploded last December, but might be ready to go for the season opener. At worst, he should be just fine to play against Pittsburgh. Marlon Humphrey had an up-and-down rookie reason, but he was a first-round pick so his professional ceiling remains high.
Frankly, these are all moot points, anyway. The Ravens once defeated a full-strength Steelers team despite sticking Ryan Mallett under center, so I cannot say I’d be shocked if Robert Griffin III tossed a game-winning touchdown to Chris Moore with zeroes on the clock in Week 4 or Week 9.