The Steelers, ostensibly a bastion of organizational stability, grandeur, and Doing Things The Right Way, are currently in the midst of a multiyear implosion; we’re watching it unfold, mouths agape in terror, intermittently dodging jagged chunks of debris. Here is an insane combination of words that might convey some real truth: the Steelers are set to part ways with what are probably the two greatest offensive skill players in franchise history, both of whom are very much still in their prime, and the team might be better off as a result.
This isn’t necessarily to suggest that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were cancerous entities who were singlehandedly responsible for torpedoing the Steelers’ team chemistry and abating the team’s competitiveness and that, by cutting them loose, the remaining component parts will coalesce into a United Locker Room and regain their status as Respected Champions at the league’s pinnacle. This might be kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit true, but the only discernible reason the Steelers can withstand a talent exodus is because they have a star quarterback on their roster. Pittsburgh’s front office certainly recognizes this, which is why they’re allowing Bell to hit free agency, why they’ll apparently attempt to oblige Brown’s trade request, and why they reiterated their support for Ben Roethlisberger. This, from general manager Kevin Colbert:
Here’s the longer answer from Kevin Colbert on why he has “absolutely no problem” with Ben Roethlisberger publicly criticizing teammates. pic.twitter.com/ppw75kYhxK— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) February 20, 2019
This, of course, comes in response to Brown’s veiled criticism of Roethlisberger’s leadership capabilities, which presumably stemmed from comments Roethlisberger made publicly about Brown and some other Steelers receivers following a loss against Denver last season (and on numerous occasions before that). Roethlisberger took some flak for these comments at the time, but instead of backing off, he doubled-down and asserted that, as an experienced leader of men, he’s earned the right to rebuke his teammates with impunity, using whatever forum he chooses. Colbert, who is technically higher up than Roethlisberger on the organizational hierarchy and whose reign as general manager, barring some hellish calamity, will almost certainly outlast Roethlisberger’s remaining prime, essentially agreed.
Ben is definitionally the elder statesmen (he’ll turn 37 at the beginning of March, making him the oldest player on the team by at least a couple of years) and he, as Colbert correctly indicated, has won a Super Bowl—two of them, in fact. Put differently, Ben is both very experienced and very successful. But being experienced at a thing and having had success doing it does not automatically qualify someone as a great leader. Our society is replete with old, prosperous dudes, and it should come as no surprise that many of them are not good leaders. (If you glean nothing else from this article, I want your lone takeaway to be that many old and successful guys are not good leaders.)
I already lost some of you, and that’s fine. Say your piece in the comments. For those of you still with me, for the sake of transparency, I’ll allow that I’m fairly ambivalent about Ben Roethlisberger, and, as such, I’m not particularly fond of his penchant for using public forums to criticize teammates. Please save the counterarguments, as I am aware that he also regularly acknowledges his own liabilities and that, since I do not play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is no way for me to correctly interpret how Roethlisberger’s teammates regard his leadership style. Having said that, I appreciate what Ben has done, I’m thankful that his presence should enable the Steelers to remain competitive, and I certainly acknowledge his status as a historically great quarterback, but he strikes me as a crummy leader. Moreover, I think “unquestioned leader of this group” is open to some interpretation—is Ben the “unquestioned leader” because his impassioned presence and transformative vision rallies and inspires his teammates, or is he the “unquestioned leader” because everyone correctly recognizes that without him the Steelers are at best a 6-10 team and thus they begrudgingly but respectfully fall in line? Or maybe they’re afraid to challenge the status quo. The Steelers are prepared to jettison one of the five or ten best receivers in NFL history for speaking his piece—what choice does James Washington have but to remain passive?
But this all just my opinion, which is an opinion that obviously carries no significance whatsoever, and it’s one that’s based on a very limited understanding of how the Steelers function internally. Ben’s abrasive public persona could very easily be offset by him taking a gentler approach when handling matters privately, and it is entirely possible that he truly is the exceptional leader that Colbert makes him out to be. But if his leadership qualifications begin and end with “elder statesmen” and “Super Bowl winner,” it’s gonna be hard to envision free agents beating down the Steelers’ door to squad up, especially if the general manager plans to blithely infantilize them.