Ben Roethlisberger has delivered two Super Bowls to Pittsburgh—and given the collective aptitude of the remaining component parts of the Steelers roster, and that Roethlisberger himself is still playing at an extremely high level, it is not outside the realm of possibility that he wins a third as his career moves toward its eventual twilight. Barring some obscenely fortuitous circumstances in an upcoming draft, he’s the best Steelers quarterback I will see in my lifetime. What I’m getting at is that Big Ben is perceived as a legitimate folk hero, and as such, he’s unassailable and beyond reproach. His former contemporaries...not so much.
Antonio Brown’s departure from the Steelers was clearly foretold first by what were at the time a series of out-of-character exploits and then ultimately by dumping on Roethlisberger, head coach Mike Tomlin, and general manager Kevin Colbert as part of a month-long bridge-burning media tour. The onset of Le’Veon Bell exodus was less sudden—we knew Bell and the Steelers were headed for a divorce from the moment he declined to sign with them long-term last summer, so Bell signing with the Jets earlier this month was merely the actualization of an anticipated reality—and Bell’s public sentiment had been largely bereft of the acrimony that Brown exhibited. However, speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas, Bell was almost refreshingly direct, indicating that Roethlisberger “was a factor” in his decision to leave the Steelers and subtly denouncing the team for restricting his personal liberties. These are interesting points, so let’s actually grab them and expand on them a bit.
Stock up: Blaming the quarterback for stuff
Erstwhile Steelers teammates casting aspersions on Ben Roethlisberger is absolutely nothing new—in addition to Brown’s and Bell’s recent critical remarks, former running back Josh Harris claimed that Big Ben fumbled a handoff intentionally to protest play-call with which he disagreed and Hines Ward, who played with Roethlisberger for a decade, once suggested that Ben ought to make some revisions to his leadership style. Now, I’m not here to tell you that four negative opinions from four former teammates should serve as damning indictments of Ben Roethlisberger The Teammate, because they shouldn’t, but at a certain point it’s worth acknowledging that numerous parties decrying Roethlisberger, particularly his laurels as a teammate and team leader, cannot be entirely coincidental. With that, I proffer this take: You—whether you be a fan of the Steelers, a general Football Knower, or a follower of dramatic goings-on—can think that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are contentious bridge-burners who have absolutely no business calling the qualifications of a teammate into question and you can think that Ben Roethlisberger is a crummy teammate. These are not mutually exclusive concerns.
Here is my take/conspiracy theory: Yes, Bell and Brown both probably sincerely think Ben Roethlisberger sucks as a person, and there probably is veracity to their statements about Ben’s character, but I believe both are merely deploying him as a convenient talisman in order to distract everyone from the fact that their primary foci was simply getting wealthier.
Stock up: Blaming the city/organization for stuff
Consider this compelling vignette from the SI interview:
“Pittsburgh is a great organization. They’ve got a great owner, head coach. They kind of treat you like, they don’t treat you like you’re human. What I mean by that is like, yeah, I’m an NFL athlete, but still I’m a human being. You know what I’m saying? I still play video games, I still make music. They don’t want to allow you to be yourself. They want you to be, if you’re a Steelers, you’re literally playing football 24/7.”
If the pronoun usage here strikes you as somewhat ambiguous, jump in line. To me, it seems as if Bell’s indicating that “they” refers to the Steelers, and that “they” treated him more as a roster constituent than as a person whose existence extended far beyond the confines of the training facility. Which, you know, duh. Some of the most valuable brands on the planet are underpinned by nameless workforces. There is a zero percent chance that Jeff Bezos gives even the remotest damn about how well Lenny from accounting did in a weekend golf tournament; he’s concerned only with Lenny’s tangible contributions to Amazon. People are commodities, and the teams that understand and abide by this principle (i.e. the Patriots) are generally the ones who reap the greatest spoils. Obviously, the Steelers will never come out and say Hey, instead of playing video games in your spare time, why not come to the facility to get another lift in?, but you can be rest assured they’re thinking it. To be clear, this is not to specifically disparage the Steelers—every team in the NFL thinks this way, and I’d wager that every moneymaking enterprise in existence would enthusiastically welcome their employees to put extra, unpaid work off the clock.
With that said, Bell later clarified on Twitter that the “they” to which he was referring was actually broadly the “city”, presumably the local media horde and fan base, and I’m inclined to believe him (especially considering the clarification came in the form of a reply to a tweet from a prominent member of Pittsburgh’s local media contingent). The Steelers, in addition to being historically wildly successful and incredibly profitable, have capitalized masterfully on the cultivation and dissemination of a particular product; namely, a smash-mouth rushing attack, ironclad defense, no-nonsense coaches, humble stars, and role players willing to sacrifice their individuality for the betterment of The Team. “Steelers football” is as much a namesake as it is an identity, and the Steelers’ brand equity depends significantly on having personnel in place that reflects this identity. When the now-extinct Killer Bs Steelers were setting scoreboards aflame, some pockets of the fanbase still took umbrage with this outfit’s lack of decorum. You’d never see JACK LAMBERT gallivanting about the end-zone like some daggum ninny! Even JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is essentially the human embodiment of a golden retriever, has gotten crapped on for spending too much time playing video games, for godssakes.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that fans and media should cool it in order to coddle and appease star players. Professional athletes, by virtue of their trade, lay themselves bare to all matter of vitriol, and dealing with it—or, in most cases, ignoring it—is a necessary aspect of the job. The fans and media very probably did play somewhat of a role in Brown’s and Bell’s departures, and while I oftentimes find myself embarrassed by the behavior of Steelers fans and bothered by how catty and sycophantic the local media can be, I believe that, if Brown and Bell can’t handle that kind of heat, good riddance. The Raiders are widely renowned for their loyal, understanding, and levelheaded fan base, and everyone knows that New York’s media machinery is among the tamest and least strident in the country. I’m sure both will do just fine.
Stock up: My faith in the defense
The Steelers signed an honest-to-goodness three-down linebacker! What’s most compelling about Mark Barron, who the Steelers plucked from the free agent trash heap last week, is that he’s a converted safety, meaning that he figures to be the ideal pass-stopping complement to Vince Williams. That said, Keith Butler is still the defensive coordinator, so my expectations are tempered.