The optics, those are very important in 2019, even in the entertainment world of professional football.
How does something look to the fans and media? What message does it send?
By arriving at training camp quietly and through a side door last Thursday, Steelers newly-minted number one receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, showed the fans and media that he’s dead serious about his profession this season.
Judging by his first two seasons in the NFL, Smith-Schuster could very-well have shown up at camp on a tricycle while juggling children. But his entrance didn’t include pomp and circumstance. It didn’t include a wacky vehicle (that’s probably a good thing, since he only learned how to drive two years ago). Ever since last Thursday, the third-year receiver has been universally praised for his “all business” arrival. Never mind the reports out of Saint Vincent College that Smith-Schuster has been his same old, fun-loving self. Forget the fact that he’s still making silly gestures and clowning around with the little kids as he reports to the hot and muggy practice fields every afternoon for work, for business. Never mind that, less than a week into training camp, Smith-Schuster has already participated in a gender reveal for an adoring fan and signed another’s head. Forget the fact that Smith-Schuster challenged said autograph seeker to get this signature permanently tattooed on his head and then proceeded to buy him season tickets after the challenge was accepted.
Gosh darn it, Smith-Schuster arrived at training camp sans clown car, and that’s a good sign the 22-year old has matured and is very serious about being a great wide receiver.
With all due respect to you, a fan or media member who cares about the optics of a training camp arrival, shouldn’t Smith-Schuster’s seriousness be judged by his play on the football field?
Judging by the reports of his performance at training camp, Smith-Schuster has been more than serious about his job so far. He’s running crisp routes. He’s developing great chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He’s winning more than his share of battles with his cornerback teammates—including the highly-respected Joe Haden. He made a meal out of rookie cornerback Justin Layne in a blocking drill.
Does Smith-Schuster appear to be all business in 2019, or what?
Again, with all due respect, what about Smith-Schuster’s current training camp performance is any different than what he’s been doing since arriving at Latrobe, Pa. two summers ago? Isn’t this the same Smith-Schuster everyone began to fall in love with the second things started to click for him early in his rookie season?
I don’t know about the crispness of his route-running beings that I’m no expert in that area, but the chemistry he has with Roethlisberger has been apparent since his rookie season when Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 975 yards and seven touchdowns. The chemistry with his quarterback seemed to explode off the screen last season when Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s obviously been winning his share of battles with cornerbacks all around the league—including against teammates and opponents. As for Smith-Schuster’s penchant for blocking defenders into next week? You may actually have a t-shirt of him doing that to the hated Vontaze Burfict two Decembers ago.
Optics are nice, but what happens on a football field is even nicer. Based on performance and production, Smith-Schuster is a true professional. The only question in 2019: can he do it without Antonio Brown drawing double and triple teams?
We’ll have to find out, but if all a receiver needs is for AB to draw coverage away from him, why didn’t that work very well for James Washington last year? Why didn’t it work for Justin Hunter the last two seasons? Nothing against those guys, especially Washington, who I think is going to make a big leap from his rookie year, but it’s not necessarily that easy to shine as a receiver in the NFL.
By all indications, Smith-Schuster has every essential weapon in his arsenal to be a number one receiver.
Smith-Schuster came into the NFL with a great reputation as a high-character guy who worked hard, and nothing he’s done since becoming a Steeler tells me that reputation was unwarranted.
Yes, the optics of Smith-Schuster’s training camp entrance were important to the fans and media.
But the optics of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s on-field performance—both at this training camp and during his first two seasons in the NFL—are even more important.
His silly and zany nature, aside, they tell me he has been serious about becoming a great receiver all along.