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Chasing championships, not clicks: The Steelers need to gain humility

After a stellar season that fizzled out, the Steelers must look inward to avoid inexcusable distractions and mend league-wide relationships.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s hard to elucidate how painful the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns truly was.

A season that emerged as one of the franchise’s best since 1933 came to a crashing halt, one half of title-winning football played in the team’s last 6 games. Seeing Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and JuJu Smith-Schuster morose as they embraced on the Steelers’ lonesome bench after the fourth quarter was a profoundly upsetting moment.

Even as Pittsburgh seemed on the precipice of greatness—and maybe even history—the Steelers never seemed to play like an undefeated, unblemished team. As many have expounded, starting 11-0 is a feat that cannot be due to sheer luck. But between almost wilting to Denver backup Jeff Driskel in Week 2 to a near unmitigated disaster in Dallas, the Steelers’ record was simply a façade.

At least, to most to who followed the team.

While navigating the eruptive ebbs and ferocious flows of their idyllic start, Steelers players had every reason to feel confident. Newcomers Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron had rarely even trailed in black in gold for the vast majority of the season, prompting tweets, daring dances and interactions that bordered on arrogance.

However, as the Steelers ultimately fell to the Washington Football Team—the eventual catalyst of their demise—their roster never lost hubris.

Smith-Schuster began his infamous pre-game logo dancing Week 9 in Dallas, a contest the Steelers hardly won. In spite of losing to the aforementioned Football Team 4 weeks later, the fourth-year wide receiver continued his haughty moves at Buffalo and at Cincinnati, creating looming headlines and controversy that generated vitriol in his opponents. I'm all for JuJu's youthful zeal, but these moves simply went too far by creating outside noise and anger.

No, the Steelers didn’t lose just due to Smith-Schuster's penchant for TikTok or by breaking an NFL cardinal sin of respecting other teams’ midfield emblems. Yet the overall conceitedness issue is much more widespread than just Smith-Schuster.

One of the main issues I have with the 2020 Steelers is their unrivaled ability to create unnecessary negative attention due to foolishly phrased comments.

After Pittsburgh emerged victorious against the COVID-19-ravaged Baltimore Ravens in Week 12, Ebron posted a segment of his 17 Weeks podcast with the NFL Network’s Nate Burleson, Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. In the clip, Ebron wished for a luxurious Super Bowl reception for the Steelers “when” they would make it.

Ebron later clarified that he was responding to a question about his desires if he and the Steelers were to make it to Tampa.

Regardless of the circumstance, using a word such as “when” implies that Ebron believed it was only a matter of time before the Steelers would trot into Raymond James Stadium on February 7th. In today’s day and age, a comment of that nature has the propensity to be easily blown out of proportion and taken out of context; language that presumptive automatically spells trouble.

The theme of poorly conceived quotes continued throughout the year, reaching its culminating moment when Smith-Schuster’s assertion about how the “Browns” were “still the Browns” created motivation for Cleveland in the Wild Card Round.

JuJu’s answer seemed superficially condescending, alluding to the fellow AFC North’s franchise’s long history of futility. However, the entire response reflected a far more deferential tone, and the soon-to-be free agent even winked as if to indicate insincerity and lightheartedness.

Again, the question begs itself: Why even make a claim that could, in any instance, irritate your fans, organization and opposition? Even if it was meant in jest, it’s simply imprudent to say, and was also certainly proven wrong.

And after the Steelers were quintessentially embarrassed in their lone playoff game, players still couldn’t resist the temptation of using their platforms to generate notoriety.

While going live on TikTok, Chase Claypool made an eyebrow-raising remark about the Browns’ chances against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.

Choosing a word like “clapped” when talking about another team is not particularly appropriate for an NFL player in any setting; saying something this perverse after such a gut-wrenching performance demonstrates fundamental immaturity and a lack of awareness. In fact, the Browns may very well even beat Kansas City (don’t rule anything out in the playoffs), in which case Claypool would be further lambasted.

Around the league, teams regularly flourish without making boastful claims or publicly prognosticating wins well in advance. There is simply no reason for the Steelers to act so presumptuously, no matter their record. In fact, players including T.J. Watt have been paragons for maintaining professionalism while also terrorizing competition.

As Pittsburgh looks onward as its offseason begins, there are deep-seated questions related to Roethlisberger, Pouncey, Randy Fichtner and even Mike Tomlin. The Steelers’ preposterous collapse is in and of itself enough reason for introspection and interrogation. In other words, the organization does not need any more unwarranted headlines or scrutiny.

By consistently and unabashedly disrespecting their competition, the Steelers have transformed from a glimmering, prosperous iPhone 12 to a dysfunctional and despised Blackberry, mocked by their NFL peers and the regular punchline of witty meme pages.

To be clear, Pittsburgh’s ostentatiousness is not the fundamental reason why it lost games and floundered so horribly in the postseason; I have no issue with players using social media, creating their own brand and simply having fun.

But if the Steelers want to return to their robust history of success, the first change that must be made before September isn’t firing a long-tenured assistant or cutting a player: it’s becoming humble.