“Anyone who is reveling in JuJu’s injury can unfollow me, now, please.”
Do you know how many times I’ve seen a Tweet like that in my timeline since the moment Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday?
Enough times to make me truly sad for society.
More on that later.
You really have to feel terrible for Smith-Schuster and his plight. After his first two seasons that were extraordinary and productive, he seemed destined to keep climbing the ladder until he was one of the best receivers in the NFL.
It was easy to question whether or not Smith-Schuster’s success was the byproduct of having Antonio Brown as a teammate and his final two seasons of a historic six-year run as an NFL receiver.
Following Brown’s infamous divorce from the Steelers’ organization that spring, Smith-Schuster, a 2017 second-round pick out of USC, entered the 2019 season hoping to prove that he could be the top dog in Pittsburgh’s receiving corps.
But, of course, the offense was quickly hindered by the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had just led the NFL in passing in 2018, and the limitations of both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
The 2020 offense was hampered by many things, including a returning-from-major-surgery veteran quarterback, a declining offensive line, and a stale offensive coordinator.
As for the current Steelers offense, it has been compromised by a 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not be washed, a young and unproven offensive line, and a new offensive coordinator.
In other words, the past two-plus seasons have been less than ideal for Smith-Schuster and proving his worth as a top-notch NFL receiver worthy of praise, accolades, and a mega-contract.
Now, the mega-injury that has effectively ended his season and possibly his tenure as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Smith-Schuster is actually a number one receiver. I’m just saying it’s a shame he’s never gotten a true chance to prove it in Pittsburgh. Some might say Smith-Schuster is a less talented receiver than his own teammates, including Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. I say those guys have played their roles over the past two seasons, while Smith-Schuster played his before the injury, which was as a short-yardage specialist who specialized in bulldozing defenders after making tough catches in traffic.
Does his most recent role suggest Smith-Schuster can’t play outside as a receiver and make big plays in the process? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. We’re talking about a man who had no problem going 90-plus yards multiple times over his first two seasons. I doubt he suddenly lost the ability to do that after 2018.
It likely means that Smith-Schuster was better-suited for the role he played the past two years than were his receiving cohorts.
I’m not saying Smith-Schuster was/is more explosive than Claypool and/or Johnson. I’m just saying he’s already shown us that he can be a big-play receiver in his own right.
But I could argue this all day, and we’re never going to know. Why? All of the reasons I just mentioned about the past two-plus seasons. For his sake, let’s hope Smith-Schuster goes on to have the career he’s always wanted, if not in Pittsburgh, then somewhere else.
Dare I say, maybe somewhere where he’ll be more appreciated?
That’s right, the 2017 or 2018 me would have never guessed that I’d one day be writing about how polarizing Smith-Schuster would be by 2021.
But here I am.
It’s almost as if Steelers fans need a receiver to dump and dunk on at all times. And if he doesn’t give them actual reasons to do so—driving 100 mph down McKnight Road and no-showing practices would be good examples in Browns’ case—they have to invent things—TikTok, having fun away from the field, logo dancing and giving to charity with cameras present would be good examples in Smith-Schuster’s case.
Yes, the guy I—and even Alejandro Villanueva—once described as a breath of fresh air during his rookie season had morphed into AB Jr. in the eyes of many by the time he suffered his unfortunate injury on Sunday. Yet, there has never been any bad press written about Smith-Schuster. You’ve never heard about him being disrespectful to his teammates, his coaches or the fans. In a previous era, Smith-Schuster would have been applauded for logo dances and milk crate challenges and not scrutinized like he had sold secrets to the enemy.
Let’s talk about those logo dances of 2020. This may be impossible to wrap your head around, but Vonn Bell was destined to blow Smith-Schuster up in that game against the Bengals last year, and not because of a bulletin board pre-game dance but because of the hospital pass his quarterback threw him on the play.
And when it comes to walking on milk crates, I think Sunday showed us that football is actually more dangerous and far more likely to end your regular season.
If JuJu Smith-Schuster has played his last game as a Pittsburgh Steeler, his legacy can be defined in many ways. He was fun. He was tough. He was different. He could have even been the number one receiver and a perennial Pro Bowler if circumstances were different.
And, finally, he made me realize that the fans are just as responsible for the NFL’s “No Fun League” label as anyone or anything else.