Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was in Boca Raton, Florida last week as part of the competition committee that meets annually each spring in conjunction with the NFL owners meetings.
While talking to the media on Tuesday, Tomlin was asked about the recent one-year suspension for receiver Martavis Bryant and how that might affect his team in 2016:
"We're going to throw the ball to the open man," Tomlin said. "Really, it's that simple. We've played without him in the past, so we're not overly concerned about playing with him in 2016, to be honest with you. We have talent at the position."
The Steelers do have talent at the wide receiver position, but after Antonio Brown, there is nobody with the abilities that Bryant possesses. So while Tomlin might not be concerned about the absence of Bryant, he will still be missed.
Or will he?
That's the thing about young and mostly unproven players. Yes, Bryant possesses natural talents that could put him in the upper-echelon of NFL receivers if he simply gets his life in check and harnesses his abilities. But, then again, so do many other young receivers in the NFL, as well as those in college.
Fact is, Sammie Coates, the second-year receiver out of Auburn who will get his opportunity to shine this season, could do a lot to make everyone forget about Bryant's combination of size and speed. And if he does that, maybe a troubled player with a boatload of failed drug tests and 20 games of missed time due to those issues won't seem worth the trouble a year from now.
Included in the people who might forget about Bryant's talents could be his coaches and teammates. An NFL season is a long one, and there are trials and tribulations that can often bring a team together or tear it apart. Everyone witnessed last year how the injury-plagued Steelers banded together and somehow managed to not only make the playoffs, but come within a whisker of advancing all the way to the AFC Championship game.
Tears were shed in the locker room after Pittsburgh lost a heartbreaker to the Broncos in the divisional round, and there were vows that, with all of the talent assembled on offense, the team was poised to make a Super Bowl run in 2016.
Now Bryant won't be part of that talented offense and, for the time being, it looks like a Super Bowl run might be a tad bit harder.
In Their Life's Work, the excellent book that chronicles the Steelers Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, Joe Gilliam, the now deceased former player who developed a life-long drug habit right around the time he made history by becoming the Steelers first black starting quarterback, is discussed at length.
According to the book, Joe Greene, the galvanizing team-leader who helped transform the Steelers from sad-sack losers to perennial champions, reportedly confronted Gilliam about his problem one day in the locker room. To paraphrase Mean Joe, he said, "It's about the team," meaning, the team came before any one individual. Gilliam possessed an arm that many have said was even better than Terry Bradshaw's. However, all the talent in the world couldn't help him keep his starting job. After opening the 1974 season as the starting quarterback, Gilliam found himself on the bench by the time the Steelers hoisted their first Lombardi trophy many months later. By 1976, Gilliam was no longer on the roster, and Pittsburgh eventually went on to win two more Super Bowls in the late '70s.
With Bradshaw injured and out six weeks, could the 1-4 Steelers have used Gilliam's considerable talents in 1976? Absolutely. There was no question Gilliam's abilities far surpassed those of Mike Kruczek, who became the starter with Bradshaw on the mend. In six games, Kruczek completed a grand-total of 51 passes and threw zero touchdowns. Yet, the Steelers won all six games. Why? With a dominant ground game and an historic defensive run that saw the unit post three-straight shutouts and allow just 22 points during those six games.
Were the Steelers worse-off without Gilliam on the roster as a backup quarterback? Yes. But they found a way to reach an even higher level without his talents and ultimately went on to make history by becoming the team of the decade and one of the greatest dynasties the sports world has ever seen.
During his talk on Tuesday, Tomlin also stressed that Bryant the man is more important to him than Bryant the player:
"I want to see him get better as a man. Football and all the things associated with that are secondary."
Speaking of talented players with troubled pasts, Tim Worley was selected with the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft. Worley, a productive running back out of Georgia, came to Pittsburgh as a bit of a savior, following the disastrous 5-11 campaign in 1988. Unfortunately, the man legendary head coach Chuck Noll once said reminded him of a young Jim Brown, couldn't overcome his demons away from football that included a problem with drugs.
After multiple failed tests and a one-year suspension in 1992, Worley was out of Pittsburgh following the '93 season and out of football one year later.
According to his Wikipedia page, Worley was plagued by his demons for many years after his playing days, before finally getting clean and sober in 2008.
Worley soon turned his life around and, today, he's a successful motivational speaker and an entrepreneur who travels the country to tell his story.
It's nice to see Worley doing so well for himself both personally and professionally, even if his legacy as a football player is one of unrealized potential.
The Steelers eventually did find their savior (at least at running back), when they traded for Jerome Bettis in 1996, and he went on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of Pittsburgh sports.
The point is, the Steelers will probably be just fine without Martavis Bryant (they may even find a player with just as much talent in this year's draft). It's up to him how his life plays out from here, but if that life doesn't include many years in Pittsburgh, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.
After all, the NFL is a business above all else.