I’ll be honest, I wasn’t always a big fan of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Pittsburgh Steelers receiver portrayed immaturity in all the wrong ways when he first came in the league. Perhaps that was expected for a young man who wasn’t legally able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage when he was drafted. From the YouTube videos of him walking to class fully dressed in football equipment to his Fortnite savy, you wouldn’t expect “professional football player” to be JuJu’s occupation upon first glimpse.
It wasn’t just myself that initially was skeptical of Smith-Schuster. Some of those in Pittsburgh’s beloved sports media (you know who) have taken to social media to continually slander the 22-year-old receiver.
Everybody makes mistakes. But JuJu’s mistake today would be easier for me to accept if he approached work like work, instead of super wonderful crazy fun time. B/c right now, nobody’s laughing or dancing.
— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) December 24, 2018
The hate/envy even made its way into the locker room. During Smith-Schuster’s impressive rookie campaign, teammate/fellow receiver Martavis Bryant grew tired of playing second fiddle to the up and coming USC product, taking to the comment section of Instagram to voice his displeasure.
During the 2018 NFL Draft Bryant was sent packing to Oakland for a third round pick, thus opening the spot for Smith-Schuster to officially claim his spot as the secondary receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. A Brown/Smith-Schuster duo was to be considered one of the best in the league, and was expected to lead the Steelers into deep playoff runs for the next few seasons.
Fast forward to the end of the 2018 season, where Smith-Schuster led the team in receptions and receiving yards, upending the perennial All-Pro Brown in both categories.
Brown had long been a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. The sixth round draft pick out of Central Michigan University worked his way to being the top receiver in the game. After watching Mike Wallace wave goodbye to Pittsburgh and chase the money elsewhere, Brown was the man who had the entire city walking around like business was boomin’.
Yet even the sun sets in paradise, as Brown has now evolved into a man who no longer wishes to be in the city that once claimed him as their own. Through a series of odd acts such as declaring himself “Mr. Big Chest” and erratic behavior on social media, Brown has turned himself into villain seemingly overnight.
There are no sole attributes to the shift in attitude in Brown, but falling behind a second year receiver in two major categories likely didn’t sit well with Brown while also watching Smith-Schuster win the team’s MVP award in late December. Did Jealousy drive Brown to his breaking point? The truth may never be revealed, yet Smith-Schuster’s success hasn’t appeared to sit well with Brown.
And here we sit, as a proud sports town, in what feels like the darkest of days to be a card-carrying member of the proud towel wavers. Pittsburgh remains on the forefront of headlines for all the wrong reasons, as the Steelers will continue to feel the PR ripple effects of paying Brown to only trade him a few years later.
After the eventual dealing of Brown, Pittsburgh will officially put a close to the “Killer B’s” chapter, ultimately walking away empty-handed despite possessing one of the most talented offensive rosters in football.
A receiver that continually couldn’t stay clean off the field, a running back that chased the money and a mega-star talent forcing his way out-of-town. Dreams of Bryant, Bell and Brown hoisting a Lombardi trophy have now transformed into empty avenues that will never be explored.
Yet gloomy times allow stars to shine.
Last week, it was announced that Smith-Schuster established the JuJu Foundation, a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to the support of youth initiatives and lifting the spirits of those in need” per the official website.
“This is a dream come true to establish our foundation,” said Smith-Schuster. “This will be a meaningful platform to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”
Change will be coming to the Steelers locker room, likely sooner rather than later. After QB Ben Roethlisberger retires, Smith-Schuster will need to grow into a leader for the next generation wearing black and gold.
JuJu has connected on a level with fans that only a handful of other athletes in professional sports can attest to. Smith-Schuster, despite being thrown into tough situations involving media and teammates, has done nothing in his first two seasons to prove he will fall down a slippery slope similar to the big names that came before him. JuJu has balanced a life of hard work/production on the field, while remaining personable and jubilant off the field.
It’s time, Pittsburgh.
Smith-Schuster has withstood the fire thrown his way and remains standing. Fans have laughed with the young star in the making while he lost his bike, and cried with him after a crucial fumble late in New Orleans. JuJu embraces everything about being part of the Steelers organization, and it’s officially time to put him on the same pedestal that we built for Bell and Brown.
Vukovcan: Fitzpatrick Trade Sign Steelers Plan to Contend in 2019
The Pittsburgh Steelers have earned the reputation of being an organization that’s conservative and don’t make a habit of making off-the-field moves that involve risk, which makes the moves they’ve done in the last six months shocking.
First, they traded up into the top ten of the 2019 NFL Draft in order to acquire linebacker Devin Bush. Then Monday night, they shocked everyone by trading a 2020 first round pick for Miami Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.
How unusual is this trade? This will be the first time since 1967 –before Chuck Noll — that the Steelers won’t have a first round pick in the NFL Draft.
The fact that Kevin Colbert made this trade after learning that Ben Roethlisberger will miss the remainder of the 2019 due to elbow surgery is what has many people around the league and the city scratching their heads.
The thought by many is that the Steelers are going to be one of the worst teams in the league and traded away a possible Top 10 pick.
Why in the world would the Steelers do something like this? Another bad move by Colbert, right? I actually think it’s a brilliant move and I love it. Unlike their neighbors on the North Shore, the Steelers have always prioritized winning.
On paper and even without Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin is coaching a talented roster. Offensively, they have a talented, veteran offensive line along with two emerging stars in JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Defensively, with the addition of Fitzpatrick, Keith Butler is now coaching 10 former first round picks (Bush, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, Mark Barron, Artie Burns and Tyson Alualu).
The Steelers don’t operate in the world of rebuilding plans and believe that even without Ben, they’re talented enough to compete for a playoff spot and the division title.
It’s no doubt a risky move but one that I believe is a risk worth taking.
Fitzpatrick is a 22-year-old proven commodity in the NFL. Last year, PPF rated him as the top slot cornerback in the entire NFL. Anyone that’s paid attention to the Steelers for the last five-plus years, knows that their defensive backfield has been a trouble area.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, you need to be strong on the backside and now with Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Haden and Steven Nelson, the team believes that area can now become a strength.
Former second-round pick Sean Davis is a free agent after the season and with the team’s spotty recent history of drafting defensive backs, the acquisition of Fitzpatrick eliminates the further need of trying to fix that position. Plus, they have his manageable contract for at least the next three seasons.
Maybe the biggest thing this trade does is send a signal to the players in the locker room and in particular Rudolph that the organization believes that all their 2019 goals are still attainable.
After receiving the news that he was the new starting quarterback, Rudolph’s life changed big time. He inherited the pressure of leading one of the highest profile organizations in the NFL. By executing a win-now move like trading for Fitzpatrick, Rudolph can’t help but believe that despite his inexperience, the organization believes they can win now with him under center.
I realize that Rudolph might not be ready and the rest of the roster and Steelers’ coordinators could continue to under-produce but the organization should be commended for going for it.
The window for this veteran group of players is closing and the futures of both head coach Tomlin and Colbert are uncertain.
Will this be a move that haunts the organization for years to come or will it be viewed as brilliant and one that jumpstarted the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers?
We’ll start to find out this Sunday in San Francisco.
Saunders: Steelers Leaders’ Show True Ability in Response to Tragedy
UNITY TWP., Pa. — When a football team goes through any type of struggle, players will naturally look to their leaders for guidance.
That’s particularly the case when the leaders of the team are among the longest-tenured and most-respected around the league at their positions.
But according to the narrative that surrounded the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last nine months, the team’s leaders — most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin — were responsible for the drama and dysfunction that surrounded the team. For many, it was an indictment of their abilities as leaders of men.
We now have overwhelming evidence that narrative was shortsighted, if not completely incorrect. First, Antonio Brown has shown completely and without any shadow of a doubt that he was the cause of most, if not all, of the drama that surrounded him with his continued antics, disruption and legal issues while with the Oakland Raiders.
But more importantly, the Steelers’ leaders were faced with a far more difficult challenge during this year’s training camp than dealing with an acting-out wide receiver. The death of coach Darryl Drake on Sunday hit the team hard, particularly those that were closest to him.
That group certainly included Roethlisberger and Tomlin. Tomlin had known Drake for years before they became coworkers and was visibly upset when talking about his former friend this week.
“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant, but personally, it’s even bigger,” Tomlin said Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake all feel that way.
“In ’97, I was a young wide receiver coach at Arkansas State. He was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game. I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, or that’s how he’d described it, in being my friend. I was too persistent.
“He extended courtesies to me like he does to a lot of young guys like myself in the profession and that’s why we talked about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport and things went from there.
“Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways, to the men that he worked with, not only now, but over the course of his career, which spanned decades.”
Roethlisberger, similarly, spoke of how deeply he was effected by Drake’s influence.
“I only knew him for a year and a half, but in that year and a half, he meant more to me than some people that I’ve know my whole life,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “I know he was an amazing football coach, but he was an even better man, better husband, better father and better man of God than he was a football coach. So, what he brought to this team and our relationship together, is truly something that could never be replicated and he will be very dearly missed, but we know that he is with us and we know that he’s in a better place.”
But despite their personal relationships with Drake, and the individual pain they have been going through, Roethlisberger and Tomlin have bought into their role as healers and leaders on the squad. Photographer Ed Thompson caught a glimpse of Roethlisberger consoling JuJu Smith-Schuster in the rain during practice on Tuesday.
Rough day at @steelers camp today; the first day back after Coach Drakes sudden death. @TeamJuJu was visibly still shaken and @_BigBen7 tried to ease the pain. @247Sports @AllanBell247 pic.twitter.com/8S4I3Zn1Ni
— Ed Thompson ™️ (@ThompsonFoto12) August 13, 2019
He spoke Thursday about the importance of that job.
“Just try to be there,” he said of his role. “Listen. I think that’s sometimes the best that you can do with grief is just to listen. So many times, we get caught trying to talk and telling people that it’ll be OK. But grief isn’t about being OK. It’s about grieving and talking and communicating, so I’m just trying to be a good communicator and listen.”
Tomlin led the team forward, saying “we intend to march” through the grief and pain to continue to fulfill the team’s professional obligations, while also recognizing that the pain needed real, professional healing. Tomlin brought in grief counselors, saying such methods were “not for the weak, but the wise.”
And so it went up and down the veterans of the Steelers’ locker room, from soft-spoken voices of experience like Alejandro Villanueva to the raw emotion of Ryan Switzer, all following the examples laid before them of acknowledging their grief and the importance of open communication and togetherness in times of trouble.
A star wide receiver that wants the ball more and can’t control his own ego? That’s a first-world problem, and an invented problem at that.
The death of a friend, a co-worker, a mentor and an important member of an organization? That’s as real as it gets.
When the Steelers’ leaders were tested with a real issue, they showed their true ability.
Druin: What is Antonio Brown’s Legacy with Steelers?
Let’s go back in time.
It’s Week 15 of the 2017 NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing host to the New England Patriots in a game that would determine where the AFC road to the Super Bowl would go through.
Antonio Brown, one of the league’s best receivers, is being carried off the field with what was later known to be a partially torn calf muscle. Despite missing the last two games of the season, Brown finished his 2017 campaign with 101 receptions, 1,533 yards and 9 TD’s on the season. At the height of his game, Brown was not only one of the best receivers in the game, but one of the best players in the league, period.
Steelers fans know to appreciate talent when they see it, and fresh off a contract that made him the league’s highest paid pass-catcher, Brown elevated his game and embraced the city that turned him from a sixth round draft pick to a superstar at a time when players like running back Le’Veon Bell were holding out for more money.
So when one of Pittsburgh’s most proud players went down with an injury, an entire stadium full of Steelers fans let him know what the blue-collar town thought of Brown.
One thing I understand about this fan base and that I’ll never forget and always appreciate is your passion. Know that it’s all love this way and I am forever thankful for #steelernation ! 🙏🏾 (this is not a goodbye, just a thank u) pic.twitter.com/5mCg5pRjXL
— Antonio Brown (@AB84) January 20, 2019
“M-V-P” chants rang across Heinz Field. There’s a long list of historically great pass catchers in the history of the franchise, yet in that moment, Brown was the most appreciated of them all. A man who showed up to work every day as one of the most talented receivers of this generation saw exactly what any fan capable of holding a Terrible Towel would say to him if given the chance: M-V-P.
Although less than two years removed from that snapshot, recent events have turned that moment into an eternity. The lego-hair, “business is boomin!” Antonio Brown no longer exists. Instead, 2019’s model of Brown can be classified as “Mr. Big Chest”, an enigma of Brown’s ego that includes a blonde mustache and hair that can only be described as if a stray gummy worm had made its home in Brown’s scalp.
Brown is no longer in Pittsburgh. The team dealt him to the Oakland Raiders for a third and fifth round pick, a return that many deem insufficient. The details are moot, however, Brown will be playing his football on the other side of the country in silver and black.
The door is now officially closed on Brown bringing a Super Bowl back to Pittsburgh, much like he wanted to earlier in his career. Brown’s six season stretch of dominance as a Steeler will always be remembered, yet he and his team ultimately could never put their name on a Lombardi Trophy, the only thing that matters to a franchise and its fans.
The Steelers will now move forward with JuJu Smith-Schuster as their number one receiver, a role he feels he’s ready to take.
I’m Ready… pic.twitter.com/K9EZVna0VV
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) March 10, 2019
The trade to Oakland is still new to everybody involved, and will certainly take some adjusting to see Brown in other colors. Yet the ultimate question is being asked in the Steel City:
How will Antonio Brown be remembered in Pittsburgh?
It might be early to cast any opinions on that topic. You have the radical fans on either side of the story, proclaiming his significance (or lack of) to the organization the moment he was traded early Sunday morning. There are those who prefer to wait until time has passed, so an entire city full of opinions are given breathing room before being thrown into the wild abyss of social media and debate.
To really grasp an opinion, the story of Brown’s time in Pittsburgh needs to start from the beginning.
It’s 2012, and the Steelers are at a crossroads with receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace, considered to be the fastest man outside of the hashes during this time, wanted a big payday and the Steelers weren’t ready to exactly hand the bank over. Wallace departs for the money, and on the scene erupts Antonio Brown.
Brown saw continued success both on the field and financially, as the Steelers gave him a five-year, $42.5 million extension rather than paying Wallace. Brown’s hard work and talent won Steelers fans over, quickly becoming a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
A few years down the line, Brown is due for another payday. Putting up gaudy numbers, Brown was ultimately made the highest paid receiver at the time with a four-year, $68 million extension.
From there, Brown was expected to ride into the sunset with his bags full of money and help the Steelers reach a coveted seventh Super Bowl victory.
Up to this point, Brown never caused too much trouble. Sure, he was big on social media and some weren’t a fan of his celebrations. You can throw some baby mama drama in for good measure, yet nothing critically alarming jumped off the page when measuring Brown’s character.
It’s the 2018 off-season, and running back Le’Veon Bell is franchise-tagged for a second straight season. Bell sat out of training camp for the 2017 season for a new contract, and was intent on doing the same for 2018. Needing some cap relief to accommodate Bell’s $14+million tag, the Steelers convert Brown’s 2018 salary into a heavy bonus to free some cap space to sign Bell.
Long story short: Bell doesn’t show, and is allowed to walk free after playing a game of chicken with the Steelers front office. Typically that’d be fine, but in attempting to create room to sign Bell, the Steelers put $21 million in dead cap space towards Antonio Brown on the books for 2019.
This is where Brown ultimately gained leverage with the Steelers, and was the focal point of getting him to his next destination.
A lot of people will make noise about his absence in the final week of the regular season, where the Steelers needed a win and some help to enter the postseason. After the game, we learned Brown had skipped a week of practice and didn’t return anybody’s phone calls, and was feuding with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and had been for some time.
Brown claimed he wanted a fresh start, citing reasons such as the lack of winning culture, no respect from owner Art Rooney II or general manager Kevin Colbert, and a growing frustration with Roethlisberger.
Yet his intentions for leaving had nothing to do with those. Antonio was revealed much the same way an evil character on Scooby-Doo episodes were. It was, and was always, about more money.
And here’s where the conversation starts to shift about Brown.
For as talented, charismatic and hard-working as Brown is, his digging a way out of the Steelers organization was only to get more money. The main reason for Brown leaving wasn’t due to his relationship with Roethlisberger, or his treatment from the coaching staff, or even the emergence of Smith-Schuster… it was only about money.
For athletes, it’s fine to want a big payday. Yet for Brown, who’s ink still might be fresh from the deal that paid him the most of any in his position group just two years prior, the money grab appeared to be of the highest levels of greed.
After his 2018 salary was converted to a bonus, Brown had three seasons remaining on his deal with a whopping $0.00 in guaranteed cash. With the Steelers carrying $21 million in dead cash through 2019, Brown’s money endeavors were of no reason to remain in Pittsburgh.
“If your team got guaranteed money, they want to get to know me and work with me, tell them call me”- Brown on Instagram Live
From the final week of the regular season to this very moment you’re reading this, Antonio Brown carried out one of the most impressive smearing of a franchise via social media we may ever witness.
The carefree toying of the Steelers organization successfully built ground for Brown to stand on, whether it be the Instagram live interviews or sit-downs with Lebron/ESPN, tweeting countless ambiguous/mysterious messages for his millions of followers to decode or anything else you can find that even slightly suggests the entire predicament Brown was in was only to blame on the Steelers.
Sort through all the fuss, and now Brown has a new three-year, $50.1 million contract with $30.1 million guaranteed.
He got what he wanted. There’s no denying Brown won his battle with Pittsburgh’s front office, especially after personally denying a trade to the Buffalo Bills that would have involved the Steelers getting the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, forcing the Steelers to deal him elsewhere.
Antonio provided quite the show on the field, yet off the field reached heights nobody expected from the once humble low round pick just trying to prove himself. Brown provided us with a large number of great memories, whether it be the “immaculate extension” on Christmas day to seal a division title over the Ravens in the winding seconds of the game, or really any other remarkable play that made us stand up collectively and remain amazed, no matter how many times we’ve seen an extraordinary catch from him.
Yet for as much good as he brought, his exit dilutes nearly everything he built-in Pittsburgh. In hindsight, Brown inched closer and closer to “diva” levels with each season he played. I suppose that’s what happens when the best only get better, yet after his huge payday in 2017, Brown really dialed in on focusing on himself.
What won’t Steelers fans miss?
The arguments with coaches, throwing a Gatorade cooler on the sideline, sitting by himself during a playoff loss, his temper-filled post-game reactions, the hate/hate relationship with local media, blasting the mother of his children on social media, attaining a speeding ticket for going over 100 mph, throwing furniture off the balcony, domestic violence reports and going live on Facebook after a big playoff win in the coveted space of a locker room… just to name a few.
However, it doesn’t mean watching Brown walk away doesn’t even slightly sting for those that faithfully indulge themselves in front of a television during every Sunday during the fall. Losing a player of that caliber when there’s still some gas left in the tank hurts.
I suppose that’s the worst part about watching Antonio already happy to be on another team. He’s been labeled by many for being things like selfish, greedy and really any other negative connotation possible… yet he wasn’t always like that.
Pittsburgh has watched countless of their own talented players work their way out-of-town. When we watched Wallace say goodbye and head to South Beach, we laughed and bid him farewell as the Steelers had a hidden gem ready to shine.
When Martavis Bryant was traded to Oakland last season, we said good riddance and took a third round pick with a smile on our faces. Bryant displayed an enormous amount of jealousy towards Smith-Schuster, and was as good as gone due to his decrease in production despite an increase in drug usage.
When Le’Veon was holding out for his big payday, that made Brown shine even more. Brown never held out for a new deal, patiently waited and got it. By Bell not showing his face at all during 2018 season and surely out the door, Brown was the one superstar the Steelers claimed was left standing tall and calling God after every touchdown.
Even outsiders made Steelers fans feel good about Brown. Whether it be watching Dez Bryant walk off the field before a game was over, or Odell Beckham Jr.’s continued maturity problems, there once existed a point in time where Steelers fans could say “Yeah, well at least AB isn’t like that“.
However, time only tells the truth.
We were right about Brown. He isn’t like Bell, Bryant or Wallace. The steps he took to ensure his ticket out-of-town was guaranteed while simultaneously burning every bridge possible out of a city that contains 446 of them will stand as far worse of a testament of character for Brown in comparison to any of those listed above.
What will Antonio Brown’s legacy in Pittsburgh?
Unfulfilled. The Steelers rode the extreme highs and the lowest of lows with Brown. Brown will remain one of the most talented players to ever wear a Steelers uniform, that part is undeniable. Yet the ultimate chase of money twisted Brown from a Steel City hero to the evil villain in a movie who appears to have gotten the last laugh before the credits roll.
The sun will rise like it always does, the Steelers will move on and so will Brown. It’s the nature of the business. Brown is doing what he deems is right for him and his family, and to a certain extent, you have to respect his ability to pull strings like he did.
Should he one day be giving an acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio wearing a gold jacket, it will be fun to reminisce on the dominance he displayed during his stint in Pittsburgh. However, Steelers fans will ultimately be left wondering what could have been, had things turned different with Brown.