PITTSBURGH — No one likes to lose, especially not hyper-competitive professional athletes. But it sure seems that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens could use some pointers on learning how to deal with it.
Let’s start here. It’s a good thing that Pickens hates to lose. Whatever you think of his sideline antics and on-field demeanor, any amount of trouble that comes out of a player being upset because his team is losing is a far lesser problem than the soul-sucking apathy of a player being resigned to lose.
Try this on for size. Pickens has been caught on camera yelling and gesturing at teammates on the sideline repeatedly, holding his arms up in the air after he doesn’t get the ball, and generally being a pain in the butt while things aren’t going his or his team’s way. His social media adventures have been well (probably too well) documented.
Has there been any obvious discipline from head coach Mike Tomlin for that? There was one game at Acrisure Stadium where Pickens was not announced as a part of the starting lineup. Then he started anyway. That’s about it.
Now take the reaction when offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor suggested that the team shouldn’t bother continuing to run plays when trailing late against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was benched and has yet to earn his starting job back. It looks like he probably won’t.
That’s not Tomlin playing favorites. That’s an appropriate, proportional reaction to Pickens’ crimes of passion and Okorafor’s crime of a lack thereof.
But that being said, there are lots of players that don black and gold every weekend that hate to lose. Cam Heyward hates to lose. He hates to lose so badly that he’s been accused of cheating when the players take board games to training camp. You don’t see Heyward causing a scene on the sideline, now or when he was a younger player.
T.J. Watt is one of the most intense, most-feared competitors in the NFL. No one has to separate him from his teammates.
There is a difference between acknowledging that Pickens’ passion is a positive and that the way he is currently displaying it is a negative. Tomlin admitted as much on Monday.
“It’s a problem because it’s not solution-oriented,” Tomlin said. “You know, we’re all frustrated, but we got to manage our frustrations in a professional and mature way. And when it’s not done that way, it’s not necessarily pushing us toward solutions. …
“We care a lot. We put a lot into it. And so, frustration is a natural human response. But I’m also completely comfortable asking these guys to do unnatural things, because they’re professional athletes. Man, that’s our job to do the unique things and make it look regular. To make it look ordinary.”
Pickens’ teammates have been mostly understanding toward him and the way he’s expressed his passion.
“Everyone has to manage their emotions and we got to drive in the same direction in order to be successful,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the New England Patriots on Thursday. “But he cares, man. He cares. He shows it in different ways and those frustrations come out, but everyone is frustrated.”
The Steelers win-loss record hasn’t been the only frustrating part of the 2023 season for the young wide receiver. The Steelers passing offense, stagnant at best under Kenny Pickett and Matt Canada, has seemingly fallen apart the last few weeks without them. His 19 yards receiving on Thursday was the second-lowest single-game total of his season. But Pickens said on Thursday that only the losing was an issue.
“It ain’t really fun losing,” he said. “I don’t really know what reaction you guys would expect. If you lose at a video game. If you lose at anything you participate in, you are going to be mad. That’s the biggest component of it.”
Chats with his teammates earlier in the week confirmed that. While most Steelers players admit that Pickens could channel his energy more productively, they say he is as bought into the team concept as anyone, and isn’t after personal glory or statistics.
But there is something big-picture that Pickens is missing here about how to behave in the face of frustration.
It could be that he just hasn’t dealt with much of it. He lost a total of four games in three years at Georgia. While the Steelers struggled out of the gate last year, that was during his transition to the NFL. Once Pickens fully arrived, and he gained a connection with Pickett, the 2022 Steelers took off down the stretch. This period where the Steelers have lost three of their last four is the worst stretch of ball that Pickens has been a significant part of since he was a kid.
But that’s not really an excuse, and don’t take my word for it. Ask Pickens’ teammates about dealing with losing:
“Your approach to the game shouldn’t be wavering,” said Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — an Alabama alumnus who lost three games in his three seasons of college football. “No matter how many losses you have, how many wins you have, in the NFL, you have a game every single week and give 110%. You’d better approach the week with a chip on your shoulder, whether you’re the best in the league or the worst in the league. No matter what, you’ve got something to prove.”
Rookie tackle Broderick Jones, another Georgia product and a year junior to Pickens, seems to have a more mature approach, as well. Before this week, Jones hadn’t lost two games in a row in so long that he couldn’t remember when it had happened.
“It’s just something that you’ve got to overcome and keep just providing for the team, doing the best you can, do your part and do your role,” Jones said. “Everybody’s got to be mentally tough. That’s all it is. It’s all about the mental piece of it. … It’s the same every week for us. Win or lose, you know it’s always the same.”
While the approach, the effort and the diligence should be constants, running back Najee Harris — another Alabama guy — said there’s something about losing that can be a more imperative teacher.
“I never lose, either I win or I learn,” Nelson Mandela famously said.
Harris seems to appreciate that mindset.
“I think there’s some things that winning teaches, but there’s some things that you can only learn with losing,” Harris said. “That’s resiliency. It’s used as motivation. You see your mistakes. It’s keeping you humble in a way. Losing can teach you something that winning can’t. That’s my mindset and I think that’s all of our mindsets, too.”
Losing can be a powerful teacher. It can also be a powerful motivator. No one likes to lose, and no one likes the feeling of having lost.
But frustration and vocal negativity get in the way of that learning process. When you learn, and grow, and become more humble, more determined, and vow to fight harder and dig deeper when given another chance, losing can be a positive. When you become abrasive, point fingers and assign blame instead of taking responsibility, losing can be a catalyst for the destruction of a team concept.
It’s a fine line to walk, and one that Pickens is probably right up against. His head coach and teammates suggesting alternative courses of action is a strong sign that some of his elders see the potential for team negativity in his actions.
No one likes to lose. But for the Steelers’ sake, Pickens need to learn how to make sure that negativity, when it comes, is able to be leveraged as a future positive. This isn’t the SEC. Even great NFL teams lose all the time. The ones that win championships find ways to overcome their emotions and fight on together as one.