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The End of the Steelers’ Non-dynasty

Now that Antonio Brown has been traded to the Raiders and Le’Veon Bell is hitting the free-agent market, an era in Pittsburgh football has officially ended. How will this stretch of Steelers history be remembered?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We know how to properly eulogize a dynasty. Whether it ends due to the retirement of an aging legend or an acrimonious beef between stars, we have a feel for the appropriate blend of sentiments to express: mainly respect, a portion of wistfulness, and a dash of anticipation for the dawn of a new era. But how, exactly, are we supposed to eulogize whatever it is that the Steelers just had?

Pittsburgh has been good for most of the millennium. It hasn’t had a losing season since going 6-10 in 2003, a down year that allowed the Steelers to take quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first round of the subsequent draft. Their run of 15 consecutive eight-win seasons is tied for the fifth-longest in league history. That streak began with massive success—Pittsburgh went 15-1 in Roethlisberger’s rookie year, and won the Super Bowl in his second. Just three years later, the Steelers won the Super Bowl once more, and two years after that made the Super Bowl again. There was a moment between 2009 and 2012 when they seemed on the brink of a dynasty.

But since then Pittsburgh has relatively little to show for its regular-season win totals. Over the last eight years the Steelers have won three playoff games, lost five, and missed the postseason three times. Honestly, that’s kind of impressive—how does a team miss the playoffs three times in eight seasons while going .500 or better each year? How did Steelers squads that won 10, 12, 11, and 13 games, respectively, lose playoff matchups to teams that started quarterbacks David Garrard, Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco, and Blake Bortles? Yet that’s the gist of this waning Pittsburgh non-dynasty. For about a decade, the Steelers have straddled the line between good and great, rarely teetering into excellence.

It seems unlikely they’ll be able to stay in the Valley of Not Quite Good Enough much longer. During a 2017 campaign in which they finished 13-3 and tied for the best regular-season record in the NFL, the Steelers were led by a dynamic trio of offensive talent: Big Ben, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell—the Killer B’s. (If any franchise has multiple players whose first or last names begin with the letter B, they are obligated by sports law to nickname themselves “the Killer B’s.”) Heading into the 2019 season, Pittsburgh will have just one B. In late February the franchise announced that it would not use the transition tag on Bell, making him an unrestricted free agent. On early Sunday morning Eastern Time it traded Brown to the Raiders after he requested to be shipped out of town multiple times. The final remaining B will be Big Ben, the last of the three I would’ve chosen to build around.

Yes, Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer, ranks among the top 10 all time in virtually every significant passing category, and is more popular around Pittsburgh than Sheetz. But he just turned 37 and didn’t rank in the top 10 in any meaningful rate-based statistics in 2018. (He led the league in passing yardage, but that’s primarily because he led the league in passing attempts by a wide margin. He was 15th in yards per attempt, 15th in passer rating, tied for 17th in touchdown rate, and tied for 18th in interception rate.)

Since adding Bell and Brown, Pittsburgh has fundamentally changed its team identity. In the 10 seasons after drafting Roethlisberger in 2004, the Steelers won games largely because they dominated on defense, allowing the fewest points in the league four times and finishing among the top 10 in scoring defense seven times. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s offense finished lower than 20th in scoring three times, never finishing higher than ninth. Take Super Bowl XL against Seattle, for example: Roethlisberger went 9-of-21 passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions as the Steelers won 21-10. Of 114 Super Bowl performances in which a quarterback has thrown at least five passes, Roethlisberger’s 2006 game ranks 108th in passer rating—the only one lower than 90th that resulted in a victory.

But following the emergence of Bell and Brown, the formula changed. In the five seasons since 2014, Pittsburgh’s offense has ranked among the top 10 in scoring every season, while its defense has ranked among the top 10 in points allowed once. The Steelers’ Super Bowl teams destroyed opponents defensively while Roethlisberger played well enough to get the job done; recently, Pittsburgh has had a dynamic offense and a defense not reliable enough to win championships.

It’s clear that Pittsburgh’s sudden uptick in offense stemmed more from the breakthroughs by Bell and Brown than from any sudden advancement by Roethlisberger. Big Ben is roughly the same QB he’s always been—and seems likely to decline with age—but when two incredible playmakers joined the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s offense shot through the roof. And yet Pittsburgh now has to build around Roethlisberger rather than the two elite talents who wanted to walk away.

I suspect the Steelers would have made the playoffs last season if not for the way Bell left the team. This is not because Bell was the missing piece that Pittsburgh needed to turn into a contender. (Although I suspect the 2017 first-team All-Pro running back would have been useful for a roster that closed 2018 rotating Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley in the backfield.) It’s because the manner in which the Bell debacle played out financially hamstrung Pittsburgh.

Heading into last season, the Steelers knew that Bell wanted a long-term contract. They opted to use their franchise tag on him for a second straight season anyway—despite Bell’s warnings that he’d sit out the entire year if he was tagged. Sure enough, he called Pittsburgh’s bluff, skipping the season rather than playing under the franchise tag. Bell proved willing to sacrifice $14.5 million for the right to stay healthy and leave the team in free agency, a move that lacks precedent in NFL history. Because they assumed that the running back was going to suit up, the Steelers had to sit on $14.5 million they could have spent in free agency, but didn’t. So, Pittsburgh played 2018 with $19.5 million in unused cap space, the fifth-most in the league, nearly twice the league average. Only eight teams had more than $10 million in unused cap space last year, including the Browns, 49ers, and Jets.

Surely, the Steelers could’ve used that $20 million on players to shore up the roster. Pittsburgh’s secondary has been a weak spot for years, and that money could have been used to sign one or several 2018 defensive back free agents. Considering the Steelers went 9-6-1 with five one-possession losses and a tie, those improvements could’ve gotten the team over the hump and into the postseason. Instead, they were left sitting at home in January.

Things will get worse without Brown. There’s really no way to undersell how exceptional he is—by age 30, he accomplished more than any other wide receiver in the history of the league. He’s the only player in NFL history to record six seasons with at least 100 catches and 1,250 receiving yards. Over the past five years, he’s led the league in receiving yards twice, receptions twice, and touchdowns once. While the value of a workhorse running back like Bell is up for debate in the current pass-heavy era, the value of a superstar receiver is not. The Steelers are about to lose arguably the best one in the league, depriving Roethlisberger of his most reliable target (and likely making life a lot more difficult on breakout youngster JuJu Smith-Schuster).

Not only will the Steelers lose Brown; they’ll pay to do it. By trading Brown, Pittsburgh triggers his $21 million dead cap provision, meaning its 2019 salary cap will be cut by $21 million. The lone benefit to the team not paying Bell last season was that franchises are allowed to roll over their unused salary cap space from year to year—but that gain is squandered by trading Brown. After missing the playoffs, the Steelers will have to improve on a budget with an aging quarterback and without maybe the best receiver in football. It seems impossible.

There are two possibilities to explain how the Steelers got here. The first is that the team was somehow saddled with two elite-level talents who both happened to be uncommonly selfish, foolish, and petty. Frankly, this isn’t out of the question. Bell did try to make it seem like getting $0 instead of $14.5 million was a prudent financial decision, and Brown has spent parts of this offseason dubbing himself “Mr. Big Chest,” dying his mustache blond, getting voted the worst singer on The Masked Singer, and recording the worst Cameo videos known to man.

But I suspect there’s something bigger at play. Something we can’t see seems broken in Pittsburgh. It’s so broken that two remarkable players decided they simply had to get out, no matter the cost to their wallets, legacies, or professional reputations. What seems more probable: that lightning would strike twice, blessing or cursing the Steelers with two spectacular talents who both demanded to leave town in roughly the same manner? Or that there’s some fundamental problem that sparked both players’ unusual but similar departures?

I think we know the answer.

Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert flat-out said that Roethlisberger is allowed to criticize anybody he wants, whenever he wants, in Pittsburgh’s organization. Big Ben agrees. His teammates are apparently like his “kids.” It even seems like Roethlisberger has more sway over the direction of the Steelers than head coach Mike Tomlin. Brown has made clear that he did not like Big Ben’s untouchable position within the franchise hierarchy, and Bell likely feels the same. Time and again, however, the Steelers have prioritized placating the notoriously disagreeable Roethlisberger.

I get the impulse. Roethlisberger is a Pittsburgh icon. He threw that pass to Santonio Holmes, and made that tackle on Nick Harper. Sports teams often give the benefit of the doubt to aging stars who brought them greatness. It might be rational to side with superior talents like Brown and Bell over an aging player on the decline, but it’s hard to be rational when handling a franchise mainstay, especially if he’s been a critical part of a dynasty.

But we have to remember: These Steelers never had a dynasty. They achieved some magnificent successes more than a decade ago, and have managed to put forth a quality roster each and every year since. But that’s not a dynasty. It’s just a pretty good team. And I doubt Pittsburgh will even be able to sustain that standard after shedding its best players to appease a past-his-prime quarterback who used to play for great teams.