After a breakout All-Pro season in his fourth year, now seems the time for the natural evolution of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown to blossom into a team leader. It is a topic that I’ve already touched on earlier this offseason after the departure of Jerricho Cotchery.
There were hints of that last year, and his work ethic has always been a trait through which he has been able to lead by example. He has already made league history twice in his first four seasons, first by becoming the first player to record 1000 receiving yards and 1000 return yards in the same year, and then by recording at least five receptions and 50 yards in every game during a single season.
But leading in word and leading in deed, while both valuable, are related, but different, and the Steelers are in need of both. He has already proven to be the latter, and now seems the moment for him to develop into the former.
Due to standard roster movements and financial obligations, Brown now finds himself as the veteran receiver on the team—arguably the most accomplished—and certainly one of the cornerstones of the offense.
With a young offensive line and a young backfield, he, Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, and Ramon Foster now make up the brain trust along the offensive side of the ball, all of whom have been with the team for at least four seasons.
Once part of the Young Money Crew with Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, Brown—the youngest—was the first to cash in on the group’s name when he signed a six-year contract in excess of $40 million after just two seasons. Wallace followed the money to Miami in 2013 and Sanders did the same in Denver just this year.
Now Brown finds himself surrounded by the likes of Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye, and Justin Brown, with Lance Moore—the only one shorter than him—providing veteran presence, but also being asked to learn a new system after spending his entire career in New Orleans.
He knows now more than ever, through his experience and his accomplishments, that his words carry weight with his teammates. While he’s by no means been averse to speaking to the media or being in front of the camera, I think we saw something a bit different yesterday when he talked about another vocal former team leader, free safety Ryan Clark.
It was part of a broader conversation about the need for the Steelers locker room to regain the camaraderie that helped contribute to the success that Brown was exposed to early in his career, when they went 12-4 in consecutive seasons. And I believe, like his head coach, he was using the media to speak to his guys.
Clark’s remarks earlier this offseason just happened to be a symptom of the ailment that Brown diagnosed in the locker room. His idea wasn’t to treat the symptom (i.e. specifically admonishing Clark, which is how the original story headline framed the conversation), but rather to help build up to a common goal: a united locker room.
When you see people taking shots who were on the same team and wearing the same jerseys, that’s a sign of not having that team camaraderie. That’s something we need to get back, something we haven’t had for the past two years.
Our business is winning … and I think we’ve definitely got to get better in that area…We’ve kind of got a new team and a new environment, and I’m excited to get the draftees in and get everybody together so we can get rolling.
Ryan Clark is the team’s past. LaMarr Woodley is in the past. It’s time for Brown to help commandeer the team of the future, with Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, and others hopefully forming the core of a new, united locker room that fosters success in the business of winning.
It can be debated whether or not Brown’s remarks, particularly those about Clark, in the end work to accomplish that goal, but I think his intention here was clear. And I think it’s something the Steelers hope to see more of in the future.