Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
The questions have followed Antonio Brown throughout his career, wondering whether what we’ve been seeing was a fluke, or if he can take it to the next level the following season. Every year, he has gone out on the field and provided the answers to those questions, culminating in the greatest season for a wide receiver in franchise history.
The only question that he is now facing appears to be, simply this: can he do it again? In 2014, he led the league with 129 receptions (the second-most all-time) and 1698 yards, and led the AFC with 13 receiving touchdowns. All three of those marks are franchise records, the second of which was a record broken that he himself established the year before.
Some wondered if he would even make the team as a rookie in 2010 as a sixth-round draft pick. He contributed infrequently that year, but he began to break out in a non-starting capacity in 2011, going over the 1000-yard mark.
Some wondered if it was a fluke, but the Steelers signed him to a long-term extension after that season. He entered the starting lineup the following year, and there were questions about whether or not he could keep it up given the attention he would receive. Though he dealt with an ankle injury, turned in a solid season with a strong finish.
With the departure of Mike Wallace the following year, the question became two-fold: could he be just as effective without Wallace taking the top off the defense? Could he be the top dog? He answered those questions with a breakout season, posting 110 receptions for 1499 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs.
The receiving corps was essentially completely remade last year, with the only carryover other than Brown being Markus Wheaton, a second-year player and virtual non-contributor in his first season, who would be entering the starting lineup across from Brown.
The Steelers lost both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in free agency that offseason, who combined for 16 touchdowns the year before. Could Brown not only be the featured target, but also the clear leader of a young and inexperienced receiving corps? The results provided an obvious answer, with the receiver being named to the first-team All-Pro team and entering the discussion as the best receiver in the league.
There aren’t many questions left for Brown to answer, I suppose, but perhaps we should start looking for them to make sure that he keeps that chip on his shoulder. Maybe his next goal can be to become the type of big game player that Lynn Swann was for the Steelers. In four postseason games, Brown has yet to record a touchdown. Let that be fuel for his fire in 2015.