In 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ future looked bright, awash in talent at the wide receiver position. Mike Wallace was continuing to streak past defenders while Antonio Brown had just begun to emerge, and Emmanuel Sanders was contributing as well. They were the core group, the future.
They were also the Young Money Crew, and with a name like that, it should be no surprise that the Steelers were only able to keep one of the three. Brown, actually the youngest and least pedigreed of the three, was the first to ‘cash in’, after the team and Wallace failed to come to terms in the 2012 offseason.
Brown signed what now looks like a very modest deal after two seasons in light of what he has become. Wallace cashed in big a year later in free agency, but he has struggled to find success on the field, particularly at a team level. The seeming ‘runt’ of a very impressive litter, Sanders came last, signing a decent yet modest contract with the Broncos.
But last night he became the first of the group to cash in with something other than money when his team claimed the 50th Super Bowl title as the first of the trio to get back to the Super Bowl. The Steelers reached the title game in Sanders’—and Brown’s—rookie year, but they lost. Neither Brown’s Steelers nor Wallace’s Dolphins and Vikings have gotten particularly close since.
There may be a slight irony to the fact that it took Sanders’ Broncos to win the way the Steelers won their championships, with dominant, smothering defense. Von Miller’s two strip sacks produced a defensive touchdown and a first and goal for the offense that was more than the difference in the game, as he became one of the few defensive players to be honored as Super Bowl MVP—even the Steelers’ six MVPs all came from the offensive side of the ball.
Sanders did lead all players in the game with six receptions for 83 yards, the only player in the game with five or more receptions, and in fact he has gone on to take his game to an entirely new level since leaving Pittsburgh, a bit of an enigma in its own right.
Over the course of the last two years, Sanders has caught 177 passes for 2539 yards and 15 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl nomination in 2014, and he likely would have been a Pro Bowler in 2015 as an alternate as well had the Broncos not advanced to the Super Bowl.
But I’m sure he would have traded all of those statistics for the Lombardi that is now sticky with the fingerprints of the Broncos players and staff, including his own. And you can be sure that Brown would trade all of his unprecedented individual accomplishments to put his hands on the Lombardi as well. Wallace…I’m not so sure.
But either way, for all of the bluster behind the early days of the Young Money Crew and their assurance of taking the league by storm—they may have parted company to do so, and they have in their own ways. But Emmanuel Sanders is so far the only one to be able to say that it amounted to something greater than himself.