Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery is currently preparing to participate in the first Super Bowl of his career. Such is the fate of an individual who spend the majority of his career playing for the Jets (I kid—but not really). But prior to spending the past two seasons in Carolina, where he attended college, he spent three seasons in Pittsburgh. And even at the time he knew something was brewing.
And that made it difficult for him to leave and sign with the Panthers in free agency following the 2013 season, which was among the best of his entire career. That was his 10th NFL season, and was already 31 years old at the time, but he still produced 10 touchdowns connecting with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers were expected to retain Cotchery that offseason all the while expecting to be hit with the loss of Emmanuel Sanders, but as it would turn out, Pittsburgh lost both of them, and with that came the loss of 16 touchdowns from the 2013 season.
Not that that was Cotchery’s concern. Nor did it make him doubt what he had seen begun with the offense that emerged as one of the best in the league this past season, which has sent five different players to the Pro Bowl over the past two seasons, and four members of the first-team All-Pro unit in the same span.
Incredible, Antonio Brown was only beginning to emerge as the All-World superstar that he has shown himself to be, leading the conversation as the best wide receiver in the league. Cotchery had also been mentoring then-rookie Markus Wheaton in his final season in Pittsburgh. Wheaton emerged this past season with five touchdowns receptions in his third year.
Also emerging was fellow rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who is now in the discussion as the best all-around running back in the game, even if he only managed to play six games during the 2015 season. He was among the Steelers’ first-team All-Pro representatives in 2014 after setting the franchise record for yards from scrimmage in a season.
And Cotchery saw all of this developing around him, and tempted him to stay in Pittsburgh to watch it blossom into what he sees on the field today. Though he says that the Steelers made a competitive offer, it wasn’t what the Panthers were offering, either in compensation or location.
Cotchery told Jeremy Fowler for ESPN that it was during the second half of that 2013 season that was really the start of the Steelers’ offensive turnaround, saying that’s when they “started really getting comfortable with the offense they run now”.
Had it not been the Panthers calling and offering him a deal, perhaps Cotchery would still be in Pittsburgh as the veteran presence in the wide receivers room, a role that Darrius Heyward-Bey now somewhat serves. Carolina was “the place where it was going to be hard to say no”, he said about leaving Pittsburgh. Especially given the potential in the offense that the Steelers have since realized.