In terms of fan reception, things looked a lot different for JuJu Smith-Schuster at this time two years ago. He was perhaps the most beloved player in the city, cited as the anti-Antonio Brown who would emerge as the next great player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even last year, coming off of a very disappointing, injury-riddled season, things looked different. Since then, he has drawn quite a bit of heat — not for his play, but for his usage of social media. It ultimately was enough to cause many people to actively hope the Steelers would not re-sign him.
The capper on his putting his foot in his mouth came at the end of the regular season, when he now infamously answered a question about the Cleveland Browns and their evident improvement by stating, in part, that “the Browns is the Browns”. That immediately caught fire and was adopted by the Browns as something of a motto, appropriating it as a positive, and they excoriated him after defeating the Steelers in the postseason. It was clearly a motivating factor, but how much?
“Probably a lot, honestly, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he said, when asked that question recently during an interview with Mike Florio. “It got to the point where the Cleveland Browns had a billboard up in Cleveland saying ‘Browns is the Browns.’ I think by me saying that, it says that a lot of people care what I say, and my voice, and my opinion.”
“At the end of the day, I said what I said; I don’t take anything back,” he added. “They did come out there and they did whoop our ass, and it is what it is. We lost that game. We lost early in that game, within the first 5-10 minutes, but we still fought.”
The Steelers trailed 28-0 at the end of the first quarter, which started with Maurkice Pouncey hiking the opening snap of the game over Ben Roethlisberger’s head, which would ultimately be recovered by Cleveland for a touchdown.
“I’ll tell you one thing about our team: We still fought to the end,” Smith-Schuster contended. “It wasn’t good enough. I just know one thing: AFC North is probably the hardest division right now to win in. Guys like Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Ben, and I think every team is getting to the point where we’re like, ‘Man, they’re really good.’ So, it is what it is.”
The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season, though they finished on a 1-4 slide, and ultimately won the AFC North for the first time since 2017. They would ultimately lose that game in the opening round of the playoffs 48-37, which is the closest that they got at any point in the game.
The Browns would at least give the Kansas City Chiefs a run for their money a week later, ultimately falling 22-17. It marked the franchise’s first postseason victory since before the original Browns moved to Baltimore. The Ravens have won a couple of Super Bowls since then, so suffice it to say that these Browns are a different kind.