The Pittsburgh Steelers just introduced their new general manager yesterday. We are just days into a completely new era at the quarterback position, with Mitch Trubisky and first-round rookie Kenny Pickett looking to earn the right to be the successor to Ben Roethlisberger.
And what we’re talking about is a fourth-year wide receiver not in attendance during voluntary practices. That would be Diontae Johnson, who while now being the longest-tenured wide receiver (and among the longest-tenured on the entire offense) has never been seen nor regarded as a leader, nor has given any indication that he intended to.
But many are choosing to focus on his decision not to report to voluntary OTAs, which is not at all uncommon for veteran players, and players who are in the middle of a contract dispute. The Baltimore Ravens currently do not have former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson in attendance, as one notable example.
According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Johnson “is unhappy with his current contract situation and trying to send a message through his lack of attendance”, which is basically what everybody has assumed. The fourth-year wide receiver has just sat back and watched wide receivers of a similar pedigree cash in on huge contracts this offseason that now breach the $20 million-per-year mark.
“It’s something to talk about, but nobody cares if Johnson is there for OTAs, and it’s not going to affect his play one way or the other”, Kaboly wrote, which is essentially true. While it will be made a big deal of in some circles, it will be completely irrelevant whenever actual football is being played. And, again, Johnson has never offered any illusions of his being some commander. Indeed, he has said the exact opposite.
“I just let my play do the talking. I’m not a vocal leader, so I’m not gonna act like I’m one”, he said in December last year, which is about as recent as you’re going to get right now. “I just like to go out there and make plays and do my routine. If someone wants to work extra with me, come on. Other than that, I’m just trying to play”.
A Pro Bowler in 2021 after recording his first 100-reception and 1000-yard season, Johnson certainly has plenty of talent, but not every talented player who is a major contributor must necessarily take on a leadership role. The Steelers have had recent All-Pro players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell whom few would mistake as leaders—not to compare Johnson, positively or negatively, on the field or off the field, to the aforementioned.
Some may not be happy about the idea of a player like Johnson refusing to take on a leadership role, but worse, I think, is a leadership role being forced upon somebody who is not genuinely a leader. Just because Johnson is one of the older players on the offense doesn’t mean he has to command a presence with his words.
Besides, the Steelers are already beginning to build a leadership coalition with the likes of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, James Daniels, Mason Cole, and the quarterbacks, Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. Whoever wins that starting job is going to be able to command attention. Led the leaders lead, and the players play.
Johnson is a player, and he’ll do his job in September. His job isn’t to be in Pittsburgh right now. He’s working out on his own, doing what he believes he needs to do to be ready for the season, as he did last year.