By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had but three head coaches - Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin – since 1969 and have been run by the Rooney family since the franchise’s inception in 1933.
I’ve used those statistics in this column before, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing. The three head coaches over five decades is particularly mind boggling, considering the transient nature of the career field. Professional coaches live out of suitcases in pre-furnished, rented apartments. Their families don’t immediately uproot to move to their latest employment destination. They pay monthly storage fees in multiple cities. Absentee ballot has been their voting method since the Reagan administration. Papa was a rolling stone; wherever he laid his hat was his home. Ditto for professional coaches.
Except, of course, in Pittsburgh. Except, of course, for the Steelers.
Organizations talk about stability, establishing core values, brand creation and developing a symbiotic relationship with their city, the type that oozes into the pores of locals and, over decades, creates a nationwide fan base. Some succeed briefly or even for an era; most fail miserably and quickly. Coaches are then fired. Executives are run off. Organizational reboots follow.
Except in Pittsburgh. Except for the Steelers.
What is going on in western Pennsylvania? First Le’Veon Bell – one of the top running backs in football - gets into the mother of all contract disputes and sits out this season. Now Antonio Brown – among the NFL’s best wide receivers – essentially goes AWOL before a pivotal season-ending game and seems determined to finagle his way out of Pittsburgh for the contentment that apparently awaits in some other NFL locale. QB Ben Roethlisberger is doing damage control, head coach Mike Tomlin seems fatigued by the public drama and Steeler nation is likely befuddled by why Bell and Brown wouldn’t want to join Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as fellow Steelers Hall of Fame running backs and wide receivers. The situation is hot mess, so much so that TE Jesse James likened the Steelers…the Pittsburgh Steelers…to the Kardashians.
For D.C. football fans, this dysfunction, lack of logic and loss of direction is routine. The Washington football team has been a rudderless, overly dramatic and substance-lacking disaster for at least 20 years – a period coinciding with Daniel Snyder’s ownership. Kirk Cousins’s exhausting multi-year contract squabble and ultimate exit from D.C. is not identical to Bell’s or Brown’s situation, but it shares similarities. Like Bell, Cousins felt under-valued and never could reach a long-term agreement; like Brown, his relationship with the organization became irreparable. Cousins left for greener pastures - and a lot of greenbacks - in Minnesota. Bell’s a free agent and on his way out of Pittsburgh. Brown, who remains under contract with Pittsburgh, doesn’t seem far behind.
Business is business, but who’s winning here? Minnesota, Washington and Pittsburgh all regressed this season. Cousins’s performance fell far short of his $26M price tag. Washington’s fix at quarterback – Alex Smith – suffered a horrific injury and may never play again. Bell didn’t earn a dime. Brown is laying waste to his Pittsburgh career and reputation. If Pittsburgh loses both Bell and Brown, the once irreproachable Steelers organization deserves criticism. And none of them, neither the teams nor the players – are participating in the playoffs this year.
How all this came to pass is unclear. The suspects? Pride, ego and money – in spades. Maybe Cousins eventually plays up to his contract in Minnesota or Washington finds a better solution at quarterback. Pittsburgh might be better without the Bell and Brown distractions; a fresh start on a different NFL team may serve both players well. The bet, though, is that all of the above, soon or on some distant day, will wish they had of worked a little harder to make it work. Familiarity can breed contempt. Change can be seductive. But sometimes staying the course – and the character-building scar tissue, the relationships and the deep satisfaction it can yield - is worth the grind.
I’ll stop there because this is starting to feel like marriage counseling…and that’s way beyond my qualifications.