After two straight seasons of equivalent wins and losses, it’s certainly no surprise that the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been busier and more active than usual in their efforts to reshape a middling roster into a true competitor.
The past few months could be fairly described as a season of change amid the shifting fates of a franchise that had just been to the Super Bowl three times in the very recent past. It may well be that past success that has helped drag them down of late.
Of course, selecting late in the draft annually doesn’t help, nor do the big contracts going out to the players that helped you reach that success. But the true death knell has been an unwillingness to recognize when to let go.
The Steelers had hoped to hold together that championship core for a while longer, but the last two seasons have been the wake-up call necessary to introduce the wave of change that we’ve seen this offseason, designed to steer the organization back in the right direction.
The front office thought they might be on to something significant in 2010 when they first put together the so-called ‘Young Money Crew’, with Mike Wallace coming from the 2009 class and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown coming in the following draft.
It took a couple seasons, but the group started to come together and become a strong unit for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Each had their own unique attributes apart from one another that forced opposing defenses to account for them.
It wasn’t much longer that they started to show wear, however. Wallace’s production slowed and he became less reliable. Sanders was bogged down by injuries and wasn’t contributing to the level that many had hoped.
It was Brown that came out ahead of the pack in the end, and it didn’t take the front office too long to realize it. After Wallace came forward with his excessive contract demands, the Steelers came back and instead offered Brown, entering his third season, a six-year contract extension.
Wallace left in free agency the following year, evidently finding that contract that he was looking for. His departure gave Sanders the opportunity for a bigger role in the offense, and he produced a fair season most notable for his six touchdowns.
He, too, left in free agency this offseason, leaving Brown to continue on as a solo act, with a new supporting cast behind him.
Of course, the Steelers have a history of shying away from multiple big investments at the wide receiver position. In the mid-00s, they had to choose between Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, their former first-round draft pick. They chose to keep Ward, and they went on to make three Super Bowls with him, winning two of them.
Like Ward, Brown isn’t the most physically imposing player, nor did he enter the league with a pedigree, but he’s marched his way past his competitors through outworking them, and doing so with a smile on his face.
Even if there wasn’t much to celebrate last year, the front office was certainly smiling about the individual performance that Brown turned in, further proving that they made the right decision, choosing the right player to build around.