The Pittsburgh Steelers disembarked from their plane, beleaguered from their fierce battle with the Kansas City Chiefs, and found they were already embroiled in controversy.
In the public sphere of the NFL, controversy can arrive in many forms, be it league-induced (suspensions, fines), media-induced (some player spouts off in a post-game interview) and so on and so forth.
It does not usually come in this manner, a violation of privacy that encroaches on a team’s most sacred place – the locker room.
When Antonio Brown uploaded the video, of Mike Tomlin’s post-game speech, he wasn’t just breaking some flimsy code of ethics. He was betraying his organization, undermining his coach and setting his team up for failure in one fell swoop.
Team meetings and their content are treaded as sacrosanct – what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room – for several reasons.
The first is practicality; teams operate with cloak and dagger secrecy to their weekly routines, unwilling to divulge even the tiniest detail to the other teams, for fear they may glean some measure of strategy from them.
The second – and most-glaring – reason is that coaches don’t want to provide fodder for unnecessary bulletin board material. It is unknown what Brown was trying to accomplish by posting the video, but all he’s done is rile up Tom Brady and the New England Patriots – a team that needs little in the way of outside-motivation as it is.
As for Coach Tomlin, he will have to spend the week talking to the media about a firestorm that could have been completely avoided. And, he will have to deal with the tough question of discipline, for his star player.
Brown clearly crossed the line, but can the Steelers afford to play even a short stretch without him, next Sunday? Against the Chiefs, number 84 hauled in six catches for 108 yards. The Steelers’ second-leading receiver, Eli Rogers, had five receptions but totaled just 27 yards.
Against the Patriots, who have no trouble finding the end zone themselves, every possession will be crucial for the Steelers. Keeping the ball out of Brady’s hands will be their best strategy, and they’ll need their best third-down weapon, Brown, who accounted for 64 first-downs (fourth in the league).
It’s a lose-lose situation for Tomlin, however. If he decides to start Brown anyway, then he’s essentially castrated himself of all authority on player-discipline, going forward. He must make a stand here: suspend Brown for no less than one half of the game – or risk losing the respect of the team.
Pittsburgh is 103-57 under Tomlin (.644 winning percentage). They have seven playoff appearances, including two trips to the big game (1-1 in Super Bowls). His credentials should speak for themselves.
However, the whispers continue. Television commentator and former Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw delivered a scathing-critique, earlier this season, questioning Tomlin’s coaching mettle. While it seemed unwarranted and almost-comical critique at the time, today’s reality is that narratives don’t have to be true to gain legs, they just have to be reported.
Additionally, the troubling pattern of off-field behavior, including multiple, off-season suspensions has continued for some time now. With this violation of trust, it is time for action. The timing is unfortunate, but letting this transgression slip would be worse.