On the day two long years ago when he signed a five-year contract that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL, Antonio Brown had the audacity to share with the Twitterverse this declaration: “Steelers for life.”Man, fruit flies have a longer life span than that promise. Brown did not even make it to the end of his second season before checking out on the team and agitating for a new deal, which he insisted must come from one of the other 31 teams. (Oops, sorry. One of the other teams that is not Buffalo). He essentially forced the Steelers to trade him, then destroyed the market for his services with his bizarre offseason antics. Oakland wound up getting the game’s best — and most high-maintenance — receiver in exchange for a sack of deflated footballs and a used blocking sled.BENDER: AB can avoid TO-like ending to careerThe Steelers thus reached the unofficial end of a chapter in their history that represents the most depressing front-office failure since they cut Johnny Unitas in training camp. They became drunk on their own genius. They neglected how self-interested and undependable Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell had become and desperately clung to the stars they had stolen in the draft with sixth- and second-round picks, respectively.Even after Brown distracted from preparations for the 2016 AFC championship game with his Facebook Live fiasco, they chose to extend his contract with a deal that will take an enormous chunk out of their salary cap this season even as he catches footballs for a team they theoretically could oppose in the AFC playoffs.Even after Bell missed the start of two seasons with suspensions and the end of three others with injuries, and even after he declined an offer that would pay him nearly 50 percent more than the next in line at his position, they decided to place a $12.5 million franchise tag on him for the 2017 season. And they tried to get away with that again in 2018, even as the two teams that battled in the previous year’s Super Bowl each split about half as much money among three different backs. Bell declined to report and took a $14.5 million chunk out of their cap budget as he rapped and jet-skied.NFL FREE AGENTS:SN ranks the top players on the marketWhile the team threw money toward these two, linebacker Ryan Shazier, the fulcrum of their defense, suffered a devastating injury and left a vacancy the team barely addressed during the offseason leading into 2018. They signed a journeyman, Jon Bostic, then wound up barely putting him on the field by the end of the season. Their defense ranked 29th in total takeaways. Only Detroit (6-10) and San Francisco (4-12) were worse. The money they should have spent to improve this unit was, figuratively, sitting in a bank vault waiting to be claimed by Bell.The failure with Bell, who should have been allowed to depart when his rookie deal was up, seemed to provide a template of disruption for Brown to follow. It required a different tactic, of course, because Brown had agreed to the new contract, but he quite plainly was emboldened by Bell’s defiance through 2018.It’s preposterous that all the Steelers will have to show for their infatuation with Brown and Bell is a combined $35.62 million of wasted cap space, plus a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder from the Brown trade and likely a third-round compensatory pick that will be awarded with Bell signing with the Jets.Only two of the Steelers’ past eight third-rounders became dependable NFL regulars. The success of back James Conner and nose tackle Javon Hargrave is buried under the ineptitude of Curtis Brown, Dri Archer and Sammie Coates. The team’s track record in the fifth round, not surprisingly, is even worse. Although Bell and Brown wore Pittsburgh uniforms for a combined 14 seasons, and though they frequently pledged loyalty to the team through various social media platforms, it was apparent their allegiance never was to anything beyond their game checks and public profiles. This is not uncommon in professional football, because it is common among the failed teams.Pittsburgh last week week took steps toward recognizing and rewarding those whose commitment to the organization is obvious; it signed offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster to multiyear contracts. These two will be Steelers for life.The team around them, however, will be less than it should have been.
Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are gone, but Steelers’ failures with them will endure