Eventful offseason puts Pittsburgh Steelers' culture in spotlight

In the spring of 2008, center Justin Hartwig was trying to figure out what to do. After four seasons with the Titans and two more with the Panthers, he was a free agent. Several teams were attempting to sign him, including the Steelers, but he couldn’t make up his mind because the offers were so similar. Finally, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, offered an outside perspective.

"He said, ‘When a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers wants to sign you, there’s something to be said for that. If all things are equal, you go play for the Steelers because of what a special organization it is,’ " Hartwig recalled recently by phone.

The former sixth-round pick from Kansas signed with the Steelers and played two seasons before retiring to a small town an hour north of Pittsburgh.

"You have to understand that playing in Pittsburgh is not like playing in other cities," Hartwig continued. "In Pittsburgh, you have a legacy. If I would have stayed with the Carolina Panthers for a few more years, that would not mean as much as if you were to play 10 years for the Steelers. You are family in the city of Pittsburgh long after you’re done playing. Guys usually want to stay there."

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There is a certain mystique about the Steelers because of their historical success and their deep bond with the local fan base. The Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys are among a handful of other franchises in a similar position, but what helps the Steelers stand out is their stability and consistency over the past five-plus decades. They’ve had only three head coaches since 1969 and just seven losing seasons since 1972. Their six Super Bowl titles are tied with the Patriots for most in league history, and their 21 enshrinees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame trail only the Bears and Packers.

The level of respect associated with their brand has as much to do with how they do things as what they do. From the top down, the organization is known for conducting its business with class and decorum — which makes this offseason incredibly notable, because for the first time in recent memory, we have gotten an unobstructed view of discord within the ranks.

A franchise that, with few exceptions, made sure to hold on to its homegrown, Hall of Fame-caliber players in their prime traded disgruntled superstar wideout Antonio Brown to the Raiders last month for third- and fifth-round draft picks. The move closed out a dramatic saga that included Brown sitting out Week 17, saying quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has an "owner mentality" and giving an interview in which he said he doesn’t "have to play football." Then Le’Veon Bell, arguably the most complete running back in football, was allowed to leave via free agency after he sat out the 2018 season as part of a contract dispute. Pittsburgh management typically says nothing controversial, but general manager Kevin Colbert created waves in February when he called Roethlisberger the team’s "unquestioned leader" and said there were "52 kids" beneath him.

Three months from training camp, the Steelers know they likely will be scrutinized more heavily than anyone else in 2019. Was it smart to trade Brown? Was it wise to let Bell walk? Will coach Mike Tomlin rule with a firmer grip? Can Roethlisberger be a great leader and not just a great player? Can third-year pro JuJu Smith-Schuster handle being a No. 1 receiver? Will fellow third-year pro James Conner stay healthy for a full season and be able to handle the workload of a lead back?

But more than that, the upcoming season should answer the question of whether the drama of last year was a one-off or reflective of an actual change in Steelers culture.

"When it comes to questions about our culture, I have absolutely no belief in that whatsoever," Colbert said. "Coach Tomlin creates a great environment for our players to become men. He not only coaches them into becoming what he wants them to be as players, but what he expects of them as men. Are we 100 percent perfect? Absolutely not. But I don’t think we’re any different from most professional organizations."

Perhaps not, but some former Steelers look at the franchise and struggle to recognize it. Nearly three dozen of them are said to participate regularly on a group text, during which they discuss what it means to be a Steeler and how they’re not seeing that today. Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson, who played for Pittsburgh from 1988 through 2000, has not been on those particular chats, but he believes things have changed, in part because times have changed as related to technology and social media.

"Social media has made a big impact on sports as a whole," he said. "Everything is instantaneous now. In the past, if you could have a beef with a player, but you would never say things about your teammates in the media. But now, with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, guys can lash out from afar, from the comfort of their homes. It’s crazy and it’s disrespectful. They don’t care about anybody’s feelings, they don’t care about the team, they don’t care about the ownership and how it looks."

The feeling among a handful of former Steelers is that star players today are more willing to put their needs before the team. They contend that key players on the franchise’s last Super Bowl-winning squad, in 2008, took under-market deals rather than squeeze the organization for every available penny, because the team and the group were bigger than the individual.

"(All-Pro safety) Troy Polamalu never got to free agency because he always took team-friendly deals," said Ryan Clark, a safety who played for the Steelers from 2006 through 2013. "Hines Ward was never paid real-life, Pro-Bowl wide receiver money. As the times changed, these guys don’t really do that anymore, so you’re going to have players like Le’Veon Bell who wants a certain amount of money and he won’t take a cap-friendly deal. Now you get the stalemate with the franchise tag and the holdouts."

Clark, a former player rep for the Steelers, is not being critical of Bell. He’s simply stating what is. NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, since assuming the job in 2009, has been pushing for players to view the NFL as a business and themselves as businessmen. Some have taken the words to heart and been more willing to do what’s considered unconventional, whether that’s Bell sitting out the 2018 season while under the franchise tag, or former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins playing under the tag for back-to-back seasons until he secured an $84 million guaranteed deal from Minnesota as a free agent.

Conflicts between players and teams over money is as old as the game itself. But how those disagreements are managed sometimes plays a role in whether the issue goes from a simmer to a boil. For instance, multiple people, both within and outside of the team, who are familiar with the inner-workings of the Steelers organization contend privately that the change in leadership two years ago, with Art Rooney II taking over after the death of his father, Dan Rooney, affected how business is done.

The late Rooney was known for having a personable touch and, in most cases, addressing and settling issues before they reached crisis level. There are some who believe the Bell and Brown situations never would have gotten to red-alert status if Dan Rooney had been around. These same people contend that Art II, who declined to comment for this story, is more hard-line in contract matters. If true, that is a significant change in culture.

One thing everyone agrees on is, technology and social media have changed the dynamics for some players in particular and for the locker room in general. Brown and Bell were not high-profile players when they came into the league (Brown was a sixth-round pick and Bell was a second-rounder), but as they developed into All-Pro players, their presence on social media increased noticeably. While this is not bad in and of itself, the platform can be a breeding ground for trouble.

"This generation of athlete has the medium to be much more vocal about things," said Clark, now an analyst with ESPN. "We now get a piece of what everybody is thinking as they are thinking it, whereas it used to be reporters had to call players to know what was going on. Consequently, now there is all this ‘stuff’ out there. The generations have changed. Now you get drama out there, in places like Pittsburgh and New York, with the Maras and the Giants (John Mara’s family has owned that team since its founding), where it always had been stable, with few exceptions."

While much of the attention will focus on the players, Tomlin said he has looked at himself this offseason, following a 9-6-1 campaign in which Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, to see where he can improve. He has never had a losing season in 12 years on the job, but he believes there is always room for growth.

"Reflection is a part of this, particularly when you have failure," Tomlin said. "I consider last year a failure. The reflection and the analysis of how we operate and how I function within that is just a natural point of procedure."

Whether that includes how he interacts with or handles players remains to be seen. Brown reportedly did not return Tomlin’s calls in Week 17 when Brown did not report for practice, and Bell was unresponsive at times, as well. Whether that represents a sign of disrespect or a sign of the times depends on a person’s point of view. But it did not go unnoticed by some of his former players.

"He wants guys to be able to be individuals and have their own personalities and be able to stress their cultures," Clark said. "I’ve benefitted from Coach Tomlin a ton because, even though I wasn’t a Hall of Fame player, I was a guy he let speak freely about pretty much whatever the hell I wanted to. I had a certain amount of loyalty to him for that — and I still do. There were certain things that I wasn’t going to do to the team, not because of the team, but because of Coach Tomlin."

By moving on from Brown and Bell, there is a sense that the Steelers want to focus on the whole rather than the individuals. Hartwig does not spend much time around the team, but there is no escaping the goings-on when you live an hour north of Pittsburgh. He has no inside knowledge of what went on last year, but he knows what worked for them when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in his first season on the team. In two words: selflessness and accountability.

"The best policy is to always keep things in-house, and the Steelers had problems doing that last year, so you go: What’s the dynamic with ownership? And what’s the dynamic with Coach Tomlin? Is there accountability in the locker room?" he said. "Everything that I heard in the media is that some guys wanted to be above the law. The biggest thing that can fracture a locker room is when guys want to stand out and have special considerations for themselves, especially if a coach is not reining those types of things in. The Rooneys are trying to do the right thing. They had a couple of superstars on their team, and individually it’s time to move on from those situations. I think they’re trying to get it right and stick to the ways they’ve always done things as an organization."

If true, that would represent a return to culture, not a change in culture.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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