Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward sees a problem with leadership and overall team culture as the team’s dramatic year continues.
Fansided’s Mark Carman sat down with Hall of Fame former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl, and unsurprisingly, most of the discussion centered around the sheer volume of drama that has been pouring out of Pittsburgh’s locker room over the past 12 months.
From running back Le’Veon Bell choosing to sit out the entire 2018 season rather than play on a second consecutive franchise tag, to the trading away of wideout Martavis Bryant, to the ongoing dispute between receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that led to Brown missing the team’s Week 17 tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals (and have prompted an avalanche of trade rumors), Pittsburgh’s 2018 has far from what the franchise envisioned for itself.
But while Ward made it clear that, “what [Brown] has done is not right,” he has a larger fish to fry when it comes to the real problem in Pittsburgh: The overarching Steelers’ culture. Ward said that the current situation is “not just all on [Brown] … the Steelers have too much talent to miss the playoffs … and that falls on the head coach, that’s a reflection of Mike Tomlin.”
Ward added, “I think [Tomlin’s] whole spiel about ‘The Standard is the Standard,’ well, the culture that he’s created is not the standard of the Pittsburgh Steelers.” And his criticism didn’t stop there, with Ward also lumping in Roethlisberger as part of the problem. Said Ward:
“When you’re a quarterback and you hold that ‘C’ [captains’ patch] on your chest, you have a radio show every week and you’re criticizing guys, on air, to the media, that’s not a good sign … We had one motto: Keep my name out [of] your mouth in the media.”
Ward was referring to Roethlisberger’s common habit of calling out his teammates on his weekly radio show in Pittsburgh — he did so with Brown as well as rookie receiver James Washington this season — as a sign that the lack of keeping issues in-house has been the real undermining factor when it came to the Steelers’ eventual unraveling this season.
Ward isn’t wrong. Brown is not the lone actor in this particular strain of drama and that there is indeed a culture in place, in the organization, which allows his behavior, and those of certain other teammates, to exist, to foster and ultimately, to fester. While Brown, a seven-time Pro Bowler and league-leader in receiving touchdowns in 2018, should be more prominent in team leadership, it does come down to what Roethlisberger and Tomlin teach the rest of the locker room by example.
There’s no question that Brown has felt enabled by a culture that allows Roethlisberger to air laundry in public unchecked, a sentiment Ward also expressed: “It starts with Ben Roethlisberger. If he can do it, why can’t they do it?” And while Ward is optimistic that Brown and the Steelers can come to some level of agreement to move forward together, the monolithic cultural change that he believes needs to take place may not be in the cards moving forward. Particularly not when team president Art Rooney II is adamant that there is no culture problem in the Steelers’ locker room.
But Rooney’s rosy view of his franchise isn’t shared by most everyone who followed along with the Steelers’ saga this year. If collapsing by way of losing four of their final six games, thus putting themselves out of playoff contention, didn’t work well enough as a wake-up call, it’s hard to imagine much cultural change taking shape for Pittsburgh in the months leading up to Week 1 of the 2019 season. There’s a leadership void waiting to be filled, yet the Steelers remain in denial.