After an offseason highlighted by scrutiny of players' personal conducts, the suspension of the star quarterback and the continued antics of other members of the roster (namely, Jeff Reed and Santonio Holmes), the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers were at a difficult crossroads.
They had talent but also needed to send a message. Frustratingly, the team's two most gifted offensive players were at the limelight of a heated public debate regarding the degradation of the Steelers' image. The Rooney family had to do something bold to send a message. And any realist in Pittsburgh realized the answer that best balanced a no-nonsense approach with the issue (and reality) of winning was NOT to release the franchise, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In a bold move, they traded star receiver Santonio Holmes, fueling debate about the quality of targets Ben Roethlisberger would be left to target on passing plays. Like Plaxico Burress' departure before him, the loss of Holmes garnered questions:
Who can replace his production?
Does player X have enough experience to help fill the void?
Years after Plaxico left town, only to subsequently bring down an "evil" undefeated empire and shoot himself in the leg in the space of months, the Steelers have brought in Jericho Cotchery. After so many years have passed, calling Cotchery any type of replacement would be unwarranted, moreover, silly.
While "Cotch Rocket" is not tall and foreboding like Burress before him, nor a true replacement for the New York wideout who left over a half decade ago, he does provide a reliable veteran target across from Hines for the first time in years.
Yet, while he could be competing for some repetitions in the slot (an occasional third receiver at best), he's likely for the fourth receiver slot, if not fifth. My excitement over the underrated former Jets star booms, but he is not the main reason fans in Pittsburgh should be excited about this season's receiving corps.
After all, there is a true replacement for a former Steelers icon. The blossoming talent would replace a man who snatched a ball over the outstretched arms of defenders in the biggest game of the NFL season, coming down to the ground with his body at a 45-degree angle, both toes on the end zone paint to finish a drive he had himself dominated. The amazingly artistic "retrieval" (some call it a reception) brought Pittsburgh its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
For all of his heroics, the Steelers found Holmes expendable, evidenced by their decision to rid themselves of his controversial presence in the locker room.
The Steelers played Holmes and his new team, the Jets, in last season's AFC Championship game, a 24-19 Pittsburgh win ended by a key third-down catch by the man who appears could be his successor.
Don't let it be said that sometimes fate doesn't let torches be passed in strange and fitting ways!
If you take the "S" out of Santonio (standing, perhaps, for sentences, substance abuse and silliness), you are left with ANTONIO.
Meet Antonio Brown, the member of the Steelers roster making the biggest impression of any preseason in recent memory.
For years, Steelers fans had wondered if the height and physical presence of Plaxico Burress would be missed in the offense.
Fortunately, in the case of Santonio Holmes, it seems clear that the franchise has found the potential route-running, explosive and gamebreaking ability that the former Super Bowl MVP provided the "Steal City," aptly named for the Lombardi Trophy the former receiver "snatched" from Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals.
Anybody who witnessed Brown's display this preseason was already pleased with his progress, a momentous series of catches with the starting offense that showcased his ability to strike quickly from anywhere on the field and maintain drives via the mid-level passing attack. In other words, it is becoming clear that Antonio is able to sustain offense as well as produce it at a singular moment.
In last night's game, new elements were revealed that likened back to great plays made by Santonio Holmes.
During a Monday Night Football game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, Ben Roethlisberger delivered a halftime speech to his offense, which had been embarrassed in the first half. At the start of the third quarter, a Roethlisberger laser over the middle seemed destined as a turnover. The Ravens' secondary narrowly missed snagging the interception, and Holmes—who had only a microscopic lead on the defender in front of him going across the middle—snagged the football. He used his speed to burst into the end zone. The play was critical as the Steelers would comeback from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Ravens in overtime.
Last night, a Roethlisberger pass over the middle seemed ripe for the intercepting by Falcons defensive backs closing on the ball. The pigskin managed to needle its way into the arms of Antonio Brown, who also used his flashy motor to break into the clear, running freely into the end-zone.
Steelers fans who can remember both plays can certainly understand the parallel.
And what for the concentration needed to make a catch like the reception Holmes brought in to secure Lombardi Trophy no. 6 to the Steel City?
A deep throw over the middle of the field last night showcased Browns' ability to concentrate on the football. On the play, Ben Roethlisberger floated a deep pass into the end zone where two Atlanta defenders, Dominique Franks and Brent Grimes, closed on the ball. As Franks lunged toward Brown and Grimes also closed in front of the budding receiver, Brown used his hands to snatch the perfectly targeted pass—a grab that was made much more difficult by the activity going on in front of him.
Yes, the ball was a perfectly thrown spiral, but for the added difficulty of closing defenders, ask Limas Sweed how much easier it is to catch a football with no coverage.
I predict Brown will become every bit the receiver Holmes should have been in Black and Gold. The similarities don't end with their speed and catching ability, nor are the comparisons only illustrated by two plays.
Detractors will cite Brown as inexperienced, and they would be correct. Certainly Antonio has a lot to learn, and getting better will only further solidify his future status as a Steelers great. Yet, to say that he is unproven would be a vast overstatement.
Coming through when it matters most is the mark of any great or potential great. Atop of the game-winning catch against New York in the conference championship, Brown's coming out party (aside from key catches during a quietly successful 2010 regular season) occurred the week against Baltimore.
Like the aforementioned Sweed, Brown got open on the Baltimore secondary. The difference was that this route came during a tied game, and this key play that ultimately secured victory...was on third down with 19 yards to go!
Brown caught a laser pass down the right sideline from Ben Roethlisberger, securing it to his helmet like David Tyree, and sprinting as far down field as his momentum would allow. Pittsburgh scored after the goal-to-go scenario set up by this clutch play.
There's a lot of work left to be done. All of his potential needs to translate to statistics and performances.
For all of his skill showcased during last year's postseason and an explosive preseason, it seems entirely possible that Antonio Brown could become the "Santonio Holmes" that Pittsburgh fans always wanted Holmes to be. With Hines getting older and the future of the group uncertain, a place for the next great Pittsburgh receiver is clearly ready.
Yet, perhaps in time, instead of comparing Brown to Holmes, we'll refer back to these days and say, "Too bad Holmes couldn't stick around longer to become what Antonio Brown became. Imagine those two together!" While history would have been far different given Holmes' stay, the thought-albeit unlikely to have happened- is still enticing. It is clear, after all, that the team wants to build the offense with power on the interior and speed to the outside, a more modern look.
A superb kickoff to start last night's game also flashed back to the brilliance of the former Buckeye, who had graced Heinz Field with his knack for taking over the key moment.
Who knows? Maybe the future will now have Antonio Brown catching the game-winning pass in overtime during the final week of the season to knock the Bengals from playoff contention, such as the events of 2006?
Maybe, just maybe it will be Antonio Brown who jumps over a would-be tackler in the next Chargers playoff game amidst the snow and cold.
And, perhaps, in his wildest dreams, Antonio Brown envisions his turn as another Pittsburgh wide receiver to become Super Bowl MVP.
The talent is in place, and his potential is there. The sky is the limit, and thankfully, Antonio Brown (so far) seems to have his head out of the clouds and his heart among the stars.