Mark Madden: Lack of Steelers Super Bowl rings in Bell, Brown era is mystifying

August 22, 2018

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown celebrates his touchdown catch with Le'Veon Bell during the first quarter against the Colts Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

This is the last season of the Le’Veon Bell/Antonio Brown era.

It feels like the Steelers have accomplished something in the era’s five years prior, perhaps because of the assorted histrionics. But they haven’t.

It’s honestly hard to figure why they didn’t.

These Steelers have been snared in the web of Tom Brady’s never-ending dynasty in New England. But the Patriots have only eliminated the Steelers once since 2013, when Bell joined Brown in Pittsburgh.

Bell and Brown haven’t exactly sharpened the Steelers’ focus, with Facebook Live and training-camp holdouts among superstar-generated distractions.

But it’s too simple to say that’s why the Steelers lost, and you can’t fault the performances of Bell and Brown: Eight Pro Bowl selections and six first-team All-Pro nods between them in five campaigns together.

It is fair to question the team’s focus, as lack thereof avails itself on a regular basis. Last year, it trickled down from Mike Tomlin as the coach openly anticipated a playoff matchup with New England that never came.

But stupidity like that is hardly unique to the Steelers. That’s the NFL and that’s football, with the Patriots mostly being an exception.

Bad luck has intervened, the most recent examples being Jesse James’ non-catch and Ryan Shazier’s calamitous injury, both last season.

So there’s no solid reason why the Steelers haven’t been to a Super Bowl since 2011 despite being loaded on the offensive side of the ball. It just happened.

And, since Shazier hasn’t been properly replaced, it will happen again in 2018.

That’s a shame for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who deserves better. But don’t weep too frantically: Roethlisberger has two rings and is a nailed-on Hall-of-Famer.

How will Bell reflect on not winning in Pittsburgh? Money is obviously a much bigger priority. Rap, too, perhaps, and certainly ego. (I say ego, not branding, because Bell isn’t organized enough to turn his ego into proper branding.)

Brown certainly is, and almost flawlessly so. Brown has established himself as one of the best receivers in football history, and it’s a good bet that means more to him than a ring. (No complaint: Brown has never cheated the Steelers on effort or precision.)

This might seem an obituary assembled too early. But give it time.

It’s not written by way of applying blame. Sometimes you just don’t win. It’s a disappointment, not a waste.

It’s a conundrum, and close to a mystery: How does a team with all that offensive talent (and a very good offensive line) not win a championship, or even come very close? The Steelers have played in just one conference championship game in the Bell/Brown era, and got beat by 19.

The loss of Shazier can’t be underestimated. It cut last season off at the knees, and will do so again this year.

The Steelers won’t win a Super Bowl in the Bell/Brown era. Whatever it is this group never had, it still hasn’t got.

The denouement will be interesting.

How much longer will Roethlisberger play?

Will Brown want to stay with the Steelers -- and break in Mason Rudolph -- once Roethlisberger retires?

Can the Steelers be better once Bell departs? (Don’t dismiss that possibility.)

But all that plays out later. Right now, witness an odd sight: A supremely talented team going nowhere. Same as it ever was, for the five years the Steelers have had Bell and Brown. And we don’t know why.

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