Two other times the Steelers moved on from their top WR

The media continues to present a “sky is falling” scenario with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to their parting of ways with All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.

There’s no doubt that Brown is one of the greats: not only in Steelers franchise history, but in NFL history. Week after week we continually praised his performances and often had to make up records for feats he accomplished that no other player had previously done.

That’s part of the concern among Steelers Nation: how does the team replace Antonio Brown? Well, the answer was already in progress with several recent draft picks invested in the wide receiver position (as Brown nears age 31 on July 10th.)

The other answer and reason to not panic is… they’ve done it before.

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Santonio Holmes

Similar sentiments about “how does one replace” were raised when former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes was traded to the New York Jets back in 2010. Holmes, a former first-round pick of the Steelers in 2006, rose to prominence quickly, averaging 52 receptions and 862 yards per season in his first three years as a pro.

Following his spectacular Super Bowl catch in a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Holmes because a larger than life superstar in Pittsburgh. He followed up his Super Bowl winning season in 2009 with his first, and only, 1,000+ yard receiving campaign as well as a career-high (then and now) of 79 catches.

Ultimately, the 2009 Steelers would be a disappointment. Despite finishing with a winning record at 9-7, they would finish 3rd in the AFC North and miss the playoffs. Some of the off-field turmoil was linked to Holmes and he was found to be expendable in the offseason. He was sent to the Jets for a sixth-round pick. (Ironically, that pick was used to acquire AB.)

The move was made shortly after the NFL announced a four-game suspension for Holmes for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

In Holme’s place

The Steelers still had Hines Ward, who had eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark as well in 2009 and felt comfortable going forward with emerging second-year receiver Mike Wallace, who had caught 39 passes for 756 yards in his rookie season.

More irony ensues in this article as Wallace was the next big name to be replaced…

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Mike Wallace

Wallace would lead the Steelers in receiving in 2010 as the only 1,000+ yard receiver (1,257 yards) and would also score double-digit touchdowns (10). The Steelers would rebound and play in the Super Bowl that season, but fell to the Green Bay Packers.

Wallace would exceed 1,000 yards once again in 2011, being named to his only Pro Bowl. He sat out training camp in his final year of his rookie contract in 2012, as the Steelers decided to invest money in the younger Antonio Brown rather than spend big bucks they didn’t have on a new deal for Wallace.

Wallace would play for four more teams from 2013-2018 and only reach 1,000 receiving yards once (Baltimore, 2016) and double-digit touchdowns once (Miami, 2014).

In Wallace’s place

Antonio Brown would flourish once Wallace left town, earning six consecutive Pro Bowl nods and four All-Pro team selections in six seasons. (Brown also made the Pro Bowl in 2011 as a kick returner.)

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The parallels are quite interesting. 2018 marked the first time the Steelers had a pair of 1,000+ yard receivers (Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster) in the same season since Wallace and Brown accomplished the feat in 2011.

Prior to 2011, the first duo to do the same were Hines Ward and Santino Holmes in 2009.

Coincidentally, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs in two of those three seasons: 2009 and 2018. They also failed to have two or more 1,000+ yard receivers in any of their recent Super Bowl trips (2005, 2008, 2010).

However, the one common denominator among all of the teams listed and the performance of the wide receivers named is the same: Ben Roethlisberger. As the Steelers enter 2019 with arguably their greatest quarterback of all time, they do so with little question that JuJu Smith-Schuster can ascend to being the team’s top receiver, as he already led the group in receiving yards in 2018.

Based on past history, the Steelers may not need more than a repeat year from Smith-Schuster in order to get back into Super Bowl contention.

3 responses to “Two other times the Steelers moved on from their top WR”

  1. John Sofis says:

    Excellent article! Many people seem to be oblivious to how well the Steelers replaced receivers. Let me add one more to the list. While he wasn’t a superstar, Plexico Burress seemed to be Ben’s go-to receiver at the beginning of Ben’s career. When he left Hines Ward became the go-to guy and his production exploded. Again, Ben was the constant.

  2. Joe Kuzma says:

    Not exactly aimed at you but I have to put this here because you weren’t the only one to bring up Plaxico Burress. The reason he was not included is because 2004 is the only year he played with Ben (not counting his short-lived “return” for a game or so at the very end of his career).

    He wasn’t Ben’s favorite receiver and maybe not even his second-favorite. Plax only appeared in 11 games in 2004, and only 10 of those were with Roethlisberger at QB. (Furthermore Ben was only the starter in nine of those 10 games.)

    Plax was the third-best WR on the team in receptions that year. Ben completed 69 passes for 846 yards and 4 touchdowns with Hines Ward. He completed 35 for 509 and 2 touchdowns with Antwaan Randle El.

    With Burress he completed 32 for 629 and 5 touchdowns. So while Plax had one more TD than Ward with Ben, Ward had over 200 more yards receiving and 37 more receptions. Ward played in more games, but Burress’ game splits are pretty bad. He only had 3 games with 4 or more catches (6, 5, and 4 on the nose) another 5 games with 3 receptions, and then 2, 2, and 1 catch games… and only one with 100+ yards receiving (he got close with 97 in one other game, otherwise he never had more than 70 the rest of the season).

    This is why I left him off. In addition, he was already there prior to Roethlisberger being drafted too. The main point of the article is that Ben is the one who is making the WRs look good and that in the cases above, the grass wasn’t always greener when Holmes or Wallace didn’t have him as their QB.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Dave Dubois says:

    I agree. Ben is the constant. Now, these guys are very special talents at their craft as well, but for further anecdotal evidence that “Ben is the constant” is the greater contributor, look to the other side of the equation. Not only did we accomplish successfully the “how do we replace” WRs. But look at those WRs that we asked those questions about, and there is strong evidence that they digressed in subsequent years without that “constant” throwing the ball. I think you take those two factoids together and it gives me much more comfort that, even given that “the WR formerly known as sane” is incredibly talented, we will be fine with the group we have. Just keep the constant constant.

    Good article Joe!

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