Kevin Gorman: The Steelers' MVP will be the one who shows up Sunday
The Pittsburgh Steelers conducted their annual voting for the team's Most Valuable Player, and it wasn't so much who they selected that stirred controversy but rather who they snubbed.
The Steelers are no strangers to distractions, of course, but the last thing they needed this week is any signs of team discord. Their focus should be solely on beating the Bengals on Sunday at Heinz Field (and keeping their fingers crossed that the Browns beat the Ravens in Baltimore).
But the Steelers' pick is telling.
That the MVP is JuJu Smith-Schuster and not Antonio Brown or Ben Roethlisberger is a reflection that the Steelers rewarded the player who provided both the biggest plays and the fewest distractions.
The Steelers players saluted Smith-Schuster as much for his approach and attitude as they did his performance, all qualities you would expect from veteran leaders like Brown and Roethlisberger.
Smith-Schuster is deserving of honors for a sensational sophomore season, as he has 106 receptions for 1,389 yards and six touchdowns. He has eight games with 100 or more yards and three with 10 or more receptions, including an 11-catch, 115-yard game at New Orleans this past Sunday. He's evolved into an NFL star despite the Pro Bowl snub.
Problem is, Smith-Schuster isn't even regarded as the best Steelers player at his own position. Brown has had a similar season to Smith-Schuster statistically but is superior in the most important category: touchdowns, especially of the winning variety.
Brown has 104 receptions for 1,297 yards, and his 15 touchdowns are the most among NFL receivers. Brown has five games with 100 or more yards and two with 10 or more receptions, including 14 catches for 185 yards and two scores against the Saints.
Smith-Schuster has an edge in yards per game (92.6 to 86.5), yards per catch (13.1 to 12.5) and catch percentage (67.9 to 61.9) but you can't discount that Brown has the edge with two-and-a-half times more touchdowns. He caught a 31-yarder with 10 seconds left to beat the Bengals, a 25-yarder to the 2-yard line to set up Roethlisberger's winning touchdown at Jacksonville and the go-ahead score on a 20-yard touchdown at the Saints.
That makes AB more valuable in my book.
But, as Brown likes to say, receivers can't throw the ball to themselves.
Roethlisberger plays the game's most important position, which automatically makes him the most valuable. And you can argue that he's also been their best player this season, leading some to suggest that if the Steelers aren't willing to recognize Roethlisberger as such then they should do away with the award.
Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 4,842 passing yards, 111 yards shy of his personal best and 158 shy of becoming only the sixth player in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards, and broke his own team record for touchdowns with 33. He had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 against Carolina, has a pair of 400-yard games and eight with 300 yards or more, including a 380-yard passing performance against the Saints.
Roethlisberger also is tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions, and some have proven costly. He had three interceptions and two fumbles in the tie at Cleveland and two interceptions at Denver, including one to nose tackle Shelby Harris in the end zone with 1 minute, 3 seconds remaining.
Those turnovers led to crushing losses, and Big Ben deserves his share of blame for them. But Roethlisberger also rallied the Steelers to fourth-quarter comebacks for victories at Cincinnati with the touchdown pass to Brown with 10 seconds left, and at Jacksonville, when he scored on a 1-yard run with five seconds left.
And Roethlisberger also positioned the Steelers to win two other games with fourth-quarter comebacks, only for the defense to allow a last-second winning field goal against the Chargers and for Chris Boswell to miss a last-second, tying field goal against the Raiders.
You could argue that this has been one of Roethlisberger's best seasons, even if you can't ignore the interceptions. But if you're going to blame Big Ben for his turnovers, that's a knock Smith-Schuster shares after his fumble in the final minute at New Orleans.
What I can't get past is how the Steelers always acknowledge that Big Ben is a rare franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famer and their best offensive threat of this century yet have voted him as their MVP only once, in 2009. Brown, by contrast, has been named Steelers MVP four times, one more than Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. Smith-Schuster, in his second season, now has as many team MVPs as Roethlisberger does in 15 seasons.
But I can't imagine that Steelers players appreciated Brown's "trade me" tweet after the loss to the Chiefs or missing practice Monday or that Roethlisberger called out teammates on his weekly radio show, let alone the preferential treatment they receive as the Steelers' superstars.
Maybe this is their way of showing it.
No matter who you think deserves the honor — AB, Big Ben, JuJu or someone else — the Steelers need every player to prove their value against the Bengals if they have any hope of making the playoffs. Otherwise, this discussion, like this season, is but an exercise in futility.
The one who shows up Sunday gets my vote.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.