It seems foolish to claim that the Pittsburgh Steelers could lose arguably their two best offensive weapons and return better for their departures. Yet the Quality Stats indicate that might be the case.
For anyone trapped under a rock for the past six months, Le'Veon Bell's season-long holdout ended in an offseason move to the New York Jets. Before we even got there, perennial All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown agitated for a trade and got one to the Oakland Raiders (after he essentially torpedoed a trade to the Bills by refusing to show up in Buffalo). In the process, the Steelers lost a consensus top running back and wide receiver in a single offseason.
That's the kind of talent flow that could spell a death knell for some teams. Not the Steelers. Instead, there are strong reasons to believe that Pittsburgh may even be better off with both Bell and Brown wearing other jerseys.
First, Bell, because his season on the sidelines has already given us ample proof that the Bell will toll for someone else without him in the backfield.
In 2017, the Steelers finished the regular season with the AFC's second best record and as the No. 12 squad in the CHFF Quality Stats Power Rankings. Their rushing attack was ranked two notches below that, finishing 14th in Offensive Rusher Rating. Both are respectable finishes, but perhaps not the dominance one might have expected given Bell's productivity and profile.
A year later Bell sat out the entire season and was replaced by James Conner. And Conner went on to be even more successful than Bell, at least per our statistical measures; the Steelers finished 2018 eighth in Offensive Rusher Rating and 10th in the Quality Stats Power Rankings.
And before you get twisted into a knot thinking that the Steelers' rushing improvements were all made on the back of improved line play ... they're weren't. Pittsburgh finished 2017 tied for ninth in the Offensive Hog Index. They finished 2018 ... tied for eighth. The improvement was marginal, to say the least.
So what was really driving that improvement? There are worse guesses than simple improved unit chemistry. James Connor, albeit now an All-Pro himself, is not a more talented back than Le'Veon Bell. But he is a team player whose teammates desperately wanted to succeed and thrive, and he did.
Naturally, one can't chalk up improvement in the quality stats to better chemistry alone, but similarly it would be foolish to pretend those kind of ephemeral factors never come into play in football.
In fact, that nicely brings us to the curious case of Antonio Brown. With Brown active for all games in 2017, the Steelers finished 10th in Offensive Passer Rating. With Brown skipping the final two weeks of 2018, Pittsburgh was 13th. So, Brown's unavailability dropped the Steelers three spots in the standings? Well, it didn't help, but then again, the 2018 standings were "inflated" by a new range of pass happy offenses, which makes the rankings between the two seasons a bit of a shiny distraction.
Naturally, there are plenty of factors that go into the team's improved Offensive Passer Rating, but the bottom line remains: A season with fewer touches and targets for Brown yielded a better Offensive Passer Rating than the one in which he was always available and on the field.
Predicting the Steelers passing attack will follow similar paths in 2019 might be a bridge too far, or perhaps it isn't. Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster has shown impressive improvement across each of his first two seasons, and according to Pro Football Focus was actually the better graded receiver in 2018. New addition Donte Moncrief isn't Antonio Brown, but he may prove more successful with a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger delivering him the ball in more reliable windows (he's coming from Jacksonville, after all). Fellow wide outs Ryan Switzer and James Washington are likely to see more targets, too, which may not be a bad thing for unit morale or schematic flexibility on offense.
Is this grasping for straws? Perhaps, but it also brings into consideration a factor which is absolutely a concrete reality of life post Killer-B's: Coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner don't have to waste anytime developing game plans for elite players who don't want to be there anymore.
Add in a year of starting comfort and success for hometown boy made good Conner, and there are plenty of things to like about the Pittsburgh offense.
The era of Steelers star ingrate is over. Everyone on the roster apparently wants to be there. In the end, that might just be enough to move the Steelers forward, even as they wave goodbye to two of the most significant offensive players to wear a Steelers uniform in a generation.