INDIANAPOLIS – To Kevin Colbert, it's not so much a problem as it is an issue to be recognized and handled properly.
The NFL Scouting Combine is underway here, and the evolution and explosion of this event is reflective of the way the sport, the National Football League, and the players and coaches within it all have evolved and exploded onto the public consciousness.
Once a small gathering designed to compile and then share medical information and some basic measurables on prospects, the NFL Combine now occupies an entire Stadium (Lucas Oil Field), a majority of the Indiana Convention Center, and every hotel in Downtown Indianapolis. Once largely ignored by the media and football fans worldwide, the Combine now is covered by every team's website, by national television networks, by enough radio stations that a Radio Row occupying an entire room in the Convention Center has become necessary, and by multiple media outlets from every NFL city. Oh, and the drills that once were conducted in private now are open to a limited number of fans – around 10,000 – and are televised, sometimes live, with the newest wrinkle this year being that ABC will be joining the craziness by devoting a block of time on Saturday afternoon when the quarterbacks and wide receivers will be working out.
That's how the Combine has changed. As for the players, well, that's more of a continually moving target, and Colbert talked about the importance of getting a handle on that. He sees it as being important to the Steelers and to the National Football League as a whole.
"We want players to grow into great players, Pro Bowl players, potential Hall of Fame players, but I think what we are learning is it's a different world," said Colbert. "What we're doing here now at the Combine – 30 years ago this didn't happen, so it's a different world. Social media has changed things, branding has changed things, so we have to do a better job of managing players as they grow into megastars. And that's something I think we are learning on the fly. It's a little more relevant this year obviously because of Le'Veon Bell's situation and Antonio Brown's situation, but the lesson is maybe we have to catch these guys when they are young."
Both Bell and Brown began their NFL careers as under-the-radar types, free from the hype that typically accompanies No. 1 picks or highly decorated college players as they enter the league. Neither were instant starters, nor immediate successes. But both worked hard, learned their crafts, and eventually exploded onto the scene by becoming the Steelers' first running back and wide receiver to be voted first-team All-Pro since Jerome Bettis (1996) and John Stallworth (1979), respectively.
But now the team's relationship with both of those players appears to be over, with Bell set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13 and Brown on the trading block. Both also have been, and remain, very active on social media, and their discontent has been very public as a result. Bell wanted to be set free to test the market, and Brown has gone so far as to post photoshopped images of himself wearing another team's jersey. Add to that Morgan Burnett's request to be released because of a dissatisfaction with his role on defense, and the Steelers are finding themselves in a situation that's unusual for them.
"And it really has happened within the course of two seasons, or a season and an offseason," said Colbert. "Players go from one mind-set to another – within a game, from game-to-game, from season-to-season. I think that's not unusual for players to talk like that. Sometimes it doesn't become public. Sometimes they'll come to us with those requests. Usually when you talk through things, everybody has a better understanding. I'm not concerned about that. We're very comfortable with how we do things, with the culture Coach Tomlin has in our locker room, and what the organization has always stood for. And I think that more players than not appreciate that and understand what we're trying to do."
That's really the crux of the issue for Colbert. Does the dissatisfaction being vocalized by two, maybe three, players out of the 60-plus (active roster plus practice squad) guys in the Steelers locker room constitute a circus?
"I really don't agree with the perception that there is huge drama within the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room," said Colbert. "Coach Tomlin treats our players like men, he gives them the opportunity to be a man, and he tries to grow them not only as professional football players but as fathers, brothers, as men. So really, I am in complete disagreement with the perception of our locker room as anything but very functional."
And so, with the exception of what he had said about doing a better job of managing players as they ascend into stardom, about being more proactive when those kinds of guys are up-and-comers, Colbert is quite comfortable with the way the Steelers do business, right down to the way they choose to structure contracts.
"As for the contractual stuff, we think we've been very fair, we think we've been very consistent, and I think our players appreciate and understand that," said Colbert. "If a player doesn't like a deal, he won't sign it. And once a player has signed a deal, that means he has accepted it even though they may say differently (later). We like the way we try to do business. We think we're very fair. We're very competitive. We try to keep our own and reward our own for them wanting to be part of us."