Labriola On

Labriola on 'what makes a good receiver'

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Whenever you were around Bill Nunn, if you were smart enough to keep your mouth shut and your ears open, you couldn't help but learn things about football. Nunn taught me a lot about a lot of things, but what seems to be particularly germane to the last couple of weeks around here was a lesson he learned and then passed on about wide receivers.
  • At the time of this epiphany, Nunn still was a journalist, to be precise the sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, and as part of that job he picked the annual Black College All-America Football team. Always trying to learn himself, Nunn one night was in a Downtown Pittsburgh bar at the same time a bunch of Steelers players also were there rehydrating after a busy day of practice.
  • Bobby Layne was the Steelers quarterback at the time, having come from the Detroit Lions in a trade, a Lions team he quarterbacked to consecutive NFL Championships in the 1950s, and he was well into his rehydration regimen when Nunn said he sidled up to him and slid onto the adjacent stool, because that's how sportswriters did their research back then. Nunn asked Layne, "What makes a good receiver?"
  • Nunn said Layne put down his glass, and pointed across the way at another player also rehydrating. His name was Jimmy Orr, a receiver by trade, and in three seasons with the Steelers he would catch 97 passes from Layne for 2,055 yards (21.2 average) and 16 touchdowns, pretty good numbers at a time in NFL history when seasons were 12 games long and running the ball was what offenses did until desperate measures were necessary.
  • "That guy over there's a good receiver," said Layne, "because I throw him the ball."
  • A little more than a decade later, Nunn, then an ex-sportswriter and a member of the Steelers player personnel department, saw Layne's words come to life. In the first round of the 1971 draft, the Steelers had selected wide receiver Frank Lewis from Grambling, one of the Historically Black Colleges that Nunn regularly mined for talent.
  • And Lewis was quite a talent. He was 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds, and he had scored 42 touchdowns during his three-year college career at Grambling. Even after the Steelers added Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the 1974 draft, Nunn was convinced that Frank Lewis was the best receiver on the Steelers roster.
  • But Lewis was shy, he kept to himself. He had his friends in the Steelers locker room, but he wasn't gregarious, and Frank Lewis was certainly no Lynn Swann in the personality department. Swann had played his college football at USC, and so he was used to the glitz that came with being an athlete in Los Angeles. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he was comfortable behind a microphone in ways that Lewis never was, and Swann also was savvy beyond his years in the ways a wide receiver can help himself get the quarterback to throw him the ball.
  • Swann got close to Terry Bradshaw, yukking it up during the work days at Three Rivers Stadium and occasionally getting together with him and socializing at night, and that certainly didn't hurt at a time when NFL offenses typically played just two receivers at a time, when quarterbacks were attempting about 21 passes per game, and when the Steelers roster had three All-Pro talents at wide receiver but only two spots in the lineup with one football to share.
  • Lewis' most productive season with the Steelers came in 1974 when he caught 30 passes, but after he was traded to the Buffalo Bills prior to the 1978 season he bettered that number in five of his six remaining years in the NFL. Swann, of course, was voted the MVP of Super Bowl X, and he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Nunn went to his grave believing that Lewis was the Steelers' most talented receiver during the 1970s.
  • What makes this apply, admittedly not to the same degree, to what's happening now is what's at the heart of the Martavis Bryant situation, which is his belief that he's not getting the football enough.
  • The one individual with the most power to change a wide receiver's lot in his professional life is the quarterback. For Jimmy Orr, that was Bobby Layne; for Frank Lewis, that was Terry Bradshaw; and for Martavis Bryant, that is Ben Roethlisberger.
  • This isn't to suggest that Bryant should have to deliver coffee each morning to the quarterbacks meeting room, nor is it meant to suggest that Roethlisberger is doing anything except getting the ball to the open man each time he winds up his right arm.
  • But having some kind of relationship with the quarterback should be in every wide receiver's playbook. Stand with him on the sideline during practices. Ask questions. Solicit his opinion on how to run a particular route to make his job of getting you the ball easier. It doesn't have to entail hanging around off the field, spending the holidays together, socializing. It's more of a professional relationship leading to a trust that you're going to make a play for him when he throws the ball at you.
  • Bryant won't play on Sunday in Detroit, after being told by Mike Tomlin that he will be inactive for what could be described as abuse of social media. On consecutive Sundays, following victories over a previously undefeated AFC opponent and then the Steelers' top competition in the AFC North, Bryant vented his frustrations on social media.
  • Because Bryant has consistently worked hard in practice and gives maximum effort in games in the gritty aspects of playing his position but then has put out divisive comments on social media, a natural conclusion is that he's getting "help" with his away-from-the-team persona.
  • Tom Santanello is Bryant's agent, and it's believed he was fronting money to him during the one-year suspension to cover living expenses, training costs, etc. Because the rules of an NFL one-year suspension are that it's unpaid and that teams aren't permitted to contact or help the player in any way, Bryant was on his own, but it wasn't because the Steelers didn't want to help him get back into the league. It was because the rules of his suspension didn't permit it.
  • But to Bryant's credit, he complied with the conditions to get himself reinstated, he has stayed clean because the number of times he is eligible to be tested makes certain of that, and he's a starter on a team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But he's not lighting it up statistically, and so suddenly a guy who never has shown himself to be an attention-seeker becomes a squeaky wheel?
  • How about this for a hypothetical: Santanello is on the hook for at least $100,000 in living expenses, training costs, etc., and when the season began he's looking at a potential big payday at the end of the 2017 season, because the Steelers have shown themselves willing to negotiate contract extensions with players entering the final year of their existing contracts. But that big payday only comes if Bryant puts up big receiving numbers, not if he's just working hard and being a good teammate by blocking downfield on runs by Le'Veon Bell. So all of a sudden, "sources" are being cited in tweets that Bryant is unhappy and wants to be traded, and then it escalates from there.
  • To be sure, Bryant isn't blameless in this, because he allowed himself to be trolled on social media, and he responded to those trolls, and those responses went viral and threw gasoline on the situation and ultimately led to the discipline levied earlier this week.
  • Bottom line is the "strategy" was poorly conceived, and it reflected a complete ignorance of the team Bryant's camp is dealing with. Did Santanello really think he could bully the Steelers into trading Bryant? For what? A conditional seventh-round pick? Because what else do you think you can get in a trade for a player who is one strike away from being Josh Gordon? And when the team has the player under contract through the 2018 season at a very manageable salary cap number? A player who has been and still can be a threat to every secondary they face?
  • Bryant won't play on Sunday night, and he won't be traded before the Oct. 31 deadline. His best course of action is to become what Jimmy Orr was, to learn from the Frank Lewis situation, because the solution to this situation is Ben Roethlisberger.
  • Talk to him. Work with him. Find out what he needs from you on the field and then be the player who delivers that. Establish a working relationship with the guy who throws you the ball, because he's holding more than just the football you want to catch in the palm of his right hand. Be patient and understand this all isn't going to happen overnight. It's a process, just as it was a process to get reinstated by the commissioner.
  • In the meantime, continue the hard work in practice and at the gritty aspects of the job during games, stay off social media, and remind your agent he works for you, not the other way around.
  • That's the actual path to happily ever after.
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