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The credits are rolling for the Killer B’s era in Pittsburgh, and this film has a sad ending.
When the new league year launches Wednesday, superstar Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown will officially become a member of the Oakland Raiders. Not long after that, superstar running back Le’Veon Bell will sign with another team.
The band has broken up, once again leaving 37-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as a solo artist in Allegheny County. Big Ben was there when Brown and Bell arrived in 2010 and 2013, respectively, and he remains there to wave goodbye to them in 2019.
Now, Roethlisberger, the Steelers and their fans are left to dwell on what could have been. The Killer B’s wasted a remarkable opportunity to make history, as the Steelers won just three playoff games and made just one AFC Championship Game during the six years Ben, Brown and Bell were together.
Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown formed one of the most talented, accomplished quarterback-running back-wide receiver trios in NFL history, and certainly the most famous one since the Dallas Cowboys‘ “triplets” from the 1990s.
That Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith/Michael Irvin attack won three Super Bowls in a four-year span. In 10 seasons together, they earned a combined 17 Pro Bowl nods and were first-team All-Pros on a combined five occasions.
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In just six seasons together, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown earned a combined 13 Pro Bowl nods and were first-team All-Pros on a combined six occasions.
In other words, excluding team accolades, an argument could be made that this trio was actually more accomplished than the legendary Dallas grouping.
To find a QB-RB-WR trio with combined individual accolades that trump those belonging to Ben, Bell and Brown, you’ve gotta jump back nearly another decade for the Joe Montana-Roger Craig-Jerry Rice unit from the 1985-1990 San Francisco 49ers.
That gang also spent exactly six seasons together, it also earned exactly 13 Pro Bowl nods, but Montana, Craig and Rice combined for nine All-Pro honors. They also teamed up for two Super Bowl wins.
Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed made a combined 16 Pro Bowls over a nine-year span, but they combined for only three All-Pro nods. Still, that Buffalo Bills team won a record four consecutive conference title games between 1990 and 1993.
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Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce didn’t have the staying power of Ben, Bell and Brown, but that trio still made two Super Bowls (and won one) during their five seasons together with the St. Louis Rams at the turn of the century.
John Elway, Terrell Davis and Rod Smith won two Super Bowls together for the Denver Broncos, while Steve Young, Ricky Watters and Rice won a championship together in San Francisco earlier that decade.
The point, of course, is that almost all of the great triplet-like combos have experienced immense success in the playoff win column.
Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison—who, like Pittsburgh’s trio, combined for six All-Pro honors except in a seven-year span—didn’t raise a Vince Lombardi Trophy together, but Manning and Harrison did so just a year after James’ 2005 departure.
Bill Bender @BillBender92
Is Big Ben-Bell-Brown the best QB-RB-WR combination not to win a Super Bowl together? Kelly-Thomas-Reed is better, but it's closer than I think it is.
There are no legitimate active comparisons to Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. The Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones), Los Angeles Chargers (Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen) and New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas) are the only other teams in the league that have sent a quarterback, a running back and a wide receiver to multiple Pro Bowls during a shared stretch in the last six years, and not one of those trios has a track record like the one dissolving in Pittsburgh.
In fact, that Ryan-Freeman-Jones trio is the only one in the league with more than half as many combined Pro Bowl nods as Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown.
The jury also remains out on those groupings, and that Falcons trio has at least won an NFC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, we have a verdict on the Killer B’s. Their combined individual accomplishments are extraordinary and maybe even unprecedented, depending on the metric being used. But they didn’t get it done when it mattered, which is why we’ll never reflect on Ben, Bell and Brown the way we look back on Aikman, Smith and Irvin, or Montana, Craig and Rice.
Funnily enough, the largest impediment to top-heavy Pittsburgh’s success during the Killer B’s era was a counterpart that hasn’t possessed anything resembling triplets. Tom Brady has never had an All-Pro running back, and he hasn’t had an All-Pro or Pro Bowl wide receiver since 2012. But the Steelers’ triplets were in the wrong place at the wrong time simply because they resided in the AFC alongside the most decorated dynasty in NFL history.
Brady’s New England Patriots cost the Steelers a first-round bye in 2014 (they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Wild Card Round); the Pats beat the Steelers in the only AFC Championship Game of Bell’s career in 2016 (it was a 36-17 blowout in Foxborough); and then they cost Pittsburgh the No. 1 seed in 2017 (the Steelers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round).
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There’s no telling what kind of damage the Steelers might have done over the last six years if not for the existence of Brady and Bill Belichick.
It also didn’t help that Bell and Brown occasionally weren’t there for Ben. Not only did Bell sit out the entire 2018 campaign as a result of a contract dispute, but knee injuries also kept him off the field for back-to-back playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, and he was suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
And when the Steelers lost to the Broncos in the 2015 divisional round, they didn’t have Bell or Brown after the latter suffered a concussion during a wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Altogether, including the playoffs, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown missed a combined 49 games during their six seasons together.
If not for a potpourri of injuries, suspensions and contract disputes, maybe we’d be eulogizing the Killer B’s in a much less solemn fashion. Hell, maybe we wouldn’t be eulogizing them at all.
Maybe, if the Steelers had experienced more playoff success in recent years, they’d have been willing to cave in to Bell’s demands on a long-term contract last offseason. Maybe under those circumstances, Brown wouldn’t have become so disenchanted as to lobby aggressively for the trade that was reportedly executed this weekend, per Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
We’ll never know. But we do know it wouldn’t be fair to pin those failures on a lack of support. Pro Football Focus, which has ranked the Steelers offensive line among the NFL’s best for much of the Killer B’s era, graded that unit No. 1 in football in 2018.
And while the defense isn’t what it used to be, the Steelers have ranked at or above the league median (and never worse than 18th) in terms of points allowed in five of the last six seasons. They’ve had plenty of weapons on that side of the ball—especially in the front seven—and their defensive-minded head coach, Mike Tomlin, has a Super Bowl win on his resume.
RIP Killer B’s era 2013-2019: injuries, substance abuse suspensions, FB/IG live videos, a contract holdout, 3 playoff wins, 0 Lombardi’s. AB, Bell, Bryant turned into two 3rd’s & a 5th round pick. 🎪🔥🎪🔥🎪🔥 @steelers
As this era ends in Pittsburgh, Steelers fans might wonder about an alternate reality in which Bell was more durable and he and Brown were on better terms with management—a parallel universe in which Pittsburgh paid to keep those two happy, and maybe one in which Belichick and Brady retired in 2012.
In that world, the Killer B’s are even more historically renowned, the Steelers own more than six Lombardi Trophies and Pittsburgh doesn’t owe $21.1 million to rival team’s No. 1 receiver.
But hope springs eternal in the cyclical NFL, too, and there just might be a universe in which James Conner becomes better than Bell in the backfield and JuJu Smith-Schuster causes Steelers fans to forget about Brown.
It’s possible that’s this universe, and that the next film will have a happier ending than the one we just watched.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.