Head coaches get all the credit, but it’s the position coaches who do most of the face-to-face work with players. The Steelers are blessed with some of the best out there. Since 2013, that’s absolutely been true about wide receivers coach Richard Mann.
For a guy who will be coaching the Steelers’ wide receivers for just his fifth — and final — season in 2017, Richard Mann sure gets a lot of love.
As the guy most responsible for developing Antonio Brown into the league’s best receiver over the last four years besides, well, Brown himself, that adoration is well-deserved.
Brown is tied for the league record for most consecutive seasons with at least 100 receptions, at four. Perhaps Brown’s send-off gift for his beloved coach will be placing himself all alone in the annals of NFL history with another century-plus in 2017.
In light of Mann’s recent decision to step away from football — and because it’s the final week of June and we are still a month away from anything resembling meaningful football activity — let’s take a few moments to honor the long-time coach’s top three accomplishments in his time in Pittsburgh.
No. 3: Improvement from 2012 to 2013
In his first season as receivers coach, Mann made significant strides with a group little changed from the previous year, for all intents and purposes. Among the top four receivers, only one change was made: 2012 leader Mike Wallace left in free agency, and rookie Markus Wheatonwas inserted.
A season after losing their number-one receiver, and had no receiver within 150 yards of the 1,000-yard mark, it would be nearly unfathomable to assume an improvement, but improve, they did.
Chalk part of that up to the switch from departed offensive coordinator Bruce Arian’s long-distance bombing campaign masquerading as an offense being dropped in favor of Todd Haley’s ball-control approach, which centered around a lot of short, high-percentage throws. But you can include Mann’s influence on the receiving corps as a massive, driving factor, as well.
In 2012, then-number-two receiver Antonio Brown had 66 catches for 787 yards and five touchdowns, along with four fumbles. A season later, those numbers sky-rocketed to 110 catches, 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns, while his fumbles dropped to just one.
Emmanuel Sanders, meanwhile, nearly mimicked Brown’s 2012 numbers, pulling in 64 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns. His fumble rate dropped from three to one.
All told, the Steelers’ wide receivers combined for almost 500 more yards and an additional 10 touchdowns in 2013, while the number of fumbles dropped from nine to just two. Catch rate went up by nearly six percent, too.
No. 2: Martavis Bryant becomes an on-field monster
Catch rate aside, Martavis Bryant has been huge for the Steelers, when the league has allowed him to play. Yes, he has dropped a lot of catchable balls and, yes, he has shown an tendency to disappear for stretches. But there is no denying that he has the natural talent and physical gifts to not just be a number-one receiver, but to be a dominant one. For a guy who has openly admitted he didn’t really even try in the past, it’s scary to think what he may do now that he has committed to applying himself.
But, what little effort he gave, and what little focus he showed on the field, can be directly attributed to Mann.
In 37 college games over three years, Bryant pulled in 61 catches for 1,354 yards and 13 touchdowns, against collegiate defenders.
In 21 games as a pro, Bryant has already amassed 76 catches, 1,314 yards and 14 touchdowns, against professional defensive backs.
In two shortened seasons — admittedly, due in large part to the same immaturity that probably knocked him down a round or so in the 2014 NFL Draft — Mann has coached dramatic, positive changes to Bryant’s hands and route-running. For a guy whose hands draft analyst Mike Mayock once called “shaky”, Bryant has blossomed into an on-field gem in a lot of ways.
Mann’s greatest cumulative accomplishment may be Antonio Brown, who we will get to in a minute (like that was really a big surprise that needed a drumroll and a dramatic reveal), but his singular greatest achievement could very well end up being the foundation of fundamental football he has instilled in Bryant.
No. 1: Antonio Brown’s otherworldly skills
It’s truly hard to put into words what Antonio Brown has become, and it’s hardly coincidental that he truly exploded onto the NFL scene at the same time Mann became the receivers coach for the Steelers.
Go ahead and attribute the drastic increase in production to his elevation from number two to number one after Wallace left for Miami following the 2012 season. That’s fair. But that, alone, doesn’t explain the shear dominance Brown displays over nearly every opposing defensive back he has faced for four consecutive seasons.
He was no slouch in college, averaging better than 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons. But that was against Midwest Athletic Conference opponents. Let’s face it: the MAC is to the Big Ten what the Arena Football League is to the NFL: entertaining in its own right, but with less than half of the overall talent. Brown didn’t do more in college than one should reasonably expect from a small-school, number-one receiver with attitude issues.
But something changed in 2013. After two seasons as at least a part-time starter, Brown was showing potential. His best catch rate in those two seasons was 62.3 percent. But, in the intervening years between then and now, he has never caught worst than 65.9 percent of his targets, and has gone over 70 percent twice. His numbers in 2014 and 2015 weren’t just good — they are historic, with his 136 and 129 catches, respectably, ranking second and fourth, all time.
That bears repeating: as measured by receptions, Antonio Brown posted two of the best seasons, ever — and back to back, no less.
His yardage totals for those two seasons are eighth and fourth, all time, respectively.
Even in 2016, when he had no real number-two receiver across the field to help draw some of the double and triple coverage he regularly saw, he still managed to exceed 100 catches. His reception and yardage totals from 2013 to 2016 are both the best, ever, for a four-year stretch. Simply put, Brown is a monster.
He can thank his natural, God-given gifts all he wants. But none of that would have been completely realized if not for the efforts of an exceptional position coach.