JuJu’s prevalence both impressive, and puzzling

By Joe Smeltzer

There won’t be many one-year, $8 million deals that will get the reaction that this one does.

The words “polarizing” and “JuJu Smith-Schuster” go together like milk and cookies, so it’s appropriate that his surprising new contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers has a lot of people talking, with many spewing contrasting opinions.

Is Smith-Schuster loyal for reportedly leaving money on the table to stay in Pittsburgh, or is he a sucker for reportedly passing up the chance to play with Patrick Mahomes?

Did he really leave money on the table, or was the market for him just not as strong as we thought it’d be?

Were the Steelers smart to pay Smith-Schuster, when, on the defensive side, Tyson Alualu has already left, and Steven Nelson may get traded?

Whether or not Smith-Schuster’s contract is overall good for the Steelers will be debated. What’s indisputable is that Smith-Schuster, both in Pittsburgh and nationally, is a bigger deal than most, if not all other wide receivers of his caliber.

And I don’t fully understand why.

Whether people see Smith-Schuster as a kind soul who loves to express himself or as a sideshow with the wrong priorities, his relevance exceeds his on-field accomplishments. That’s not to say that Smith-Schuster hasn’t done anything in football. He’s proven himself to be a capable wide receiver.

In four seasons, however, he’s eclipsed 1,000 yards just once, and even then, was a clear second fiddle to Antonio Brown. I know, I know. “Stats don’t tell the full story,” and that’s true. Yet, the stats tell enough to show that Smith-Schuster isn’t a superstar, and even his fans– the ones not living on Mars, anyway — would agree.

So, if he isn’t a superstar, how did he end up starring in a Super Bowl commercial with Samuel L. Jackson?

Why does everybody, whether they can’t get enough of Smith-Schuster or can’t stomach him, seem to have a strong opinion?

It’s fascinating to me that Smith-Schuster is both as revered and reviled as he is. That’s not a knock on the 24-year-old. I may not be not enamored with Smith-Schuster’s antics, but a lot of people are, and he deserves credit for cashing in on his charisma.

Athletes frequently market themselves off the field and have been doing this for more than a century (seriously, look up some of Babe Ruth’s endorsements from back in the day.) Most of the time, however, the players that are the most marketable are stars.

Would Joe Greene have been in that Coca-Cola commercial if he was only an above-average defensive tackle?

Would Wrangler have cared about Brett Favre if he played closer to Brett Rypien’s level?

Would Joe DiMaggio have ever become “Mr. Coffee” if he wasn’t “Mr. Hit Streak” first?

I know that athletic achievement and marketability don’t always go hand-in-hand. In most cases, however, an athlete is known as a player first and a personality second. With Smith-Schuster, the opposite is true.

He’s a superb self-promoter first and a solid NFL player second.

Now, we have at least one more year of JuJu and everything that comes with him. I don’t doubt that Smith-Schuster will give it his all on Sunday’s or that he’ll continue to be charming, marketable and the cause of many, many arguments, both in bars and on social media, seven days a week.

Smith-Schuster is an above-average NFL player who gets treated like a superstar. Regardless of how smart or dumb this extension will look a year from now, No. 19 staying in Pittsburgh will make the 2021 season far more interesting than it would have been if he left.

COMON Network content is presented by the US Air Force Reserve. Part-time jobs with full-time benefits are available at the Pittsburgh IAP Air Reserve Station. To find out more visit afreserve.com/pittspodcast

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