For the Steelers, it all starts and ends with Ben Roethlisberger. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

If Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was hoping to turn the page on a season in which his team’s locker room more closely resembled a reality show than a professional working environment, his choice of words last week came up short.

In explaining how the team was all in on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while moving on from Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Colbert pointed to Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl history and said, “He has 52 kids under him, quite honestly.” He was quickly criticized for the comment.

“Referring to the other 52 players on the #Steelers as Roethlisberger’s ‘children’ is as bad of an analogy as a GM could make when describing the QB as the leader,” ESPN’s Louis Riddick tweeted. “That’s utterly ridiculous. I don’t agree with how AB conducted himself, but I sure do better understand now. Wow.”

Martellus Bennett, the former tight end who played for five NFL teams, called out Colbert. “I always had issues with coaches talking to men like they’re boys,” he tweeted. “And I hated coaches assuming we needed father figures. I’ve had to tell coaches to cut that s--- out. I have a dad. Be a coach. I’m a grown a-- man.”

Colbert walked it back Friday but only to a point. “In referencing to our ‘younger players,’ what I am referencing is Ben is the only player [on the roster] who has ever won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he told the NFL Network (via triblive.com) “… I was referencing the younger players on our team and their lack of experience in the Super Bowl-winning environment, and Ben is only one who can say he’s done that. …

“Does that mean … we have a bunch of juveniles or anything like that? No. of course not. We’ve got some really good veteran players like a Cam Heyward or a Maurkice Pouncey who are unquestionable leaders as well. But they are still not the Super Bowl-winning type of player that Ben Roethlisberger is, and that’s why he is and will continue to be the unquestioned leader of this team. And I still think it would be valuable for all our players to recognize that.”

Over the course of last season, Roethlisberger was often at the heart of the drama.

“If our players were smart, they’d listen to him because he’s been there, he’s done it,” Colbert told reporters Wednesday. “He can tell them, ‘No, guys, what you’re doing is or is not good enough to do this.’ I have no problem with him. He can call me out, and that’s fine. What he does I totally respect because I’ve seen him too many times win games for us and come through in situations.”

That means that two of the most disgruntled players, wide receiver Brown and running back Bell, are expected to be gone, with the team planning to sign the 37-year-old Roethlisberger to a contract extension with one year left on his contract at $12 million, with a $5 million roster bonus due next month.

Brown last week criticized Roethlisberger for having an owner’s mentality, “like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it, otherwise they [sic] meal ticket gone,” he tweeted. “It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth.” Brown’s dissatisfaction has grown to the point where he has requested a trade, one that the Steelers will try to accommodate. Bell, who sat out last season rather than have the franchise tag applied him for a second consecutive season, is not going to be tagged a third time, and on Wednesday he tweeted his glee about that with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

After a loss to the Broncos last season, Roethlisberger criticized the route Brown had run on a play and told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan that he regretted not throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster instead. Brown shrugged off Roethlisberger’s criticisms, saying: “I’ve got big shoulders. I can take it.” Now he, like Bell, will be elsewhere while Roethlisberger stays in Pittsburgh where, he says, he intends to play another three to five years.

Hines Ward, a former Steelers wide receiver, doesn’t think Roelisberger is exactly blameless. “It’s unfortunate. Two great talents like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown aren’t going to be on the team going into next season. But, yes, Ben is the leader of that team. He’s been there, he’s done that,” he said (via the NFL Network). “I just think he has to take the initiative to kind of do more as a leader. Not just being able to call guys out on his radio show. Take them behind — treat them like, you know, we always say we’re a band of brothers — like, pull me to the side, let me know what I can do to get better. You don’t have to air it out to the public where everyone can hear. So I just think he needs to do a better job of that.”

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