PITTSBURGH — If Jesse James has played his last game for his hometown team, he did so at the end of a season in which the Steelers, he said, were too distracted.
“Ah man, we are — Kardashians. We have, I mean, we’re something,” James said. “It’s Le’Veon Bell issues, you have more stuff popping up weekly, Jeremy Fowler’s reporting stuff about Le’Veon every other week. There’s just people calling people out.
“We were in the front of the ticker on ESPN too much for just reasons that weren’t related to football and not for us playing great ball. It was more distractions.”
Speaking less than 24 hours after Pittsburgh’s 16-13 Week 17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, and ensuing elimination anyway, James weighed his impending future in free agency and looked back on a season when the Steelers were once 7-2-1 and cruising toward what would’ve been the third AFC North title of James’ career. He’s taken pride in his career to date, is aware of his place in the offense and acknowledged his fandom will be a factor as a free agent. James’ rookie contract expires with the end of this season.
James also bemoaned a premature end to Pittsburgh’s 2018 campaign.
“Oh, we messed it up bad. We lost a lot of games we should’ve won. I think there’s changes that’ll be made at some point this offseason. There’s things we got to account for and look at in a hard way,” James said. “And we make adjustments to what we’ve been doing, because had a lot of distractions outside of the locker room this year that we need to handle better going forward.”
Besides Bell not reporting to the team on a second year under the franchise tag – an unprecedented situation in NFL history – James declined to name specific distractions.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did speak critically of both Antonio Brown and James Washington on his weekly radio show.
When pressed on if he was referring to the quarterback’s comments, James laughed.
“Obviously there was many things,” he said. “I’m not gonna point out individually each one, but there was a lot of things that went on that didn’t need to.”
James played on 23 of the Steelers’ 68 snaps on offense against the Bengals Sunday night. The 2015 fifth-round pick and Glassport native finished the 2018 season with 30 catches for 423 and two touchdowns.
Though Vance McDonald was the preferred passing target in the position, James noted how much he’s played in his time in Pittsburgh. McDonald caught 50 passes from 72 targets this year. James got 30 receptions from 39 targets on two fewer snaps than McDonald in 2018.
McDonald, who’s contracted to the team through 2020, was the second veteran tight end the Steelers acquired, then played over James when they could, starting last season. Ladarius Green in 2016 was the first.
“They gave me the opportunity to play and do the best that I can do,” James said. “So, I made plays for this team, I’ve played the majority of snaps two seasons here. So I might not be the featured guy in the passing game, but I’ve played the majority of snaps since I’ve been here so I feel good about that.”
There’s plenty of business to consider between this week’s exit meetings and the opening of free agency opening in March. Pittsburgh can try to re-sign James before then. He and Roethlisberger share an agency.
But if James does add to his 120 catches, 1,189 yards and 9 touchdowns with the Steelers, his having grown up a fan of the team right outside the city will contribute.
“Obviously you can try to remove it, but that’s gonna weigh in in some way, being from here, playing here for four years,” James said. “I put a lot into this place, so definitely holds a special spot and something I’ll always be considerate of.”