Ben Roethlisberger’s Battleship: The New-Look Steelers

USA Today Sports, photo Charles LeClaire

I wrote an article in the 2012 off-season titled “Rooney’s Battleship, or, The Persistence of the Steeler Way.”  Something reminded me of this the other day, and I thought it was time to revisit the idea.

As you can surmise from the title, it had to do with the passing down through the years of a certain approach to the business of running a football team.

The “battleship” part comes from an old philosophical question called the Ship of Theseus.  It was first posed in Greek myth, and Plutarch wrote about it over 2000 years ago:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

The debate rages on since Plutarch first posed it. Modern concepts such as string theory, the pan-universe postulate (I just made up that name, so don’t bother to Google it) and so on have caused philosophers to view it from different angles than Plutarch could have imagined. But the question remains—if you replace all the elements of something with theoretically identical ones, does the original object remain?

An illustration I gave had to do with the New York Philharmonic. Since they opened their doors in 1842 not a single thing remains the same—the performance venue, the players, the music director, the administration, nothing.

Well, that isn’t quite true. At least until the current music director, they were playing pretty much the same type of repertoire as they were in the mid-1800s, except that now the composers are dead white Europeans whereas back then they were mostly living white Europeans (but the same ones.) That’s a subject for another forum, however.

So is it still the New York Philharmonic, or did it cease to be the ‘actual’ NYP at the first instance in which a player or music director was replaced? And who gets to decide these things, anyhow?

If we look at the Steelers organization, we see a similar case. The coaching staff, the management, and even the name is different.

The team began in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, and didn’t become the Steelers until 1940. Art Rooney briefly sold them in 1940 and bought a half-interest in the Philadelphia Eagles. He saw the error of his ways, though, and moved the Eagles to Pittsburgh, where they became the Steelers. The Iron Men (which was what the old Pittsburgh team was renamed) moved to Philadelphia and became the Eagles.

So, like the New York Philharmonic, the Steelers have had different management, different coaches, have played in different venues, have naturally had many different players.

Unlike the New York Phil, they haven’t always even had the same name or been based in the same city. 

They haven’t always been very good, either. The post-1940 Steelers never made it to a playoff game until 1947, when they lost, ironically, to the Eagles. This means the old Eagles were beaten by the old Steelers. So you see the problem. They never made another playoff game until 1972.

Looking again at the orchestra, one could certainly argue for a continuity of purpose, which is how I would argue, despite the fact that the purpose has undoubtedly changed to at least some degree. A perfect instance is the emphasis the current music director, Alan Gilbert, puts on contemporary music, seldom a mainstay of the orchestra during the previous century at least.

This idea of continuity of purpose follows Aristotle’s argument from his four causes—the formal cause, the material cause, the final cause, and the efficient cause.

Aristotle would presumably say you have the same battleship. The way he saw it, even if the stuff used to make the battleship (material cause) is different, the design is the same (formal cause.) And although different workers may be replacing the parts (efficient cause) the purpose of the ship is the same (final cause.) Therefore it is the same ship, (or orchestra,) because the structure and purpose are the same although the components vary.

But one could equally well argue, if you aren’t a fan of Aristotle, that people are much more different from one another than boards are from other boards. This is surely true. And yet if you think one board is strictly equivalent to another, you’ve clearly never done any woodworking. 

In my earlier article I was pondering this question in light of the overall “ethos” of the team, if you will, and concluded that, while many things have changed, even in the “modern” (Chuck Noll onwards) era of Steelers history, the underlying structure and purpose were the same.

But if you look at the team itself, I believe that in the years since 2010 the rather tubby battleship has gradually, bit by bit, been morphing into a rather sleek yacht.

We can see the first hints of this by the offensive linemen drafted beginning in 2010: Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, and Kelvin Beachum. While “sleek” is not generally a word one associates with offensive linemen, hear me out.

Pouncey was the top-rated center in the 2010 draft, and was notable for his quickness. His 40 time of 5.29 is pretty fast for a Big Eater, and his combine weight of 304 barely qualifies him for that term.

The Steelers have been slowly but surely replacing the planks of the rest of the 2010 line, with the exception of Ramon Foster, who was, after all, described in his draft profile as having “surprising short-area quickness for such a big man.”

Marcus Gilbert didn’t run most of the combine drills, but his 40 time was 5.46, and he was described as quick and athletic.

David DeCastro was next, and posted by far the lowest three-cone time (7.3”) of any of the linemen from 2011 including Maurkice Pouncey.

Mike Adams posted quite good combine numbers in the quickness area, even slightly besting DeCastro in the 20 yd. shuttle and 40 time (5.4”).

Kelvin Beachum was, I presume, considered sort of a throw-in, but his combine numbers were pretty respectable. He was only .01 seconds slower than DeCastro (5.44”) in the 40, and his 20 yd. shuttle and 3 cone drill times were comparable to Maurkice Pouncey. And at 6’2” and 303 he garnered the term “undersized” from the evaluators.

Generally speaking the linemen projected to start in 2015 are slightly smaller, slightly shorter, lighter, and faster than the old-style Steelers line.

And of course quite a revolution has taken place among the wide receivers as well. 2010 was the year the Steelers drafted speedsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown. While only Brown remains, the front office has been busy restocking with wide-outs such as Marcus Wheaton, Martavus Bryant, and Dri Archer (listed as both an RB and a WR.) They also signed the fastest man at the 2009 NFL Combine, Darrius Heyward-Bey, as a free agent. (For that matter, Archer was the fastest man at the 2014 combine.)

Hines Ward used to be called the “slowest man who is always open.” Antonio Brown, who has replaced him as the No. 1 WR, didn’t run the 40 at the combine, but he was considered quick. I think he would be considered more than that now, and strangely, he always seems to be open too, except when being blatantly held by about three defensive backs. [My favorite comment from his NFL Combine profile, under “Weaknesses”, was “Lacks size. Not tall…” Thanks for clarifying that, guys.)

On the defense, players such as Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt and Sean Spence have been gradually moving into position to replace aging vets. Except, of course, for James Harrison. But he won’t be a full-time starter this coming season unless something goes badly wrong.

Even the defensive tackles are being coached for quickness, and the days of a nose tackle who occupies half the field may be fading away, at least unless he can still get up the field in a big hurry. Casey Hampton did that, sometimes, but he had to be pretty steamed.

If I had to hazard a guess, the Steelers front office has been looking for defensive linemen who will work in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 alignment. Perhaps the “positional flexibility” so valued by Mike Tomlin is better served by slightly smaller and quicker guys.

As is usual with any large physical plant, the repairs and replacements are an ongoing process. But I think it’s fair to say that the ship which will set sail this fail is going to look rather different than anything anticipated by those who cut their teeth on grind-it-out-in-the-trenches three point games.

I think it is also fair to say that, to a degree unprecedented in his career, Ben Roethlisberger will have taken over the captain’s chair. Or, as Jeremy Fowler of ESPN says

When Ben Roethlisberger really takes ownership of the offense, a coach can feel like he’s just leasing it.

Every play has a window for Roethlisberger to change a look if he doesn’t like it, a process quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner says works smoothly now that Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have been together for three-plus years.

But Roethlisberger has found a rhythm with his receivers that coaches don’t always understand.

“Now he sees looks and says, ‘I don’t like my chances here, so he changes it, next thing you know the ball’s to [Antonio Brown], plus 10, damn,” Fichtner said. “We’re on the sideline like, ‘What did we just do? He just did something as easy as this [makes signal] before he took the snap.

They ran a signal the other day and we were like what was that? He ran a skinny post and it went for 70. We didn’t have that signal.”…

“If he wants you to be 18 yards (on a route), you have to be 18 yards,” receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “So you know that going into a play or when a play changes and you’re ready for it. He’s always working with us, talking about getting our head around, because he’s going to throw the ball on time.”..

As one continues to read the article (linked above), it becomes clear that one of the “planks” which seems to be the same but in fact has morphed into something rather different is Roethlisberger himself. Rather than looking to make something out of broken plays, generally with a defensive lineman hanging off of him, Ben is coaching the receivers to be where he needs them to be, whatever happens. And as much as the broken plays made for exciting (or perhaps nail-biting) viewing, this way is far better, both for the team and his health.

So to return to our philosophical question, can this team still be called the Steelers at all? If “Steelers” is associated with a brand of football the team is no longer going to run (at least to a large extent,) what do we call them now? The answer 30 years ago would probably be “the Cowboys.” My dad loved the finesse brand of game the Cowboys played, and despised what he considered to be the brutish Steelers, who used to beat up his lovely quarterbacks on a regular basis.

But of course it’s a new day, with new rules, new fines, and new players, for that matter. If I recall correctly, the only players now left from the 2010 Super Bowl team are Pouncey (who didn’t actually play in the Super Bowl, as he was injured,) Foster, Antonio Brown, Ben, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Greg Warren, James Harrison, and William Gay. Am I forgetting anyone else? Before Sunday the list also would have included Shaun Suisham, but alas, at least for this year he’s gone. That means over 87% of the roster is different.

And while the Steelers have one of the most stable coaching staffs in the league, there have even been substantial changes there, with different coordinators and some new position coaches.

Although the current New York Philharmonic is vastly different from the 1842 orchestra, we still feel comfortable calling it the same thing. Likewise, while the 2015 Steelers are very different from the 2010 Steelers, or from the 1975 Steelers for that matter, convention allows us to call the team our beloved Steelers. And while the product on the field may be changing, I’m hoping this year’s team will share another trait with some of the former teams—a Lombardi trophy!

4 comments

  • Good read. And you’re right, as things change…the Steelers remain the Steelers. Perhaps because, despite the changes on the field and on the roster, there’s a continuity that is singular to this team. Whether that be the Rooneys, or a way of doing things, or an impossible to define ‘aura’…there’s something that lets fans of all ages look at the team and feel like, in a way, nothing changes at all.

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    • I think it is some synergistic combination of Pittsburgh and the Roonies. I don’t know that much about other owners and clubs, but it’s hard to imagine a more tight relationship between an ownership and a city, except perhaps Green Bay, where they all own it. And so much of it has to do with the unpretentious nature of The Chief and Dan Rooney.

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  • When is a battleship not a battleship? When it becomes an Aegis class Cruiser capable of destroying multiple targets from hundreds of miles away simultaneously. So the Steelers are still the Steelers because their identity is more about their character, ownership and a multitude of intangibles, not so much because they have the same football playbook and philosophy.
    I like the change in approach to the game plan because it is much more likely to succeed in the changed game that is the new NFL. Speed and athleticism with an emphasis on position flexibility. And still with the Steeler character and will to win.

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