On Second Thought: Steelers vs Bengals, The Rubber Match
by Ivan Cole
A special team
Those who have been paying attention to my thoughts about the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers know I stepped out on a limb and expressed an intuition I had that this might be a special campaign for this team.
As we awaited the beginning of the Wild Card game with Cincinnati, my companions were eagerly reminding me about this assertion. It was done in the spirit of those who were seeking some level of reassurance that everything would be okay, more specifically, that the Steelers would prevail. My response didn’t have a resonance of certainty about the outcome, and they didn’t like that.
It all centered on the ambiguity of the term ‘special’. The unspoken assumption was that the translation would be ‘Super Bowl run’, but I had never really been that explicit in statements on the matter. That seemed prudent as the season unfolded. How many times had it appeared this season that this team was on its way, only to have that possibility snatched away in some heart rending manner?
Sometimes the problems were self-inflicted; whether it was Josh Scobee’s missed field goals, Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions or a variety of blown opportunities too numerous to detail here. Other times the challenges came in the form of players being struck down in front of our eyes—Le’Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum, Ben multiple times. And that’s the short list. This team lost six times, none of which came about because they were simply outclassed or beaten down by an opponent. Win or lose, the one constant is that the effort, with one notable exception, involved suffering of bodies, psyches (especially those of the fans), or both in order to complete the task.
And yet over the course of the regular season they managed to win ten times and made their way into the playoffs. Every time I was certain my original impression about this team was overly optimistic, that they were too flawed or snake-bitten to carry the label of ‘special’, they carried on.
On Saturday night in Cincinnati with 1:27 left to play it looked for all the world as if in their final, tortured performance, all the tragic elements were on display for the entire football-watching universe to see.
And then we were provided with the precise definition of ‘special’.
PaVaSteelers loves the Pittsburgh Steelers as much as anyone I know, but would never be mistaken for being particularly warm hearted and forgiving of its shortcomings and failures. So it is particularly significant that as we all sat in the giddy aura of this improbable victory, literally unable to leave for an hour afterward even though it was late, he turned to me and said that it really didn’t matter what happens next week in Denver. The season, in his view, was a success.
Homer compared it to December 23, 1972, the date of the Immaculate Reception. For those of us who are lucky enough to have experienced both events in real time, the comparison is apt. In each instance a Steelers team that everyone knew was dead arose (like Lazarus) and, using a term that seems particularly appropriate, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Perhaps that is too mild an analogy. Snatched, not from the jaws but the belly of defeat. In both cases it involved those who put forth extraordinary effort when all logic screamed they were beaten. In this case there was the additional support of the tragic pathologies of the Bengals. But that in no way should diminish the achievement.
We may not know or appreciate the significance of this for years, but let us begin by saying that, like the Immaculate Reception, this will be for all the participants, players and spectators alike, more than just winning a playoff game.
Tomlin and the coaches
If you are looking for clues, start with the Steelers’ head coach. If you haven’t seen Mike Tomlin’s post game remarks, please go to Steelers.com and do so. Pay less attention to the words said and more to the tone and demeanor. Perhaps the greatest of Tomlinisms are not his statements, but the attitude itself. For Tomlin himself it would seem that The Standard is to consistently treat victory and defeat as the imposters that they are. What I saw was a man who was emotionally spent and humbled by what he had just been a part of.
We have talked over the past two seasons of the contributions of Mike Munchak and Joey Porter. Amazingly, in this game they were participants in the outcome in ways that no could have imagined.
For the third time this season, Roethlisberger was carted off the field of play leaving viewers with the impression that he was likely done, not just for the game, but the season. The third time! And then, for the first time, he returned to the field. And finally, in a turn that seemed somehow more appropriate for something coming out of Hollywood rather than real life, he played when all seemed lost and willed his damaged body and team to victory.
This was as bad, or maybe worse than the scenario of the kid from Detroit (Jerome Bettis) returning to his hometown to win the Super Bowl in his final game. If you tried to shop that script to a producer you would have gotten kicked out the office. Get the hell out of here with that nonsense!
Part of the great drama of this was how it has put a spotlight on the relationship between Ben and Tomlin. Though Ben came into the league under Bill Cowher, nine of his twelve seasons has been in partnership with Tomlin. The story that both men related separately of the decision they arrived at to go in, the now or never moment, will tie the legacies of both men to the lore of the franchise, the city of Pittsburgh and the NFL.
We will remember the awful things said about Ben in the Cincinnati media in the days leading up to the game—a relatively small thing that might be an indicator of how seriously off course and dysfunctional the culture of this country has become at times. You have to wonder if, beyond the passions generated in the moment, this had anything to do with why fans felt it appropriate to hurl debris at Ben when he was being carted off the field earlier.
We will remember the tears in his eyes on the sidelines at the moment that Chris Boswell’s field goal attempt cleared the uprights. We will remember Tomlin escorting Ben protectively off the field after the post-game interview.
I am probably being overly optimistic in saying this, but it is hard to believe that Ben or Tomlin will be viewed in quite the same way after this.
Bryant and Shazier
Sometimes I believe that Homer missed his calling as a seer. Before the game he clearly stated that the fortunes of the team rested on the performances of Martavis Bryant and Ryan Shazier.
It is a testament to the incredible drama of this game that Bryant’s mind boggling touchdown reception isn’t completely head and shoulders above the other events of the evening. And it took some effort to recall a spectacular reverse run that he had earlier. When we were calling for Bryant to step up, I think what I had in mind was just for him to hang on to the ball. Now, even if his career stops dead in its tracks after this game, he has passed into legend.
Any more complaints about Shazier? If you want to talk negatives, he is the Steelers player most likely to have to pay a fine this week after his crown of the helmet hit on Bernard. He is also the principle reason his teammates aren’t cleaning out their lockers as I write this.
Toussaint and Todman
Their efforts will be buried under the spectacle in the perceptions of most, but Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman join the list of players which includes Alejandro Villanueva, Jesse James, DeAngelo Williams, Robert Golden and others who took on the mantle of “next man up” and delivered in a big way for this team.
Willie Colon II
That would be David DeCastro, who subjected Vontaze Burfict to the most humiliating thing you can do to a defensive player. He pancaked him near the Bengals goal line. And while it lacked the near pornographic imagery of Colon’s memorable embarrassment, it had the desired effect. Who knows? It might have been a factor in Burfict’s out of control and self-destructive behavior in the end.
Compassion for Cincinnati?
The team? The city? Yes, they deserve every bit of suffering that they are no doubt experiencing this day. But can I be so perverse to wish this upon anyone? James Farrior wrote a tweet that captured it well. These are people who fell victim as much to their own lack of class and pedigree as to anything.
A championship culture is more than just talent or intensity. What transpired at the end was not some sort of bizarre meltdown but, as PaVa put it, the accumulated karma of a group who, through the permissiveness of the league, was allowed to pursue a pattern of destructive behavior that resulted in disaster.
Burfict took out each of the Killer B’s in turn except for Martavis over the course of this season. It remains to be seen what the full extent of the damage he has done to the Steelers will be. But it will be much less than that which has inflicted upon the biggest ‘B’ of all; his own Bengals.
Whether the Steelers can overcome the damage incurred when they travel to Denver next week is unknown and less important in the overall scheme of things. What Homer and PaVa know, and I think many others reading this as well, is that this team went through a test, an initiation if you will, that will serve the players, organization and Steelers Nation in ways that are difficult to calculate this close to the event itself. This is a special moment whose dividends may be paid next week or next year, but they are definitely coming.
There will be stragglers that won’t realize this. I am sure somewhere in the Nation someone is making the case as to why this is proof positive that certain individuals or groups are failures. To which I will say that Burfict and Bengals thought they were smart all the way until the end as well.
We have been witness to something truly special—a special season regardless of what comes next.