On Second Thought: Divisional Round
by Ivan Cole
The purpose of it all
There are those who say that winning the Lombardi is not the most important thing but the only thing. If you honestly subscribe to that line of thought then being a devoted fan of any particular NFL team is an exercise in masochism.
If we just examine those teams that qualified for this season’s post season tournament, four (Cincinnati, Houston, Minnesota and Carolina) have never reached the Promised Land of being the last team standing. Perhaps it will happen for the Panthers in February.
Four others have championships (not all Super Bowls) as artifacts of their history but no real experiential relevance to the vast majority of their current fan bases. The Cardinals, for example, won once, before I was born, when they were located in Chicago and Harry Truman was president. Kansas City won during the first Nixon administration. Washington and Denver won sometime in the nineties. Of the four remaining, the successes of New England and Seattle have been strictly recent.
That leaves Green Bay and Pittsburgh. In spite of the fact that they represent two of the best success ratios the game can offer, each team fell short for a generation within the fifty year Super Bowl era window. And I am certain of one thing as the new week begins—in Wisconsin and western Pennsylvania there are those who feel this season is an absolute failure, that the span of five and seven years respectively since the last hoisting of the Lombardi is intolerable.
The biggest surprise for me is how quickly a sense of perspective descended upon my consciousness. And it wasn’t just me. Maybe it was the consequence of being inoculated by the events of last week—the escape from what seemed to be certain competitive death. Or the realization that only so many wounds and setbacks can be absorbed and overcome.
In any case, when we sat down to watch the game (and a good number of folks who frequent this site were represented) it was with an acceptance of the fact that Pittsburgh really was an underdog. If they won it, it would be a testament, as Homer would say, to heart and grit, but not any sense of entitlement.
The end was disappointing of course, but free of rage, bitterness or pessimism. My position was that when the game began only five teams and their fan bases still had football, and we were one of them. A reason for gratitude. Over the next three weeks three of the four remaining teams will be dining on the same meal of ashes as we currently are. I particularly wish the two NFC survivors well, as their communities still have the possibility of experiencing something that all fans should be a part of at least once.
As for Steelers Nation, what are we left with? Looking backward we see a season that fulfilled the criteria of being highly entertaining. While it came in the form of a tense thriller with unexpected twists and turns, as opposed to the action/adventure popcorn flick many would have preferred, the desired outcome of a deep run into the playoffs was achieved.
Because of suspensions and then injury we were denied the spectacle of Ben’s Flying Circus, with no fewer than four All Pros as part of a package that would rain devastation upon the NFL. Consequently, the defense, whose secondary was also experiencing its own mini-holocaust of injuries, was called upon to grow up somewhat ahead of schedule in order keep the team in the post season hunt.
Nonetheless, with one hand and sometimes a lot more tied behind their backs, the Steeler offense managed to strike terror in the heart of most teams in the league, and the D grew up quickly, faster than most observers imagined.
Playing what was calculated as the most difficult schedule in the league (Washington, by contrast was playing one of the weakest), they competed and won using players in key roles that virtually no one had even heard of before they were called on to perform. Even if they had been at full strength, they were judged by some in the beginning of the season to be an underdog for the championship. Yet as the season progressed, and despite their flaws and misfortunes, they came to be viewed as the bully that nobody wanted to face. No doubt their elimination was met with sighs of relief among the surviving teams.
It would have been tempting to defer some of the following comments for the long off season ahead. I believe it would be wrong to wait. Some of what follows will be revisited in detail at a later time.
Tomlin, Whitlock and the continuing slandering of the Steelers leadership
I believe I speak for many when I say that the overwhelming feeling I have had in the hours since the season ended is pride and gratitude. To be a ‘native born’ Steelers fan, that is to say, one whose fandom is grounded in the fact that both I and the team are products of the same family/community, has been viewed by me as a great blessing. How the team conducts its business both on and off the field is so representative of the best things the culture of the community of my birth has to offer. The 2015 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers adds a new and particularly upbeat chapter to this ongoing story, a story even defeat could not significantly diminish. A key author and beneficiary of this story is head coach Mike Tomlin.
Bottom line—you simply cannot legitimately separate the achievements of this team from excellent, even great coaching. Because many of us can only associate great coaching with one metric, winning, we often lose sight of the fact that the playing field is not always level. Many teams have been seriously gashed by injuries this and every season. One need only to compare the outcome of two teams within the same division, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, to see the range of outcomes that are possible in response to this sort of challenge.
Since Tomlin would most certainly be saddled with the lion’s share of the blame for failure, it is only fair that he receive a similar share of the accolades for success. But to be fair and comprehensive, the success of this season was as much a team victory at the leadership level as it was with the players.
The work of Kevin Colbert and the scouting department to provide both high end players such as David DeCastro and Ryan Shazier as well as individuals lower down on the roster such as Alejandro Villanueva and Robert Golden, then supplemented by prudent free agent acquisitions like DeAngelo Williams and Darrius Heyward-Bey, would strike anyone outside of certain precincts of Steelers Nation as genius.
But even acknowledging that cannot take away from the incredible success of Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” philosophy. Asserting that “The Standard is The Standard” is a nice platitude, but for a team to actually take it to heart and successfully apply it is something else altogether.
Let’s look at this another way. The players who were not available for the Divisional Round game could have been, with a few pedestrian fill-ins, a playoff caliber team. Maurkice Pouncey, Shaun Suisham, Le’Veon Bell, Mike Adams, Antonio Brown, DeAngelo Williams, Kelvin Beachum, Roosevelt Nix, Cortez Allen, Senquez Golson, Bruce Gradkowski, Jordan Zumwalt, Rob Blanchflower, Clifton Geathers. Add the fact that some of the following were also unavailable for multiple games: Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Mike Vick, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier, Daniel McCullers, and Terence Garvin. Maybe you gain some appreciation of the fact that the Steelers managed a double digit, playoff caliber record in the face of such losses.
The big story wasn’t that Fitz Toussaint fumbled at a critical moment, but rather, that Toussaint, who was a practice squad player starting only his second NFL game ever, was the feature back of a winning effort up to that point. He was tasked with that responsibility, one that would challenge the nerves and abilities of the most seasoned of veterans. That he was also sharing the field with Villanueva, Jessie James and Sammie Coates? Do I have to spell it out for you?
Sadly, amazingly, Tomlin is not being given any serious consideration as a coach of the year candidate. Even worse, there are still those who continue to say that Tomlin is not up to snuff as a head coach.
Enter Jason Whitlock.
I won’t say much to critique the specifics of Whitlock’s criticism of Tomlin. BTSC’s Christopher Carter did an excellent job which is worth your time and attention.
What does bear repeating is the transparent, clumsy and sloppy nature of Whitlock’s opportunism as well as the petty and apparently personal nature of his attack. It would be giving too much credit at all to mention this except for two disturbing realities.
First, is the unfortunate fact that Whitlock does not really deviate that greatly from the behavior of many in the football media complex in kind, only in degree. To create or inflate controversy in order to generate clicks, no matter whether it violates the parameters of what is credible or ethical, is certainly an accepted and relatively unremarked-upon practice. At best it is bad, irresponsible journalism. At worst it is the naked propagation of lies for the purpose of career advancement.
Second, unethical and clumsy, yes. Stupid, no. Whitlock is telling a certain segment of our sports universe, and Steelers Nation as well, exactly what they want to hear, and although refraining from traveling this path would not have resulted in extinguishing anti-Tomlin sentiments, the expression and its source will almost certainly encourage and embolden this segment.
Forget the longevity and winning record, the Lombardi and the other Super Bowl appearance, or the lack of any significant criticism from those who would know best, current and former players and coaches. The magnificent coaching performances of this year, 2008, and 2013, and the fact that he is still one of the younger coaches in the league. A national media figure (and a black one at that!) says that Mike Tomlin is a mediocrity and a fraud—an affirmative action hire tolerated out of political correctness.
Compassion would dictate that Whitlock and his acolytes of bold haters and passive aggressive weasels that nip at Tomlin’s heels with ‘concerns’ about clock management, 4th down decisions and whether the coach appears properly engaged should be coddled in their rage and ignorance with due consideration given to all the sociological factors driving the behavior.
On the other hand, sometimes the best response is: Go to hell. We’ll give compassion a try in February.
A candidate for one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments of the playoffs, maybe the season, was the first offensive play of the Denver game, when Ben Roethlisberger aired out a long pass and served notice that the Broncos defense was going to have to deal with all of him, not a shell. I am not quite sure of what it is, but Denver cornerback Aqib Talib was the second opposing player in a week to accuse a Pittsburgh offensive star of faking an injury. Is this a working definition of being in someone’s head?
Ben shares one trait with Tomlin in that he is an undervalued, underappreciated talent. His was a masterful effort given the unknowable but certainly challenging nature of his physical ailments and how he managed them. Also, less remarked upon, but just as impressive, was the wisdom of his play. He did nothing that remotely could be considered a risk that might have resulted in a turnover, including absorbing sacks that he might not have taken in a situation where the stakes were lower.
Whatever you might think of what his sins were off the field in the past, as well as the relative lack of respect for his talents on the field, Ben has more than redeemed himself with his high level of play and leadership. He may, unfortunately, be destined to be a player who is not fully appreciated until very late in his career or even years after it is over. For the second time he shared the field in a high stakes playoff game with the great Peyton Manning, each time coming away with at least a draw, and for large stretches flat outplaying him.
Fitz and Sammie and Jordan and Jesse and Alejandro and Chris and Ross and…
All the names mentioned here except for Sammie Coates and Jesse James were picked up off the street at various times over the past two seasons. James is yet another reminder for the hard headed and obtuse of the perverted wisdom of a rush to judgment on a young player. Who would have imagined this in the immediate aftermath of the Hall of Fame game? Coates couldn’t get a helmet most weeks. Neither could Antonio Brown his first season.
Villanueva has only been an offensive lineman for a year, and all of his game experience has come this season. Ross Cockrell is the highest rated Steelers cornerback after being discarded by the Buffalo Bills at the end of training camp. Chris Boswell never played in the league before October, and was the team’s fourth choice for the position. Fitzgerald Toussaint got his first starts and Jordan Todman his first significant action in high stakes playoff games.
They were going toe to toe with the conference’s number one seed and number one defense in their home stadium with the handicap of altitude. They were barely winning, but winning they were.
Busts and has beens
And speaking of people whom some had prematurely written off, where would we have been without the efforts of first round busts Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree? Or if we had listened to those who had said that James Harrison and Will Allen were done? Cam Heyward was considered a bust too at one time, right? How many times must people be wrong before they give up with these premature evaluations?
The really sad news
It came from Cameron Heyward in the locker room after the game. There is a sad truth that has to be acknowledged. It is an illusion that teams exists for multiple seasons. While the Steelers are a young group that will almost certainly return most of its players for 2016, for some the journey ended on Sunday. Even for those who return, roles, expectations and relationships will alter and morph such that it will be a different team that takes the field in nine months.
Here is a list of possible casualties for business or competitive reasons going forward. Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, Shaun Suisham, Matt Spaeth, Will Johnson, Roosevelt Nix, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cam Thomas, Terence Garvin, James Harrison, Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jordan Todman, Anthony Chickillo. Just a partial group to be sure, but let’s dig deeper into a couple of cases to understand the poignancy of what lies ahead for some. [UPDATE: The Steelers have signed Nix and Chris Hubbard to a one-year contract.]
Fitz and Todman. Let’s be clear that this would have nothing necessarily to do with their performance in the playoffs, and certainly not Fitz’ fumble. If Bell and Williams both return healthy, as well as Nix and Will Johnson, at most there may be room for one more runner. And who knows what the draft or free agency might bring? The good news would be that regardless of their future with the Steelers both should be able to find work in the league in 2016.
Heyward-Bey. How do you justify keeping Sammie Coates off the field? Who yields to make room for him? The need for a veteran presence is reduced as Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are maturing. Special teams and the overall character plus is still important, but not enough to justify marginalizing Coates.
The bottom line is that significant positive contributors to the team may be gone for no other reason than the numbers game which so characterizes the league at this time. The fact that this team stands poised to make its strongest run at a Lombardi in a decade, and that some who played key roles to lay the foundation may not be around to enjoy the spoils is, well, sad.
Homer said on Sunday night that he had never been prouder of a Steelers team. I am in agreement. In the final analysis this is what will define the 2015 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers as special.