“The Standard is the Standard”—a Foreshadowing of Mike Tomlin’s 2015 Season

via Steelers.com

One of the things which was so impressive about the coaching job Mike Tomlin did, at least for those who were noticing, was how he managed to not only SAY things like “The Standard is the Standard” but actually get the team to believe it and play like it.

No, Landry Jones did not play like Ben Roethlisberger, mostly. Oh, he made a few really nice throws and a few boneheaded interceptions, which had a familiar feel, but it wasn’t like having Roethlisberger on the field, other than on a hellishly bad day for Ben. Which is only to be expected, because he is, after all, a backup quarterback, a fourth-round pick who had never thrown a pass in an NFL game until coming on the field in relief of an injured Michael Vick.

What was unexpected was that he managed to not lose to the Arizona Cardinals. That, my friends, is “next man up,” a phrase necessarily used by Coach Tomlin so frequently that it won Gene Collier’s 32nd Annual “Trite Trophy.” As his December 2015 article explains:

Our winner is Next Man Up.

Oh my. Few cliches in our history have better met the three criteria to win the trite: Exhaustive overuse, essential meaningless, and I have to really hate it.

“It’s all about Next Man Up,” you heard every week of this season from every NFL outpost. “Coach [Tomlin] preaches Next Man Up.”

I somehow doubt this rises to the level of theology, but even had it appeared somewhere in the new testament, what choice does any coach have when there’s an injury, play 10 guys, or nine, or eight? Next man up isn’t so much a philosophy as a requirement.

While Collier makes a valid point, it is possible for something to be both a cliché and a valid psychological approach, and it was definitely the overriding philosophy in 2015, out of sheer necessity.

As Tomlin is fond of saying, “Football is a game of attrition.” All teams have to deal with injuries, but the severity, timing and players to whom they happen can greatly affect the trajectory of a season. And, as has been discussed frequently on this site during the past season, the Steelers persevered through a series of injuries which perhaps would have tanked a team with a less solid locker room and a less deft and motivating coaching staff.

But as bad as things often were this season, Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered column early this week detailed an injury story from an earlier season of which I’ve never heard the like. It was prompted by the following question:

How does Joe Greene in his prime compare to J.J. Watt?

After giving a disclaimer on his personal bias, Labriola states his belief that Greene was the “most significant player in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise.” Powerful words, given the competition. To make his case he provided the following anecdote:

It was December 1972, and the 9-3 Steelers were on their way to Houston for a game against the 1-11 Oilers.* Sounds like a simple afternoon, but here are some other circumstances:

L.C. Greenwood and Sam Davis were out. Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins had the flu; while Kolb played, Mullins only made it into the third quarter. Bruce Van Dyke pulled a calf muscle in the first quarter and was done for the day; Jim Clack injured an ankle and was done for the day. All six of those aforementioned players were starters. Craig Hanneman, Greenwood’s backup, aggravated a knee injury and was done for the day; Dwight White injured a knee; Steve Furness injured an ankle. Ron Shanklin was injured in the first quarter and was done for the day; Terry Bradshaw dislocated a finger in the second quarter and was done for the day; and tight end Larry Brown, who would grow into an offensive tackle, was that day playing flanker.

The Steelers needed a hero, and Joe Greene stepped up. He had five sacks and blocked a short field goal attempt by the Oilers; he recovered one fumble and forced another, and those takeaways led to two Roy Gerela field goals. The Steelers won, 9-3, and Greene was responsible for nine of the points himself – six the Steelers scored and the three the Oilers did not.

If the Steelers lose that game to the Oilers – and in every previous year of their existence, the Steelers always lost those kinds of games, because in December 1972 the team had yet to win the first division title in franchise history – they finish the season at 10-4, tied with Cleveland for the best record in the AFC Central Division. But based on a better division record, the Browns would have finished first and the Steelers second in the division, which then would have sent Oakland to Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to Miami for the first round of the 1972 AFC Playoffs. No Immaculate Reception. Then who knows? I’m sure knowledgeable people can make a case for Watt, but I’m picking Joe Greene every time, and I’m very happy with that pick.

Do check out the full column, which is linked above—it was a particularly good one!

It also made me curious. The game Labriola described was one game, despite the importance of winning the division and so on. (It was also admittedly a single game out of 14, which gives it a bit more weight than in a 16-game season.) I thought it would be interesting to look up the overall injury record for that season and, if possible, compare it with that of the 2015 Steelers.

I divided it into offense, defense and special teams so the tables weren’t so long. The first group of players given will be the supposed starters at the beginning of the season, followed by any backups who played significant time. As the above anecdote attests, it isn’t as straightforward as the charts indicate, because I can’t really determine anything other than which players started games, so for instance Terry Bradshaw shows up as starting all 14 games, although we realize from this anecdote that his missed over half of that game. In the same way, Ben Roethlisberger missed parts of several games, but will show up as starting them. But this gives us a general idea:

Offense 72:15 Defense 72:15 ST 72:15

There are some IR guys on the chart: Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, Shaun Suisham, Senquez Golson, RT John Brown from the 1972 squad, and so on. They will show up as 0 in both Games Played and Games Started.

And of course the 2015 team had some players missing for personal stupidity (Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant) and benched or cut for poor performance, possibly in combination with injury (Cortez Allen, Dri Archer.) I didn’t even bother with Garett Hartley, who never made it out of the preseason, or Jacoby Jones, who apparently didn’t make it all the way up from the locker room.

And even with 2015 rather fresh in my mind I couldn’t really tell you whether the game Cam Thomas missed was because of injury (probably) or incompetence, or maybe a bit of both.

And obviously I can’t even begin to figure out how I would determine who of the 1972 backups were injured or just not dressing. An insight into such an old game as the one detailed by Bob Labriola is a rare glimpse into the past.

For the overall season it looks as if the 1972 team was generally missing at least a few less starters. It appears their receiver and running back corps were largely available, and Bradshaw at least started every game, although he clearly didn’t finish a handful of them.

Of course, there was none of that “concussion protocol” nonsense back them.

Those who are regular readers will understand I’m being ironic. But the fact was, back then guys were sent back out as soon as they were conscious. Not a good thing.

The 1972 offensive line took a hit at the beginning of the season when they lost their right tackle. As a result Gerry (“Moon”) Mullins, a guard they had drafted in the fourth round during the previous year, was shoved to the outside. This is presumably why they had no backup at left guard.

He remained with the Steelers for the rest of his career, mostly playing guard.

Defensively they were pretty healthy, seemingly, although again Labriola’s anecdote makes it clear there’s a lot that doesn’t show up on these sorts of charts.

My main point is to note that while injuries have always been a part of the game for every team. But sometimes the circumstances are extraordinarily adverse, as they were that long-ago day. And as they were for the 2015 Steelers for a majority of the season. But injuries can be at least partially compensated for by extraordinary effort(s) from individual players, and by extraordinary coaching.

According to Greene himself, he hated to lose—so much so, in fact, that he got thrown off of his high school team from time to time. In fact, he hated to lose so much that he was devastated to be drafted by the Steelers, whom he looked upon (rightly so, historically) as a bunch of losers. His individual efforts were part of what turned a franchise around. But we can’t discount what Chuck Noll was establishing before Greene ever got to the team.

For the 2015 Steelers, I believe it was the leadership of players like James Harrison and Will Allen who helped a largely young and inexperienced group of players to persevere in the face of great adversity. But I also believe it was the steady hand of Mike Tomlin doing and saying whatever was necessary to help his men figure out how to be the “next man up.” However little Gene Collier may like to hear about it…

*I wonder how much grief the Steelers got from the local fans about only beating a 1-11 team by six points…

2 comments

  • Heath Miller just retired. Does this change everything? Anything? Not trying to hijack comments and I think this fits in with the idea that the standard is the standard. Who’s the next man up?

    Earthling

    Like

    • I just heard this myself, on the radio on my way home. Although I don’t pretend to cover “breaking news” nor even try to, I’m writing an article for tomorrow about Heath, because, well, it’s HEEAATTHH…

      Like

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