The Loss of Suisham: A Sign That Steelers’ Luck is Changing for the Better?

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

by Ivan Cole

What an odd thing to suggest, right? Hang with me for a bit as I attempt to make a case for the past year’s journey of Shaun Suisham standing as a symbol of an important change of fortune for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016.

One of the weaknesses, an occupational handicap if you will, of being fans and observers of the game is our incessant focus upon the urgency of the moment. Every roster move, no matter how mundane, every injury, no matter how minor, can become infused with deep and lasting meaning. Sometimes such is true, often it is not.

I have sat at training camp and listened to fans become frustrated because Ben Roethlisberger threw a poor pass. In training camp. In August. An ominous sign pointing to our diminished prospects of getting to the Super Bowl, right?

This doesn’t mean that small occurrences can’t have outsized meanings. The trick is to discern what may really be meaningful, and what can be confidently dismissed as being, well, ridiculous.As we sit on the cusp of the 2016 preseason with the picture of 2015 complete and accessible, it seems to me that the story of Shaun Suisham now can clearly be seen as a harbinger of the fate of the 2015 season and current developments could very well signal how 2016 may be different, and in a positive manner at that.

At root, this is about injuries. It requires that we first clarify some of the assumptions and myths surrounding the issue in the NFL. The ‘proper’ approach, particularly within the teams themselves, is to take a posture of stoicism. Injuries are inevitable, and as such cannot have credence as a factor in the ultimate outcome of a season.

This is a partial truth. Injuries, indeed, are inevitable. Anyone hoping that a team will make it through a season unscathed is setting themselves up for deep disappointment. But make no mistake, injuries were a key, if not the most determining factor, in killing the championship aspirations of the 2015 Steelers.

What is most important is the context—and going deeper, a variety of factors that goes beyond just whom is hurt in combination with the severity and timing of the injury. I will argue, for example, that the losses of Ben, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, though undeniably challenging and dispiriting, were nonetheless, survivable and less impactful than those of Bruce Gradkowski, DeAngelo Williams, and yes, Shaun Suisham.

Suisham set the tone and got the ball rolling for the season. Arguably, the team’s fate was sealed when he went down in the Hall of Fame game in August.

Few if any could have suspected such a thing last summer. From the perspective of the followers of the team, the Hall of Fame assignment (with the necessary earlier reporting time to camp), coupled with the induction of Jerome Bettis, was viewed as an unalloyed good. We would end our football off-season fast with a feast on a national stage.

Sure, there were the worrywarts who grumbled about the extra practices and the one extra preseason game and the nebulous dangers that might be engendered, but there was always something that would set someone in Steelers Nation off into Chicken Little mode. Nobody worries like we do.

As I recall, few people seemed to even noticed the injury when it first occurred. I didn’t, nor did those who were watching the game with me at the time. It was well after the fact before the media covering the game took note, and sometime after that before it was realized that Suisham was lost for the season.

This set off a series of events, including the loss of a second kicker (Garrett Hartley) due to injury, and culminated in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens that was directly attributable to the function of place kicking. Any dissenting opinions on this assertion? It introduced the term ‘Scobee’ into the Pittsburgh sports lexicon, and not as a term of endearment.

It’s not too difficult to argue the following—a loss that was caused by the incompetent actions of one performer to a divisional opponent affected (unfavorably) the playoff position of a team who, in spite of its other considerable misfortunes, came within moments of defeating the eventual champion in one of the most hostile (altitude) opponent venues in the league. This prevented them from advancing to the conference championship game and who knows what potential fate. This could be viewed as the margin of error that prevented championship success.

There was more, much more, of course.

Cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson, projected starters by many, did not make it to the field of play at all. The best chance we will have to assess the meaning of this is if and when Golson gets the opportunity to show the world what he has got to contribute as a pro.

Offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum were lost early in the year. Mike Adams was another player who never got out of dry dock. Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva filled in admirably such that the loss of talent and leadership was survivable.

Ben was unavailable for some games and in diminished capacity for some others, but the greater loss was likely Bruce Gradkowski. It was his absence which forced the team to rely on an aging veteran (Michael Vick) unfamiliar with and perhaps ill-suited for the system and his teammates, and a young backup (Landry Jones) who was just not ready to carry the team beyond very limited circumstances. This was likely the key factor in another divisional loss (Cincinnati).

Losing Bell, first to suspension and then to injury, was both disappointing and infuriating, but beyond that it is unclear whether it was a decisive negative factor in the team’s competitiveness. A better case can be made for DeAngelo Williams, whose loss placed a tremendous burden upon a young, inexperienced player (Fitzgerald Toussaint) who handled things marvelously, except for one play. One could speculate as to whether Bell’s absence forced a workload on the older Williams that went beyond what would be recommended, and that might have led to a greater likelihood of injury. But in the scope of this piece it is unprovable.

Would Antonio Brown’s presence in the divisional playoff game against the Broncos been such that the team might have had the necessary offensive cushion to survive Toussaint’s turnover? Unknown. Or, if they had somehow managed to survive the Denver game without him, would his inability to overcome the concussion protocols have doomed the team in subsequent matchups? Again, unknown.

The general point I am attempting to make here is that all injuries are not equal, even beyond the inequality that we would attribute to talent, position or place on the depth chart. The Steelers, by way of a philosophy reflected in their roster development and team leadership, responded heroically, but the scope of the holocaust they faced still left them a bridge too far from reaching their goals.

With all this in mind, we have once again lost Shaun Suisham in the summer. Last year the loss was catastrophic, this year it is a sad occurrence, but almost certainly inconsequential to the team’s fortunes.

The fact is, most in Steelers Nation assumed Suisham would not be with the team regardless. This was not a guaranteed outcome, but it was believed to be the most likely event whatever his health status.

What was being anticipated was an epic camp competition between him and Chris Boswell. It was supposed to be something of a win/win/win/win for all involved.

The loser of the competition would probably be this year’s Brad Wing; traded, hopefully to a good organization, a contender or both. There was some alternative talk of the team retaining both players, but given the depth of talent throughout the roster, this struck me as luxury the Steelers could not afford.

It was believed that the team would have a player who would be on the short list of the most reliable placekickers in the league whomever the winner would be. The loser would bring a good draft pick and maybe more in trade.

Both players were reliably accurate kickers who were legitimately popular with the fan base and their teammates.

Boswell was the humble, unflappable kid, the savior who coaxed the Nation down from the ledge after being driven to fantasies of self-harm by the kicker who some still refuse to name. His advantages are a stronger leg, making him a better asset for kickoffs and long range field goals and better overall upside, despite his youth and inexperience. He should only get better, the thinking goes, and the career of a good kicker can easily span double digits in terms of years.

The potential concern is whether his success of last season is sustainable. Was what we witnessed was someone having a streak of good luck?

Finally, there was the one factor that was most likely to checkmate his rival. Boswell would be cheap. This is, after all, a business.

For his part, until the injury setback, Suisham’s track record was just fine. His ‘weaknesses’ are of the relative sort. The only criticism of Boswell to this point is ‘can he keep this up?’ Suisham was experienced and reliable. And did we mention deadly accuracy in mid-range?

Then there is the matter of leadership. As often as not, the popularity of kickers is more of the quirky, mascot variety. Think Jeff Reed. Remember that Suisham was a team captain and also a pillar of the community. This, more than anything, was his advantage, something Boswell is unlikely to match in near term at least. That, rather than Suisham’s leg, are the qualities that this team and community will miss the most.

So Shaun Suisham has been lost to the team in both the summer of 2015 and 2016. Last year it was not survivable. This year it is just sad. The 2015 team could not afford his loss. This year they will almost certainly endure competitively. If this telegraphs the pattern for the year, then there is a reason for optimism.

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