A Dream Team or a Team-First Team?

2015 Postseason Pittsburgh at DenverOnce again Bob Labriola’s feature on Steelers.com Asked and Answered has provided me with material for a post, and thank heavens for that. Here’s the question:

If you could take any defensive player and any offensive player from any team(s) in the rest of the league for the Steelers right now, who would they be?

The temptation might be to say to add an offensive superstar to the mix, such as Todd Gurley to a backfield already containing Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, or a receiver such as Julio Jones or A.J. Green or Brandon Marshall to pair with Antonio Brown. But all-star teams don’t win championships in football. Remember when the Eagles believed they had assembled the “dream team” in 2011 only to finish 8-8? What about the 2000 Redskins, when Daniel Snyder tried to assemble a fantasy football team, and it also finished 8-8?

So, rather than mess with the chemistry and the selflessness the Steelers have created in this locker room, for offense, all I want is for everybody to stay healthy all season. Everybody. All of the starters and all of the backups, and I’ll take my chances with that group. On defense, give me the 2008 version of James Harrison – 16 sacks and 34 pressures – to go along with the rest of the existing personnel, and I would be willing to play anybody anywhere. Even the mighty Arizona Cardinals.

I read this column about five minutes after putting Ivan Cole’s post on Shaun Suisham in the queue. Ivan’s point, if I may be allowed to put words in his mouth, were that while everyone is going to have to deal with injuries, the timing of the injuries and the personnel to whom they happened was particularly problematic last season.

Last season I checked from time to time with a site which attempted to rank injuries not just by number, the way Packers fans did in the 2010 season (“We now have 87 different guys on injured reserve!”) but to assess their importance to the team. It should be entirely obvious that it matters a good deal more which players are injured than how many of them.

Had the 2010 Packers lost Aaron Rodgers, I don’t think anyone would contend that they would still have made it to the Super Bowl, much less won it. The timing of their injuries was also advantageous, in that most of the injuries to core players took place early in the season, when there were plenty of other people to sign, and plenty of time for the replacements to learn the system and so on.

I’m not trying to minimize what they accomplished. It’s just that, despite how bad things seemed, it could have been way worse. I would venture to guess that part of the reason things weren’t worse was the culture of the team.

Which brings me to the point in Labriola’s answer which struck me—”rather than mess with the chemistry and the selflessness the Steelers have created in this locker room” etc. So what created this chemistry and selflessness? I believe it is a combination of team culture and adversity.

One of the reasons I’m so fond of writing profiles—mainly of the players, but also of coaches and even the ownership—is because I want to feel the men I am pulling for are quality human beings. It is ever so gratifying when these young men feel the responsibility to make the communities in which they live a work a better place and to use the platform that they have as a byproduct of their job to deal with societal ills such as domestic violence or to raise awareness of the need for breast cancer screenings, or what have you.

But I also love hearing a phrase like “the selflessness the Steelers have created in this locker room.” One of the things which has always impressed me about this team is the way in which players help out the younger guys, even knowing that these younger guys may one day take their job. This isn’t something one can take for granted.

In one sense, everybody wants the team to be the best it can be. Everybody wants that hardware. A few of the free agent veterans who signed with the Steelers this past offseason were quite upfront—they wanted to sign with a contender.

The difficulty comes when you have to weigh in the balance the good of the team vs. your own good. At what point does helping out become “above and beyond?” After all, one of the most difficult things any of us ever have to do is to try and realistically assess ourselves in relation to others in our field. You have to believe in yourself. I couldn’t walk out in front of a choral group unless I thought I had something significant to offer them. On the other hand, I have to realistically understand that there is a reason why I wasn’t and never would be considered the best choral conductor in the world, or anything close to it. It’s very tough to balance the realism with the necessary confidence in one’s abilities.

NFL players are members of a very tiny, elite group—the survivors, if you will, of a long winnowing process. I can’t even imagine what the percentage would look like if you took the numbers from all the kids who played football prior to college, but the NCAA just published an article with tables giving the ‘survival rate’ to the NFL from college athletics. The current number is 1.6%. This is the 256 players drafted out of the 72,788 who play college football. It doesn’t take into account the undrafted free agent signings, which more than double the total figure. But it also doesn’t take into account how many of them—both draftees and UDFAs—who will be cut before they ever play a down in the NFL.

Nonetheless, there is a distinct hierarchy of talent and production among this tiny, elite group, and a great many less roster slots than players wishing ones. Even if you make the roster, only half the players are “starters”. It must be incredibly difficult to feel you have worked your way up from the ground floor of special teams only to have the team draft some young hot shot, or sign a veteran, who will very possibly displace you before you can grab the brass ring. And yet it is the expectation that you as an experienced player will assist said high round draft choices or heralded free agent signings.

I’m sure this is, at least to some extent, an expectation on every team in the NFL. But the Steelers truly seem to live it. This has frequently been commented upon by free agents who sign with the Steelers, from Ryan Clark to Jericho Cotchery. Antonio Brown is mentoring a couple of the practice squad wide receivers, even taking them to the gym to work out with him. Shaun Suisham did what he could to help out Chris Boswell. He had to know that Boswell’s success could very well spell his pink slip:

A January 2016 article by Teresa Varley, posted just after the loss in Denver, made some interesting statements about the 2015 team:

There was a bond in the Steelers locker room this year, one that didn’t happen overnight, one that couldn’t be forced.

“It was different,” said linebacker Terence Garvin. “You could feel it. I felt the difference.”

It was a bond that has developed over time, one that went through some growing pains the last few years as the roster changed, but slowly developed to the point where it blossomed into something special this year.

“I think this is definitely the closest team I have ever played on,” said safety Mike Mitchell, in his second season with the Steelers and seventh overall in the NFL. “To battle through the adversity we did together created a unique bond that I never had before.”

One of the very important aspects of this was brought out by 11th year vet Greg Warren:

“When you have a group of guys that it starts feeling like you are brothers, it becomes really special,” said Warren. “Guys are looking out for each other, always sticking up for each other, never pointing fingers. You stay real tight through the highs and lows. When you have adversity you have to come together and be even tighter. That was fun. It was really fun to play this year.”

Happily, this wasn’t a one-time thing:

…everyone sees that feeling, that bond, just growing in 2016.

“The young guys were coming to work every day, preparing themselves,” said cornerback William Gay. “You just saw the hunger in everybody coming together, saying it’s bigger than me, it’s about the team. That is what you need. When I was young you had to buy into it. There were already established guys on the team. The core group on this team is now already established and anyone coming in has to buy in with that core group and it’s going to be great what can come from that.”

So to return to Bob Labriola’s statement, it’s easy to assume that an employee of the organization has to say stuff like this, but if you’ve read what he writes for any length of time you will know he calls ’em as he sees ’em.

If the “chemistry and selflessness” of last year’s locker room was really so evident, and if it looks to carry over to this season, this is excellent news. It’s easy to say that if only the Steelers had signed this or that veteran corner or safety or pass rusher the team would be x amount better, but I would disagree. The team might be better. It might also be worse. It is not given for most of us to see what goes on behind the scenes, but we can at least get a sense of when guys don’t like being with each other—and when they do.

And if the guys—from the superstars down to the career special teamers—are all committed to the goal of putting the good of the team ahead their personal agendas, then with a modicum of good luck in terms of injuries, they can beat anyone. So, Mr. Labriola, from your lips to God’s ear…


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