The Case for the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part 2
by Ivan Cole
From an old school perspective, you don’t talk about injuries. It is just part of the game that you take with a stiff upper lip and move on. This is the front you are supposed to present to outsiders, and if you are a leader to your own team. It shouldn’t matter.
But if it happens often enough it does.
You should not expect anyone in an official capacity to acknowledge it, but it is not at all unreasonable or a matter of sour grapes to argue that we might be talking about our chances for Lombardi number eight were it not for injuries. In fact, you could go so far as to say one player, Vontaze Burfict, may have singlehandedly derailed the Steelers season. (And I am enough of an old school person myself to suggest that Mr. Burfict should receive a proper ‘reward’ for his achievements).
The reality is that the New Orleans preseason game put the spotlight on the two factors that will most likely determine the fate of 2016 team. This team has the talent, but if enough of the wrong players go down it will all be for naught.
The injuries were of a “shot across the bow” variety to players that the team would rather not be without; Cam Heyward (ankle), Marcus Gilbert (elbow) and Shamarko Thomas (groin). And while none appear to be season ending, it is unclear as to the full extent of their nuisance value.
Injuries will happen in football. There is no avoiding them at this level. The only relevant questions are who will be injured and the severity and timing of the injury. Viewed from this perspective, the severity of Senquez Golson’s foot injury is unfortunate, but the timing is fortuitous. If he is capable of making a difference, he will be available at the right time.
If I could say that the Steelers, aside from some assorted short term nicks, could remain largely injury free, I would be quite comfortable predicting that they would be a Super Bowl team. Having said that, there is probably only one absolutely non-expendable player, Ben Roethlisberger. This is based upon both his sublime level of talent, the experience and leadership that he brings, and the fact that that the gap between him and the next man up is huge.
Beyond that there are really few irreplaceable players in the Steelers’ system, thanks to the depth and redundancies in place. Antonio Brown would be one, Cam Heyward another, as much for their on field leadership as their talent. But in many cases it is injuries in combination that spell doom. The team could survive the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but then losing DeAngelo Williams becomes a loss too far to bridge. The defensive line could withstand the absence of Heyward or Stephon Tuitt for a period, but it is unlikely they could survive the loss of both.
I believe if you can keep the following players mostly upright throughout the season, the chances of Pittsburgh getting number seven improve dramatically—Ben, AB, Maurkice Pouncey, Heyward, Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Chris Boswell. Not a long list. But again, it is also largely about timing, combinations and severity.
Between them, Bell and Bryant account for 19 games lost due to suspension. But let’s also put this into perspective. Two things make the Bell and Bryant suspensions stunning. First is the fact that the Tomlin Steelers in recent years has been relatively drama and dysfunction free. No flouting of team rules or holdouts. No public disturbances or lawlessness. No domestic violence or other disturbing private activity that we know of. Second, the punishments were for..smoking weed. No heroin, meth, crack, public drunkenness. I bet the US Olympic Committee wishes that the only thing Ryan Lochte did was smoke a little weed.
Not that I want to make excuses for their behavior. They are professionals, and if that is what their profession requires, this is the standard to which they must hold themselves. But you have to challenge the judgment of a league that would take issue with such things in the manner they do. If missing or failing a drug test for marijuana consumption earns multiple game or season long suspensions, then surely a domestic violence rap might involve a public execution at the fifty-yard line. They really aren’t the same thing at all.
[Note from Rebecca—to me the irony is that the drug testing was put in place to protect players from themselves—in other words, to greatly reduce the temptation to use PEDs. I’m not a fan of marijuana, but no one has ever accused it of enhancing anyone’s performance on the football field. I’m guessing the recreational drug aspect was somewhat of an unintended consequence, although admittedly marijuana was illegal everywhere when the rules went into place.]
At the end of the day the upside for Bell and Bryant is so extraordinary that you can’t fault the team for embracing the potential risks. The supporting talent and strong team culture is such that the worst case is survivable.
You also wish that the league had better things to do with their time, not just with Bell and Bryant, but also with James Harrison. The fact that they do have any number of legitimate concerns that deserve their attention is what makes these kind of things so irritating.