Fifth Quarter Report: 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers, Part One
by Ivan Cole
In August 2015, I spent a delightful day indulging in a Pittsburgh sports feast with Rebecca. We spent the afternoon attending Steelers training camp in Latrobe, and then the evening taking in a Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park.
One of many things that struck me that day was the difference in mood at the respective venues.
The Steelers were going through their paces in preparation for a season that was still weeks away. One might have expected a lightheartedness and ease that matched the green rolling hills and bright sunshine that defined Saint Vincent that afternoon. However, for some of the observers, but not all, there was something of an edge. “C’mon Ben!”, someone grunted as Roethlisberger threw an errant pass. Every miscue or failure was freighted with grave meaning.
In contrast, even though the pennant race was heating up for the Pirates and they spent much of the game trailing the Detroit Tigers, the sense of joy and celebration was undeniable. It had been two and a half decades since the Pirates had been competitively relevant on a consistent basis. Many of the fans present hadn’t been born when that was so. Fans and vendors literally danced in the aisles on a beautiful cloudless evening, which was punctuated by a Pirates comeback and victory.
While I cling to the belief that the vast majority of Steeler Nation still manages to keep their heads on straight, there remains a vocal minority that are poisoned by privilege, entitlement, hubris, outsized and unrealistic expectations concerning performance outcomes, and a rash, rapid predisposition to scapegoat and condemn in response to what they believe to be substandard, disappointing results.
Like the misbehaving child whose antics everyone despises, but whom no one feels empowered to correct, an ongoing situation is created where the tail wags the dog. How many of us feel compelled, unless we are of a masochistic mindset, to avoid Steelers fan forums after even the most benign of defeats, lest we be subjected to raging tantrums cataloging the sins of the organization; great and small, past, present and future, with the calls for remedies ranging from censure to termination.
The easy course would be to simply dismiss this faction, ignore them as best one can and move on. That has been tried, and I don’t believe it is ever going to work in the current environment. They are not going away. A different perspective and approach is required.
The first thing we have to come to terms with is that, without totally abandoning the principles of personal responsibility, this sort of fan behavior is, in part, the byproduct of trends in the general culture, as well as the sports/entertainment/celebrity culture. The proof of this is that it is manifesting on a much more widespread basis than just Steeler Nation, though the Pittsburgh expression has its own peculiarities.
For example, criticisms directed at team leadership for the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Ravens, teams where the former, like Pittsburgh, made it to the Conference Championship game, and the latter just missed the playoffs, sounded similar to the complaints leveled against the Steelers. After the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs by, in essence, the length of Antonio Brown’s arm, the Baltimore coaching staff was accused by some of their fans of, among other sins, practicing poor clock management. Sound familiar?
Are these critiques earned? Are these critics just engaging in tough love and bringing to light difficult truths? A little perspective might help.
The Steelers just played in their 16th conference championship game during the modern (Super Bowl, post-merger) era. Only one team, Dallas, has played in more (17). As everyone knows, the Steelers have won more Super Bowls (6) than any other team, but their eight appearances is one less than the Cowboys and New England, each with nine.
In terms of championships, there are six franchises who have never won one. This is understandable with newcomers Houston, Carolina and Jacksonville. But the number also includes Atlanta, Cincinnati and Minnesota. The last championships of several other teams predate the merger, with the Cardinals experiencing the longest drought—70 years ago, when they were, ironically, located in Chicago. For Detroit, it has been 60, Philadelphia’s has nearly been as long (1960)—the same year the Pirates won the World Series on Mazeroski’s home run. Buffalo, San Diego and Tennessee (formerly the Houston Oilers) haven’t won since the days of the American Football League. Cleveland is confusing, depending upon how you reconcile the two teams currently residing in Cleveland and Baltimore, but under the banner of the Browns the last championship was in 1964.
The point I am trying to make is that in the NFL, championships don’t come easily or often, but there seems to be a disconnect on this point with many fans. Let me attempt to distill this a little further.
If we just look at Pittsburgh’s championship record during the Tomlin years, there are three appearances in the AFCCG (slightly less than 20 percent of the organization’s total appearances), two Super Bowl appearances (25 percent of total appearances) and one world championship. Tomlin’s totals in these categories equal or exceed that of nine franchises for the entirety of the modern era, not just this past decade. The number of Super Bowl appearances equal or exceed that of 17 franchises, again, not just during his tenure, but the 50 year Super Bowl era. His one win equals or exceeds that of 19 franchises, ever.
With the preceding in mind, then it really doesn’t matter whether you choose to label the Tomlin regime as great, merely good, or even mediocre. It is clearly a cut above the capabilities of two thirds of the organizations in the NFL. When controlling for age and length of service it is even more impressive. It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the teams in the league would be ecstatic to be this kind of mediocre.
Unfortunately, there are too many who are ignorant in both the benign and pejorative sense of the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are about as close to state of the art in excellence as is possible, given the business and performance parameters of professional football, and perhaps sports in general, in the United States. Again, this is not entirely their fault.
Rebecca just took the practical step of ramping down this site for the off season, the reason being that there is precious little of substance or value that will be occurring over the next few months. The league and its media partners have a different idea. Getting numbers and clicks is considered a 24/7/365 obsession. What to do?
When I was writing weekly news summaries for BTSC I called this the season of Making S**t Up. Want to talk about fake news? Much, maybe most, of what will be covered and discussed will be speculation and outright assertions based upon, at best, a thin veneer of facts, and often no facts at all. A nice way of saying BS.
Further, I argued that in an age of fact-challenged ignorance, abetted by a dearth of critical thinking skills, the science and art of debate has devolved into the assertion of ‘attitude’ (bs) as a substitute for the marshaling of facts and in-depth analysis.
A good example came in a recent excerpt from Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered column on Steelers.com. Someone claimed that Ryan Shazier was a liability because he played out of position fifty percent of the time and was a poor tackler, unlike CJ Mosley of the Ravens. Labriola called bs. How could the writer possibly know that Shazier was playing out of position? He also provided a helpful reminder that it was Mosley who couldn’t effectively contain Antonio Brown at the goal line on Christmas Day.
One of reasons that the criticisms of coaches and front office operations persist is precisely because there is precious little real information available in order to perform a legitimate evaluation. This creates a level playing field for know-nothings and bs artists. Their claims cannot be proven, but more importantly, they can’t be definitely refuted either.
Can anyone even state what the division of labor is with Steelers’ leadership to say what is going on at the Southside facility? For example, can anyone say how the departures of Bruce Arians or Dick LeBeau went down? The history would say that Steelers head coaches are hardly autocrats. Chuck Noll was often instructed from above to part ways with assistants. Dan Rooney, not Bill Cowher, was the principle decision-maker in drafting Ben Roethlisberger. Shared leadership may well be part of the secret to the longevity of Steelers head coaches.
All too much of what some fans believe is coaching involves interpreting the sideline theatrics during a game. Based upon that, Cowher appeared passionate, involved, a no nonsense authoritarian coach. To some Tomlin is a cheerleader. Noll looked like a man who had strolled in off the street to watch his son’s Pop Warner game. The actual work that went into preparing for the performance is not known or knowable. But according to
some with inside knowledge, Cowher was the least authoritarian of the three, and neither Noll or Tomlin were men you’d want to cross.
In spite of the black box nature of team preparation in the NFL, certain patterns of the consistently successful organizations can be discerned. However, the pull of preconceived notions, often birthed or reinforced by sports personalities, photogenic faux journalists/analysts, ex-players (Howard Cosell’s jockocracy) trading on their connection to the game to be viewed as experts, and ‘average fan’ types whose possession of a platform confers an aura of credibility and authority push a know-it-all ‘common wisdom’ (they are half right) that often runs counter to that of the demonstrably successful minority of top tier franchises.
For Steelers fans to fall in line with this so-called expertise is the equivalent of signing up for a clinic on dating advice given by middle school boys who have never been on a date or kissed a girl. And once in the bubble with the congenitally clueless, good luck ever getting out.
We may be seduced in believing that if enough countervailing facts are mustered that the naysayers must yield to the truth. Sometimes. But all too often people are conceptually rather than factually driven. Information that runs counter to a belief system can either be ignored entirely or explained away. So, you might find yourself imagining that if the Steelers had managed to make to the Super Bowl, and maybe even win, that the so-called “Fire Everyone!” crowd would be forced to relent. Recently, one of that number had already concluded that if Pittsburgh had done so, that it would only count as Tomlin’s first championship since ’08 victory had been done with Cowher’s team.
What to do? There is a solution that would almost certainly work but would be extreme in its consequences and certainly unfairly painful for the majority of Steeler Nation. Give the naysayers exactly what they want. Fire the coaches, draft a replacement for Ben and coach him up, trade AB, don’t pay Le’Veon Bell, run the Rooneys out of town.
In the Old Testament book of I Samuel the Israelites pressured Samuel to abandon the system of judges in favor of a king. Why? Because all the other tribes had kings. The matter was taken to God who, unlike my parents, who would have stressed that our family was not like other families, relented. Presumably because, as most of us have painfully discovered, the ability to learn from the mistakes of others is a rare blessing that most of us do not possess.
The idea seems to be that change is always good and preferable, that perennial greatness is at our fingertips if only we adopted the methods of the Clevelands of the world. Besides, it’s always nice to get new toys. We need not worry about Tomlin or Colbert. They
would be unemployed about five minutes, or however long it would take for the world to discover they were on the market.
If the complainers are lucky it might actually appear to work for a time. I’m sure that Jerry Jones felt vindicated when the Cowboys left the field of Super Bowl XXX, victorious over the Steelers, with Barry Switzer in the lead. Who needs Jimmy Johnson? Do you think anyone had a clue that over 20 years later Dallas would be shut out from conference championship play, let alone the Super Bowl? (The Steelers have participated in seven conference championship games and three Super Bowls since) You could ask 1990s Pirates fans, back when Sid Bream scored the winning run in Atlanta, if they knew then that playoff baseball would be absent from Pittsburgh for a generation.
The truth is, even if the Steelers stay the course there is absolutely no guarantee of a return to the Super Bowl during the Tomlin/Ben tenure, or anytime in the near or long term. The task is that difficult to achieve. But I feel confident that if we follow the know-nothing model that futility, lasting for generations, could be the result. Unfortunately, like the Pirates fans, it might take that kind of drought to restore some sense of gratitude for the successes.
The off-season fan regimen
1. Take February off. If you need a Steelers fix, read the McCambridge book on Chuck Noll or check in to Going Deep on the reduced schedule. If you don’t take February off, this is what you will get:
Mock drafts that, besides a few obvious choices for the very top picks, are just a parlor game.
Predictions on free agency based upon amateur salary cap projections. They will tell you what the Steelers can and cannot do. The Steelers, as they have done each and every year, will prove them wrong. Suggestions will be made concerning who the Steelers must pursue in free agency. They will prove to be wrong about this too.
2. Tune back in on March 9th, the beginning of free agency. Don’t expect Pittsburgh to be among the first teams to act. If and when they choose someone, it will almost certainly be a player you didn’t expect, or even heard of previously—a James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Mewelde Moore, Jerricho Cotchery, DeAngelo Williams, Cody Wallace or Ladarius Green. There will be the occasional Cam Thomas, but is usually a good bet to trust the choice, even if you don’t understand it.
3. Ignore the hype leading up to the draft, but pay attention to each and every pick of the draft, plus the UDFA signings. The Steelers have been on a roll the last few years. For every Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and Artie Burns, there has also been a B J Finney, Eli Rodgers and Demarcus Ayers.
4. I understand the Penguins are playing well. Wait until their season is done before you fully engage again.