Knowing What We Don’t Know: Getting the Narrative Right



by Ivan Cole

There are two major truths about NFL football that must be reconciled if we want to anticipate a new season’s narrative in a manner that accurately represents the real potentialities and challenges a team faces.

The first is that each season is, to a great extent, a stand-alone event. Care must be taken to not assume a team will just pick up where they left off the previous season. However, this obviously does not mean that there are not developmental arcs at play that reflect evolution (or devolution) that transcends the particulars of a single season.

Rebecca’s recent piece on Mike Munchak and the Steelers offensive line brings to light areas where many of us may be influenced into getting the 2017 Steelers narrative wrong. This is a common, ongoing concern. How you interpret the past influences how you perceive the present and predict the future. It is a principle reason why so many are surprised when teams make unexpected leaps, take huge steps back or remain stubbornly consistent when the common wisdom would seem to indicate otherwise.

Do we have any reason to assume that Villanueva will not stay at this “level of play?” Sigh. Statements like that make me wonder if the writers have done their homework. It’s one thing to make a statement like that about a highly-drafted, veteran left tackle who has only ever played left tackle, like, say, Joe Thomas. (And of course, one wouldn’t, lacking clear evidence of a problem.) It’s quite another thing to make such a statement about a man who had to learn the position on the fly after playing his very limited number of previous NFL snaps (all in the preseason only) on defense. It seems. reasonable to assume he improved because he’s now learned how to play the position, and there’s no more obvious reason he should regress than any other player. C’mon, people…”

In answer to the question posed by Rebecca, no, they probably did not do their homework. It is a common problem, I think. It is the cumulative effect of these relatively minor misinterpretations that adds up to a narrative that appears to make sense, but is off in a significant way.

The 2017 narrative heading into training camp would seem to be that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a few bricks shy of being capable of overtaking the New England Patriots and reaching championship caliber. I don’t think I buy that. I think Pittsburgh has been at championship caliber for the past two seasons. However, even a championship-capable team often needs help bridging the gap so they can actually realize a title. The Pats, for example, needed stumbles (choking?) by Atlanta and Seattle to achieve their last two titles.

Two tales of success and two of failure

The Steelers won championships in 2005 and 2008 seasons with powerful defenses and less than overwhelming offenses. The prevailing storyline now is that the 2015 and 2016 teams, anchored by powerful offenses, lost because the defense wasn’t quite good enough. Future success is contingent upon the defense getting better. Well, that’s one way of doing it.

When the previous Steelers won, they did so because that which was their strong suit, in those years the defense, was able to perform largely up to expectations, while the offense managed to muddle through. The previous two seasons, the strength of the team was the offense, and the strength of the offense were the “Killer Bs” (Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and let’s add Martavis Bryant). And how did that go?

In the Divisional Round against Denver, only Bryant was healthy. Bell and Brown were out, and Ben was so damaged that his ability to throw his first pass more than 10 yards downfield was greeted with shock and applause. Nonetheless, they came within a Fitz Toussaint fumble of pulling out a victory, in one of the league’s most difficult road venues, beating the eventual world champions.

Last season they were without Ben and Bryant in their first meeting against New England. They were without Bryant, essentially without Bell, without Markus Wheaton and with a crippled Sammie Coates—that’s your 2nd, 3rd and 4th receivers and your all-world running back—in the AFC Championship Game.

I think the argument can be made that the Pittsburgh offense’s top line players clearly have the potential of being as overwhelmingly dominant as the great defenses were. The problem has been getting them on the field together, which, if you have been paying attention, has been an infrequent occurrence the last couple of years. Al Villanueva wasn’t the issue last season, and certainly won’t be so going forward. Improving the defense is always a good idea, but laying the blame for the team coming up short primarily at their feet represents misplaced thinking as well.

As our numerous disclaimers state, injuries are part of game and nothing can be done about them. There is no antidote, right? To a limited extent there is.

The Steelers championship teams were not injury free, but certain key players lower down the depth chart stepped up just enough to make a winning difference. Depth and position flexibility can offset injury.

What follows is my take on the players and dramas that may make the winning difference when the assembly process begins at Latrobe.

Offensive line

If the determining issue as to whether they maintain that status is whether Villanueva progresses or regresses, what would your bet be? A unit with three Pro Bowl caliber players, solid backups, and led by a great coach. Their vulnerability is the one player they can least afford to lose, center Maurkice Pouncey, has not proven to be as durable as you would like. That means the key is now the quality and character of his potential replacement, meaning we want to be paying attention to BJ Finney, and if you want to be a little more esoteric, Mike Matthews.

Quarterback Landry Jones

If you’re projecting purely off the final nine games from a season ago, the Steelers would be the No. 1 line in the league.

Thus spake Pro Football Focus in the article Rebecca quoted.

The player to watch here is Landry Jones. I am already on record in declaring Joshua Dobbs the likely camp darling. And there is the possibility that Dobbs has the talent and the smarts to leapfrog over Jones. But for that scenario to be a positive one, Jones would have to push Dobbs hard. Otherwise, you have to rooting hard for Jones to improve and retain the number two position.

This can be difficult. Jones belongs to that class of Steelers player whom we are predisposed to root against regardless of what he does. I’m betting most of us have forgotten his performance in the first Patriots game. He didn’t win the game, but he certainly didn’t lose it either. That, and what he did against the Browns with an inferior supporting cast, is what you would hope for in caretaking role as Ben’s backup. (Or, more precisely, what fans have the right to hope for. Anything else is unrealistic from a backup QB, although sometimes you get lucky… Ed.)

Running backs Knile Davis and James Connor

They, hopefully, provide three benefits, in ascending order:

  • An allowance for reduced reps for Bell, increasing the possibility of getting a complete season from him.
  • Creating potential matchup problems for opponents. Having, for example, two running backs on the field at the same time could create lethal opportunities for Bell’s receiving abilities.
  • Both show the promise of upgrading special teams.

Wide receiver Juju Shuster-Smith

If he is good enough to secure the top slot receiver position, then defensive coordinators may be adding the word ‘impossible’ to their vocabulary when discussing how they would defend against Pittsburgh’s top three receivers.

It also means that the other eight receivers all become expendable, creating an incredible internal competition for the remaining three roster spots.

Tight end Xavier Grimble

This position gets my vote for the most misleading off-season narrative. I really wish Ladarius Green would be around, but the truth is that he wasn’t present enough to be considered a winning difference. And tight end wasn’t an area of concern last season. They certainly were more steady and reliable than either running back or wide receivers.

For different reasons, both Jesse James and David Johnson are underrated talents, with James, like Villanueva, having a strong potential upside. Grimble would be, pardon the pun, the X factor of what could be a really good unit.

Defensive lineman L.T. Walton

Given his draft position and what has been considered the normal learning curve for John Mitchell’s troops, this would be the time to expect a breakout from Walton if he is capable. If Alualu isn’t a complete disappointment, then this unit becomes extremely resistant to impact of fatigue or injury.

Linebackers Anthony Chickillo and Keion Adams

Not to minimize the potential impact of T. J. Watt, but precisely because he is a first-round draft pick the expectations are higher. You don’t want to have success rest on James Harrison and Bud Dupree having to be available at a high level for each and every game. Watt alone doesn’t resolve that issue.

Defensive backs Cameron Sutton and Senquez Golson

At least one of these, and preferably both, come through to provide the flexibility and depth needed to make this a great defense.

I would argue that if the Pittsburgh offense can realize its greatness, then ‘good’ will be enough for the defense. However, greatness may be on the table for the defense depending upon their rate of growth.

Special teams offer stability thanks to a reliable kicking game—field flipping potential via the return game may be possible as well. I reassert that even without the potential additions, the Steelers have a sufficient championship pedigree.

You can never have enough upside though. That and a little compassion from the football gods in re injuries and such not only provides the potential to get over the top but could yield a team more similar to those of the mid-seventies rather than the more unbalanced nature of the 21st Century teams.

When I suggested that my fellow authors might want to jump in and opine on “Keys to the Super Bowl,” I should have known that Ivan would condense it all into one awesome post. Which doesn’t mean I won’t continue to write them, in more detail and very possibly with less clarity…


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Great post. There are always injuries. Good depth ameliorates the damage caused by injuries. I am hoping that our depth is good enough for the season ahead. I certainly like the looks of many of the players. I think that, other than QB, the team could survive the loss of a player from a position group without much ado. Losing too many from one group, even when it is as deep as the WR, could be too much.


    • “Losing too many from one group, even when it is as deep as the WR, could be too much.” As we saw demonstrated so clearly last season…


      • Ditto. 2016 was a learning experience for me in that respect. Honestly, going into training camp, I thought that even without Bryant the Steelers depth at WR made them more or less bullet proof. OK that assumed that Brown stayed healthy.

        He did.

        But no one else could, and the lack of a true number two haunted the team, no disrespect to the job done by Cobi, Eli and DeMarcus.


  • Great post Ivan, as always.

    Your point about “The Narrative” is always an interesting one, because while each new season/team does represent a new team, they are not entirely new either. To what extent a previous season influences or doesn’t a teams fortunes in a current season is one of the X Factors that makes NFL so interesting.

    Look back at Steelers history. The 1989 Steelers shocked the world and looked to be a team on the way up. Noll himself began both seasons talking about the “Championship Caliber talent” he had. Yet they spent the next two season so mired in mediocrity to the point where Noll himself knew he had to step down.

    The “narrative” had progressed to the point where before Bill Cowher’s maiden game, some preseason rankings had the Steelers listed as 24th or worse in the league. They of course secured home field advantage that season.

    Fast forward to 1998. The Steelers had seemingly defied free agent defection gravity, and despite several losses, many had them pegged as the 3rd or 4th team going into the season. Yet, they finished 7-9.

    Leap to 2002-2003. In 02 the Steelers finished one Al Del Greco oscar performance away from the AFC Championship, and even Dan Rooney thought his team was a legitimate Super Bowl Contender. Yet the Steelers finished 6-10. Even Bob Labriola compared the 2003 Steelers to someone who was obesse opining that the Steelers hadn’t gotten that way over night, and would return to form overnight either.

    The 2004 Steelers of course went 15-1.

    Or leap to 2011. Many, at least in the Pittsburgh media thought the Steelers were legit Super Bowl contenders, yet after one game they were “Old Slow and Done.”


  • “In answer to the question posed by Rebecca, no, they probably did not do their homework. ”

    Who has time to do homework when in today’s day and age, media types prefer quantity over quality and it is the hot take that gets the attention and exposure?


  • Senquez Golson has become the most interesting case. There’s sort of a whispering campaign going on that – since his injury – he may have lost some of his quickness. For a guy who depends entirely on quickness, that could be fatal. When you see multiple reporters saying the same thing, it’s likely someone in the organization is talking to them. That being the case, either they are sending a message of Golson that it’s put up or be gone time and this is your last chance — or preparing us for the possibility that he could be cut. Or both. But those hints – and all the raves about the rookie DB’s – should fill Golson with a sense of urgency. The tea leaves don’t look good for him right now.


    • Interesting. I’d seen Kevin Colbert’s comments about him being concerned that Golson might have lost a step, but had not seen anything negative since, and Jim Wexell seemed to indicate that Golson looked good. But… I have to admit, with so much “content aggregation” going on out there my filter for sorting out real information from the noise is pretty faulty.

      Do you remember off hand which reporters have been making those reports?


      • Not certain who, but it was in the Post-Gazatte, and I believe it was two different reporters – in their Q&A blogs – who intimated they the wouldn’t be surprised if Golson didn’t make the 53.


  • Pingback: Keys to the Super Bowl: Quarterbacks | Going Deep:

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  • I haven’t been reading much about the Steelers, other things taking up my time. But when I do make the time, I go right to Ivan. Good stuff.


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