Training Camp for Fans 2017: A Championship Tutorial
By Ivan Cole
What does a championship season look like? The bet here is that the correct answer is likely to be this: different than how we remember it. All’s well that ends well. Though less remarked upon, the opposite is true as well. How we characterize a journey, what aspects of it that we choose to remember and emphasize is influenced by the ending.
2008 and 2010 were both great Super Bowl seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the endings were different so our memories dwell lovingly on the former, not so much on the latter. I recently wrote about narratives that evolve going into new seasons and how often the pundits get these things wrong. I believe that a good portion of the reason for this (as well as for similar misperceptions by fans generally) is the focus on the end. Perhaps we would be better served if we devoted more attention to the journey.
The purpose of the training camp for fans series is to get our heads and hearts right for a new season of football. I have a homework assignment. If you are so inclined, take some time between now and the beginning of the season to view the NFL Films presentation: America’s Game The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even if, like me, you have watched this a number of times, I would suggest you do so again, like I just did, with different eyes. Unlike highlight packages that provide a catalog and a review of the season’s contests, key moments and outcomes, “America’s Game” is a series of mini documentaries that go beyond the statistics and the big plays to serve as a meditation on how a team achieves greatness.
If you have the time, and especially if you weren’t following the team when the events unfolded, you might find it edifying to watch the other “America’s Game” segments on the five other Steelers championship teams.
It’s easy to believe that the championship journey is a straight forward affair. A team that is obviously superior in every way blows out of the gate and dominates start to finish. They devastate the weak, and, with a few exceptions, manage to gain the upper hand on the strong. Occasionally such a scenario plays out that way. It certainly wasn’t that way in 2008.
The schedule and other issues
It would seem to be a strange, even a wimpy point of emphasis, but even the film makes prominent mention of the Steelers’ schedule that year. With half the opponents having made the playoffs the previous season, it was considered the most difficult in the league in over 30 years. No need to mention what the allegedly disinterested national media and fans thought—Steeler Nation wrote the championship aspirations of this team off in June. Anyone unwise enough to suggest otherwise was dismissed as some sort of deluded Pollyanna homer.
There were other challenges as well. Contrary to the sunny narrative advanced by some of his detractors, second year head coach Mike Tomlin had not been bequeathed a slam dunk Super Bowl champion when he took over in 2007. As defending Super Bowl Champions, they didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2006. Team leaders Jerome Bettis, Joey Porter and Alan Faneca were gone. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had the worst performance of a winning qb in Super Bowl 40, had been involved in a serious motorcycle accident, a piece of personal history that folks don’t seem to recall anymore.
The offensive line in 2008 was a mess. No position group in recent seasons, even the defensive secondary, comes close to being so maligned. That along with injuries resulted in an incredibly anemic offense.
Consider the following:
• Ben was sacked eight times in Philadelphia in a game where the defense only gave up 15 points, but the Steelers still managed to lose by 9.
• The team went 8 quarters at one point without scoring an offensive touchdown. • They were booed off the field at halftime, at home against the Ravens.
• In three contests against the Ravens they only managed one offensive touchdown per game.
• Playing at home against the defending champion Eli Manning-led Giants, and against the Peyton Manning-led Colts, Ben threw a total of seven interceptions. Pittsburgh lost both games.
• The running game had fallen to bottom in terms of productivity, causing Willie Parker to express his displeasure to the media.
Would this be the championship narrative that you were expecting? Yet this was a team that, despite the schedule and its considerable difficulties on offense, not only won its division, but secured a second seed for the playoffs. How did that happen?
A great defense that could perform to its potential
As I said in an earlier article:
When the 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, of beating the eventual world champions. Last year, they were without Ben and Bryant in their first meeting, essentially without Bell and Bryant (along with Markus Wheaton and a crippled Sammie Coates; that’s your 2nd, 3rd and 4th receivers) in the AFCCG.
The 2008 Steelers defense was the league’s best. Linebacker James Harrison was the league’s Defensive Player Of the Year. Fortunately, they, unlike their offensive counterparts, stayed largely healthy. It’s unimaginable to believe that if Harrison and Troy Polamalu were out that Pittsburgh could overcome that and win a championship.
The formula that was decided upon for the offense was, don’t make things worse, as in turnovers. With that as the model, the Steelers were managing to win games where the offense scored only nine points (Chargers), and 13 points twice (Cowboys and Ravens) in winning efforts. In the regular season, and especially in the playoffs, point production was augmented by special teams (Santonio Holmes punt return in Divisional Round) and the defense (Polamalu and Harrison pick sixes in AFCCG and Super Bowl respectively). The Steelers would win six games either coming from behind in the four quarter or in overtime.
A similar circumstance existed with the 1976 team. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw was injured much of the regular season. His backup, Mike Kruczek, was the Landry Jones of his time, in the sense that he was a competent caretaker who suffered by comparison to the more dazzling talents (Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty) that occupied the position previously.
They won their division thanks to two 1,000-yard rushing efforts by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, but mostly thanks to a defense so dominant that it pitched five shutouts and held three other opponents to under seven points. Their Divisional playoff win, a 41-14 victory against what was then the Baltimore Colts, the only Steelers playoff game I have personally witnessed, was jarring in the utter domination they displayed against a very good team led by quarterback Bert Jones. But the game was also their undoing in that they lost both of their thousand-yard runners, something they could not do and hope to prevail playing against an excellent Raiders team in Oakland.
If you are to have a championship team, at some point the weak link must be able to come through and deliver. The key being, as John Madden mentioned during the broadcast of the Super Bowl, “…when you do it”.
A holding penalty in the end zone by the offensive line gave Arizona two points and the ball late in the game. The defense couldn’t save the day, yielding another seven points. So, you watch a group of players that features the likes of Darnell Stapleton, Mewelde Moore and Nate Washington take the field with the fate of the team in their hands under the highest stakes imaginable, and they delivered.
What is also revealed in that moment was the maturation of Roethlisberger, the crucial element that was not present when he led the team in the previous Super Bowl appearance.
What was so clearly teased out in the film, but has not seen the light of day to some within Steeler Nation, was how Tomlin steered a less than perfect ship into safe harbor.
At that moment when the one element of the team that could not be relied upon had to stand and deliver, the calm demeanor that many misunderstand and some abhor steadied a team that had many reasons to collapse into panic or despair. The extra coaching in that final week of preparation had a direct impact on what many believe was the single greatest play in Super Bowl history, Harrison’s interception return for a touchdown. It was all the things, big and small, that speak to the difference between good management and great leadership, and how, in the final analysis, it was the winning difference.
Maybe the season will unfold in a clear unambiguous manner, but Steelers football has often been a more complex struggle. Ben may stay upright, or he [more likely, ] he won’t. In general, what will be the story of injuries? There have been several patterns that have worked for the Steelers in the past:
- Dominate from gate to finish line (rare),
- a weak, or unsteady start that gains momentum and finishes strong,
- a strong start, slump in the middle and recovery at the end.
What will be this season’s pattern? It could all turn on one or two plays: Antonio Brown reaching across the plain of the end zone, Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones losing their composure in the face of almost certain victory, Ben throwing a championship clinching pass to Holmes that he admits he shouldn’t have thrown, a Fitz Toussaint fumble or a pass that hits Cobi Hamilton in the chest. How those small moments play out will determine whether we come to be believe if all was well.