The Case For the Pittsburgh Steelers, 2017

By Ivan Cole

 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Peter Diana photo

Every year that I have been writing about Steelers football a highlight for me has been the team assessment I make just before the beginning of the regular season. It usually appears at the end of the preseason, around the time of the final cuts. The bulk of this year’s version will, more or less, follow that pattern. However, there are some elements of this season that are special and demand special attention.

 

That is not a typo. There are multiple opportunities/challenges for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in particular, their leadership in 2017. This makes it a season like no other in my estimation, one that has the potential of defining an era, and not just relating to football.

Windows

The most obvious and immediately impactful window involves the competitive fortunes of the team in 2017. Ordinarily, a lot of energy is expended by responsible commentators in attempting to contextualize the yearly goal of a championship. We try to explain that for any given season such standards should be viewed in a more aspirational respect than literally, because even for the most successful franchises, getting to the top of the mountain is a relatively rare occurrence. The smart move, the best way to manage your blood pressure and protect your heart, is to focus on the journey. Good advice normally, but I don’t think that works this year.

The 2017 Steelers, assuming the successful avoidance of some catastrophic circumstance, not only can, but should make it to this year’s Super Bowl, and prevail. Despite the panicked rantings of some, all the truly necessary pieces are already present. The problem is, as a Steeler alum has said, to win a championship you must be both good and lucky. Unfortunately you can’t really control for luck, though some believe that so much talent can be stockpiled that misfortune, mistakes and ambiguity can be overridden. At best, this is only a partial truth. There are plenty of examples of teams who should have hoisted a Lombardi and didn’t. For some this will mean coping with a special form of anxiety during an otherwise highly entertaining season.

So, the Steelers have a Lombardi capable team and a relatively brief window of 1-3 years at most to exploit it, but there is another set of windows opening now with larger stakes. I am going to argue that the seventh Lombardi is not just good for Steeler Nation but also the NFL and the nation at large. This is based upon the following three realities:

• The NFL is trouble.

• The United States is in the midst of a difficult transition.

• Dan Rooney is off the stage.

Dan Rooney

Interesting in that not as much has been made of this thus far. The Ambassador’s passing means, beyond the considerable impact of the loss of a beautiful soul, the end of an era, not only for the Steelers, but for the entire NFL. The absence of his personal leadership, both individually and that of the organization as his agent, and as an important face representing the NFL, possibly could not have come at a worse time for the league.

It would be understandable to believe that beyond the lack of his physical presence hardly anything has changed with team leadership. To be sure, not much may seem different on the surface, but I would argue that a significant shift is in progress. This shift may not only define the fate of the franchise beyond that of the current group of players and management, but it could also heavily influence the fate of the entire league for, literally, generations.

We have experienced this before. 50 years ago, the values and tone for the Steelers franchise had been long established by Art Rooney Sr., the Chief. The Steelers Way, or as I have dubbed it, the Pittsburgh Way is as much an approach to relationships as it is to football. Dan Rooney, along with Chuck Noll, Joe Greene, Bill Nunn and others weaponized it to the extent that it made the Steelers one of the most respected and successful organizations in professional sports and beyond, carrying the entire league with it into a golden age.

The NFL at a crossroads

Several years ago, I began writing about the issues surrounding head injuries and ominously predicted that this wasn’t a problem that would be easily resolved or swept under the proverbial rug. Indeed, this spring there is more news revealing that the problem has not only not gone away, but is metastasizing.

First, it should not come as a shock that the league was more aware of the problem in the past than it let on and engaged in a cover up. Current league leadership continues to demonstrate that they lack the instincts necessary to avoid responses that make bad situations worse. Further, we now are beginning to learn enough about the nature of the characteristics associated with head trauma that there is a relationship between that and other issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse (think self- medication) that are also plaguing the NFL culture.

So, as the game’s consumers struggle as to whether they will continue to allow their children to play the game, as well as their own integrity in committing their time and attention to an exercise that contributes to the maiming and shortening of the lives of some of its participants, the league responds in some of the following ways.

• Discipline is dispensed in a manner that appears arbitrary and rudderless. Punishment for assault of another player in the heat of battle, a spouse or a pedestrian via a vehicle seems insufficiently dissimilar to those received for tasteless touchdown celebrations and recreational drug use.

• Continues to offer Thursday Night contests and pines wistfully for an 18-game regular season, and, perhaps another round of the playoffs, fueling the perception of profits over the well-being of players.

• A potpourri of unhelpful actions including fan violence at stadiums, gouging fans from parking to apparel and allowing themselves to get connected with controversies such as behavior during the national anthem.
And let’s not forget that negotiations for a new labor agreement are on the horizon with the threat of a work stoppage.
The bigger picture
All the above is occurring within a context of larger events effecting the society. During a period of high stress, uncertainty and polarization, it is fair to ask if our diversions of choice serve to diffuse or amplify our anxieties.
With all this in mind, let us return to the potential impact of achieving the Stairway to Seven at this particular moment.
On the surface, it would seem sweet. City of Champions, a Lombardi in tandem with the Stanley Cup. Another parade in less than a year. Bragging rights. Pittsburgh fans would probably drag the definition of insufferable to new depths.
Dig deeper.
With each making their fourth appearance and securing their third win, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin probably guarantee first ballot Hall of Fame enshrinements. The case for James Harrison becomes greatly enhanced as well. And assuming their careers continue on current tracking, conversation may begin for players such as Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. The case for GM Kevin Colbert as a contributor would be strong. In addition to all the players who would achieve championship pedigree, it would also be a special treat to see coaches such as Todd Haley, Mike Munchak and Danny Smith get their rings, as well as the perfect send off for Johnny Mitchell and Richard Mann. But…
Dig deeper.
I have a niece with a doctorate in marine biology. She points out that evolutionary success comes not when offspring is produced, but when the offspring produces offspring. Therefore, the truly big winners of a seventh Super Bowl would be the legacy of the Chief and Art Rooney II—the former because it would represent third generation success, and the latter because he cleanly emerges from the shadow of his father, Dan. However, in the short term, there may be a more significant league- wide player who comes from this new era of Steelers leadership.

Currently, this is a league that lacks a credible face. There is plenty of talent, but no one with the gravitas of a Walter Peyton, or even a Peyton Manning. It will take some time for Art II to shine among ownership. Bill Belichick is on the top of heap among coaches based upon merit, but is a problematic, polarizing individual. But what if Mike Tomlin won another Super Bowl?

The tone has shifted in reference to Tomlin. Entering his eleventh head coaching campaign with a contract extension in hand, no losing seasons, a highly regarded team and staff who speak of him in consistently glowing terms, a cornerstone of the most respected organization in professional sports, no scandals of note, and still young, with more years ahead of him potentially than behind.

Earlier I mentioned instincts. The case is building that, rather than being a ‘cheerleader’, that he is, indeed is a master of his craft. This includes a level of professionalism that was on display when he was questioned recently concerning topics such as kneeling during the national anthem and the events in Charlottesville. He stayed in his lane professionally, while appearing neither indifferent nor clueless to the issues involved. You may have also noticed that a consensus has been reached among local and national media, as well as throughout the profession that is beginning to concertedly call bullshit on the Tomlin bashing. It won’t stop, but it is becoming increasingly discredited.

Pittsburgh leads the way

It has been a mystery to me, and I grew up there, that Pittsburgh has, time and again over the years, been a source of innovation and leadership. Add to that the equally unlikely notion that important lessons in renewal and leadership nationally, even globally, could come from a sports franchise, that is the story that is in front of us. The Art Rooney II—led Steelers are poised to inspire a leap in turbulent times, just as they did 50 years ago. Win a Super Bowl or two during this window and watch.

 

 

20 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    The impact of head injuries and the fear of them that is permeating through the ranks of the players was illustrated this spring by the sudden retirement of Daimion Stafford, the veteran safety, who had been brought in to provide depth in the Steelers secondary and could be further underlined by Ben’s musings on retirement. It is not the first indications of where this is going but I believe it tells us where this thing is going. If I were the NFL and the NFL players, I would be looking for major changes to the game and the equipment to prevent the total erosion of the sport starting with replacing the helmets and padding with less rigid materials.

    Your niece with the marine biology degree (good for her btw. I was always fascinated by fish and ocean dwelling critters … don’t like to eat them, I just found them fascinating) could also tell you about the commonest misconception about the theory of evolution. Many think it works at the level of the individual but it instead works at the level of the species. I think that is a lesson that could be applied to many situations, both inside and outside the NFL. Because of that, if it is true that Bell bailed on the contract at the last possible moment, I also think that the Steelers will part ways with Leveon Bell at the end of this season as what is good for Bell isn’t good for the team (my thinking may be a bit loopy here, I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet). The window for Ben will probably close at the end of this season. The rational for keeping Bell will end then as well. He will become the TO of RBs, always changing teams and never having a permanent place in the NFL.

    Finally, I agree with what you are saying about Tomlin. People confuse management and people skills with cheer-leading. The fact Tomlin knows his football is overlooked by his skills in recognizing and working with highly skilled and motivated assistants. I think he has a vision for this team and it is a vision that is constantly evolving as his own knowledge and experience grows. I think he will end his career in the HoF as one of the most revered coaches of all time.

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  • I often think about your articles (and Rebecca’s) not for hours or even days but for months. I’m certain that this will be one of those. I sometimes drive a lot and when I do, I like my car silent so I can have conversations with various people whose words have remained with me and unanswered for a while . Months from now, on lonely roads, I will still be talking to Ivan about some of these points. 🙂

    But for now–yes, I think you’re right about Dan Rooney. I have absolutely nothing against Art II but Dan is a huge loss, perhaps I fear one from which we won’t recover. As Steeler fans, as football fans. I can’t really put it into words. He was Ike Taylor’s friend. That sums it up for me. He was truly, genuinely Ike Taylor’s friend. That fact speaks for itself of both of them, but I doubt there are many player/owner relationships in the NFL of similar..what? Quality? Believability? Too many slick Tom Brady’s and Russell WIlson’s scripted and off-putting. Too many owners who either sound like jerks or the same kind of PR machinery. They and their friendship are a very big part of my Steeler fandom.

    But how long will my ability to watch football last? It’s starting to feel hard not to wince. It’s starting to feel almost unforgivable not to think about brain damage. It’s starting to feel shameful to like these young men (And Deebo. 🙂 and see what they might be doing to themselves. The aches and pains, the blown out knees, the replacement joints–none of that has ever bothered me. I’ve done some awful things to my body in my lifetime. Things now hurt or fail or need surgery. I don’t like it but I wouldn’t give up what I did to get to this point. We can live without working knees. We can live with pain in this muscle or that. some things can be replaced. But not brains. Not who we really are and how we feel and what we care about. To watch AB or Ben or DWill (yeah I know he’s not there any more) or Hines or Ike or Troy or James Farrior or…I keep backtracking and I can see in my mind’s eye Ryan Clark flying through the air in a spectacular hit that made me cheer at the time and now I think- my god, his brain.

    I loved Ryan Clark as a player and as a smart man who didn’t take crap from anyone. I loved him when he got ticked off that fans were complaining about the team’s record. “It’s not like we want to play badly,” he said, “We just are.” How could one not like that man? But I think of what might be ahead for him, for Hines, for Troy, for Farrior, for Ben, for men whose heads I’ve seen slam into other heads, the ground, knees, and I feel a little sick.

    And then I wonder what we would lose if the NFL did change enough that we could talk about it as “flag football”? Is that so awful? We would still have beautifully thrown and caught passes, athleticism, speed, agility, and strategy. What would we lose? The big hits. The sound of body parts slamming into each other. A certain level of brutality. We’d still have injuries. People would tear ACL’s and rip this and tear that. But we wouldn’t have men battering each other sometimes literally head to head. So what does it say about us that we find that hard to accept as a possibility? The NFL as flag football? No brain injuries, no one stunned and lying on the field unconscious? No sickening sound of helmets slammed into each other. And yet somehow that is less fun, less exciting, less manly?

    I’ve exceeded my football related thoughts for the night.

    Earthing

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  • That was actually Earthling but I have a sticky L key. And I meant to ask this: what do we really lose if the NFL becomes some version of flag football and what does it say about us if we find that hard to accept?

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    • I won’t go there (to say what it says about us) because I’m a woman and that part of the game never appealed to me. [I don’t know that correlation was causation in this case, just that it happens to be so.] In fact, it took me a long time to get past that part of it and see the beauty and athleticism and strategy of it through the sometimes sickening brutality, the part the NFL glorified for so long.

      What we lose is “tradition,” I suppose. Which would be difficult for some. But we’ve had to lose many “traditions” in the name of human decency, and it doesn’t seem to have ruined our lives.

      As always, Earthling, you’ve given us as much or more to think about than we gave you in the first place.

      Please get a new keyboard. I would hate for you to stop commenting because it didn’t work. : )

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      • I hear you Rebecca, but we would lose a lot of we went to flag football. It is true, football is a brutal sport. We’ve always known that. And to some degree the NFL has promoted this shamlessly. Before there was James Harrison, there was Greg Lloyd getting fined for hits only to have the NFL turn around and use those highlights to sell video tapes.

        The only difference is we didn’t know about CTE then.

        So there is an element to violence to the sport, there’s no denying it.

        But on another level, the physicality is a fundamental part of the sport’s beauty. In many ways, it is what allows for an ultimate test of ability melded with willpower. Think back to the Goal Line stand from the 2010 AFC Championship game. Or even think back to goal line stand the road loss in early 2014 to the Ravens. John Harbaugh, I thought and still think was trying to make a statement by ramming the ball in late.

        The Steelers defense rebuffed him, making a statement of their own.

        You make it flag football, you lose that element of the game, and you change it fundamentally….

        ….Is there a way to conserve that element of the game AND protect players from the long-term dangers of head trauma?

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      • I did enjoy some of that violence. For a while and even now in moments, my immediate reaction to a brutal tackle can be enjoyment. But then there’s that second thought, and the wince. I don’t have any original thoughts about the NFL, so I know I’m not the only one.

        And of course flag football was a big of an exaggeration. Perhaps there is something in between. I just wish I heard more exploration along those lines instead of scorn about men in dresses, etc.

        I will get a new keyboard or at east earn to ive without the etter L.

        Earthling

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  • Most of my comments were in relation to Ivan’s point about the NFL at a crossroads and I jumped straight into the CTE stuff without the logical connection, at least on my end. It is and I wish I could believe it would make good choices.

    This question

    Is there a way to conserve that element of the game AND protect players from the long-term dangers of head trauma?

    is what the NFL should be addressing. Before anything else.

    I like Ivan’s optimism about Pittsburgh leading the way into something better, but I don’t trust the NFL given its history.

    Earthling

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    • There is a possible “out,” and that is if the research on reversing brain damage which is proceeding apace because all of us oldsters are terrified of Alzheimer’s are pushing it actually turns something up. The damage pattern in CTE is different but the damage itself (the unwanted Tau proteins) is the same. Although I personally would rather watch a less brutal game, i would feel better about ithe brutality if I knew there was some way to mitigate the effects.

      In the meantime, I can’t figure out why the player’s union doesn’t mandate that everyone wear the safer helmets. They only help somewhat, but surely somewhat is worth something. Most players don’t want to wear them becauce they think they look funny..

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  • “Is there a way to conserve the game [in some recognizable format] while protecting against the dangers of head trauma?” I don’t know. My heart says “yes” but my head says no. I WANT to believe there’s a solution, but rationally I know that this is doubtful.

    With that said, on the day that Mike Webster was drafted, the idea of paraplegic running a marathon and the idea that someone could hold a little rectangular object in their hands and talk to someone thousands of miles away were both pure science fiction. Now they’re realities.

    You also need to take into account the fact that there are players like Lynn Swann and Franco Harris (to take two examples) who took plenty of hits to the head, but have still made it to their late 60’s/early 70’s without any symptoms of CTE.

    As I wrote last year when Rod Woodson was pushing his Rugby-style tackling, if the sport is going to be saved, it will probably be through some combination of rules/style modifications, helmet technology and medical science advances (some sort of enzyme that say, eats the TAU protein or prevents its production.

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  • Trauma can be treated, and there is the distinct possibility that the effects can be reversed if caught early enough. Watch the developments in brain science. Having a neuroscientist on staff may be as essential in the future as having an orthopedic physicians today.

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    • Agree. This is some hope. Beyond anything else, we’re aware of the problem. The days of Bernie Kosar putting smelling salts into his pouch and using them BETWEEN downs appear to be over.

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  • I also failed to mention that with negotiations coming up for the new labor agreement we should remember that the Steelers were the only team whose players rejected the current agreement. Charlie Batch, who was a major player in the NFLPA at the time, still has close ties to the organization, working as a coaching intern this summer, among other duties. The roots of professional football are in Western Pennsylvania. The path to its survival, if possible, may well be rooted there as well.

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  • Excellent article overall/independent of the sub-thread on CTE. While ticking clock that is Big Ben element to the Super Bowl window is well-document, you’re the first person to draw out a wider parallel to the rest of the league, and the game itself.

    And I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say.

    A win by the Steelers organization could give the NFL a shot in the arm.

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  • As usual I’ve now read this half a dozen times, each time a bit appalled at what I understood before. I think it’s my habit of instantly jumping into a line of thought that’s been simmering in the back of my mind but is only vaguely connected to the words in print. I have so few football fans around me, even fewer Steeler fans. (Although as a minor point of interest, what wins over most of those I watch games with, none of them very serious football fans, is MIke Tomlin on the sidelines. Nothing very deep–they just like him.)

    And I have some questions.

    I instantly jumped to the thought that Dan Rooney’s absence was a negative. Ivan saw a window opening. What is it about ARII that makes you believe he’ll lead not only the Steelers but also the NFL into the future? I know almost nothing about him, except for a few interviews I’ve watched.

    You–as in Ivan–seem to believe that Charlie Batch will continue to have a role in the evolution of the NFL. I like Charlie but I don’t understand.

    I don’t know much about other coaches. The ones who come up on the usual lists of “who is better than Tomlin” all seem to be much older than him–the cheater in NE, Pete Carroll, suddenly I’m blank but I remember that they’re about 30 yrs. older than Iron Mike. Are there any coaches about his age who have had his success or seem as–what is the word?–serene about the direction he’s taking? Directed? Sure of himself? He just seems a lot less sweaty than other coaches and that inspires confidence, at least in me.

    I

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  • I think the only issue with Art II at this point is one of perception. It took time for there to be a full appreciation of Dan because he stood in the shadow of Art Sr. My guess is that a similar situation is at play with Art II relative to Dan. That is why a championship at this time would have a different level of significance as opposed to if it occurred during any of last few years. It would be seen as the handiwork of Art II alone, though he has likely been the driving force behind the team for probably the better part of a decade anyway imo.

    As for Batch. Remember, he was part of the union’s executive committee (Ryan Clark was team rep) at the time of the last CBA. The Steelers were the only team to vote down the CBA. It’s hard for me to imagine that they would do that if Batch were solidly behind it. Batch is currently a coaching intern during the preseason, and he is handling commentary for the preseason games. In other words, Batch, a Pittsburgh native, still has a voice and influence with the team.

    It is in this sense that the Steelers are a difference kind of cat from other organizations. Imagine a family business with a really expansive definition of family. In addition to Batch, Ike Taylor, Hines Ward, Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons were working as interns this summer. Former players, and those with Steelers, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania connections are infesting staff and management: Joey Porter, Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake, Danny Smith (Point Breeze), Richard Mann (Allequippa), Kevin Colbert (North Catholic), Mike Munchak. Among the players, you can throw in those with local ties: Jesse James (Penn State), James Connor (Pitt), Cam Heyward, and even players whose families were diehard fans (Le’Veon Bell, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, B.J. Finney, Ryan Shazier).

    My assumption is that Batch, whose own consciousness is likely influenced by the Steeler Way, will continue to exert influence within the organization, and the organization will continue to influence the rest of the league. If the team continues to represent the state of the art from a competitive standpoint, then the values that they practice cannot be ignored and will have to be respected.

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    • Just getting back (stopping in NJ) after a week in the Maritimes and Bar Harbor, ME and I find this gift. So much food for thought. Every bit as good as Maine lobster and blueberry pie – or the Canadian-Italian seafood down at the Harbourwalk in Halifax. Ivan, you bring up stuff that’s so deep, multi-sided, and multi-dimensional that it’s hard to respond because I find myself taking both or all three sides of so many arguments.

      Like the Dan and Art II transition. Dan didn’t fill the Chief’s shoes, because no one could. Dan wore his own shoes, and no one will ever be able to fill them. Artie won’t be able to fill Dan’s shoes for the same reason. But he will not be walking alone. It’s still a family run business, and you don’t have to be blood to be part of the Rooney family business. The list of names above bears that out.

      Artie had the gift of Dan stepping away yet providing wise counsel for a distance. Art II has shown himself to be cautious and has avoided making any obvious mistakes. No doubt legacy and “family” provide great support, yet weigh heavily on him.

      Art II is in a similiar situation to young Mike Tomlin. When CT succeeded spectacularly, doubters said he inherited all the talent. Then it was “the system,” and “the organization,” and he was just a cheerleader. Only after time has the overwhelming consensus emerged that Tomlin is a superb organizer as well as motivator, and one heckuva fine coach.

      So it will be with Art II. He inherits a precious legacy. If he succeeds spectacularly, kudos will go to lots of people, because Artie was able to reap the harvest planted by so many others.

      Anyway, there’s so much in your piece to think about……but I would like to take your comment about how a Steeler championship would be a good thing….and take it one step beyond. Another Lombardi Trophy in Pittsburgh would be good for the planet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you hit on something important. When Dan Rooney got named ambassador to Ireland, I thought, “This is the best thing that could ever happen for the team.” I say that, because it gave Art II to sort of test drive running the show by himself, but he didn’t quite have full control.

        I do not have sources on the South Side, but only imagine that when Dan got back from Ireland, he and Art had a lot of long talks.

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  • Pingback: The Case for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part Three—Defense and Special Teams | Going Deep:

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