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.
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.
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.
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…
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.