The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017, Part Two: The Overview
By Ivan Cole
There are several factors that make 2017 peculiar, a departure from normal practice. Over time we will see if any of these things matter relative to outcomes. So, consider the following:
• The Steelers will be entering the season intact, as far as their frontline personnel are concerned. 2016, with Ladarius Green on PUP, Bud Dupree on in season IR, and Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant on suspension was much closer to the norm for the Tomlin Era. You may recall that Art Rooney II, in one of his state of the franchise conversations that I believe are way more important than many realize, enunciated two goals: Give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the necessary tools to be successful, and do something to stem what seemed at times to be a tsunami of injuries. Don’t equate the random hamstring pull here and there. Nobody gets out of this game injury free. These are annoyances, and the strategist in me might even question if some of these things are even real. It is possible that they are just lucky, but I wouldn’t discount other possibilities. It should also be noted the absence of extracurricular drama as well. If Bell (more about him below) dragging his heals about signing his franchise tender is what passes for high drama in Steeler Nation this season, I’ll take it.
• I began writing this a little over twenty-four hours before the deadline for the final (and first) roster reductions leaguewide. How this will play out in the final configuration of the roster is unknown, and remains to be seen. This is one of two reasons why I am delaying any sort of position analysis for a couple more days.
• The second reason relates to the late additions of Vance McDonald and Joe Haden. Whether either will make a significant difference remains to be seen, but it confirms a measure of aggression and urgency that, for me at least, signals a departure from past practice.
• Pittsburgh went 3-1 in the preseason. They usually go 0-20, or so it seems, and then energy has to be expended reminding people that the preseason doesn’t matter. Can anything at all be read into this?
• Dan Rooney is gone.
• I am claiming Super Bowl or Bust at the beginning of the season, not as an
aspiration, but as an imperative. Steelers management seems to apparently agree.
The intriguing thing about myths is the significant amount of truth they often contain. This allows them to be sustainable even though they are false. Here are some of the early season myths that will be influencing our thinking going forward. Some are unique to this season, others have a Groundhog Day feel, we have heard these lullabies before.
Le’Veon Bell’s decisions may negatively impact the Steelers season
It is more likely that Bell’s decisions may negatively impact Bell. If Bell steps on the field healthy for an opening game, it will only be the second time in five seasons. Therefore, it is hard to see the current situation as anything but an improvement. But the Nation must worry about something, right? On the other hand, this does raise some questions about the twice suspended running back’s judgment. Mind you, I am not suggesting Ezekiel Elliott level concerns, more like Mike Wallace. He might contemplate Joe Haden, who almost certainly passed on more money elsewhere for a berth with the Steelers. This indicates he values working conditions over money as the highest professional consideration.
It’s all about the Patriots.
Ah, no it’s not. The most significant advantage New England has over Pittsburgh is something that can’t be addressed in the off season. As the late Dwight White said, there are only three kinds of football teams; those who have never won a Super Bowl, those who have won one, and those who have won more than one.
If there was any truth to the notion of Mike Tomlin being the beneficiary of having Bill Cowher’s team, it would not be based upon the talent, though considerable, that he inherited, but rather a group which had won a world championship. There are any number of things in life that you can’t ‘get’ until you actually do it—being married, having children, attending college are general examples. The majority of the Pats roster has won either one or multiple championships. While no organization has more institutional experience in this regard than the Steelers, when it comes to the players, the tip of the spear as it were—only Ben, James Harrison and William Gay—qualify. Nothing else is an adequate substitute.
What may be most disturbing is that this signifies that the Pats have gotten into the heads of many, if not most, of Steeler Nation, something that has been Pittsburgh’s advantage over so many other teams. That may well be the biggest concern in this regard.
It’s about getting the number one seed.
Speaking of the Patriots, remember that season when they only lost one game? Don’t feel bad if you can’t because the game they lost was the Super Bowl. Who cares if they won all the others? It was precisely this point that spurred so much hostility toward Cowher. He was much better than Tomlin at securing high seeding. And then they would lose just short of a championship. Fire Cowher! It is notable that the one championship in the Cowher Era came from a sixth seeded team. Tomlin’s two Super Bowl teams were second seeds. They both were able to host the AFCCG because the number one seeds those years (Tennessee and New England respectively) both lost in the divisional round. No one remembers them either.
The race for the one seed may have been lost for Pittsburgh this season when Ryan Tannehill went down in Miami. As the Pats soil their undergarments at the prospects of facing Jay Cutler, the good news is that the most important key to championship success is more likely to be to qualify for the playoffs any way you can and then playing your best ball at the end of the season when winning really is the only thing.
You must win the games you are supposed to win.
This is true, but the trick is in determining which are the games that you are supposed to win. The problem is that in the modern NFL how does one make that determination in advance? The dynamics of team economics and player turnover, and considering injuries and other factors, it is not uncommon for teams to either over or under perform, given the early season expectations. The Miami loss last season appeared a lot worse at the time than it was because the Dolphins were considered mediocre at best going into the season, when, in fact, they ended up as a playoff team.
Admit it. Even the most conservative of those of you who are reading this have already put the Cleveland opener in the win column, and an easy one at that, especially with a new and inexperienced quarterback. You mean just like Dallas last year? Looking at the early Pittsburgh schedule will blend this myth with another, namely:
The team must start strong.
Because of the aforementioned team dynamics, plus the parameters set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and supported by statements by Tomlin and Tunch Ilkin, among others, the quality of team play in the early regular season is simply not of the equivalent to what it may be later in the season. Combine that with the perception of first half of the Steelers schedule being viewed as ‘easy’, what do you think the chances are that there may be panic or disappointment based upon the difference between expectations and performance, whether it is the record or the quality of what transpires on the field?
There is no one surefire path to a Lombardi. Sometimes they steamrolled through the regular season—sometimes they muddled along barely winning more games than they lost. They have had Hall of Fame caliber players in key positions, or journeymen who are the subject of trivia questions. They have had the trophy in their hands and seen it slip away in one quarter (Atlanta) or one play (Seattle). They have suffered injuries to key personnel, endured losing streaks and distractions and still prevailed, or had none of these challenges and still lost.
But it would also be a lie to say that some paths don’t create a better chance of success than others. Pittsburgh is as well positioned as it has been in quite some time. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but it would be cynical to conclude it doesn’t matter.