The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Season: Aristotle Would Be Proud
This isn’t really an analysis or review of the season or anything like that, at least not from a football perspective. It’s simply a commentary, or more possibly an attempt to reach catharsis.
As I tossed on my proverbial couch, because here in Europe the game didn’t end until after bedtime, it occurred to me how much like a Greek tragedy this game was. In some ways it was even a microcosm of the season.
The season itself featured a new dramatic incident each week. Some of them were more dramatic (and serious) than others. All of them revealed some flaw in the character of these men we so admire and whose doings we follow. These flaws were right in line with something out of a classic tragedy, whether of Aristotle or his more modern decedents such as Shakespeare.
For those of you who, like me, are not entirely up snuff on the elements of a tragedy as proposed by Aristotle, I found a very useful slide show on the web. You can view it here, but I’ll give you the main elements and how they relate to what was going on.
First, the definition:
An Aristotlian tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person (or team, perhaps) who, through some fatal error or misjudgment, produces suffering and (perhaps) insight in the protagonist and arouses fear and (perhaps eventually) pity in the spectators. The “fatal error or misjudgment” arises because of a fatal flaw in the protagonist.
Harmartia, the “fatal flaw,” can be hubris, naiveté, weakness of character with the consequent inability to persist in the face of difficulties, and/or greed. I’m sure there are others, but these will suffice.
The first can be boiled down to a phrase our mothers or grandmothers would use—“too big for his britches.”
In football, it would appear that one can scarcely be too big for one’s britches, unless one is also deemed to be insufficiently conditioned. But as Troy Polamalu once revealed in an interview I’m too lazy to look up at the moment (thus revealing one of my many fatal flaws) he noted that, as a Christian, this was a difficulty for him, because pride is not viewed with favor in the Christian life—in fact, it is the original sin. And “pride” is part of the very essense of the football mentality.
And while “hubris” in the Grecian tragedic sense isn’t exactly the same as pride—it is more a violent shaming of your enemy—there’s a lot of that going around in football. And football fans. Which, in most facets of life, is considered pretty unattractive. But there is also a sense of unmerited pride—pride in accomplishments one presumes one can attain, which can lead to a certain lack of awareness.
As we look at the elements I’ve mentioned above, we can see them revealed in the various dramas which played out this season.
Greed is pretty obvious—the man (men) wants to be paid. This is not something with which one can easily argue. But the fans, most of whom will never earn in a lifetime what some of the players earn in a year, often have trouble being sympathetic to this concept, even if they are dimly aware that it is possible that the year’s salary in question could potentially be the only thing a player will ever be able to earn in their lifetime, due to some unforeseen but obviously possble injury.
The problem this season was not that, say, Le’Veon Bell wanted to be paid, but that he put the team at risk by utilizing the only actions available to him (holding out and using the press to make his feelings known). This provided the first of the numerous “distractions” which threatened to derail the season.
Did it ultimately lead to the downfall of the team, as would be necessary in a Greek tragedy? Perhaps it contributed. Perhaps, had the Steelers not lost to the Bears, in large part because their offense was still completely out of sync due to insufficient time working together, they would have had the No. 1 seed, and played the Titans in the Divisional Round, whom they beat handily earlier in the season. Or perhaps Ben, who struggled mightily in the regular season Jaguars game, partly due to a lack of chemistry with his receivers, would have managed a few less picks and beaten the Jaguars. This additional loss, assuming the season played out in a similar manner, would have meant the Titans, not the Jaguars, would have won the division.
One can never make assumptions based upon the outcome of a single game, because a different result has a ripple effect. But it is interesting to speculate, particularly as one views the season as a play and looks for the seeds of things which eventually doomed our heroes.
I’m afraid we also saw a certain amount of weakness of character this season. The need to sulk and make a fuss when one is not producing on the field and therefore not getting the accolades or possible payday or what-have-you was notable among more than one player. I am not naive enough to think this doesn’t go on in other locker rooms, probably all of them, in the NFL. It’s just that we saw a rather larger amount of it in public than we’re accustomed to from our Steelers.
Did the public nature of this contribute to the eventual downfall? I don’t know. Martavis Bryant certainly produced in the final game. James Harrison is, apparently, producing on the field for the Patriots, which is seriously annoying, of course.
Which leads to the possibility that there is a certain lack of judgment on the part of the coaching staff as to how to deal with their players. I will leave this for you all to discuss. But given some of the breakdowns during the season, particularly in the defense, we have to consider this. And of course there are the errors of judgment in their private lives that made the news this past year, notably by Joey Porter and Todd Haley. Did this also contribute? Who knows?
And I would be remiss not to mention the actual tragedy of the season—the injury to Ryan Shazier. Quite aside from the possible life-altering character of his injury, it certainly was devastating to the team. It wasn’t very long into the season before the breathtaking quality of Shazier’s play was evident, and more than one local writer was opining that Shazier would be the player the Steelers’ defense could least afford to lose, and whose loss might be the undoing of the team.
And to view Ryan’s injury from the Grecian perspective, it resulted from a flaw in his makeup, one that perhaps the Greeks wouldn’t view as a flaw—a disregard for his personal safety in his style of play. Had he made a classic wrap-up tackle, that fateful day in Cincinnati, this wouldn’t have happened.
But that is blaming the victim (which is, I suppose, the basis of Greek tragedy, although they would never agree that there was a completely “innocent victim.”) The reality is, Shazier’s injury could have happened in some other way, unrelated to his style of tackling, because as much as we would like to blind ourselves to this, the possibility exists on essentially every play in every game that someone will be seriously injured, not just in terms of their career but in terms of their lives. And if you consider how general the occurence of CTE is among NFL players, even if they never sustain a serious injury elsewhere, they may well have lingering effects of their playing days, effects which will quite possibly shorten their lives and will certainly alter them in an unfortunate way.
So perhaps it all boils down to fate, which is another central concept of a Greek tragedy. In one sense the protagonist creates his fate, but in another his fate is inevitable because of who he is.
And there perhaps I would say my metaphor goes a bit too far. Because in a single-elimination tournament, anything can happen, thus the expression “any given Sunday.” Tunch Ilkin, radio analyst for the Steelers, commented, both before the regular season game vs. Jacksonville and yesterday’s tilt, that Blake Bortles is a very streaky player. One day he comes out looking like the reincarnation of John Elway, the next like a not-particularly-proficient backup. And certainly thus far in his career he has more often looked like the latter than the former. It was only a formidable ground game and an even more formidable defense that kept them in the running.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter how Jacksonville got it done. They did, and the Steelers are, as a consequence, cleaning out their lockers. And in the meantime, the sands are trickling down the hourglass of Ben Roethlisberger’s remaining time as an effective quarterback. The really sad thing yesterday was that once the offense got going they looked like what we expected—the unstoppable force. Unfortunately the Jaguars’ offense on the day was also unstoppable, at least by the Steelers’ defense, and it was a pick-six of Ben, early in the game, which was ultimately the difference in what amounted to a shoot-out.
It will be interesting to see how this team is viewed in coming years. For the moment, it seems such a shame that so much talent was wasted. But how often do we see great talent wasted because of character flaws in the person containing it? And how is the organization going to deal with the many flaws that were revealed?
I wonder what the anagorisis was for Mike Tomlin—the moment of insight in which he realized the web of fate in which he was entangled.
He has often been accused of hubris, in the modern sense. (One might say the onside kick was one such moment—although I think it was merely desperation.) And he has learned the hard way, as so many of us do, through the laying of various eggs at some point in his career.
But was the fatal flaw which doomed the 2017 Steelers really Tomlin’s flaw? Plenty of fans will say so. Plenty of them need no excuse to blame him for everything from a lost game to global warming. I wouldn’t say so, but I wouldn’t presume to know.
But I do know that it’s hard to win in the National Football League. Hopefully this will help us to attain perspective, if not actual catharsis, in the days to come.
If you need something to help you put this all in perspective, you need only think of Ryan Shazier. I hope you will all keep him in your prayers as he attempts to overcome his injury.