Bubbles and Fake Sports News

Image via Steelers.com

By Ivan Cole

Hombre brought this little nugget from a recent Ed Bouchette chat transcript to my attention.

D Hawk: Hi Ed. Don’t you think it’s time to move off from Ben? Maybe try to get Rivers,

Cutler or Cousins? They will never win with Ben.

Ed Bouchette: Thank you for our weekly laugh of the chat. Please drive home safely.

If you are a regular visitor to this site, you probably think that the above comment is more than a bit unhinged. However, no matter how stunning such an assertion might strike us, if you find it surprising you just haven’t been paying attention. It would be oh- so-easy to dismiss this as being simply moronic, but I think that misses the mark.

Recently, there has been a lot of conversation in the mainstream culture about the trend towards tribalization and the insulated bubbles of perceived reality that develop as a result. While it appears to be a revelation to some, it has been the norm in the universe of sports fandom for quite some time. What is Steelers Nation but a tribe? Arguably one of 32 in the NFL alone. Each of these tribes operates within its own matrix and are also connected to larger informational networks. The connection within and between these universes and some shared, agreed upon version of reality can be tenuous.

The worldview expressed by D Hawk is -I hope- well on the margins for Steelers Nation, but in the Washington area where I live it is much closer to mainstream belief than you would think.

It was brought to my attention months ago that a popular narrative in the DC sports talk universe was the Steelers organization and its fans were wildly covetous of obtaining Kurt Cousins as a replacement (and an upgrade!!) for Ben Roethlisberger. I thought they were joking. They weren’t. Further, they believed that, though it appeared that Ben would make things easy by stepping down on his own, if he didn’t then it would be appropriate, as D Hawk suggests, to push him out the door, and not let this opportunity pass.

What made this line of thinking seem a little peculiar from my perspective is that I consider Cousins no better than the fifth best quarterback IN THE NFC EAST. Carson Wentz and Nick Foles (Eagles), Eli Manning (Giants) Dak Prescott (Cowboys), all better in my view. Certainly, they are better fits for the Steelers if it ever came to that. You might even make the case that Cousins isn’t even the best quarterback on his own team now that Alex Smith is in the fold. I’m not even sure I would prefer Cousins over backup Colt McCoy.

However, what is undeniable is that Cousins is now a ‘thing’ around the league. Remember when Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel were ‘things’? A full examination of why that might be is beyond the scope of this piece but let me suggest that its roots may lie in the need to inflate Cousins’ ability and potential in tandem with a campaign to discredit and justify the elimination of his predecessor, Robert Griffin III.

The point is that this is the distorting power of bubbles at work. An example, involving a quarterback and being closer to home would be Landry Jones. In our bubble narrative (one I have subscribed to myself at times) Jones is an utter and complete waste of human flesh who somehow continues to pollute the Steelers’ roster with his presence. An alternative narrative is that of a competent backup -nothing more or less- who might be a starter and an asset for any number of teams in this league, but not a franchise caliber talent.

These bubble narratives can be especially persuasive at this time of the year when there is little in the way grounding evidence such as games played, talent procured or released, and allowing for all manner of playground-style speculation that can stand unchallenged by facts for months.

This is beyond fortunate for a sports media and fan culture challenged to maintain a freshness and relevance twelve months out of the year. When I was writing for Behind The Steel Curtain I coined the term MSU (Making S**t Up) where massive amounts of oxygen is taken up with predictions, such as mock drafts, rumormongering and unsubstantiated ‘analysis’.

These are largely risk-free strategies to in which to engage. There are few, if any penalties for wrong predictions. At this time of the year a Mel Kiper might as well be God On Earth in the estimation of many fans. In two months after the conclusion of the draft he will largely disappear from view until the commencement of the 2019 mock draft season (though for some that process has already begun). He will not be required to ever explain why he failed to sound the alarm when Hall of Fame caliber players like Tom Brady and Antonio Brown fell to the sixth round.

This year, as has been true almost every year that I can remember, there is the hand wringing about the Steelers being in one circle or another of salary cap Hell with attendant casualties. If history holds they will manage to do, with few exceptions pretty much what they want. Just weeks ago, it was accepted truth that the 2017 season would be Ben Roethlisberger’s last. Now, not only will he play out the current contract, but the conversation is about an extension.

Current wisdom says that Le’Veon Bell just isn’t worth the expense, and the team can survive, even thrive with less talented options. On the surface there is something to be said about this. The Browns and the Bears only won one world championship a piece when they had Jim Brown and Walter Payton on their rosters. And the Lions, Bills and Rams didn’t win jack with Barry Sanders, O J Simpson and Eric Dickerson respectively.

Generational players of any variety (think Dan Marino) don’t guarantee anything. But neither do cheap knock offs. Word is already out that Pittsburgh will continue to be a huge primetime draw, due in no small measure to the presence of Bell. Being that pro football is as much about entertainment and money this no small consideration. Neither is the statement by Maurkice Pouncey urging the team to pay the man. Competitors want to play with the best. Another consideration.

One interesting realization is that it is sometimes the more successful and privileged fan bases that are the most fragile and most susceptible to off the wall narratives. After their recent loss in the Super Bowl some in Patriots Nation are complaining that Belichick doesn’t have it anymore, or never did in the first place. Last year Ravens fans wanted to show John Harbaugh the door after their Christmas Day loss to Pittsburgh. Need I have to say anything about how familiar this sounds to those of us in Steelers Nation. In the past I recall hearing similar sentiments coming from New York Yankee and Los Angles Laker fans during their dynasty periods and being astonished of how bizarre it was to witness some of most fortunate sports fans in the world manage to snatch misery from the jaws of joy.

Apparently, some can be quite serious about the idea of Super Bowl or Bust. When teams like the Steelers, Ravens and Patriots fail it is about falling one or two victories short of ultimate success. In case of the Ravens in 2016, nine seconds was the margin of error. The response of the snowflakes in these various bubbles is to take a meat cleaver to the staffs and rosters, proposing, with a straight face, financial arrangements that they almost certainly would find personally insulting if applied to themselves (tell those school teachers in West Virginia to be happy with a hometown discount), and that the formula for a five star meal is to take away the filet mignon (Ben) and the lobster (Bell), and substitute meat loaf (Cousins or Cutler) and fish sticks (some random running back). What could possibly go wrong?

Penny wise. Not being able to discern between an expense and an investment has sunk families, businesses and nations. It may, indeed, be that Pittsburgh can’t afford Bell. It may be true that Ben doesn’t have it anymore, that a contract extension is misplaced sentimentality when there are so many younger, franchise-caliber-future-first-ballot-hall- of-fame-quarterbacks out there on the streets looking for a home. It may be that the Steelers team is a dumpster fire that somehow faked its was to a 13-3 record but has major problems.

On the other hand, it could just be fake news.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    If this is incoherent or badly written, blame lack of sleep (two nights in a row I have only managed 3 hours per night).

    In this era, when porn stars are voicing worries that being associated with the White House is bad for their image, the concerns about fake news have a certain validity. Still salary cap concerns and the brevity of players’ career windows can lead credence to fan fears. Ben, despite the improved production and the changed offensive scheme, is physically beat up. Bell does seem to have issues with judgement when off the field though the sane thought processes that drive fans crazy, when he is off the field, may well be the ones that make him successful on the field. It does seem the the perfect offence we envisioned going into last season still has vapours at times while the defence which carried the team in the early going was finally exposed when it lost it’s Shazier shaped lynch pin.

    13-3 was so close and yet the loss in the playoffs seemed so cruel. Fake news (though the Cousins thing seems like a bad dream) is just another nostrum we dose ourselves with in an attempt to dull the pain and sorrow. How long must our loved ones be forced to hear our plaintive laments. Isn’t false hope better than no hope. Perhaps not, if what I see in the international news is anything to go by and yet… and yet I keep hoping we can draft replacements for Ben ( to be mentored for a year) and Bell (to save wear and tear on him) while plugging the massive hole in the center of our defence (another healthy and accomplished safety wouldn’t hurt neither). It is difficult to see such a talented team that still seemly needs so many pieces.

    If nothing else, at least I have the Winnipeg Jets to keep me preoccupied for part of the time, until football season starts again.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great article Ivan.

    The bit about Cousins to the Steelers is real. A friend of mine in Maryland who lives just inside the beltway and who isn’t a Steelers or Redskins fan asked me “Will Ben retire so the Steelers can sign Cousins.” As Daniel Snyder doesn’t like Cousins it made it easy for me to root for him, but while he might be a “good” QB he’s far from shown he’s a great one.

    The situation with Bell is more complicated.

    I’ve long mused that Bell has the talent to revive the concept of “franchise running back.” That still might be the case, but his drop in rushing average during the last year complicates that argument — but only a little. Fortunately, the Steelers don’t see it that way.

    But to your basic oint, it is interesting to see who so many in Steelers Nation hang on the words of a simple tweet.

    Remember two weeks ago when we were assured that the Steelers were listening to offers for Martavis Bryant?

    I said at the time on Twitter that those “sources” were undoubtedly a lot closer to Bryant’s agent than someone with proximity to a person with decision making authority on the South Side. And of course Kevin Colbert put those rumors to rest as soon as he had the chance.

    Final word about Tomlin and the Tomlin haters.

    Many of those characters were the same people who wanted Dan Rooney to fire Bill Cowher after the 2004 AFC Championship game, because, “Like his mentor Marty Schottenhiemer, Bill simply can’t win the big one.” (Never mind that the fact that he made it to two AFC Championship games with Kordell Stewart and one with a rookie QB spoke to his qualities rather than his deficiencies as a head coach.)


    • Great points, Hombre. There was a very interesting article in the Trib yesterday making the point that fans appear to be trying to recast the Bell argument as “he’s just not that good” instead of the reality, “I just don’t like him.” Somehow it all seems to be personal.

      I still meet people, most recently a few months ago, who won’t root for the Steelers because they don’t “like” Ben. Which is their right, but just sounds dumb to me. The fact is, how much would we “like” a lot of these guys if we really knew who they were? Some are better than others in massaging their public images. Some are undoubtedly great people, some jerks, and all are flawed, just like the rest of us.


      • The degree to which the Bell situation has been personalized is bizarre. But perhaps it has more to do with the state of running backs in the NFL. A good friend of mine who is a bigger Dallas Cowboy fan than any Steelers fan I ever met was DEAD SET against Dallas bringing DeMarco Muarry back to the Dallas after his record-breaking season.

        Overall, the situation with Bell is legitimately complicated.

        Bell IS a championship player — he was 38% of the Steelers offense last year. Yet, the Steelers are apparently offering to pay well above what the next highest paid running back is getting, and that’s not enough.

        To me the key issue, and risk, is durability. Bell’s ability should not be belittled.

        And to that end, I think too many need to get over themselves. On paper it looks easy to slice and dice Bell’s franchise tag and replace his production (and then some, we’re assured) using a Moneyball approach, but the reality is far more complicated than these Twitter General Managers wish to acknowledge.


  • I remember a time that sometimes two bubbles would touch and after awhile merge into a bigger bubble with twice the volume. Now days bubbles seem to be made of Kevlar, instead of soap. It’s too bad entertainment has to be dragged into the real world.


  • Lol. Meatloaf and fish sticks. I have to remember that one.


  • Agree entirely with view of Ivan’s view of Cousins value (although not sure Eli still has it – as far as the NFC QB rankings). I’m astounded that he’s getting that much money as a QB who is probably only barely in the top half of the league. But he is available and has experience, so there’s that.
    I wonder if he’ll sink into Neil O’Donnell-like oblivion in Minnesota.


    • You know its funny. I know very little of Cousins, and the Neil O’Donnell analogy is one that has occurred to me before.

      I took a lot of heat for defending O’Donnell. Even once got into a heated argument in the summer of 1993 with a Broncos fan defending the idea that Neil was good enough to get the Steelers to a Super Bowl.

      Neil O’Donnell was the classic “good” but not great quarterback.When Neil left the Steelers (after saying he’d take a hometown discount as opposed to going to bad team), the New York Jets made him the 4th highest paid quarterback in the league. I thought that was insane.

      But unlike Cousins, at least Neal O’Donnell had, you know, a couple of 3 playoff wins on his resume?

      I have nothing against Kirk Cousins. I grew up in DC and have always rooted against the Redskins, yet I despise Daniel Snyder even more. Snyder has never liked Cousins so I’ve naturally sided with Cousins.

      With that said the idea of making him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL AND giving a fully guaranteed contract seems insane.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s