Training Camp for Steelers Fans, 2018
Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
Fully digested, this is all you will need to prepare yourself for the upcoming season. At this exciting time of the year care must be taken to inoculate ourselves against several reoccurring narratives that seduce us as the NFL regular season prepares to commence. The surprise conclusion (to this point) of the Steelers’ quarterback competition has exposed the foundation of sand upon which we base our so called ‘common wisdom’ concerning how things unfold with this game.
It is the right and privilege of fans to speculate about what is, can and should be about the game, but with the understanding that we are amateurs speculating from afar. What has been poisoning the well for years now is a media establishment whose purpose is to push that same level of questionable expertise from powerful platforms as ‘expert analysis’ or ‘Truth’.
So, in the case of the Pittsburgh quarterback room ‘everybody knew’ (the giveaway set up for a statement whose grounding in fact is shaky at best) that the competition was just a charade. It is true that it was nearly impossible to imagine a circumstance that would preclude Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph from being part of the final roster. But it was the assumption that the destiny of Jones and Joshua Dobbs were a fait accompli where both fans and professionals alike careened far outside of their lanes. We all knew (and make no mistake, I include myself here as well) that absent a trade or injury that Dobbs would be the odd man out, and that it would be a calculation that would be largely separate and apart from anything that transpired on the practice fields or during the games.
It was fatalistic and cynical, but also realistic about the business of professional football, based upon one of the false narratives that dominate our thinking at this time of the year, even though the facts often contradict it: That the past equals the future.
Quite frankly, I was rather depressed as the cuts approached. While through a great deal of hard work and self-reflection I have terminated my membership in the Landry Jones is William Gay 2.0 Club, I, nonetheless, acknowledged that Jones was a competent back up/emergency quarterback who was at the ceiling of his abilities. On the other hand, Dobbs was relatable in a manner that draws us to and keeps us enamored with sports. Particularly, he appealed as a talent with great upside potential whose disadvantage was a lack of developmental mentorship in college that prevented him from initially fully manifesting his abilities. How many of us can relate to that in our own histories, or those of others whom we know?
Speaking of history, I could imagine it repeating itself in a generation when, just like in the case of a Johnny Unitas or Len Dawson over 60 years ago, Landry Jones would be the answer to the trivia question of who the Steelers kept on the roster when they cut Joshua Dobbs? Not that one has to imagine anything so grandiose as Dobbs being a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, but an effective and productive starter in this league is well within the realm of the possible considering his potential upside, and beyond the capacity of Jones. Dobbs made the leap that Tomlin and others talk about concerning second year players and flashed the possibilities that created excitement when he was drafted last year. And then it seemed that the Steelers were poised to throw that away in favor of a, not terrible, but at best, mediocre talent whose main utility was that of an experienced back up in case needed for a championship run this year only (Rudolph or Dobbs could likely handle that role next year and beyond).
Not that the needs of the present are irrelevant. Ben’s initial complaint about the drafting of Rudolph was, at least in part, grounded in the question of how the team could invest a high draft pick on a player who would almost certainly play no role in the team’s ability to compete now. However, it is more complicated than that. While it is true that Pittsburgh has a window to a Lombardi that is open now, the pursuit of greatness (sustained excellence) involves a complicated dance of reconciling present and future considerations. Those reading know as well as I do that this fan base is so entitled as to consider division titles and playoff runs as passé. They would lose their collective minds if, after betting all their chips on a championship run now (a low probability outcome under the best of circumstances) they then fell into a Pirates-like run of mediocrity or worse under the leadership of Jones and others whose utility is short term at best.
There is a lot more to this move than meets the eye immediately and will be addressed in a following piece. But for present purposes, we need to stay focused on the fact that anyone who professes to know how things are going to play out this season before the first snap anywhere is sadly mistaken. Their opinions must be considered with a big block of salt.
Who’s going to the playoffs?
Though it is not completely randomized as to quality and abysmal franchises, the fact remains that, if I remember this correctly, about 40 percent of playoff teams turn over every season. Last season at this time the AFC power coming out of Florida was supposed to be Miami, not Jacksonville. Would you have bet on teams like the Eagles, Rams, Vikings or Bills over the Cowboys, Seahawks, Texans or Packers? History shows that first games (yes, even against the Browns, in fact, especially against the Browns) are fraught with issues that go beyond just the legitimate concerns about a fast start. Beside the concerns associated with whether last season’s dynasty in the making was just a crew making a lucky run, teams have had months to prepare for their first opponent. The Steelers could very well struggle or lose against Cleveland and it might not have anything to do with a lack of preparation or fire.
Is it critical to start fast?
No, it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly helps if you do, and is not ideal or insignificant if you don’t, but I have always suspected it has more to do with marketing and injecting an element of drama into the early weeks of the season. There have been teams that have virtually run the table in the first half of the season and ended up being of no significance at playoff time. What many of us consider to be the greatest Steelers team ever (1976) began their season 1-4. A week from now the talk will be about the fact that teams that start off 0-2 almost always die and burn in Hell, meaning fully half of the league should be in panic mode.
Yes, it is important to start well, but how you finish is much more important.
It’s the injuries, stupid! And luck helps too
Injuries are of course part of the luck equation. Players, coaches and team leadership dutifully suck it up and say that this stuff doesn’t matter because everyone has to deal with it. Here are two more words for you: Ryan Shazier. Want two more? How about Ben Roethlisberger, or Antonio Brown, or Chris Boswell. Injury management often trumps other concerns.
And then there is luck. Entire seasons often hang on the outcome of a handful of plays, which if you think of it is rather terrifying and probably why no one wants to focus upon it. So, for example, if they don’t steal that touchdown from Jesse James and the Jaguars or the Patriots have to claw their way to Heinz Field for the AFCCG against a team who wouldn’t be looking past anyone at that point, could it have made a difference? (Today Ed Bouchette pointed out that the Steelers played nine games last season in which the Steelers won by a touchdown or less, and they were 8-1 in those games. Hard not to see that there is at least an element of luck in this. Although I believe the loss was the Jesse James game, so there’s that…Ed.)
There will be controversy, some of which will have nothing to do with objective state of the team, or in some cases about football at all.
It is questionable if the NFL could ever be seen as a sanctuary from the issues and ugliness of the wider world, but this certainly will not be true in 2018. Locally, there have always been segments of the fan base and the media that have agendas that, at best, use the team and its fortunes as a jumping off point for clicks and market share, culture wars, whatever. Terry Bradshaw has helpfully gotten the ball rolling for Tomlin Haters. This will fit in quite well with the national chaos brewing over anthem protests, Nike, dueling boycotts, etc.
In the short term we are in a no-win scenario, with the league and its fans being equal parts complicit and victims of larger, more meaningful dramas over which there is little control. A possible consequence may be irreparable damage to a game facing some serious issues apart from this. Remember head injuries or domestic violence anyone? Unfortunately, the game going to hell could be the least of our problems moving forward.
Try not to get caught up in the drama.
Thanks so much to Ivan for this. I had decided to hold out until Week 10 of the season, just to see if anyone noticed, but Ivan’s piece forced my hand. I have told my agent that I will be reporting soon, assuming that I’m not injured in the meantime, or have the opportunity to stay in a beachfront hotel in Miami.
And rather more seriously, I will reveal that for both Ivan and me, life has in many ways trumped football. This almost certainly means that while we will be posting (especially after games) the amount of content will most likely be greatly reduced from previous years. If any among you has a yen to pontificate about the Steelers, I would be delighted to take your submissions and
publish them under my own name give you proper credit and glory…