Fresh Eyes: Part V
Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com
by Ivan Cole
Question # 5: Heading into the 2019 season, what is fantasy and what is reality?
During a recent program that was covering the Democratic Primaries for president it was mentioned that voters of that party tended toward a desire to ‘fall in love’ with a candidate as opposed, presumably, to a more calculated decision process.
That struck me as an accurate description of many Steelers fans during the preseason. We are looking to fall in love and that impulse leads us to identify those who will be ‘camp Darlings’. And in a compensatory manner we also select scapegoats and anti- heroes who must be cast out if we are to reach the Promised Land.
The Darling captures the imagination in delightful ways. They could be described as the quirky overachiever who somehow competes for and earns a seat on the team bus, or a hidden gem who could become a central contributor to success. The best recent example of this type of player would be Isaac Redman. The shadow side of this would be the Scapegoat, who is most likely a veteran but might also be a highly touted newcomer. In either case he is distinguished as being a disappointment or a fraud who is a waste of human flesh but more importantly is holding the team back. The classic example would be William Gay.
For the most part it’s all part of the fun of being something more than just a casual fan who is only paying attention on game days during the Fall. But there are some elements which can make things toxic and unpleasant.
Falling in love (or contempt) often involves either ignoring or embracing some questionable interpretations of the truth. The Darling builds his reputation on something less than the highest levels of competition, and even if the dream comes true and they make the team it is likely they will disappear into the obscurity of special teams or the practice squad.
Of greater concern are the whispering campaigns directed against the Scapegoat, which often amount to baseless slander. While the criticisms of Ziggy Hood or Jarvis Jones may have been closer to the mark, the assessment of Gay proved to be inaccurate. The same could be said concerning Landry Jones, and before him Jason Worilds. The best current example to my thinking would be Bud Dupree. It is fortunate that the Steelers are not as influenced by public opinion as some other organizations.
This season the Darling dynamic can be best captured in one position group: Quarterback.
You will recall that Joshua Dobbs began his Steelers career as a Darling. He was the rocket scientist that was going to replace Ben (I will get to this delusional “replace Ben” phenomena soon). Then Mason Rudolph came along (who was going to replace Ben, and still is in the eyes of many). Though hated, no one could bring themselves to believe that the more seasoned Landry Jones could be supplanted. So, Dobbs became that high school sweetheart who had no place once you started dating people in college. ‘Can we help you pack, Josh?’ Shockingly, the team parted way with Landry Jones instead, providing an unexpectedly easy ending to that nightmare, as well as sparing Steeler Nation the guilt of having to unceremoniously dump Joshua Dobbs.
Everything was looking good heading into 2019. Fans can cheer for Rudolph (mainly) or Dobbs to be the heir apparent of Ben (Not!) without guilt or much acrimony. But then Devlin Hodges comes along and complicates matters. Though no one is crazy enough to see him as the replacement for Ben, he is a Darling, as much or more so in the classic sense than either Dobbs or Rudolph. We find ourselves back to the point at which somebody has got to go. As to who, it will be a matter of whether it is about talent (Bye Duck guy), competitive leverage (Rudolph) or emotional resonance (Dobbs).
It all makes for interesting drama that has gotten us through the summer but will probably be rendered irrelevant by the end of Labor Day weekend. This ground has been covered before and I apologize in advance for being redundant, but I feel that many are still having a hard time grasping the full meaning of the following:
Ben Roethlisberger is a Franchise Quarterback, not just a starting quarterback. There is a difference. The Steelers have had two Franchise Quarterbacks during the Super Bowl Era. With Terry Bradshaw they were dynastic in the 70s, winning four championships. With Ben they have participated in three Super Bowls and have won two. Though they still had great players and coaching, for the quarter of a century between the tenures of these two quarterbacks, the team made it back to the Super Bowl one time and lost (due to quarterback play, I might add).
A franchise caliber quarterback is one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in professional football. Many organizations go for generations without one, and it usually shows. Having one does not in itself guarantee success (that is the real tragedy in the eyes of Colts fans with Andrew Luck’s retirement), and there are plenty of examples of teams managing to succeed with less gifted players at the position. But if you have any pretensions for long-term sustained success, you had better have one.
Here’s a comparison: The OJ Simpson Bills, Walter Payton Bears, Barry Sanders Lions, and Eric Dickerson Rams equal one Super Bowl appearance. The Jim Kelly Bills, Fran Tarkenton Vikings, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman Cowboys, Tom Brady Patriots equal twenty-one.
How do we know that Dobbs and Rudolph aren’t franchise caliber quarterbacks? Because the team didn’t have to trade draft choices or sell kidneys to obtain them. They were available. There are cases when one can be selected further down in the draft, with Russell Wilson being a recent example. It is possible for a smooth transition from one franchise player to another to occur—for instance, Joe Montana to Steve Young for the 49ers and Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers for the Packers. But the most likely scenario is that, at best, given current contract realities, one of these two quarterbacks may usher the Steelers into the post-Ben era as a solid successful starter and leader of a team that will have to struggle year to year to maintain its status as a contender.
For now, they are competing to see who gets to wear a baseball cap and hold a clipboard on the sidelines.
Next: How 2019 may unfold