The Difference Between Quarterbacks

I made a quick comment - quick for me, only two paragraphs : ) - in Minihulk's post about whether Ben Roethlisberger would be the quarterback in Game 5.  Her post was prompted, of course, by the fact that Tomlin refused to declare Ben as the starting QB for that game.  I think that we are mostly agreed that, barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, Ben will be taking the snaps.  But why are we so convinced?  More speculation, after the jump:

I used the comparison of an orchestral conductor to try to illustrate the difference between Ben and our corps of backups.  But it occurs to me that many of you may have never played in an orchestra, or perhaps even a band, and that therefore the illustration is not entirely effective.  So I thought I would explain a bit more just what that means, and how a world-class conductor differs from the rest of the pack. 


The conductor's art is a rather strange one.  There are about 100 people on stage in a symphony orchestra, generally speaking.  All of those people are polished, seasoned professionals.  (We are assuming a world-class symphony for the purposes of discussion, not unlike, say, our own Pittsburgh Symphony.)  And all of those people are playing instruments, save for the person in the front of the group.  He (or she) is waving his or her arm(s) about, but not contributing a single sound to the mix (except for the cases of the conductors who sing along, and generally speaking, it doesn't improve the occasion.)  Because of this fact, there are numerous conductor jokes.  A typical one would be "What is the difference between a bull and a symphony orchestra?"  Answer - "In a bull, the horns are in the front and the asshole is in the back." 


So what is the conductor doing?  You probably assume that the conductor is helping the orchestra play together, and you might very well be wrong.  Because there are four sorts of conductors.  There are the complete hacks, who don't have the slightest idea what they are doing, there are the competent but uninspiring backups, there are the up-and-coming but inexperienced youngsters, and there are world-class conductors. 


So how on earth would a complete hack have the opportunity to conduct a world-class ensemble?  Well, it doesn't happen very often, but it does happen.  That's when, say, the president of a large corporation who has been a steady donor to an orchestra decides that they want to have a go at it.  They usually have a small amount of training and a large amount of hubris, and they worm their way into a gig by playing the money card, either overtly or by implication.  Or you have the famous musician, either classical or popular, who decides to take up conducting, and the orchestra calculates that their star power will attract enough audience to offset their downside for an occasional performance.  So what happens when an orchestra is being "led" by someone who is only marginally competent (or worse?)  The players batten down the hatches, avoid looking at the podium, and play together, generally following the concertmaster (the head violinist.)  This happens more than you might think, and the results are often quite okay, which merely encourages the hack conductors to think that they have something to offer.


Then you have the competent backups.  They are often young, up-and-coming conductors, who staff the major orchestra's "Assistant Conductor" list, and are hoping to make enough of a name to get their own orchestra. They have some real upside, but they aren't sufficiently experienced and polished to be a consistently good conductor yet.  They might eventually become an elite conductor, but they aren't now, and may well never be.  It's sort of like Dennis Dixon - he knows that he's highly unlikely to be the starter in Pittsburgh, but he's hoping he has enough chances to shine here that some team without a franchise quarterback will take him on as their starter.  Or they can be career backups, like Charlie, and like Byron has turned out to be - not what they dreamed of right out of music school, but better to be a backup with a great orchestra than the head conductor of a small regional orchestra, because you just don't have the same quality of personnel to work with.  They can step in and do a fine job as sort of a game manager.  They don't actually get in the way, as the hacks do, and they can craft quite a decent performance which seems great to the uninitiated.


But finally, you have that tiny, elite group of world-class conductors.  There aren't enough to go around - there are more excellent orchestras than there are elite conductors. (And without a top-quality conductor, an excellent orchestra is never going to take that final step to greatness.) These are the conductors that make an orchestra play better than they knew they were capable of - that draw things out of the music that you've never heard or noticed before.  So what is the difference?  Is it chemistry?


Strangely, chemistry is very helpful, but not entirely necessary.  A former conductor for many years of the Pittsburgh Symphony who shall remain nameless is a undisputed master at his trade. He moved on to bigger and better things when he left town. And pretty much nobody likes him.  You could even state it more strongly than that.  Yet orchestras play very well for him, even though they may begrudge it, because in the end they know that their reputation is caught up with that of the orchestra, but also, I think, because they can't help themselves.  So, is it technique?


Again, not necessarily.  I've heard some fabulous playing emerge from orchestras being led by conductors with no technique at all. Again, technique can be very helpful, but you can have a superb technique and yet not be in the top echelon of conductors. 


And then there is the question of how conductors are any use at all, other than to start and stop together.  After all, with the best will in the world, the players aren't looking at the conductor the majority of the time.  They have many fistfuls of notes to play, and since they play different pieces every week, they can't very well memorize them, so they have to be looking at their music most of the time.  The effect that the conductor has on the players is only partially visible.  So how is the conductor communicating?  I've pondered this for many years, and have come to the conclusion that it is some sort of weird mental communication.   And it is really difficult to explain, unless you've experienced it.  But it is almost as if the conductor reaches into your soul and shows you stuff you didn't know you knew.


Well, as with most analogies, this breaks down eventually.  A conductor is also, in a sense, the head coach for a team.  It would be as if Mike Tomlin coached the team all week in practice, and then stepped onto the field to be the QB on Sunday.  But my main point stands.  A hack may prevent the players from achieving anything at all, try as they may, or they may be on a tight enough leash that the rest of the players can compensate for their inadequacies.  A competent quarterback doesn't get in the way of the other players.  An up-and-coming quarterback may do some great, exciting things, but they may also make some major errors during the learning process. Overall, they probably won't draw a truly inspired performance out of the players. Conductors, like quarterbacks, have to learn on the job.  You can study all you like, (and you need to have a solid understanding that only comes with study,) but the true learning takes place on the field, in a game where the results matter.  But the elite quarterback, like the elite conductor, knows how to make his players look good.  They may be stymied by incompetence in the ranks, of course.  But given a reasonable situation, they make everyone around them better. 


Because of the unprecedented situation this year, I had the opportunity to directly compare the four guys during training camp. I quickly came to the conclusion that Ben is worth the money we pay him.  He is, in fact, in that small group of elite quarterbacks, even if this fact is not yet acknowledged by a lot of the talking heads.  He can, of course, destroy himself and waste his gift, and in the past year he seemed well on his way to doing that.  I'm happy to say that the consequences for his actions, although they may not have met a standard of impartial justice, have likely saved him from that fate.  I'm incredibly excited to see what he is going to be drawing out of our offense this season.  I'm grateful that we have people like Dennis, Charlie, and Byron to get us through the first few weeks, but I have no doubt that we will be welcoming #7 back to the fold for Game 5.  Go Stillers!

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