HOUSTON - OCTOBER 02: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers calls out a play at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter at Reliant Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
I guess the easy way out would be to say that at least we're not the Cowboys, or the Eagles, or the Colts. But I'm not going down that route today. Yes, the team is 2-2, and, frankly, things look a lot worse because we have, how shall I say this, issues. But where do we really stand at this juncture of the season?
First the history lesson.
In 1974 the first portion of the Steelers' season was marred by a humiliating home shutout at the hands of our hated arch rivals, the Oakland Raiders. There was also a 35-35 tie at Denver; bizarre in the sense that the team rarely gave up or scored that many points. Additionally, there was a brewing quarterback controversy involving Terry Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty, all of whom started at least one game during the season. At one point Joe Greene threatened to quit to team. Things didn't stabilize until relatively late in the season and Pittsburgh went on to win its first Super Bowl.
The following year the defending champs were embarrassed in their home opener when OJ Simpson galloped for what appeared to be several kilometers of yardage against the vaunted Steel Curtain defense. The ship was quickly righted and the Steelers would repeat as world champions.
In 1976 things got real ugly in September. Pittsburgh lost a bunch of games and then it's starting quarterback to begin the season. In a slugfest at Cleveland where fighting was commonplace both on the field and in the stands, a Browns defensive end by the name of Joe ‘Turkey' Jones lifted Terry Bradshaw into the air and then drove him headfirst into the turf. I don't think he was fined by the League. Written off by everyone, Pittsburgh staged one of the truly great comebacks, led by a defense that simply refused to let the team lose. They would eventually fall to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. But their failure speaks to the way that stats can be misapplied. The early season issues had nothing to do with why the team fell short in the AFCCG. Untimely injuries to 1000 yard running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in the divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Colts virtually crippled the Steelers offense.
More recently a highlight of the early 2008 season was a particularly demoralizing loss to the Eagles. The offensive line looked terrible, worse than at any time this season. That wasn't all; two starting defensive linemen, Casey Hampton and Britt Keisel would be lost for multiple games early in the year. Our best offensive lineman, Marvel Smith would also end up on IR. Ray Lewis broke the shoulder of rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall, shelving him for the year. And we had the most difficult schedule going forward in over 30 years in the NFL. The team would go on to win its 6th Lombardi Trophy.
You may have heard (or misremembered) that the 70s Steelers was this invincible juggernaut that just rolled over the league. Sometimes they did. However, it was also true that for three consecutive years the team overcame underwhelming early season performances to achieve two championships and a near miss. The start in '08 was not particularly inspiring either. So what am I saying? I am saying that what we can conclude at this point of the season is...nothing. What has transpired so far could be the beginning of a long painful decline into mediocrity, much like the latter portion of the '09 season, or it could be completely inconsequential to what decides the season later in the year.
But while it would be tempting, but a mistake to think of what has occurred as being predictive of the rest of the season, it, nonetheless, provides valuable descriptive data concerning the state of the team and the league in the wake of the lockout, as well as giving us a better picture of what the peculiar challenges are that face this particular version of the Steelers.
A lot of the assumptions I had entering the season about the impact of the lockout have been proven either completely wrong, or at least more complicated than I imagined. The advantages that I believe would accrue to a veteran team based upon experience have not materialized to this point. Whether they will be a factor later on will be one of the things we'll all have to watch for going forward.
High expectations. A month ago I wrote that this might be a particularly difficult year for fans because expectations were so high. I perceive a certain lack of enjoyment by many who are following the team's progress. When folks believe that a Super Bowl championship is not just the desired option, but the only acceptable option then everything positive is devalued and dismissed as being simply ‘doing what is supposed to be done'. And, obviously, all negatives are amplified and elevated beyond disappointment to being indicative of disaster. But, some will say, isn't this a matter of being true to the Standard? But there is a significant, if somewhat subtle, difference between what is viewed as aspirational on one hand and what may be viewed as an unrealistic necessity on the other. The reason that we value those six Lombardis so much is because getting even one is really, really hard. I think it may be fair to say that many fans, pundits and even some associated with the team itself have become prisoners to their assumptions and expectations concerning how this season was ‘supposed' to unfold.
Injuries. Many believed that there may have been a lot of injuries during training camp because of the relative lack of work heading into the season. There were some, but, in hindsight, it appears that these finely tuned professional athletes were able to stave off disaster by calibrating their actions in practice. Now that the games have begun in earnest and players have no choice but to go all out, the injuries are piling up across the league, and, unfortunately, the Steelers are reaping more than their share. Injuries are the great "Yes, but" when trying to assess the potential fortune of a professional football team. So far, the injury situation for the Steelers has been annoying and challenging, but has fallen short of being disastrous. It has had an impact on performance. We should be thankful that it could've been worse, but we need this epidemic to either ease or end if we want to continue to nurture dreams of making and advancing in the playoffs.
Tomlin. The one thing that stands out about the Head Coach so far this season is that if you didn't just dismiss his comments in weekly press conferences as so much coach speak you found that he was actually providing accurate clues to legitimate areas of concern. While the media and experts were focusing on the absence of players such as Todd Heap and Derrick Mason in the run up to the Ravens game, Tomlin was expressing concerns about the fact that the Ravens knew a lot more about the Steelers than Pittsburgh knew about them. When most were predicting a blowout in Indianapolis due to absence of Peyton Manning, Tomlin spoke about the championship caliber players that remained. The impression you get overall is of a leader who is clear on his team's capabilities, liabilities and is comfortable and respectful of the unknowns. Check out how he is handling things this week as compared to the media and the fans. It's extremely enlightening.
Offensive Line. You want to know what's wrong with the offensive line? If I have the math right Maurkice Pouncey will play in his 22nd professional football game this Sunday (not counting preseason games). Just for fun try to figure how many different offensive line combinations he has been a part of in less than two dozen games. How many different right tackles, left tackles, right guards? Talent is important to be sure, but perhaps as much as in any sport the offensive line is ensemble work. I'm sure you've heard of units that sit on the bench during games in the same manner as they line up on the field. The success of the unit isn't just about winning individual battles, but also about coordination, communication, adaptation on the fly, trust and a lot more. The injuries, that have hit the O-line harder arguably than any other component of the team not only depletes and literally cripples talent, but also disrupts and destroys the cohesion that is essential to the units' effectiveness above and beyond the need for individual accountability. I applaud the return of Max Starks. I think it will help, and it really gets a University of Florida alumni thing going on. But the best tonic will be for enough of these guys to get and stay healthy long enough that they can put a string of consistency together in terms of simply performing together.
Running Backs. The big story with the running backs has been the performance of Mewelde Moore. Remember the off season? Folks couldn't kick his ass to the curb fast enough. Review his contributions, short on quantity but massive in terms of quality the last two games and absorb the lesson. The man is a Professional with a big heart. We can be forgiven for underestimating him. These are qualities that are underrated and misunderstood. Just know that he's far more valuable than it may appear. Isaac Redman has not disappointed either. Can we expect greater things from him as he accumulates more carries? Am I concerned about Mendenhall's relative lack of production? No. It's just a logical component of the larger problem with the offense at this time. In the meantime, with both Mendenhall and Moore nicked, perhaps we'll get an opportunity to see what Dwyer can contribute.
Receivers. There is no reason to feel that the incredible excitement generated by expectations concerning the receiving corps has been misplaced. Like all the other aspects of the offense, they have yet to completely hit their stride, but so far there have been enough glimpses of what is possible if the pass protection can beg, borrow or steal some time for Ben. The big story has been Mike Wallace, who has clearly settled into legitimate NFL stardom, and is knocking on the door of superstardom if he can maintain the current level of his performance. The other Money guys; Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are still on the learning curve, but each is showing flashes of what's possible once the light goes on completely. I'm sure it's tempting to assume that Hines Ward has lost something. And when they actually throw him the ball we'll get some answers. Right now it seems as if Ben's a bit more enamored with his new toys, which is somewhat understandable. But now, as things get a bit more serious, my guess is that Hines will get a little more attention. And let's not forget that Jerrico Cotchery isn't even part of the equation yet. I'm hoping that somewhere down the line, hopefully sooner rather than later, there will be a breakout game where it all comes together. Wouldn't it be great if it came against the Patriots?
And let's have a word about the tight ends. The only worries relative to Heath is that until the O-line gets its act together he may have to sacrifice receptions for protection. Generally speaking I think the group has a real nice upside that may become dramatically apparent as Johnson and particularly Saunders get more game reps under their belts.
The Lake Effect. Of all the criticisms and anxieties surrounding the Steelers at this point, has anyone noticed that the defensive secondary really hasn't been part of that discussion? Does anyone else find that fact remarkable? Spin it any way you want, the fact remains that these guys are leading the league in pass defense. William Gay is starting and no one is calling for his head. Keenan Lewis is doing well. The two of them are doing so well that at least for the time being it appears as Brian McFadden has lost his job. A tip of the hat to Carnell Lake anyone? And an acknowledgement that, so far, Tomlin is batting 1,000 in assistant coaching upgrades.
If there is anything I find really disturbing about the Black and Gold at this juncture it is the flaccid performance relative to run defense. Even when the Steelers sucked during the 60s they could stop the run. This is unnatural and a bit nauseating, but I can't imagine that it isn't being addressed at the highest levels, hopefully before the Chief crawls out of the grave and starts cuffing people upside the head. The immediate concern is that in the short term the team is down two starters on the D-line (shades of 08). Fortunately, the situation with the D-line is a bit more robust than the O-line. There are plenty of quality guys to step up and step in.
The loss of Harrison, a disturbing event insofar as it suggests that Deebo might have some human vulnerabilities, does not concern me much at the moment for the following reasons: It allows him the opportunity to get his back closer to 100%. And a linebacker group of Woodley, Foote, Farrior and Timmons is still quite impressive. I am particularly curious to see how Timmons performs on the edge. Maybe we won't be saying ‘James who?' but chances are good that the situation is more than survivable.
Bottom Line. Current events remind us that football teams, like snowflakes, are unique creations. Even if the personnel is pretty much identical there is really no such thing as simply picking up where things left off last year. This is a bit of a humbling lesson that players, pundits and fans alike are learning at this time. The blessing is that the realization has occurred early enough to make the necessary course and attitude adjustments in order to keep playoff and championship aspirations viable. It's also important to avoid the temptation to go in the opposite direction to embrace viewpoints that suggest that the team is washed up or in some other sense fraudulent.
The good news is that the present difficulties have forced our attention away from the far horizons of February to the urgency of October. Nothing quite matters beyond Tennessee this weekend. And that's how it should be. As the Bible says, there are enough worries to earn our full attention today. Focus upon that and let tomorrow take care of itself. This season in particular should give us pause concerning our sense of certainty about future events. I, personally, have no confidence in the continuation of current trends. Will offenses continue to dominate defenses? Are the Patriots that good? Or are they a porous defense and Brady injury away from being the Colts? Are the Lions that good? Are the Vikings that bad? Are the Jets and Rex Ryan's 15 minutes up? Why are Ravens fans up in arms about Flacco? And what are we to make of Steeler Nation? Is it remotely possible that we might figure out a way of actually squeezing some enjoyment out of following this team this year?
The jury is out on this team. And it is unclear whether its destiny will be determined by talent, effort, injuries, luck or some combination. It will be interesting to see what kind of group this is in November.
After this past weekend's games my friend Arla sent this message out on her computer to some of her co-workers. I'll let this be the final word on the first quarter of the 2011 season.
"To Dallas and Philly Fans. I Feel Your Pain...Sorta.