Pittsburgh Steelers at the Bell Lap

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08: William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with teammates James Harrison #92 and Cameron Heyward #97 following his interception in the endzone in the second half against the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Technically speaking this is supposed to be a piece evaluating the season at the three

-quarter mark and I’m late. But I decided that it didn’t make sense to be so legalistic about this that I ignored the opportunity to have the results of yesterday’s game to provide additional information and insight into where the Steelers stood at this crucial time of the year. Boy, I am so glad I did.

I hope that most of you understood and appreciated what you saw last night. If not I fear that you may miss the point of being a fan of professional football. In the movie Star Trek Nemesis the Federation earns the respect and friendship of the Romulans because the Enterprise engages in a heroic and costly battle with a more powerful Romulan ship. For those familiar with Star Trek lore, a similar situation resulted in the creation of an alliance with the Klingons years earlier.

I would strongly urge that, for a couple of days at least, that we set aside the horse racing aspect of the season. Yes, the team struggled against a clearly inferior opponent. Yes, it was an ugly win. Yes, depending upon the progress of the injuries incurred last night, the Browns game could be the beginning of the end of a promising championship run. But every so often we get to witness a game whose impact and value is timeless. You’ve probably read Maryrose, Homer J. and others recount a Browns/Steelers game from 1964. A Pittsburgh team that was going nowhere in particular dominated a Browns team that would eventually go on to win the NFL Championship (their last championship of any kind, by the way). If you are a Steelers fan and was alive and aware at that time, you will carry the memory of that encounter to the grave.

Last night Big Ben made his claim to be included on the Mount Rushmore of Steelers players. In the process he made believers of not only Steelers fans but a national audience and the NFL Network (the Romulans). A game that nearly everyone thought would be a lopsided snooze became a compelling drama; probably too compelling for the digestion of Steelers Nation, but that should not stand in the way of our appreciation of what transpired as great football. Now I know that a lot of people openly or secretly can’t really stomach Ben. He’ll always be a sex offender in their eyes, a drama queen, and a stubborn, greedy player who will put himself and his team at risk because he doesn’t realize that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. That is precisely why he got hurt last night. And to those people I say, too bad. Maybe you would be happier finding another team to root for, at least until Ben retires, because the argument is over. I had a friend who was so obsessed with keeping to a schedule that he never really appreciated what he was doing at the moment. His eyes were constantly on the next thing. Our problems are going nowhere. There will be plenty of things to worry about next week. For now, do yourself a favor and allow yourself to dwell on the greatness of Steelers football.

Now, before moving on a word or two for the inevitable nitpickers. I’ve been involved in discussions with some, who insist that the standard is to win every game, which I admit and acknowledge is a nice aspirational position to take. But it simply does not take into account the realities and challenges of elite competition. This is not Pop Warner, the WPIAL, the Big East or the Big Ten. In the modern era of professional football only one team managed to have an undefeated season and that occurred nearly 40 years ago. Lombardi’s Packers, Noll’s Steelers, Walsh’s 49ers, Landry’s and Johnson’s Cowboys, Gibb’s Redskins and Belichick’s Patriots for all their greatness were not able to vanquish all that were in their paths. In all of the discussion that is sure to come about concerning what the Steelers did and did not do in this game and what that might mean going forward, take a moment to tip your hat at the Cleveland Browns. Yes, we love referring to them as the Clowns, and yes, they are a deeply flawed team. But they did what they had to do to push the Steelers to the wall. At the elite level the line between great and terrible can be razor thin. So called bottom feeders are capable or rising up and smiting the mighty. Witness how the Colts pushed the Pats this past Sunday, or Steelers v. Browns 1964. So I’m forced to wonder that even if these high standard folks got exactly what they wanted would they understand what they were witnessing. If someone ties a cape around their neck and jumps out of the attic window expecting to fly should we feel sorry for them while they are being carted off to the hospital or should we just have a good laugh? (In the spirit of full disclosure; Cleveland safety Michael ‘Pops’ Adams was my son in law’s college teammate and room mate, and a close family friend. That might explain, in part, this disgusting sympathy I am displaying towards the Browns.)

9-9-9-9-9. Don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with current events but as of last Sunday Mike Tomlin became, I believe, only the sixth coach to have at least nine wins in each of his first five seasons. I’ve been shamelessly gushing about Coach Tomlin lately because somebody should. I’ve seen this movie before with Chuck Noll. Tomlin’s tenure may be the most underreported, underappreciated success story in professional sports. The fact that the Rooney organization sincerely operates from a space of genuine humility is no excuse for someone not stepping up and insisting that this man and his staff get their due. Belichick took decades to become an overnight success. I for one am tired of seeing Rex Ryan’s face every time I turn around. Then we have these lunatics in the Nation stroking their chins and talking about "The jury is still out." Well someone ought to get a small mirror and go into the jury room and see if those folks are still alive. If you can go to Steeler.com and watch the video of his press conference after last night’s game and his response to the question of whether they should have kicked a field goal when on the goal line you’ll have all the information you need to understand the quality of what we have at the helm of this team.

Warren Sapp. Has anyone considered the possibility that Sapp was doing a favor for his old coach with his "Old, slow, done" comment? It has come to serve as a battle cry of sorts. And maybe that was the intent.

The Lake Effect. (I should have made some t-shirts) Speaking of the jury still being out nonsense, I think it is time to speak in unqualified terms about the success of Carnell Lake’s secondary unit. Whatever issues this team has it doesn’t involve the wide receivers or the defensive backs (beyond Troy’s health issues). Lewis, Mundy, Allen and Brown are coming along strong. And those are the backups. And…..

How about that Willie Gay? Any questions?

Chris Hoke. Make sure you check out Michael Bean’s post that has the link to Jim Wexell’s article on Hoke. I admit to having cried as I read it and a similar account on the Post-Gazette website. It has been generally understood that the team was entering a period of transition. But I wonder if anyone believed that it would be happening so fast. It’s clear that this will likely be the final trip around the block for several players, and Hoke has been a favorite of mine for quite some time.

And I guess this is where I part company with many of the people on this site. In this modern era fans seem to be content to simply root for the uniforms. Consequently I often find myself appalled at the discard and replace ethic that seems to be ruled by the notion that as soon as there is any doubt about a players ability to give a maximum contribution to our entertainment and gambling needs that they be kicked to curb with all the sentiment usually reserved for one night stands. I find myself rooting for not only the uniform but the human being that happens to occupy it as well. This is why I took such umbrage to Gay being treated like the dork that everybody feels is fair game to bully in middle school (and, in true two faced fashion, will claim to be his best friend when he does well). This speaks to the relationship between Ben and Steelers fans who, helped in no small part by last night’s performance, means something more than just wearing black and gold. Even Kemoeatu who has a true gift for screwing up at precisely the wrong time is, in my mind part of the family. (I wanted to beat his head in with a baseball bat last night, but that’s another story for another time). I will remember Hoke’s 2004 performance filling in for an injured Casey Hampton, as well as the family man who entertained his teammates with his Hokey Pokey dance and literally jumped in the river in his uniform.

It should also be acknowledged how eerily prescient the decision to draft Hayward in the first round now seems, particularly when so many bitched about not drafting an offensive lineman.

Defensive odds and ends. Except for the relative underachievement of Timmons, what is there not to like about the defense? Being healthy does, apparently, make a difference. And I can’t wait for Woodley to get back on board fulltime. We should also be pleased with emergence of Jason Worilds in the meantime. Keisel and his beard are playing lights out as is the entire Dline. And they are doing it at the best possible time. Our offense may not be as consistently robust as Green Bay or the Saints, but with this defense they don’t have to be. If we are fortunate enough to still be around in late January and February that may be the difference in the end.

Money money money money (With a tip of the hat to the OJays). Mike and Antonio, Hines and Jerrico, Sanders and Saunders, Heath and Johnson. Maybe Green Bay’s better. But I’ll take these guys and consider myself fortunate. Brown has fulfilled the promise he showed in training camp and then some. And while we seem to be in the midst of a hiatus from the Bombs over Tokyo game that he was displaying earlier in the season, Wallace is figuring out ways of remaining relevant and finding the end zone. Don’t forget Sanders. Death and injury are difficult adversaries to overcome, but storms don’t last forever. Overlook Hines and Jerrico at your peril.

The last two games have demonstrated that the running game is just fine, thank you very much. And you can’t blame Arians for fumbles and interceptions.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all. I can’t find anything wrong with special teams.

If we needed to be reminded, and I suspect many of us did, a season can turn on someone falling on someone else’s ankle. One play, one mistake, one injury can collapse the entire house of cards. But even with that in mind, as well as the unfortunate business of being swept by the Ravens, I’ll happily take 10-3. With a little good fortune we’ll be a lock for the playoffs by the end of the weekend. And last night should remind us not only to not take anything for granted in the remaining three contests, but also to not necessarily assume that Baltimore is home free either. But even if things don’t turn out with the division title or a high seed history has shown us that these things are not quite the security blanket we imagine them to be. We had home field advantage and the number 1 seed in 04. We were the 6th seed and on the road in 05. You know how all that turned out. Bottom line is that we are where we need to be at this time even if it is not necessarily where we want to be. What’s necessary now is for the team to put their heads down and win even if someone damn near breaks your ankle.

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