As we move past the lockout and through the preseason we will once again enter into a period of predictions, assessments and evaluations concerning the Pittsburgh Steelers and the upcoming NFL season. The need to peek into the future in anticipation of what will unfold is a major occupation of fans and the media. I am not immune to this as I will begin to add my two cents soon. What this piece addresses are some of the pitfalls that many of us stumble into as we go through that process.
There are a lot of fallacies, misconceptions and misinformation that have colored my views over the years, and I can’t help to have noticed that I’m not the only one struggling with this problem. So take what follows in the spirit of an attempt to elevate the quality and character of conversation going forward. I’ll focus first on three specific areas: the need to have good, adequate information, distinguishing among football, business and entertainment values and the habit of scapegoating. In a later post the impact of history, tangible vs. intangible measures, age and other developmental issues will be examined.
We usually don’t have all the information. And there may not be a time when we ever will. This is not said in order to discourage comment, but a call for a sense of humility and open mindedness in the face of partial (or complete) ignorance.
Remember a couple of years ago when all the ‘smart’ thinking was that James Farrior had lost a step and was washed up? Turns out that he had been playing hurt, a fact that was not publicized widely (if at all). In fact, injuries and other health issues are the closest thing that teams in the NFL have to state secrets. Further complicating matters in the sport and among its players is the ethos that you must not yield to all but the most serious of injuries. This is motivated by the culture of football as well as very real fears that jobs may be lost if your ability to play through an injury is questioned, or on the other hand you are perceived to be too fragile (think Charlie Batch).
My own football career ended prematurely because I plowed through a minor injury which led to a major one. Concern for maintaining my position on the depth chart was the reason I continued to play. Other things that we are sure to not know about are personal issues such as marital problems, office (locker room) politics and other internal matters that sensible and ethical people will not reveal to the outside world. Farrior is still around and most sober minded people consider him to still be one of the best inside linebackers out there. Others still believe his skills will fall off the table any moment now. Who knows? They may be right. But I suspect that many who believe this are influenced by misconceptions about age that will be addressed later.
More recently, in the wake of the most recent Super Bowl, many folks seemed to go into a full blown panic because the performance of our defensive secondary supposedly exposed their feet of clay. Is that what happened? I have two takes on that game. Chuck Noll was fond of saying that when a team is winning things seem better than they may actually be and when they lose things seem worse than they are. What struck me about the Steelers last two Super Bowl appearances is how similar they were. Both games hinged on the results of key turnovers and a late game drive. In 43 Harrison made the key turnover and the offense successfully executed the final drive. Had that not occurred we would have bemoaned the fact that the offense failed to punch the ball into the end zone from point blank range twice. In 45 two turnovers went against us and the late drive failed. Conclusion? The league’s best defense is a fraud. William Gay is the worst defensive back ever (I disagree. That would be Glen Glass). We have to re-sign Ike Taylor and press inexperienced rookies and second year players into service. Pretty reasonable, except… We found out later that Troy’s physical difficulties were more severe than were reported (sound familiar?). The thinking was probably that Troy at partial strength was better than most folks at full strength. Well, the spirit may be willing but sometimes when you’re hurt you’re hurt.
So, let’s reframe the issue a bit; who can match up against a team with a receiving corps and quarterback of the quality of the Green Bay Packers and prevail when half of its starting secondary is injured? And one of the injured players is your best back. Hell, he’s the Defensive Player of the Year! How do you think the Jets would have fared without Revis and another starter? Or the Ravens without Reed? Let me suggest that if we had lost Ike Taylor to free agency then we might have had a problem with the secondary. Otherwise, this is an issue of depth, having people who can step in for an injured starter and maintain the standard. But who wants to bet that many of us and the ‘experts’ will be wringing their hands about the Steelers secondary ‘problems’ for the foreseeable future?
Football values vs. business values vs. entertainment values. Sometimes it’s about the game. Sometimes it’s about the business. Sometimes it’s about the fact that it is specifically the entertainment business. Sometimes these factors mesh well. Sometimes they are in conflict.
Let’s see how these values interact with the recent situation involving James Harrison. Football is a brutal, somewhat unforgiving game and Harrison is one of its most successful practitioners (football values). It is now becoming widely known that many who play the game will likely suffer catastrophic health consequences for doing so. This fact threatens the game’s image as well as creating a threat for legal difficulties down the line. Harrison and other defensive players are scapegoated –fined and threatened with suspension-though some of the infractions aren’t even penalized and the league continues to make money selling images of the supposedly offending behavior (business values). Harrison is characterized as a controversial figure (a thug) and is declared to represent all that is wrong with America. Hysteria ensues with the controversy extending far beyond the parameters of the game and football fans (the Governor of Ohio rails on Meet The Press about thugs running amok on Sundays. Political points for appealing to Bengals and Browns fans plus closet racists.) (entertainment values).
Again, let’s see if we can reframe this a bit. How about that picture of Harrison with the guns; how do you think that went down? Do you think that James was sitting on the veranda, stripped to the waist, sweating, cradling his guns and someone whipped out a cell phone and captured the moment? No. What they did was to bring Harrison into a studio, carefully arrange the lighting, spray him to simulate sweat, they set up the shot, etc. In other words, the picture involved a premeditated editorial decision. I guess it might be possible, in theory, to believe that the folks at Men’s Journal had absolutely no idea what the impact of this picture might be.
Call me a cynic but these people are probably selling a lot of magazines with this one. And where is the outrage over this act of instigation, collusion, enabling, whatever? Or do you really think that Harrison sat down and just started to pop off about Goodell? You think it was possible that Harrison was nudged in a particular direction during the course of the interview? Wouldn’t be the first time.
James certainly is guilty of being insufficiently media savvy. Of course, in the old days that wasn’t necessary because the media in partnership with the clubs tended to protect the players. This is where we got the naïve idea that sports stars were or ought to be a bunch of milk and cookie consuming role models in the first place. By today’s standards Bobby Layne would have been an irresponsible drunk (not a lovable party animal) and Big Daddy Lipscomb would be a druggie. Ernie Stautner would be a thug. That’s entertainment.
The media, understandably, has tried to milk this ‘controversy’ for all its worth. Fortunately, the Steelers players weren't buying. Granted, there are rules about these things. You can’t call the President of the United States a "dick" on national television, even though Presidents are called that and worse privately every day. And you don’t call the commissioner of your sport the things that Harrison did in a public forum (business values). But he probably didn’t say anything that is not repeated on a daily basis in 31 other locker rooms around the country. The smart move from a business and a football perspective is to let this thing slide and allow the situation a chance to de-escalate. Entertainment values say to ride this until the wheels come off. We’ll see what prevails.
Scapegoating. One of the things that is hard for many fans to accept is that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose (They are paying the other guys too.). It’s just as simple as that. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy, an optimist. The ‘glass half empty’ crowd is always on the lookout for someone to burn at the stake when things go wrong. It’s gotta be someone’s fault, right? What becomes truly disturbing is when much of the Nation goes into mass hysteria and the Inquisitions begin. Remember when Willie Colon was considered a waste of flesh? I was in on that one.
I guess it’s a good thing that the FO didn’t listen to us.
More recently the lineup of scapegoats includes the Offensive Line, the Defensive Secondary, William Gay and our returning champion, Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians. Understand this is nothing new. Every Head Coach, every quarterback and the owners have been scapegoated without exception over the course of 40 years. People get frustrated. And there’s more than a little ignorance involved as well.
Answer this question: can you name three people who could replace Arians and would do a better job? Give concrete reasons that justify your choice(s). I can’t. Oh, I could throw a few names out there supported with some unsubstantiated bullshit. And the FO just re-signed this guy. What the hell is wrong with them? Maybe it’s because the team went 3-1 without our #1 receiver the previous year, the fourth string quarterback at the helm and an offensive line that was allegedly a sieve. Unfortunately some of the credit in those circumstances will accrue to the OC. Or maybe it was the 26+ points the team averaged in the playoffs against three of the NFL’s more formidable defenses. And then there is the matter of Super Bowl 43 which we won.
And about that offensive line; how do you make it into two Super Bowls, winning one, with a crew that inept? Are mirrors involved? Now the offensive line plays as an ensemble, and last year’s version consisted of one carryover from the group that played in SB 43, two guys from Dallas and Buffalo respectively a second year free agent and a rookie, who had never played together before. Hmm. So what happens when they get ‘good’, send them to solve Afghanistan? Yes, they have given up a lot of sacks. But that’s because there isn’t a blocking scheme out there designed to hold out an opponent for six seconds or more (There is also no coverage scheme that can blanket receivers for six seconds or more either. That is why defenses often have no choice but to send the house. And that makes the O-line look really bad sometimes.)
Finally, there is the guy who is even giving Arians a run for Skunk of the Year, William Gay. He’s terrible, right? What I saw was a role player who was occasionally forced out of his comfort zone due to injuries and suffered the consequences. Is he Rod Woodson? Absolutely not. And they aren’t paying him Rod Woodson money either. You know, every time I see the Aaron Rodgers pass for a TD that he had coverage on I keep thinking "That was a really good pass". If, in fact, perfect offense trumps perfect defense that would be exhibit A. Not convinced? Then explain why a shrewd and sober FO would re-sign this ‘bum’.
Let’s revisit the first Ravens game of last year. Because of how the game ended many forgot the huge goal line stand by the defense earlier. The Ravens were kept out of the end zone because Gay made two consecutive big plays, a tackle and a defensed pass that would have earned him a game ball if the Steelers would have won. Yes, Gay is a very limited talent who may not be with the team any longer than it takes to develop a few of the younger guys to step in. But the tar and feathering of Gay is, frankly, a bit over the top, don’t you think? But I understand. Scapegoating is downright Biblical after all. If it’s not him it would be someone else.
Earlier in the summer during high tide in the Harrison/Men’s Journal controversy and Hines' DUI troubles someone suggested that this might be Tomlin’s fault; that he was losing control of his team. Never mind that the terms of the lockout required that Tomlin get permission to be in the same zip code with any of his players. But somebody deserved to be hung for all this, right? Sometimes, as Harrison would say, shit just happens.