Common (Mis)Conceptions About the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of Ivan's series about many of the idiosyncrasies of America's new favorite national past time, and the round-the-clock coverage that we both rely on and are let down and duped by as hardcore NFL fans. -Michael B. - 

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Experts:

Remember that controversial NFL Network exercise, The 100 Best Players in today's NFL as voted on by active players? What that demonstrated to me is that just because you have elevated yourself to be a professional football player does not in any way guarantee that you are a student of the game. To be sure, anyone who has gotten more than a cup of coffee in the NFL generally should be assumed to have a much better grasp of the substance and nuances of the game than all but a very few laypersons. But there is no reason to believe that, for example, a defensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks could present any more of an informed opinion on the quality of wide receivers in the AFC South than anyone else who keeps up with websites, ESPN and the newspapers. It’s not part of their job description. If they want to offer opinions on offensive linemen playing for the Cardinals, 49ers or Rams, I’m all ears.

The tipoff for me was when they interviewed one of the players who had selected Ray Lewis as a top-five player. He pointed out that he had watched Lewis play and was a big fan when he was growing up. In other words, to a certain extent he was viewing this process through the lens of a star struck teenager as opposed to a detached professional. I understand the sentiment. If I could vote and they somehow put a uniform on seventy something HOFer Jim Brown, I would vote for him even if he couldn’t make it from the sideline to the huddle without the help of a wheelchair.

We are encouraged to believe that any former player can rise to the status of ‘expert analyst’ by slipping on a network blazer. While I make no claims to be an informed insider in this regard, I feel I’m on pretty solid ground to say that chief among the qualifications to be an analyst would be that one is marginally telegenic and articulate. Organizational skills and name recognition probably wouldn’t hurt either. But beyond that, what?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just picking on ex-athletes here. Journalists do a lot of overreaching as well. Just this past week one or more Pittsburgh sports writers speculated that because they had not extended either Troy Polamalu or Mike Wallace that the team was prepared to cut ties with one or both players. Really? I won’t rule out that someone associated with the club told a reporter in confidence that this is what will transpire, but if you understand the culture of the team such a thing would be unlikely and probably frowned upon within the organization. Plus there is plenty of evidence from past experience to assume a well-planned and confidential strategy is being played out that will result in our retaining these key players. But the seed has been planted; the Steelers don’t care about Troy.

Journalists aren’t the end of the story either. Would someone please explain to me who the Hell is Mel Kiper Jr. and why do so many people pay attention to him? I don’t recall him ever saying that it was a sin and a shame that no one drafted James Harrison given the fact that he would be a defensive player of the year someday. Nor do I remember him castigating the League’s GMs for allowing Mike Wallace to fall to the second round of the draft. I’m thinking that if it’s that easy, a bunch of us here at BTSC could put our heads together and come up with some sort of player evaluation hustle that would be just as credible; and it beats the hell out of working for a living.

History:

 

The last two paragraphs speak to having a historical perspective when presented with the ‘expert’ opinions of others. This is often problematic. One reason this is true is that journalism in general, and sports/entertainment journalism in particular, has a problem distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important. More often than not they will see urgency and importance as one and the same. The past, when it exists at all, usually expressed in terms of statistics is often offered in improper context or no context whatsoever. The term "Lies, damn lies and statistics" actually speaks to the danger of presenting data out of an appropriate context. I’ll expand on this a bit later on.

I’ll bet anyone here that by the third Sunday of the season all the pregame shows will begin to pencil in teams for Indianapolis, and writing off others because ‘statistics show that teams that start the season 0-2 never make it to the playoffs’ or some such rubbish. Now, obviously if you’re going to end up 2-14 you need to get an early start. But it’s premature to say that a 0-2 start means that a team sucks (or that a 2-0 start means a team is Super Bowl bound). For the past several years the San Diego Chargers have been written off in October only to be still relevant in December. Nobody is humbled because nobody remembers.

Another bet. When the inevitable preseason and early season predictions are made for likely Super Bowl participants, if the Steelers are part of the conversation at all, it probably won’t be for what may be the most compelling argument in their favor, proven championship experience. The team that Pittsburgh is likely to field aside from a handful of rookies and free agents will consist of players who have at least one conference championship and a Super Bowl appearance under their belt. The majority of players will have appeared in at least two SBs and about a quarter of the roster that has played in three and are two time world champions. There is no other team that is even close in this regard, not even the Patriots (Their last championship was in ’04. In football terms that as a long time ago). The head coach is batting .500 in SB appearances; and he won’t turn 40 until next year. There is a considerable gap between teams that go to the Super Bowl and those who don’t. There is a bigger gap between those that go and win and those that don’t.

But as the late Dwight White once said, the biggest gap of all is between those teams that win multiple titles and those that only win once. Is there a Super Bowl jinx? Maybe. Is the team too old? Perhaps. But still, you’re gonna bet AGAINST these guys? Good luck.   

Do you sometimes wonder why Ben doesn’t get more respect? The case could be made that he didn’t go to a prominent enough school, or that the whole Georgia thing has had an impact, or that there is some sort of anti-Steelers thing going on. But a historical perspective would say that Ben has committed the crime of defying quarterback orthodoxy. For decades the orthodoxy in the NFL is that all quarterbacks must be like (take your choice) Peyton Manning or Tom Brady; big, stand tall in the pocket kind of guys. Fran Tarkenton played for the Vikings and the Giants in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He’s in the Hall Of Fame and held the league passing record when he retired. There were similarities between him and Ben insofar as he scrambled around a lot, more than Ben actually. And this yielded the same advantages; it extended plays. An overweight five year old child can get open if given enough time (I may be exaggerating a little). Warren Moon couldn’t get a job in the NFL coming out of college. His problem was his skin color. Some time in Canada and a few Grey Cup Championships and they managed to find a place for him. He’s in the Hall Of Fame too. Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Randle Cunningham, Michael Vick, the list is long and varied of qbs that lack that ‘classic’ style of play. Ben? They won’t like it but don’t bet against him making the HOF too.

The Fantasy Culture: 

A few years ago my daughter was captain of the women’s basketball team at the University of Delaware. The Blue Hens, picked by the preseason polls to finish no better than 5th in the Colonial Athletic Conference, surprised everyone to become the first team in over a decade other than Old Dominion to win the CAA regular season title. Though not as talented on paper as ODU, Delaware’s MO was strong fundamentals (for example, a 94% team free throw pct.), a relentless matchup zone defense and very strong team cohesion.

On the eve of the conference championship game an ODU assistant coach was asked what was the key to the Blue Hen’s success. She answered simply that they had "...eight people who play very well together." Delaware would eventually succumb on ODU’s home court in a game that was not decided until the final seconds. The key question was how could so many people be so wrong about the quality of this team? The answer is that Delaware’s strengths lay in qualities that are not easy to measure such as defense and team chemistry.

I believe that fantasy football has further skewed fan’s perceptions to rely upon measurables (statistics) over and above some very important intangible qualities such team culture, chemistry and other factors not so easy tracked by data. In addition, all too often it is believed what stats reveal are self-evident, little or no interpretation required. Take for example, our last preseason game. What do the 40+ pass attempts by Matt Ryan really represent? Some might say a belief in the vulnerability of the Pittsburgh secondary. What I think it represents is the fact that many, if not most teams abandon their running games when they play the Steelers before they get off the bus. With absolutely no confidence in the ground game they pass because they literally have nowhere else to go. With an aerial attack this massive and relentless, and a quarterback as talented as Ryan, it is unrealistic that there wouldn’t be some success. But if my top three cornerbacks aren’t on the field and the best that can accomplished on those many pass attempts is a paltry 16 points, I’ll take it with a smile on my face.

In the fantasy culture there is no recognition that stat rich offense can be effectively neutralized by stat ambiguous defense; that efforts of highly talented, incandescent stars can be trumped by the collaborative efforts of a relatively anonymous cadre of fundamentally sound, highly motivated players. Some of the strongest qualities possessed by Pittsburgh are things that are difficult to recognize even among trained observers. Jerrico Cochery acknowledged as much, stating that it wasn’t until he actually became a part of the Steeler locker room that he understood how different things were here as opposed to other teams.

Don’t get me wrong, statistics do tell a story. But you have to make certain it’s telling the right story, and it will almost never be the full story when it comes to team sports. It’s easy to be seduced by fantasy football values. But if you want a cautionary tale, look no further than the Washington Redskins, who have been trying to build a winner for the past 20 years by snatching up every high profile free agent they could get their hands on without regard to the logic of team culture and the demands of team chemistry. Their record over that period pretty much parallels that of the Pirates, if you want a point of reference. Yet isn’t it true that during the doldrums of the off season that some of us wonder wistfully why the Steelers can’t just be like everyone else and go on an Eagles-like shopping spree. It can be a pretty seductive idea.

 

Age and other factors in player development: 

Simply put, players don’t enter universally at the same stage of development, they don’t necessarily develop at the same rate, and neither do they decline at the same rate. The implication that a player who has reached age 30 is automatically at death’s door athletically may still be true more often than not, especially as it relates to football, but it is less universally true than it was a generation ago as many players are doing a better job of extending their careers through improved training regimens, nutrition and other lifestyle enhancements. The nature of a players job, how they perform that job and the peculiar elements of their personal physiology will play a role as well. Troy Polamalu is less likely to last as long in the game as Charlie Batch because the nature of his position and his style of play is more destructive.

Nor is it wise to write off one player because they don’t reach their potential under some imaginary universal timetable. Maurkice Pouncey, LaMarr Woodley and Mike Wallace began playing at a very high level almost immediately. Troy Polamalu, Ziggy Hood and Antonio Brown took a little more time. The timetable for James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Willie Colon and Keenan Lewis was longer still. And in the case of the latter group each individual listed with the possible exception of Deebo was labeled a bust with the suggestion that the team cut ties. There are all kinds of reasons why players develop at different rates. There are different levels of physical maturity.  At least three of Tomlin’s number one draft choices were 20 years old. In professional football terms a 20 year old isn’t a baby, he’s a premature baby. Timmons and Mendenhall are just now rounding into their full potential. A player from a 1AA program like Hofstra (Colon) may need more development time than a Pouncey who comes from a Florida. This is why so many of us wanted to give Limas Sweed every benefit of the doubt. In the end the story concluded in a disappointing way, but I rather have that than to cut ties in too rash a fashion and find ourselves with another Mike Vrabel or Johnny Unitas situation. Yes, we cut Johnny Unitas.

Just a few things to think about as we stand on the cusp of a season of great potential and promise. With luck there’ll be some smiles in these parts when we hit the holidays.

 

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