Could have, should have, who's to blame? There have been many posts already and will, I'm certain, be many more exploring why this Steelers team didn't make it back to the Super Bowl. But although I'm sure I'll be sticking my oar in and, say, looking at Ben's sack numbers or the injury patterns on the offensive line or whatever else, that's not my purpose today. Today is a love letter to the men that gave us this season.
"The Standard is the Standard."
The idea behind this Tomlinism is that no matter who plays a given position there is a certain level of competence that is expected. It's a great saying and, I presume, a great motivator. But as we all know it isn't entirely realistic. There is generally a reason that Player A is the starter rather than Player B. It may be more talent, more experience, more intelligence (at least of the football sort,) but whatever the reason(s), the coaching staff puts a given player on the field not because they are more highly compensated or were chosen in a higher draft round but because they believe that Player A gives them the best chance to win.
"Backups are really ‘Starters-in-waiting.'" It was significant that Tomlin added this phrase to his repertoire of pithy mots this season. This bedrock of Tomlin's coaching philosophy was tested this season as never before. When an undersized second year UDFA nose tackle is your last resort, and when said NT has to play every single snap in a high altitude game that taxes the strength and conditioning of the guys that are accustomed to playing every down, you'd better hope that Steve McLendon is a starter-in-waiting and not a backup.
McLendon was only one of many players that received a baptism by fire this year because of the plethora of injuries at every position. Trai Essex played center for the first time in his entire career, without the opportunity to practice, after Doug Legursky (the backup center) went down. He received a game ball from Tomlin afterwards, which is something that Tomlin rarely does. Isaac Redman, another UDFA, went from a sparingly used back who struggled with conditioning to the starting back in a playoff game, at high altitude. His backup was yet another UDFA, a rookie fresh off the practice squad. Redman was a huge bright spot in an otherwise mostly disappointing offense. Cameron Heyward saw an almost unprecedented amount of playing time for a rookie DE in Dick LeBeau's defense, and had to take over for an injured Brett Keisel in Denver. Heyward had one of the best plays of the game.
This season, maybe "Starters-in-waiting" isn't even the best term. Maybe it is "Starters-in-training." Because of numerous considerations, including age and money, it is likely that some of the storied starters on this year's team won't be back next year, or will return in a very reduced role. The experience that their backups (and their backup's backups, for that matter) got this year may well make the difference between the 2012 Steelers being a ‘transitional' team and a contending team.
It is quite certain that the team culture of veterans mentoring young players will make the transition much faster and more painless than it otherwise might have been. We as Steeler fans are incredibly blessed that we have an ownership that fosters this culture, that we have phenomenal veterans who believe in it and live it, and that the youngsters have appreciated it and profited from it. So to all the young players who have stepped up when their number was called, and to all the veteran players and the coaches who have made sure that they were ready for the call, thank you.
"A Storied Franchise"
That phrase refers to the long history of the Steelers, the enormous success they have had since the merger created the modern-day NFL, and the colorful characters that have enlivened that history. But to me this was a particularly ‘storied' season. Maybe it's just because I have followed the sport for such a short time, but it seems to me that this year was incredibly rich in inspiring personal stories. It seems that so many of the players have overcome immense odds to get to this place, and that those odds have built in them a strong character and work ethic.
First there are the huge odds against late round players and UFDAs even having any sort of a career in the NFL. And yet some of our best players were undrafted, including the 2008 DPOY, James Harrison and DE Brett Keisel, a late 7th round pick who had if anything a better season than 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. There are a multitude of such stories on the team.
But I'm referring more specifically to the huge odds to be overcome by kids that nobody wants. Antonio Brown was homeless in one of the less salubrious neighborhoods of Miami at age 16. Curtis Brown, abandoned by his mother and with an incarcerated father, was also homeless most of the time beginning in seventh grade. Although he fell in with the wrong crowd for a while, he realized that this was a dead end and got his life together. 7th round rookie Baron Batch has a similar story to tell. I suspect that there are many more such stories on the squad, if one only knew.
Some of the adversity that has dogged players has been at least partially of their own doing. Fan favorite Isaac Redman almost lost everything through a foolish act, but his incessant work to rise above his circumstances has landed him a place on the Steelers squad and a game ball for last Sunday's effort. Weslye Saunders seemed to have everything going for him, until a couple of poor decisions in college ended in being undrafted. He is immensely thankful that the Steelers took a chance on him.
Ben Roethlisberger is another player who has managed to change in a seemingly profound way. From an apparently entitled, selfish brat he has matured into a good teammate and a hard worker.
"A Band of Brothers"
Jerricho Cotchery spent his entire career on the Jets receiving corps, until Plaxico Burress' signing made him feel that his future on the Jets was not bright. He asked to be released and signed with the Steelers. During a recent interview with Teresa Varley of Steelers.com he talked about the Steelers and how they were different than what he knew of other teams. He said that he had heard about the "Steeler way" but was overwhelmed with the reality when he came for an interview. He claims that there are "no egos" in the locker room. While that may be somewhat of a relative statement, he said several times that he was immediately welcomed and accepted by the other players, that he was astonished and grateful for the players' support for one another, and that he couldn't imagine that there was another team like this.
Part of that ‘brotherhood' is the above-mentioned mentoring of new players. As a rookie, Maurkice Pouncey gave a great deal of credit to Justin Hartwig's mentoring during his first training camp for his rapid assimilation of the playbook. Hartwig's generosity was rewarded by Pouncey becoming the starter, making Hartwig expendable. LaMarr Woodley spent parts of the first two nights of the 2011 training camp going over the playbook with rookie Chris Carter. Carter said "I'm starting to understand it more, so I try not to bug him too much. But he told me he's going to be there for me."
Nothing illustrates the brotherhood in the locker room better than the treatment of Ike Taylor after his poor game on Sunday. It began with Hall of Famer and Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau sitting down with Ike and talking "corner to corner." The parade of supporters past Taylor's locker ended with QB Ben Roethlisberger basically lifting Taylor off the bench, hugging him, and telling him he loved him. When a player receives that sort of support it allows him to accept blame and learn from the situation. In a culture of blame and fingerpointing, it's very difficult to accept responsibility, and you're always looking for someone else to be the fall guy.
Ben has always been fiercely protective of his line, accepting the blame for his high sack numbers. Troy practically broke down when an almost prankish lateral to Bryant McFadden last season went wrong, and he apologized to everyone within earshot during his media session for his "selfish" behavior. Whatever has happened, whoever has been the "goat" on the message boards, I have never seen or heard a Steelers player call another out, with the curious exception of the infamous James Harrison magazine article last summer. And when Harrison realized what it was going to look like, what was his first response? He phoned his teammates and apologized. Was he forgiven? Well, he was at one of the principal offendees' wedding a few weeks later, so it would seem so.
And that's perhaps the truest test of a brotherhood - that you can forgive when forgiveness is necessary. And it will be, sooner or later, when you live cheek by jowl with a bunch of people.
"The Heart of a Champion"
Finally, how could I leave out the courageous play under duress that we witnessed this season? Who could forget James Harrison going back into a game with a broken orbital bone, because there wasn't really another option? Or Marcus Gilbert going back into a game with a separated shoulder? Those are just a couple of the stories that I know about. Were we privy to what goes on in the locker room, I'm sure that many more such stories would emerge.
But a story for the ages was Ben Roethlisberger limping back onto the field during the first Cleveland game and playing on a leg that most of us had presumed was done for the season, along with our QB. No one who saw that injury could believe he was back in the second half.
Ben may well have to change his game even more if he wants to continue playing for more than a year or two. He admittedly brings a great many of his sacks upon himself, because he just won't give up on a play. I really hope that he realizes that a short dump off pass can be his friend, and that there's no shame in throwing a ball away if there's really nothing there.
But it's hard not to admire the raw courage it takes to continue to hold on and try to make something out of a broken play, knowing that it could end the way that particular attempt on a 1st and 10 at the PIT 17 yard line did.
It was a great season. It had its disappointments, of course, starting with Sunday's game in Denver. It had moments of sheer embarrassment, like the Week 1 game. But it had some amazing moments as well, and moreover it had a sort of determination in the face of adversity that was quite inspiring.
So guys, go home, play with your kids, nurse your wounds, and we'll see you in July. Thanks to you we always have a chance to contend, and as denizens of Steeler Nation we can once again look for Lombardi number seven.