Going in a bit of a different direction this week. Unless you've been locked away underwater in a bathysphere for the last few weeks you know the Steelers have had their difficulties on the field, and now it appears off of it as well. As interesting as the drama is surrounding the state of the the team, what is even more intriguing to me has been the reaction among the fan base and the media. With that in mind for our first item I'm going to attempt to erect a mirror and focus some on...
I have been nibbling at the edges over time on the subject of fan attitudes and behavior, in part because I wasn't altogether clear of what I have been seeing, and also with the knowledge that if and when I get it right there will inevitably be some pretty severe blow back. There is a powerful strain of irresponsibility and self absorption in the psyche of some fans, consequently, when something goes wrong its always someone else's fault. Never mind the fact that for the participants (players,coaches, front office) their health, reputations, compensation, indeed their very livelihoods are at risk when the team fails. But all of that pales when compared to the crushing disappointment, shame and maybe financial reverses (can't help but to think that some of the rage expressed by some results from lost wagers or the fact that they are falling behind in their fantasy pools. And, as is the case with some gamblers, its money they couldn't afford to be wagering in the first place) they experience with a loss.
This would be funny or pathetic if this kind of behavior had no impact whatsoever on what the decisions that participants make concerning their own safety or whether to push the envelope in terms of ethics, as Jason Whitlock has pointed out. So is it fair to ask that if a James Harrison decides to play through a concussion or a Troy Polamalu rushes back from an injury that may not be properly healed in part a consequence of a media and fan culture that disregards or is dismissive of such concerns in favor of the urgency of delivering a winning performance at all costs. Then, of course, when faced with the results of such a set of priorities will turn around and castigate league authorities and the players for irresponsible behavior, never acknowledging playing any role in the sorry spectacle. Fans are never at fault. And let me be as clear as I can be (because I know that someone who is reading this will decide to go there), I am not saying that this all falls on the fan. But I am also saying that as consumers we are not entirely blameless in shaping the product with our expectations and demands. We go around treating professional athletes like demigods and then are appalled when some of them take the characterization to heart and actually begin to act that way. ('What the hell got into him? A**hole!')
A certain amount of unbridled passion and irrationality are part of the package of being the dedicated fan, and I am one of them so I'm not making detached observations from Mount Olympus here. There is beauty, even glory in being a devoted fan. But there are dangers involved as well, and it may very well be that some of the greatest dangers faced by the sport that we all claim to love and the success of our favorite team may come from unrealistic and counterproductive behaviors engaged in on their behalf.
Alameda Ta'amu and the 2012 Draft Class
The Steelers rookie 4th round draft pick earned the dubious distinction of being That Guy; the one that makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Ta'amu was arrested last week for felony counts involving driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest and a variety of other indiscretions. The team responded by suspending Ta'amu this week for a minimum of two games. It is unclear whether the league will attach additional punishment. Pittsburgh has been acquainted with player suspensions throughout the past couple of years, but they have been of the crimes against the League and Football variety; with James Harrison leading the pack. Not since the winter of 2010 when Ben Roethlisberger served a four game suspension and Santonio Holmes was shipped off to the Jets has there been an incident of this magnitude. The on field impact should be minimal since Ta'amu has yet to suit up for a game this season, and the defensive line is one of the healthier position groups on the team thus far.
Given the current difficulties experienced by the team things have been somewhat chippy among some of the fans, so it can't be considered much of surprise that some reactions were, in spite of the seriousness of the charges and allegations, over the top. Some have predicted/demanded Ta'amu's immediate release while others have suggested that this is proof that Tomlin has lost control of his team. This incident does point to a perceptual problem that might be a major factor in the feelings of disenchantment and disappointment with the Steelers' effort so far this season.
I remember a conversation I had on a Saturday evening in August at Sharkey's Restaurant in Latrobe during training camp with a Steelers fan named Chuck. We had been talking about the practice we had both witnessed at Saint Vincent that afternoon. I asked him about his feelings concerning the team's prospects this season. Two things stand out about his response two and half months after the fact. He pointed out that everything depended upon how quickly the rookies and other new additions could get up to speed, and he also added that the idea of having a championship caliber team every year was unrealistic. That observation was pretty much in line with comments made by our own Homer J some days earlier. But these views ran somewhat counter to that of many other fans who seemed to clearly believe that the new players would step in more or less immediately and contribute at a high level. Obviously that has not come to pass.
First round draft pick David DeCastro is on the Reserved/Injured Designated to Return list. Because he hasn't had much of an opportunity to show what he can do fan expectations remain fairly high, but he, obviously, is not a contributor thus far. Second round pick Mike Adams will be making his first significant contributions beginning this Sunday as he starts in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. Third rounder Sean Spence suffered a gruesome leg injury in the last preseason game and is out of the picture until next season. Though suspended, Ta'amu was probably not on track to add much this season. Chris Rainey peaked against Carolina in the preseason and has yet to replicate the brilliance he has promised when the games have counted. Many have dismissed Kelvin Beachum as a bust. Similar sentiments were directed at David Paulson until very recently. Currently, he is the only member of this particular class who would be considered as performing at or above admittedly low expectations. Toney Clemons is on the practice squad and has effectively disappeared from the community consciousness. Terrance Frederick has been the one legitimate failure in that he was flat out released at the conclusion of camp.
Before proceeding let me make the following disclaimer in the most forceful manner that I can; I am not in any way or form suggesting that the 2012 class is a bust. Draft classes are evaluated over a number of years, not a matter of weeks. The issue here is that a significant segment of the Steelers fanbase are impatient and expect what amounts to something approaching instant gratification. The 2012 group has clearly fallen short of that expectation, and there's the rub. What does this mean?
A number of high quality players with admittedly rapidly diminishing skills and immeasurable leadership abilities were jettisoned and their young replacements are laboring furiously to bridge the gap, and being castigated, I believe unfairly and unrealistically, because they can't get it done quickly enough to satisfy those whose expectations can be characterized as being ridiculous. Harsh? Let's look at the defense as an example. Brett Keisel and James Harrison are 11 and 9 year veterans respectively, and neither became full time starters until several years into their tenure as Steelers. If they had been held to the same standard as currently applied to Ziggy Hood (4th year) and Jason Worilds (3rd), they would have been gone long before they were ready to step into their current roles. Presumably we would be speaking of them as being the next Mike Vrabel. While Larry Foote is a solid player, James Farrior in his prime was a Pro Bowler. Further exacerbating the problem is that second year players like Heyward, Carter, Brown and Allen have had their development retarded by the lockout and injuries.
The rapid rise to high quality play by Maurkice Pouncey should be viewed as an anomaly. Instead it will be considered by some to be the standard as the evaluation of player development. The current mood of many in the community is being fueled by an inability or unwillingness to distinguish a snapshot from a process (or to even recognize that there is such a thing as a process). And this my friends is the definition of panic. Let's revisit the subject of Paulson. I don't recall anyone who openly advocated for the retention of the rookie from Oregon. To the contrary, a broad consensus was developing that he was gone. If anyone disagrees with what I just wrote you can be sure that unless or until he screws up they won't be up front with their sentiments.
The tragedy about the above is that given the circumstances in a competitive sense things aren't nearly that bad. The American Conference has fallen so far that the Steelers are just about average at this stage of the season, and because of the Bye has more opportunities than most to make up ground. The NFC is only marginally better IMHO. At least one of the top two teams (Baltimore and Houston, both 5-1) will be brought back to the pack a bit after a head to head collision this weekend. Both teams will also have to cope for the remainder of the season with a series of devastating, season ending injuries to some of their top personnel. For whatever reasons parity as expressed by mediocrity has been more apparent at least to this point. Even the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons don't seem to particularly frighten anyone. Conversely, everyone seems to be a threat at some level. In spite of some catastrophic defensive losses and holes at other key positions, anyone feeling real comfortable about facing RG III and the Redskins next week?
After what seemed such an uplifting prognosis heading into the Eagles game, the Steelers seem to be once again in the soup as far as injuries are concerned. Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey will be carrying the load this week as Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are out due to injuries. Troy, Chris Carter and Marcus Gilbert are also out, Pouncey is shaky and there a brief scare concerning Ben. While the Steelers are certainly experiencing their share of bad luck in this regard, I still like the hand they have been dealt compared to other teams; most recently the Ravens, as well as the Packers, Texans, Jets and Redskins. I am still wrestling with the impression that, all things considered, the injury situation league wide seems more severe this year.
Ben and Todd
Just when you might have thought we had put this behind us, the Ben vs Todd wars have been revived by the media. Is this for real, or just another attempt to sell advertising and keep the pot boiling; particularly with the Steelers fanbase which is very fragile and vulnerable at the moment?
The inquisition continues. Following the pattern in these things cornerback Ike Taylor has become the scapegoat de jour for what ails the Steelers. As we've seen in the comments section of BTSC, a few folks have let their hair down and confessed that not only are they not particularly fond of how Taylor has been playing lately, they have NEVER, EVER liked Ike, and he and his defensive coordinator need to be run out of town as soon as possible. This is to say that not only is he to be faulted for his current performance, but we are also encouraged to rewrite history such that it is clear that he has always been a bum. All this is problematic for me given that 5020 assigned me Ike's number at the beginning of the season. In the wake of this communist type purge does this mean that I have to go too? Or can I get by if I just deny I ever heard of the guy? Oh, BTW, one of the characteristics of the new world of the NFL is the perception that defensive backs are under siege. Just an irrelevant detail.
Unfortunately, Alameda Ta'amu isn't the only Steeler related crime story this week. A former doctor for the Steelers was indicted and placed into custody for the improper distribution of steroids, human growth hormones and pain killers among other irregularities. Former Steeler Hines Ward was the target of an extortion plot. Things seem to be getting a bit seedy in Steelers World.
In my view one of the true frustrations about being a Steelers fan is the relative dearth of information about the competent and innovative men who have led the Steelers over the past forty five years. Chuck Noll is arguably the greatest coach of the Super Bowl Era. And how much do we know about him and his run with the Steelers? In fairness, Noll has been reticent about opening up his life, and the culture of the Steelers is not much into promotion of its employees. However, there is now word that, thankfully, a biography of Noll is in the works. I'm buying it.
I thought this to be relevant as a peek ahead to the next home game pitting us against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. It also ties into the ongoing conversation about concussions and how to cope with head injuries in this new era.
Given the mood I figured we finish with something we usually can all agree upon, Roger Goodell. A little expose on sports commisioners that will us a reason, as my mother used to say, to get mad.