The path to greatness has rarely been either smooth or easy. Arguably the greatest Steelers team in history (1976) put together one of the all time great comeback performances while their franchise quarterback, Terry Bradshaw was in dry dock for most of the year.
But don't take my word for it. Rebecca has been chronicling the paths of the 21st Century Super Bowl teams. It's all there.
Know your history. Where did some of you get the idea that the Steeler path to championships involved some unstoppable juggernaut that dominated from the starting gate to the finish line? As Homer would say, folks were kvetchin' about the Steelers at this time in 2005 and 2008. But as they say, those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. In 1974 Mean Joe Greene became so frustrated with the mid season progress of the team that he quit (temporarily).
So what is the opportunity here?
Great teams are as much about character as talent. Some of the post game comments by the players have betrayed an over dependence on Ben as the engine of this team. That kind of thinking is okay to a certain degree. Franchise quarterbacks are an important weapon to have, and frankly, everyone doesn't have one. But let's not forget that football is a team game, and teams are often no better than their weaker links. The fact of the matter is that the Steelers have done better with less. What will be required for this team to be successful moving forward is for a lot of young and not so young players to step up a notch or several. For the moment they will not have the security blanket of Big Ben. And if I'm Mike Tomlin I'm loving it because weathering this test will yield long term dividends (I'm talking years here) as a bunch of guys are about to learn that they are going to have to get it done without drafting psychologically on the greatness of others.
What is also so intriguing about this is that the Steelers are so well positioned to get this done. I have come to consider Jamie Dukes of the NFL Network a friend of the program, so to speak; or the Anti-Sapp, if you prefer. He pointed out recently that the Steelers have been built to thrive in spite of being continuously gashed by injuries. This team is 6-3 without its #1 running back, defensive player, rookie draft choice, one of their top two receivers and some other top talent (Harrison in particular) at less than 100 percent. In the gap has stepped Redman and Dwyer, Sanders and Cotchery, Lewis and Allen, Foster, Adams, Batch (Baron). But Dukes was speaking particularly about quarterback. Please name the team better positioned to withstand this particular storm than Pittsburgh.
Is Leftwich up to the challenge? We'll see shortly. As many of you know my personal bias is for Charlie Batch. Two years ago he started a home game against the Ravens and played well enough to win the game. As you recall, the game was lost because the defense couldn't keep Baltimore out of the endzone with 40 seconds to play. Batch is more nimble, more accurate with his throws and probably could run the offense in a closer manner to that of Ben. However, in Leftwich's defense you should not put too much stock in Monday's performance. He was playing through a lot of rust and close to zero preparation. It was reminiscent of how Batch looked when he had to fill in suddenly for Ben against Cleveland last year. Charlie looked a lot better against the Rams when he had a week of preparation under his belt. I believe you have to go with Byron in this circumstance. And if he isn't up to the task and Ben's still not available in two weeks, I take my shot with Charlie when they have to travel to Baltimore.
My hope is that this week a lot of guys with championship pedigree; Keisel, Starks, Colon, Foote, Harrison, Polamalu, Miller, Taylor and Clark are going to earn their pay just from what they are doing behind the scenes in the locker room. I wouldn't hold out a whole lot of hope for much on the field help from the wounded. Even if Troy, for example, were to return this week, he's likely to be rusty and of limited value as well. I'm more interested in the healthy return of Clark and the continuing improvement of players like Hampton, Keisel and Timmons on the defensive side.
But the real opportunity this week is that Pittsburgh has so much more to gain than the psychologically fragile Ravens. This is a team that has to run the score and have Gatorade baths over regular season wins in order to feel good about itself. And it is easy to understand why. Other than the injured Ray Lewis and general manager Ozzie Newsome, who in this organization has any championship experience? Baltimore is still living off of accomplishments that are now over a dozen years old. Since then they have shown no greater competence in making it to the championship round than San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta and other Has Been or Never Was teams. If they win this week what will the world say? 'You beat the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger. Big deal.' And if they lose?
And if Pittsburgh manages to win without Ben, and Troy, and Antonio, and maybe Rashard? Now if they don't an opportunity to win the division outright, be in the driver's seat for the rest of the regular season and a possible high seed may be lost. But how did having all that work out for Green Bay last year? Or any number of other teams. Yeah, its possible that we may look back at this week and see that this is where it all fell apart for this team this year. Its also possible that this where it may have all come together. Either way, it can be used as fuel for future success. And for those of us like Homer who are in this for the long haul, there isn't a losing play on the board.