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The Steelers are inconsistent and struggling. But if you try to apply the standard template to the league in general you'll be surprised and confused.
There are more questions here than answers, but I think these are questions worth asking as we continue traveling through a December where it becomes increasingly unclear what we may be witnessing from week to week. Of course, there is enough drama and pathology involving our own team that it's difficult to pay much attention to anyone else. However, if and when you do our situation doesn't appear so atypical.
Rookie quarterbacks. Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill are in the process of leading their teams to relative respectability in a short period of time. But this is nothing compared to what Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are accomplishing in Seattle, Indianapolis and Washington respectively. Luck and Griffin in particular are not only in the conversation for Rookie Offensive Player of the Year, they are in serious discussion for league MVP. So here's the question: when did it become so easy for a rookie quarterback to walk into this league and dominate? Elway didn't do this, Peyton Manning neither. The reason that teams like the Colts and the Redskins get quarterbacks high in the draft like Luck and RG III is precisely because their teams suck. Their teams along with Wilson's Seahawks are all comfortably in the playoff discussion.
It is precisely this trend that renders outdated the notion that Pittsburgh should be seeking to find a backup quarterback to groom as a replacement for Ben Roethlisberger. Groom? How bad would you have to be at this stage of the game to have to be groomed? If you can't step in with a bad or mediocre team and make them immediately competitive then what the hell's wrong with you?
I invite you to consider Matt Flynn. Remember him? He represented the old thinking. He was being groomed behind Aaron Rodgers at Green Bay and there would be this bidding war for his services which Seattle won. Then he got beat out in training camp by this undersized rookie from Wisconsin who wasn't even an afterthought in the 2012 quarterback sweepstakes. No problem, Pete Carroll is crazy. Wilson will fall on his face after a few games playing for real and it'll be Flynn, right? Honestly, when was the last time you even thought about Flynn before reading this paragraph?
So, one of the things that we have become fond of saying lately is that the Steelers seem to be capable of losing to anyone, which is certainly true. But the standards seem to be radically changing. Let's consider Baltimore for a moment.
The Ravens. I've been trying to wrap my mind around why the Ravens would make the fairly drastic move of firing a coach, not a relatively minor position coach, but their offensive coordinator, mind you in December when they are on the cusp of a division championship and a playoff run. Then I took into consideration their last four games. We're concerned about what the Steelers are doing?
They come into the big game against Pittsburgh right after Ben suffers an injury that people are using terms such as 'potentially life threatening' to describe. Ha, ha! It sucks to be Pittsburgh. They'll waltz into Heinz Field and whip a little booty. The game starts with backup quarterback Byron Leftwich doing his RG III imitation and running through the vaunted Ravens defense for a touchdown. Byron Leftwich! Then in Three Stooges/Keystone Kops fashion he falls over his own feet and injures himself. And then, in spite of playing with broken ribs manages to still compete. It takes a special teams play and a Mike Wallace turnover to bailout the Ravens. They go to San Diego and need a miracle 4th and 29 conversion from Ray Rice in overtime to save themselves there. We're not paying attention because we're still mad about Byron and then there was Cleveland.
They expect to wrap up the division hosting Ben-less Pittsburgh, now led by octogenarian third string quarterback Charlie Batch. And they lose. They also lose arguably their best player Terrell Suggs. We're not the only team with injury issues. Next up is the easiest of their final four opponents, Washington. This a team that in a lucid moment the Steelers handled rather easily. No reason not to believe that the Ravens could at least match that level of mastery. Well, as they are saying these days in the DC area, the Ravens didn't lose to a rookie quarterback, they lost to two. With the Broncos, Giants and Bengals coming up would anyone be surprised if they didn't win another game? But the way things are going this year they could win out as well and it wouldn't be anymore surprising.
Cincinnati. You're the Bengals. You're playing the Cowboys at home. Dallas has been pretty feckless of late, and besides, they have other issues, such as one teammate dead, another in jail for killing him. You have them down late in the fourth quarter. You notice that Pittsburgh, the team that you are chasing for a playoff spot is, unexpectedly, getting their butts kicked at home. All you have to do is hang on to your lead and you're in clover. And then you lose in the last second.
Houston. You're making your claim to be the new bad boys of the AFC. You're gonna go up to New England and show those pretenders who have been getting fat off the likes of Mark Sanchez what's what. It was unwatchable. They made the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals look competent.
New England. Please don't get started on this. Let's look at it this way; you have supposedly a surefire Hall of Fame coach, and a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback. Collectively you haven't won a championship since Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie. Your greatest accomplishment in that time is that you have been singlehandedly responsible for putting Eli Manning into the Hall of Fame and instigated endless arguments in the Manning Clan as to who is, in fact, the best quarterback in the family. And you got Plaxico Burress a ring as well, which probably helped while he was in jail. Imagine what the lunatic, zero tolerance, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately wing of Steeler Nation would do with these guys. Ask Mike Tomlin. Ask Bill Cowher. Ask Chuck Noll. Ask Terry Bradshaw. Ask Ben.
San Francisco. Grantland's Bill Barnwell makes the case that Jim Harbaugh is the most valuable asset in the NFL.
By acquiring Harbaugh, the 49ers created value for themselves in a way that is virtually impossible to match. They might, in fact, have the single most valuable asset in all of football.
Really? This year's 49ers' record against division rival St Louis. One tie, one loss.
Chicago. Chicago? They got beat worse than Houston by the 49ers. Atlanta? Smacked by Cam Newton and the same group of Carolina Panthers that lost the previous week to grieving Kansas City, who got blown out by grieving Cleveland last week (things were pretty morbid in Ohio). Indianapolis? Denver? The Giants? At this stage in the game who do you have confidence in, really?
Granted, Pittsburgh may not be going anywhere but home for the holidays. Would I trade their supposedly deeply flawed head coach for Bill Belichick or Jim Harbaugh? Ah, no. Would I trade their fragile offensive line, their butterfingered, petulant running backs, their ancient defense led by their even older coordinator, their grasping, grabby special teams, Vaudevillian quarterback play, their talented, but inconsistent receivers for anybody else's hand in the National Football League? Nah, I think I'll ride this Steeler thing out and see where it takes me.