This is normally the time of year for other sports to have center stage. We are in the midst of March Madness, and the spring spectacle of college basketball has not disappointed with mind blowing upsets and nail biting finishes. Trade deadlines have passed for professional basketball and hockey as they make their runs for the playoffs. Major League Baseball is barreling toward Opening Day with all the fanfare that the beginning of the season entails. It’s even an Olympic year with excitement beginning to build for the Games in London. But this week the NFL dominated the news.
To be sure, professional football has carved a bit of a niche for itself in the March calendar because of the beginning of the free agent cycle. However, we passed the point of blockbuster announcements last week (for the most part). And while free agency was certainly part of the story, it wasn’t nearly all of it. And when you think of where we were exactly a year ago; when many were openly questioning whether the drama over the lockout might permanently damage the league and its image, for the NFL to be so central to the news cycle today is a pretty amazing development. A few of these stories are not what would be termed as flashes in the pan; they will be part of our conversations for weeks, if not months. Here are some of those that are worthy of review and analysis.
The New Orleans Saints and the Bounty Issue
Unprecedented sanctions were leveled against members of current and former Saints management and we are still waiting for judgments to be made against up to two dozen players. The year-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton is unlike anything ever seen. The only thing in my memory that approaches it is the year-long suspensions fifty years ago of players Paul Horning and Alex Karras for gambling. It is an open question concerning whether Gregg Williams will ever be permitted to work in the league again.
It is important to understand that as bad as we might think the bounty issue might be, it does not fully explain the severity of the penalties involved. The elephant in the room here is the topic of "player safety". Rebecca and I have written pieces related to this topic in recent weeks. Perhaps buried a bit by all the other football news of the week was former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon joining the chorus of former players addressing the long term impact of head injuries. Congress is now taking interest. Check out this article in today's Trib.
What does it all mean? First and foremost it means that this thing is not going away or being delegated to the back burner of our attention. Whatever you may think of how Roger Goodell has handled this matter to this point, events have evolved beyond any possibility of turning back. Player safety is now clearly a central issue for the league. Where that will take us in terms of changes to the game and the ultimate fate of the league remains to be seen, but the narrative is pretty much irreversible at this point.
Specifically, there is some good news/bad news for the Steelers. The good news is that any paranoia that we may have been harboring that the Commissioner had it in for Pittsburgh (or more to the point, James Harrison) can be laid to rest for the time being. The penalties the Steelers have suffered pale in comparison to what has already occurred, as well as what is likely to come for the Saints. The bad news is that unless the Steelers take the new standards of play seriously and successfully adapt, more severe penalties are certain to follow, including higher fines and multiple game suspensions.
Should we write off the Saints for the coming season? Certainly New Orleans is facing major challenges to say the least. But remember exactly two years ago when many Steelers fans were slitting their wrists (metaphorically speaking) because Big Ben had been suspended for four games and we gave away our number one wide receiver for what many thought amounted to a ham sandwich. You'll recall the team made it to the Super Bowl. It remains to be seen whether these sanctions drive this franchise into depression or serves as a rallying cry. Stay tuned.
If you haven't heard, the Denver Broncos won the 2013 Super Bowl this past Monday. But before you run to Vegas with your life savings, would someone please answer the following question: besides maybe Reggie White, name the times that the acquisition of a high profile free agent led directly to a world championship (and it didn't happen right away for White and the Packers if memory serves)? There is a first time for everything of course, but I cling to the stubborn belief that championships are not won in March.
Now some things are pretty much undeniable. P. Manning is a very good quarterback and certainly a considerable improvement on his predecessor at the position. And I will concede for the sake of argument that his health issues will be a nonfactor at least for this year. However, some, out of ignorance, and others knowingly overlook the fact that football really is a team game. With that in mind, will the Broncos be improved, yes, probably. Given the quality of the AFC West, a playoff slot may be likely as well. But Manning only made it to the Super Bowl twice with a team that was built to his specifications. Denver will fall short of that regardless of what other free agent moves and draft picks it makes in the coming weeks.
As you may already know the Steelers are scheduled to play the Broncos in Denver this year. A guaranteed national telecast don't you think?
The Tim Tebow Trade
I am not a Tebow lover or a Tebow hater, but I have limited tolerance for a circus. The Jets already are something of a clown show thanks to the tone set by Rex Ryan. The nonsense has already begun thanks to televangelist Pat Robertson.
Media coverage of Tebow was way over the top when he was in Denver. Now that he now will reside in the capital of media Hell, and now that he will be linked that other great media obsession Payton Manning, I fear we will be Manninged, Manninged (It will be an easy matter to get Eli in on all of this) and Tebowed until we vomit and our ears bleed. And that's not even taking into account social media.
You say you don't care about the Jets or Tebow, or the Broncos or Manning? Too bad. I'm tempted to start a pool where participants guess how often Tebow or Manning won't be mentioned on NFLN or ESPN between now and the end of the year. The correct answer might be in the single digits.
Oh, the Jets are also on the Steelers schedule. Home game. Another national game I'm guessing.
The good news is that because of all this hype its pretty much a slam dunk that the Steelers will be almost invisible this season. I tend to be superstitious in this regard, but Pittsburgh usually does best when the expectations are the lowest. With both the Jets and the Broncos (not to mention the Pats, Ravens, Texans and Bengals) going to and winning the Super Bowl, expectations for Pittsburgh should be pretty low. Steelers vs. Saints anyone?
Hines Ward's retirement
Last but certainly not least is the matter of Hines Ward's retirement. Obviously, this is a newsworthy item given Hines' contribution to the team and the game, but there is so much else to this story that speaks to what separates the Pittsburgh franchise from other sports franchises.
While so much of the other news items speaks to the worst of our values, the Ward retirement was rich with things that we rarely see; loyalty, family, integrity. So much of the rest is about cutting corners, trying to buy success, hype, manufacturing expectations; all designed to get to where the Steelers already are and have been year in and year out.
Ward's success is too sublime and out of the box for people conditioned to the superficial values of the popular culture to comprehend. His story reflects the core values of the Steelers franchise and the Pittsburgh community. Consider just one aspect of this particular scene. Attending in support of Ward are current Steelers James Harrison and Brett Keisel. Also in attendance is former player Jerome Bettis, who was instrumental in persuading Hines to retire a Steeler, and (get this) Aaron Smith, who himself was shown the door around the same time as Ward.
Examine this event carefully and you see everything you need to know about the Steelers success. There is no other news coming out of the Southside. If the Steelers are pursuing free agents from beyond their own locker room they are being very quiet about it. Of their own free agents, few if any seem particularly enthusiastic about seeking other homes. Truth be told they all would like to be like Hines (or maybe Jerome); they would like to retire as Steelers.
All the free agent activity and the Manning and Tebow stories were advertisements from teams trying to convince the public that they are championship capable.
Ward's retirement was the Steelers' advertisement that they are championship capable.