How What We Don’t Know Influences Our Debates

PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 23: William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs for a second quarter touchdown after Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets fumbled the ball during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

"An idea is like a virus; resilient, highly contagious"

In the hit movie Inception, one of the central themes is that an idea can be extremely contagious in the mind of an individual. We also know by study and experience that ideas can become contagious on a social level as well. If you hang around BTSC for a while you can become convinced of the truth of this.

It becomes particularly amusing, bizarre and occasionally frustrating during the relatively information poor period of the off season because the idea(s) don't have to be grounded in facts or any other aspect of reality in order to take hold. There are huge gaps in what we know about what is actually going on. What is intriguing is how people choose to fill in the blanks. The process may reveal certain things about our beliefs, experiences, desires and fears. It may also expose how gullible and ungrounded we may be from time to time.

I believe one of the most courageous things that we can do is to say "I don't know", or acknowledge the possibility that we could be wrong based upon not having the full story. Instead we often see people engaged in strident disputes based upon half- baked theories, insufficient information or a reliance on statistics that validates the old saying about ‘(L)ies, damn lies and statistics'. Now let me quickly add that as fans this is our right. There is nothing that says that we have an obligation to be accurate, but in light of the ongoing Mike Wallace debate I decided to take the opportunity to provide a different perspective.

About a year ago, in the wake of our Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Packers an idea took hold throughout Steeler Nation and within the BTSC community in particular:

William Gay is a worthless football player

People opined with confidence and absolute certainty that Gay was totally incompetent and beyond redemption. The actual events of the last year have proven otherwise. Not only did he prove to be of value to the Steelers, but he is one of few unrestricted free agents connected to the Steelers who had a pretty easy time securing a job with another team; a fact that saddened some who were calling for his professional execution just a few short months earlier. And to further demonstrate the intractability of certain ideas, I am willing to wager that someone will post a comment on this piece and insist that we not believe our lying eyes, that in spite of all evidence to the contrary that Gay is, in fact, worthless.

Gay is just the tip of the iceberg. Two years ago it was Big Ben. In the wake of the Georgia incident and his suspension by the league, many believed that we should cut our ties with Ben. This included some of those who were upset that we got rid of Santonio Holmes. Ben was a disgrace and had to go, so the thinking went. I know that I have not been immune to this type of thinking. I was a member in good standing of the ‘Willie Colon is worthless' cohort several years ago. And do I have to even mention Bruce Arians? He's another one who in spite of his alleged complete incompetence managed to pretty easily secure another job in the league.

Nor is this kind of thinking confined to individuals. Do you remember that in the years of the Steelers last two Super Bowl runs (2008 and 2010) a large portion of Steeler Nation, perhaps the majority, wrote the team off in the preseason? In '08 the reason was the schedule, the most difficult in thirty years, and, according to the common wisdom, was an insurmountable barrier to a championship. In '10 it was Ben's four game suspension and the idea that the Steelers were doomed to a season start of .500 or probably worse. In each case huge numbers of Steelers fans bought in. Fortunately, the team didn't.

"Bought in" is important in these two instances because I believe the contaminating ideas originated outside of the Steelers fan community. There is an old saying that goes that those who cannot do teach. (As an educator I usually take umbrage to that statement, but it helps me make a point here) In the sports world those who can't do become pundits, talk show hosts, bloggers and in some cases journalists. In what amounts to a real life application of a Jedi mind trick these ‘experts' assertively suggest a ‘truth' (for example, ‘The schedule is too difficult') and the masses not only uncritically accept that truth, (After all these experts are on ESPN and must know what they're talking about) but often come to believe it is their own idea.

At this moment two sets of ideas are having a tremendous influence on the conversation in these parts. One has to do with the situation with Mike Wallace; the other has to do with upcoming NFL Draft. Speaking to the draft, one of the more insidious ideas is the Mel Kiperization of the NFL; the notion that any schmoe with a handle on measurables (read statistics) can predict success for a complicated team game like professional football. In a thread to a piece written by Rebbeca Rollett earlier this week, Gleig Clawson makes this telling point. His comments were related to the Wallace issue but are applicable to the general evaluation of talent in the context of football.

The problem with stats

at least when it comes to football, is that so much of a players performance depends on other players. I don't care how good a WR is, if the QB is garbage, the WR's stats are going to suffer. It's also why teams with elite QB's, always happen to have multiple WR's who are highly productive.

The stat junkies are trying to apply stats to football, in the same way they are used in baseball. It's much easier to go off stats in baseball, because performance is truly individual. A pitcher throws the ball, and the batter either hits it, or he doesn't. No other player is involved in the equation.


And that's just the beginning. Context is distorted or discarded as mock drafts assign players without regard to issues, some relatively unknowable such as chemistry, character and scheme. Short term need, as commented upon by the likes of Lance Zierlein and Brian Billick, is usually overemphasized as a factor.

Okay, so what's the harm? Amateurs playing a game of what if, right? It certainly can be argued that fantasy football (and in my mind mock drafts are an extension of that) has enhanced the excitement for many fans. But what if the amateurs begin to believe that they're not amateurs? Now granted running a professional football team may not be rocket science, but to call Mel Kiper Jr. an expert, and presumably an equal (or superior!) to say, a Kevin Colbert or an Art Rooney II is going too far. And if Kiper can be an expert, it's a relatively short trip to believing that with a pocket full of stats and an attitude that you too can be an expert. And at that point ‘Level headed thinking' goes out the window. And the really cool thing is that there is no accountability. The great thing about when Warren Sapp made his, now infamous statement about the Steelers being old, slow and done is that he was held accountable later on. But few, if any of our draft mavens will be held accountable for their choices that were wrong a week from now, or the choices that were right but turned out disastrously a few years from now. On the other hand, players will be cut; coaches and GMs will be fired when they screw up.

Moving on to Wallace, one of the ideas that figures prominently in the groupthink of those who would part ways so quickly with the wide receiver is that his productivity fell during the second half of last season. This is viewed as a flaw solely attributable to Wallace. But, returning to Clawson's point, Wallace cannot unilaterally determine if or how a football is delivered to him. It doesn't take much in the way of imagination to conjure an alternative groupthink where the blame would be placed upon Arians, Ben or both. Little or no consideration is given to certain commonsense arguments such as, if Wallace is double covered why not throw to a single covered Brown, or Cotchery, or Ward, or Sanders, or Miller...all more than capable receivers. But the Jedi have spoken. The complexities of things like relationships are ignored.

Another recent example is the reaction received from a piece I wrote last week on the resigning of Charlie Batch. The responses on the negative side were, to me, predictable. I like Batch, he's a nice guy, but he's too old, his arm is weak, too fragile, etc. But there was no response that I recall to the strongest argument that was made in the piece.

How do you explain a front office that just a month ago expressed its sentimentality for the aged by jettisoning three of the most popular players in franchise history being somehow blinded to fact that old man Batch is far past the time that he should be put out to pasture?

As Batch has said, the front office was on record as wanting him back from the end of last season. How can this be the same FO that was so sage-like and business-like when dealing with Hines Ward and Aaron Smith, then turn around and be so sentimental and clueless when dealing with Batch? Especially when you consider that if they did throw him under the bus would anyone really have an issue with it? There's no argument that in football years Charlie is almost ancient. It doesn't make sense, but often sense is the first casualty of trying to make an argument.

So for now in the minds of some Wallace has become the scapegoat du jour; another of an ever evolving list of individuals that Steeler Nation would be better off without. This idea of cancers that must be cut out is the necessary companion to the belief that salvation lies without, sometimes in the form of high profile free agents and certainly through high draft choices. Never mind in the case of free agents that it runs counter to the operational philosophy of an organization that we claim to so admire. The Jedi whispers. As for draft choices; if I am to understand the argument we are to trade a Pro Bowl receiver who has probably not reached the peak of his potential for draft picks and think that we are making out like bandits. I have two words for you; Limas Sweed.

But look, I'm willing to be reasonable and play along. I'll buy the trade him now idea if there is a guarantee, and only a guarantee, that by doing so that the team will be better off as a direct consequence of the move. Otherwise I'm okay with the status quo. I'm okay with the fact that the Steelers hold pretty much all the cards at this point. I'm okay with the ability of Colbert and Omar Khan to negotiate a long term deal without mortgaging the team's future or being otherwise reduced to idiocy by the complexities of the new CBA. I'm okay that Wallace isn't Larry Fitzgerald or Megatron; he doesn't have to be to be a huge asset.

In championing the cause of level headed thinking I make the following suggestions. Take "media reports" about this situation with a kilo of salt, especially the national media. To allow ourselves to be influenced by those who have proven time and again that they neither understand nor respect the culture of Steeler Nation is unwise. Intense discussion of this issue has made sense over the past weeks because there really hasn't been anything substantive to talk about. In a few days we'll have real draft picks to talk about, and UDFAs as well; enough information, real information concerning what we have to work with this season that should keep us legitimately busy for weeks, if not months. Finally, I would say that based upon how things have transpired so far that our FO has earned a bit of trust. Trust that this will work out in the most responsible manner for all parties meaning that we can devote our speculative energies on other targets.

How about Todd Haley?

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