PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates during the game with Max Starks #78 against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
I understand the value of the Top 100: Players of 2012 to the NFL Network. It's June. We are literally months from the start of the season. There's not much going on in football, particularly now between the conclusion of the draft and the beginning of training camp. So from an entertainment perspective you probably can't argue that the Top 100 isn't good television. The problem is that though it may be good entertainment it encourages and promotes bad thinking about football.
I've been writing recently about the fact that football can make the case for being the ultimate team game. As such, factors such as cooperation, interdependence, self-sacrifice, chemistry, camaraderie and synergy are usually critical factors in team success. It's not that the celebration of individual talent is not important, but if the context (or is it lack of context) is so distorted that we believe that the only factor in team success is the accumulation of talent then a disservice is done to any and everyone who aspires to be true fans of the game.
A non-football example of how this can play out is currently on display in the NBA Finals. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the Miami Heat is dogged by the perception that they are a group of underachievers. The assembly of this team is straight out of the AAU philosophy of success; collect as much talent as possible without regard to team principles. How, it is asked, can a group with James, Wade and Bosh struggle as they do? My answer is that this is not an all-star tournament. Team principles matter. When viewed as a team they are not doing that bad, maybe even overachieving somewhat.
An additional problem with the Top 100 is the idea that having players make the selections renders credibility to the proceedings. Just because someone plays the game doesn't make them a student of the game. It may make perfect sense for an Ed Reed to offer an opinion on who the best wide receivers are in the AFC North, and perhaps in the entire league, but it gets pretty dicey when you ask him to pass judgment on offensive linemen in the NFC West, just to take one example.
The question that needs to be asked is how much information is required for these players to effectively do their jobs? The importance of such a question is that, by most accounts that I am aware of it takes a great deal of time and commitment to simply do a thorough job of handling their basic responsibilities as players. Beyond that do they really know that much more than a devoted fan?
I began to wonder about that when I saw where Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was ranked last year. It seemed to me and a lot of other observers that Lewis' high placement (I believe he came in third overall) may have been due more to his reputation than to the actual level of his performance at this stage of his career.
The thing about reputation is that there is usually a lag associated with how it matches up with the actual state of someone's performance. Often there is a gap between when a player begins to perform at a high level and when he receives recognition of that fact. Conversely, a player may continue to be viewed as a high level performer long after his skills have declined. One of the best contemporary examples of this has been Brett Favre. History will show that his best days were in the 20th Century, but it has only been relatively recently that he hasn't been a constant topic of off season conversation concerning his plans and what team might be so fortunate to have access to his services.
This brings us to the Steelers. As many of us know, in the world outside of Steeler Nation the belief is that this will be a down year for Pittsburgh. The reason I recall hearing most often is the release of a number of veteran players (Ward, Smith, Farrior, etc.); too much change, the loss of too much leadership.
But how much change has actually occurred? Injuries and declining skills limited the participation of Hines and Aaron. It's fair to say that their contributions to the team's 12-4 record were extremely limited. Chris Hoke was not a starter. So from the on the field perspective the only loss would be that of James Farrior who retained his starting job throughout the 2011 season. The loss of a consistent starter, unless that starter was Ben, does not rise to the level of being a serious degradation of the team's play or a sign of ‘too much' change.
However, because of our star/individualistic orientation with the sports media in particular, and some fans as well, it's fair to say that to some Hines Ward is the Pittsburgh Steelers, our Brett Favre if you will, and as such if he goes away what could we possibly have left? The reputation issue at play.
That still leaves us with the leadership issue, something even the bulk of Steelers fans worry about. But is that as big a concern as we make it out to be? Does the individualistic mindset contaminate our thinking about this as well?
In 2006-7 the teams suffered serious leadership losses. Jerome Bettis retired, Joey Porter was released and Alan Faneca left in free agency. Into the gap on offense came Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger, not individuals that in prior years would be first to come to mind as leaders. On defense James Farrior emerged from the bombastic shadow cast by Porter. Arguably, he was probably always providing leadership but how could anyone outside the Steelers locker room possibly notice? Within a year the team returned to the Super Bowl and won a championship.
When was the last time in, oh, the last thirty or forty years that the Steelers had a leadership problem? Today (I'm writing this on the first day of minicamp) I watched a video on Steelers.com of Casey Hampton giving instruction to Alameda Ta'amu on playing nose guard (Ta'amu is actually bigger that Big Snack, btw). Besides being in town for all the off season practices, Troy Polamalu is reportedly going to tables at lunch time and introducing himself to new players.
I don't believe anyone had to prompt these guys to do these sorts of things. This is just what the Steelers do. Leadership development is hotwired into the organizational culture. If you haven't associated certain people with leadership in the past it was probably for one of two reasons.
First it wasn't necessary because someone else had been playing the role quite well in the past. Larry Foote was the youngest of the starting linebackers when Pittsburgh played in Super Bowl 40. Porter and Farrior were handling things. Now Foote is the old guy, it's his turn and he's acting appropriately. Second, there are leadership roles that are not obvious to the casual observer. Foote reportedly has been considered a verbal leader in the locker room long before the present moment.
Bottom line: is there any indication that the Steelers ship is rudderless or floundering?
Currently, another area where this distorted mindset is playing out is with Max Starks. What is concerning to me is not whether Starks should be brought back or not. I guess credible arguments can be made either way, though I acknowledge that I believe the team should bring him back. It is why the various arguments are made that is at issue.
To my thinking there are only two reasons you would not bring Starks back; either he's not healthy and won't be soon, or money, as in he's too expensive. Otherwise, he would be an invaluable addition to a group that has a lot of young, but inexperienced talent. Why? Because he has started in three Super Bowls, two of which are wins. That kind of resume doesn't grow on trees. And having that kind of experience in the persons of Starks, Trai Essex, Ben, Heath Miller, Big Snack, Keisel, Deebo, Troy and Ike Taylor is an advantage that very few teams can replicate.'
Winning championships, especially multiple championships is something that teams and players have to learn how to do. In the mid-1960s the Dallas Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers for the NFL Championship two times in a row. They lost both times even though they were considered the more talented of the two teams. Three years later they finally figured out how to win and defeated the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl 6.
The point is that making this a discussion primarily or solely about talent misses the point. Even if you believe that the Steelers won those games in spite of the presence of Starks, they did it twice. I say let's try to win in spite of Max a third time. What Starks brings is experience that only a relative few of all the people who have played the game possess, as well as other intangibles such as his relationship with Ben.
The only problem is that these qualities are difficult to translate to an NFL Network program.