Like most NFL head coaches, Mike Tomlin must deal with a lot of situations and variables before and during an NFL season. Take this just completed offseason, for example. The team decided to part ways with many long-time legendary Super Steelers. Players named Ward, Farrior, Hoke and Smith were no longer going to be part of the team, and Tomlin knew this well enough in advance that he and the front office could prepare for it and move forward.
That's what the draft is for; that's what free agency is for. And since the Steelers normally have all their ducks in a row to begin with, suitable replacements were already lined up to take the place of Hines Ward (Antonio Brown), Aaron Smith (Ziggy Hood/Cam Heyward), and James Farrior (Larry Foote).
Injuries are another variable that every head coach must deal with each and every season. Injuries can happen at anytime, and they usually do. Sean Spence, the team's third round draft choice, was having such a good training camp and preseason, it was said that the coaching staff was starting to see him as a player that would be able to make key contributions to a linebacker corps that was already severely lacking in depth. Unfortunately, Spence suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers last Thursday, and like David Johnson, who suffered a torn ACL in the first preseason game, the rookie linebacker will be out for the entire 2012 season.
The team also had high-hopes for rookie guard David DeCastro. After struggling a bit early in camp, the first round draft pick was named the starter at right guard by the first preseason game. Unfortunately, by the third preseason game, he suffered a pretty major knee injury, and now will be lost until at least mid-season. Three pretty devastating knee injuries for one football team in a matter of weeks. And when you factor in other injury variables like the unknown status of James Harrison, who is still recovering from a knee injury of his own, the uncertainty would be enough to make any coach throw his hands in the air and say, "why me?".
However, while it might seem like injuries are out of a coach's hands, and they are, at least he can still get his hands dirty and try to go about fixing the problem. As I said, any good front office will have its act together and will be able to deal with injuries. If an NFL team can't do that, it won't have very many successful seasons.
To quote perhaps the most famous Tomlinism: "The standard is the standard." The next man up is expected to maintain the same level of excellence as the player he's replacing in the lineup. This is why coaches like Tomlin get paid the big bucks. They're expected to be great leaders of men and managers of rosters.
However, there is another Tomlinism that I'd like to quote: "It's a five star match-up because we're in it." And that brings me to the point of this post.
Above all else, the NFL is a business, and businesses generally want to make as much money as humanly possible. It's certainly true for the networks who broadcast the games and pay the owners billions of dollars for the right to do so. The networks want ratings, and obviously so do the owners, so that's why certain "five star match-ups" are deemed more important than others and are aired in more attractive time-slots. Beings that they're one of the marquee teams in the league and a huge ratings-grabber, the Steelers often find themselves in many high-profile/primetime match-ups each and every season.
In 2002, the New England Patriots opened the season as defending Super Bowl Champions. It was also the year that they unveiled Gillette Stadium after many years of playing in old Foxboro. Since they were the defending champions, the Patriots got to open up their new stadium in week one on Monday Night Football. Who were the Patriots opponents for that game? Why, it was none other than the team that they vanquished in the AFC Championship game along the way to their Super Bowl victory--the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I was excited about the game, but in the back of my mind, I thought: "Man, this seems like a pretty tall order for the Steelers, opening up on Monday Night Football against the World Champs, a team that knocked them out of the playoffs just eight months prior." Make no mistake, I realize that the NFL isn't like college football, and teams can't just schedule cream puffs to start the season. But I also knew that it wasn't just a computer-generated coincidence that the Steelers opened up the season where they did.
Hey, I don't blame the NFL or ABC for wanting that game. No matter what happened, it was going to be a great story. The Patriots weren't considered worthy Super Bowl champions at that time, and if they laid an egg in their new stadium on national television at the hands of a Pittsburgh team that was considered to be more talented than them at that point in history, that would make for a great story. And if the Patriots defeated Pittsburgh for a second time, well, the NFL could maybe crown a new king of the block. As it turned out, it was a pretty long night for the Steelers, as Tom Brady carved up the defense all night long in a 30-14 New England victory.
Last season's opener was another example. As most astute football fans probably know, the Steelers/Ravens rivalry is maybe the greatest in the sport. The two teams combined to play in six-straight regular season games where the margin of victory was four points or less. However, Pittsburgh always seemed to find a way to have the upper-hand when it mattered most, like in the 2008 AFC Championship game, where the Steelers defeated Baltimore on the way to their record sixth Super Bowl victory, or the divisional playoff matchup of two seasons ago, when the Steelers overcame a two-touchdown deficit to win, 31-24.
Following that bitter defeat, Baltimore's number one goal before the start of the 2011 campaign was to find a way to beat Pittsburgh. And who did they open up the 2011 season against? The Pittsburgh Steelers, who had to travel to Baltimore in week one. When I first saw that part of the schedule, I thought: "Hmmmm, seems like a really early time to play such an epic contest." Unfortunately for Steelers fans, the Ravens took out all of their offseason frustrations and hammered the Steelers, 35-7.
And this Sunday, the Steelers will be in the barrel once again, as they have to travel out West for a Sunday night match-up against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs just eight months ago, the Denver Broncos. So right out of the gate, the Steelers have to go back to the place where their 2011 season ended in great disappointment. And that place, Denver, Colorado, just so happens to be a mile higher in altitude than just about any other place that NFL games are played. So after not playing a meaningful game since January, 8th, the Steelers players are going to have to find a way to adjust to Denver's thin air in week one. And playing in the rarefied air means doing so without Ryan Clark, who cannot play in Denver because of a sickle cell trait that once caused near fatal health problems after a game in 2007. And to put a cherry on this multi-layered variable, Denver's new quarterback is the legendary Peyton Manning, who's going to be making his Broncos debut after 14 Hall of Fame years as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Manning's presence in Denver is probably the main reason why the game was scheduled for prime time in week one, and that's why coach Tomlin can probably throw a few more stars into the match-up. The heightened media coverage that this game will generate will make it feel like a playoff match-up. And you better believe the Broncos players will treat it that way, as will their Super Bowl-starved fans, who are no doubt looking to Manning to take the team to the Promised Land this February.
And this is why I laugh when people say that all games count regardless of when they're played. Well, every NFL game might count the same, but they're certainly not equal. And as most experts will probably tell you: An NFL team that you see in September probably won't resemble the team that you eventually will see in December--for example, the Steelers recovered well enough in 2002 to win the AFC North while the Patriots finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs--and it often takes at least a few weeks for a team to gel and for its true identity to form.
Don't get me wrong, as a fan, I'm super-pumped up about this game, but if I'm Tomlin, I might be thinking, "Man, I know the standard is the standard, but I have to go up against a legendary quarterback without my starting free safety, and possibly without my starting outside linebacker? I also have a new offensive coordinator who has installed a new system. And on top of all that, I'll be going into battle with a number of rookies and 2nd year players who would be extremely nervous regardless of the situation, let alone in primetime. Couldn't the NFL have started us off with maybe a four-star affair?"
Heavy is the head that wears the "five-star" crown.
To quote old friend, James Farrior: "Bright lights. Time to shine."