The Steelers need a “Miracle”

Jared Wickerham

A game-changing rookie falling to the Steelers in next year's draft isn't what the team needs, nor does it need to change once again its offensive philosophy from what Todd Haley has tried to implement. Instead, maybe a day at the movies and a brief history lesson will teach this crop of Steelers players what it will take to be champions once again.

The movie "Miracle" is the story of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team's incredible victory over the vastly superior Soviet team which had won 16 World Championships and five Olympic gold medals dating back to 1954, and had beaten the US team 10-3 just three days prior to the start of the Olympics.

This true story embodies living proof that there is indeed an element of "group think", an element of a shared mentality that can encompass an entire team, for good or for ill. It is proof that a team of individual players can come together and form something greater than the sum of the individual players' talent if they adhere completely to a given philosophy, and practice it and perform it 100 percent of the time, every time.

The Soviet team had that mentality and was virtually undefeatable for almost four decades. Yes they lost in 1980 to the Americans, but they quickly returned to their winning ways from 1984 until 2002, playing the same style they created, and replacing players with others who bought into the same scheme. The defeat at the hands of the Americans didn't disprove this theory, it reinforced it; the Americans had to learn how to play the game like the Soviets, and then do it better than the originators of that style of play.

What the American team did under coach Herb Brooks was to validate the style of play that was needed to be successful, then validate the theory that a "one team, one goal, whatever it takes" mindset, a culture if you will, could meld the minds and talents of individual players into a single minded, proficient unified entity that could perform at a level far above what the individual talents could produce.

What Brooks knew intuitively was that his biggest obstacle would be to get the players to stop relying on what they had been taught since they first started to play and to accept the new system he was implementing; a system that was designed to beat the Soviets at their own game. The players Brooks selected for the US team were not necessarily the most talented he had to choose from; instead, he selected the most talented players he felt would be the most willing to unlearn everything they thought they knew about hockey and learn what he was teaching. He wanted players who would buy into his system, dedicate themselves to learning it and implementing it completely, as a unit.

Anyone who has studied Zen Buddhism, or has been a serious student of martial arts, has heard this teaching parable:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

What Nan-in was trying to demonstrate, and what Brooks succeeded in doing with his hockey team was to get them to "empty their cup" of everything they thought they knew, their tightly held conceptions and beliefs. He got them to let go of how they played their sport in the past, and make room for what was being presented to them. It is a fundamental aspect to teaching that you can't teach someone something new, unless they're ready to accept it and make room for it.

The first Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty proved this theory under head coach Chuck Noll. Noll was a decent football player for the Cleveland Browns whose on-field success was more a product of his mental commitment to the fundamentals of the game than any physical talent he may have had. As a head coach, he focused on teaching those fundamentals over and over again until the roster of players he had that accepted his teachings did each and every little thing without thinking.

Noll himself would get down into the dirt and show seasoned veterans what they were doing wrong, and show them the correct way of executing the smallest of techniques; a setting of a foot "just there", positioning the hands, shift of the hips "just then", in order to best position themselves to execute a play successfully. At first, many of these veterans resisted his teaching, but over time either bought into what Noll was trying to do, or found themselves off the team.

The result of "emptying their cups" and buying into Noll's philosophy of how the game should be played was four Super Bowl victories in six years and an end to forty years of ineptitude.

What the 2012 Steelers' offensive players need to do is "empty their cups" of who they think they are as a unit. They need to forget about "creating something out of nothing" or "being the best deep threat" or what might have worked for them in the past and fully physically and mentally embrace what is being taught to them by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The days of "three downs and a cloud of dust", or "we need a Jerome Bettis" or "Ben likes the deep game" mentality has passed. Look who is at the top of the AFC food chain: Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos; Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They'll both throw it deep when the opportunity presents itself, but they aren't forever scrambling in the backfield trying to make time to allow their deep receiver to get open; they check, and if not open they immediately go to the next read. Quick reads, fluid plays, options, always options available to them depending on what the defense gives them. The cat-and-mouse game Manning played with Steelers S Troy Polamalu near the end of that Week 1 game illustrates this perfectly.

This isn't a matter of which style of football is "correct"; it's a fact of life in the NFL. Look at the very teams the Steelers defense has the most trouble with, historically or even just this past year: Manning and the Bronco's picked apart the Steelers' defense in the first game of the season. Phillip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys were just effective enough in taking what the Steelers' defense gave them to put their units into position to score, and they won because their defenses smothered our receivers and rushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket enough times to disrupt his timing and rattle him mentally.

During the Steelers four game winning streak in mid-season, Roethlisberger wasn't at his best as a quarterback; in fact some of his best quarters, both before and after his injury, came in losses. But during those four games the offense was working as a single cohesive unit. The running backs knew a hole would be opened "just there" as planned, and the linemen knew the backs would reach them "just then", as planned. The running game was effective as a counter balance to the passing game; it forced defenses to split their strength, which provided the Steelers' quarterback with options.

Maybe Roethlisberger has bought into the Haley system. Maybe Haley compromised with Ben to ease the transition as outside factors like injuries impacted the unit's ability to execute the plays for specific games. But just as the US Olympic hockey team failed to repeat its 1980 "Miracle" so will the Steelers' offense continue to under perform as long as its players hold onto how they've played in the past, or the system is changed once again.

What is needed, aside from the miracle waters of Lourdes to keep the offensive line healthy, is for whatever system is chosen for the Steelers' offense to run, the team's quarterback, receivers, linemen and running backs must "empty their cups" of what has been done in the past, and fill them completely with the new system. There can be no more half-way measures, no more "I'll try it your way, but if it doesn't work right away, I'm going to do what I know how to do" type of safety valves. Miracles don't partially occur, a cup is either empty or it isn't, and Lombardi's aren't won with half measures.

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