Offseason Rant No. 2: Quality Control Matters

Where are my tenors? - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In which the author makes a case for deficiencies in what seem like minor matters affecting the Steelers in major ones.

As I said back in my first rant, I have a lot of stuff to get off my chest. Some of it is serious, important stuff, like head trauma. Some of it is important but not as serious. Some of it is neither important nor serious. I’ll let you be the judge of where in the spectrum each rant falls...

This rant may have some of you scratching your heads and saying "Huh?" It is about something not only seemingly harmless but even virtuous—the annual Steelers Christmas carol video.

It has been annual for about three years now. Back in 2010 someone came up with the idea of putting out a pile of festive apparel (Santa hats, scarves, and the like,) getting the players decked out, dividing them into units (defensive backs, QBs and receivers, etc.), and filming them as they sang Christmas carols. Badly. Really, really badly. I’m guessing the video was made in about 15 minutes, tops. It was kind of cute. Maurkice Pouncey was a rookie then, and Ben saw to it that Maurkice stood right in the front and set him up to be the only one singing, to Pouncey’s surprise.

But while it was fun, it also showed a deplorable lack of effort on the part of the players. Little thought was given to actual tunefulness, and despite the fact they were singing excessively familiar carols, there would have been no way to tell what carols they were if you took away the words. This is not to imply it had any virtues in the rhythmic sense, either. It was much closer to anarchy than it was to Christmas music.

The following summer I saw the member of the Steelers staff I suspected was responsible for the video while I was at Women’s Training Camp. (Names are being withheld for obvious reasons...) I offered, as a choral professional, and in the kindest possible way, to coach the players for the following year’s video. My offer was refused, as said staffperson felt the charm of the video was the very lack of cohesion, tunefulness, and rhythm to which I was objecting.

The 2012 video is no exception. If anything, the "singing" has deteriorated. And to make matters worse, Steelers.com also put up an outtakes video. You can imagine the quality of the outtakes if the bits they chose for the video were so appalling.

Lest you doubt my assessment, I’m going to go through the video and critique some of the groups of "singers." Here is the link to the video, in case you wish to dispute my judgment:

Essentially all of the professionalism of the video occurs in the first 15 seconds, as Coach Tomlin makes a brief speech. He’s certainly a professional at making speeches, and he does this well. Things go rapidly downhill from there, although the spot from about :18 through :21 features Ryan Clark giving a count-off. This actually has rhythmic integrity and a semblance of enthusiasm.

Since Clark was giving the countoff, you probably have guessed it is the defensive backs beginning the festivities, and you would be correct. Ike Taylor makes no attempt to sing, and instead does a sort of combination dance and flexibility exercise. It has nothing whatsover to do with the subject of the carol ("Here Comes Santa Claus".) Taylor’s interpretive dance, assuming this is what it is meant to be, bad as it is, is not upstaged in any way by the ‘singing.’ The ‘singing’ might be better titled "choral reading," except it would have to be considerably tighter to qualify for that. There is a hint of the melody somewhere amongst the melee, which I also suspect is from Clark’s lips, as I know he has a good singing voice—I’ve heard it in other contexts. But it is, in essence, shouted down by the overwhelming mediocrity surrounding him. Like Curtis Brown attempting to cover A.J. Green, they’ve lost the essence of the play.

Compare this to one of the classic renditions of this carol, by Gene Autry, found here. It’s cheesy, yes, but well sung, with a strong sense of melody and appropriate orchestration to accompany it. If you prefer a perkier version, here’s Doris Day. Also well done, within the style.

But, you say, it’s hardly fair to compare athletes singing a song to music professionals. Yes, but the point of this rant is to note there is still the possibility of attention to detail and some semblance of artistic integrity, even among non-musicians. To illustrate, linked below is a performance by a group of Marines. Not professional singing Marines, but regular Marines. (Although I suppose "regular Marines" is an oxymoron.) Realizing their musical limitations, the Marines instead perform a well-choreographed dance version in this video, accompanied by the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band. The energy and professionalism of this performance put the Steelers defensive backs to shame.

At about :45 on the playclock the scene shifts to the offense, performing (if I may use the word "performing" so loosely) "Let It Snow." Astonishingly, the offense, as led by Ben Roethlisberger, did manage to create the illusion that the tune of the song was somewhere present, and it was a bit more rhythmic than the previous "tune."

But once again, compare it to this version, performed by Frank Sinatra. What is so striking about Sinatra’s version is this—the neophyte might assume his subtle manipulations of the rhythm to be license, but in fact they come from a powerfully concrete sense of the underlying rhythm which allows Sinatra to play off of the orchestra, much as Ben knows Heath Miller will be there when he needs to improvise.

If you’re an Ella fan, (and how could you not be?) here’s her fabulous rendition. But, you may protest, these people have awesome back-up bands. The Steelers guys have only their voices and cue cards. Well, then, listen to how it’s done by Straight No Chaser. Only a man, his suit, and a microphone...

At 1:14 the video cuts to the kick team, including a very embarrassed-looking Amos Jones. The four men (Shaun Suisham, Drew Butler, someone purporting to be Greg Warren*, and Jones) are wearing what I assume is a cut-open football on their heads, but in fact they look like throwbacks to Johnnie Carson’s "Carnac the Magnificent" character. They sing a mercifully brief portion of "Frosty the Snowman" (with Amos Jones contributing little to the mix other than an enthusiastic shouting of "Stop!" at the appropriate point in the song.)

(*Greg Warren isn’t actually participating. Someone else has taken his place, holding a Greg Warren cardboard cutout in front of his face. One of the coaches, I suspect. This was possibly filmed after the infamous bad snap in the Bengals game leading to a missed 24-yard field goal, in a 13-10 loss which officially eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs. Warren may be in a secret location for his own safety.)

The kick team was actually doing a reasonably credible job on their selection, at least comparitively, when, without warning, the video cuts to the tight ends and their coach at 1:35, who are charged with the "thumpety, thump, thump" coda. (Their coach, James Daniel, is one scary-looking dude.) Heath Miller, whom I adore, was, I’m sorry to say, phoning it in. The best effort came from David Paulson, but frankly, it wasn’t good enough. Jamie McCoy and Leonard Pope contributed little. Come on, fellows! After all, Fats Domino couldn’t sing, either, but he made a decent version of the song. And if you want to hear five guys really singing it, the Jackson Five made it sound pretty sweet!

Even the video editor couldn’t take much of the tight ends, and moved right along at about 1:48 to what I think must have been the Special Teams LBs singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." It wasn’t an improvement. I could go on, but I’ve already commented on the best bits of the video. Suffice it to say that if Isaac Redman has any singing superpowers, he hid them well. As did the rest of the backs and receivers.

But why does any of this matter? The Steelers aren’t in the entertainment business! Oh, wait, they are. Fortunately for them, not as musicians. But it seems to me the lack of attention to detail and the obvious desire to just get through these videos could easily transfer to other facets of their jobs. "Just good enough" is not, as we found to our cost this season, good enough to get you to the Super Bowl, or even to the playoffs.

How many games were lost this season through lack of attention to details? Very possibly all of them. But a few come to mind in particular. The first Ravens game was lost because a kick was returned for a touchdown. Had Jacoby Jones been stopped, the Steelers might very well have won the game by four points instead of losing it by three. On the other hand, three, yes, three special teams returns for touchdowns, one by Chris Rainey and two by Antonio Brown, were negated by dumb penalties. None were cases where the player drawing the penalty was even close to the returner, so it wasn’t their block in the back or whatever which allowed the returner to reach the end zone. The second Antonio Brown return came in a game the Steelers won anyhow, but it was versus a division rival (the Bengals) and could have proved very costly. The first came in the game vs. Oakland, a game the Steelers lost by three points. Once again, this could have been the difference between losing by three and winning by four.

And speaking of lack of attention to details, what about the Cleveland fumblefest? What about Emmanuel Sanders dropping the football when there was nothing but grass between him and the endzone? Obviously I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

So what do I suggest for the Christmas carol video? Well, if the Steelers are going to do it at all, why not do it well? It should be possible. Here's how I would do it:

First of all, find out who can actually sing. Of the guys who can’t sing (and given the evidence from the past three years, my guess would be "a lot of them,") find out who has a good enough sense of rhythm to do vocal percussion. We all know Troy plays the piano extremely well, thanks to Head and Shoulders. (Actually, I don’t think he plays it quite that well, but he has to play it pretty decently to be able to "finger-sync" as well as he does. He’s flawless!) Others may have nascent talents on the flute, say, or the bassoon which could be put to good use.

Once you know what you’ve got to work with, get a decent arranger to emphasize the strengths of the team, rather than cruelly exposing their weaknesses. And for heaven’s sakes get them some good coaching!

This can’t be done in a two-hour session in the middle of the season. Rehearsals should begin during OTAs. Make it a big deal to actually be in the video. Use the competitive spirit among the players. You know Ben would be taking voice lessons the minute he heard there was a competition for air time!

Okay, so I’m kidding. Sort of. But I can tell you this—if I ever decided to make a video of my singers playing flag football as a thank you to my subscribers, you can bet your bippy they would be out on the field practicing until they could make a decent stab at playing a game. Fortunately for my singers, my subscribers, and myself, I know our limitations, and such a video is highly unlikely to ever be foisted upon an unsuspecting world. But if one is going to do something, I respectfully suggest doing it right.

And one final comment—at the end of the "Outtakes" video the players are all being offered platefuls of Christmas cookies, which they are scarfing down at a tremendous rate. Where is Leslie Bonci in all of this? (Leslie is the Steelers’ dietician.) Unless those delicious-looking cookies were actually made with chickpeas or some such, they didn’t strike me as something highly conditioned athletes should be eating during the season. Kale chips, maybe...

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