Are the Steelers developing into contenders?

Justin K. Aller

And if they are how many would recognize what is unfolding in front of their eyes?

Surprised at what you saw this past Sunday night? Judging from the reactions on our comments threads and elsewhere many were, pleasantly so in almost all cases, but surprised nonetheless. The most common refrain was some variation on 'where were these guys in September?' Of course how that question was answered in many cases became an inkblot test of the pet theories or pet peeves of whomever was doing the evaluating. For example, in the thread that followed Neal Coolong's weekly "Winners and Losers" piece, edw519 offered this observation

This game was proof that the #1 problem with this team is the head coach.

He went on to build his case as follows:

Last night, almost every Steeler looked great almost every play. They were prepared, they were inspired, and the played Steeler football: tough, physical, never backing down. So the only thing I could think all night was, "Where was this all season long?"

We’ve been complaining about just about everything on this board all season long: players, injuries, play calling, officiating. luck, drafting, talent, etc., etc., etc. The bottom line: we’re fine! Just as long as we come out mentally prepared to play. And that’s the head coaches job. They players have been blocking and tackling their whole lives. The other coaches have the x’s and o’s covered. There are plenty of great support people (scouts, trainers, assistants, etc.) The simple fact is that the missing link for this team is how prepared they are to play: When they’re prepared, they can beat anyone. When they’re not prepared, well we’ve all seen too many times how that works out.

I remember Brett Kiesel admitting they weren’t ready to play earlier this year. WTF? We all go to work 240 times per year and we have to be ready every single time. Why is it so hard to get these guys to do it 16 times?

The head coach’s #1 job is to deliver a team prepared to play at kickoff. This coach has failed at his #1 job repeatedly.

And then he concluded by taking a shot at the Rooneys, essentially calling them gutless.

I pray that Texas (or someone) poaches him because the Rooney’s don’t have the guts to get rid of him. And we can get someone to do what MUST be done week in and week out, deliver the product we old timers expect to see and what we saw last night.

Nice.

Edw519's position didn't go unchallenged. PaVaSteeler came back with this

…go back and watch just the second half of the game; that right there will tell you that your statement above is in fact not accurate, and thus your assumption that the fault must lie with Tomlin is flawed. It’s the personnel, first, foremost and still, that is the problem this season.

Not saying Tomlin (or the other coaches) don’t have their share of the blame, but it would be a mistake to let the exuberance last night’s win has filled us with to blind us to the many, many flaws that were on exhibit last night and over the course of the season that has led us to this 6-8 record at this point.

So who's right? Was it a coaching failure..excuse me, a HEAD coaching failure? Or was it a personnel deficiency that is still ongoing? I beg to differ to a degree with both positions.

I, for one, and I know I'm not alone in this, was not the least bit surprised with what happened this past week (Well, one or two things that I'll get to later). Some of us have been saying for months that this team would eventually get its act together. It wouldn't be a question of if, only of when. How did we know that? Did we have special psychic powers or insight into the machinations occurring on the South Side? Just as important, how do others not see it?

Years ago I read a book by Joseph Chilton Pearce entitled Crack in the Cosmic Egg that speaks exactly to this kind of disconnect. Much of the book is about how we perceive and define reality. In Pearce's view many of us, perhaps most, believe that we identify what's real by making observations and then drawing conclusions based upon those observations. Pearce contends that the opposite is true. We first start with the conclusion and then are selective in our perceptions and interpretations of events in order to support the preordained conclusions.

So start with the desired conclusion; the problem is Tomlin, or personnel deficiencies and then you construct a reality that supports that conclusion. To me both of these positions are different expressions of a particular paradigm; namely, that the problems and solutions for the Steelers are based principally with issues related to talent, either that of the coaches or players. The paradigm I subscribe to is that while talent is an essential element in success, more important, especially in team sports is the concept of development.

In a talent based paradigm the Bengals game is mysterious because the talent hasn't changed much if at all. Edw519 makes reference to industrial engineering to support his argument. Now I'm not an engineer and don't feel qualified to step upon his professional judgment in this regard, my area of expertise is people, and let me just suggest that the principle quoted is probably more on point when applied to inanimate objects. Two things that were different between September and December 2013; first some key pieces were either not present altogether or only partially so. That would include Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. Second, those who were present are different, which is to say they have evolved (developed) as players both individually, and (this is crucial and difficult for people who don't deal much with teams to comprehend) collectively.

From a development paradigm there is no mystery. The question wasn't if a performance like that would occur, only when. That is, of course, assuming that some don't completely misread the situation and set about trying to cut and fire everyone in sight. From the talent based perspective not only is talent the only important variable, but that variable is also considered to be static. Given that assumption the only possible solution to the Steelers' problems would be to change the talent. Cut, draft, trade, fire, rinse and repeat. This ignores that Pittsburgh's genius as an organization runs counter to that construct. They haven't fired a head coach in forty five years, and have been, hands down, the most successful outfit in professional football in that time. They don't participate much in the trade game which many find frustrating.

Because they are so consistently successful, they rarely have the opportunity to engage in the type of high profile drafting that excites a certain fan segment, which is another source of frustration for some. So much so that some resort to wishing for competitive failure solely so they can have the fun of speculating about who the team can pick up on draft day. This ignores a couple of irritating realities. One, the team's two most frustrating seasons in recent memory have followed two of their most highly graded draft classes. Two, because they are so good at development they have cultivated greatness from modest circumstances (Antonio Brown - 6th round pick; James Harrison - undrafted free agent; Willie Parker - undrafted free agent; Kelvin Beachum - 7th round pick; just to name a few). Now its true that they used the draft to build the 70's team. It was really one of the few tools available at that time. It also took about six years to get to the Super Bowl. Frankly, this fan base doesn't nearly have that kind of patience.

Other reasons to question the talent based paradigm are related to certain inconsistencies and mistakes that appear in attempting to evaluate the team's circumstances. Let's take as an example Tomlin.

Tomlin is one of eighteen head coaches that has led his team to the Super Bowl more than once. He is the youngest to have won a Lombardi. The company he keeps includes the likes of Lombardi himself, Noll, Landry, Walsh, Shula, Cowher, Parcells, Jimmie Johnson, Belichick, Coughlin, Vermeil, Holmgren and Joe Gibbs. Perhaps just as impressive is the list of those who have coached during the Super Bowl era who have not done as well, including Paul Brown, John Madden, George Allen, Mike Ditka, Tony Dungy, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy and Jon Gruden.

Of course, one of the counter arguments goes, he did it with Bill Cowher's players. The easy answer is to simply say that's ridiculous and move on. But let's take a more challenging route. The basic message is that the team was so talented that they succeeded in spite of their head coach's considerable deficiencies. (Additionally, said head coach had nothing to do with the assembly and training of that talent, just a lucky, undeserving beneficiary of the efforts of others) So, that would mean that they were favorites to win championships in 2008 and 2010, right? Far as I can recall, no one was picking them outside of Steelers Nation those years. But that could reflect an anti-Steelers bias. So how was the thinking going at BTSC?

In July of 2008 most in these precincts had written the Steelers off. Why? The toughest schedule anyone had seen in over thirty years for one thing. A couple of other things. Cowher had only been able to coax his 'juggernaut' to an 8-8 record in last season as coach in 2006. Tomlin had managed to win the division in 2007, but lost at home to Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs. Sort of underwhelming. The early weeks of the season seemed to confirm those predictions. They looked terrible while Ben was being sacked seven times in a loss to Philadelphia. The offense was so bad in a Monday night game the following week against the Ravens that they were booed off the field at halftime. A strength of the Cowher team was an offensive line that included Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings and Marvel Smith. Unfortunately, in '08 Faneca was gone, Hartings retired and Smith was on IR. They made due with future Hall of Famers like Darnell Stapleton and Jeff Hartwig. Because of injuries the feature back one week was Mewelde Moore. Number one receiver Santonio Holmes was suspended for a big game against the defending champion Giants because of a drug incident. Nonetheless, they won the Super Bowl. Some would say that coaching was involved, but of course that couldn't possibly be true.

2010 was worse. Ben was slated to serve a suspension that would last between four to six games. Number one receiver Santonio Holmes again had issues and the Rooney's patience ran out. He was traded to the Jets. BTSC's community didn't write the team off in July, they did that in March. Inexplicably the team ended up in the Super Bowl again. Coaching was rumored to be involved. But who knows, maybe the players did it all by themselves.

However, all of that is in the past. What are the relevant criticisms today? One of the favorites is that the team is not 'prepared' to play. I'm not sure what that means. They don't know their assignments? I'm confused about this because at least one critic said that they knew their 'X's' and 'O's'. That would be the mental part. Their uniforms weren't clean, the pregame meal was under cooked? You wouldn't be thinking motivation would you? Because if you are, if you don't like Tomlin, you would hate Chuck Noll.

Noll explained his approach. He said he would not make pep talks before games. He wanted men whose motivation came from within.

That afternoon, they bounded onto the practice field, hooting and howling, as was their custom, until Noll silently held up his hand, "You do not win games," he told them, and not for the last time, "with false chatter."

As these excerpts from Gary Pomerantz' book Their Life's Work points out, this ain't Pop Warner or Friday Night Lights. These are professionals we're talking about here. Being prepared to play is a shared responsibility involving coaches and players. Its a little more complicated than, say, biting the head off a live chicken and having guys run through a wall. With that in mind I can imagine five possible scenarios that would involve lack of preparation.

1. Tomlin, LeBeau and Haley, all NFL head coaches at one point or another, plus their long tenured assistants like John Mitchell and Keith Butler just completely unlearned how to prepare a football team to play. How and why this happened remains unexplained, we must take it on faith.

2. An enormous fraud is exposed. Tomlin never knew how to prepare a football team. The stories that he wowed the Rooneys with his attention to detail and long range planning skills would have to be fraudulent, and he has finally been exposed.

3. Tomlin, despite his success is still very young by head coaching standards (The two coaches most often viewed as his peers, Belichick and Coughlin are both over twenty years older than the 40 year old Tomlin) and is still learning his craft. The combination of having to bring alone a number of young, inexperienced players plus the evolving landscape of the league that can challenge the adaptive abilities of the most experienced coaches getting the best of them for a time. In other words, the players aren't the only ones who have developmental challenges going on in today's NFL.

4. The preparation issues involve, at least in part, veteran players adapting to new leadership roles as well as younger players learning what is necessary to compete at the necessary levels.

5. Someone forgot to order the chickens.

My first thought would be that #1 and #2 were implausible, even absurd, but they have the considerable value of providing support for the preconceived notion that Tomlin is incompetent and must be removed (or substitute Haley, LeBeau, Colbert, whomever). #3 and #4 reflect the developmental paradigm and don't rise to the level of being scenarios that would rationally lead to termination for either coaches or players. In fact, following the logic of the construct if you did remove people all you've done is cycle back to the beginning and are starting all over again. This is the best argument for not, say, firing Haley. Even if the replacement has a better upside, you are returning to square one in terms of familiarity, terminology and the like, meaning that the offense may struggle for an additional couple of years, complete with renewed calls for firing the next guy. This is a vicious cycle that defines life in places like Washington, maybe the best working model of the pathology that results from following the talent is all paradigm.

One more thing about the coaches. Players have a vote in this matter as well. The players vote of no confidence comes on the field of play, and some were wondering that with playoffs being essentially off the table would the Steelers players quit on their coach (and each other). The response was clearly a resounding no. Defensive players have bent over backward to counter any insinuation that LeBeau or his system had anything to do with their failures as a unit. Ben has cited his pleasure with the current offensive system; one that has left him healthier at this stage of the season than he has been throughout most of his career, as well as putting him in contention for a spot in the Pro Bowl. All of this in spite of the ongoing campaign to tweak the alleged conflict between Ben and his offensive coordinator. And I believe it would take some effort to collect the data on players who have expressed any level of dissatisfaction with Tomlin. The easiest thing in the world if you wished to undermine him would have been to lay down this past week and in the two remaining games. Doing so has already lost Kubiak his job in Houston and placed Mike Shanahan on life support in Washington. But for now the questioning and contempt for Tomlin is confined to elements of the fan base and media.

The same issues come up when thinking about players as well.

Jason Worilds is a player that as recently as a couple of months ago was considered to be a bust, a complete waste of a draft choice. Now many are wringing their hands that the team won't be able to retain him, and even if LaMarr Woodley didn't have his current physical difficulties, there were plenty of folks who were considering throwing him the curb in order to have a shot at keeping Worilds. If something like this happened occasionally it wouldn't be much of a big deal. But the truth is it happens continuously, all the time. This year alone in addition to Worilds there's Cam Heyward, Ziggy Hood, Kelvin Beachum, Markus Gilbert, William Gay (the second time that's happened with him), Emmanuel Sanders, David Johnson (before injury). Previously, players receiving similar treatment included Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon, Lawrence Timmons, Ramon Foster, Troy Polamalu. Next up, Mike Adams, Ike Taylor, Jarvis Jones (not developing fast enough for some), Chris Carter (an ongoing favorite), David Paulson, Steve McLendon? Vince Williams? Cortez Allen?

You know its coming. And its shameless. You would think that making the same mistakes over and over and over again would spur some reflection, if not embarrassment. But it fits the paradigm. That and the fact that there are enough actual failures (Limas Sweed anyone?) to keep the pattern going.

Again, if you believe its all about talent, and that the capacity is rather static, then its understandable (I guess) to assume a short learning curve or none at all. Often the difference between a top draft choice and someone further down the line is not so much about potential, but rather whether it involves high or low maintenance in order to get the talent to fully manifest. Another factor is the matter of 'fit' within a system. A player who may thrive in Chicago may not replicate that in Miami. Not getting this we don't have the sophistication to recognize what the development process entails resulting in wanting to pull the trigger on many players too soon. Or, occasionally going in the other direction, such as the crazy idea that Ben could easily be replaced by getting any old quarterback and coaching him up.

So the answer I offer to the question of where was this team in September is that it didn't exist, even though it was composed of mainly the same people. Kelvin Beachum, to use one example, could not have played left tackle at the level that he has over the past few weeks if he was placed in that situation the second week of September. What is remarkable about the offensive line is not only that it is playing at a much higher level (which was predicted), but the unit has reached a level of proficiency such that it was able to maintain that level even with the likes of Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper plugged into the mix. How many people simply assume that LeBeau is running a line of BS when one of the reasons he gives for wanting to return next season is his feeling that the players he has on hand have the capacity to play at a high level.

What becomes clear is that instead of a team that is in need of a massive overhaul, instead it is, as Sports Illustrated's Peter King said this week "a contender with holes." A very different situation altogether. However, structural changes in the league have had their impact on teams like Pittsburgh who attempt to successfully implement a developmental model, with the challenge being how it can be overcome in the years ahead.

One of the iconic images in Steelers football history is Jerome Bettis running over Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher on a snowy Heinz Field in 2005. The situation then was in some ways eerily similar to that the team faced this season. In both cases the team entered December needing to run the table in order to have any hope of making the playoffs. Like this season the Steelers would be playing at home in the snow, then against a powerful Bears team that was leading its division.

What many don't remember is that Bettis did not start that game, he was not the featured back, and had not been that entire year. Bettis, had in fact, been in decline for several seasons, and it had been believed that he would hang up his cleats after the 2004 campaign. 2005 represented a sentimental attempt at getting Bettis to the Super Bowl that would be played that season in his hometown of Detroit. That idea appeared derailed as Pittsburgh teetered on the brink of playoff elimination going into the Chicago game. Willie Parker was the featured back and played well in the first half. It was probably fair to say that the number two was free agent darling Duce Staley, but he, as well as Bettis would be fighting injuries throughout the season. But it was the effort of the Bus in the driving snow during the second half that will be remembered. Bettis would also figure prominently in the final regular season game against Detroit, as well as in playoff games against the Bengals, Colts (where he almost wore the goat horns) and the Broncos in the AFCCG.

The contributions of the Bus were significant in impact and quality, but minor in terms of quantity. It is unlikely given current circumstances if the Steelers could afford to keep him around. The idea that an experienced veteran leader no longer has anything to offer if their skills have deteriorated to the point where they no longer can perform in the dominant level characterized in their prime demonstrates where the talent model goes completely off base. Ray Lewis was a mere shell of his former self last season, but he may have played a critical role in the Ravens' championship run based upon the leadership he was able to still bring to the table. One has to wonder if Hines Ward or James Farrior had been available for this team whether it would have managed to squeeze out the additional win or two necessary to remain relevant this season. The fact that a Fernando Velasco was in a church pew and not an NFL sideline at the beginning of this season speaks volumes of the problems this league is facing.

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