Is the Steelers locker room fractured?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

But the more important question is, even if it is does it matter?

Q. Is your locker room in disarray?

A. No. (Laughs). We’re 8-8.

Q. Is that what it is, the simple function of being an 8-8 team?

A. I think questions like that come with losing, and we lost some in 2012. We don’t have any intentions of repeating that in 2013.

Mike Tomlin responding to questions from Steelers Digest's Bob Labriola

In addition to the physical talent that people brought to the table, was there anything else special about how you got along as a team?

“It’s like a chicken and an egg comparison. Which comes first? Teams that don’t do well have dissension. Teams that do well don’t have dissension. Unless T.O. (Terrill Owens) is on the team. [laughter] The media plays a great part. The game is entertainment. It’s no different than ballet. We’re providing entertainment. I think the guys got together so well because we had so much success. If we weren’t winning we would have a potential classic scenario for dissension because we had two premier quarterbacks on the team in Joe Gilliam and Terry Bradshaw. If we hadn’t been winning Pittsburgh would have gone through a classic quarterback controversy. But when you win, people can’t piss and moan too much.”

Former Steeler Randy Grossman speaking to the 1974 Steelers locker room

Let me be clear from the outset here. I have no earthly idea what the answer is to the question that is posed as the title of this article. My argument will be that it doesn't matter much if at all.

Chicken and egg. The connecting thread of Tomlin's and Grossman's comments is that they both challenge the idea that there is a casual relationship between harmony in the locker room and performance on the field. However, there can be a casual relationship between performance on the field and the perception of harmony in the locker room.

In the late 1970's the New York Yankees locker room was a mess. Bickering among stars Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and manager Billy Martin was a constant drama. On the other hand the Pittsburgh Pirates had a locker room that was the picture of love and harmony. We are Family. Both teams won world championships. Perhaps more importantly, both were vastly entertaining in part because of their divergent locker room antics.But we really don't have to go that far afield to address this issue. There is enough evidence from analysis of the Steelers themselves to provide us with insight into how relevant real or perceived internal strife is to team success.

The situation with the 1974 team was even more complex and intriguing than Grossman described. There had been a players strike during the preseason that year and Gilliam had crossed the line to participate in training camp. He led the Steelers to a 6-0 preseason record and earned the starting job. There's more. Gilliam's starting assignment drew national attention because a black man being named a starting quarterback for an NFL franchise was hardly less controversial than if Mike Tomlin announced that Danica Patrick would be starting at quarterback for today's team. It was national news. And I don't mean national sports news. The Gilliam led Steelers started the year 4-1-1, this included him leading a comeback for a 35-35 tie at Denver. But after a particularly ugly loss at home against the Raiders he was pulled in favor of Bradshaw. It's also worth noting that there was grumbling that Gilliam, a magnificent passer, had gotten away from playing 'Steelers Football' (sound familiar). Bradshaw brought his own set of issues. Then in his fifth year, he had not exactly gained the full confidence of Steeler Nation and perhaps his coach and many of his own teammates. Later in the season he would be pulled in favor of third string quarterback Terry Hanratty for a game. This was actually a pretty critical moment for the Noll regime, then in its sixth season. Joe Greene revealed during the America's Game segment on that team that he had gotten sufficiently discouraged that one day in mid season he quit; packed his stuff and left the team facility. Greene was the undisputed team leader. But the team pulled together late, won the Super Bowl, and well, never mind about all that other stuff. And would someone please cue up Kumbaya?

And that wasn't the end of the problems for the 70s team. Chuck Noll in court under oath had to acknowledge that the "criminal element" allegation he had leveled at players from the Oakland Raiders (specifically George Atkinson) could also be applied to one of his own players, Mel Blount. Blount vowed to never play for Noll again. This was all part of the soup of the 1977 season where the Steelers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in Denver. (This is the game where a frustrated Joe Greene knocked a Denver offensive lineman out of the game with a body punch to his gut). Pittsburgh would win championships the next two seasons, and..

Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya.

With the Ravens now sitting on top of the football world and their marquee player suspected of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) the question arises; does it matter?

Ray Lewis's non-scandal showed that performance-enhancing drugs may be widespread in pro football,

The widespread accusations that some players on the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers "Steel Curtain" teams of the 1970s were juicing caused scarcely a stir, nor did the allegations dislodge those Steelers from the collective heart of America's football fans.

Perceptions change based upon whom we are rooting for and how successful they are. I can assure you that few people in Baltimore care much that Ray Lewis may have used a PED to get a competitive advantage, particular since they won the Super Bowl. And who are Steeler fans to talk? When you win apparently you can do no wrong. And when you lose can you do anything right? But let's move forward to more recent history.

In 2008 Mike Tomlin suspended wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a huge game against the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants because he was involved in a drug arrest earlier that week. Whether or not his absence was a factor, the Steelers lost the game. But, in spite of this the team qualified for the playoffs, and Holmes was not just the MVP of the Super Bowl but if they had such an award he would have easily been MVP for the entire playoffs, scoring huge touchdowns in each of the Steelers wins.

Someone's praying Lord, Kumbaya.

Holmes' behavior caught up with him during the 2010 off season and he was traded by the Steelers. In addition, Ben Roethlisberger was accused in the press, no actual charges were brought against him, of sexually assaulting a woman in Georgia. That along with allegations of sexual misconduct in Nevada led to what I guess we can describe in hindsight as a preemptive suspension. It was also suggested that Ben was a bit of an asshole in both the locker room and out in the general community. Having come off a non playoff qualifying season many in Steeler Nation were predictably salty and unsympathetic. We didn't get much for Santonio.. Doesn't matter, good riddance. And can you take Ben with you? Many fans said they couldn't in good conscience root for Ben any longer. There were suggestions that he be traded or released outright. In 2010 the Steelers went to the Super Bowl. Uh, just kidding.

Someone's crying Lord, Kumbaya.

Grossman mentioned something about the media. When I was writing for my college newspaper I interviewed Chuck Stone, a well known columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. He presented me with one of those Mr. Obvious lessons where he stated that the object of the exercise is to sell newspapers. He explained the logic of the tabloid mentality thusly: you want people to see the headline and go "Oh s--t!"

Sure, the combine is a high-dollar meat market. Yes, the system is a little creepy and sometimes silly. But the combine is a chance to talk about football even in the dead of winter. So what's the harm? Better yet, the combine is an absolutely glorious example of the NFL's genius for turning absolutely nothing into national news.

Make fun of the 40-yard dash and the dumb interview questions all you want. If you are an NFL executive who is considering giving a kid a contract worth millions of dollars, it makes sense to get all the information you possibly can—however useless anyone else may deem it.

But what's really remarkable is that the interview itself can be an engine for stirring debate. Some NFL player-personnel guy happens to ask a prospect an inappropriate question about sex. Bam! Suddenly it's time for the country to have a conversation about gay athletes in sports. Wow. In other words, the NFL setting the agenda as always.

Hampton Stevens - The Atlantic

"...turning absolutely nothing into national news."

'Somebody' said that LaMarr Woodley was "awful", and was lazy and out of shape.

Oh s--t!

We are altogether unclear as to who said this, a Steelers player or maybe a team official who wanted to engage in a little bomb throwing or it could even be one of those Janet Cooke kinda 'literary' things where it didn't actually happen but its justified because it adheres to a larger 'truth' about the situation. It really doesn't matter. At the end of the day a lot of people got some real benefits.

At a time when common sense says that at this time of the year our attention should be focused upon the Penguins, the Pirates, Jamie Dixon, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, almost anything else, this part of "absolutely nothing", also including the Combine and a few other news items has the NFL front and center in March. So the league has to be happy about that. This certainly hasn't hurt Ron Cook any, nor his colleagues in the media who are still milking this story for all its worth. I love Hines Ward, but given his own history you would think he would be the last guy to talk about creating disarray by running his mouth and making imprudent remarks about teammates. But as another veteran media type noted sympathetically, its a good career move. You don't establish yourself in that business by being some sort of bland homer. And hell, who am I to talk. I'm getting a couple of thousand words out of this myself without having to speculate about who I think the team will take in the third round of the draft.

And then there are those fans who are angry, frustrated, fearful or just mystified over 8-8. (Makes me wonder what some of us would do if it had been 3-13, kill ourselves?) No playoffs, no Kumbaya this year. Like pitbulls some are latching on to whatever they can that explains losing. The players can't play, the coaches can't coach, management are the Marx Brothers, they're having knife fights in the locker room, OMG; and that is why the Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

No.

The Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. And that is why we convince ourselves that this matters.

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