The sporting world is rife with superstitious behavior; superstition being defined as "trust in magic or chance," or especially "a false conception of causation". Like many of us of a certain age my love affair with sports was initially grounded in baseball where these types of behaviors were very obvious and utterly unapologetic. Players who would make certain to not step on the baselines when running onto or off the field, rally caps and dozens of other personal or collective rituals designed to create or perpetuate desired results or to stave off or terminate bad luck.
When I was playing sports it was understood that certain things were not to be spoken of unless you wanted to court disaster. For example, it was considered extremely bad form to speak of winning a game before it had actually been played. Of course there were some practical reasons for this; not wanting to breed overconfidence or to unnecessary rile and provide a rallying point for an opponent. But it was also believed that to do so might tempt the gods and jinx our efforts. It just wasn't done. Though times change.
I am an adherent of a particular set of beliefs about the Pittsburgh Steelers. I am not alone in this by any means. There is a significant underground in Steeler Nation that believes pretty much as I do more or less. It includes players, fans and members of the media. We believe that the Steelers do best when they are "flying under the radar", which is just a way of saying that expectations are low or they are being flat out disrespected.
It is on this last point that makes it difficult for many in the Nation to grasp or endorse this perspective because it runs counter to why we are often attracted to a team in the first place. We don't want to just be associated with the best, we want to be thought of as being the best at all times. Those ego strokes feel good and can be quite addictive. But I also know from both the experiences of my own life and a careful reading of team history that there are tremendous strategic, tactical and psychological advantages with being underestimated and even dis(s)missed by the rest of the world. It takes confidence and an ability to take the long view of things. You have to be able to eat your pride, no small thing given that pride is an important, not insignificant factor when speaking of the pursuit of greatness. You have to absorb all of the insults of commission and omission and use it as fuel.
On the other hand the opposite of this construct can be true as well. A lot of the disappointment and negative feeling coming out of the 2012 season could be traced to over confidence concerning a team that was actually in transition (new offense, turnover of key leadership, infusion of young talent in certain key positions) last year. Those who have been asking whether the team is in transition now may be a year late with the question. Even taking injuries out of the equation a number of observers raised caution flags stating that this team was likely at least a year away. Many, maybe most, blew right past those 'slow down' markers and then reacted with bitterness in response to being let down.
As I have alluded to in some other writings, there were people on this site (not me) who were accurately describing the unfolding of this process four years ago. The same people who urged caution last year also said at that time that some very good things would be happening this year. Now these people aren't saying much at the moment or are doing so quietly because they understand that it just wasn't a large portion of Steeler Nation that took the wrong cues and reached the wrong conclusions about last year's team. The rest of the football universe came to a similar understanding. According to the superstition conditions are now perfect as the Steelers play chess while everyone else is playing checkers. We've got them where we want them. And please, please let the babies sleep.
This isn't being invented out of whole cloth. there is some historical precedence that we can draw upon to support this position. Of the eight Super Bowl appearances that have been made by the Steelers four, half of the total, were during years where they were not favorites to make it to the championship round. Significantly, their last three trips to the big game all have fallen within that category.
During the 1974 campaign you could be forgiven if you believed that the Chuck Noll era would fall short of championship quality given the events of that season. There was a quarterback controversy that drew national attention because one of the participants, Joe Gilliam, was black. In fact, all three quarterbacks on the roster started at least one game (none due to injury). Joe Greene became so discouraged at one point mid season that he left the team facility with the intention of quitting. Before the Oakland Raiders met the defending champion Miami Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs, Raiders coach John Madden stated that this matchup would be, in fact, equivalent to the actual Super Bowl, involving who he characterized as the best two teams in football. This led to the remarks that Noll made in a team meeting prior to the AFCCG that are now part of Steelers lore. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Though this really doesn't count as a Super Bowl story, the 1976 season has to be included because it so faithfully reflects the pattern. The team had won only one game over the course of the first third of the season and had lost starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw to injury for much of the season as well. A comeback was considered impossible. Anyone who was connected to Steeler Nation at that time soon run out of superlatives to describe what happened over the course of the remainder of that season. Suffice to say that Pittsburgh came within two key injuries of being the first team to win three Super Bowls (they would fulfill that a couple of years later) and the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row.
The 2004 season ended in heartbreaking fashion as the Steelers, despite having the best record in football would lose the AFCCG, and did so once again at home. This became particularly poignant because it was believed to be the last game for Jerome Bettis. Burned in the collective memory is the image of Hines Ward in tears as the team came to terms with the depth of the disappointment and failure of that season. 2005 was thought of as being about 'win one for the Bus' but the fairy tale seemed to collapse when the team entered December out of the hunt for the division title and on the brink of elimination from the playoffs altogether. They then managed to sweep the table and secure the final playoff spot on the last Sunday of the season, then became the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl.
After a first round collapse in the 2007 playoffs under new coach Mike Tomlin and facing the most difficult schedule in the league in decades, most people, including the lion's share of Steeler Nation wrote the Steelers off early in 2008. They would win an unprecedented sixth Lombardi.
With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended for up to six games for what, compared to what goes on in football and the rest of the sports world, was not much of anything, and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes being traded away for next to nothing, the Steelers were written off in March by most. Eleven months later they would be in their eighth Super Bowl.
Get the pattern? So what are the indications of a similar pattern playing out in 2013?
We lost Mike Wallace.
So what? They're so many relevant responses to this I'm almost tripping over myself. Let's begin by pointing out that we lost number one receiver Plaxico Burress in 2005. Somehow we managed with Antwan Randle El and Cedric Wilson. How do you compare the current crop of receivers (including prodigal son Burress) with those guys? In 2010 we lost number one receiver Santonio Holmes. Somehow they managed to make it to the championship game with what was left, including a kid by the name of Brown who had trouble earning a helmet for most of that year.
But what about the loss of his speed? With due respect, how much speed do you need? Let's take the low hanging fruit, Sanders and Brown, off the table. Go to YouTube and check out the complete game video of Super Bowl 43. In the first quarter you'll notice that Nate Washington blows past the Cardinals deep coverage. The only reason he didn't score a ridiculously easy touchdown is that Ben under threw the ball allowing for a Cardinal defender to recover and knock it away. Limas Sweed got behind coverage a remarkable number of times which is what made his dropped passes all the more frustrating. Were they as fast as Wallace? Obviously not. Fast enough? You tell me.
But let's get cold blooded here. Looking at Steelers receivers over the past forty years, hell, looking at number one Steelers receivers that have left due to free agency or trade over just the last decade, where would you rank Wallace? Ahead of Plax and Santonio at similar points upon the continuum? I don't think so. Ahead of Swann, Stallworth, Lipps, Thigpen, Ward? Are you crazy? Why might we believe that the team can lose a number one receiver and not just survive but thrive? Because it has already been done twice in the last seven years.
The offensive line.
What about the offensive line? Yes, they are young and relatively inexperienced. The quality of their backups is a big unknown. We aren't even altogether sure beyond Kelvin Beachum who the backups are likely to be. And there is a history of injuries. Of these points only the last one could be of concern. As for the rest, let me give you one name: Darnell Stapleton. How about another one: Justin Hartwig. And just for fun: Chris Kemoeatu. These three guys were all starters on a Championship team and have the rings to prove it. I would contend that the top six linemen on the 2013 team are better than any of those three. And out of the remaining players in camp does anyone believe that a couple of guys can't be found who are just as good Stapleton, Hartwig and Kemoeatu? Is that too high a mountain to climb?
The defensive: old, slow and done?
Fortunately for Warren Sapp an intelligence test is not part of the induction criteria for the Hall of Fame. Yes, Keisel, Foote, Troy, Ike and Clark are over 30. And who else? And if you put any of them on the open market how many teams do you think would say 'Oh, they're too damn old' and pass them by? A certain segment of the fanbase was saying that Charlie Batch was old, slow and done for the past half decade at least. It is an attractive and clever argument because sooner or later it'll be true. You can't lose. However there is the matter of timing. How true was it last year in Baltimore? But all this may really be besides the point. By focusing on the old players you may be missing the really interesting part of the chess game.
The young guys.
A lot of people don't understand or simply lack the patience for the development process. Take the hand wringing over Cam Heyward. I would like for just one reporter to have the presence of mind to ask Brett Keisel where he was developmentally his third year in the league. In the Steelers system players like Maurkice Pouncey and, perhaps, Le'Veon Bell are outliers. Often players emerge after an apprenticeship that in some cases can be rather lengthy, or just longer than we would want to wait. Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen (and Keenan Lewis before him) William Gay, Lawrence Timmons, Jason Worilds, James Harrison, Willie Parker, none of them set the world on fire right out of the gate. And what may be really hard for some to accept is that short attention spans and the desire for instant gratification is understandable given the cultural context but represents dysfunctional thinking sometimes. How many quality contributors would have been prematurely cast aside if the team took to heart when certain fans, media and other 'experts' declared in their 'wisdom' that they were failures?
Many observers assume that if they don't make a splash immediately they never will. This misses a major element of the Steelers' genius. Yes, there are instant stars here, but there is also talent that will blossom in a year, two, three, maybe more. Its not a perfect process. There are duds here and there. Guys that don't comprehend the sense of urgency or are otherwise compromised and betrayed by either the fragility of their bodies or their psyches, but enough will eventually emerge. Six years ago all some people could see was that Joey Porter went away, they couldn't intuit that his replacement would be a defensive player of the year. They see Hampton, Farrior, Ward and others leave. The hope is that out of the group that includes McLendon, Sanders, Wheaton, Allen, Paulson and so many others are some who will meet and in some cases exceed the accomplishments of the departed.
This is flying under the radar at its essence. And there is one other factor to consider.
Excitement for the team with the best record in baseball is such that as one report states it, the attention of many Pittsburgh sports fans has not focused yet upon the Steelers.
So for all you members of Steeler Nation who are cynics, worrywarts and pessimists, have at it. Spread the news far and wide that the Steelers might not have it this year. The offensive line is too inexperienced and too thin, the defense is too old, as is its coordinator, they got nothing at tight end, nobody can replace Harrison and Hampton, Woodley is a fat fraud, Dwyer is fat too, and so is Redman. Ben and Todd Haley don't get along, plus Ben is old and broken, so is Troy, so is Brett, so is Plax, so is Dan Rooney. Jarvis Jones is too light in the ass. Shamarko Thomas is too short. The head coach is too young, too strict, too lenient, a twitter freak, too black, whatever. And we lost Mike Wallace, omg.
And go Bucs.
This could be a good year.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers Training Camp Updates
- League announcement both good and bad for Steelers
- OL depth still a problem
- Football Outsiders on BTSC
- Tomlin says tone of camp isn't reactionary
- Redman: We had missed assignments last year
- Troy Polamalu has a 'contusion to the birth certificate'
- Cortez Allen says his rehab is "day-to-day" in a Tomlinesque diagnosis
- Maybe Jarvis Jones can trump the odds and start right away
- Steelers offense to be 'faster-paced than ever' in 2013
- Positive reviews of Steelers weight and conditioning in training camp suggests obvious problems in 2012
- Pat Kirwan sticking with his prediction of Steelers playing in AFC Championship game