The state of the Steelers Part Four: can the Steelers thrive within a sport in crisis?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Pittsburgh doesn't control all the factors that impact their ability to compete, though in the past they have adapted better than most. Can they continue in 2014 as dark clouds gather on the NFL's horizon?

In 1971 the Pittsburgh Pirates behind the MVP performance of Roberto Clemente won the World Series. But that wasn't the biggest sporting event of the year. In 1971 the Dallas Cowboys won the first of their five Lombardi Trophies. But that wasn't the biggest sporting event of the year. The biggest sporting event in 1971 by far was the heavyweight fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier.

The two subsequent fights involving Ali and Frazier were also huge events, as was Ali's championship fight with George Foreman, fights featuring Sugar Ray Leonard and the likes of Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler. The trend continued with Mike Tyson. In the middle of the 20th Century the Big Three of sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. If you're a Pittsburgh sports fan and over the age of fifty five than your first love in sports was probably the Pirates. Until the Super Bowl era professional football trailed baseball and even college football in popularity.

Run of the mill boxing matches were routinely shown in prime time and on sports anthology shows on the weekends. The big events were often limited access pay for view events that required that in order to see said event live you had to go to a sports arena or theater to watch it on closed circuit television. This was at a time when paying to see a broadcast of any event was highly unusual and frowned upon by most consumers.

Now quick, name the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. How about the winner of the last Kentucky Derby. On a Monday night in October the St Louis Cardinals played a home World Series game while across town the football Rams, a bottom feeding NFL team participated in a Monday Night game. The Rams game had higher ratings. What's my point?

The dominance that the NFL has held over the sports and entertainment landscape over nearly fifty years is in no way guaranteed to continue. Trends are in play that, if not interrupted, could see this sport not so much disappear, but go the way of boxing; a much less relevant, sideline spectacle. Regulars on this site have all commented on various aspects of these trends, many of which have had an adverse effect on what I would argue is the game's premier franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Any comprehensive discussion of the state of the Steelers cannot just concern itself with coaching, the quality of the talent and other internal issues without being cognizant of the landscape within which the team has to navigate. What follows are some of the broader issues that will have an impact on how Pittsburgh is able to compete in the coming year and beyond, plus a quick look forward at the likely conversations about the team that will occur during the winter and spring.

Injuries

We've come to think of injuries as a peculiar affliction suffered by the Steelers alone. So we concern ourselves with issues such as individual and team training regimens thinking that therein lies both the cause and the solution. But if you're paying attention, injuries are a league wide problem, and they are increasing, so much so that it has reached the point where it is being seen as degrading the product. While we have talked about, and rightly so in my opinion, the role of injuries in derailing entire seasons, we had on display this past weekend with the Chiefs/Colts game, an instance where it could be said that injuries derailed a game. What's changed here?

There are some easy answers in some of the short term developments occurring throughout the league. For one, with the revelations regarding head injuries there has been, for ethical or legal reasons a redefinition of what constitutes a crippling injury. In a bygone era of, say, a year or two ago, some of the Chief players would have had an ammonia capsule shoved up their nose and directed back into the fray. Some have pointed to the new training limits outlined in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. That may be a possibility as well. However...

In Gary Pomerantz' book Their Life's Work he describes former Steelers defensive lineman Ernie Holmes' weight having ballooned up to over six hundred pounds. If you think about it that should not be that uncommon an occurrence for big men who have stopped a life of constant workouts. But that's not necessarily the picture we get of a lot of former players. Many of them have become very small in a short period of time. I'm not dismissing the possibility that they are merely poster children for Jenny Craig, but you have to consider the possibility that they are just returning to something resembling their natural weight.

In 1971 very few professional football players tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. I understand that dietary and training regimens have changed, but even so, this could be viewed as kinda radical. I feel confident our steroid problems are behind us, but technology continues to advance. Would anyone really be surprised that there wasn't some human growth manipulation, maybe not detectable with current methods, maybe not even illegal currently, as steroid use was not when players began juicing decades ago.

So you put 300+ pounds on a frame designed to carry much less. You can strengthen and condition the muscles to handle it, but what about the tendons, ligaments and joints? You have men the size of sumo wrestlers, the strength of Olympic caliber weight lifters with world class sprinters speed having miniature car wrecks on every play. Its amazing and a testament to their superb conditioning that the injury rate isn't even higher.

Then there is the matter of the conditioning arms race. A feature on Kelvin Beachum at Steelers.com this week informs us that the second year lineman is continuing workouts and film study despite the fact that his season ended a week ago. He will be applauded for his work ethic and some would argue that given the level of competition across the league and within his team, plus what he is being paid that he should be expected to do no less. But I can't help but think that there might be something to say about dialing it down for a time and allowing the body to rest and recover.

Finally, there is the matter of what can only be described in the final analysis as corporate greed. Three Steelers offensive linemen went down with injuries, including Fernando Velasco being lost for the season late in the fourth quarter of the Ravens game. In an intense game, as all Steelers/Ravens contests are, with much more than just pride on the line, and (coincidentally?) after only five days rest these players, apparently mysteriously, start going down. If the league were really concerned about player safety they'd start by abolishing the abomination of Thursday football games. And in the case of traditional Thanksgiving contests manipulate the bye weeks to compensate. They would also trash any consideration of expanding the regular season or playoff schedules. But you know that won't happen. The corporate logic in this culture which goes far beyond the parameters of just the NFL dictates that you maximize short term profits by any means necessary, even killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Consequently, injuries are probably going to continue to be a rather large minefield that will have to be negotiated in order to achieve competitive success.

Officiating

I'm sitting in a sports bar on Monday night next to a middle age woman, an Auburn alumnus, who is there to root for her alma mater in the national championship game (poor baby). She's a talkative sort and we have a wide ranging conversation during the first half of the game (I left at halftime). At one point she says that she loves watching the college game but has no interest in professional football. Why? "I think those games are fixed by the Mafia". Its not the first time I've heard similar sentiments recently. Whether there is a whiff of truth to such feelings is really besides the point. Especially in this type of situation the perception can render the reality irrelevant.

Yes, us Steelers fans and fans from other teams are going to have a skewed perspective from time to time. No call made against us is legitimate, no call in favor flawed. Its bias, I get it. But Goodell and Company better get it. Twice in three weeks Pittsburgh has been subject to apologies from the league for on field gaffes that could have cost the team a game in the first instance and likely deprived them of a playoff berth in the second. Add to that the huge controversy over Mike Tomlin standing on the sidelines, and punishments rendered as well that are to come. The best case scenario for the NFL is incompetence. The alternative is far worse. In either case a monumental integrity problem is brewing. It can and probably will have monumental consequences if not properly addressed.

Greed

They had trouble selling out three playoff games this past week. Red flag.

I am not and have never been convinced that the current arrangement concerning roster sizes and salary restrictions are being driven primarily by competitive or necessary financial considerations. The NFL is a billion dollar enterprise that has managed to maneuver itself into being classified as a "nonprofit". It manipulates, and dare I say extorts communities, in some cases entire states, to subsidize the construction and maintenance of its facilities and then turns around and gouges those self same tax payers for every loose bit of change in their pockets. I described earlier this year attending a Redskins game. A brief review.

My ticket's face value is $110 (a gift). Parking is $75. You can't bring bags, even women's purses into the stadium. What items you do bring must be contained in a bag that the team sells you. It is considered appropriate to wear at least one item of team apparel that, if a jersey, is at least another $100. Food and beverages are in double figures per item. Children might want a souvenir. Add the total and multiply by a family of four. Or by 70,000. And of course everybody knows that the real money here is with the corporate suites. But the really big money is in rights fees for media.

So I have a problem when you claim that you can't afford to put, say, 70 players in uniform on game day and put in place a salary structure such that a team is capable of retaining the vast majority of their players if they so choose year to year thereby rewarding those organizations who show competence in player procurement and development, while punishing those who do not, requiring them to either improve or yield to those who can. The NFL has managed to achieve the truly creative achievement of making both capitalism and socialism look bad.

Some of the related issues would take a book, and all run counter to the values that drive both the success of the Steelers and that of a truly healthy business enterprise.

Favoring consumers over fans. The game becomes whatever it needs to be to feed a sense of consumer entitlement. Have you noticed how some 'fans' behave as if failing to make the playoffs constitutes some sort of breach of contract and as such they are in position to demand certain changes (punishments) which the team is obligated to honor? Dude, you're just a fan. The ultimate expression of this is fantasy where consumer interest is completely decoupled from the fate of a team. And, given the fact that many fantasy programs involve money as prizes, we find ourselves back to issues related to gambling, integrity and the like.

Commodification of players. A form of objectification, like slavery, which fits the consumer model well. Players are just an entertainment unit to be consumed. No other aspect of their humanity need be respected. I acknowledge having a problem with this. My great nephew's godfather plays for the (gulp) Ravens. My son in law's college roommate and friend is currently playing for the Broncos. I have several friends who are former NFL players. I take umbrage therefore to how players, any player is often talked about and characterized in disrespectful and often disposable terms.

A couple of years ago, a regular on this site was apparently out and about and began ranting about Steelers cornerback William Gay in the manner in which many have become accustomed. He was then horrified to discover that the person he was talking to was Gay's girlfriend. He had the integrity to be ashamed. The worst of these players have reached a height in their chosen field that most of us will not come close to realizing in our own. That doesn't mean they should be put on pedestal, I know I don't, but conversely they don't deserve the opposite extreme of being something that we scrap off the bottom of our shoes when we feel that their usefulness for providing entertainment is done.

Respectful treatment is such a rarity that the Steelers receive special credit for treating their players like men, and defines a particular competitive edge. Players who come here, particularly those who have had the opportunity to experience other programs want to stay, want to come to work and want to bust their tails for their owners, their coaches and their teammates. The ones who go away often fall all over themselves trying to get back. As Rebecca Rollett has chronicled in the series she has been running this season character does count across the board.

Key issues for 2014

I usually don't concern myself with predictions, but this is so easy I can't resist. No psychic abilities are involved, just a decent memory because some version of what follows plays out every year.

Salary cap Hell

Every year over the last several has been the year that the bill will finally come due and the Steelers will go into the salary cap apocalypse. Maybe this year those fears will be well founded. But its worth noting that in a surprising number of instances the Steelers end up doing what a lot of folk say they couldn't possibly achieve. Why the disconnect?

It has already been discussed how we take unknowns about the Steelers operations and then project our fantasies, fears and misconceptions upon them. We seen how that has enabled some to misjudge, for example, Mike Tomlin. Well, Tomlin would be the equivalent of an open book test when compared to Omar Khan and the Rooneys. Underlying some of the thinking in this regard are assumptions that could be interpreted as pretty insulting when you think of it, though maybe true of other organizations. That deals are dealt with in isolation with no regard to the big picture or long term consequences. That these people don't know months and perhaps in some cases years ahead which way the wind is blowing with the league financial parameters. That they are in essence being caught with their pants down, anticipating outcomes that (surprisingly) didn't come to pass, making business decisions based upon sentimentality or even revenge. Essentially being a bit stupid.

Let's take as an example Antonio Brown's deal. The narrative that some subscribe to is that the Steelers offered Mike Wallace a deal that he and his people did not accept. Jilted, the Steelers then offered 'Wallace's money' to Brown, and fortunately for them everything turned out rather nicely. Let's try an alternative narrative. The Steelers knew that Wallace was a "one trick pony" and weren't going to get stupid and offer him what others were willing to pay. They also may have known that Brown was on the verge of breaking out. Imagine the financial pickle they would have been in if they had waited until after this season to attempt to sign him. But of course that's just speculation on my part. So this spring the walls may indeed be falling down for the Steelers. But based upon what has transpired before I would say let's just wait and see.

The high priced veterans are all expendable

Earlier this season Brett Keisel confessed that the team might not have been ready to play in the early stages of a particular loss. Aha! Keisel just dropped a dime on the coaching staff exposing them as not having the team ready to play. Alternative narrative; Keisel was implicating himself, Ryan Clark and Ben Roethlisberger. It is the job of the captains, in part to make sure that a team is focused and at its peak at the beginning of a game. It was a task that these players were unaccustomed to because in the past it fell to individuals like James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, etc. Know I'm repeating myself but talent that is in decline is not the only consideration here. Championship experience in combination with veteran leadership is important and difficult to find. To assume that players are being retained out of a sense of sentimentality is narrow thinking. To be sure some veterans are going, maybe most that have been speculated upon. But the leadership they bring will be difficult to replace.

In a related item, I'm really glad that Jason Worilds and Fernando Velasco stepped up and performed well this season. As tempting as it may seem to some it does not mean that Pro Bowlers LaMarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey are now expendable. Does this really have to be explained?

Pittsburgh should get neck deep in the free agent market

No. They should not.

The 2014 draft will provide instant relief and upgrades for the coming season

Don't count on it. Mind you, it may be a very good draft, but so were the last two, and only Le'Veon Bell would meet my criteria for instant relief.

The panic and negativity are behind us

In your dreams. And I can be sympathetic to a point. Some project worst case scenarios in order to protect their hearts. Some are like the nitpicking parent who is never satisfied ('Hey Mom, I just won the Nobel Prize', 'Yes, but I'm still waiting for grandchildren'). And some are simply perfectionists, who, in addition, believe that an honest critique must be couched in real or perceived shortcomings. On the other hand I believe in the concept of internal trolls and others whose agenda really is steeped in unrelenting negativity. To these people Tomlin will always be an incompetent affirmative action hire and Ben will be a rapist. The team's strong finish and escape from a losing record is not a repudiation or a defeat, merely a setback to be overcome. Watch for it.

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