Grantland columnist Bill Simmons and a buddy of his developed a concept a long time ago to explain how a team can improve with the loss of a high level player.
They called it The Ewing Theory - which is a slicker way to say "addition by subtraction."
The crux of it centers around the idea of the need to give one particular player priority over others - whether that's shots in basketball or innings in baseball or touches in football - makes those around that player worse off. Conversely, when that star player is no longer there, it forces others to fill in for those lost chances, as well as gives them an opportunity to shine without the shadow being cast.
This theory is named for former Georgetown and New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing - they postulated those teams were actually better when Ewing wasn't on the court, although they weren't terrible when he was on it.
Dave introduced me to the Ewing Theory three years ago, and we've been tinkering with it like Voltaire and Thoreau ever since. Eventually, we decided that two crucial elements needed to be in place for any situation to qualify for "Ewing" status:
A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
Not to suggest Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is to blame for the Steelers' running game woes, but it's actually quite simple; I'd argue no athlete of the last five years or so seems to fit the aforementioned criteria better than Pouncey.
The Steelers have won exactly one playoff game with Pouncey on the field - their 31-24 win over the Ravens in which the team had less than 300 yards of offense. He went down early against the Jets in the conference championship, but the Steelers rushed for 166 total yards - more than twice as many as they had against Baltimore, and the Jets were third in the NFL against the rush that year.
Simmons himself wrote off the Steelers' chances in Week 2 against Cincinnati.
Clearly, an in-game replacement is not the same as a full week (and a day) to prepare. Kelvin Beachum was overwhelmed and will not be asked to fill in at center again in a starting capacity.
As BTSC analyst Steel34D points out, Velasco is actually a pretty good center. So is Pouncey, but here's the thing: Velasco was unemployed before right guard David DeCastro crashed into Pouncey's knee. He stayed in shape, and waited for an injury phone call. He needed the White Knight Scenario, where a high-level center would go down and that team needed a replacement.
A team with a high-level center isn't necessarily going to have a back-up center who can't play another position. If Velasco is only a center, and does not have position flexibility, he's either a starter or he's assisting the local high school team. But he has to be an outstanding center if he wants to keep a job.
The Steelers didn't even bring another one in. They knew he was their guy. He signed less than 24 hours after the Steelers' loss to the Titans, and by the end of the week, he was declared the center.
On the other side of this, the other four offensive linemen took notice Pouncey wasn't there. Regardless of excuses, odds are good they did not hear many pleasantries upon watching film after that game. It seems logical they received a few pointers, to put it mildly, and their attention was captured heading into a primetime game against a better opponent.
Their attention is captured. There's a new and motivated center - who's paycheck depends solely on his ability to put together the pieces of an offensive line that consists of injuries and fallen expectations.
Maybe Pouncey wasn't the problem this whole time, but rather, his presence was. His star power and media attention had a detrimental effect on the line as a unit; they were led by a superstar.
Jeff Hartings, not a superstar. Dermontti Dawson, not a superstar.
Velasco, not a superstar. Not Sean Mahan, either.
Pouncey is absolutely a talented player and, at worst, among the best athletes for his position in the league. But it's really hard to ignore the Ewing Theory potential here. It may turn out the exact thing that cause millions to write the season off is the flag under which this offensive line unites.
Because ultimately, Pouncey is the constant among this line. Different coordinators, different offensive line groups. Even different pairs of guards and tackles. Pouncey, even with injury concerns, is the one who's been there through it all.
Did I mention the first game the Steelers had a 100 yard rusher last season? Week 7, at the Cincinnati Bengals. The first game that year Pouncey did not start at center. He played one play against Tennessee - oddly enough - then missed the next week's game against the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Will this be a coincidence? After all, Ewing was a center, too.
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