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Evaluating the Steelers: discernment vs judgment

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Negative criticism is not a sign of disloyalty. But with due respect, the issue isn't negative vs. positive, its the difference between discernment and judgment.

Matt Sullivan

The important story here is the opportunity to condescend to part of the fan base.

I thought that comment by Steelzombie deserved a response, as well as to Anthony's recent post. It's not the first time I've been accused of being critical of the fan base. And why might that be? Part of the fallout over this past weekend's disaster by the Lake is an ongoing disagreement between two perceived camps: the 'Gloom and Doomers or Negative Nellies' and the 'Pollyannas' (my term). This is really an incredibly rich subject and I wish I had the time to go into detail over all the various aspects of the analysis, and of even greater importance to the reader, why I care and why should you. Hopefully I can provide enough of a perspective that it may help us all to gain a better understanding of the conflict.

First the obvious. As Anthony has said there is nothing inherently wrong (or right) with either negative or positive criticism. The issue is one of context. The key is to understand the difference between the concepts of discernment and judgment. Those familiar with the Christian faith will recognize the admonishment against exercising judgment. You don't have to be religious to find value in this. Put simply (or simplistically) don't jump to conclusions. Many have misinterpreted this to mean that one must not exercise discernment. It would be irresponsible and mindless to not exercise discernment. All too often it is irresponsible and mindless to exercise judgment. What's the difference?

The Steelers committed eight turnovers on Sunday and that's not good. In fact its terrible. That's discernment.

The Steelers committed eight turnovers on Sunday and lost, therefore, the coach can't coach, the players suck and we're not going to the playoffs. That's a judgment. Or, if you prefer, the Steelers committed eight turnovers on Sunday and lost, but we're still going to the Super Bowl. Also a judgment.

In each case a conclusion has been drawn that is not supported by the facts. Presented with a snapshot we claim to have seen a movie. This is why judgment is viewed as a 'sin'. We fill in the unknowns, which are usually considerable, with whatever mindset is dominating our lives at the moment and then claim that we are dealing in 'truth'. And then accuse the other person of being 'delusional' (pot meet kettle). Occasionally, subsequent events may bear out our assessments, but this may be more in line with the broken clock being right twice a day rather than there being any real display or either knowledge or wisdom. And a disturbing companion to this process is often character assassination of either the subjects of our critiques, those who dare disagree with our conclusions or both.

Based on these snapshots players and coaches vacillate in our discussion not merely between being heroes or goats, but rather from being hall of famers to being worthless. Examples would include Dick LeBeau, Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon, Ramon Foster, Casey Hampton, Will Allen, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, David Paulson, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch, Mike Adams, Curtis Brown, Chris Rainey, Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley. Is there anyone left?

What about the future? In the short term what happens in Baltimore this weekend? Most of us thought the Steelers would go into Oakland and win. Most of us thought that the Steelers would go to New York (New Jersey) and lose. So the prudent answer would be who knows? Or as the saying goes, that is why they play the games. And for the long term? Using history as a basis, this is what is still possible.

Like the 2005 Steelers they could make the playoffs as a wild card, run the table in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl

Like the 2009 Steelers they could continue what would become a death spiral and miss the playoffs.

Like the 2011 Steelers they could limp into the playoffs and make an early exit.

Or, less likely, but still not mathematically impossible

Like the 2007 Steelers they could win the division and then flame out in the playoffs.

Like the 2008 Steelers they could win the division and then win the Super Bowl

Like the 2010 Steelers they could win the division and then lose the Super Bowl.

And, of course, there are other possibilities not grounded in history.

So there are plenty of reasons to skew positive or negative concerning the team's prospects. The intriguing question would be what is driving this behavior in either direction? There are clearly differing concepts behind what it means to be a fan. The dictionary defines a fan as being an "admirer", others probably would be more comfortable with the term "critic". At the extremes of each group are, in the former case, the real pollyannas who either see no flaws or casually dismiss them, and the real gloom and doomers who only see flaws. other admirers are strategically optimistic, that is to say just as many parents seek to encourage their children by downplaying setbacks and emphasizing successes so do many fans see their role as providing something close to unconditional support. Others are strategic in the other direction, their approach is more grounded in perfectionism, and frankly speaking, fear. The benefit of the approach being an inoculation against disappointment. This would be tough love.

Other factors impact this as well. One of the criticisms of the fantasy football culture is that it places even greater emphasis on the snapshot. It really is all about what have you done for me lately where the smart moves are all about jettisoning and replacing non-performers in order to win the competition. But when this mindset is applied to an actual football team it is a recipe for disaster. In addition, impatience, runs counter to understanding the history and the methodology of the Steeler organizational culture. When its said that Steeler football is rarely pretty that really is close to the truth. The future of this team is still unclear, so positive or negative spin may say more about the critic than the reality on the ground at this point in the process.