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Rooney's Battleship, or, The Persistence of the Steeler Way

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Sorry to have been MIA for the past few days, but I'm finally back from la belle France. I was sad to leave, but it's good to be back in the U.S. of A., and especially to be back in the Burgh. And OTAs started yesterday, so what better time to be back!

Ever since Homer J. wrote one of his usual terrific articles, "The Immaculate Selection: Luck as the Residue of Design," I've been meaning to write this article. Not because of Homer's article itself, although I loved it, naturally. But dogthebus's comment sparked this post. I started to edit his comment for brevity, but it is sheer poetry, so I didn't:

Homer, thank you. (for about ten times ten and from the bottom of my heart, really)

I tend to drag my feet with what is old and what is new, Steeler-wise, maybe everything wise but it shows up most when I’m trying to accept the realities of who makes up a football team. (I’m still a rod woodson fan and i can get pretty crabby about what happened to send him elsewise)

Reading this, I have to admit I centered on "the old lions." Why does it move me to tears to think of the Steelers taking the field without HInes and Potsie and Hokie and Aaron Smith? Well, it does. And oddly enough, it’s the absence of Potsie that gets me in the gut and puts tears in my eyes. I will miss him more than anyone even if I could see it coming, could see how slow he’d become, on and on. (I don’t want statistics. he was more to this team than numbers. He held people together. He was deeply sane and deeply helpful to his teammates and Mike Tomlin said he had a rare knack for pulling people together because he was so willing to put himself in other people’s shoes.)

But, Homer, you’ve managed to make me put that bit of myself I was trying to withhold into the hopes for this team. this new team. Like a few others, I’ve been trying to resist caring about them because, well there’s the death knell of too much excitement only to watch them fall apart and then there’s the loyalty to the old dogs I loved so much, but you’ve done it.

Thank you. I feel like I have something to pull for now and while I’ll mourn the absence of those old lions (Potsie, Hines, Hokie, Smitty—for pete’s sake, when was the last time I watched a game and didn’t see them there if only on the sidelines??) you made me believe this is a dynasty. We believe in an ethic, not just the men who embody it.

There is a difficult balance here. The Steelers are about more than the men who make it up. That should be patently obvious when we notice Mean Joe Greene is no longer on the roster. The players change through the years, and some of us mourn the passing of the guard, but the team is the same. Or is it?

We talk each season about the team and their "identity" for the year. In doing so, we are trying to puzzle out how this given group of men is going to work together, how they will respond to adversity, and how they are likely to fare as a result. But are they still the Steelers? What, exactly, is/are the Steelers?

There is a standard philosophical question about identity called "Ship of Theseus." It isn’t a new question. It was first posed in Greek myth, and Plutarch wrote about it over 2000 years ago:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Philosophers are still divided to this day as to whether you can replace elements of a given thing over time and still end up with the same thing in the end. A lot of philosophers say no—the thing you end up with is not the same as what you started with. That's hard for me to see, because in the case of the ship it seems fairly obvious—you've still got a ship, looking exactly like the old one. But this would not necessarily be obvious to a philosopher. So let's look at how a philosopher might extrapolate the question. One way would be to look at it in the case of music groups. As we do, we note the question becomes rather more difficult.

While some rock bands have the same personnel from the time they form until the time they disband, a great many bands have gone through changes, even major changes, in personnel. There are a few bands completely composed of musicians who were not a part of the original band. They have the same name, but are they the same band?

Pop/rock groups tend to come and go fairly quickly, on the whole, although I think Mick Jagger may soon be doing shows in a walker. But classical ensembles can continue for a great many years.

The New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony in the U.S., first played a concert in 1842, 170 years ago. During this time they have gone through many thousands of musicians and 23 different Music Directors. Many of these directors are some of the most famous names in classical music: Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and a Pittsburgher, Lorin Maazel. Each man had his own style, and each one stamped this style on the orchestra. The current director, Alan Gilbert, brings a very different emphasis in programming and style of direction than did his predecessor, Lorin Maazel. As did Maazel to his predecessor, Kurt Masur, and so on, all the way back to the founding director, Ureli Corelli Hill. (As Dave Barry would say, that would be a great name for a rock band...)

If you think about it, not a single thing is the same now as it was in 1842. All of the people involved are different, naturally. They perform in a different space, it is a larger orchestra, the musicians no longer wear white gloves to greet the patrons, and so on. I would guess if one could be somehow transported back to 1842 to that first concert you would find it was quite a different group. Probably not nearly as good, for one thing. But the philosophical question is, if it isn't the same group, at what point did it change? When the first music director left? When the first instrumentalist retired or left or was fired?

If we look at the Steelers organization, we see a similar case. The coaching staff, the management, and even the name is different. The team began in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, and didn't become the Steelers until 1940. And it didn't stay the Steelers for long. Art Rooney sold the team to a New York-based entrepreneur at the end of 1940 and used part of the proceeds to buy a half-interest in the Eagles. The new owner of the Steelers renamed the team the Iron Men. But Rooney regretted the decision and did a deal with the buyer four months later. The Philadelphia Eagles, owned by Art Rooney and his friend Bert Bell, moved to Pittsburgh and became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Iron Men moved to Philadelphia and became the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then of course there were the war years, featuring first the Steagles and then the Car-Pitts. In 1945 they became the Steelers once more, this time, we trust, for good.

In recent years the Rooneys haven't always held a controlling interest, although that finally got settled about a month ago. And as we all know, the Steelers weren't even a championship team, or at least a contending one, until the 1970s. They never even made it to the playoffs until 1947, 14 years after their founding, and never made it to another playoff game until 1972.

So, like the New York Philharmonic, the Steelers have had different management, different coaches, have played in different venues (Forbes Field to start, shared with the baseball Pirates,) have had different ownership, and naturally many different players. Unlike the New York Phil, they haven't always even had the same name or been based in the same city. The New York Philharmonic has always been considered the gold standard for American orchestras (although it hasn't always actually been that.) The Steelers were the "Same Old Steelers" (and you can guess what that means) until the 1970s. Who, really, are the Eagles, or the Cleveland Browns, or the Los Angeles, excuse me, St. Louis Rams, or the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Aristotle appears to have the answer, at least to the battleship question. If you examine it in the light of his four causes, the formal cause, the material cause, the final cause, and the efficient cause, Aristotle would presumably say you have the same battleship. (He hasn't returned my calls, so I can't confirm this.)

Although the stuff used to make the battleship (material cause) is different, the design is the same (formal cause.) And although different workers may be replacing the parts (efficient cause) the purpose of the ship is the same (final cause.) Therefore it is the same ship, because the structure and purpose are the same although the components vary.

When we look at the Steelers, there is no question the material cause is different. The only question is what we consider to be the material cause. I would contend it would be the players. Ben Roethlisberger is not Johnny Clements, although there are certain similarities. During the 1947 season Clements was second in the league in rushing yards. Not among quarterbacks, among everyone. I guess he liked to improvise. Clements quarterbacked the Steelers from 1946-48, including the 1947 21-0 playoff loss—to the Eagles, ironically enough. (Thus the old Eagles were beaten by the old Steelers, or the old Pittsburgh Iron Men, or something like that...) And for that matter, is the Ben Roethlisberger we will see in 2012 the same as the 2004 rookie? Almost certainly not.

What about the efficient cause? I suppose that would be the coaches and suchlike. And while the number of head coaches for the Steelers is unusually small, at least since 1969 when Chuck Noll signed on, still there have been 16 since the founding of the team. As with music directors of the NY Phil, each coach has put his stamp on the team, or at least the ones who lasted more than a few years. (Nine of the 16 coaches lasted three seasons or less.)

So, like the battleship example, the material and efficient causes have differed through the years. But what about the formal cause and the final cause? Is the "design" of the Steelers and its purpose the same from year to year?

Although it would certainly be possible to argue otherwise, I believe they are. The "formal cause" would, I think, be the "design" of a team—number of players, the function of each position, and so on. Although some things have changed in the years since 1933—players don't play both offense and defense, for example—it has changed throughout the league as it has seemed good to the NFL brass and the owners. As fans we might not be entirely happy about some changes, but the main thing is, everyone is playing the same game. (Insert obligatory Patriots/Saints/Team of Choice comment here : ) The "final cause" would be to win football games.

Can we possibly even consider our "battleship" to be the same from year to year? The answer, I believe, is yes, and the conundrum was solved by dogthebus: "We believe in an ethic, not just the men who embody it."

The use of the word "ethic" may be misleading, because I am not trying to claim (nor, I think, is dogthebus) the Steelers are somehow on a higher moral plane than the rest of the NFL. No, it is more about what we've come to term "the Steeler Way," about which Ivan wrote so beautifully last week.

The "Steeler Way," or as Ivan termed it, the "Pittsburgh Way," does contain a number of elements I would claim were virtuous in and of themselves. They are very old-fashioned virtues, not currently popular, such as humility, selflessness, and hard work. These precepts are, as Ivan wrote, rooted in the Pittsburgh blue-collar mentality and in the character of the Rooney family.

But I believe the organization is now in a different phase of the "Steeler Way." It appeared during the era of the men whose passing dogthebus lamented. James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Chris Hoke—these men, and some still on the team, such as Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel, took the Steeler Way to a new level. They took it from a general management philosophy right into the locker room. The Steeler Way was no longer just the example of the ownership or the exhortation of the coaches—it became the heart of the way the men on the team interacted with one another.

Not all of them, naturally, and not right away. But this idea of putting oneself second and the team first—for real, not just for lip service—has seemingly infiltrated the ethos of the players. Even second-year players expect to help out the rookies. When a team functions this way, even major crises can be weathered, whether it be the loss of your quarterback for the first four games or an embarrassing loss to your biggest rival.

The burning question for the coming season is whether the loss of so many acknowledged leaders in the locker room is going to lead to a gradual loss of the principles they espoused. The answer lies in just how successful they were at passing along this style of leadership. Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau at least, and probably the majority of the coaching staff encourage this by their own leadership, and this has to help.

The "final cause" or ultimate purpose for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to win football games. This is one of the very few fixed points we can find as we study the organization. But the Steelers seem to have found a way to win without losing their values, or their souls, if you will, in the process. This is a very precious and vulnerable thing. But if Homer is right, the organization is in good hands:

Tomlin had also prepared for the day his beloved, but aging lions could play no more. He not only had starters in waiting for all of them, but he had young leaders, as well, ready to step up. Character has always been highly prized by the Steeler front office, and Hines' pups and Aaron's pups are ready to continue the tradition. Guys like Antonio Brown, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward, and veteran pickup Jerricho Cotchery will provide the strength of character and leadership that they learned from Smitty, Hines, Potsie and Hokey.