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The Early Case for the Steelers Success in 2012

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I've had one really great coaching success in my lifetime. I took over a girls basketball team that had not won a game the previous season and guided them to an undefeated season and a state championship. I wish I could say that our performance was solely the result of my coaching brilliance; that would be a nice fantasy but ultimately untrue. We did have pretty good talent. Half of the girls on our ten player roster would go on to play basketball in college; another three would have the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics as well. Nonetheless, maybe difficult to believe, there were other teams in our league that were more talented and experienced.

Our strength was that the difference between our #1 player and our #10 player wasn't that great. And my coaching philosophy as it relates to playing time could be summarized thusly; ‘what have you done for me lately'? Practices were fierce; with a heavy emphasis on fundamentals usually climaxed by a scrimmage between equally matched groups with the losers having to run suicides. The competition and challenges faced in practice was more daunting than what they experienced in games most of the time. I wasn't much of a stat person then (or now for that matter), so it wasn't until the end of the year that I went over our game statistics. I was amazed to discover that eight out of ten players had led the team in scoring at least once, and that nine out of ten had scored in double figures at least once.

Okay, so this is all very nice, but what's the point? How does this relate to the Steelers?

"Everybody with a helmet on is in the mix," - Mike Tomlin (2010)

I'm reading this piece on Steelers tight end Weslye Saunders and find myself wondering whether or not he'll make the team. It's important to understand the reasoning here; yes, Saunders has some ‘character concerns' that might torpedo his career. But you have to also consider that in spite of possessing prodigious talent he may not rise any higher than being the third tight end on the roster. That fact in combination with the character issues may indeed be enough to sink Saunders. Personally, I hope not.

The point is that Tomlin's quote, something that might normally be dismissed as a platitude, something you might feel obligated to say but, in most circumstances, really isn't grounded in reality, may be actually coming true in the case of the 2012 Steelers. They appear to be approaching a point where everyone who has a helmet by September will be in the mix, not to mention the fact that because of numbers there may be quite a few that could be in the mix but won't due to the fact that there aren't enough helmets to go around.

Think about it; the "Two dogs, one bone" concept, originally used to describe the competition for playing time between WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown is now the reality among most of the position groups on the team. Perhaps only at OLB and maybe Safety is there not a situation where there are too many dogs and not enough bones. Otherwise competition is breaking out all over the place: Hampton, McLendon, Ta'amu at nose guard, Keisel, Hood, Heyward at defensive end, Lewis, Allen, Brown, Frederick at cornerback, Miller, Pope, Saunders, Paulson at tight end. Do I really need to mention the situation at offensive line, running back, wide receiver, or backup quarterback? Even the long snappers, punters and place kickers are in the mix.

It should be expected that some of these competitions may not amount to much, but there is reason to be optimistic that many, if not most may well exceed expectations and result in some very hard choices for both the coaching staff and the front office. But regardless of the outcomes the concept is sound. There is good reason to expect that the dynamics and synergy generated will weed out the weak, make good players better and, perhaps propel superior players to greatness.

A good question at this point would be how do we know that this is, in fact, the dynamic that is playing out with Steelers? On Friday Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette wrote that there is grumbling in Ravens country because nearly 20 players, including Ray Lewis had not been present at OTAs. Bouchette then compared the situation in Steelers camp where there is much hand wringing among the press and the fans (but not the team) concerning the absence of Mike Wallace. Is there any significance to this? Back to my basketball team.

We usually met briefly at the beginning of practice for announcements and to preview the day's schedule. One day one of the players announced that she would be missing the two games scheduled for the weekend because her family would be out of town. Her teammates responded with an outpouring of sorrow and regret. This lasted about five seconds. Then the conversation immediately segued into a lively discussion on who was going to get the absent girl's playing time. The girl looked on with a stunned expression on her face. Imagine that you are dying and your relatives are discussing how they are going to divvy up your possessions while you are still alive and present in the room. The message was clear; her teammates would mourn her, might even shed tears because of her absence, but it would be a very brief funeral, and there would be joy in the morning (more playing time for everybody). At the next practice the girl announced that she would not be accompanying her family on the trip, that arrangements had been made for her to stay with a neighbor and that she would be at the games. Nobody was getting her playing time.

One of the challenges of coaching youth sports is that many parents and players took a very casual attitude to practices. Before the season began I had prepared what I felt was an obligatory speech on the importance of making as many of the practices as possible. With this team I never had to make that speech. I did have to make a speech about not practicing when one was deathly ill or contagious or injured. But even when they couldn't practice they showed up; bundled up, feverish, miserable but present. This wasn't required but it was understood to be the standard.

Another speech I made was about grades. They improved or at least did not suffer because that was part of standard as well. Specifically, it was emphasized that sports participation would not be an excuse for poor or deteriorating performance in school. To the contrary, beyond injury or illness the one legitimate reason to miss or be denied participation in practices or games was due to poor academic performance.

All ten players attended college (I'm certain that at least nine graduated); one was class president in high school, one a valedictorian. All ten played varsity basketball for four different high schools with six serving as team captains.

The thing about creating intense internal competition that is counter-intuitive is that it strengthens group cohesion provided that the competition is seen as being fair, legitimate and comprehensive. It can't be viewed as artificial; a manipulated or ginned up conflict as a method of controlling players rather than advancing team competitiveness. It can't be viewed as being punitive. And no one can be viewed as being exempt, especially your ‘best' players.

When those conditions are met then every single player on the team is deeply invested in the team because each has a legitimate role. Instead of being viewed as a spare part, only to be utilized in an emergency or a practice body, fodder for the preparation of others, we have the alternative concept of starters and starters in waiting. The cynical among us might dismiss such a thing as coach-speak, a valid concern because it is much easier to say this than to actually practice it.

But if Tomlin is actually practicing this concept then some impressive things are beginning to happen; provided you know what to look for. One clue would be that of attendance. In such a system opportunity and the risks incurred with opportunities lost are a constant. Every player is pushing, being pushed or pulling in service of the larger purpose of advancing the team. Preparation is imbued with greater meaning standing in contrast to the Allen Iversonian philosophy of practice ("Practice!")

Some of this was brought home to me when I was watching the America's Game program on the '08 Steelers. Tomlin revealed himself to being a process person (as opposed to being event or game focused). He talked about wanting to "smell the roses". What flew over my head when I viewed this segment previously is how eerily similar his thinking is to Chuck Noll, and Vince Lombardi. These coaches all understood that there was no meaningful separation between the preparation for games and the games themselves. As such OTAs hold as much fascination and importance as the Super Bowl because in some respects in relation to the philosophy they are inseparable. It would appear that philosophy has also been effectively conveyed to his players.

Both Tomlin and Noll have been lauded for their preparation skills. We may tend to see these virtues in isolation; fortuitous individual quirks. But such qualities are absolutely essential to fulfilling the underlying philosophy and are a pretty good indication of whether the belief in that philosophy is sincere, as well as whether the talent and skills are present to pull it off.

I've been hinting for a while about the Tomlin Steelers; hinting because, frankly, it was all pretty foggy to me. I have also been writing with a bit more clarity about the Pittsburgh or Steeler Way. With this perspective let's look at some current events.

Consider the release of Farrior, Smith and Ward within the context of no one being exempt from the consequences of team building and competition. Did not the length and quality of their service, their value to the team, their vast accomplishments, and their immense popularity earn them some special consideration? In a word, no. This is not to say that they weren't highly respected and well-liked by management, but there were larger things at stake. The temptation would be to make certain compromises if for no other reason than it would be so much easier all the way around. What would be the harm of allowing for these guys to make an exit that would be more on their own terms? What would be wrong with a ‘victory lap' of sorts? The message is that competitive death comes to everyone, even to future Hall of Famers and Super Bowl MVPs. And if the grim reaper comes for Hines Ward or James Farrior or Aaron Smith then who the hell are you?

What will be interesting to watch is how the situation with Ray Lewis is handled by the Ravens. The easiest, least controversial, pain free way to proceed is to let Lewis decide. And we should all file away the fact that nearly two dozen players, including Lewis, blew off OTAs and how that works for them down the line.

The fun part is that there is a belief building within Steeler Nation that something special is going on, very much like the feeling in the early 70s when folks knew that something was building but they couldn't put a finger on it since it hadn't reached concrete fruition yet. What's fun about it is that we're likely to be the only ones who are clued into what's unfolding in plain sight. And even then many of us in Steeler Nation are somewhat misguided as to what is actually going on.

For example, it really isn't primarily about the draft. Don't get me wrong, those guys are really going to help even if only a few pan out as well as we might hope. But don't forget that this team finished 12-4, pretty banged up and without any of these new guys. And of the guys lost during the off season only Farrior and William Gay could be considered major contributors.

What this is about is the ongoing maturation of a coach (Tomlin), a GM (Kevin Colbert), a team president (Art Rooney II) and their understanding of life and winning that is manifesting in the development of this football team.

I have a friend who lives in New York City who likes to talk football with me a lot. He shared his take on the Steelers recently(he is an alien, not a member of the Nation). He was wondering whether we would be in the market for LaDamian Tomlinson because we needed a running back. Needless to say he didn't quite understand my response. ("We don't need a running back". And if we did it wouldn't be Tomlinson, though some of the more culturally immature in Steeler Nation might disagree). I was sympathetic to the fact that there was no way that he knew anything about Isaac Redman beyond the playoff game against Denver, and maybe that touchdown catch against the Ravens in 2010. He couldn't possibly know about Dwyer pushing Redman and Clay pushing Dwyer and Batch pushing them all and Rainey pushing Batch and Mendenhall refusing to accept the timetable of doctors and pundits.

What my friend doesn't understand is when the NFL Network does a piece on which is the most talented team in the league they miss the point. Front line talent can be trumped by team cohesion, depth of talent, diversity and the ability to execute in a consistent and reliable manner. I have sympathy for NFLN and ESPN. Even if you understood it how do you quantify it with a bunch of talking heads on a television program? How do the stat geeks render it to a chart? How does it apply to fantasy football?

The excitement about the promise of the Haley offense is based upon the hope that it would address and enhance just those issues. It's not about mostly running or mostly passing, its about a diversified attack. When you have nine basketball players on a team that are capable of scoring in double figures they can't be effectively stopped by an opponent, you can only hope that they are too inflexible to adapt or incapable of executing. If you figure out a way to stop Redman/Mendenhall, Wallace and Brown, that still leaves Miller, Sanders, Cotchery, Saunders, Pope, Dwyer, etc. (Let's leave Rainey, Batch, Clemons and anyone else who hasn't played a down in the league yet out of the discussion for now). How do you stop a flood with your bare hands? You don't.

The fatal flaw for Arians was the inability to adapt. We'll know soon enough about Haley. If the Steelers were able to win a Super Bowl with an offensive line that included, among others, Darnell Stapleton, a reserve center and Jeff Hartings, then they may be capable of pulling it off with Ramon Foster and Trai Essex. That, of course, is the worst case scenario.

My friend also doesn't understand the complimentary relationship between offense and defense. The new offense doesn't have to be that much better to place the team within championship territory. Maybe one touchdown this year when they had to settle for a field goal before, maybe one field goal when they had to punt before, maybe a few more first downs instead of a three and out. The extra points and rest could be enough to keep the defense at the top of the league standings even if there were something of a drop off in absolute terms. (My team had the top ranked defense in the league with a middle of the pack offense).

My friend doesn't understand synergy. So he, like many others will not know what is about to happen until after it does. Many with big reputations are gone and it will take some time before (Surprise) they recognize the Phoenix that has arisen from the ashes.

Things can go wrong (injuries, for example), and it is way too early to know the exact configuration the juggernaut will take, but Tomlin says the intention is to compete for the Super Bowl every year. This year in particular, believe it.