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Putting Perspective Above Panic in Steeler Nation


A week and a half ago I was sitting in Sharkey's Cafe in Latrobe with Steelers fans from around the eastern portion of the country set up by the Steel City Mafia. For a time I was sitting across from a guy named Chuck whom I was introduced to by Boss Steeler Chick. As he worked on a steak, we talked about a variety of Pittsburgh and Steelers related topics. I asked him at one point what he thought of the team's prospects going forward. He expressed the belief that the team was in good shape.

"It's just a matter of when the rookies get it together." He then added, "Some people think we're going to the Super Bowl every year. They don't get it. It may take some time but we'll be alright."

Those words resonated with me when panic descended upon some portions of Steeler Nation this weekend after the first preseason game. I wasn't surprised. If you observe carefully you find that there is almost always some in the Nation that are teetering on the edge of or immersed in full panic mode at one time or another over some real or imagined evil. But what brought it home for me in this instance is that I had just returned from watching that game in Philadelphia. This provided me the opportunity to observe Eagles fans and how they fell victim to and reacted to a similar type of negativity.

On more than one occasion I have described myself as an optimist. I am sure that for many of you that translates into 'pollyanna', one who is blindly optimistic. I respectfully disagree. My optimism is both intentional and strategic, based upon the belief that it is an important, indeed an essential, element of success.

Several years ago I was the defensive coordinator of a youth football team. The 'A' team of this particular weight class was terrible and did not win a game. We were coaching the 'B' team, and our team was much worse. I spent most of the year just trying to build the kids into competent football players; getting the fundamentals down, not crying when someone touched them, that sort of thing. In our last game of the year we were matched up with a team from one of the top youth sports organizations in our area; a team that had scored 28 points on us when we played earlier in the fall. The two teams battled on a dimly lit, muddy field during a miserable, rainy evening. Our defense had steadily improved over the season and was on the verge of recording it's second consecutive shutout. Unfortunately, the offense had remained status quo. We found ourselves losing 2-0, and we had just surrendered the ball on downs with about two minutes to play.

I gathered the defense around me and did my job as a coach as I understood it. As eleven sets of eyes peered out at me from within wet, glistening white helmets I calmly explained to them (I'm not a yeller as a coach, my style is always conversational) that the situation required that they forget all other considerations and focus upon forcing a turnover. In retrospect I don't think that I thought that was going to happen, but they were young and unaware that what I was asking was likely to be impossible. And I made sure that they would not find that out from me. On the very first play, like something out of a Disney movie they forced a turnover. In the bedlam that followed I turned to my assistant, a parent of one of the players, a native of western Maryland and just as deeply steeped in the culture of football, who gave me a wry grin and uttered just one word; "Faith."

It would be nice to conclude that the game had a Disney-like ending, but I didn't talk to the offense and they still couldn't score. However, some successful athletic careers were launched that season, including the son of that assistant coach who would play for and captain a successful high school power as a 167 pound guard. I guess he didn't realize that such a thing was impossible. He would later become a high school coach himself.

The point I am trying to make is that an optimistic or pessimistic perspective is not just a matter of harboring an 'opinion', which is to say a harmless, inconsequential point of view. It is a conceptual construct that has a very real impact on what is believed to be reality and affects actual outcomes.

This was really brought home to me on Thursday night. I lived in Philadelphia for about a decade, so my understanding of the sports culture there is not superficial or frivolous. Like Steeler Nation they struggle with their positive and negative impulses, but unlike Steeler Nation the balance of power had gone over to the dark side years ago. And I would argue that has had a not insignificant impact on the relative lack of success of their sports team, particularly the Eagles.

For the most part when the Eagles fans attacked the Steelers fans we sat there and laughed at them. The elephant in the stadium was 'We got six, how many you got?' Answer: none. This unspoken reality was understood by both sides. And so after ranting against us for a while they eventually, amazingly, turned on their own team

The Steelers had dominated the Eagles in the first half building a 13-0 lead. At half time I estimated that about 20 to 25 percent of the crowd left. They had seen enough and had given up on their team. The Eagles would go on and win the game. Many Eagles fans only saw the Steelers controlling the first half. On the other hand, certain Steelers fans only saw shoddy pass protection and the outcome on the scoreboard. They were united in rendering a verdict of disaster.

Prevailing fan attitudes can have an effect on team performance on the field and management decisions. Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin have the same winning percentage. Reid is under fire and, morbid as this may seem, is probably benefiting from the sympathy generated by the death of his son for the time being. It is generally assumed to be a make or break year for team that makes the playoffs more often than not and is considered by some to be a favorite for contending for a spot in the Super Bowl even though the defending champion resides in the same division. Nonetheless, if they should happen to fall short Reid is gone in the view of some.

We don't have to worry about that with the Steelers, right? Not so fast. In the comments thread to my last piece some have said that this love affair between some Steelers fans and Tomlin has gotten out of hand. Tomlin's crime? Clock management. No Hall of Fame for Mike.

We're talking about entirely different world views; one empowering, the other cancerous. Take, for example, how we view the Tomlinism 'The standard is the standard'. From the optimistic view this is an aspirational statement. It is another way of stating Chuck Noll's 'Whatever it takes'. Like my youth football team it is saying don't allow circumstances or doubts be the elements that undo you. But from the pessimistic perspective it is a punitive statement; win, and win now or else.

The story behind this is the realization in the first case that the path is hard and unforgiving, but it also recognizes the unspoken reality that falling short is part of the process of striving for greatness. Winning in the NFL is hard. In 46 years 14 teams, nearly half the league, have never won a championship. Three franchises account for about a third of all Super Bowl victories. Pittsburgh is the dominant organization in the Super Bowl era and have won all of six Lombardis. Hard. When someone who claims to be an optimist but does not recognize the difficulty involved in achieving success then it is fair to label that individual a pollyanna. However, the pessimists tend to be mindbogglingly unrealistic. A few years ago I had an exchange with a commenter who is either no longer on site or is under a new handle. He stated that his expectation, not hope, his expectation was that the Steelers should win the Super Bowl every single year. Understand, this is not a goal nor an aspiration, this is an expectation. This is like saying that a baseball player should bat 1.000, meaning that Ted Williams was an utter failure.

When you think that winning is easy, which is to say that you believe this is just about plugging in talent (or eliminating scapegoats) ala fantasy football; when you think that injuries are essentially a character flaw, when you don't want to be bothered with things like experience, development, team building and chemistry; when you think that all the variables can be controlled and then you throw it in the microwave so you can win the Super Bowl in August then you might be angry or panicked by what you saw or heard about on Thursday in Philly. If you understand that these things are hard you may have come away actually encouraged by the first preseason game.