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Why We Overreact Early to the Steelers

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I spent Sunday evening in a Steeler bar in Alexandria, Virginia. This was unusual in that it was a nationally televised night game on what was, in essence, a work night. It was both an unnecessary and slightly undesirable thing to do. But I thought it was a good idea that Boss Steeler Chick of the DC Steel City Mafia wanted to get a group of people together to celebrate the beginning of the season as opposed to sitting at home, perhaps alone, watching the game. It turned out to be a good decision. I got reacquainted with some folks I had met in Latrobe during the summer, spent some time with my friend Arla and met some really nice new people as well.

I had some worries that being with a group of other fans helped to allay. There are always a few that get really agitated during a game and that has the effect of calming me down. My concern was not about winning or losing. I figured the Steelers' chances at about 50/50, and that's how things basically played out, with the outcome in doubt until the final two minutes. What worried me was how some in Steeler Nation were likely to react if the team lost. My fears were not baseless.

Last week I wrote a two part article on about the Steelers prospects for the 2012 season. I mention this in the summary:

The short term issues have to do with the fact that many of us are very passionate about the team but are saddled with short memories, a bad combination.

Because we have such short memories a pattern plays out every year that causes many of us to overreact to what happens in August and September. Generally, it plays out like this: after months of football depravation we celebrate the beginning of training camp and the preseason forgetting the fact that not much of value really goes on and it can be quite boring, but at the beginning it is so much better than nothing. Eventually we begin to remember that preseason, though still much better than the off season, pretty much sucks compared to the regular season. Nonetheless, we can't help to get in the spirit of it all and so we get into flights of fancy over a first year player who in his auditions excels against disinterested veterans and hapless draftees and free agents. We engage in highly emotional discussions over who will be the third string quarterback, the backup tight end and who will languish on the practice squad; you know, the really important things, the things that really mattered this past Sunday night.

With this information plus the result of the preseason games and our ironclad confidence in the abilities of fans and pundits to predict the future we settled into the beginning of the regular season certain that the Jets would be terrible, the Redskins had absolutely no chance of winning in New Orleans, the Eagles and the Lions would make easy work of the Browns and Rams respectively, and...well you get the idea. You would think that most would come away from this experience humbled and thoughtful concerning the unpredictable twists and turns of a long season. You would be wrong. Instead many decide to double down, now absolutely certain after one game that we now know how the season will play out. San Francisco will play in the Super Bowl, or maybe Dallas for the NFC. They are likely to meet New England, or Baltimore, or Denver. The Bengals, Giants and Packers are so much burnt toast. And locally, as Rebecca Rollett has intimated, more than a few in Steeler Nation have climbed on the proverbial ledge, peeking furtively over the edge trying to decide when they should cast themselves into eternity; taking Dick LeBeau with them.

One game.

But what does history have to say about September football? Over the past seven years two franchises have dominated, winning four Super Bowls; the New York Giants and Pittsburgh. Additionally, the Steelers were participants in a fifth championship game in which they came out on the losing end. The one thing those teams had in common was that no one was singing their praises in September, not even the majority of their diehard fans. Let's start with last year where not only Pittsburgh lost in that ugly massacre to the Ravens, but the Giants suffered the indignity of having Rex Grossman and the Redskins tear them a new one on opening day. The Steelers would finish the month 2-2, headed many were convinced to a year of mediocrity. They went 10-2 the rest of the way.

In '05 the Steelers began their season with their top two running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley in dry dock as they had to rely on untested UDFA Willie Parker. Ben went down to injury which led to a shaky mid season where Tommy Maddox was pretty much run out of town due to a poor late performance against Jacksonville and a home lost to the Bengals which cost them the AFC North title. Led by strong performances by Bettis and Parker, they won four straight in December and slipped into the playoffs as the last seeded team.

Written off during the off season due to the difficulty of their schedule, the '08 Steelers had an impressive opening day win against the Texans and squeezed by the Browns before sufering an ugly loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia. The offense played so poorly in the first half of a nationally televised game against the Ravens that they were booed off the field at halftime by the home crowd at Heinz Field. They were plagued by injuries. They lost starting left tackle Marvel Smith for the season. Two thirds of the starting defensive line (Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel) was lost for multiple weeks. UDFA backup center Darnell Stapleton had to man the right guard position for the balance of the season. Melwelde Moore was the feature running back in a game against the Bengals. The team had to run a murderer's row gauntlet of teams including Peyton Manning's Colts, the Patriots in New England, the world champion Giants, the Chargers, Cowboys, Ravens and, then, best record Titans, eventually winning their division and a second seed in the playoffs.

The Giants in '07 and '11 also struggled early in those seasons then surging after they were written off by pretty much everybody. By contrast the top seeded teams, the September teams, suffered similar fates. They managed to make the playoffs and were seeded highly, but then the '05 Colts, and '08 Titans fell in the divisional round, the '07 Packers succumbing in the NFCCG and the undefeated '07 Patriots going down in the Super Bowl. Three of the four conference championship games played by the Steelers and Giants were fought in enemy territory including the decidedly visitor unfriendly venues of Mile High Stadium and Lambeau Field in January.

The most important factor in championship success is to manage to be playoff eligible. After that it is a matter of who is hot in December/January. There is probably some advantage to high seeding (Pittsburgh would have definitely benefitted with a week off in '11) and home field advantage, but these are not insurmountable obstacles. So why do we keep weighting early season performances so highly in the face of evidence that often clearly is contradictory? Short memories. And the obsessive notion that football sophistication is equivalent to the ability to successfully predict outcomes.

To be sure there is a certain limited amount of things you can predict beforehand based upon knowledgeable observation and analysis. But there is so much that is beyond what can be reasonably anticipated; injuries, group chemistry, individual will, the weather and just plain luck. I remember that during the NFL Draft in April, a few individuals began to publish mock drafts for 2013. This in spite of the fact that they weren't particularly accurate about the 2012 draft that was still ongoing. (I don't recall too many people predicting David DeCastro. Weren't they smart enough to realize that he would fall to the 24th pick?).

And what cannot be emphasized enough is the peculiar nature of the first game. Teams have six months to prepare while they will have, at most, six days to prepare for subsequent contests. The preseason means different things to different teams and as such can be poor predictors of what will happen at the beginning of the regular season. How can the performance of first year players or veteran players in new locales be reliably predicted as well as the impact of coaching changes and tweeks to systems? Also there is the question of how effective teams will be now that they have shown their hand and opponents can game plan against them. Looking ahead to this week, it is likely that the Jets are not as bad as they showed in August, but remains to be seen as to whether they are as good as they showed on Sunday.

In any case, for the majority of the teams in the league it is too early to be making reservations for New Orleans or looking forward to next year's draft.