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Character (Ac)Counts: Or Does It?

in which the author rambles as usual while exploring the issue of how much character matters in an enterprise in which winning is everything...

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

During the 2013 offseason I began a series of articles entitled "Character (Ac)Counts". Ike Taylor might have something to say about my lack of consistency, but nonetheless I've managed to publish five of them. The original article was sort of an overview of what I saw as a heightened tendency on the part of the Steelers management to choose high-character players, both in the draft and free agency. I then did separate profiles on Heath MillerCortez AllenBrett Keisel, and Shaun Suisham.

I had already decided to write the present article, and got some additional ammunition from my son, who forwarded an article from last week's Post-Gazette. Written by Gene Collier, the basic idea is, why is it that the NFL makes such a big deal over the bad stuff (at the moment, the whole hazing scandal) and says so little about those who are quietly making a difference in their communities?

I think we all know the answer to that question. I intend to pose a different one. But first, I wish to enlarge a bit on the hazing question, because, like the Saints scandal of a few years ago, or Spygate, or all the other things which have come out to the detriment of a team, its culture, and/or its management, they appear to illustrate the lengths to which a team will go to win. The jury is still out on Miami, of course, as to whether this was an individual pathology, if you will, or a systemic problem. It is rather damning, however, that Incognito refused point-blank to answer the question as to whether he was ordered by the higher-ups to "toughen Martin up."

So the first question is, does everybody do it? I don't mean garden-variety initiation rites such as harmless practical jokes or mundane tasks like delivering breakfast to your position mates, but things which impact the hazed player negatively. I really wanted to know that in regards to the Steelers lockerroom, because it would definitely undermine my premise that the Steelers have made a concerted effort to bring in high-character players and to support them in maintaining that character.

And just to be clear, I believe there is evidence that the Steelers have in fact been skewing their personnel choices towards character, and this is a deliberate choice of the organization beginning with this season. Not that I didn't think they preferred to take "high-character" players in the past. But I think you can make a case that they have flipped that perspective from a preference to a mandate. As I said in the original article:

[In the 2012 draft] the Steelers uncharacteristically took three players with character concerns: Mike Adams, Alameda Ta'amu, and Chris Rainey. Ta'amu's college DUI was presumably known about before the draft-if it wasn't, the Steelers need to have a little chat with their scouting staff-and so though most of us didn't know about it, surely the front office and coaches did. Chris Rainey was, I would guess, on an extremely short leash, and the leash broke in Florida. The one considered to be the biggest risk, Mike Adams, appears to have turned out the best. In a way, this doesn't surprise me. When a young man has the guts to own up to his mistakes and face the music in the way Adams did, it bodes well, and the Steelers' risk appears to have been worth it.

This year's draft felt different. As I began looking for information on the "intangibles" of the chosen players, a definite theme seemed to be running through the Steelers' choices. Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas helped to raise his siblings after the death of his parents. Second-round pick Markus Wheaton is described by his coaches as having a "relentlessness" to improve and a work ethic second to none. They also want to talk about what a fine young man he is off the field. ESPN's Mel Kiper said of the Steelers' first-round pick "On a scale of 1-10, Jarvis Jones' character is a 15." Throughout this year's draft there doesn't seem to be a whiff of off-the-field issues or character concerns.

So has this translated to the locker room? We all know some rookie hazing goes on. Baron Batch wrote a blog post during his rookie year about being ordered to obtain candy and Nerf weapons for the use of the running backs. Alameda Ta'amu sustained a foot injury when he was ordered to walk to Walmart during training camp to get whatever it was his D-line brethren required—a four-mile trip. When you weigh as much as an NFL nose tackle does, your feet will only take so much walking.

But I was happy to discover that, at least according to former offensive lineman Willie Colon, Mike Tomlin keeps tabs on this and controls the extent of it. Peter King wrote about this last week, and had several paragraphs about Willie Colon, who noted the following:

.."[A]s an offensive lineman, as an interior lineman, you just want to earn the respect of your peers and the guys you are going against, let them know that you're battle-tested and you are ready. Sometimes that comes on and off the field. But there is a right and wrong way of going about it."

MMQB's Jenny Vrentas asked Colon if "the right way" was a young player paying $15,000 for a linemen trip to Las Vegas. "When I was in Pittsburgh,'' Colon said, "Mike Tomlin said something great: It's unfair to make a sixth-round guy pay for a $15,000 trip to Vegas when you have your starting linemen making over two-point-something million [dollars]. [Martin was a second-round pick.] He doesn't have that money. Guys don't earn that money until later in their careers. To make a young guy pay, that is very unfair, and it's selfish because that man has a family and people and other needs. So to take $15,000 out of any young guy's pocket for a trip to get crazy is unfair, and it's selfish. If you want to let a guy pay for dinner or a night on the town, that's fine. It's nothing that should hurt a man's life or his way of living; that's disrespectful.''

When asked about hazing on the Steelers, here's what Troy Polamalu had to say:

"I was actually worried coming out of college [in 2004] because you hear about stories, people getting their hair shaved or what not and I thought they would cut my hair when I came it Pittsburgh, but it was the exact opposite here," Polamalu said on "The Herd." "Guys accepted me with open arms. Anything I needed whether it was a car, whether it was to sleep at their house and we only return that favor now that I'm a veteran on the team. Any young guy, whether they need a car or a house or some extra spending cash, whatever it may be we try our best to help them...We teach them the best way we know on how to be professional, how to take care of your body, how to train, how to learn the defense, the offense, whatever it may be... 

...Coach [Mike] Tomlin says all the time if you're willing to help us win and put your hand in the pile then you're family around here. That's really something we preach to anybody comes in, whether they're a veteran from another team or whether they're a young guy that's drafted."

When Jerricho Cotchery was signed by the Steelers in 2011, he signed with Pittsburgh for a reason, according to Gene Collier:

He came here in 2011 from the New York Jets because, he said, he wanted to win championships. Someone forgot to tell him the Steelers were about to get out of that business, at least for the foreseeable future.

However, that wasn't the only reason. When he signed I wrote an article for another website entitled "Jerricho Cotchery, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and The Steeler Way." (As you can tell, it had been thoroughly impressed upon me that I must put lots of search terms in the title : ) Ironically, it was immediately pirated by the owner of another site, who published it under his own byline, and refused to cease and desist when this was pointed out to him. Which isn't really very Steeler-Way-like...

But to return to the matter at hand, Cotchery felt the Jets weren't really a team he felt he fit in with anymore, and went looking for another:

[After researching the alternatives] he felt that the Steelers were where he wanted to be. "I was talking to (free safety) Ryan Clark how I used to watch the interviews and I used to hear guys talk about, 'We do things a certain way over here.' And I always wondered what they were talking about."

So what is this "certain way?"

Part of the "Steeler Way," if you will, is the closeness among teammates that Cotchery noticed right away...the team members support and help each other, occasionally at the cost of their own job.

Polamalu and Cotchery are the two players highlighted in the Gene Collier article. Do read it. (It is linked before the quote about Jerricho Cotchery.) Many, many more such articles could be written about this team. Here's my meta-question. If I'm correct, and the Steelers have decided to make character the ultimate determining factor in assembling their team, are you okay with that? In my original article I quoted a baseball writer who felt (and whose hunch was confirmed by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle) that teams are trying to quantify, statistically, whether you can translate "good character" in a player to good play on the field, and if so, how do you measure it?

The bottom line is, would you prefer the team for which you root to be composed of good people, or to win? Obviously it would be nice if you could have both. And it is entirely possible that a pruning and shaping of the team in this direction now will pay dividends down the stretch. After all, "good character" encompasses a lot, including a number of things which can help you win football games.

This morning's Trib featured a Dejan Kovacevic commentary on the whole "is Ben Roethlisberger going anywhere?" question. The article's title, "Ben will never quit on Steelers," pretty much answers that question. Ben is a really interesting character study in the context of this article, because he has so publicly had his character lapses, to the extent that some people refuse to ever root for the Steelers while he is on the team.

He was considered a "high-character" player coming into the 2004 draft, and comes from a good family and good upbringing, unlike so many in this profession. But it's pretty hard to predict how fame and fortune will go to someone's head, and in Ben's case it definitely did. And although I deplore his past actions (despite the fact that, insofar as can be determined by their outcomes, neither was criminal in nature, but merely exceedingly boorish and, if you will, heartless) Ben has done something more difficult, in my mind, than merely maintaining the good image one came into the league with. (Even though maintaining that was clearly more than he was capable of.) He has done the much more difficult thing of realizing just how wrong his actions were and turning around his life.

I for one don't believe he will fail in this much easier loyalty test. As Kovacevic notes:

Look at what Roethlisberger has done, at his actions, even in this most miserable of seasons, and ask if this individual, as the report charges, wants out.

Ramon Foster, as often happens, put it best: "That guy's no quitter, and you're seeing that now more than ever."

I'll emphatically second that: I've never been more impressed by Roethlisberger and, as a result, I've never been more convinced of his commitment to the Steelers.

But don't take my word for it. Go inside the huddle. Go ask the men who know him far better than any of us...

Look, it's easy when things are going well. When Roethlisberger entered the NFL, he went 15-1, won a Super Bowl right away and was living ... well, too large at times. It all came so effortlessly.

He's matured a ton since then. He's in control of his life and, to a great extent, his career. But this, no doubt, is the greatest challenge of that career. And trust me, based on talks we've had on this topic, he views this in exactly that way: He wants to be that guy who leads the Steelers back. He wants to be that Mario Lemieux to the Penguins, that Andrew McCutchen to the Pirates, that player who carries himself with pride through the hard times with an aim of being rewarded at the end.

That's his next goal, not some escape.

The Steelers and the Rooney family stood by Roethlisberger once, and he has stood by them. There's nothing at all complicated here.

It is a terrific article, another highly recommended read. Although I'm not enjoying the difficulties of fandom this season, it has brought out a lot of good writing in the local media, and I'm exceeding grateful for that.

Whether a player has come to the 2013 Steelers overcoming a difficult past, as have players such as Antonio Brown who were homeless at one point in their teenage years, or whether they just have had to overcome their own personal demons, I feel this is a team overflowing with good character and good role models.

Back during the dark days of Milledgeville, a number of people noted they don't want their children to look to sports figures or other celebrities for inspiration as to how to live. This is laudable, but not always possible. It is all very well when your kids have a strong family and good mentorship. What about the kids who don't? You can bet they are looking up to the people who "made it". Wouldn't you rather they looked up to players such as those who abound on the Steelers and learned about how they conduct themselves?

In an offseason in which there was a record high number of arrests of players, including two on murder charges, wouldn't you rather feel there is a reasonable chance this sort of news is not going to emerge in Pittsburgh? The guys you draft are grown men, at least physically, and even the most thorough scouting and most intense mentoring cannot entirely guarantee freedom from such incidents. It can certainly help to reduce them.

Obviously I'm not trying to imply that other teams don't have players with high character and commendable lives. Every team has a number of such players. But as far as I can tell, few teams are making this one of their primary criteria.

So let me pose the question once more. Would you rather your team wins on a regular basis, no matter with whom, or would you rather your team cares about the character content of the men they draft and play, even if this means you leave some really talented players on the table? Is it really true that there is no point to the game unless you win it on a consistent basis?

Steelers fans have joked for years about the criminal element in Cincinnati. But to Marvin Lewis' credit, he clearly has made an effort to help the troubled young men they have sometimes drafted, and in some cases it has paid off.

I think the Steelers have chosen a different path. I hope it will pay off. But I honor the path, and feel it is important enough to do it even if it doesn't.

I don't believe it won't pay off, though. Once the alleged leadership void has been refilled by some of the young guys, perhaps it will be time to take some more chances. Honestly, though, I don't feel it is so much a question of a "leadership void" as it is a process by which a new generation of players learn how to win. In the meantime, they are being carefully chosen and carefully mentored, and I'm willing to wait.