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Preparation, Coaching, and the 2013 Steelers

in which the author takes issue with the conclusions reached by PaVaSteeler in his analysis of the data from the first half of the season...

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't read PaVa's article, prompted by Brett Keisel's comment about the "readiness" of the 2013 Steelers yet, click the link and read it right now. It is filled with enough nerdy data to interest even the geekiest fan (that would be me). PaVaSteeler follows it with conclusions sufficient to fire up the most fervent fan (of which I am also one).

Now that you're back, I hope you checked out the comments as well, particularly one from cliff harris is still a punk! Written from the perspective of a high school football coach, he made a number of excellent points. Here is the crux of it:

...the players they coach are grown men who have reached the most elite fraternity this sport has to offer. They have gotten there by and large by being self-sufficient - in their training, the way they treat their bodies, their discipline, their desire. Some have gotten to where they are because they're freakishly gifted athletes but most have arrived as strong-willed men driven by the desire to be great. As such, they should be able to rely on themselves and on each other to get properly motivated for NFL football games. The window on an NFLcareer is so small that to waste any game by not being ready to go is to jeopardize one's livelihood.

Greig Clawson basically agreed, but noted the following:

But I think one of the things that makes a coach great, is the ability to get more out of a player than he what the player can achieve on his own. I don't care if it's NFL, or a customer service call center; good leadership elevates performance.

Last Sunday, after one of the most embarrassing losses in Steeler history, a reporter asked Mike Tomlin whether he thought the players were suffering from lack of effort. Tomlin punted—he told the reporter that he wasn't prepared to say until he watched the film, but that if he came to that conclusion about any player, heads would roll. Dale Lolley, long-time writer on all things Steeler, was struck by this comment, and as he reports in this article on, he decided to try to make that determination for himself:

Well, I went through the tape Monday with said "fine tooth comb" and came away doubting Tomlin will announce any changes at his press conference today.

Why would he say this? Lolley noted some mitigating factors (basically, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski,) but came to this rather chilling conclusion:

The tape shows willingness, hustle, even enthusiasm on the part of the Steelers. Of course, that won't be believed by Steelers fans (and their fans in the media) who won't bother to review the tape. If they do, they'll realize it had more to do with a lack of talent than anything else.

Why chilling? Because it says the problem can't really be fixed, at least in the short term. If Lolley is correct, the Steelers will probably pull out a few wins here and there, and they may improve down the stretch, but they are not, as currently constituted, going to be a really good team. Obviously there are some really talented individuals on the team. But they don't call it a team sport for nothing. The Texans have J.J. Watt. He is perhaps one of the most talented players in the NFL at the moment. There doesn't seem to be anything he can't do. Except win games for the Texans by himself. Ironically, the Texans' record is 2-6 at the moment.

But wait, you say, they lost their quarterback! Who maybe wasn't all that great in the first place! We have Ben Roethlisberger!

We do indeed. But, not too surprisingly, he isn't that great when he's on the ground. The point to be made is, a quarterback isn't everything. Tom Brady didn't look like Tom Brady until he got a decent receiver (Danny Amendola) and an all-world tight end (Rob Gronkowski) healthy, or what passes for healthy in the NFL. The fact that these happened at a time when Brady's hand injury got to manageable proportions made for the sort of confluence of unfortunate (for the Steelers) circumstances they seem to have been faced with most of the season. Guess what? It isn't getting any better, what with the unknown Jeff Tuel stepping back to the sidelines this week and E.J. Manuel back behind center. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are both expected to play. We seem to hit teams at the worst possible times.

But I'm not here to excuse the Steelers, nor to bury them. I'm here to look at the issues of coaching and talent.

PaVa'a article looks at the results the Steelers have put out this year and comes to the conclusion it is the fault of the coaching staff. As a "coach," I, like cliff harris etc., have come to a somewhat different conclusion. Here's why, based on my experience as a choral director. Obviously it is an imperfect parallel, but there are a lot of similarities.

Like Coach Tomlin, I have a roster. Like Coach Tomlin, I have a certain amount of practice time in which to familiarize the team members with the playbook and how things are done on my "team." Like Coach Tomlin, I have a number of rookies or newly-minted starters mixed in with veterans with varying amounts of tenure.

Unlike Coach Tomlin, my "playbook" changes constantly, as, generally speaking, the music for each concert is different from that of the preceding concerts, and is probably unknown to most or all of the "players." But nonetheless, it falls into general categories. So just as the Steelers might change a game scheme, but one of the plays is basically the Power O with a few tweaks, a piece may be, say, mid-Renaissance English polyphony, and so while the singers might not know the particular piece they understand certain things about it, because of its basic style.

However, the way I personally want mid-Renaissance English polyphony to be executed varies in certain ways from how another choral director may want it performed. The longer a singer has been with me, the more of the basic assumptions of the sound I am looking for are automatic.

But, and this is a very big caveat, each singer's ability to execute what I want varies, according to not just their experience with my "scheme" but their individual talent level, the amount of work they put in on their own, their personal level of motivation to sing the music the way I am trying to mold the group to sing it, and so on. Because, like the Steelers, the members of any chorus vary in their level of talent, commitment, and experience.

So the results any given director gets are based upon a combination of factors:

  • talent pool to draw from in the first place
  • how well the person(s) making the personnel decisions have done in evaluating and selecting the singers
  • how much rehearsal time the director has to work with
  • how efficiently sh/e uses said time
  • how motivated the singers are to put in time on their own
  • how experienced they are as choral singers
  • how well the more experienced singers have maintained their voices during the off-season, and through the course of their career
  • how familiar they are with the basic sound/style the director is looking for
  • how well the person making the programming decisions has matched the difficulty of the repertoire to the amount of rehearsal time available and the talent available to execute it
  • how many other factors suck time away from the basic "fundamentals" of play

As we look at these, we can see some of them are under the control the coach, some are on the players, and some are accidents of circumstance, if you will. I'll take them in opposite order, beginning with "circumstance."

There are several facets to the "talent pool" issue. For a choral director, it makes a huge difference whether you live in New York City or in a small town in a rural area of, say, Nevada. Which isn't to say you can't put together a perfectly wonderful group in a small town in rural Nevada. But you are probably not going to be able to run it the same way you run a professional group in New York City, even if you were to pay everyone, nor are you likely to achieve the same results.

For an NFL team, it makes a huge difference whether you have a team headlined by a number of top-of-the-draft picks. This isn't to say you can't find talent, and plenty of it, later in the draft. But there is no disputing the drop-off of overall talent between the first few players at each position and those in the rest of the draft. You may hit on somebody who turns into a fine player in the sixth round, like, say, Tom Brady. But for every sixth-round Tom Brady there are multitudes of sixth-round picks who never become starters at their position, much less one of the best in the game. Whereas the number of top-of-the-first-round failures are notable precisely because they are unusual.

And there is also the problem of the dearth of talent at certain positions in certain years. This is, of course, why the Steelers steadfastly repeat the "best player available" mantra. Which is great, until you have some gaping holes to fill and the talent isn't stellar in that particular draft. If you're a team which is forced, by whatever circumstances, to eschew big-name free agency signings, you haven't really got much of a choice but to take what looks like the best prospect at the necessary position and hope coaching can do the rest.

In the same way, a choral director in most places probably hears three or four excellent baritones for every decent tenor sh/e auditions. If the premise is a mixed choir, you have to have tenors. So you take the best you can find and do what you can to develop them if really good ones aren't available.

Once you've auditioned (or drafted) your players, let's look at the issues of individual talent level, experience, motivation, and effort. Unlike an NFL player, almost all choral singers are doing it as a very part-time occupation. As cliff harris etc. pointed out, the men who make it all the way to the NFL have to have achieved some measure of self-discipline and so on. As he eloquently said:

They have gotten there by and large by being self-sufficient - in their training, the way they treat their bodies, their discipline, their desire. Some have gotten to where they are because they're freakishly gifted athletes but most have arrived as strong-willed men driven by the desire to be great.

Even the "freakishly gifted athletes" have likely reached the point where talent is insufficient to carry them, by the time they reach the NFL level. I have understood that the point of the bench press at the Combine is because you can't prepare feverishly for a couple of weeks and ace the bench press. It is a good measure of how much time the player has spent in the weight room over the long term.

My daughter's oboe teacher, despairing of the way she used her talent to avoid actually working, told her that sooner or later everyone, no matter how gifted, comes to the end of their talent. He said the people who succeed are those who learn how to really work soon enough. This is just as true in football as music. I'm guessing that, as a rule, the players who are both amazingly gifted and have learned to work are the guys going in the very top of the first round. The rest are some combination of talent and effort. Enormous effort can make up for lesser talent. Enormous talent can compensate, for a while at least, for insufficient effort. But obviously one would prefer to have both.

This is just as true in a chorus. You don't need a whole chorus full of really beautiful voices, although that would be nice, at least assuming they are the sort that go together reasonably well. But if you are completely lacking that sort of voice in a section, it's hard to compensate for that with effort. Basic musical knowledge is easier, and can be compensated for by effort, as long as the singer knows enough in the first place. But if you have less than the minimum necessary amount of talent, it's going to be an uphill battle.

As far as motivation goes, this varies tremendously from person to person, just as in every other facet of life. Some people will not crack their "playbook" between rehearsals. Some people will put in a considerable amount of extra time. Frequently the people who put in the extra time are not those who need it the most.

In a perfect chorus/world, each singer would be sufficiently attuned to their own abilities to know how much time they need to spend on the music each week, and therefore the more gifted/experienced/knowledgable singers would not be held back by having to spend rehearsal time working on things not necessary to those singers. It never actually happens this way, of course. For one thing, few of us have sufficient self-knowledge to really assess ourselves accurately. Most people err on the side of over-valuing their own gifts.

Nor does each person have an equal amount of potential time to devote to the task, either. That's a big advantage a football team has over a chorus. In theory, every player has about the same amount of time to spend outside of practice honing their own skills. Whether they do or not, the potential exists, because they don't have to make a living elsewhere.

And finally, the stuff that's, to an extent at least, under the director's control. The first is who you actually selected from the people you auditioned, and whether you made the right determinations  as to who would work the best in your system. That was then, however, and this is now. For better or worse you've got your group, and you have to take a diverse group of voices and help them to sing a bunch of diverse repertoire, as an ensemble rather than a collection of individuals. Which is a whole other gift.

You have a set amount of rehearsal time. In theory, you could use it to drill one piece over and over. The trouble is, the group doesn't learn the rest of the music. Or you can use the time to drill the problem spots in each piece. Then the difficulty is, the group doesn't know how to get from one bit of the music to the next, or what it is like to sing the program in order. This matters more than you might think. Or you can rehearse everything, but not enough to perfect anything. Then the group is accustomed to singing everything half—um, well, and doesn't know what it is like to do something really beautifully. Or you can work on the sound, or getting the rhythm incredibly precise, or whatever.

But you have to make choices, because there is never enough rehearsal time. In my case, it is because I can't afford to pay for more. In Mike Tomlin's case it is because the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union doesn't allow him to schedule more practices. So what do any of us do? Cover the stuff you can and trust to the talent and motivation and hard work of the singers/players to supplement the lack on their own time.

And obviously how much practice time is required is partially predicated upon the difficulty of the "playbook." Unlike an NFL coach, who has certain constraints in terms of how simple the playbook can be and still be effective when playing other teams, a choral director has, at least in theory, the option of choosing very simple, accessible music for his/her group. However, just as a playbook that is too simplistic will probably not be terribly successful in the long run, a chorus who only performs very simple music will possibly turn off their audience, but, more problematically, will almost certainly eventually drive away  the more experienced and talented singers which one wishes to attract in the first place. So a balance must be struck, as in everything else.

And this brings me to the last item —"how many other factors suck time away from the basic fundamentals."  Here's an example. Most experienced choral singers are conversant with the correct way to pronounce English, German, Italian, and Latin. (I'm not kidding about English. If the singers all sang English text the way they speak it, the vowels wouldn't match at all, and it would sound pretty horrible.) Get much beyond those languages and it's going to require extra rehearsal time. I'm doing a Croatian carol on my Christmas concert this year, and a Catalonian one, and we have to spend some rehearsal time on the text, because these languages aren't in people's general knowledge base, even experienced singers.

I'm sure there are equivalent things in football. I just don't know what they might be. Mandated safety classes, perhaps. Or uniform fittings. Or having to start from scratch when both your starter and his back-up are injured.

There is no doubt, as Greig says, that some coaches/choral directors/etc. are better leaders/motivators/what have you than others. How then do you explain a situation like Kansas City? Andy Reid is booted out of Philadelphia, gets hired by the Chiefs, and turns around a franchise that has been less than stellar for some time now. Is it because Andy Reid is such a great coach? Well then, why did he leave the Eagles in such disarray? Or is it strictly a case of Reid arriving at just the right moment, and in five or six years with him at the helm the rot will have begun to set in? The latter is, of course, an argument many have made about Mike Tomlin.

Another argument could be made using these two franchises as ammunition, though—parity works. Not perfectly, because something is always going to depend upon the quality of the people running the franchise. With the wrong people at the helm the futility can continue for a very long time in the case of an under-performing franchise, or conversely good management can string things out a lot longer than expected. The Lions and the Packers come to mind as examples.

But how much is dependent upon timing and luck? The recent history (in the sense of the past 10 years) of the Steelers would be quite different if Bill Cowher had managed to overrule his management and ownership and had taken the defensive lineman he favored over Ben Roethlisberger—or so I am given to understand. What would have happened to the Packers if they had held onto Brett Favre for several years rather than taking a chance on Aaron Rodgers' readiness?

These questions can't be answered, of course, because a whole host of other things would have happened. We can't re-run the experiment. I think it is fair to say, though, that a team (or a chorus, or what have you) is dependent upon having a sufficiency of talent. You need a few really special talents, in the right positions, to spark things. You then need enough "playmakers" at others to complement the special talents, and "good enough" guys to fill in the empty pieces.

We could argue as to what category everybody falls into on this year's team. The main point I'm making is, whichever of the players you would put into the first two categories, it's pretty hard to deny that, at the moment, between injuries, poor draft choices, and what have you, there aren't enough of any of the three categories.

It's easy to go back and critique a draft in hindsight. In hindsight, the Steelers should have taken Ray Rice instead of Rashard Mendenhall. Or Jamaal Charles. The Steelers should have picked Mario Manningham, or Steve Johnson, or Early Doucet, or almost anybody, instead of Limas Sweed. And that's just in the first two rounds of 2008.

And yet most pundits at the time thought the Steelers had aced the 2008 draft. As I said, it's easy, now, to say who they should have drafted.

Has the Steelers coaching staff made the most of the talent they have? Again, that's impossible to say. Many people were plumping for Ken Whisenhunt to get the job Cowher was vacating. He didn't, and went to Arizona. One could argue the Cardinals are in worse shape than the Steelers. Admittedly they have a 4-4 record at the moment. They also have a new head coach. And a lot of high draft picks.

I agree with Greig's statement. But it isn't possible to say with total certainty that any given person is or is not that sort of a leader, because you don't know what the situation would look like were someone else at the helm. Is Andy Reid a good coach or not? Is he a good coach but a poor talent evaluator? What about Mike Tomlin? The only way to answer these questions with any certainty is if one could run the experiment a number of different ways in parallel universes. And since, if parallel universes exist, we can't figure out how to access them (or, more likely, could not by definition) we would never know the results anyhow.

The one thing we can infer is, with a different coaching staff for the past six and a half years, the results would likely be different. The Steelers might still only have five Lombardis, or they might have eight. They might still be considered the "class" of the AFC North, or they might long ago have supplanted the Browns at the other end.

I can only speculate what the outcome might have been. All I can say is, the Steelers would almost certainly be worse off if they had taken my draft advice, as those of you who read my "BLA" mock drafts can attest. Should they have been more heartless and quicker to cut aging vets? They might now have even more of a leadership void than people seem to think they have now. What if they had jettisoned Dick LeBeau along with Bruce Arians? Or kept both?

In the choral world, there's almost certainly somebody, somewhere, who is better at what you do than you are. I'm sure there are conductors who would have done a better job with the resources I have had to work with in the past 15 years than I have done. I suspect there are also many who would not have done as well. But we'll never know, really. In the NFL, it's likely that the people who are running the various teams are some of the very best in the business, or at least the very best of those who can stand the heat in the kitchen, as it were.

Am I saying the coaching staff not to be held accountable for anything? Are they the helpless pawns of circumstance? Mike Tomlin would be the first to lay any such notions to rest. Of course they are accountable. But their power is limited by a great many factors and circumstances.

Obviously the coaching staff needs to own their part of the problem. I believe they have done so. But there are a lot of things outside of their control which have contributed to where the franchise finds itself  at the moment. How the whole organization deals with this situation, from the ownership on down, will, in my opinion, largely determine the fate of the club in the next few years.