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The Steelers Predicament: a historical perspective

What do we actually know about where the team stands today and where they are going? If we are honest with ourselves, precious little, but the past can often teach us something about the present and what to anticipate in the future.

Jamie Squire

Why is history important?

I was trying to make the case to some friends and one of them, Peter, actually came up with a better explanation than I could provide. He suggested how difficult our lives would be if we were deprived of knowledge of our own personal histories; where we were born and raised, key information concerning our families, shaping experiences and the like.

There was this episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where some aliens caused the crew of the Enterprise to experience amnesia in order to trick them into using their superior technology to destroy the aliens' enemy. In the initial stages of the operation the roles of the crew became confused due to faulty assumptions and a lack of information. Lt. Worf took command, with Captain Picard relegated to a minor role.

With all the talk about the need to upgrade math and science education, one of the biggest threats to our ability to exercise self governance is the need for a serious upgrade in social studies and, in particular, history. Now, what in the world does any of this have to do with our current concerns relative to the Steelers?

We are currently in the middle of a conversation about the future of this team that is based upon little in the way of useful information. As I write this - and it could change in the blink of an eye - the Pittsburgh organization has released no one, has signed no one, has drafted no one. Personnel moves have been made, coaching comings and goings, with modest explanations given for the moves (many not believed as we search for deeper meanings and more salacious motives). We have parsed interviews from the more ominous musings of Kevin Colbert to the more upbeat of Dick LeBeau in an attempt to discern what moves are in the offing.

There is nothing wrong with speculation, it is the appropriate season. But accuracy and perspective are taking big hits. Take the Woodley situation. An article is written where 'somebody' said that LaMarr was out of shape and basically it is implied that he is a slug. Who said this? A teammate? A coach or other team official? The reporter, Ron Cook? Ryan Clark took the bait, spoke up and is paying the price. He's been castigated and subjected to amateur psychoanalysis. Depending on who you ask he's a cancer, is saying what needs to be said, is throwing the team under the bus for the sake of a broadcast career...When asked by Neal, LeBeau took a different tact, which may further confuse the issue or just prove that Coach Dad is a better politician than Clark. Meanwhile there has been discussion about who it was who ratted on LaMarr. And then there are those who need no verification because they already knew based on keen observation and their intimate knowledge of the game that Woodley is obviously a lazy slug.

But that's not the most fascinating story about questionable truths. Ed Bouchette writes a piece that implies that Scotty Montgomery was basically run out of town or perhaps fled to get away from Tomlin. The next day that story is contradicted, not by a reporter from a rival media outlet, or someone associated with the team, but his Post-Gazette colleague Gerry Dulac made the case for an alternative scenario. Understand that these are two reporters working the same beat for the same newspaper.

I happen to like history. Because I do I can't help but try to keep up with patterns of behavior and trends over time. With that in mind, let me share just a few observations about the Steelers and Steeler Nation, particularly BTSC in relation to some issues that might be relevant to the ongoing discussion concerning the predicament of this team.

Here in summary are some of the key points. The line separating the perception of greatness as opposed to disaster is very thin indeed. In spite of our reputation for football sophistication, our little corner of Steeler Nation is not very good at predicting success. In fact, the case can be made, based on the history, that if we say go left, chances are good that you may profit by going right. The media, particularly the national media may even be worse than we are in this regard.

Do yourself a favor. If you don't have it from another source go to YouTube and check out the America's Game video of the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl run. Neal Coolong has stated, and I think rightfully so, that an argument can be made that this team could be in the conversation for being one of the greatest Steelers championship squads. Well, it wasn't because they exactly bulldozed the opposition into submission. They struggled early, were booed off the field at halftime in one game because they were playing so poorly in the eyes of their own fans. They got run out of Philadelphia, or so it seemed, and did not impress at Cleveland. They won one game without scoring a touchdown, and others at the last minute by the skin of their teeth. There was an off field incident that led to not having a key player (Santonio Holmes) available for a big game (against the defending champion Giants). Key roles were played by future Hall of Famers such as Darnell Stapleton, Justin Hartwig and Mewelde Moore. But they won the Lombardi, so these details faded into the background.

Of course, we weren't fooled in this community. We recognized the inherent greatness of this team and stuck by them faithfully throughout the year, right? Ha! Most (or at least many) in the BTSC community wrote the team off in July and avoided the rush. Perhaps not without reason. The 2007 team faded badly in December (when Tomlin's team fail its in December), suffered a particularly galling playoff loss and everyone knew that the schedule was the most brutal anyone had seen in decades. Much of Steeler Nation was late to the party.

The Steelers returned to the Super Bowl in 2010. We wrote that team off in March. I mean, c'mon. Ben was a pervert. Correction, he was a suspended pervert. We got rid of Santonio Holmes for a ham sandwich and a free Slurpee. (Obviously this team had discipline problems). The team was going to have to compete in the first portion of the season under the leadership of Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon (That old fart Batch was as good as gone). And, well, its just too much to ask.

This year we had a great draft and we were rid of Arians, what could possibly stop us? Right again. Not everyone was buying into the argument. I remember talking to some fans at training camp and a comment made by Homer J on site and they were saying the same thing. 2012 is probably not going to be our year. A lot of key veterans gone, a lot of young players on a steep learning curve, this may take a year to get things down. The highlight of the year? You remember that old fart that we should have kicked to the curb two years ago? He beats the eventual world champions. This shouldn't have been a surprise because he played well enough against them to have beaten them in 2010, and would have were it not be a defensive lapse at the end.

Now the media and some fans are contemplating how it all went so terribly wrong. The same media people who were predicting a down year for the Steelers a year ago are now aghast that they missed the playoffs, and how uncharacteristic this is. Kevin Colbert had a press conference at the Combine refuting the idea that the team is in transition. This puts him in the same camp as LeBeau and Antonio Brown who believe that the team was (still) Super Bowl capable. I'm willing to bet that some will accuse Colbert of whistling past the graveyard. He couldn't possibly be right, could he? What follows is an argument that nothing may be particularly wrong with the Steelers.

First a little thought experiment. Imagine its two years ago. The ghost of Art Rooney puts us all in a time machine and brings us to the present day. We listen to a discussion about our current roster concerns. Any number of key players are at risk of being released or lost to free agency including James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Larry Foote, Isaac Redman, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Willie Colon, Brett Keisel. But the one player who must, absolutely must be our top priority is...Keenan Lewis.

What the hell??

In fact, if you went back just five months you would get a similar reaction. The point is that two years (or five months) ago it would have generally been agreed that Lewis was an irredeemable waste, not to be considered a priority over any of the other players listed. Consequently, our current dialogue, though accurate for the present situation would be considered so much nonsense. Things change, or more to the point things develop, evolve. To understand the value of a Keenan Lewis you have to know, to remember what has transpired during the 2012 season, something our time travelers were not privy to.

This is what makes discussions that occur in an information vacuum so interesting and dangerous. Which brings me to one final and very important point before moving forward. When information is absent, and for fans and the media there is always critical information of the workings of a football team that are absent, then the disposition of the individual plays an important role in how situations are discerned and evaluated; how we fill in the blanks.

Sometimes we characterize this process into two broadly defined camps; optimists and pessimists (or realists), or more pejoratively pollyannas and gloom and doomers. I am hereby renouncing these categories as being somewhat inaccurate and not particularly useful. I am seeing three perspectives that manifest in these discussions. One is confidence based, another is fear based and the third, the one preferred by the media is drama based.

A great example of a confidence based thought process occurred during the trophy ceremony when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in '08. Dan Patrick was interviewing Mike Tomlin, emphasizing that he had been a relative unknown and was the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl championship. He asked Tomlin if he had any doubts that he could have led the team to this accomplishment given his relative inexperience. A typical response would have been an assertion of his faith in God or in his own abilities, instead Tomlin expressed his confidence in the judgment of the Rooneys and the process through which they selected him. So, taking a historical and confidence based perspective here is one person's take on a few key issues.

On missing the playoffs. Hombre and others will disagree with me on this but how can you get overwrought about something that has been happening on a regular basis for over a decade? Every three years the train goes off the rails. The presenting reasons may differ, but can it be dismissed as a coincidence? Maybe. A sign of the Apocalypse? Now that would be an example of fear based thinking. This was a team that was out of sync and out of sorts due to a number of reasons both known and unknown. And in spite of it all they came perilously close to making the playoffs anyway.

On discipline (or lack thereof). Let's see. No sexual assault allegations. No arrests for drug use or domestic violence. No substance abuse suspensions. No one going after police helicopters with a high powered rifle. (Where did we get this perception that the Steelers were choirboys?) Discipline problems circa 2012/13 consists of a star linebacker who is alleged to be overweight and lazy, a soon to be free agent running back who is in the head coach's doghouse and doesn't show up to work in a snit. (And since he wasn't going to work that day who did that hurt?), a knucklehead who outed the alleged overweight and lazy linebacker to the press and a drunk driving arrest by a non contributor. I'll take it.

On Tomlin. Was lauded by the team president at league meetings last year and signed to a contract extension this past summer. The coaches whom he is most frequently compared are at least twenty years older and weren't considered to be as good as him when they were his age. Four playoff and two Super Bowl appearances in six years at the helm. Talk to me when he has at least two losing seasons, preferably in consecutive years, otherwise you're wasting my time and yours because I'm (and no one else with any sense) not even listening.

On the lack of talent. Let's say for the sake of argument the Steelers completely strike out in the draft and free agency. Can they field a team where the linemen are as good as Hartwig and Stapleton, running backs as good as Moore? Then history would say that they have a shot at least in theory. In his interview with Neal LeBeau was not concerned primarily about talent, but rather depth and a succession strategy. Antonio Brown talked about leadership. No conversation about a deficiency of talent.

On cap casualties, free agents and other roster/financial issues. Honestly, who knows? Unless you believe that Colbert, LeBeau and Brown are posturing and BSing then it might not be as much of a bloodbath as people fear. If the past is any indication some of the assumptions won't play out and others will.

On the Rooneys. Dan is back. And unless there is some sort of dementia issue that we're unaware of that should count for a great deal in terms of wisdom, institutional memory and any number of factors involving the proper guidance of this franchise.

I don't presume to know anymore than anyone reading this about what will transpire over the coming weeks. Maybe I'm dead wrong and the team is on an express train to competitive hell. Maybe Tomlin, Colbert, LeBeau, Haley are all frauds or overrated at least. Maybe Dan is too old and Art II incompetent. Maybe the players are largely selfish or washed up or fragile or clueless. But I know two things. First, I have confidence in this organization, the people that are hired to manage and play and the process that is in place. No organization in this business has been as successful over the years and they have earned my patience and faith until they demonstrate that those factors have been misplaced. Second, history has shown that those proposing alternate explanations have been wrong time and time again. The Steelers operate in a realm they don't understand (those who are ruled by fear can't comprehend confidence) so they are usually surprised (disappointed?) when predictions of Pittsburgh's demise are confounded.

My sense is this team will be back on track sooner rather than later.