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Losing a meaningless preseason game can be a good thing

With all due respect to the pundits, the division race isn't determined yet...

Wait until we get into the film room...
Wait until we get into the film room...
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Like most of Steeler Nation, I was pretty excited to see some actual football last night, even if it doesn't count for anything in the larger picture. Unlike a great many fans, especially season ticket holders, I don't think preseason games should be eliminated. (As to whether they should cost said season ticket holders as much as a regular season game is an entirely different issue.)

Also unlike many fans, I suspect, I not only think last night's game is not a reason to panic, I think it represented the best possible outcome from a coaching standpoint.

"Hold the presses," you may be saying to yourself. (At least if you are over 50. Those of you younger ones probably don't know what that expression means.) "Did you watch the same game the rest of us did?!!!"

Oh, yes, I saw it all. The blocked punt (and the extra man on the field penalty which necessitated a second punt, for that matter.) Landry Jones running into his halfback instead of handing him the ball, a move which surely is part of Football 101. Jason Worilds making a case for being replaced by the first round pick with back-to-back personal foul penalties. David Gilreath playing Hot Potato with the punt and giving it back to the Giants. The list goes on and on.

And yet, somehow or other, the game was still well within reach in the last two minutes. In my opinion, it would have been a great pity if they had somehow pulled out a win.

As it is, you couldn't ask for a better set of object lessons for the coaches to use. It's one thing to run your guys around the field with red Sock Monkey caps. It's quite another to be showing the film clip, over and over, of the great coverage on a punt which pinned the Giants close to their own end zone, but with the ominous yellow hankie circled.

"Mr. McFadden," Coach Tomlin might say, "would you like to explain to the rest of us in the room what possible reason you could see for your continued residence on the field, given that there were already 11 men there?" (Coach Smith, I imagine in my little carefully crafted dramatic scene, is over in the corner, his face suffused with a purple hue, completely mute, as his vocal cords have finally succumbed to the pressure and shut down altogether.)

Then comes the turn of the defense. Coach Tomlin shows the film clip of Jason Worilds. After indicating he already said his piece during the game when he benched Mr. Worilds for his transgressions, he yields the floor to Coach LeBeau.

LeBeau walks slowly to the head of the room, his native optimism temporarily quelled. He looks sorrowfully out over the assembly, takes a long, labored breath, and murmurs "I have to say I was pretty disappointed in myself. I have endeavored to teach you men what is and what isn't a penalty. But obviously I have done a very poor job of it, and I apologize to everyone—coaches, players, and to the millions of fans we collectively let down. I am going to go home, study the rule books again, and tomorrow we will start from the beginning." Overcome with emotion, he creeps slowly from the room as Brett Keisel audibly sobs.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It is a great deal harder to learn through success than through failure—not impossible, just harder.

Clint Hurdle is the manager of the Pirates, and he is a man who can turn as pretty a mangled phrase as you'll ever find. (A classic mixed metaphor was his message to Francisco Liriano after his disastrous outing on Friday—"Don't psychoanalyze it, don't overcook it, just flush it down.") But he also often delivers great nuggets of homespun advice. He delivered a brilliant example of this about a month ago:

... good judgment's needed in times of adversity. How do you get good judgment? Through experience. And how do you get the experience? Through bad judgment.

There was bad judgment a-plenty on Heinz Field last night. The lessons learned are almost certain to be absorbed at a much deeper level than an occasional cussing out by a coach on the practice field. And those who, despite the opportunities to learn through failure, don't manage it will make Tomlin's job easier as he contemplates the first round of cuts.

How do I know all this? Well, I have (mostly) managed to learn from my failures, although sometimes slower than would seem necessary. I saw some of these same mistakes and failures manifesting themselves in my childrens' lives, and I would have given a great deal to help them learn from my mistakes. Any of you who are parents will know how well that usually works out. My children have all turned all very well, but they had to make a lot of their own mistakes and suffer the consequences of them along the way.

But I also compare the process I go through to prepare my chorus for a performance. We generally have six rehearsals prior to a concert—about the same number of practices the Steelers have before a game. Unfortunately, we don't have training camp and preseason concerts to lay a foundation. Generally we use the first rehearsal to read through the music. As a rule all of the singers are in attendance, and all are on their game, focused and full of energy to discover the music we will sing. We all leave the first rehearsal with an enormous sense of excitement. This is going to be the year when we pull everything together! It all sounds terrific!

Then comes the long haul—rehearsals two through five. Unlike the Steelers, our rehearsals are spread out over six weeks instead of six days, which allows time in-between for the singers to work on the music. Or not, as the case may be. It certainly allows plenty of time for them to forget what we learned in rehearsal.

And from the singers' standpoint, why should any of them work on it, anyhow? It sounded great! There was maybe the occasional missed note here and there, but it will be just fine! (Of course, if you multiply the occasional missed note by the number of singers in the group, suddenly that's a lot of missed notes...)

The next several rehearsals are almost always held without some of singers. When your group is only 24 or so, and the music is divided into anything from four to eight or more parts, this can represent a problem. When people are missing you suddenly begin to hear the flaws that the full group sound was covering up. I'm generally pretty depressed by the third rehearsal. But it also represents a golden opportunity to address the underlying problems. And now the singers begin to realize that things really aren't likely to improve without some outside work on their part, according to their own native abilities, experience, and technical prowess.

And, like the coaches, I have to consider whether part of the problem is that I have put someone into a position which makes failure more likely. So I make some adjustments if I can see some which would be advantageous. The singers work on their problem areas.

And suddenly, by the sixth rehearsal things are sounding as good as they appeared to at the first rehearsal. But this time, we are all hearing with a much better understanding of what the music really should sound like, and how one's own part fits in with the rest of the music. Although it may not sound quite as good as the idyllicly-remembered first rehearsal to the singers, to an impartial observer it would be much more fundamentally sound.

In other words, I think early success is not only not predictive, it can actually be counterproductive. Making mistakes early and often gives the opportunity to address underlying problems before they become cracks in the foundation.

And to reinforce the idea that success in the preseason is not predictive, I give you the 2008 Lions. Anyone who was even vaguely paying attention to the rest of the NFL in 2008 will doubtless remember this was not a high point for the franchise. Here is what happened in their preseason games:

vs. New York (Football) Giants: W 13-10

@ Cincinnatti Bengals: W 27-10

vs. Cleveland Browns: W 26-6

@ Buffalo Bills: W 14-6

The Lions did not win a game again until the following August.

There was plenty not to like last night, but I didn't see much that seems unfixable. (William Gay should not be covering Victor Cruz. That's possibly the closest thing to unfixable I saw on the field.) No, Landry Jones is probably not going to morph into an accomplished quarterback between now and September. But, as has already been pointed out, if we're down to Landry Jones at any point this season, we're screwed.

As to the dumb mistakes and penalties, I say bring them on in the next few weeks. Let's find out who can't help but make them and get them out of harm's way. Let's teach those who can learn not to make them in the best possible way—by letting them learn from their own dumb mistakes. Let's let the Steelers stay under the radar a little bit longer while we're at it.

Maybe this team's players are just too old, or too young, or not talented enough, or not experienced enough to play well this season. But every team has flaws. The NFL is set up to make sure of that. Are our particular flaws fatal ones? Only time will tell. But I for one want to see them find out what those are in gameday situations, so they can be minimized before the season opener.

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