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Teaching Ike Taylor new tricks, and other random observations

In which the author throws out a few theories to see if they stick...

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

It's been a long week at the Momma domicile. Tough Steelers loss, Pirates get swept by St. Louis and fall out of first place, I fell off a step stool and twisted a wrist, and too much more to mention. But here I am, with my thoughts about Sunday's unfortunate events and what we might expect going forward.

Much has been made by commenters on this site, both last season and this, as to the lack of heart, desire, or what have you shown by the players. These sorts of comments are part of the reason I avoided reading anything at all for the first couple of days. I'm not a fan of trying to make myself feel worse, and something told me that would be the net effect. I had plenty to feel bad about already, what with the sickening losses of Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote, just for starters.

But now that we've all calmed down a bit, I have a few observations to make, for what they're worth. And don't worry, I'll get to the part about Ike Taylor in due time : )

Let's tackle the "heart" issue. Is this likely? With a few very notable exceptions, it is pretty inconceivable that an NFL player doesn't want to win. The exceptions would mainly be situations in which a player is trying to make a statement, protect themselves from injury for an upcoming free agency period, or some such. Albert Haynesworth is the poster child for the former, and, fairly or unfairly, many feel Mike Wallace was an example of the latter last season.

Perhaps one might find examples of this on a team with many veterans nearing retirement and little hope of winning. I don't know. But it is almost impossible to imagine a team like this season's Steelers, given the makeup of the roster, is not absolutely overflowing with the desire and determination to win.

Why do I say this? Well, the roster, which in previous years has been largely made up of proven veterans, is suddenly quite different. What is the makeup now? There is a small percentage of vets nearing the end of their careers (Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu.) The total number of players with more than five years of experience is only 28.5%. I presume this is the lowest number in a good long while.

There is also a much larger-than usual number of rookies on the roster—13%, to be precise. I'm guessing that's also a larger number than usual.

The rest of the players are almost evenly divided between those with one to two years of experience in the league (28.5%) and those with three to five years (30%.)

So if you add together the "veteran" categories, you find almost 60% of the team has been in the league more than two years. That sounds like a lot of proven veterans, right?

Well, maybe. But let's have a look at who those "proven veterans" are. I would put them in various categories:

1. Elder Statesmen

2. Prime of their career

3. Last chance to make it in the NFL, or to stay with the Steelers

4. Guys we signed but hope to never have to use

Here's how I would divide them. Feel free to dispute my categorization. As Keith would say, please use a No. 2 pencil and show your work in the comments.

1. Elder Statesmen, by years in the league: Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark (12 years); Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor (11 years); Ben Roethlisberger, Jerricho Cotchery (10 years); Shaun Suisham, Greg Warren (9 years)

2. Prime of their career, also by years in the league: Ben Roethlisberger is also going here (10 years); Heath Miller (9 years); Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley (7 years);  Ramon Foster (5 years); Antonio Brown, and [hopefully] Zoltan Mesko, Steve McLendon (4 years);

3. Last chance to make it, or to stay with the Steelers, or get a decent contract from somebody else: Felix Jones (6 years); Ziggy Hood, David Johnson (5 years); Emmanuel SandersMichael Palmer, Jason Worilds, Al Woods, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac RedmanFernando Velasco, Kion Wilson (4 years);

4. Guys we signed but hope to never have to use, meaning they will be gone if something better comes along: Guy Whimper (8 years); Bruce Gradkowski (7 years); Cody Wallace,  (4 years)

(I didn't put Shayne Graham into any of the categories, since he can be viewed as a temporary stop-gap.)

I would say it's indisputable that 15 of those players (categories 1 and 2, not double-counting Ben) are excellent, proven players. This is essentially half of the veteran players.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have four guys who are new to the Steelers and not really central to their plans, even for this season. (The exception might be Gradkowski.) The less we see of them, the better. I intend no disrespect to any of these gentlemen, but they are back-up plans only.

There's one player I really didn't know how to place, and that is the oft-maligned William Gay. He's more than a back-up plan, but it's almost impossible to know whether he's part of the Steelers' long-term plans. It's fair to say he was one of the better players on the field last Sunday, though.

And finally we have the guys who are looking to either earn a contract with the Steelers, get a big payday elsewhere, or for whom this year represents their final chance to validate themselves. (These categories overlap a bit.) Felix Jones and Ziggy Hood, for example, are trying to prove they deserved to be first-round picks. Kion Wilson would, I'm sure, really like to not have to return to insurance sales, at least for a few more years.  Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds would like to demonstrate that they deserve a good contract, if not here, somewhere else. These players represent over a third of the veterans.

So what was the point of all of this? The point I wish to make is, a substantial fraction of the roster (all of the younger guys, and a third of the veterans) have a lot to prove. The players in this category represent well over half the roster. Again, I would contend this is different than previous years. So if you have a lot of guys with something to prove, and a lot who have proven they come to play every time, whence this angst about lack of heart, lack of desire, or what have you? Where do we get this idea?

I went to a game in Baltimore (the infamous Game 1 of the 2011 season). I took my Welsh son-in-law. David (said son-in-law) has played hockey at the semi-professional level, and is a keen sportsman. So when the Jumbotron feed played lovingly over Ray Lewis exhorting his teammates (something which, I presume, sickened all true Steelers fans), he was terribly impressed. After the game David declared that the Steelers had played with no heart, and "that guy" (Lewis) was fantastic. He felt that kind of passion was a missing element on the Steelers' squad.

He might be right. I'm not disputing Lewis was an excellent player for a great many years, or that he inspired his teammates. David certainly has a lot more experience with team sports than I do. (So does almost every other human on the planet.) But from my experience as a performer, I'm not sure I agree with his assessment.

I think as human beings we tend to filter what we saw through the lens of the end result. If the Steelers had won the game on Sunday, would there be any talk about lack of heart or desire? I seriously doubt it.  But we look back through the lens of the very discouraging result and decide the players don't "want it" badly enough.

But there is more here than historic revisionism. I think we do see something from the players, but perhaps we misinterpret what we're seeing. I'm guessing what we see is not a lack of heart or desire to win. What we're actually seeing is the death spiral of anxiety.

I recently ran across an article, "The Science of Snobbery," on Priceonomics. The article talks about whether there's really a difference between cheap wine and expensive wine, whether people really like classical music, or just think they should (I wish I knew more people that at least think they should like it : ), and so on. What is germane to this discussion, though, was the section relating a study showing that you could predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy who had won a piano competition just by watching a video of the performance, with no sound.

What were people seeing? I don't know, but my guess is confidence. It is certainly possible to sense its opposite as well. So what creates this angst? As a performer, I can assure you it comes from a number of possible sources.

In my own personal case lack of preparation or insufficient familiarity with what I am supposed to be performing has, upon occasion, been an issue. (I'm not saying how often!) Surely all of us have had the sensation of getting up to give some sort of presentation, be it a solo recital or just introducing a speaker, and wishing we had spent just that little bit more time with the "playbook." Depending upon one's temperament and degree of experience, one either brushes it off as irrelevant to the task at hand, or lets it infuse you with dread. The dread itself is distracting, to some degree at least, which exacerbates the problem.

Then there is the unexpected. It can be catastrophic in nature (you lose your center, or you took one of the pieces you were supposed to play out of the folder and forgot to put it back, and there's no way you can play it from memory.) Or it can be merely annoying—an audience members' cell phone starts ringing in the middle of the best bit, or you realize your shoelace is untied, or some other minor event which nonetheless messes with your concentration. There are always going to be unexpected interruptions to a smoothly flowing performance. The question is, how well do you deal with them? The minor annoyances are more and more easily dealt with as you accumulate experience. The catastrophic ones are never going to be simple to get over. You do what you can and move on.

These are only a few ways in which a performance can be effected. Preparation can overcome some of them (feeling like you don't know the playbook, or leaving a piece of music at home.) Others cannot be prepared for, and must be endured. Any of them are made worse by the accumulated weight of other factors.

You are never going to have a perfect performance, either as a football player, a musician, or anything else. If you think you did, you don't know your field well enough to know what was still sub-par. But your attitude makes a tremendous difference as to how things affect you. In a team sport you have not only your own personal demons to deal with, in terms of your anxieties, but those of the players upon whom you are dependent. Your confidence can infuse others, but conversely so can your uncertainty and anxiety. Ray Lewis' tirades were doubtless meant to instill confidence in his teammates, and despite my dislike of his methodology they were clearly effective. Winning, or performing well, is partly a matter of culture. I would contend the Steelers have somehow lost the certainty that they can win.

There are many possible reasons for this. But it is telling to me that it is the offense who really struggles.

For example, on paper the offensive line has the pedigree to be a top unit. But when you have been part of a group whose personnel changes from game to game, I would guess that a certain amount of fear creeps in. You're determined to do your job, but you aren't entirely certain the person next to you will do their job, because they might be writhing on the ground. And, for that matter, any uncertainty about what play is being run, which personnel is supposed to be on the field, or whether the person playing center instead of the person you practiced with knows what they are doing creates a fog of doubt.

I think Ben and his receiver group (at least Brown, Sanders, and Cotchery) are confident. I think the confidence of the running backs and the tight ends is at an all-time low. Installing a new system, dealing with uncertain terminology, and the memory of failure (multiple fumble games, for instance) is going to mess with your head and your concentration. It doesn't help if you're asked to do something you know you aren't good at, because you're substituting for someone who is. (That would be all of the tight ends, making all of us realize even more just how valuable Heath Miller is in our offense.)

None of these are excuses. They are more observations, and they may be completely off-base. But I honestly don't think this group is that far off of playing well. I think the distance to travel, though, is more in their minds than anything else. Naturally it would help a great deal if every man were supremely confident of his assignment in every circumstance, and had the physical talent and the experience to back it up. This isn't as simple as it sounds.

Kelvin Beachum, for example, is almost certainly completely conversant with the issues of playing center, but he doesn't have the muscle memory of doing it or all of the physical tools to make it easy. These deficiencies can be largely overcome with experience, but that takes time and opportunity, and mistakes will be made in the process.

Furthermore, he's part of a unit. It's different to play as part of a unit, or in his case in an entirely different function in the unit. In the same way it's different to give a solo recital or conduct an ensemble, and it would certainly be different to be an alto in the ensemble and to suddenly be required to conduct the group, or vice versa.

I can control my preparation for a solo recital, but I can't control the preparation of the members of my ensemble. A mistake by one person, in a small group at least, can have large consequences for the rest of the section, and even the rest of the ensemble. We're interdependent, in the same way the offensive line is.

But it goes further than that. If the line doesn't function properly, the quarterback and/or the running backs can't function properly either. Sometimes you can made lemonade out of lemons, but mostly you just make a mess.

So what's the solution? Time. Which is in short supply at the moment. But perhaps the lack of time can be ameliorated in a small way by innovative strategies. Which is where Ike Taylor finally enters, stage left.

In Wednesday's Tribune Review there was an article about the Sixth Annual "Heros at Heinz Field" event. In this event, military veterans are invited to Heinz Field to run some drills, learn some skills, and hang out with the cream of the Steelers roster.

Here was my favorite bit of the article:

Jake Schwerin limped down the sideline on a quick out as Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor backpedaled into the end zone.

Recognizing he was no match physically for Taylor, Schwerin stopped suddenly and held out his cane. Taylor's eyes widened and he grabbed it. Schwerin then turned suddenly, raised his hands and caught the pass. Touchdown. The crowd went nuts. Taylor could only shake his head admiringly.

"That was the move," Taylor said. "That was the move right there, man."

Schwerin had no chance. The only thing he had was his creativity, and he used it to catch a touchdown pass in front of an NFL cornerback. All of Taylor's instincts were short-circuited by the unexpected.

In other words, perhaps we can make the unexpected work for us instead of against us, as it unfortunately did last Sunday. I seem to recall a pretty cute stunt, back when the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, in which Antonio Brown burned the Titans for a kick return for a touchdown on his first NFL touch on some sort of reverse.

I'm not a coach in the NFL, or even in Pop Warner. I don't play one on TV, either. But I know performing, and if I were coaching this team I would be working 24/7 to figure out how to turn around the malaise which appears to be pervading the offense at the moment. This is not a malaise of ill will or lack of effort, but of good old fashioned discouragement.

I'm not calling out the coaching staff by any means. But it's always useful to remember that doing the same thing is likely to give the same result.

I understand and applaud the desire to be fundamentally sound. This is the basis of all good performance. But sometimes you have to take stock of where you are and compensate for where you need to be but aren't yet. So my last piece of advice to the coaches is to mess up their desks. According to this article, working at a messy desk somehow releases your creativity. It's worth a try : )