The NFL Divisional playoffs are upon us. And for the second time in two years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will enjoy home couch advantage through the Super Bowl.
- But of course that shouldn't be the case.
And it simply isn't fair.
Seriously, our own Steel City Roller called out the NFL after the Green Bay game and yours truly went so far as to say the Steelers post-Thanksgiving experience revealed how Goodell & crew were undermining the NFL's integrity.
And that was before the blown illegal formation call and the Eric Weddle's fumble that never was but should have been conspired to prevent a Steelers playoff run.
- Heck, Art Rooney II is as tight lipped as they come, and even he says the Steelers should be in the playoffs.
Add to the indignity what we've seen so far. Had the Steelers won, it would have been them and not the Chargers traveling to Paul Brown Stadium; the same stadium where they've only lost twice in the Tomlin era. Instead fate left Steelers Nation with nothing else to do except clench their teeth as Andy Dalton raised his playoff record to a goose egg cubed as the Bengals failed to score in the second half.
And you know what?
- It gets no better this week.
Oh, you say, but remember, had the Steelers beaten the Bengals (as they would have) they'd have to travel to Denver. Mile High is a very difficult place to play. Peyton Manning looks unstoppable. And to boot, they're coached by a member of the Chuck Noll coaching tree who's got an irresistible, Hollywood like comeback from tragedy story...
- A tall order, doubtlessly.
But that's also the exact same situation the Pittsburgh Steelers faced in the '05 Divisional playoffs....
Factor in Denver's function as the site of the Steelers last playoff loss, and what citizen of Steelers Nation wouldn't long for a shot at the Broncos?
- Deny it and you forever forfeit your claim to bleeding Black and Gold.
You know all of this, of course. So why bring it up? Is it some sort of catharsis? No. I must mention this to validate my credentials because I'm about to "Go there."
For as unfair as it may have unfolded, the Steelers got lucky when San Diego kept them out of the playoffs.
There. I said it. The question is, why? That answer involves both simple math and the far more complex phenomena of self-perception. Read on.
Come May the Pittsburgh Steelers will hold the 15th pick in the NFL Draft. 15th ties their best draft positioning since 2007, Tomlin's rookie season. To find a better position you have to go back to 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger was selected. (If someone can explain how or why the Steelers can finish above the Ravens in the AFC North yet pick below them, please do in the comments section.)
Had the Steelers made the playoffs they could have done no better than 21st. Had they won in Wild Card weekend they couldn't have done any better than 25th.
- Well, if it's all about draft position, then shouldn't they have mailed it in at 2-6?
Of course not. Long ago I defended, in spite of Super Bowl XXX, the '88 Steelers late season "surge" (closing the season at 3-1), that lost them the "Aikman Derby." And I praised the late Bill Austin for "winning when he ‘should' have lost" thus robbing Pittsburgh of the right to draft O.J. Simpson. (Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene instead. Any regrets?)
You play the game to win. And as long as you don't follow Bill Belinick's path, winning is always preferable to losing.
But sometimes it's best to embrace the hand fate deals you. Given the chance, Noll might have drafted Simpson and while 70's glory might have come anyway, it would have been different.
- But this is about the future, not the distant past.
Good players are on the board at the top and bottoms of each round. Look no further than Antonio Brown. But the earlier you pick, the better chance you have of getting the guys you want and, arguably, guys who can contribute quickly.
Analysis of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin's show that they draft better with better position. In '07 thir draft haul netted LaMarr Woodley, William Gay, Matt Spaeth, and Lawrence Timmons. Although Spaeth was certainly drafted too high, all four made contributions this past season.
Look at '10, where the Steelers drafted 18th overall which brought Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders, Stevenson Sylvester, Jonathan Dwyer and Brown.
And while its way, way too early to make pronouncements on the Steelers '13 Draft class, Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell, and Vince Williams all played and each was showing an up arrow by season's end. And Shamarko Thomas also showed some potential, and Markus Wheaton at least got his feet wet.
This is not to say that Colbert can only draft well if he's doing it in the teens or below. But he's generally done better with lower draft position. Anyone who'd like to make a detailed rebuttal, be my guest, that's the beauty of BTSC.
But until then, the math is simple. Ben Roethlisberger is 32. Keep him healthy and he's got several years of Super Bowl viability remaining. And that means it is imperative for the Steelers to reload with younger talent as fast as they can.
And Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have a much better chance of doing that drafting 15th than at 21st.
Steelers Self Perception
Everyone marvels at the model of stability that the Steelers represent in the Not For Long league. In just three years the Cleveland Browns will have had more coaches than the Steelers have had in the last 45.
My friend and colleague Ivan Cole regularly speaks to those fans who would see the Steelers shed their M.O. of stability, and there's no reason to add to his work here.
- But an additional benefit of stability is that it creates institutional memory.
A lot of forces conspired to slide the Steelers from the excellence of the 70's into the mediocrity of the 80's. One of those however, was that Chuck Noll, despite his cold-calculating, unsentimental, tough as nails image, held on to too many Super Bowl veterans for too long.
As Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Hines Ward and others will testify, Art Rooney II, Colbert and Tomlin aren't about to fall into the same trap. Salary cap realities play a role here, but I suspect there's some institutional memory at work.
But knowing when to saying goodbye to veterans isn't the only lesson to take from that era.
A Twitterized version of Steelers history since '69 reads like this:
- Dominant Dynasty in the 70's, mumbling mediocrity in the 80's, rise to contender status in the 90's, return to champions post '04.
But important details exists outside the world of 140 characters (with spaces.) Many forget that in the bottom half of the decade, the Steelers made 3 straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the AFC Championship.
In his book Ruanaidh, Art Rooney, Jr., the man directing the Steelers personnel department during both the talent spike in the 70's and the drop in the 80's offers a lot of relevant insights.
After missing the playoffs in '80 and '81 the Steelers, the NFL wrote off the Steelers. Yet they roared back to life in the strike shortened '82 season finishing 6-3 and losing to San Diego in the first round of the AFC tournament by 3 points after letting an 11 point lead slip away. Of that season, Rooney observed this:
Disappointing yes. But 1982 was another winning season. We had not had a losing one since 1971. We were keeping our heads above water.
The experience of the Steelers in the next two seasons didn't validate Rooney's "head above water" hypothesis, it instead seemed to show that he'd underestimated the team's direction. Playing without Terry Bradshaw for all but one game, the Steelers finished 10-6 and lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Raiders in the first round of the playoffs.
With each passing season, more and more Super Bowl veterans called it a day. Yet, in 1984 the Steelers, with Mark Malone under center, won the AFC Central. That was the year when the Steelers marred the '984 49ers otherwise perfect season. The Steelers also shocked the NFL by upsetting the Broncos at Mile High. Ultimately they fell to Dan Marino's Dolphins in the AFC Championship.
The Steelers post-70's rebuilding seemed to be gaining momentum. As Rooney writes:
Yet in my estimation, we were on our way back. It would take a while longer - four years, maybe five but we could win while rebuilding and possibly return to the Super Bowl. The 1984 season had convinced me of that.
The exact opposite happened.
The Steelers finished 7-9 in 1985 and 6-10 in 1986, leading Dan Rooney to fire his brother. The Steelers finished 8-7 (6-6 in non-strike games) in '87, and 5-11 in 1988.
- The moral of this history lesson for Steelers Nation in 2014 is that a '13 season that ends with a playoff run could possibly be the last thing this team needs.
As Rooney indicates in his book, with 20/20 hindsight it was obvious that the team's drafting was slipping by the late 70's and that the trend intensified during the early 80's. Yet, repeated playoff appearances obscured that reality for those living in the moment.
Mike Tomlin led his squad to an impressive bounce back during the later half of 2013. These young Steelers undoubtedly learned some important lessons in the art of winning football games. But work remains to be done. Difficult decisions must be made. The transition between age and youth, inexperience and maturity must continue.
And those tasks are best taken up by a Pittsburgh Steelers organization that looks into the mirror and sees a hungry underdog as opposed to one that has a chance to views itself as an up-and-comer to be confirmed.
Steelers Nation rightly howls at how the NFL unjustly screwed the Steelers. But if they react the right way, it might be just what the Dr. ordered for the organization.
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