The absolute beat-down the Steelers suffered at the hands of the Cleveland Browns contains in it lessons to be learned which, if handled properly, hold the seeds of future success.
One of my favorite sayings, and a cornerstone of my managerial style, is the following:
A man can't get good if he doesn't know he's bad. - Homer Hickam Sr.
Steelers Nation witnessed yesterday just how bad the Pittsburgh Steelers are. This wasn't a fluke; the lesson taught by the Browns was a continuation of the one they started in the second half of the first meeting between these two teams at the beginning of the season. All told, the Steelers have been outscored 58-40 by the Browns this season, with 27 of the Steelers 40 points having come in first half of the first game. Since that high-water mark, the Browns have outscored the Steelers 55-13.
Given Steelers Nation's pre-Sunday dismissal of the Browns as nothing but a woebegone, forlorn and perpetual cellar-dwelling member of the AFC North division, this should come as a rude awakening. The Steelers now are worse than our most uncharitable characterization of the Browns.
But the Steelers and Steelers Nation needed this awakening. To paraphrase the quote above, how is a team supposed to get good if it doesn't believe it's bad? How is Steelers Nation going to find peace, if it doesn't acknowledge the true state of its team?
Other authors here on BTSC will provide the statistical and technical breakdown of what caliber of team the current Steelers represent. Some comments on those articles call for specific solutions such as fire this coach; cut that player; wait for this player to return from injury; start that player over another; change this scheme; adjust play calling; etc). All of this is worthwhile for the quality of thought it provides, but I'm looking at the bigger picture.
The Steelers organization, up until this past game, hasn't acknowledged that it's bad. From the front office on down, those who have spoken publicly have recognized the need for improvement but have filled their statements with platitudes such as "not rebuilding...learn from our mistakes", etc.
The Steelers team that last made it to the Super Bowl did so on borrowed time, with players salvaged from release or retirement. Future Steelers success was mortgaged in the hope of staving off the inevitable deterioration of the 2008 team. This got the Steelers to the 2010 Super Bowl, but the cost of doing so is now being paid.
This is going to be a great and deeply difficult year for the Steelers. While others found hope in the team's resurgence after its 0-4 start last year, what we saw in the first two games this year should have quickly shaken us from our lotus dreams.
That said, PaVaSteeler hasn't lost hope, nor does he take pleasure in writing these words. Instead, he finds hope in this quote:
Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it. - Neils Bohr
Holding onto aging players and paying to keep those players, thus leaving no salary cap room with which to pursue selective free agents, brought us to this moment. Even worse, we've arrived at this point by not allowing younger players real-time learning experiences on the field.
But the salary cap situation has improved and younger players now are seeing the field much sooner than before. But the true worth of those players recently selected remains to be seen, both from the standpoint of their own performance as well as how they're able to perform within the context of the other members of their unit. An individual player may stand out, but the team's success depends on their performance as a whole, so don't dismiss a Marcus Gilbert, Jarvis Jones, Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen or Sean Spence too quickly simply because they might not be able to perform as well as they would if they didn't need to compensate for an aging Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel or a potentially sub-par Kelvin Beachum or Mike Adams.
While it goes without saying that a team's offensive game plan from week to week is predicated on the opponent being played, there appears to be no systematic philosophy in the Steelers' game plan. Against a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars that couldn't stop the run, Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley repeatedly called for 5-wides in the red zone; against a good run-stopping team whose best cornerback, Joe Haden, was questionable up until game time and hasn't been able to stop Antonio Brown in the past, the Steelers depended exclusively on the run or low-percentage deep passes with little or no play-action or crossing routes called.
The Steelers' owners and front office need to step back and take a critical view toward how this team is being coached down on the field. It's now time, as the quote above suggests, to change the Steelers' overall thinking. A strong pedigree doesn't necessarily equate to being a good fit for a team. Haley has a strong pedigree, both on his own and through his father. But that doesn't mean he's necessarily the best fit for this team. Haley's play-calling choices, however, may not be the problem. The point is something isn't working; something is out of kilter to produce such uneven results that fall short of success. The time is now for those in the power to change their way of thinking, a way that for the past three years has failed to yield the results expected.
The time has come for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation to take a page out of the "12-Step" concept of recovery. Without taking these steps, true change and improvement isn't possible and the enjoyment of watching the Steelers play will be subsumed in angst and anger over their supposed failure to achieve a level of success they're currently not capable of reaching.
To borrow from a "12-Step" program, every individual and working group in the Steelers' organization should take the following steps. I'm not implying any individual or groups within the organization aren't currently committed to succeeding, or aren't trying their best, but the act of admitting the realities of the problem, turning oneself over to the group and making a commitment to change as a group has substantial documentation of success. This goal may be achieved as follows:
1. We admit that as a team we're not good and, if nothing changes on the part of the coaches, players, front office and ownership, failure will invariably result.
2. We desire to be better.
3. We commit to improving one step at a time as individuals and together as a team.
4. We come together as individuals and as a team firmly dedicated to the Steeler Way.
5. We evaluate ourselves honestly, both individually and as a team, acknowledging our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes and our failures.
6. We do our best to build on our strengths and dedicate ourselves to work as a cohesive unit to overcome our weaknesses.
7. We get our own house in order. We speak, act, practice and play as one. We make amends for mistakes or failures of the past among each other and set aside individual conflicts for the betterment of the team.
8. We get our individual and group workouts in order, redress the mistakes and shortcomings of the past and make changes to our practice habits and personnel where feasible.
9. We are determined to live in the real world of the here and now, whether our current state is pleasant or painful. We pledge to enact pragmatic changes to personnel, schemes or methodologies or for the good of the organization, whether pleasant or painful.
10. We abstain from "quick fixes", shortcuts, or other reactionary changes made strictly for the sake of change.
11. We share our efforts, dedication and adherence with each other and the organization as a whole.
12. We let our individual dedication to improve serve as a beacon for each other.
Taking 12 steps or 122 steps, however, won't work if the core fundamentals of the organization itself aren't respected and preserved. Thus, the Steelers' organization as a whole should consider reaffirming the following 12 Traditions to ensure that, in their efforts to change, the Steelers don't drift away from those guiding principles that have made them one of the most successful NFL teams in the modern era:
1. The Steelers as a team and organization should come first; personal achievements are secondary and depend on team unity.
2. For its group purpose or mission, there is but one ultimate authority - The Steeler Way. A pragmatic-but-fair ownership group has created something greater than itself, something that has become a way of life for the organization. The owners have become but trusted servants to The Steeler Way; they must shepherd the team's leaders and members by always following the Way.
3. The only requirement for Steelers' membership is a dedication to the Steeler Way.
4. Each player or coach must strive for personal excellence and achievement as part of the whole; individual achievement is encouraged but only secondarily in matters affecting others or the team as a whole.
5. Each player, coach, front-office member or owner has but one primary purpose - to embody the message of the Steeler Way and pass it on to others as they join the organization.
6. The owner, coaches and players ought never to take shortcuts or attempt quick fixes, lest problems of ego, dissension or lack of team cohesion divert them from pursing excellence as a whole.
7. Each player, coach, front-office member or owner must be responsible for their own actions in preparing themselves through work, study and conduct, declining to assign blame to others or to outside influences.
8. The Steelers' organization should remain forever dedicated to the Way that has brought it the success and preeminence it has earned. Change and corrections to improve performance should only be made in adherence to the Way.
9. The Steeler Way, as such, ought never to be blindly followed but, rather, changes that do not violate the Way must be timely considered to allow existing members of the organization to best serve each other in the cohesive pursuit of excellence and achievement.
10. The Steelers' organization should not make nor allow judgments regarding how the rest of the NFL operates. Thus, the Steeler Way ought never to be drawn into public controversy during times of trouble or performance below The Standard.
11. The Steeler Way is based on attraction rather than promotion. Individual members of the organization should always conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates the Way for others to emulate, not simply to promote it through empty actions.
12. The Steeler Way is the ethical foundation of all traditions of the Pittsburgh Steelers' organization, always reminding its members to place principles before personalities.
The road to recovery is long and filled with distractions, missteps and setbacks. It won't be fun to watch, any more than the game in Cleveland, the first game against the Baltimore Ravens or the games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
But if the Steelers take these 12 steps to heart, the inevitable stumbles along the way can be endured. It won't be easy, nor will it be quick.
All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. - Martin Luther King, Jr
Much work needs to be done since so many areas of the team need to be addressed. One unit might improve before others while the team's losing efforts persist.
But it's a start - a start on their return to The Standard and a start toward creating new glories to go along with the past ones. It's a reaffirmation of the 12 Traditions that made the Steelers who they are and which have created a Nation and a world of Pittsburgh Steelers fans.