I have just arrived in La Belle France, and hence have been out of the loop for several days. I fired up the site today and glanced through the articles, and my eye lit upon this title: "Attitude adjustments necessary for Steelers." In it, the author makes the case for the return of Joey Porter as a return to a more serious and nasty team.
The answer is simple. Leadership. The team went from having players that were pushing the limits on the field, but were just a ruthless off the field. There weren't hugs and handshakes all around after the Steelers played the Baltimore Ravens, but a focus and determination that bordered hatred ran through the veins of Steelers players.
Where did those teams lose their way?
That attitude and intensity was replaced by tractors being driven to camp, players more known for body hair than their play on the field and ultimately a general lack of understanding of what the "Steelers way" truly is all about.
Clearly, the reference is ex-Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. I understand what the author is trying to say. However, I believe it is coming from a viewpoint peculiar to fans.
Many fans want the players on their team to hate other teams. And the players on other teams. Furthermore, many fans believe that leadership resides in displays of fervor and intensity and perhaps even hatred such as came from the former king of such rants, Ray Lewis.
There are two misunderstandings here.
Ray Lewis didn't hate the Steelers players once a game was over (or at least a cooling-off period later if the Ravens lost). Heck, he was very supportive of Ben during "the troubles." For that matter, even Terrell Suggs, whose t-shirt proclaiming his hatred for the Steelers was prominently displayed in the comments in the article, has made positive statements about embattled Steelers players.
Remember, these guys often work out together in the off-season, many of them serve on NFLPA committees or other such things together, and all of them know there's at least a chance some of these guys will end up being their teammates eventually.
I'm guessing few players waste an ounce of energy hating other teams or players off the field, unless there are non-football reasons for said hatred, no matter what they may say in their football persona. They might hate the fact that a given team has typically blocked their ambitions, but that's different.
And the mention of the NFLPA brings up the point that, however hard they may work to take down opposing players during a game, at other times the whole community of players are allies against the NFL itself in many ways.
That's off the field. On the field, different players have different ways of pumping themselves up, and different styles of leadership in helping their fellow teammates to get ready for a game.
Leadership can be expressed in the way Ray Lewis, Joey Porter, et al did it. It can also be expressed in the way unquestioned leaders such as James Farrior and Aaron Smith did it—by quietly doing their own job while helping others to do theirs.
Brett Keisel has his own style, which may or may not impact his effectiveness as a leader. But, given he was one of the most productive members of the defense last season, it's hard to make the argument that his style, which includes humor and a sort of gently joking mountain man persona, has interfered with his ability to make an impact on the field.
Quite the opposite. For those of you young ‘uns, Brett Keisel was a seventh-round draft pick. Unlike the vast majority of seventh round draft picks, he became a starter. He did so because of unrelenting hard work and effort, including making the case for himself on special teams.
Furthermore, Keisel is an excellent mentor. If you doubt this, just take a look at the development of Cameron Heyward, who has largely been mentored by Keisel. (The other Steeler in the photo above is Heyward.)
Like Keisel, Heyward is a really nice guy who takes his work seriously and can become downright mean on the field. Which is where we want it. Players who stay mean off the field often end up in the news, and not in a good way.
I am not denigrating Joey Porter's "methods" in the least. They are all part of who he is as a player. But Joey Porter's example didn't turn Brett Keisel into a mouthy player back when Porter was on the team-nor should it have.
The OLB who replaced Porter has a very different temperament. You don't see James Harrison yapping on the field, but surely no one would claim he lacked intensity on the field.
It's worth addressing the possible objection to my premise by noting how often players make comments about a lack of focus or intensity or preparation or whatever else after a loss, particularly when it is one of many losses. It's worth asking yourself what you would say in that situation.
After all, a reporter has stuck a microphone in your face. You feel bad about yourself and your team and your life at the moment. And yet you know, somewhere in the little bit of your mind alive to your own self-interest, your comments are going to be dissected, and could be used against you. You know how badly players who point a finger at anyone in particular get savaged.
So you punt. If you're sensible, you make some comments that can't really be used against you, except insofar as they can be applied to the whole team.
It is only the very most unusual and selfless players who can pull a Troy Polamalu and blame themselves for anything and everything. I'll never forget his press conference after the infamous lateraled interception which almost went wrong, and which earned him a chewing out from Dick LeBeau. He was practically in tears, and you would think he had singlehandedly lost the game, the season, and worsened world hunger to boot. Most guys have a greater sense of self-preservation than Troy does.
Consider how seldom you hear such comments when a team is winning. You might think this is because a team who is winning games is in fact not lacking in preparation or focus or not making stupid mistakes, and you would be wrong. There may have been less of such things, but they were there. They just they didn't adversely effect the outcome of the game.
No one, whether he is Brett Keisel or Joey Porter or J.J. Watt, is completely prepared for whatever might happen in a game and able to maintain complete and utter concentration during every moment in the course of it. And, with a few shining exceptions in one's career, if one is very lucky, no one in a performance situation, whether it be football or dance or music or lacrosse, manages a completely error-free game/performance/whatever. Any honest performer will tell you this. And even if you do, the other 10 guys around you probably won't.
But when you are winning, nobody cares, except your coaches perhaps, and they are pragmatists too, or so I assume. Really, winning can be viewed as a function of the aggregation of mistakes, miscues, and inexperience on one team being slightly less than that of the other team, with perhaps a bit of luck thrown in.
And yes, the right sort of preparation and coaching and the right amount of talent and the right type of game plan can improve the odds of winning. But no coach is perfect, and no team is perfect. You play the hand you are dealt, and hope your combination of skill, preparation, and luck is just a bit better than that of the other team.
But when a team is losing, a certain hopelessness can overtake them. This is perhaps where a leadership style such as that possessed by Porter, Lewis and so on really comes into its own. But it doesn't have to be done this way.
I will never forget watching a post-game video on Steelers.com after the AFC North Divisional game in January of 2011. If you recall, after getting the opening touchdown the Steelers went into halftime down 21-7, including a Ravens TD on a stupid gaffe when an assumed incompletion was picked up and walked into the endzone by Cory Redding.
The video showed Ben Roethlisberger talking to his offense as they were about ready to retake the field for the third quarter. They all looked like whipped puppies. Roethlisberger never raised his voice. He squatted down so he was at eye level with the seated players. And he willed them to forget about what had gone before, to get back on the field, and to play like they knew they were capable of. The word "hate" never crossed his lips. He didn't even refer to the Ravens. He reminded them of what they were capable of, and showed them they could make it right. And they did.
This, along with the typical low-key pep talk from Coach Dad to the defense, resulted in several interceptions which the offense put to good use, ending in a 31-24 win.
Attitude is an important thing in performance. But I would contend the necessary attitude is very much a matter of the combined chemistry of the players on the field. And whether or not my man Brett Keisel is at training camp or on the field in 2014, his legacy and his leadership will live on.