Now that the NFL Draft, the zenith of the league’s offseason proceedings, has come and gone, we’re left looking ahead to training camp, which seems like a lifetime away. To keep you engaged during this slow period—a period in which no news is certainly good news—we’re taking an in-depth, alphabetized look at the Pittsburgh Steelers; what they’ve done, where they are now, and where they’re headed. Through these semi-weekly musings, we’ll uncover and unpack some of the interesting storylines from last season and apply them to 2018. Today’s lesson involves apathy, aspirations, and Alejandro Villanueva.
Nothing announces the nadir of the NFL offseason quite like the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of [Whatever Year] list. The news cycle from now until training camp begins in late July is a desolate moonscape of nothingness.
The reveal of the first segment of the Top 100—which is ostensibly the result of a survey administered to the players themselves—came not even one full week following the conclusion of the 2018 NFL Draft, an event that commanded the attention of a record-setting 45.8 million (45.8 million!) viewers. Now, while these (frankly astounding) figures are somewhat inflated due to the NFL’s novel decision to air the draft on network television, they—along with the fact that #NFL100 was trending on Tuesday evening—still point to one very clear and incontrovertible truth: The NFL, much like a husky feudal sovereign rules over their denizens, still lords over the psyche of the average American sports fan.
(While the draft did air on multiple stations, ESPN alone commanded more than 5.5 million viewers on the first night of the draft, which is more viewers than the NBA playoffs—a thrilling Game 6 featuring debatably the NBA’s preeminent franchise and Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the league’s multifarious young stars—and the NHL playoffs—a matchup between the Penguins and Capitals, a heated rivalry game featuring the two best players of the salary cap era—combined managed to draw.)
This development ought to tickle NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, his gaggle of surly confidants, and team owners, even if it only points to a potential forthcoming paradigm shift and even though it does little to placate some of the fundamental issues plaguing the NFL’s product. By virtually any objective measure, television ratings were down league-wide in 2017, and while the NFL is in no real danger of, like, folding, decreased viewership equates to less capital.
I have several hypotheses as to what promoted this decline last season, but what seems to be the root cause is viewer apathy. I am among these apathetic viewers. Of course, I did watch every Steelers game, but that was more or less the extent of my NFL-watchin’ in 2017. Unless Pittsburgh was playing, I went to bed early on Thursdays and Mondays. If the Steelers played a 1 pm game on Sunday, I’d watch Property Brothers or something instead of watching the late-afternoon games. If they occupied the nighttime NBC slot, I’d spend the afternoon golfing. I spent Thanksgiving outside with my nephew throwing a football around and later actually talked to my family (turns out they are pretty good people!) instead of tracking the Cowboys vs. Whoever game. I didn’t watch the AFC Championship Game. I refused to watch the Super Bowl. I am afforded an All-Pro vote by way of my PFWA membership, and I didn’t submit a ballot last season.
I don’t mean to sound like a contemptible, nihilistic football hipster who watches MLS and experiences schadenfreude when the NFL has problems. I still like football (I watch college football devotedly, for instance). Granted, I do have a laundry list of misgivings about the league’s organizational structure—particularly how it treats its current and former employees—and I find the growing political divide between players and fans to be deeply unsettling, but these particular issues are more systemic in nature and I’m not entirely convinced that magically eliminating head trauma or legislating when is and when is not the appropriate time for a peaceful demonstration will fix the viewer apathy issue, anyway. I believe this is a more surface level concern, and that addressing this concern starts with making the on-field product more palatable.
Earlier this year, in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets guard and MVP front-runner James Harden vaporized Wesley Johnson’s knees, ankles, and soul with a devastating crossover, stared at Johnson’s corpse for what seemed like a full minute, and splashed a three-pointer right in his face shortly thereafter. I was still in diapers when Shawn Kemp dunked Alton Lister into another plane of existence, but Harden’s crossover still somehow evoked memories of that play.
Let’s apply the Harden play to the NFL: First, since the ball splashed through the net, it was a scoring play; and by default, all scoring plays are subject to review in the NFL (and this is assuming the play wasn’t whistled dead, as taunting is not permitted in the NFL and staring directly into the mortal soul of a downed foe surely constitutes taunting). Upon further review, NFL officials would’ve checked Harden’s foot to make sure it was, in fact, behind the three-point arc. Did Harden’s pivot foot “survive” the crossover? How much time was on the clock when the ball sailed through the goal? Did Harden or his teammates celebrate too much? Once the officials have determined these things, then you are permitted to cheer.
Hockey is relevant for now, so let’s use that, too: Less than a month ago—and on more than one occasion before that—Penguins center Sidney Crosby slapped a hockey puck past a professional hockey goalie into a hockey net with the blade of his hockey stick. Imagine having to wait for replay officials to confirm that this goal was actually a goal before duly celebrating. The NFL and its officials have effectively micromanaged the “football” to death, which is thanks in no small part to its narrow and increasingly byzantine interpretation of what does and what does not constitute a legitimate catch. If you’re wondering why NFL viewers are tuning out, look no further than that. Thankfully, the NFL finally exhibited some semblance of self-awareness and are actively endeavoring to reduce the complexity of the catch rule. This is long overdue. I’m interested to see how league officials go about implementing a “simplified” interpretation of the rule. If I’m being totally honest, I am skeptical that any tangible changes will occur, but I’ll reserve further judgement until then. If the NFL does manage to make the on-field product more organic, I believe increased viewership will follow suit.
Yikes, that first part got super NFL-y. Sorry. Anyway, the Steelers are currently 10-1 favorites to win Super Bowl 53, odds that trail only New England, Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles Rams. The Jaguars, a team who defeated the Steelers twice—both times convincingly—last season have the 15th-best odds at 35-1. Aside from Pittsburgh, New England, and Jacksonville, the only other AFC Teams with odds better than 35-1 are Oakland (30-1), Denver (30-1), and Houston (25-1), none of whom even made the postseason last year.
It can be reasonably concluded, then, that the AFC is a two-horse race between the Patriots and Steelers (and not Jacksonville, who beat the Steelers twice last season, convincingly so on both occasions). This is probably a fair assumption (even though Jacksonville bea...okay I’m done): barring some kind of last-minute calamity, both teams will return the majority of their core superstars (New England will be without Brandin Cooks; the Steelers will not have Ryan Shazier); toward the end of last season, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger were unquestionably the best two quarterbacks in the NFL; much like in 2017, both teams have relatively tame schedules that culminate in a late-season showdown at Heinz Field that could determine postseason seeding.
Though the “Stairway to Seven” narrative has resided in our collective consciousness since Pittsburgh hoisted its most recent Lombardi in 2010, these echoes reached a crescendo in the 2017 preseason when everyone and their mother realized that Pittsburgh had perhaps its most talented roster since the 1970s. The loss to Jacksonville in the Divisional Playoffs exposed some cracks in Pittsburgh’s foundation—namely, their inability to defend play action and/or stop Leonard Fournette from gaining seven or eight yards per tote—so expectations may be understandably tempered this season. With that said, though, the Steelers are dang near unstoppable when everything clicks, so winning the Super Bowl this season remains an achievable goal.
My biggest takeaway from the 2017 season is that folks around Pittsburgh love Alejandro Villanueva. I live there, and I can say without compunction that his jersey has assuredly supplanted Heath Miller’s as the most popular. I’ve seen Villanueva jerseys on zoo-goers, movie-goers, and restaurant-goers. I’ve seen myriad Villanueva novelty shirts being peddled by the shadiest of Strip District merchants. I’ve seen Villanueva jerseys on Penguins fans at Penguins games. I was at a suburban Dick’s Sporting Goods last week, and the Alejandro Villanueva shirseys outnumbered the Antonio Brown ones three to one. (This is a trend everywhere, apparently, as Villanueva had the 8th-highest-selling jersey in the league last season.)
I always attributed Villanueva’s popularity to old-fashioned, red-blooded jingoism—he’s a former Army Ranger, after all, and he once counter-protested his team’s anthem protest:
(He didn’t actually counter-protest and the team wasn’t “protesting” to begin with, but alas.) I say this kind of in jest, but I’m sure that a non-zero number of folks purchased Villanueva’s jersey specifically because of his military background—there are precisely zero other offensive linemen on the “top-selling jerseys” list, so you can draw your own conclusions. Casting patriotism aside, I’ve come to the realization that he is an extremely solid offensive lineman and is among the best bargain players in the NFL. The $6 million Villanueva, who made the Pro Bowl last season, is set to collect in 2018 is pennies compared to what other teams have had to shell out for less effective tackles. Do you remember Kelvin Beachum? He’ll earn $8 million this season. Chris Hubbard, a reserve lineman for Pittsburgh last season, will make a little more than $7 million this season. Charles Leno, Jr.? He’s worth almost $9 million per. Anthony Castonzo, a prime accomplice in the attempted murder of Andrew Luck will collect over $10 million in 2018.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is such a monolithic, formidable unit that Villanueva’s prowess is often overshadowed by the talents of David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Marcus Gilbert (this sometimes also serves to accentuate his faults, but that’s neither here nor there). Still, behind every good, Super Bowl-contending team is a good, sound left tackle. Villanueva certainly qualifies, and his performance this season will say a lot about how good this iteration of the Steelers can be.