Our last discussion involved foibles and faults. Let’s focus on anthem protests, legalized gambling, and a trio of exceptional Steelers this time around.
Last week, I wrote this whole big thing about the NFL’s (vaguely autocratic) anthem policy. Last Thursday and Friday, I read these excellent pieces posted by Bill and Anthony—along with the comments sections—and came to the conclusion that following up with some commentary of my own would be redundant. (I also checked out the poll Jeff posted, so I am cognizant of the fact that many of you—the majority of you, actually—prefer your sports takes politics free.) The irony of naming this section “gutlessness” and then opting not to include what I wrote is not lost on me.
So, if you’re interested in my perspective on the anthem stuff, click this link right here. If you’d prefer to read about some football stuff, I respect that. Go forth.
Earlier in May, the United States Supreme Court reversed a 2016 decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, rendering the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) unconstitutional and opening the door for individual states, not the federal government, to “sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license, or authorize” sports gambling as they see fit.
Of course, none of this means that you, today, can walk into your nearest casino and place bets (unless you live in Nevada, in which case go wild). In fact, only five states—New Jersey (whose governor, Phil Murphy, zealously promoted that demise of the PASPA), Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, and Mississippi—have recently passed gambling bills (Pennsylvania actually did so preemptively in 2017) and only 14 states have gambling bills on the docket waiting to be passed (or struck down). What it does mean, though, is that we—especially those in the heart of Steelers Nation—could very soon reap the benefits of highly regularized, heavily restricted, but totally legal sports gambling!
The league ought to be thrilled, because legalized betting will almost certainly drive up ratings. While you, an intellectual, are changing the channel or heading outside to enjoy fresh air and sunshine near the end of a 35-17 blowout, the degenerates will remain in place, eyes glued to theirs screens, praying the Lions can score a garbage touchdown to cover the spread. I will go on record as saying that fantasy football is the greatest thing ever to happen to the NFL, for which the league should be forever grateful. It’s obvious that gambling can confer similar benefits, so the NFL, MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and ESPECIALLY the NCAA can take their “integrity fees” (essentially a vig, so far as I can tell) and shove it.
David DeCastro is, in many ways, a perfect offensive lineman. He’s a copybook road-paver cut from the same mold as former All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchison, and he’s easily among the most adept pass blockers in the NFL, irrespective of positional constraints. He’s powerful, explosive, and athletic, giving him the singular ability to handle speed rushers and nose tackles and everything in between, but also clever, perceptive, and intuitive, flawlessly executing his blocks at the point of attack before heading upfield to assassinate some poor, undersized defensive back. With three Pro Bowl nods and two All-Pro selections to date, he’s decorated and accomplished, and at age 28, DeCastro still has plenty of career ahead of him. Most significantly, DeCastro has been available—he’s started 78 of Pittsburgh last 80 regular season games. DeCastro is so good and so valuable, in fact, that in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Browns last season, the Steelers rested DeCastro along with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger. DeCastro is the offensive line version of Aaron Donald, and he’s very nearly as important to the Steelers’ success. (At the risk of recycling material, I wrote this thing about DeCastro back in 2015 in which I dissected a pair of counter runs against Cincinnati and Atlanta. I think Pittsburgh’s counter run with Bell toting the rock and DeCastro leading the charge is one of the most high-value plays in their arsenal.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum—which is a strange way to put this—is Ramon Foster, certainly an above-average offensive guard but maybe the weakest link on an otherwise impeccable offensive line. If reality was Madden, DeCastro would probably be, like, a 94 overall, whereas Foster would be somewhere in the ballpark of 82. This is fine! Foster is 32 now. His footwork isn’t what it was three years ago, and even then Foster wasn’t the same kind of offensive utility knife that DeCastro is now. The Steelers almost never run to the left (they did so on 16 percent of their rushing attempts in 2017, which ranked dead last), so Foster has become more of a de facto role player in the running game. What Foster has always been good at—and where his goodness persists, albeit to a lesser extent—is mauling fools into the outer core of the our very Earth. Foster is still more than capable of negating the impact of fervent defensive tackles in the trenches, so the odds of B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins, or Chukwuma Okorafor or whoever cutting into Foster’s playing time seem fairly long at the moment. Unless anything drastic changes during training camp and the preseason, the Steelers will enter the 2018 with one of the league’s most formidable guard duos.
I’d like to conclude today’s discussion with some brief remarks about Antonio Brown. Before I do, I’d like to talk a bit about the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan debate, which has pervaded the public discourse yet again, just like it’s done for the previous, oh, eight years: LeBron James is already the greatest basketball player ever, but if he somehow wills these Cavaliers to a series win over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, I think he should be the axiomatic holder of the league’s GOAT crown. I think Michael Jordan was an incredible basketball player, and he is probably the most iconic athlete who’s ever lived (this is to say, if you were dropped in the middle of an unexplored Cambodian rainforest, even the most detached, off-the-grid cannibalistic pygmy tribe is gonna have at least a baseline awareness of who Michael Jordan is), but he is not as good at basketball as LeBron James. Jordan’s Bulls were Stephen Curry’s/Kevin Durant’s Golden State Warriors, top-heavy supersquad laden with role players that accentuated the talents of the superstars and vice-vera. Jordan was, of course, the nerve center of the whole enterprise, but he had plenty of help; LeBron, on the other hand, has managed to drag the Cavaliers to the precipice of glory for a fourth consecutive year despite having secondary and tertiary scoring options like a semi-effective and concussed Kevin Love and Jeff Green’s corpse.
Teammates’ abilities notwithstanding, I think what sets LeBron apart from Jordan (or Kareem or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell, if you wanna split hairs) is that he, much like every other modern athlete is the beneficiary of innovation, which accelerates evolution. This is a very roundabout way of me saying that I think Antonio Brown probably belongs in the “greatest wide receiver of all time” conversation. Brown’s 582 catches for 7,798 yards over the past five seasons are unmatched by any receiver in any five-year stretch in NFL history, and in Week 1 of the 2018 season he will almost certainly become the 46th receiver in league history to amass 10,000 or more yards in his career. He turns 30 in July, but his tenacious workout routines are the stuff of legend, and his age-29 season was on pace to be his most prolific until an injury early in Pittsburgh’s Week 15 loss to New England cost Brown three regular season games.
We can’t make any firm declarations about how many more “productive” years Brown has in the tank, and we definitely can’t assume that Brown will continue to average 116 catches and 1,600 receiving yards over the next five seasons, but it does stand to reason that, by the time Brown calls it quits, he will rank among top 10 or 15 most productive receivers in league history. That’s not bad for a sixth-round draft pick who didn’t even play in his rookie season.
I don’t want this entire argument to be rooted in statistical dominance because it kinda pokes holes in the whole LeBron James thing, but I do think that stacking Brown’s career output against some of the all-time greats is useful for establishing some sort of comparative baseline. Hines Ward, for example, finished with 1,000 career receptions and a shade over 12,000 receiving yards; do you that think Hines Ward is an objectively “better” receiver than Antonio Brown? I do not.
To solidify his placement in the Mount Rushmore for receivers, I think Brown needs to win a Super Bowl, and I think he needs to remain highly productive into his mid-to-late 30s. Both achievements seem well within reach.