As the Steelers enjoy their last few weeks of R&R before training camp begins, our focus typically shifts to players’ attitudes during the preseason and into September, which will provide some of the earliest indications of the direction this team is likely to follow in 2018. For many members of the Steelers’ roster, of course, there’s no question about their commitment to success. In other cases, however, question marks persist. For example, we know that, barring injury, Ben Roethlisberger will continue to excel at the quarterback position, just as he’s done for the past 14 seasons, moving ever-higher on the all-time passing yards list. We also know that Antonio Brown will continue to be the ultimate matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. The Steelers’ veteran offensive line will continue to be one of the league’s best. And despite the need to fill some holes, the Steelers’ defense will continue to field reliable stars such as Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and the up-and-coming T.J. Watt.
A key challenge that the team will face, however, can best be explained by an old and somewhat raunchy joke with which many may be familiar. I refer to none other than the infamous “just enough to win the turkey” joke. For those who might not have heard it, the joke involves a contest held around Thanksgiving. The prize was a Thanksgiving turkey and the winner of the contest was the man endowed with the largest unmentionable body part.
Afterwards, when the winner gloated about his triumph, his wife was incredulous. “Don’t tell me you dragged out the whole darned thing in public,” she shrieked. With an impish grin, her husband replied, “No honey, of course not — just enough to win the turkey.”
Confidence is a trait that goes with the territory for NFL players. Attaining the status of a starting player in this league automatically places someone within an elite club of outstanding athletes. But overconfidence can prevent a player from reaching his full potential, or perhaps even thwart his team’s opportunity to win a championship. Like the scenario crudely depicted in the turkey joke, it’s undeniable that some NFL players — at various times and under certain circumstances — simply do not utilize all of the — ahem — tools in their arsenals. In so doing, the player substitutes his own judgment about the requirements of his job for that of his coaches. He takes it upon himself to determine exactly how much effort he must expend in any particular game to “win the turkey.” Thus, instead of going “all-out” every single time he’s on the field, such players typically hold something back.
In a nutshell, that’s why I disagree with the approach Le’Veon Bell has taken to his ongoing contract “negotiations” with the Steelers. By not showing up for the preseason, Bell is implying that, unlike his teammates, he doesn’t need the conditioning or preseason reps. He’s also inferring that, because the team won’t pay him the princely sum he believes he’s worth, he’s unwilling to give them anything extra — even though this “extra” is actually a job requirement which would have bought a player a one-way ticket to Palookaville under either the Cowher or Noll regimes. But I’m not casting any aspersions upon Head Coach Mike Tomlin because times have changed and this same attitude has become more widespread among a number of professional athletes these days. But unless a player is good enough to be judged as virtually indispensable to the team, this approach to contract negotiations is a tactic which rarely helps to further their career.
Steering now quickly away from the well-documented sideshow involving No. 26, my hunch is that the greatest overall threat faced by the NFL today stems from the increasing number of players who have no allegiance to anything beyond their bank accounts, and who demonstrate the annoying tendency to view their contributions on the field as non-renewable resources which they must allocate sparingly. While their NFL careers might be unspectacular overall, apparently they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
Furthermore, we’re continually being reminded in solemn tones that, after all, “pro football is a business.” The only trouble with this view is that fans don’t cram themselves into stadiums around the nation, tune-in at home, or head for any number of raucous sports bars to witness the conduct of a business enterprise. We’re all getting quite enough of that particular spectacle — thank you — on our day jobs during the week.
But even if you think pro football is primarily a business, the NFL must, above all, maintain the quality of its product — and that product is sports/entertainment. If Joe Schmoe screws up his daily cubicle job, chances are that nobody will notice or even care. But when millions of fans are watching your every move, and the instant-replay cameras are running back every single play from multiple angles, it’s unlikely your performance won’t be scrutinized, evaluated and roundly critiqued. You might even suffer the ultimate indignity of finding your name listed under the “Losers” column sometime during the season in one of BTSC’s most popular weekly features.
Perhaps most importantly, the greatest thrill for any football fan is witnessing their favorite player(s) making exceptional, game-changing plays — or even just proving their winning desire by plowing ahead for a key first down or TD in a tight game. Almost always, the plays everyone remembers — and the ones that keep us coming back for more — result from outstanding, individual efforts exceeding our wildest expectations. Take for example Franco’s 1972 Immaculate Reception; Lynn Swann’s acrobatic catches against the Cowboys in Super Bowl 10; Jerome Bettis running over Brian Urlacher in a snowstorm; James Harrison taking a pick-6 the entire length of the field just before halftime in Super Bowl 43; or Santonio Holmes, in the same game, deftly snagging a dart from Roethlisberger in the corner of the end zone to defeat the Cardinals and bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh. Or maybe just take practically any year’s highlights reel for Hines Ward — in my book, the most intensely driven wide receiver ever to wear the black-and-gold.
These are the plays you simply cannot make unless your primary and undivided attention is focused — not on your contract with the team, nor on any other personal gripes you might have — but on the game itself and being the absolute best you can be at any given time. So when the 2018 regular season kicks off for the Steelers, I’ll be looking, not only for the veteran players we already know will continue being indispensable parts of this team, but also for those relative newcomers who are determined to rise above the self-limiting, “just enough” philosophy.
Come Thanksgiving 2018, as the Steelers prepare for their season’s stretch run, Pittsburgh fans will be looking for those special, 100-percent players on personal quests to emblazon their names in Black-and-gold lore. In the process, they’ll hopefully also be instrumental in helping to augment the fine collection of shiny hardware on display at the Steelers’ front office.