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The arc of an NFL career shows why fans should be patient and trust the process

The Steelers’ future stars might currently be cooling their heels on the sidelines — or not.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the history of the NFL, few players have stepped onto the field as rookies and changed the game. Earl Campbell would qualify — and Mean Joe. The average NFL career lasts all of four years. That includes the guys on the bottom of the roster and the guys on top. That is, guys who barely survived the cut, and guys who have full-fledged careers. In the latter group, we spend a great deal of time and energy analyzing their downward arc, the painful loss of abilities as age runs its inexorable course. I’m hoping again this year that Father Time sacks Tom Brady, falling on No. 12 with all of his weight. I’ve seen enough of Tom Terrific. I want the kind of precipitous decline we saw in Peyton Manning during his last year. It happens to the best of them.

But what we spend less time considering is the upward arc at the beginning of a career. Some ascend the learning curve like Spiderman, others plod their way up like TV Batman pulling himself up with his Bat-a-rang. One of the blessings of my own ascent into middle age is having seen both sides of the arc multiple times with multiple players. I remember watching the original special-teams ace, young Donnie Shell, put the hurt on hapless return men, and wanted him in the lineup. When he got there, he shined. What, I wondered for several years, took so long? And some of you may be surprised to know that, when the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, their starting wideouts were Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, while future hall-of-famers Swann and Stallworth watched from the sidelines.

The truth is that judging abilities of football players comes with two great challenges. First, you don’t really know what a guy can do without putting him in the game. Football in shorts is football in shorts, and practice is practice. Even preseason games don’t truly tell the tale because of the level of competition being faced. The second challenge, however, is that players aren’t static. They can get better and they can get worse. Most of the time, on the front end of the arc, they’re getting better. But even then, we never can tell how quickly they’ll get better, or what their top-end will turn out to be. Remember, for a year or two, a seat on the bench was a step up for James Harrison.

What that means in the here and now is that we’re only just beginning to know what we have, at least on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the Bud Dupree experiment is in its last phase, but the results at this point are inconclusive. Things look good with T.J. Watt, but we don’t yet know how good he can be. And in the defensive backfield we have a bumper crop of we-don’t-know-yets.

With the exception of Mean Joe, the early Noll drafts were top heavy with recognizable names on the offense — Bradshaw, Franco, Swann. But the defense carried the team to their first two trophies. By XIII and IX, the roles had changed — which is why I continue to have high hopes for the long term. We may have three more years with Ben. We may have six more games with Bell. But a day might well come in the not-too-distant future, when the Killer B’s are a memory and the defense is once again carrying us again to greatness. In short, be patient, and trust the process.