I have what some people call "The Gift."
Ever since my childhood, I have been prone to visions- whispers from the afterlife, warnings from the future, glimpses of events occurring elsewhere in real-time. Although called a "gift," it is sometimes a curse; accessing these visions is a valuable ability, but you can never truly shut the door once it's been opened. Often, I am blindsided by intense premonitions. Last night, I had my most vivid one yet.
In the wee hours of this morning, I awoke in a cold sweat, shaken to my core. My heart was pounding, my lungs were burning. I had just dreamt, no- I had just seen the entirety of Thursday's prime-time NFL football matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns, complete with color commentary and postgame coverage. In my heart of hearts, I know the events I saw are going to occur in the very near future, and I am powerless to stop them. I can't bear this burden alone- I need to tell the world what I saw. Here is what I recall:
The game starts torridly; not exactly as I'd expected for two bottom-feeder offenses. Up 3-0 early in Q1, Jacoby Brissett picks up a minor rib injury on a third down Malik Reed sack. Former Steeler and legendary Tennessee Volunteer Josh Dobbs enters the game and turns his first possession into an 88 yard drive, ending with his team in the end zone. In total, he ends up throwing for 180 yards and a TD, plus another 60 and a score on the ground. It’s not a perfect game- Dobbs fumbles once and throws two unlucky picks (both tipped balls to Minkah). That said, Dobbs has a pretty respectable performance overall, which would be nice if it wasn’t against the Steelers.
In the ensuing drives, which all seem to blur together, Najee runs hard and looks effective. He amasses over 100 yards on the ground, running behind a scrappy, resurgent young O-line. On Pittsburgh's rare pass attempts (just 19 on the game), Diontae also looks good, tallying 6 catches for 85 yards through 3 quarters. However, because the offensive coordinator has not game-planned for a scenario where Diontae is double teamed, a panicked Trubisky is forced to include routes in the middle of the field in his late-game progressions. This new wrinkle proves difficult for Pittsburgh's starting QB, adding an average of almost 3 seconds of pocket time to Mitch’s dropbacks and resulting in four avoidable sacks. Vividly, I remember Joe Buck and Troy Aikman blaming the sacks on Cincinnati's patchwork offensive line. Force of habit, I guess. Anyhow, even when forced to look there, Mitch still does not end up throwing over the middle, because throwing over the middle is, as he will go on to quote postgame, "too scary." He scrambles a ton, throws some outs, and looks generally silly/bad all game. Pittsburgh puts up 12 points via the Holy Leg of Saint Boswell, but fails to score a TD- a new low for the league's worst offense.
On the bright side, the defense looks great all game, forcing turnovers left and right, containing the run, and stifling Rocket Man after his shockingly red-hot start. The pass rush looks actually decent again, with Highsmith returning to Week 1 form and the rotation guys bringing consistent pressure. I can't say enough how great Minkah looks in this game, and if he's not already, he will definitely be in every DPOY conversation after Thursday. I remember ordering a #39 jersey online at halftime. The defense also escapes mostly unbitten by the injury bug, with only one starter missing time. In a bittersweet twist of fate, that starter is Devin Bush, who concusses himself blowing up a slant in a manner which likely should have killed the receiver, who ends up dazed but unharmed. When this happened, I heard the voices of thousands of Yinzers cry out at once. I also vividly saw James Harrison smile, a rare and curious sight. Harrison and the Yinzers reported being happy to see Bush finally play with some aggression and burst, and with a little prompting, relieved that "nobody was decapitated, I guess." The concussion turns out to be pretty mild, too. Bush ultimately misses just two practices, and returns to the facility Friday quoting Nietzsche- sort of a reverse Antonio Brown situation.
Back to the game- to open the 4th quarter, Kareem Hunt catches a long passing TD where he breaks arm tackles by Spillane, Wallace and Minkah, and gives them a 17-12 lead. This makes me very upset, because I started DJ Moore (who will only be targeted twice by Faker Mayfield in Sunday's game against New Orleans) over Hunt on my fantasy team. The offense, sensing my frustration, gets fired up as hell. Unfortunately, they go 3-and-out (run-run-pass) and look like utter garbage doing it. Though ordinary for the Steelers, this drive was anything but ordinary for me; I watched this portion of the vision from Randy Fichtner's point of view. Clad in a wife beater and cut-off jean shorts, with a crisp can of Coors Banquet in hand, Randy bellowed at the TV until red in the face, mostly barking the words "hitch route" and "delayed handoff" over and over to no one in particular. I think he does this every week, and although it appears on the surface to be a sad, futile gesture by a man reliving his glory days, I have reason to believe he may actually be running the offense in exile.
After the 3-and-out, Pressley Harvin has a great punt, pinning Cleveland inside the 20. Capitalizing on the short field, Cam Heyward saves the game by sacking Dobbs twice and pressuring him into a sideline throwaway on third down. Pittsburgh gets the ball back as fast as they lost it, but on second down (they would never throw on first), Mitch makes a crucial mistake. He throws an absolute bullet of a 3 yard out to Pickens and places it well behind him. Even with his newly-acquired short-range Stand ability, "Sticky Fingers Requiem," Pickens cannot bring in the errant pass. It is tipped and intercepted. As fans everywhere begin laughing at the cartoonish ineptitude of Pittsburgh's offense, Cleveland starts running clock and abusing a wheezing Steelers front 7 with gritty Nick Chubb carries. After two first down runs (right up the middle, 12 yards a pop) to open the drive, the defense somehow gets them to third and 8. Amari Cooper, who’s been quiet all game, hauls in a long catch, but gets pummeled by #39 and puts the ball on the ground. Spoon Man returns the fumble to roughly midfield. Again, this is an absolute monster game for Minkah.
After the return, the Good Guys get the ball back at the 45 with 1:14 left, one timeout remaining. The tension is palpable, and the game just has that classic AFC North slugfest feel. Slowly, the camera pans to Offensive Genius Matt Canada as he draws up a masterful game plan. If you pause the broadcast and zoom in on the play sheet, it is clear Canada is actually holding a copy of "Green Eggs and Ham," upside down. He is on the first page, and it is covered with crayon. Coach Tomlin can be seen standing next to Canada looking very intense and unfazed, doing that cool thing where he nods and frowns at the same time. Weirdly, Big Ben is also in attendance because he is visiting his parents in Ohio this weekend. NFL Network gives us yet another classic shot of him making a really unflattering expression. [Note: the real reason this goofy look ended up on Ben's face is not because Ben is stupid/ugly, as he is often portrayed by the fake news media, but because he is deep in thought, recalling all the dogwater playcalls he was given in situations like this, and how he threw them all out the window because he actually has cojones.] After Ben's time in the spotlight, the cameras pan back to the field.
It is at this fateful moment that Pittsburgh’s new fearless leader, Mitchell "Danger" Trubisky, runs out onto the field for the last drive of the game, and the raucous Cleveland crowd goes wild. The pressure is on, and diamonds are about to be made. Showtime.
First down. Mitch rifles a designed checkdown to Najee for 2 yards, down in bounds of course. Canada fist pumps like Tiger at the Masters, elbow almost touching the ground.
Second down. Mitch takes way too long to throw (he’s been staring down Freiermuth since the huddle broke), and gets sacked. It hurts in more ways than one. Myles Garrett, who gutted through a neck injury for even the smallest chance of sacking alleged tiki-torch bearer Mason Rudolph, relishes in his consolation prize; he calls Trubisky a "p____ - a__ cracker" while the poor man is on the ground gasping for air, and all the linemen (even Mason Cole) just stand there, silently nodding in agreement. Curiously, no one is hit with a helmet. The announcers call the play a coverage sack, but replay shows Diontae spin-cycling Denzel Ward and getting loose in the second level. Go figure.
Third down. Mitch overthrows Miles Boykin, who is miraculously both (1) on the field for a play of this magnitude; and (2) wide open on a fly route. It was the right throw to make, but unfortunately, it is also the throw that finally confirmed the N in NVP stands for "never going to complete a downfield pass this season." The ball lasers a Browns cheerleader square in the dome and ricochets into the waiting arms of a young Steelers fan. Until Week 15, this catch ends up standing as the longest completion for anyone wearing a Steelers jersey this season.
Fourth down. With the game hanging in balance, Mitch approaches the line of scrimmage looking like he was just shot out of a cannon; a rippling ball of hunger, desperation, and competitive drive. He barks commanding audibles, shouting and pointing to motion receivers as if he's Peyton Manning reincarnated, manipulating the formation with laser precision until it’s just right. This is it. This is the look he wants. He knows it.
The ball is snapped. This one’s for all the marbles.
He drops back. "This is the one they’ll remember me for," Mitch thinks to himself.
He releases the ball. 7 yard dig route to Pat Freiermuth, tackled after gain of 9. Turnover on downs.
From there, things go blurry for a bit. My vision transports me to the press room at FirstEnergy Stadium. It's the postgame presser. Coach Tomlin is at the podium, trying his best to look indignant. When asked why the offense is averaging a league-worst 243 yards per game, Tomlin says "we have to execute better, in the sense of playing the game of football, and making the requisite plays to win and things of that nature. Offense is a component of football and we do not shy away from taking responsibility for that phase of the process. We welcome that."
When asked why Diontae, Freiermuth, Claypool, and Pickens were all taking turns waving a giant, blinking neon sign that reads "We Want Kenny, Right Now Please" on the sideline all game, Tomlin replies that "I didn’t see that, but as I always say, that’s an outside distraction. We don’t hear the noise, and although that’s a discussion y’all can have, we tune out that type of conversation. As a team we support Mitch as a starter, and for you guys, you can let practice participation be your guide in terms of player designation."
During his interview, Coach Canada offers little in the way of comment, mostly just sitting there, shifting in his seat, and glaring at reporters. As the reporters grill him, he stares down blankly at his notes, pensive as ever. His eyes lock to the gameplan he spent all offseason constructing: a stick figure drawing of a man holding a football, which simply reads "Claypul Jet Swepe! Big touch town!" He drags a finger under each letter as he tries to pronounce the words, but decides to call it quits about halfway through the word "Swepe." It's been a long day, he says to himself. I've earned a break.
In perhaps the most shocking twist of the night, during his turn at the podium, Mitchell Trubisky has a life-changing moment of clarity. This isn't working, he says to himself. Unprompted and completely off the cuff, Trubisky admits he is "a pansy who plays scared and can’t read a defense," and announces his immediate retirement from professional football. He goes on to have a very successful podcasting career. Understandably, the sudden retirement causes a media frenzy. Rookie QB and de facto starter Kenny Pickett, swarmed by reporters in the locker room, plays it cool: "I have sick hair, a rocket arm, and the worst offensive line assembled in the modern era. What could go wrong?" I sigh audibly.
Next, I'm in the stadium again, long after the fans have left and the teams have headed home. A lone beat reporter is checking all the nooks and crannies, trying to track down Mason Rudolph, who has to this point been inexplicably absent from the locker room, press conferences, and the team bus ride back to Pittsburgh. The reporter finds Rudolph standing at the center of the field, arms outstretched, bathed in the bright lights of the silent stadium. As he approaches, the reporter can make out the faint muttering of an embattled man losing his grip on reality. It's mostly gibberish, with a sprinkling of bizarre little phrases such as "back where it all started" and "just like I predicted" and "they'll all see, all of them."
As the reporter interrupts the muttering to ask Rudolph for a comment, the quarterback turns around slowly, eyes locked with his. They are standing face to face now, so close that the reporter can feel Rudolph’s breath on his cheeks, see the little beads of sweat on his brow, smell the faint hint of Cool Ranch Doritos that teammates say follows Rudolph everywhere he goes.
Mason leans in now, almost as if to kiss the reporter. His eyes are closed, nostrils flared. In a whisper, almost too soft to hear, he replies.
"This is my team now."
It was at this very instant that I jolted awake. The sputtering offense, the pain of losing, the press conference cliches, Rudolph's ramblings, Cleveland's signature sewage smell, the bright stadium lights and cool September air- it was all gone now. It was just me, my thumping heart, and a cold pool of sweat. I shuddered.
In just a few hours, I fear Steeler Nation will bear witness as all of these events unfold. There will be pain, heartbreak, and more than a little frustration.
Even so, don't mistake the graveness of this recollection for pessimism. In addition to heartbreak, we will also be introduced to something we haven't had in a while: true, unadulterated hope. The future is cloudy, but darkness hasn't won yet. I sense brightness ahead, not far beyond this shadowy patch. I see an unheralded defender having a breakout season, a maligned but familiar face returning with dignity, a great purge of ineptitude, and a quarterback rising to glory.
This is my dream.