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The Steelers were responsible for two of the most momentous plays of the NFL season

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Looking back, the Steelers contributed to two moments that are indicative of the league’s popularity shift

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Before we go full regalia with draft narratives and highly-speculative free agency think-pieces, allow me to indulge in a brief retrospective.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were involved in what were arguably the two most significant plays of the 2017 regular season: Ryan Shazier’s back injury against Cincinnati, and Jesse James’ non-catch against New England.

Shazier’s injury was, without question, a damning indictment of the NFL’s on-field brand, which, despite efforts to promote player safety, remains rooted in brutality. This isn’t to say that Shazier’s injury was the result of some felonious action or outright illegality—it wasn’t. In fact, it occurred on an otherwise run-of-the-mill play, one in which Shazier attempted to make a tackle he’s made a million times. But therein lies the issue: how can you prevent something so seemingly unpreventable? Safeguarding guys’ heads and knees and presiding over borderline dirty tackles with an iron fist is one thing, but subverting injury risk on a down-by-down basis is an impassable labyrinth. Rhetorical questions aside, the fact that a 25-year-old star linebacker at the height of his professional prowess is now learning to walk again is an understandable perception-changer.

James’ non-catch, on the other hand, served as incontrovertible proof that the NFL has essentially micromanaged itself to death—or, more bluntly, that it has no idea what its doing. My intent here is not to pander to the baser desires of slighted Steelers fans, but to criticize the league’s erroneous, byzantine, and impossible-to-understand “catch rule.” I will be the first to admit that James’ “catch” probably wasn’t a catch in the technical sense of what the NFL thinks a catch is, but that we, the viewing public, literally cannot enjoy big moments in real time is insane. Zack Ertz scored what was a game-winning touchdown in the freaking Super Bowl, and Philadelphia fans could not duly celebrate or reactively eat enormous piles of horse poop until the call was confirmed by the replay booth due to the precedent set forth by the James catch. Wait, did he actually catch it? What if they overturn it? DID HE SURVIVE THE GROUND?

Together, the Shazier injury and the James non-catch would seem to be emblematic of the the NFL’s ostensible popularity issues. I say it this way because, as I’m sure we’ll eventually find out, Super Bowl 52 will be the most-watched televised event of the year, just as Super Bowl 51 was the year prior, and Super Bowl 50 the year before that. Please understand that I am not throwing on my NFL cape and defending the league’s popularity. I could write a legitimate manifesto outlining my misgivings with the league’s organizational structure, which seems to grow more convoluted and bureaucratic by the year, so this is not a hill I’m willing to die on. I am merely stating that, in a strictly quantitative sense, the NFL is probably doing just fine.

Qualitatively, though? Yikes. The NFL playoffs were pretty decent and the Super Bowl winded up being a bonafide thriller, but the 2017 regular season was not great. An exceedingly long list of star-caliber players suffered season-ending injuries, which kind of diluted the quality of the on-field product. So, too, did stoppages, including those resulting from penalties and booth reviews. Reporting the particulars of viewership is an exercise in futility, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that “interest” in the league was generally lower in 2017. And I think events like Shazier’s injury and James’ non-catch (and excessive booth reviews and over-officiating) justify this decline, making it easier for us to collectively throw our hands up and exclaim “wow, this kind of sucks.”

Writing dumb columns is not my full-time job, but I do sincerely enjoy writing about the Steelers. I haven’t been doing this as long as Jeff or Anthony or any of you who have been squirreling around the comment sections, often providing insights better than my own, but I can say without compunction that 2017 was the most...discouragingly interesting season I’ve endured thus far. I almost stopped midway through the season! I did! Ryan Shazier’s injury was the most psychologically damaging sporting moment I have witnessed in my lifetime, and shortly after it occurred I switched my television off and told myself I was done with this. It was an admittedly hasty, emotional reaction, and it was obviously short-lived since I turned the game back on at halftime. But that—my initial steadfast refusal to forge onward and, ultimately, my sheepish backpedaling—is representative of the cognitive dissonance harbored by, I think, a sizable contingent of the NFL’s audience. A lot of folks, I’m sure, want to slam their remotes on the table and be done with the violence and the injuries and the constant mismanagement by the suits who govern the whole enterprise, but we can’t look away.

Forgive the nihilism. There is good news. First, there’s this:

Second, there exists a possibility that the NFL will revisit the catch rule this offseason, much like they did last season when they relaxed a bit on the celebration penalties. Will the resultant policy regarding what is and what is not a catch be complex and difficult to interpret? It probably will. But under the new hypothetical policy, would the Steelers have defeated the Patriots in Week 15 of the 2017 season, seizing home-field advantage and eventually winning the Super Bowl? Absolutely.

Since this probably should’ve been a more Steelers-centric retrospective, here are my 10 favorite things from the 2017 season:

  1. JuJu Smith-Schuster becoming the king of Pittsburgh.
  2. Antonio Brown remaining the king of the NFL and likely punching his Hall of Fame ticket before his 30th birthday.
  3. Ben contemplating retirement, deciding to play, sucking, contemplating retirement again, succeeding marginally, playing at an MVP level, and committing to playing again in 2018.
  4. Mike Tomlin cementing himself in the top-tier of the league’s coaching hierarchy (play call in the Divisional Playoffs notwithstanding).
  5. Cameron Heyward becoming an under-the-radar DPOY candidate.
  6. Chris Boswell’s clutch.
  7. The Steelers signing Joe Haden a week before the regular season.
  8. Hearing Heinz Field collectively chant “Heeaaaathhhh” when Jesse James or Vance McDonald caught passes.
  9. Vince Williams’ Twitter account.
  10. Knowing that next year could be the year.