Sometimes being a part of Steelers Nation is like being back in middle school.
In that adolescent hot house people will love or hate for the right reasons, but also for all the wrong reasons. We all like to think that we're all grown up and have left that phase of our life behind us, but you know what? Maybe not.
You started hearing it about Pouncey several weeks ago. 'Yeah, Mack just got this new deal, Maurkice's extension is going to be coming up. He may want a lot of money and may be difficult to sign. And he's been hurt. He's been hurt a lot. Why don't we trade him?'
So let me break this down a bit. First understand that there exist a Steelers Nation doghouse. This is not to be mistaken for Mike Tomlin's doghouse which is a separate building with different rules. I'll break that down further in a moment.
Some will point out, correctly, that it may have only been a minority who were considering exchanging Pouncey for the always overvalued 'draft choices', free passes to Kennywood Park, whatever. But you also have to understand the magic of groupthink. Think Jedi mind trick. Someone says something crazy like 'Maurkice gets hurt a lot, let's trade him', or 'Ben's in his 30s. let's trade him, get some mid round quarterback and coach him up to replace him'. At first you don't pay attention because its obviously ridiculous. But there are always the weak minded, and pretty soon there is this whole chorus of 'Yeah, let's trade Maurkice! Surely we can get a couple of third round picks...' It was heading in that direction for awhile.
I don't understand all the dynamics of the Tomin doghouse since it undoubtedly consists of some elements of things that as a fan looking from the outside in I would not be privy to. But I'm confident that it is a more meritocratic exercise; that is most of its occupants have earned their place there. Its on this point that the Steelers Nation doghouse more resembles middle school. While there are those who clearly earn their place there like, for instance a Limas Sweed, but you can also end up there because a critical mass of fans simply don't like you. Oh, to be sure a 'reason' will be conjured to justify it all. Incompetent/fumbles (Mendenhall), incompetent/dropped a pass (Sanders), has not developed fast enough for my taste (Jarvis Jones, previously Cam Heyward, Keenan Lewis), old, slow, done (Troy, Ike), not Aaron Smith (Ziggy Hood), not Superman (Isaac Redman), injured too much (they are legion), 8-8 (Colbert, Tomlin).
My feel for the overarching real reason that a doghouse exists and who occupies it is that someone has to pay for the disappointments we experience as fans. Someone has to be exiled or crucified for this and though anyone from the ghost of Art Rooney Sr. to the ball boy can qualify, we do develop our favorites, and on the other hand, there exists a tiny minority that are virtually untouchable. Some players may pass through for a weekend or two. For example, as unbelievable as it may seem, some were coming down on Heath Miller of all people as he struggled early last season, even though he was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a knee injury. Others have yearly leases or are going month to month. Though they have received some flea powder and have been allowed to run around a bit, until there are playoff games Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will still be calling the doghouse home in the minds of many fans. And then there are those who have a mortgage.
Take William Gay.
He had a pretty good year in 2013 which was enough to get him out of the doghouse. He can play in the yard for now, but he's not joining the rest of the family inside. You can feel people glancing at him out of the corner of their eyes, waiting, a newspaper always within reach. He will remain outside, in the cold, the snow, the dark. Occasionally, someone will toss him a scrap of a pork chop. They are waiting for that one misstep, that one blown coverage, and then they're going to roll up that newspaper and BEAT THE SH*T OUT OF HIM, and toss his whimpering carcass head first into that doghouse, all the time muttering "I knew it, I knew it." He won't be the first, he won't be the last. Willie Colon, Charlie Batch, Deshea Townsend, Manny Sanders, there will always be one or two who will never measure up. You do know that Guy Whimper is doomed don't you?
So what qualifies you for the Steelers Nation doghouse specifically? Here are some of the factors.
We all know, intellectually at least, that injury is a constant specter of the professional game. I once read somewhere that the injury rate for the NFL is 100 percent. In this sense we are realistic. No one expects any player to get through their career unscathed, but there is a point in the minds of many fans (the actual parameters of which I can't precisely define) where a player faces condemnation for being injured too often or for too long. This why precisely why LaMarr Woodley is no longer here. And in this particular instance I am inclined to agree with the overall assessment. However, as often as not folks want to pull that particular trigger too soon. Remember what people were saying about Troy Polamalu a little more than a year ago? If a player is unlucky enough to have a couple of injuries in rapid succession, or can't recover quickly enough than the process of writing them off commences. Of course, the Catch 22 here often is that injuries either linger or get worse precisely because players feel the pressure to play hurt. I can provide personal testimony in that regard. Certainly some of the disaffection with Emmanuel Sanders came because he had a series of injuries and suffered in comparison to the more durable Antonio Brown.
Injury (and other factors) will also be cited as the rationale for placing a player in the doghouse, or advocating for their removal from the team because other, more honest reasons are harder to defend. Take a comparison of Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. During his time with the Steelers Leftwich was incredibly fragile. At times it seemed that to look at him crosswise would cause something to break. But he was well liked, or at least better liked than Batch, who was in the minds of some fans a stepchild who had overstayed his welcome years earlier. Why? We're talking middle school here. How should I know? So guess who had the reputation as being the 'China doll'?
Part of the emerging narrative of those who were assembling the case against Pouncey was that he was injured too much. A number of commentators felt it necessary to rebut these accusations in the wake of the announcement his extension. And even now it is a specter that hovers over the situation in the minds of many.
Some people have a knee jerk thing about the number '3'. In their minds as soon as that personal odometer reading crosses over 30 you're obviously done, or will be very shortly. The danger is that there is certainly a good deal of truth involved here. Age is the nemesis of all elite athletes and it will eventually take them down. But the irony about age discrimination (and other forms of the same) is that it actually retards legitimate discrimination or discernment.
In addition to injury, the other knock on Troy last year was the 3-word. He, in the minds of some, was too old and done. The fact of the matter is that thirty something Troy may not measure up to twenty something Troy but is still Pro Bowl material when compared to the other twenty somethings playing in the league today. In other words he has experienced some decline, but never has the term 'relative' carried greater importance.
Even more questionable concerns of this nature have been raised about Ben Roethlisberger. With the position of quarterback you are now applying standards that would be much more plausible with a position such as running back to one that is much more forgiving to physical deterioration, and where age can actually prove an asset with the experiential and cerebral demands of the position. Most great quarterbacks are firmly in their primes during their thirties. Age is not at the top of the list of criticisms of Tom Brady or even Peyton Manning, and they are older than Ben. It is possible that Ben is closer to the midpoint of his career than the end, making talk of grooming a replacement or any suggestion of significant decline absurd. But Ben has gotten off much easier in this regard than the stepchild Charlie Batch.
Batch who even now has not yet reached his 40th birthday is only two years older than Manning and three years ahead of Brady, but he was being declared as too old in 2007, three years prior to his role of carrying a Super Bowl team in the early weeks of the 2010 season, and a full five years before he led the team to a stirring win over the eventual world champions that included scoring a running touchdown. Why would people think that? Its middle school and Charlie was a stepchild (more about that below) you throw anything against the wall (injury, age) that you think will stick. You just can't say you don't like the guy. What sense would that make?
The tragic misunderstanding is that a skill set, even one that is significantly diminished by age, can be an asset to a team placed in the right role. A classic example would be that of Jerome Bettis who was clearly in decline for years when he played a crucial role in the Steelers' championship run in 2005. Currently, players like Brett Keisel or James Harrison may, in fact, be shells of their former selves, an even better example might be Ike Taylor. Whether they could, nonetheless, be difference makers in this team achieving that 7th Lombardi is another question altogether.
Agism is a real and nasty thing. I don't expect some younger fans to comprehend how vicious it can be. But there are a lot of people who have been denied or removed from opportunities for no other reason than the odometer reading.
Part of the most difficult and inscrutable elements of organizational genius is the ability to develop talent. To paraphrase Charles Barkley, any idiot organization can plug in a ready made, low maintenance high level talent and look good. Though far too many organizations have trouble even getting that sort of slam dunk right. The Steelers are masters of the craft. You would have to be if you had any hope of achieving sustained excellence, meaning, among other things, that you are not going to be blessed with high draft choices on a regular basis, you better be able to discern the potential in a player that may be obscured by surmountable flaws, immaturity or unfavorable circumstances and have the skill and patience to bring those qualities to the fore.
Of course, the problem can be that just like the fact that this understanding is beyond the capacity of so many of the trained professionals in the field, it also is beyond the understanding of many fans. Like the issue of injuries they have some clock in their head that is set on yesterday, which is when they believe a young player ought to be at peak potential and contributing at a high level. And if a player is running behind those imagined expectations then its the doghouse for them.
Less than a year ago many who are now singing the praises of Cam Heyward and Jason Worilds were declaring them 'busts' and citing them as examples as to the failures of Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the front office. Many fans were furious two Septembers ago because starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum came out of training camp with a roster spot. Most who lament Keenan Lewis being one who got away fail to mention the inconvenient fact that many were advocating his removal from the team because he was clearly a 'bust'. Lawrence Timmons was also thought of being a bust. And if you want to go back some and get some understanding of current events, Terry Bradshaw could be considered a poster child for the slow learner and the negative consequences that can result when dealing with an impatient fan base.
An opposite aspect of this problem is the belief that greatness is simply a function of good coaching. This is a matter not of unrealistic expectations based in time, but of ability. So when people glibly suggest that Ben can be replaced by grooming a mid level draft pick or trading for someone lounging out there is the market you are reduced to feeling pity. It was generation between franchise quarterbacks before Ben came along. When he's gone who knows when or even if we will see another. The statement play until the wheels come off most aptly applies here.
A distinction has to be made here between issues of immaturity or the ability to adjust to the elevated environs of the celebrity world on one hand and real, permanent character flaws on the other. Some would dispute the concept of permanent character flaws. The Bible, among other sources, is full of examples of people who did disgusting things but eventually got their acts together. One of the best examples we have here would be Ben. So, what would be your take on Mike Adams? My guess is that if he plays well enough his sins will be forgiven. If not? Yeah, it can be that shallow.
If you were making what would be considered below the market rate for you field of work and when approaching your employer for a fair adjustment and the response was an offer to take a 'hometown discount', with btw, no guarantees that this agreement will be fully honored, and then if you balk just a little, or explore other options you are tarred as being 'disloyal' or 'selfish', what to make of that? I mean, really? Don't get me wrong. Taking a few less dollars for the sake of other positive benefits of a good situation is often a very smart play. On the other hand some were suggesting that we trade Pouncey because he might actually have the temerity to insist that he be paid what he was worth (not more mind you) on the market. Others have found themselves in the doghouse for wanting the same. How many reading this would find themselves in the disloyal category because you insisted that you be compensated in line with the market and your peers? Funny how loyalty can become a one way street at times.
Willie Colon became a stepchild for me when I watched him in the early years function as a swinging door at his right offensive tackle spot. For quite some time Willie Colon could do nothing right for me other than to go away or die. I got over it eventually and became one of his biggest fans. Some fans never get over it. In fact, I doubt that many even remember what led to their disaffection in the first place, and because of that real redemption is impossible. A player like Gay may be tolerated, but never really ever embraced. They make it out of the doghouse into the yard, but never in the house with the family. Colon was like that with a lot of fans, as was Charlie Batch and Deshea Townsend. Rashard Mendenhall and Ziggy Hood of course, and the recently departed David Johnson. This is not to say that the player never did anything to earn the ire of the fan. I wasn't exaggerating what I was seeing with Colon. Its just that somehow it gets carved in stone. Nothing can fully wash away the stain. The full range of options are 1.) doghouse, and 2.) hanging around the doghouse.
And for some being a stepchild and being the doghouse is strictly a function of their position. Mike Tomlin, as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers will always be a stepchild/doghouse dweller to some because he is viewed as the prime cause why the Steelers don't go undefeated, win their 60th Lombardi (I know there haven't been that many, that's the point), and look flawless in doing so. And, sadly, that is the only thing that would satisfy them. The good news for Tomlin is that (and I think Bill Cowher would attest to this) it gets better after you leave.