The Steelers took the field after the 2-minute warning. The Jaguars were out of time outs. It was first-and-10 at the Jaguars' 33 yard line. Ben Roethlisberger took a knee. The game, a surprisingly tight one at 17-9 against a team who hadn't looked very good this season, was in the books.
Or, more accurately, that's what apparently was supposed to happen according to the perceived wisdom. Here's what actually happened:
The ball was snapped. Roethlisberger throws a screen to Antonio Brown, who does what Antonio Brown almost invariably does. He grabs it, makes a guy miss him in the backfield and gains enough for another first down. But he runs out of bounds, strangely, rather than staying in bounds to run out more clock. On the next three plays, the Steelers set up in victory formation, take a knee and now the game is actually over.
It quickly became evident why the Steelers didn't just take a knee when everyone assumed they would. Antonio Brown, who carried an unprecedented, 20-game streak of at least five receptions for at least 50 yards, was one reception short of the necessary five to continue his streak. If Jacksonville had been paying close enough attention to details, they would have put about ten guys on Brown. Then, of course, the Steelers could have waltzed into the end zone, although it would have to have been some other guy toting the ball.
But strangely, the Jacksonville defense didn't seem to be paying attention in this regard, although they certainly had been playing as if they knew what they were doing for most of the rest of the game. Perhaps they were aware that their best defender, by far, on the field that day, Paul Posluszny, had left the field with an injury just after the previous play, a third-and-one in which they almost, but not quite, prevented LeGarrette Blount from moving the chains. Perhaps they, like everyone else, were aware that they were out of timeouts and all the Steelers had to do was kneel out the clock. Whatever the case, they missed the memo and Brown shimmied upfield for the first down practically uncontested.
Why am I spending so much time regaling you with the events at the end of the game? Because the only thing I've heard all morning on the airwaves, with one notable exception, is how outrageous this was. The Steelers had put the game outcome at risk to further an individual accomplishment of one of their players. How dare they???? (The notable exception was curmudgeonly Post-Gazette reporter Ron Cook. Which just goes to show...)
Based on the callers I heard before I turned off the radio in disgust, I gather public sentiment concurs for the most part. As one caller said, this is the act of an undisciplined, selfish team.
Obviously I disagree, and I'll tell you why in a moment. But first let's look at this dispassionately. There are only so many possible outcomes from this play. Here are the possibilities as I see them. Feel free to chime in with more if you think I missed something.
Given that Brown was apparently covered only by one defender, here are the possible outcomes:
1) What actually happened—Brown makes the catch. Whether he then actually gains any yards is more or less moot. But in the event he ran out of bounds at the 20 yard line (despite the grief Brown got over going out of bounds by the television commenters), I thought it made sense. He knew that a) he had the first down, b) they could now run out the clock, and c) if he goes out of bounds with the ball in hand, nothing bad can happen, as opposed to perhaps staying in bounds and having someone strip it.
2) Brown catches the pass and makes it to the end zone. This would have been the preferable option for my fantasy team, as Brown didn't really help me out all that much yesterday. I'll forgive him because of his winsome smile.
3) The pass isn't caught and falls incomplete. In this case, the Steelers still have three downs in which to kneel out the clock.
4) Brown's defender tips the ball. In this case, it falls incomplete and, like option No. 2, the Steelers kneel out the clock.
5) Brown is knocked to the ground when his blockers fail him (which they didn't.) In scenario a) he holds onto the ball, and the Steelers run out the rest of the clock on the subsequent downs. In scenario b) a defender manages to force a fumble. In this case, Jacksonville gets the ball back right around their own 25 yard line, with no timeouts and about 1:45 left on the clock. The best possible outcome for them is to tie the game with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion, and the game would go into overtime. At this point, all bets are off, naturally. But this assumption (of a touchdown drive culminating in a successful 2-point conversion) is certainly not a foregone conclusion given that the Steelers' defense prevented the Jaguars from getting a touchdown for the entire previous portion of the game.
6) The defender who tipped the ball manages to grab it and run it in for a touchdown. This is extremely unlikely, given that Kelvin Beachum took said DE to the ground immediately after the attempted tip. He certainly wasn't unguarded. And if he did manage it, there's still the matter of a successful two-point conversion and the Steelers would regain the ball with something more than a minute to work with plus two timeouts (they lost one to Tomlin's unsuccessful challenge of a spot) and needing only a field goal. So it still wouldn't be a foregone conclusion that the game would go into overtime.
Any of the other possibilities (botched snap, etc.) are going to result in one of the above outcomes, so I think that pretty much covers it.
We have now established that the most likely outcome from this pass play is the same result—one way or the other, the Steelers kneel out the clock. I can understand how some people think that, despite the relatively small chance of something going wrong, there was no point in taking the risk. But I disagree, and for a reason which impacts the remainder of the season, not just this game. In other words, I think the good that was done by this play outweighs the rather small chance that it could have adversely affected the outcome of the game.
But I'm sure many of you are wondering what possible reason could there be for taking even a small risk? A number of the sports radio hosts and callers harped on what they considered to be the insignificance of this "streak" as part of their reason for outrage. But insignificant to whom? To them, certainly; to you, maybe. Perhaps even to most people who follow the NFL—I think stats like that are more of a baseball thing. But I can tell you one person it isn't insignificant to, and that's Antonio Brown.
And it's a measure of the leadership which Ben Roethlisberger has assumed that he realized this. It's also interesting to note the coaches apparently agreed. After all, they didn't say "Forget it, too risky. Take him out for steak or something..."
Just because football is a team sport doesn't mean the players are automatons. The Steelers' leadership is not only aware of this, but Mike Tomlin actively espouses the leadership style he learned from his mentor, Tony Dungy. So-called "servant leadership" is based upon determining how each person with whom you work is motivated and dealing with them accordingly. I'll be the first to say that Tomlin hasn't invariably been successful in this approach. I believe there are certain players with whom he has failed over the years. But I also believe the examples are few and far between.
Antonio Brown and Heath Miller are both receivers. They are both hard-working and very accomplished at what they do. But the comparison stops there. Heath is soft-spoken and quiet while Antonio Brown is exuberant and flashy. (I'm using the latter descriptor in a non-perjorative sense.) The list of the ways in which they differ would probably run to many pages. But is this a bad thing? I don't think so. For me, part of the interest of football, or indeed any sport, is seeing the personalities of the players emerge as one "gets to know them" on the field.
Heath Miller catches a touchdown pass and quietly hands the ball to the official. Antonio Brown makes a first down and does his pointer thing. As we saw last week, he can take the TD celebration a little too far, and I'm sure he heard quite a lot about that from his coaches and from Ben.
But I also think the coaching staff isn't keen to suppress the things which make Antonio Brown so fun and exciting to watch. Furthermore, if they were successful in doing so, I'm willing to bet he would lose a lot of the joy in what he does and would become less effective as a player.
Personally, I prefer Heath's style. But I'm not curmudgeonly enough to be unable to enjoy the joie de vivre Brown brings to the field, especially when it comes with such amazing productivity. And if I have to take some silly celebrations along with it, okay.
But there's potentially a further dynamic playing out here. There was speculation on last night's "victory" post, some supposedly rooted in at least a modicum of fact, that the whole Lance Moore incident earlier in the game (the penalty for spiking the ball and the public altercation on the sidelines afterwards between Tomlin and Moore) is indicative of a deeper rift. Indeed, it would be quite surprising if it weren't.
You can bet your last sweet drop of beer (as Homer J. might say) that, if this is the case, the rest of the team is aware of it. And I would guess a subliminal message was being sent to the younger players—"Work hard, do your job well, be a team player, and if we possibly can we'll take care of you."
At any rate, I believe it was a calculated risk on the part of the coaches and it paid off. It's possible it will pay even bigger dividends down the road.
Could have, should have, might have. None of the things which potentially COULD have happened, which potentially COULD have allowed the Jaguars to come back and tie the game, which COULD have allowed them to win it in overtime (although of course the Steelers COULD have done so as well) actually did happen.
When Ivan Cole visited Pittsburgh in August and attended a Pirates game with me, he was struck by the very different mood of Pirates fans compared to most of the Steelers fans he knows. At that point in the season, there was no guarantee whatsoever the Pirates would even manage to get a wildcard. Their playoff odds were, IIRC, something less than 20 percent at that point. Certainly there were those prepared to complain about the Pirates even when they were winning, particularly if they weren't winning in the way said commenters thought they should. But at least to this point there's still a sense of gratitude that the city has a team that can possibly be a contender, in striking contrast to the previous 20 years. I wish I could also feel some of that joy in the game and gratitude to the organization which has brought us so much pleasure over the years.
I have essentially stopped hanging out on BTSC in the first few days following a loss. This isn't me sticking my head in the sand—I just don't feel up to all the negativity. Surely it's possible to be a realist without wallowing in misery. But that's after a loss. I thought it would be safe after a win. But apparently all this win proved is just how bad the coaching staff really is.
I'm not saying Mike Tomlin and his staff are perfect (he said as much at his last press conference). It's possible some other coach or coaches might be doing a better job with the same group of players. But it's also possible this would be a much worse team with someone else at the helm. You can't run the experiment twice, so we'll really never know who's right. But I do know that firing your coaching staff every year or two isn't a successful strategy.
I don't have any idea how good these Steelers will turn out to be. Last year's group didn't inspire any confidence at all early in the season, and ended up playing really quite well. This year's team might do that, or perhaps be further hobbled by injuries or whatever and sink into irrelevance. Or they might take some third path I can't envision at the moment. But surely we can enjoy the process, wherever it leads, and take joy in small milestones like, say, a win, or our No. 1 receiver having an unprecedented streak of completions and yards.
Well, at least there is this about the upcoming game—if the Steelers manage to pull out a win, I'm not sure anyone will care how ugly it is. Steelers/Browns is like that. So on to Cleveland, and let's go Steelers!