The good news is that, in the past two seasons, this would be the beginning of the post-mortem on the year. We would be discussing what-ifs, such as what if Ryan Succop had made that field goal, and looking wistfully at those teams that still had life in January. Free-agent, salary-cap and mock-draft conversation would already be ramping up, and many would be offering forecasts both sunny and stormy about what the future might bring.
Not this year.
We're in overtime now, playoff season and the Steelers are still relevant. So, you may be asking, why not wait until it's completely over to report on this team? Because I know how many of you think. In my opinion, it's of essential importance that the assessment of this season not be predicated upon the team's performance in the playoffs. This is not to say that a championship isn't an important goal, and that achieving it or falling short is of no great relevance. But the 2014 regular season has a value that must not be distorted or diminished by the short-term fortunes of a playoff run.
Let's start by establishing context and perspective. If, right before the first game of the season, someone offered you a guarantee that the Steelers would end up with an 11-5 record, a division championship and a No. 3 seed, would you take it? I'm sure there are a handful of crazy perfectionists out there who would hold out for a No. 1 seed and 14 wins, but, particularly with what Pittsburgh had to work with this year, 11-5 and the AFC North title sounds like the kind of deal that sane people would jump at.
Okay, so you're with me so far except for the thing about this being an unqualified success. How can I say that when this team is so obviously and frustratingly flawed? The short answer is, true, the team has its blemishes and challenges but, at the end of the day, they're not important. Some of us get annoyed by Tomlinisms, but one is particularly true and relevant at this moment; style-points really do not matter.
In the bottom-line business of the NFL, the regular season serves but one purpose; to accumulate the requisite number of wins necessary to get into the post-season tournament. A secondary goal would be to position the team in such a manner that the ability to prevail in the playoffs is enhanced. Win enough games to attain the minimum necessary to qualify to earn home-field advantage and a possible bye. Be in a favorable position in terms of injuries and a lack of negative distractions. Build team chemistry and momentum such that you're playing your best ball when it matters the most. The current Steelers team has delivered on most of these things, however, many probably believe that they're atypical of a playoff team, but I argue that we're mistaken if we think that.
Recently I wrote about the very human trait of mis-remembering events, using as an example the 1974 Super Bowl IX team that was a lot more dysfunctional and sketchy than many of us tend to remember. A more recent example would be a comparison between the 2004 team and that of 2005. 2004 was the good child, the unstoppable juggernaut that we've come to imagine all of the Pittsburgh championship teams to be. They steamrolled their regular season opponents behind a rookie signal caller from Ohio. They'd swatted aside their opponents in the regular season and assumed their position as the anointed of God. Just one problem. They stumbled badly in the AFC title game, meaning that all that dominance went for naught. It was all very sad. Remember Hines Ward crying the next day?
They vowed that things would be different in 2005, and they definitely were. They were going to win this one for the Bus, as Jerome Bettis postponed his retirement plans to try one more time to make it to the Super Bowl, this time in his home town of Detroit. Nice story line but, by November, the notion seemed as embarrassing as Mike Tomlin wanting to "unleash hell" five years later. Entering December, that team, consisting largely of the same personnel that had rode roughshod over the league a year earlier, faced elimination from the playoffs. The low-lights included a frustrating home overtime loss to Jacksonville where Tommy Maddox estranged himself from Steelers Nation with a lost fumble and throwing a walk off pick-6 to the Jags. Peyton Manning and the Colts beat them convincingly in primetime, and the ultimate humiliation where Cincinnati defeated the Steelers for the divisional crown in Pittsburgh and wide receiver T J Houshmandzadeh used a Terrible Towel to wipe off his cleats. You probably remember things differently. Jerome Bettis running over Brian Urlacher (as opposed to the Bus nearly fumbling away the season on the goal line at Indianapolis).
Winning smooths over a lot of bad memories. The fact that, in three of their six Super Bowl victories, the Steelers trailed in the fourth quarter of those games, and that the outcome was still in doubt with two minutes remaining in four of the six. That Bill Cowher's most successful team was the one with the lowest playoff seeding. They say that you don't want to watch too closely the process of making fine sausage. Tomlin spoke no truer words during the award ceremony of Super Bowl XLIII when he said Steelers football is sixty minutes, it isn't pretty and style-points go out the window.
While I'm sure that there are some who are still banging their heads against the wall about that game in Cleveland, I suspect it's beginning to look differently to most of us now. To be specific, whose hand would you rather be dealt at this point? The Browns? The Saints? The Jets? The Bucs? There probably are a few out there who would trade our fate for that of the Bucs because they'd want the No. 1 pick in the draft, pathetic as I think that is. It's true that all these teams will have their games with the Steelers figure prominently in their highlight videos. And those videos are probably already being mapped out as I write because they, like us fans, will be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their sofas.
By sweeping out the fourth quarter of the season, those losses were rendered irrelevant, though have no doubt that those with dark and lively imaginations will invoke them if and when the team exits the playoffs. But if they should win out, then the losses will not only lose their sting, they will seem downright charming as spice to a success story. What does distinguish this team is its relative youth and inexperience both in absolute terms, as well as in playing together as a team. But they don't really deviate that greatly from other successful Steelers teams.
Coaching and front office
I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare that no one's getting fired this year. When four of the five Pro Bowl selections are products of the current head coaching/general manager regime. When free-agent selections that nobody else wanted are producing at a high level. When seventh-round, undersized offensive tackles and fourth- and sixth-round wide receivers are tracking to be among the league elite at their positions. When the Bengals' pass rush is reduced to flailing impotence, when a free-agent rookie running back rips off a sixty-yard run, when a pieced-together secondary earns an A+ grade and is the key to one of the biggest wins of the past four years, and when, for the second year in a row, the team pushes through all the adversity and manages to finish strong playing its best football in December, I'd say that coaching and the front office are non-issues.
If you insist, and I know some of you will, that this team is going nowhere until there are some changes at the top, then, in the spirit of the times when many teams are in the midst of moving in new directions, I invite submissions in the comments section for a replacement for the current head coach. There will be some selection criteria. Specifically, there would be no point in hiring anyone who wasn't clearly superior to the incumbent. Here's the standard:
- An eight year probationary period where the jury will remain AWOL, and the new coach would be immediately terminated if he or she fails to meet the following benchmarks.
- Must maintain a winning record throughout. A .500 record or below being a firing offense.
- You got to do it with your own players. No fair using anyone else's.
- Must win a minimum of five division titles, three conference titles and two Super Bowls during the probationary period. Any affirmative-action hire can avoid a losing record, win four division titles, two conference titles and one Super Bowl, so these standards should be a piece of cake for dozens of potential candidates.
Another thing Rebecca and I noticed during camp and commented on at the time was that Ben and Antonio appeared to be able to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to. Think that the touchdown pass in the fourth quarter was just a matter of good fortune? Keep thinking that.
Markus Wheaton has come through as hoped in his first full campaign. Given his youth and inexperience, expecting a leap in his performance next year isn't unreasonable. But he will almost certainly lose ground to Bryant, who, before all is said and done, may challenge Brown for supremacy in this group. Lance Moore has brought significant and necessary leadership to the group, but hasn't been a factor on the field...so far. Playoff experience, however, may be particularly valuable in January. Heyward-Bey is earning his keep with solid special-teams work. No room for Justin Brown at this time. We shouldn't lose sight of the fine job being done by receivers coach Richard Mann.
Many of us said during the off-season that the best acquisition the team made was for the services of Mike Munchak. I'm not backing off of that assertion. The performance of this unit has been stellar throughout the season, but perhaps the best evidence of his work may be a bit of a surprise. You probably thought that Kelvin Beachum was just going to be a placeholder at left tackle until Mike Adams got better or a replacement was found. Beachum is now considered one of the better players at what most feel is the second most important offensive position on the field. We can debate how much credit goes to the player or the coach. One thing is certain, though, the justification for terminating Kevin Colbert has become far more difficult.
As anticipated, this unit has blossomed into something unrecognizable from what the team has had to settle for during more than a half-decade. The days of wringing our hands over offensive line play are over for the foreseeable future.
Heath Miller has excelled in an all-around capacity with his blocking for Bell and his receptions when defenses have committed to shutting Bell down. Ben has indicated that he believes that Miller is an appropriate MVP for this team. It's difficult to argue against that. There's also a rise in the appreciation for Matt Spaeth for his contributions as a blocker and an occasional passing target.
Ah, that ol' washed-up Dick LeBeau. Someone ought to take that doddering old fool on a long walk somewhere and put him to sleep. As we have been saying all year, it would be the offense that would carry this team. The O has had their hiccups, but they haven't disappointed, creating a radical change in the perception of who the Pittsburgh Steelers are as a football team. But in the fourth quarter of this season, all anyone wants to talk about is the defense. They're getting healthy. They're getting reps. They've become cohesive, and LeBeau gets younger with every passing moment.
The expectation was that the loss of Brett Keisel would see a drop-off. But it hasn't really materialized. Keeping Steve McLendon on the field has helped. The play of Cam Heyward, a team MVP candidate in his own right, has also helped. But the big story of the fourth quarter has been the emergence of rookie Stephon Tuitt. He's still rather raw, and it remains to be seen if that's a liability in the playoffs, but the idea of a mature combo of Heyward and Tuitt whets the appetite. Keisel's continued presence for leadership is much appreciated as well.
Lawrence Timmons finally getting the Pro Bowl consideration he deserves has been one significant highlight. James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Arthur Moats have all stepped up at one time of another during this time to make significant contributions. We are learning that, in spite of the fact that he has been a presence around the team for three years, when he started his first game in place of the injured Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence had less on-field game experience that the rookie he was replacing. We should, therefore, not be surprised that Spence is improving, as is Vince Williams. There is grumbling in some quarters about Shazier and fellow first-rounder Jarvis Jones. Each have been lost for most of the season due to injuries. Jones has a little more than a year's experience while Shazier's progress can be most appropriately measured in quarters. A little patience here.
We forget that, in addition to Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau was a Hall of Fame defensive back, and that Tomlin earned his first Super Bowl ring as a defensive secondary coach. Is it possible that at least one of them knows something about developing that position group? Maybe even more than you and I? As it turned out, the assertions made in the spring and summer about the situation with this group, much of which seemed to many to be nothing more that B.S coach-speak, have turned out to be a bit more sound than we might have believed just a few short weeks ago. Remember that Brice McCain, who now has three interceptions, was rated the worst cornerback in the league when he was with Houston. Antwon Blake is obviously too small to be of any use, and they aren't even targeting master scapegoat Willie Gay these days. The play of the front-seven has definitely helped, but the fourth quarter also demonstrated that this group isn't nearly as dysfunctional as some have been inclined to believe.
Shamarko Thomas has been a standout among a solid group of performers who delivered a crucial splash play that provided the margin of difference in the division-clinching game. They also managed to contain a number of game changers such as Devin Hester. One area of inconsistency that continues is the punting of Brad Wing.
The final word on the 2014 regular season pronounces the Pittsburgh Steelers a young, talented team on the rise. They are developing depth across the board and, all things considered, they don't have that many holes to fill, backups at key positions mostly. If you understand the developmental nature of the culture, then you know that, barring huge setbacks like a spate of major injuries, you're seeing this team at its worst for the next few years. Older, declining veterans can now safely be eased into lesser roles or out the door without trauma. Drama and dysfunction doesn't survive long in this environment. The locker room appears healthy in comparison with a lot of other places around the league. The coaching and organizational support is first-rate. The league's best chance to take this team down is this particular playoff cycle. After this year, they're going to be a real headache.
Pittsburgh is back.