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Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Are the Steelers the worst 1-1 team in league history? Will the NFL survive its version of Hell Week?

Rob Carr

Anxiety and goose stew

These two questions define the landscape during a seven-day period in early September during which a Steelers game has not been played. Full credit to Hombre de Acero for positing the first question, framing the issue in such a manner that places, in its clear splendor, the bipolar tendencies of some in Steelers Nation. What the NFL has been dealing with is a bit more profound. The question tying both of these issues together is whether we'll still be still talking about either one a month from now, or if these are just the headliners of a particularly bizarre news cycle. If so, you may want to think about making some alternative arrangements that might actually have some potential to bring some measure of joy into your life, because getting that from professional football might be a challenge.

The NFL's Wizard of Oz moment

Remember that line in the classic movie, 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain'. Oops. Too late. The Wizard's power was predicated upon perpetrating and perpetuating an illusion. Once the cover was blown and the myth exposed, his game was over. So much of the magic and mojo of the NFL has been based on a sense of goodwill that exists between that corporate entity and its customers. A lot of that capital has been squandered this week.

It would be overly cynical, in my opinion, to suggest the league is uniquely jaded about issues like domestic violence, child abuse or worker safety. What was clearly exposed this week isn't that the NFL is different but, rather, they're just like many corporations and individuals. They may care about these issues to one degree or another, but not as much as they do about maximizing their profits. That's the star by which they navigate and which informs their decisions. Once you understand and accept that, the picture becomes very clear. It's just a different picture than what many fans were hoping to see.

because $9 billion per year is clearly not enough.

Its closer to 10 actually and, yes, it's not enough by any stretch. The goal over the next decade or so was to increase that number to the mid-twenties. Good for them. But it raises some interesting questions. How does this translate into 'nonprofit' status? Why do taxpayers subsidizing their physical plant get rewarded with price-gouging instead of discounts? When their employees and the main source of their income are treated like commodities (the only major sports league that doesn't offer guaranteed contracts) you may talk of 'family' until your utility diminishes, but then it's all about 'business.' Why would we expect the NFL to be any more respectful in this regard? The league certainly cares about women with respect to their purchasing power (as well as the potential of their future customers, children). But beyond that..? Business.

Fire Goodell or keep Goodell, but don't delude yourself into thinking he's some sort of outlaw whose behavior doesn't reflect the ultimate will and values of the owners who employ him. His crimes are about being clumsy and being too transparent. If he's replaced, it would be by someone who's a bit more clever. How would that be a good thing?

In the meantime, if you're a fan and lover of the game (and I can't imagine too many reading this who aren't), then you're now wrestling with a significant dilemma. Your personal relationship with the game is becoming complicated and problematic on a number of levels. The most interesting trend I've noticed over the past few days is how a number of fans, not casual but diehards, are moving in the direction of a lesser commitment to the game. First it was some Steelers fans who were saying that they're cutting back their viewership strictly to Pittsburgh games. But if you want to make excuses, you can say that Steelers fans are a little high-strung, so we might be outliers. But then I traveled to Philadelphia this week and heard from some Eagles fans (who were unaware of the Steelers' fans comments) who also expressed that they too were cutting back and even contemplating the unthinkable, eventually abandoning the game altogether. Similar conversations are occurring among disgruntled Vikings fans and those who follow the Bears.

Kinda makes you wonder if the reaction to Janay Rice being hit in that elevator was so extreme because it mirrors our relationship to the league in some respects. How much disrespect, abuse and hypocrisy (Nike's reaction to Adrian Peterson in light of their own overseas labor practices involving children, for instance) do you tolerate for love? Codependency can take many forms. One thing not to expect, a verdict on what the impact of all this will be in the short term. The league will not suddenly collapse, nor completely shake things off and return to whatever was perceived as normal. What is certain is that a large chunk of innocence associated with the game has been lost, and there will be consequences.

One reason that the impact of these incidents will slow down is that, beyond the initial wave of shock, revulsion and outrage, will come the realization that these things are not unique to pro football by any means. Pulling off the covers of this problem has led to the discovery, for example, that domestic abuse is a far more prevalent problem among the police than it is for professional football players. Furthermore, given the realities of the criminal justice system, a remedy such as a suspension prior to the completion of due process may prove to be a genuinely unfair punishment. And as Bill Barnwell points out, it may be possible that an improved, more-just version of the professional game might be in the offing over the long term. It just may be possible, though, that the National Football League might not be a part of it.

What's certain is that perceptions for many have changed and, with them, some likely alteration of reality. Mark Cuban's accusations of hubris directed at the NFL seem prescient now. The league is probably going to have to do more to respect its female fans than to merely don pink in October. For example, the league could do worse than study what the Steelers have been doing for their female fan base, including de-emphasizing some of the more highly sexualized cheerleading squads, and maybe paying them better. They'll likely have to face some hard questions about the relationship between head injuries and the increased possibility of expressions of violence as a consequence. Things that they've been sweeping under the rug will be harder to conceal and the price of discovery will be more severe. This isn't over. In fact, it's just beginning.

Jonathan Dwyer

The specific Steelers connection here would be that of the running back who's now affiliated with the Arizona Cardinals. One is left to wonder whether this incident came more or less out of the blue, or if events occurring a year ago may have telegraphed what has transpired since. The team received criticism in some quarters for releasing Dwyer and then bringing him back, particularly when he performed well upon his return. Subsequent events beg the question of whether the Steelers had some knowledge of Dwyer's off-field issues and whether that could have affected their decision to cut ties. You may recall Weslye Saunders, a talented tight end from whom the team separated in favor of somewhat less-spectacular alternatives. Leadership was subjected to similar criticism, but it has turned out Saunders' off-field troubles continued and his career has stalled. It's a reminder that there are a ton of things going on within a football team, or any workplace, that are beyond our knowledge (and should be since there's no public entitlement to certain levels of personal information). Maybe this will cause some to pause before making claims that they've got perfect knowledge of the inner workings of an organization.

Are the Steelers doomed?

This question would be a bit of a stretch if the team were 0-2, especially after last year proved that a credible rebound from 0-4 is possible. To suggest such a thing at 1-1 flirts with the surreal and the absurd. Yet, here we are. Clearly the worst thing about the loss to the Ravens is that it has allowed ten days for these end-time fantasies to incubate. With the team favored to lose at Carolina this week, the September apocalypse may continue for a while despite the best efforts of some to counsel patience (Neal Coolong) or a change in perspective (Billy52), as the only known cure for this type of hysteria are wins, preferably of the solid, beat-down variety.

The good news? Injuries

Been preaching in this space that this year's team has broken the trend of recent years of the Steelers being snake-bitten by injuries. While some issues exist in this regard, by both historical measures and compared to other teams in the league, they would have to be considered minor. And though it can all change in a blink of an eye, it's particularly significant when you consider that the injury situation league-wide has increased both in perception and in fact since implementation of the new CBA. The speculation is that the reduced number of practices has prevented players from becoming acclimated to the physical demands of the game during the season.

So is the Steelers' good fortune simply that, luck, perhaps in combination with a greater level of resilience brought by younger players? Or might it be that the organization has figured out a way to minimize the damage? Of course, there will be plenty of resistance to this latter explanation because it directly conflicts with the popular narrative asserting that the coaching staff is either flawed or incompetent. That's an easy accusation to make in the absence of facts. What will be interesting about the Carolina game is that, as of this moment, the Panthers will be more injury-challenged than Pittsburgh. The return (actually the debut) of Lance Moore, in particular, will provide a boost to an offense that certainly is more capable than they've shown during the past six quarters.

The state of the offense

It would seem that most of the problems with the offense in the last game were self-inflicted. The Film Room shows that Pittsburgh had their opportunities but Ben Roethlisberger, perhaps affected by a big hit early in the game, had issues with execution and the team was unable to capitalize. Another player not having his best outing was right offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert. Tomlin refused to throw him under the bus, placing the matter under the category of 'they pay the other guys too', and the fact that Gilbert was matched against an elite pass rusher who was having a good game.

The state of the defense

The CBA may provide something of a partial explanation for some of the early struggles of the defense as well. Because the lion's share of preparation occurs out of sight of both fans and the media, it becomes easy for the imagination to conjure any scenario that suits one's fancy as to what's going on when the team struggles. As already mentioned, one that has found favor is that the team is victim to coaching which is undisciplined at best and incompetent at worst. There's an alternative explanation that fits the facts and explanations at hand and is more consistent with that of a veteran coaching staff and which is more hopeful moving forward.

Tunch Ilkin has pointed out that, because of the CBA's restrictions on padded practices, teams come into the regular season with much less preparation than in previous years. Tunch also pointed out that certain other preparation patterns have changed as well since the time he played. Specifically, the dress-rehearsal preseason game where the starters played for a minimum of three quarters used to be the final contest, where now it's the third, meaning two weeks pass before teams take the field in game conditions for their regular-season opener. This, according to Ilkin, can mean that the first regular-season games may be more like preseason games in terms of quality and consistency.

Now consider the Steeler D, a unit that has four 'regulars' (Tuitt, Shazier, Mitchell and Cam Thomas) who weren't with the team this time last year, two who weren't starters (Heyward and Jarvis Jones) this time last year, and three (McLendon, Worilds and Cortez Allen) who were first-time starters last season. The overwhelming majority of the other reserves were similarly inexperienced, with only Ike, Troy, LT and Keisel having more than one year of experience as starters. It makes sense that reduced practice opportunities would present a challenge to their ability to gel as a unit early. In fact, if that were not the case, then wouldn't the claim that the LeBeau defensive scheme being so complex that it takes some players years to grasp it be demonstrated to be false? If you could easily plug in newcomers and rookies and it still runs smoothly, wouldn't that complexity thing be just so much BS?

The new drug policy

The league and the NFLPA have come to an agreement on a new drug policy for the NFL. Buried under the spectacle of the train wrecks that are currently roiling the league, this story may be one that has as great or greater an impact on changing  things significantly over the long term than the trials and tribulations of the Rices, Adrian Peterson and Roger Goodell. One likely consequence is a reset over which performance-enhancement measures will be allowed. This could change who has access to the game and how.


For the second week in a row, I yield in agreement to Dale Lolley's assessment of Pittsburgh's prospects heading into the game against the Carolina Panthers.

Brotherly love

Ending a difficult and truly ugly week on a high note. They played for the Hatfields and McCoys of the NFL, but they also are brothers. One Kemoeatu saved the life of the other by donating a kidney. An item that may help us maintain a healthy sense of perspective on a difficult week.