At the end of each year, it's traditional to stop and take stock of all that has transpired since the beginning of the regular season. Since Saturday night's playoff matchup against the Ravens at Heinz Field marks the official beginning of January football for Pittsburgh, we'd be remiss not to give a nod to the feverish optimists among us who predicted at the season's outset that the Steelers would easily qualify for the playoffs, at a time when any number of sage Black-and-Gold pundits had been doing their best Jim Mora impersonations.
Indeed, with the dawn of the New Year and even for hard-boiled skeptics, there's something palpable about the power of positive thinking. While it's certainly no substitute for having a running back like Le'Veon Bell, a receiver like Antonio Brown or a trigger-man like Ben Roethlisberger, we cannot discount the importance of a Steelers organization and Nation now infused with the energy of success. This energy bloomed during the team's crucial stretch-run of the regular season, bringing the AFC North crown back to Pittsburgh and landing Mike Tomlin's team a playoff berth. Underlying the Steelers' apparent good fortune, of course, is a huge amount of hard work by the players, their coaches and the Steelers' front office. So it's time to recognize the following members of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization who, in my humble opinion, deserve the lion's share of credit for the Steelers' remarkable rebound from back-to-back 8-8 seasons in the previous two years. No matter how the picture has changed by February, the following are my selections:
First Place: Ben Roethlisberger
Playing consistent-and-sometimes-spectacular football behind a greatly improved offensive line, Ben continues to be the one indispensable Steeler. Not an easy call to make, given the remarkable efforts of his teammates on the Steelers' offense but, minus Ben's leadership, this developing team never gets anywhere near playoff territory. With only a handful of exceptions, every head coach in the league would gladly ransom their draft choices for the foreseeable future, to have No. 7 under contract. The fact that Roethlisberger also happens to personify the grit and square-jawed toughness of Pittsburgh and its industrial population may be viewed as nothing less than icing on your New Year's Day cake. As someone who has religiously watched Steelers games for more than 50 years, and with all respect due to the outstanding Terry Bradshaw, we're currently witnessing a total quarterback package never before imagined, whether in Pittsburgh or in a majority of other NFL cities for that matter.
Second Place: Mike Tomlin
Besieged by doubters and detractors ever since training camp, Mike Tomlin continues to validate the huge trust placed in his hands by the Steelers' ownership when he took the reins of this team nearly eight years ago. Nagged by accusations that he inherited a successful team, and criticized for almost every decision viewed as departing from fans' rigid and idealized conceptions of the "Steeler Way," Tomlin kept calm while keeping his shoulder to the wheel and focusing keenly on the big picture. Regardless of how this season ends for Pittsburgh, Coach Tomlin has proven beyond any remaining doubt that, not only is he highly competent in taking the wheel of a sturdy vessel formerly manned by a crew liberally sprinkled with Super Bowl veterans, but he's equally adept as the on-the-fly shipbuilder. In 2014, Tomlin notably succeeded in the daunting task of reversing the declining fortunes of a perennially successful NFL franchise possessed of stratospheric media and fan expectations. So if you find yourself feeling better about the Steelers' future prospects these days, thanks be to Mike.
Third Place: Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown (tie)
Just about everyone was expecting great things from AB this season, but the jury definitely was still out on Le'Veon Bell, particularly in the wake of his preseason hijinks with his now-departed backfield mate Legarrette Blount. Each of them, quite simply, has been spectacular this season - no other way to describe it. Even if opposing defensive coordinators could figure out a way to stop both of these guys in a game (which few have done to date), their mere presence on the gridiron opens up a host of other golden opportunities for Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger.
While we've only begun to tap the mother lode of talent that is Le'Veon Bell, perhaps the greatest compliment appropriate at this point is the general observation that No. 26 clearly has seized the role of offensive catalyst for the Pittsburgh Steelers. More than any of the team's other improvements this season, Bell's dual-threat capability, both as one of the NFL's top rushers and as a dangerous, soft-handed receiver, has added a new dimension to the Steelers' attack. It's a dimension that already has proven virtually impossible for opponents to effectively counter in their game-planning.
As for No. 84, the guy just keeps getting better each year. Steeler fans currently have the good fortune to be able to witness what happens when you pair one of the most gifted athletes ever to play the wide-receiver position with a veteran and, yes, elite quarterback. The key synergy between Brown and Bell rests in the complementary threat they pose to NFL defenses. For example, do you scheme to stop No. 26 as a punishing running back or as the nightmare matchup he poses when catching the ball in space? When considering No. 84, a similar conundrum applies. Does your secondary hang back in the effort to prevent Brown's trademark blow-by routes and circus catches, or is it his ability to take a quick screen and turn it into a home run that keeps you up at night?
For me at least, it's impossible to say that one of them has contributed more than the other to the team's overall success. At my age, musical references normally don't include the rap genre, but when I see either one of these guys out on the field, the catchy tune that comes to mind is M.C. Hammer's mega-hit "Can't Touch This." In fact, I humbly suggest that "Can't Touch This" be nominated as one of the Steelers' official fight songs. If that's deemed too great a leap, then at least I hope the Steelers' stadium crew will make this song the soundtrack groove for the famous AB touchdown celebration dances.
Fourth Place: Offensive Line (group award)
In this case, the conventional wisdom proved largely accurate in predicting that, by season's end, the OL would develop into the fearsome blocking machine we're seeing today. Keeping Ben upright and largely healthy, thereby giving him ample opportunities to dissect opponents' defenses, has made an enormous difference in 2014. This might just be the main reason for the Steelers' way-better-than-predicted finish during the regular season.
Fifth Place: Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley (tie)
"Maligned" doesn't begin to describe the level of bile hurled at the Steelers' OC and DC this season. The sunny spot where Steelers Nation is standing today, in large part, is a result of a dogged faith in master plans which have been time-proven to ultimately produce success. As Ivan Cole has eloquently characterized in his series of probing columns, the perennial LeBeau/Haley-haters are currently in full retreat, at least until their next opportunity arises to pose the question, "But what have you done for us lately?"
What each of these coaches has done is to patiently implement his system during the course of a turbulent season that saw the Steelers complete a remarkable evolution from the status of NFL also-ran to one of bona fide championship contender. And as good as they've already been this season, not many doubts remain that next season will see an even stronger Steelers team on the field.
That's how you spell "success" folks and not a bad way to kick-off 2015.