From time to time, we hear or read comments implying that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ storied mystique is nothing more than an illusion fabricated by hardcore Steelers Nation fans. But following yet another gutty comeback by the Black-and-Gold against a divisional rival, which sent the 1-15 Cleveland Browns packing for maybe the longest bus ride in league history, it seemed downright silly to deny the reality of this beautiful, intangible thing known as “Steelers Football.”
The hallmark of Steelers Football during the modern era—which began about the time when Charles Henry Noll first arrived in town—is the uncanny ability to overcome adversity and the stubborn refusal to surrender, even in a game they scarcely needed to win. It’s a magical quality born of hard work, dedication and, yes, a standard that enables Pittsburgh to proudly display six Lombardi trophies in its front office and to remain a perennial NFL contender.
Regardless of broad criticism by fans who felt the Steelers were taking a huge gamble in actually trying to pull out their 11th season victory, Head Coach Mike Tomlin “obviously” had different ideas. So, if you were among those troubled by the number of Pittsburgh starters who played all or most of Sunday’s season finale at Heinz Field, please consider the opposite side of the coin as well.
A meaningless, final game of the regular season doesn’t necessarily have to be considered as a throw-away. It can be used as an opportunity to help young and veteran players alike to maintain their football edge during what otherwise would essentially have been a bye-week experience. It can also be used, as this game was, to give your backup quarterback a full game’s worth of reps in preparation for the win-or-go-home postseason. But beyond the sheer practicality of Tomlin’s approach to Week 17, there’s one huge intangible that I’m sure the Steelers’ head coach also had in mind.
Beginning with their 2014 season, the Steelers have lost three consecutive games following bye-weeks. In 2014, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Steelers 35-32 in the first game after their bye-week. Then, in 2015, the Seattle Seahawks whipped the Steelers 39-30 after the bye. While you might have forgotten about those two losses, everyone remembers what happened in the first game after the bye-week this season, when the Ravens beat the Steelers 21-14. Clearly, this was not the kind of streak that Tomlin wanted to see extended, even as his team was extending its regular-season winning streak to seven games.
Of course, nobody would have blamed Coach Tomlin for giving all of his starters the week off and simply accepting as inevitable a sixth loss of the regular season. But if you know anything about the Steelers head coach, you know that’s simply not the way he rolls. Indeed, no shred of passivity could be detected in Tomlin’s sideline demeanor throughout Sunday’s game. On the contrary, he was a flurry of motion and emotion at Heinz Field, delivering firm exhortations to players who failed to perform up to his standards on one hand, while joyously commending those who met the challenge on the other. Some folks might mistake this for cheerleading but, to me, this is coaching at its best.
“But what good does any of that do in a meaningless game,” the critic retorts. First and foremost, Coach Tomlin’s insistence on a higher level of performance enabled the team to emerge from its final game with considerably more momentum and confidence than otherwise would have been the case. To every rookie or other Steelers player who seldom get starting nods, this served as an object lesson in what it takes to become a champion. And if you look at the pack of NFL teams that somehow never manage to get close to a Super Bowl, you’ll notice that this is precisely the element missing from their repertoire—regardless of the size of their payrolls or their talent on the field.
We also noticed that Tomlin liberally platooned backup players who might soon be summoned from the bench in do-or-die circumstances of playoff competition. Sunday’s exciting overtime victory was crafted principally by role players such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, Roosevelt Nix, DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint, B.J. Finney, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers, Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton, Jarvis Jones and Eli Rogers. By enabling all of these players to share in the glory of a hard-fought win, Tomlin ensured that they will not only be battle-hardened for the challenges ahead, but also will be riding a significant, emotional springboard to the postseason.
Finally, the overall performance of Landry Jones against Cleveland was not only commendable, but it further bolsters Coach Tomlin’s judgment in using this final game advantageously. I’ve been among the legion of Jones critics and, after the first half on Sunday, I was eager to see what Zach Mettenberger could do. But it’s obvious that Tomlin’s decision to play Jones for the entire game was the right call. In the end, Jones performed far better than many of us ever thought he could.
In fact, after the way he brought the team back to capture its 11th victory, I have to admit that Jones might wind up becoming a pretty good NFL quarterback after all—just not likely in Pittsburgh. He might not have the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, but Landry’s flaws seem to have a lot more to do with his lack of work in games that matter, and a lot less to do with a shortage of ability. Particularly during the second half, Jones was running the Haley offense in a crisp, methodical fashion that we haven’t seen before, especially considering the absence of the team’s top-2 offensive weapons.
So now the Steelers have completed their mid-season mission by running the table to seven straight wins and an impressive 11-5 record. But even more impressive is that they’ve accomplished this feat via astute drafting and sound coaching which clearly has revived the venerable credo of Steelers Football that many believed had disappeared. Even while we realize that, in playoff football, the tables can turn in a heartbeat, there’s little doubt that the 2016 season will be viewed as a success for Mike Tomlin and his team regardless of its ultimate outcome. The win over Cleveland serves as a welcome reminder that Steelers Football is more than simply a figment of the imagination. In fact, it’s alive and well today in the Steel City.