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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Knocking On Seven's Door With Our Backs Against the Wall

What's Past Is Prologue

You’ve heard the story before.

“This team doesn’t have what it takes to get to the big game. “
“There’s no way they can win it all.”

Well, that’s just how they like it.
Think about it. The overall predictions at the beginning of the season were that Pittsburgh would be third in the division. Some had them closing out the season at 10-6. No one had them going to Super Bowl. Even Pittsburghers may have had some doubt about their team. After all, we had a disastrous 9-7 season in 2009, didn’t even make the playoffs due to being mathematically eliminated, we just traded our Super Bowl XLIII MVP to the New York Jets, lost DeShea Townsend to the Colts, and Willie Parker to the Redskins. We had already lost Bryant McFadden to the Cardinals and Larry Foote to the Lions, the year before, so the odds of us doing anything great were not good. (They had since come back in 2010) On top of all of that, our quarterback was suspended for the first six games due to off the field conduct policy violations. It was then reduced to four games but that gave us the potential of starting out the season 0-4, including a division loss to Baltimore.

Starting out the regular season we all felt like the world was against us. In the preseason, our interim starting QB, Byron Leftwich was injured. During week two of the regular season, midway through Roethlisberger’s suspension, backup QB, Dennis Dixon went down with an injury resulting in Charlie Batch being put back at the top of the depth chart.

In our first four games, the defense stepped up their efforts and the Steelers managed to go 3-1 with a division loss to Baltimore, after failing to convert a third down to run out the clock. Things were looking a little more up for the return of a quarterback that perhaps the fan didn’t want but thought they needed.

However, the biggest story of the season wasn’t the return and redemption of Big Ben, it was the witch hunt led by Roger Goodell against players who committed controversial hits. Undoubtedly, the first concern in the NFL is player safety, however when you plan to expand the regular season to 18 games and sell photos of these so-called “controversial hits” one may think that the first concern of the NFL is to make money. In fact, the NFL made over $100,000 just off of these fines and the biggest offender was considered James Harrison. Harrison was fined more than any other player, including more expensive fines for what he was considered as a repeat offender in certain cases. Granted, they have since been reduced but it really looked like Goodell has had it out for the Steelers.

And sometimes, that is what it takes. Sometimes, when the world wants to see you down, that’s when you shine the most. Ben played, as if he was trying to redeem himself by fire, working harder on the field than it appeared off the field to win back the fans’ trust. He sustained a broken foot, a broken nose, and several injuries in his quest for redemption. In a league where a player was fined for a tap to Peyton Manning’s head, Ben found himself having to shrug off the notion that he would draw any sympathy from the officials calling the games. Then again, this is also a league where very few quarterbacks put their own bodies on the line to get a first down, let alone a touchdown. Something Ben has done on occasion.

It might have been a foregone conclusion that Baltimore was going to win the division. That they would either win out or beat the Steelers for the chance at another AFC title was considered to be canon. If not, certainly the Colts, Jets, and favored Patriots would be there to stop them. It always seemed that the road to the Super Bowl went through Pittsburgh. That wasn’t the case in 2006 when Pittsburgh went in as a sixth seed and played four road games to go to Super Bowl XL. This year, it definitely wouldn’t be the case with New England looming on the horizon.

Now, a truly storybook ending for the Steelers would have been beating Baltimore for the Divisional Playoff and then facing down New England for all the AFC marbles. After all, except for a great shellacking on Halloween in 2004, Tom Brady and the Patriots have always had the Steelers number. In fact, in both of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowls with Ben at the helm, New England was already knocked out before Pittsburgh could play them. So, if you wanted to really romanticize this season, you would have had Pittsburgh coming back, despite all odds to win against New England this past Sunday. Enter Rex Ryan to foil romance.

A Tale of Two Cities: Destiny, Fate, or Coincidence

From day one, Rex Ryan set out to break convention. He’s loud. He’s brash. He spouts obscenity laden locker room speeches on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Ryan had led the Jets to the AFC championship last year, only to be defeated by the Colts. This year, Ryan had his own destiny on hand and beat the Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Then, tempting the football Gods even more, he had the audacity to march into Foxborough and try and upset Tom Brady’s attempt at a fourth Super Bowl. The Jets dismantled the Patriots and proved that maybe they are the road team that would repeat Pittsburgh’s goal of going on the road as a sixth seed and winning it all. To do that, he would have to go through Pittsburgh.

It shouldn’t have been hard. He had Pittsburgh’s number in week 15. His team forced a safety and managed to beat Pittsburgh in the regular season on the road. But it’s always harder to beat a team twice. In fact, some have called their first meeting as New York beating a vanilla Pittsburgh. Conspiracy theorists will claim that Dick LeBeau held back on showing all the cards because he knew that they would meet Rex Ryan and his Jets in the playoffs. And notice how in both of these comparisons I’ve called the Steelers by the team name or by some individual players while Rex Ryan is the predominant name assigned to all of the Jets fanfare. I’ll speak to that in a moment. That’s because Rex Ryan is the face of the Jets. A scary thought indeed. He manufactures his own hype and leaving the game to be won off the arm of Mark Sanchez, a quarterback who almost lost his job this season would be even scarier. The superstitious will throw out such theories that there was no way Pittsburgh could lose.

The Rule of Sevens: It would be the 7th win for Pittsburgh. Ben is number 7. It’s his 7th year. If you add Polamalu’s jersey numbers together you get 7. And on and on.

The Curse of Cope: Jets’ fans disrespected the Terrible Towel by stomping on it. Other teams have disrespected the unofficial flag of The Pittsburgh Steelers, only to suffer a similar fate. Not to mention, Sunday would have been Myron Cope’s 82nd birthday.

“Destiny is a fickle bitch.” Benjamin Linus said those words on LOST, another tale of redemption, scripted as destiny. Never were words truer than in the case of Rex Ryan. The Jets marched into Pittsburgh, confident of a win. Maybe overconfident. Santonio Holmes, feeling like he had something to prove, came back with a chip on his shoulder. Some analysts looked at the move to trade Holmes as a mistake, one the Steelers never backfilled. Holmes off the field actions cemented the decision. The once Super Bowl MVP was now considered a dangerous entity to the locker room. My thoughts are that if they would have kept Holmes, would we be where we are now? Would Holmes? I don’t mean planning his vacation after Conference loss. I mean would he have allowed the talents of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to grow or would his status be a hindrance. I feel that trading Santonio was best for both teams. It allowed us to move forward, developing three great wide receivers and it may have given him the spark he needed to get his life on track and do what he needed to do to become the player he was this year. So, in essence, he should thank Pittsburgh and we should thank him. The parting was beneficial for both parties.

Even further, was Ben’s incident in Milledgeville, GA, the wakeup call he needed? You can analyze his apologies and his off the field actions this year all you want. Just remember that he was given an opportunity as a rookie. It may have been a responsibility he was ready to handle as a player but not as an individual. The persona of Ben Roethlisberger may have been too big for him to carry as a 20 something. When kids go off to college, even the straight arrows, they tend to throw caution to the wind. They experiment, they shed their conventions and convictions, and they give into the environment they are thrust into at the time. They measure of their character is not whether they make the mistakes but if they learn from them and become a more rounded person. Has Ben learned something about the way a superstar needs to behave or is he merely experiencing the sensation of being pulled over for speeding? He’ll drive safely for awhile, obeying all the rules of the road. Then, after awhile the foot will fall more heavily on the pedal, and the thrill of going fast will suck him into his old ways, once more. I hope that he can see that he has a great opportunity and will take this as a second chance he may have not deserved.

Then again, would we be where we are had this not happened? Would Ben go out and play well and further alienate his fans and his team if he was not held to the standards he should be held to? Was the punishment befitting the crime because its severity scared him straight? If you look at what happened with Brett Favre you say, “He was a scapegoat for Goodell.” “Favre can do no wrong but Ben will always be the Black Sheep of the NFL.” After all, no charges were filed against Ben yet he was subject to nearly the fullest extent of the NFL’s rules. Perhaps Goodell will come out after the end of the season and say, “I did what I did in your best interests as a young man needing some tough love.” Cruel to be kind? Don’t believe it for a second.

That’s for the talk shows to further analyze and frankly, I’m done with the hating on Goodell. If anything, the Steelers have proven that, regardless what you can throw at them, Pittsburgh is a town that loves its team and the team loves a challenge. We love being the underdog. We are John Locke, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” We know we are good enough and we’ve proven it. The best thing we can do is always play with our backs to the wall. The 70s showed a team that could win back to back Super Bowls twice. The 80s showed a team that had to answer for its dynasty by being cast as bums. The 90s saw a return to greatness and yet still having to deal with the past, losing to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX. The new millennium saw the inner workings of a sleeping giant ready to wake up and destroy all in its path. But with each win of a title, we followed it up with a down year. Ego and greatness are a juggling act and sometimes you cannot prove you are the best until you lose that title.

Consider this. Only two quarterbacks have won Super Bowls in Pittsburgh. Three Coaches have. That spans almost 40 years of history. The Steelers are tied with the Dallas Cowboys for appearances in the Super Bowl, eight apiece. The Steelers only serve to break their own record of winning Super Bowls. In fact, if they lose, they still hold the record for wins. San Francisco and Dallas are the other two teams tied with five Lombardi Trophies. In order, San Francisco is the only team to win every Super Bowl in which they have appeared, followed by Baltimore and the New York Jets who have one apiece.

60 Minutes To History

The storybook ending for this team has to contend with one more opponent and one more game. Super Bowl XLV will be played against the Green Bay Packers. They are a storied franchise with history on their side. After all, the prize for the winner is named for a former coach. And who doesn’t feel a little chill when you watch the old NFL films with the gladiator style of music and the narration, “They had to walk onto the frozen tundra at Lambeau field.” John Facenda is a missed presence, for sure. Just thinking about the Green Bay Packers speaks volumes of nostalgia and tradition and everything that is Super Bowl Sunday and football in February. It’s hard to believe they’ve only won three Super Bowl titles, the first two more than 40 years ago.

Fate or Destiny may be on their side more than Pittsburgh’s. The Packers were this year’s sixth seed team, knocking off seeds one, two, and three on their way to Dallas. You can’t look at them and say, “It can’t be done. No sixth seed has gone on the road to end up at the Super Bowl.” We’ve done it and won. As it stands, today, Green Bay is favored. But that just plays into the favor of Pittsburgh’s scheme. “Go in with our backs against the wall.”

If Green Bay wins, it will be their fourth Super Bowl title in four decades. They also have a slew of NFL Championships prior to the introduction of The Super Bowl in 1967 and Green Bay won that first one.  There’s nothing storybook about that ending. Not if you want to romanticize it, like I do.  And look at the other stories this team has told throughout the season.  You have the rookie center, Maurkice Pouncey.  In his first year he earned the starting position and has made the role his own.  He has shown poise and confidence and has even earned a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.  Although he sustained an injury in the AFC Championship game, expect him to finish out the season playing in Dallas.  There's Aaron Smith, the Defensive End who has spent a majority of the season with a tricep injury.  He is a presence on that field and the possibility of him dressing on any given Sunday has fans waiting with bated breath.  There's the other veterans like Hines Ward who has mentored the new crop of Wide Receivers into playing pivotal roles in pass protection.  Troy Polamalu's return from last year's injury to create explosive plays at the line of scrimmage, leaping over the line with precision timing to tackle the quarterback.  Then there is the story of the forgotten quarterback, Charlie Batch.  He has been dropped further down the depth chart and was thought to be on his way out when the interim starting quarterbacks both went down with injuries forcing the Steelers to rely on Batch to take the team to a 3-1 start in Roethlisberger's absence.  Truly, this year has been nothing if not dramatic and well scripted.

The Final Note: Coach of the Year

The final note is something I touched on earlier. When I spoke of the Steelers I spoke of the players. When I spoke of The Jets, I spent more energy spouting Rex Ryan’s name. That’s because as head coach, Mike Tomlin does more but not saying as much. He doesn’t go out of his way to create media moments… though the press conference following the win over the Ravens left an impression as he put Bob Holtzman in his place for publishing an insider tip about the Steelers game plan for playing Baltimore.

He uses colorful analogies to describe things.

"The standard is the standard"
“War of attrition”
“Water scarcity”
“Great players defy scheme”
“By no means is he a lawn deer”

All of these are perfect examples of Tomlinisms. But in comparison to Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin is the quiet killer. He says more with his eyes and doesn’t give you much more than the barest of details. He keeps it simple. He may be part Vulcan. Don’t quote me on that. He definitely has his emotions in check. After a year like 2010, it would be hard for most to do. Yet, I tagged this section as “Coach of the Year” for a reason. Belichick had a better record, but Tomlin is in the Super Bowl. Ryan had a better sound bite, but Tomlin is in the Super Bowl. Truth is, on paper Mike Tomlin’s team is very good and doesn’t come off as anything spectacular given their schedule. But take a step back and look at what Mike Tomlin has had to accomplish this year, in spite of everything, and if you ask me who I would want to have as a coach if the fate of the world rested on whether or not my team would win, I would pick Mike Tomlin 10 times out of 10.

Tomlin had to contend with losing his starting quarterback for, at most, six games. He lost two more quarterbacks before Ben came back. He had to deal with the league punishing hits with fines and penalties, Harrison’s threat to retire, a rookie center, a gap in wide receiver left by the Holmes trade, losing Aaron Smith in week seven, Max Starks in week nine, and Dan Sepulveda in week thirteen due to injury, replacing his kicker with one who has been cut by a heck of a lot of teams, and he never showed an ounce of sweat on his brow. To do all that and make the Super Bowl says something about a coach. When you look around the locker room and you take in all that has happened to this team in the course of a year and see Mike Tomlin show confidence and poise, you become confident. Mike Tomlin has shown he has the pulse and respect of this team and he deserves coach of the year. But, of course, he is probably not the odds on favorite. He is the underdog or maybe not even a consideration in most people’s minds and if he actually thought about the honor, that’s probably the way he would like it.

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