As this writing begins, Mike Tomlin, his remaining coaching staff, and an impressive total of nine imminently deserving Pittsburgh Steelers players are themselves getting to work with Pro Bowl preparations in Orlando, Florida. Depending on their individual levels of competitive and team spirit, self-belief, and self-respect, this year-end award might not constitute for them the worry-free holiday, getting paid one last time to play a kid’s game, that it likely will for the majority of their peers. Nor should it. The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers had big dreams and lofty goals, the sort for which only one final destination, or result while there engaged, will suffice. Falling short yet again with this level of overall talent and seeming resolve should provide a personal reckoning to every person in the organization, and, for all I know, has. Still, barely a week removed, that team’s best, brightest, and braintrust is engaged in light practice for the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s ultimate consolation prize. I can’t blame them. Lord knows I don’t want to think about how we got here either, or how we move forward. Though sixty minutes of divisional playoff game time against a highly motivated and athletic Jacksonville Jaguar team messily unraveled sixteen games’ worth of supreme effort – minus an anomaly or two – the fabric holding this team together had begun to fray far earlier, on an early December Monday night in Cincinnati where the overachieving defense lost its heart, and, two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon at home, where a dread and ancient foe crushed what remained at the very last second.
The playoff loss to Jacksonville is the sort of seismic occurrence that, had it happened to a more reactionary or easily chastened franchise, would likely send heads a-rolling in a procession down South Water Street. Steeler fans are a particularly entitled and vociferous lot, and tend to render dire pronouncements and drastic prescriptions in the event that any end result is not to their liking. It’s not that I’m more evolved, though I occasionally fool myself. I do try to always see the big picture. I came of age as a fan during the tail end of Chuck Noll’s head coaching tenure and the transition to the Bill Cowher regime, so all the Steelers’ historic success – which happened when I was a toddler and before most of my fellow die hard friends were even born – already seemed an obscure and far-off thing. My most enduring memory of Terry Bradshaw was watching him struggle and, if I recall correctly, even get benched in what turned out to be one of the final games of his brilliant if mercurial career. I rode instead with the likes of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, Kent Graham and (gulp) Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart. I hoped against hope for good things to happen, but knew intrinsically that they either almost certainly wouldn’t, or, magically, would, but only up to a point. In short, I learned to be a fan the way you’re supposed to. It wasn’t the miserable existence that select modern fans of, say, the Cleveland Browns somehow seem to explicitly blame us for, but it wasn’t fun either. I grew up in the south, away from fellow fans, and the Steelers were never on national television enough to make a lasting impression.
When I finally moved north at the turn of the millennium, this time as the Cowher regime/Chin Dynasty wound down, the Steelers really seemed no closer to any sort of breakthrough. The arrival and ascendancy of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback would change all that, thankfully and irrevocably, securing for a fanbase longing to reboot its glory days two Super Bowl championships in three attempts (so far), plus a slew of divisional titles and playoff runs of varying duration but invariable intensity. Sometimes, I wonder if fans so preconditioned and overstimulated will ever be content to admit to a legitimate doldrum period again. On the one hand, the current Steelers regime’s (Owner Art Rooney, head coach Mike Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert) commitment to year in-year out competitiveness is laudable; on the other, it has spoiled us as fans and, on some level, made our already emphatic opinions not just of dubious worth but dubious origin. When we call for metaphorical blood to answer a heartrending loss, do we know just what we’re asking, or are these knee jerk overreactions, as natural to a football fan as breathing? When, in the wake of the Jacksonville debacle, fan cries for the ouster of ever-polarizing Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley seemed to come to almost immediate fruition, it was enough to make one wonder momentarily whether the proud and patient franchise had self-diagnosed the problem, whether it had finally heard reason from the masses and succumbed, or both.
Armchair general managers across the fanbase should temper their enthusiasm for a job well done with satisfaction that it was done at all. Barring the actual Super Bowl run so many of us had pinned a full year’s worth of hopes on coming to fruition, Haley’s time in Pittsburgh was always likely up just as soon as making the move was seemly. For all his offensive accomplishments, not least of which was tangibly extending the career of his Hall of Fame quarterback by endeavoring to keep him regularly upright, Haley was a lame duck with an expiring contract and a history of both unconstructive testiness off the field and, on it, head-splitting situational playcalling. The Steelers were dumped into an early hole in the Jacksonville game, and, in their fever to escape it, subjectively pulled dirt into the grave on top of them instead. Tomlin’s decision to try an onside kick in the waning moments of what had become a perilously close contest rather than trusting his defense to force a quick three and out can’t help but resonate, since it ended up sealing our doom (the resulting Jaguar field goal provided their slim margin of victory), but Haley’s tone-deaf decisions on two early yet utterly crucial fourth and inches plays linger even longer. No matter how porous the defense was in response to Jacksonville’s clever, well-executed, ground and dink and pound and dunk strategy, if any one of those three plays results in a net positive (an onside recovery, a first down, a second first down, or even the originally bypassed field goal), the besieged Steelers quite possibly tie or even win that game.
The Steelers last recovered an onside kick in 2007, providing a window into Tomlin’s level of trust in his defense just that moment, but those two fourth downs – perhaps DON’T try an inexplicable long pass or deep RB pitch on fourth and inches?! – were both imminently makeable. Talk about the theoretical element of surprise all you want, but then be sure to ask yourself how surprised the Jaguars appeared to be. No, their failure is directly on Haley, and for the many fans whose collective head he’d so often made itch before, his immediate removal wasn’t so much a fervent wish as a biological imperative. Now, the deposed OC is the Browns’ freshly minted problem, or, more likely, because he is talented, their temporary reprieve. The guy burns bright, but with a short fuse, and he’s nothing whatsoever without talent. (I put the over-under of his first incident of friction with Cleveland coach Hue Jackson at day two of voluntary mini-camp.) Nor were the disgruntled among us necessarily satisfied with that sacrifice. No, they wanted Tomlin’s head too; they wanted defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s head; they wanted linebacker coach Joey Porter’s head; some seemed to want departed agitator, all-time sack leader, and turncoat Patriot James Harrison rehired as a player-coordinator…that or buried under the jail. Leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that a 13-4 team summarily firing its entire high level coaching staff after suffering a 3-point loss in the divisional playoffs looks much less like a tough but necessary managerial response than a childish tantrum turned palace coup, I’ll address the above-crosshaired each in his turn:
- Mike Tomlin – Even if you don’t see the Rooneys through the halo filter, that – as relatable, multi-generational family ownership in a sea of corporate sharks, creators of the “Rooney Rule”, etc. – league and local writers often ascribe them, don’t think for a second they don’t secretly enjoy hearing the trivia talking point about the Steelers having had only three coaches in four+ (now fast approaching five) decades repeated endlessly. That faint cynicism aside, there was never a chance Tomlin would be leaving this year, though he does enter the 2018 offseason sporting by far the least shine of his time in Pittsburgh so far. From the early uncertainty surrounding Le’Veon Bell to Martavis Bryant’s mid-season (attempted) one-man mutiny, from losing Marcus Gilbert to PEDs, Antonio Brown to a calf injury, James Harrison to the Patriots, and Ryan Shazier period, from the National Anthem controversy to his own comments regarding anticipated showdown games, Tomlin steered the Black and Gold through a level of sustained tumult almost unprecedented for one of the NFL’s most historically tight-lipped and level-headed franchises. Some are sick of his cascading aphorisms; some can’t stand his reliably unflappable demeanor in the face of (another) heartbreak. I’d like to know who else we could hire in his place who would possibly not only meet this franchise’s rabid expectations in a head coach, but want to. The knives will always be out for Tomlin from a certain, unsatisfiable segment of our fanbase, and I’m not saying his decisions don’t deserve due scrutiny and more, particularly as we all continue to negotiate this thumping playoff hangover. Still, given a less ignominious end, I could easily argue “Ice-T”, as I continue to call him to general bemusement, as a dark horse candidate for coach of the year. Chew on that, and don’t live in your fears.
- Keith Butler – Simply put, firing both coordinators is a classic (and alarming) sign of desperation. The Steelers may have had reason to feel that level of anxiety, even after a 13-4 season, but I understand completely why they were loath to show it. I applauded the hire of Todd Haley amidst a web of criticism at the time, and, six years later, with multiple top-5 total offenses to show for it, plus a quarterback not only ambulatory but motivated, feel mostly vindicated in my support. Still, Haley was a bristly outsider with head coaching experience, and that made him an attractive successor to Bruce Arians, who, according to some, had become too close with Roethlisberger to be able to challenge or criticize him. (Haley yields the floor now to Ben’s QB coach and longtime confidant Randy Fichtner, an example of the pendulum swinging hard the other way in search of balance.) Defensive coordinator Keith Butler, by comparison, is a known, and homegrown, commodity, having apprenticed under Dick LeBeau for years before finally being handed the keys. Butler’s ascension after an extended period as understudy was one the main factors that pushed the venerable and beloved LeBeau out, and his defenses have mostly overachieved since then, despite showing an unfortunate tendency to come up lame in the bigger games. I have more questions about the viability of Butler’s predominant scheme (LeBeau’s vaunted Zone Blitz) going forward than I do about his basic competency. He seems to know and relate well to the players, and they, in turn, play hard for him. Still, Jacksonville’s unheralded offense carved us up like a holiday goose in the playoffs, and the necessary adjustments never came. I didn’t figure Butler was going anywhere, though sometimes I look at his efficient but less-than-consistently dominant defense, whose “bend but don’t break (until you unfortunately finally do in the playoffs)” mindset keeps us all on the edge of our sofas, and have to wonder if we are, either. The Steelers have been notoriously reticent to fire one of their own, even with “cause”, and subsequent reporting by the Post-Gazette on the degree to which Tomlin’s fingerprints were on the defense make the lack of knee-jerk reaction even easier to understand. This situation bears watching going forward for sure.
- Joey Porter – It’s fair to ask, after a career as a beloved Steelers sack artist, if young Coach Peezy is getting the maximum out of his outside linebacker charges, though you still have to have the tools. Rookie T.J. Watt flashed a lot of game-affecting talent, and proved both quick study and steady hand enough to somehow almost immediately make all-time team sack leader Harrison expendable. Anthony Chickillo has also had his moments in relief. When some pundits question whether the Steelers defense is the proverbial “one player away” from greatness, I have to demur, and instead concede that, while possibly even larger, that number is at least two. Nobody knows what the future holds for Ryan Shazier, now engaged in rehabbing his way back from a terrifying spinal injury to a productive life, and, only then maybe, the football field, but you don’t just replace the heart of your unit like the batteries in your remote. Safety Mike Mitchell, reliable producer of unnecessarily reckless hits and unnecessarily dismissive bulletin board material, seems to be the consensus choice when discussing potential weak links, but I have to wonder whether outside backer Bud Dupree is right behind him. Despite his obvious physical gifts, Dupree, currently waiting for the Steelers to pick up his fifth year option, too often doesn’t seem like any sort of factor in games where another reliable playmaker would surely swing the balance. He’s a good kid with a clean nose and the right attitude, but my gut feeling is that he keeps on waiting, ala Jarvis Jones. How he performs in 2018 will go a long way in determining not only his future in Pittsburgh, but also Porter’s.
- James Harrison – This one still hurts, of course, with no clean end in sight. When Tomlin cleared the air late in the year and talked, in the wake of James Harrison’s surprising, apparently permanent, benching, about how the outside linebacker position had evolved in the years since he and Lamar Woodley had terrorized Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII, he may have been saying more than even he meant to. Sure, coverage is, in many ways, just as important a skill set in the modern OLB as getting to the quarterback,* but what most people inferred from the monologue – which did contain, in its thesis, a salient, if discounted, point – was, “you’re too old”. Hopes that Harrison might prove to be the good company man and suffer through his obvious frustrations evaporated for me midseason, when he used a locker room press huddle to vent. At the time, Harrison only threatened to go somewhere else next year, but it was still shockingly blunt talk. The late season announcement that Harrison had been released so that the returning Marcus Gilbert could squeeze back onto the roster without costing a spot for a potential Sunday contributor felt like a slap in the face disguised as cold pragmatism. In truth, it was both, even if only the latter was intentional. The fact of how quickly this moved from farce to tragedy, with Harrison bolting for the despised, open-armed Patriots the second he cleared waivers, is arguably, for me, the best and only legitimate argument for Tomlin’s removal. He got played, though I admit I was caught equally flat-footed at the time. So now the author of the greatest play in Super Bowl history stands on the precipice of LeGarrette Blount-ing his way to a third ring, with nary a glance backward to the fanbase still choking on the fumes of his departure. You can’t really blame him, and yet part of me does, vehemently. I knew as a Facebook follower how diligently Harrison pimped his “Deebo” brand products to appreciative Steelers fans with nary a cross word, whether or not he was playing; I heard all the stories after the fact about his being a surly, substandard, disinterested teammate, and they didn’t sit well, though so much of what I’m feeling surely has to do with my overwhelming hatred of the New England Patriots, who have, for myself and many fans, become the Moby Dick to our Captain Ahab. He could have gone anywhere else outside the North and I’d have swallowed it, not liking things one bit but not also consigning (re: flinging in disgust) my black #92 jersey to the back of a closet that might as well be situated six feet under an atomic landfill for its likelihood of ever seeing daylight again. But he didn’t. He made the right choice for his ample pride and, I suppose, his family. He did once before, the romantics among us might remember, only that time he spurned Pittsburgh as a free agent and fled to hated Cincinnati in search of more money. James Harrison is a flesh and blood mercenary and, much as I loved his on-field play, in the end I root for laundry.
- Thank you, sincerely, for the memories, Deebo. I loved you like few others (Lambert and Lloyd, Heath and Hines, Dermontii, Bettis, and Carnell). I sure do hope you lose next Sunday, then retire, and very much enjoy staying that way. Vaya con dios.
*Given what Tomlin said about the position, and that he’s right, do you implicitly trust Joey Porter to teach Bud Dupree how to play smart, effective coverage, knowing what you know about his prevailing (however awesome) skill set?
All of which leads us back to the practice field in Orlando, where, not without cause, the Steelers contingent is upbeat. Football players (and proverbial elephants) by necessity have far shorter memories than those who cheer them on. The Steelers accomplished a lot this year, after all: top-5 offense, first round bye, franchise sack record. Four All-Pros and nine Pro Bowlers, ten if you count Ryan Shazier, as I and the voters that initially selected him did. Antonio Brown led the NFL in catches despite not playing the season’s last two weeks, inserting himself as a legitimate threat for league MVP despite that honor never before being awarded to Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, or any other receiver. There he is now, in a rare moment not immortalized by selfie, standing across from Jaguar cornerback and all around swell guy Jalen Ramsey and just smiling, like he always does. Following a 2017 offseason steeped in legitimate uncertainty, Ben Roethlisberger wasted no time declaring that he would return for another shot at glory. Problem child Martavis Bryant showed signs of increased maturity and reliability as the year progressed, and, in a mild but welcome surprise, asserted that he wants to come back as well, despite having discounted the notion openly during his midseason tantrum. In-demand offensive line coach Mike Munchak even withdrew his name from consideration for the Arizona head coach position to return. Reports from the field suggest that Le’Veon Bell is extremely optimistic that he and the Steelers will reach a long-term deal, thus bypassing the indignity of suffering another $15 million stop-gap agreement that might well render him a 27-year-old retiree in protest. I hope it gets done. Ryan Shazier has regained the feeling in his legs and publicly tweeted that he intends to come all the way back. I pray that gets done.
Tough road for a special group. They told us they felt special together so much that we began to believe it. In turn, that made it so. Yes, we looked past Jacksonville, and paid dearly for it. Anybody out there wondering how such a lapse is possible has never been a true fan of this franchise for a minute, nor, I would imagine, of any other team. In the end, we still almost pulled out the victory, and Jacksonville, for all its exquisite game-planning, superior effort, and innate chestiness, became just the latest team that couldn’t get it done against New England on the big stage. We’ll both be back. I just hope mightily that Philly doesn’t join the party next Sunday.
Meanwhile, back in Orlando…
- Ben Roethlisberger – Playing the best ball of his storied career.
- Antonio Brown (All-Pro) – Most. Valuable. Player. Period.
- Cameron Heyward (All-Pro) – Defensive captain, sack artist. No better D-Line anchor.
- Le’Veon Bell (All-Pro) – Worth the occasional headache. Love his game so much.
- Maurkice Pouncey – Best center in the league.
- David DeCastro (All-Pro) – Best guard in the league.
- Alejandro Villaneuva – One of the best stories in the league, and people.
- Chris Boswell – Pay this man immediately, for his name is “Money”.
- Roosevelt Nix – Should’ve been in there blocking on fourth and inches.
- Ryan Shazier – Always with us in spirit, whatever his condition to ride.
Have fun in the Florida sun, guys. Can’t wait to see you flying your true colors again soon.