Steelers Thoughts #18 (8/6/2019): The Abyss Stares Back

All eyes across the National Football League and associated media are fixated on the Cleveland Browns as training camp 2019 kicks off, and it’s not difficult to deduce that a good number of players for and supporters of their ancient blood rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, greatly prefer it that way. These last two seasons in Pittsburgh have been erratic to the point of bloodletting, hair-ripping frustration, and not because Steelers fans have become overly conditioned to success and, as a consequence, deficient in perspective and possessed of unrealistic expectations. Well, not just because of that. The 2019 Steelers are yesterday’s news, goes today’s conventional wisdom. They had their chances, and recently, and blew them all. They had mind-blowing potential and squandered it. They were too loyal to some players and not loyal enough to others, and that, plus specific poor decision-making and exacerbating onfield execution, cost them in the long run of a season in which they never, ever, seemed quite able to close the deal, missing the playoffs as a result. It’s difficult for a sober Steelers fan to argue such assertions, and with the calendar now crossing into the dog days of summer, sober Steelers fans are still in limited supply to ask. The new hotness, as you’ve doubtless heard by now, resides in Cleveland, Ohio*, no longer any sort of “mistake by the lake” but a hungry, newly focused organization unafraid of making possibly risky but undeniably flashy money moves as it attempts to forge approximately 812 first round draft picks made over the last half decade into a cohesive, world-beating unit. 

*Every fanbase is chesty and belligerent in a generalized way. That comes with being a fan. Every fanbase also tends to think of itself in rarified terms – I know “Steelers Nation” certainly does – though, from what I can tell, only Cleveland’s has received something approaching official acclimation to that effect. “Best fans in football!” shout the pundits with annoying regularity, presumably because of the Dog Pound’s (I’m not sassy enough to spell it correctly) years of significant if not exactly unprecedented suffering. I’ve lived in Central Ohio for twenty years. I know and like lots of Browns fans, though, admittedly, the second part of that statement isn’t always a given. Their old guard is going to quickly begin resenting all the new bandwagoneers if they haven’t already, and rightly so. Those fans have, indeed, suffered over the years, sometimes from franchise ineptitude, sometimes through cruel fate, and often at the hands of Pittsburgh. We don’t take it back. (They wouldn’t either, in our shoes.) The Browns probably do deserve to win, and I’m sure they will, whether it’s this year or some other, modestly or impressively, or whether the Baker Mayfield Dynasty is already blessedly upon us, the Lombardi Trophy arrives at the Super Bowl pre-engraved for the first time in NFL history, and the Browns become such an organic cultural phenomenon nationally that each newborn from 2020 onward is issued a fetching, nonrefundable orange “WWBD” plastic bracelet at birth. Until then, league, media, fans, Romans, countrymen, consider treating the upcoming season with the same respect you’d like to see afforded the 2020 presidential campaign (but won’t), and muzzle the most ridiculous rhetoric at least until the games actually have meaning.  

So, yeah, it’s probably preferable that somebody else gets the press for the time being. 

Now that we’re clear on who you should be paying attention to, let us address why you’re apparently not taking that advice. Training camp, which recently broke for the Steelers at beautiful Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and continues until mid-August, is the sweatier football equivalent of the Rites of Spring, in which mandatory personnel reshuffling and the resulting fleeting feeling of renewal foreshadows potentially game-changing improvement for the franchise, or so one fervently hopes, and in which, with meaningful games still a full month away, such hopes have the elbow room with which to spring eternal. A new year brings with it new faces, new addresses, new options, and new opportunities, fantasy leagues (I’m in two, already psyched to lose) and video games**, onfield reports, lukewarm takes, and bold, baseless predictions by the millions. Amidst this morass of information, anyone who purports to know what the 2019 Steelers are going to be is straight up lying, whether they’re prophesying doom, eating pie in the sky, or staking out some other degree on the spectrum. The same goes for training camp, famous hatcher of dreams and premature ender of careers, though mostly it’s just a slog. For a change, the closest thing to contract unrest has been rising slot corner Mike Hilton’s reticence to sign his tender offer, though it didn’t ever threaten to keep him off the field. Good guy. Projecting the Steelers’ opening day roster after “Friday Night Lights” is already a fool’s errand, though one thing is for sure. There are thirty-one fanbases who received the same unofficial email blast regarding Cleveland from various league-adjacent amateur tastemakers, didn’t read it, and, in fact, couldn’t trash it fast enough. Try telling them what or in whom to believe. 

**It was all but fated that the moment EA Sports ran out of theoretically photogenic, overly ringladen New England Patriots to serve as “Madden NFL” coverboys, in would waltz Antonio Brown to reconfigure the famed “Madden Curse” in a new and novel way that could simultaneously rain sweet destruction down upon his franchise whilst leaving him more or less unscathed. I’ve not personally played “Madden ‘19”, though a friend in my PS4 contacts plays it with the lustful dedication of an addict so I’m still uncomfortably well-acquainted with Brown’s aggravating “All-Me” pose on its cover. No truth to the rumor, I suppose, that, in a nod to realism, VG Brown quits on his team halfway through the penultimate game of Franchise Mode, sits out the finale, then demands to be traded in the offseason, or that his “Passive Aggression” rating is 99. Basically, I wish my friend, who is also a Steeler fan, would just quit playing “Madden ‘19” already. As the owner of a beautiful #84 jersey that deserved better and whose ultimate fate is yet to be determined, I am still occasionally seized by the metaphorical urge to purge via fire that thumbnail version from my PS4 player status popup window. Hopefully, if the time comes, Brown will at least have had the good sense to remove it first.  

Though not the case in any kind of sexy way that drives web traffic, the as yet unsettled Steeler depth chart is home to massive intrigue on both sides of the ball and all three phases of the game, with the added twist that its proverbial “elephants in the room” linger in the imagination, despite no longer residing in said room. As camp begins, the famed, occasionally feared “Killer Bs” of offensive yore have, through attrition, ineffectiveness, and outright rejection, been whittled down to what I’ll call the “B All, End All”, namely one Benjamin Roethlisberger, whose upcoming fifteenth NFL campaign officially makes him the longest tenured Steeler in franchise history, and whose recent two-year contract extension ensures his vicelike control of the Steelers’ short term fate. Roethlisberger, paradoxically, comes off a 2018 campaign in which he led the League with over 5,000 passing yards yet saw his leadership questioned, coming and going, by a Greek Twitter chorus of legitimately disgruntled or perhaps just bored former and soon-to-be former Steelers, along with the media vultures that reliably swarm to any such roadside carrion to peck it clean. When you’ve been both star and franchise cornerstone for as long as Big Ben has, criticism isn’t just expected but guaranteed, though the dogpile quality of these offseason slings and arrows – led by the departing Antonio Brown, a selfless, team first, practically saint-like attention-phobe whose re-tweeted complaint that Roethlisberger displayed, “an owner’s mentality” preceded his own engineered trade to Oak Vegas and subsequent arrival at Raiders’ camp and, temporarily, the injured list, via hot air balloon – leads one to conclude that, however context-dependent or arguably unfair, they have at least the whiff of truth about them.

Whether or how valid such criticisms might be is immaterial, unless, of course, A) they prove somehow psychologically detrimental, and B) their debilitating power lasts another month or more. Otherwise, a cleansing rain straight out of Taxi Driver has fallen on the Steelers’ offensive huddle, washing away simultaneously its two biggest playmakers and distractions. What that has left us is a smiling Ben Roethlisberger, already in mid-season, cliche-spouting form, alongside an updated supporting cast that is, indeed, markedly different, though not quite as gutted and alien as outside reports might have indicated. Mercurial tailback Le’Veon Bell beat Brown to the punch by not only quitting on his team weeks prior but actually making his desertion official. Which is to say he stabbed the Steelers in the front, for purely selfish if technically understandable reasons, then ended up overplaying his hand and signed with the rebuilding Jets for a bit less than the surely insulting Steelers offer he refused before sitting out 2018. While stories out of Pittsburgh so far have mostly been about renewed purpose and team unity***, Jets fans have had to read rumors of how their new coach really didn’t want his new Bell-cow in the first place and thought the franchise overpaid for him, while Bell, whose timing remains impeccable, finally made a public apology to all the dumbstruck fantasy owners who wasted a first round pick on him last year. As someone who used his own last fantasy pick on Bell’s replacement, James Conner, only to see the humble Pitt standout and workhorse cancer survivor ride his opportunity all the way to the Pro Bowl, I certainly acknowledge their pain. 

***You’ve possibly heard that offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva and defensive captain Cam Heyward got into a prolonged scuffle of the sort that tends to break out during training camp, though rarely between two so highly respected veterans. Reports at the time were quick to highlight the encounter’s intensity and apparent animosity, but provided light context otherwise. Rumors began seeping out soon after that the row stemmed from a disagreement over “Game of Thrones”. Get your shit together, Instagram generation. Your arguments don’t have to be lame offline, too. 

This is not to say that Bell’s production wasn’t missed – the writer of speculative fiction who rents out space in my head was plenty aggrieved and conspiratorial during the many games we lost close as the season dragged mercilessly on – but to suggest his departure is a permanent hurdle the Steelers somehow can’t overcome betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of facts on the ground. Bell, who will, as mentioned, not be playing for Pittsburgh this year, already didn’t play anywhere last year, including Pittsburgh. Instead, his somewhat unheralded, wholly unproven replacement stepped up, cracked helmets, turned heads, scored touchdowns, went to the Pro Bowl, then came back to camp even hungrier. “I haven’t earned anything,” says James Conner, despite a 2018 campaign that unequivocally earned him the starting spot on the strength of both his play and attitude. The Steelers, moreover, seem both cognizant of and prepared for the challenges of a Bell-less backfield in a way they simply weren’t last year, throwing youth, youth, and more youth at the problem until an observer would have to squint to make out where the touch-up paint was applied. Combined, with their individual strengths emphasized and deficiencies camouflaged, third year Pro Bowler Conner, second year all-purpose prospect Jaylen Samuels, and rookie banger Benny Snell, Jr., who were all touchdown machines in college for whatever that’s worth, add up in my view to a pretty decent facsimile of Le’Veon Bell. We can only hope their potential translates to production half as well, and that they are tempered by the fires they encounter instead of scarred.

As for Antonio Brown, well, what more can be said about Antonio Brown that he’s not saying himself this very minute, into a mirror, on Facebook Live, on HBO’s Hard Knocks, or from a red carpet somewhere that may or may not exist outside of his mind? I hate that he’s gone, and, also, good riddance. His petulant disappearing act in the final two games of the season, and the notable emotional stability he displayed throughout, may not have technically cost us a playoff berth – the Steelers underachieved too comprehensively for it to be any single person’s fault (or did they?) – but it did serve as the cherry on top of a rancid anchovy sundae, the polish on our participation trophy. Whether the Steelers’ revamped receiving corps are up to the challenge of approximating Brown’s historic production will write the story of our offense in 2019, though journeyman turned prospective second-year Steeler Ryan Switzer, one of several intriguing candidates for both return and slot receiver duties, put it more pragmatically: “We have 170 targets to replace (with Brown gone), and I don’t think we’re going to be throwing the ball any less.” If none of the current suitors inspire much excitement – Switzer, solid but underachieving free agent vet Donte Moncrief, last year’s third round pick James Washington, this year’s third round pick Diontae Johnson, or 26-year-old elder statesman Eli Rogers, who arrived to camp in a semi-truck and wearing a hardhat (because that’s what hard-working truckers do) – think back to how open-minded yet relatively unmoved you were when the Steelers traded for TE Vance McDonald, or drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster a couple years ago, then reflect on how integral they will be to reviving Roethlisberger’s post-’Tonio passing attack now.

Entering his third year, Smith-Schuster is already a bona fide star, second only to Ben on the team and inarguably easier to cheer for no matter your personal investment level. A fun-loving community fixture and social media maven focused on positivity and hard work, JuJu may simply still be too young to recognize that high profile wide receivers with his gifts aren’t supposed to act this way. I’m fine with him never quite internalizing that lesson from Brown, whose early career success his mirrors in striking, potentially portentous ways. With Conner and ascendant outside linebacker T.J. Watt, JuJu comprises the youthful and appealing core of a team that, let’s not kid ourselves too much here, is firmly in transition though not yet rebuilding. When that time comes, likely coinciding with Roethlisberger’s retirement, the trio is something the Steelers can at least build around with excitement and optimism. Coach Mike Tomlin’s own contract was recently extended to match his quarterback’s, so both technically have three seasons remaining to beat a clock that came into existence when the week one referees forgot the rule about illegal touching on a punt, leading to the tie heard ‘round the world, and began ticking in earnest on that shitty December afternoon where we won but needed help and the streaking Browns finally played down to their competition enough to cost us a playoff berth. The result of that Browns loss shouldn’t have been a factor, however, nor that stinking week one tie, since the season was unequivocally squandered during a hideous final stretch in which the Steelers lost four of six games, three by a single field goal. Three times, three points difference each time. Hold that pregnant thought.   

The awful truth, unimaginable just thirteen months ago, is that for all the general dysfunction and shocking desertion, stagnation and clipped momentum, poor decision-making and even poorer execution, undermanned defensive efforts that couldn’t hold leads late and overheated offensive efforts that almost invariably stumbled in their desperation to regain said leads, the quickest route from point A to point F for the 2018 Steelers lies in an audit of its shockingly woeful kicking game. Newly well-paid special teams captain Chris Boswell, a former camp walk-on imminently worthy of both distinctions, apparently fell through a hole in the Earth in 2018, missing five (bloody) extra points and seven of his twenty total attempted field goals, including three in the aforementioned four wafer-thin defeats. Any of those kicks splitting the uprights instead of slicing into the Ohio River or nearby woods had the potential to single-handedly remake Pittsburgh’s fickle playoff destiny, but not a one of them fell true. Boswell has been reportedly all business and then some in camp thus far, missing nary an attempt despite last year’s pile of alligator baggage, the presence of theoretical competition in-house, and a delightful, extended proving process at whose end awaits either his purposely deferred $4 million roster bonus or a figurative guillotine. So no pressure. Boswell deserves attaboys so far for doing everything he can to take the decision out of the hands of his handlers, but the truth is that, so long as he performs, he could be up against early aughts Adam Vinatieri or Gus the Field Goal-Kicking Mule and still have an above average chance of making the 53-man roster. 

For all Tomlin’s talk about the virtues of unsentimental competition, the man is loyal at his core. He has earned the label of “player’s coach”, for better and worse, and several times over. That innate loyalty is why there is no true placekicking competition so long as Boswell tows the line. It also helps without explaining entirely why aforementioned long haul trucker Eli Rogers will make the team despite the presence of multiple, objectively comparable options at his limited position of slot receiver, why star-crossed former first round pick Artie Burns will not only comfortably make the team as a backup cornerback but be given every opportunity to thrive there, why first round bubble-walker Bud Dupree will again start at OLB despite potentially living on borrowed time (don’t sleep on second-year comer Ola Adeniyi), and why Vince Williams will be a starter at ILB despite lacking the measurables of first round pick Devin Bush or free agent acquisition Mark Barron. I’m not even saying I disagree with any of these eventualities (especially Boswell, who’s apparently earned his all-or-nothing shot at redemption, and Williams, who works reliably harder than most everybody on the field most every time he is on the field), just that we should call them what they are. The Steelers spent the offseason after Burns’ vanishing act theoretically solidifying their starting corners by picking up free agent Steven Nelson and turning the center of their defense into a scrum of young, athletic playmakers in the hopes that at least four speedy, ball-hawking starters would emerge ready for war. Everyone is excited to see Bush holding down the middle, but all other positions are yet TBD, which is to say that Tomlin has an incumbent he will grudgingly install unless and until somebody more deserving physically snatches it away. Let’s all hope.

In the early days of DAE, I had every intention of writing dispatches on the Steelers with much more regularity. Life wasn’t as complicated then. Last year’s triumvirate featured what has become the obligatory training camp confidential (thanks for reading, btw!), a mid-season check-in, and a post-season autopsy. That middle entry, filed in the pulsing afterglow of our dramatic comeback victory against the Jaguars, was practically radioactive with celebration of the power and possibilities of NFL fandom, all those coursing, uncontrollable feels that Sunday sportsmen and women live for and that non-fans, sadly, just aren’t privy to. Yeah, poor them. In my reverie, I was convinced the win was a decisive turning point in the fortunes of what had until then been a respectable but still underachieving Steelers club, never fully acknowledging that such events need not be decisive in the least, that the teams they affect (or afflict) need not always turn in a uniform direction, or conclusively stop turning once they start. Immediately after, the 2-4 skid I referenced above commenced, ending our season but good. Then followed the agita of Bell’s unfinished business, Brown’s weirdly personal beef, and the subsequent departure of both. The sudden dissolution of the “Killer Bs” only accelerated our imagined fall, much publicized, much remarked upon, at a moment when Cleveland felt unquestionably ascendant. This has been the Steelers fan’s lingering mindset since last Thanksgiving. We collectively stared into Nietzche’s fabled abyss in despairing contemplation until, finally, we felt it staring back. Now we can blessedly look forward again, look past it, on to a season of, if not renewal, then hard-earned, well-deserved second chances. We’ve done our psychic time, and now we go to camp, like the kids we want to be at heart.

Where the Steelers go from there is anyone’s guess, but it also speaks to a liberating quality inherent in being judged “yesterday’s news”. Any positive is inevitably amplified, while most any negative is to be expected. To pull a quote out of context from The Terminator, another titanic franchise that has been pronounced dead multiple times only rise like a steel leviathan and lay waste whilst making explosive bank, “There is no fate but what we make.” Coincidentally, yet another Terminator movie, Dark Fate, is coming to theaters this November, with Schwarzenegger back in tow somehow, and Linda Fricking Hamilton, and Edward Furlong as grown-up John Connor, and Jim Cameron back exec producing! We’ve got a cybernetic Conner on our team, just sayin’. Those 90+ men currently practicing in Latrobe, Pennsylvania aren’t fighting for respect, or a roster spot, to right a wrong, to cement a legacy or set a new one alight, for their health. Just ask them. Roll with them. Don’t tell them whom or in what to believe, and then pay yourself the same compliment. Give 2019 all you’ve got to give, Steelers Nation, and I fairly promise your team and the people that train and coach them will do the same. What that amounts to, with a Hall-of Fame QB and hungry receiving corps, a defense hell-bent on fashioning a molten metal middle and producing exponential takeaways against a division that has subtly improved across the board (and not just off Lake Erie), is unclear, but it is damned exciting. That’s what this time of year is about. As always, as ever, we’re in this thing together.

Darryl Drake, 1956 – 2019. Rest in peace.

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