And just like that, the whooshing sound you heard was the air escaping the giant inflatable rubber duck of a season for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they fell to the Buffalo Bills by a score of 17-10, putting their postseason aspirations in a precarious position.
It would be easy to point the finger at Devlin “Duck” Hodges with his four interceptions, but any disappointment in his performance was more attributable to grossly overinflated expectations of him by Steelers Nation and a hype-driven media.
And, perhaps whoever was making a fortune selling those duck hats.
The Steelers record of 8-6 is an honest appraisal of who this team is this year and where they fit into the broad mosaic of the NFL rankings.
Almost without exception this year, the team has beaten the bad teams and has lost to the quality ones. It’s been fair to midlands in what’s turned out to be a mostly favorable schedule this year.
The question of whether they will make the playoffs is now clearly shadowed by the growing body of evidence that if they get there it would be more of a jog, than a serious Super Bowl run.
But, we are Steelers Nation. And, if it’s true that defenses win championships, we still got a shot. So, let’s give it a Spin.
You Must Be Joking
Ever since Troy Polamalu was snubbed on the NFL All-Time Team, I’ve been basically boycotting it on the simple rationale that their list is clearly doused in bias and stupidity.
But, I am ashamed to say, I crossed my own self-imposed picket line to take a peek at the recently released wide receivers list. And, the penalty for my sin was suffered immediately.
Seriously? A list of the NFL’s all-time receivers that doesn’t include either Lynn Swann, John Stallworth or Antonio Brown?
I mean, I get that Brown is facing serious off-the-field issues and he is one Tweet away from being hauled off to a rubber room. But, just last year he was getting critical (and deserved) consideration for being the greatest receiver of all time.
I have no problem putting Jerry Rice and Randy Moss on that list. But, real football didn’t really start until the 70’s when teams like the Steelers started drafting from small African-American colleges, and the level of talent skyrocketed.
Even using a time machine, there is no way that Raymond Berry, Don Hutson or Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch would be playing ahead of Antonio. Sorry.
And Steve Largent? C’mon. Great player, but placing him ahead of Swanny or Stallworth is just ridiculously dumb to anyone capable of watching highlight reels.
I’m okay with Larry Fitzgerald making it and for oldtimers, yeah, we’ll give Lance Alworth a pass. But, even so, Alworth was a great sprinter, but John Jefferson was the best Charger to play receiver. I don’t know how he doesn’t make this list.
Marvin Harrison? An exceptional receiver and maybe he squeezes in number nine or ten on this list. But, anyone on a schoolyard would pick all three of the Steelers I mentioned on their team ahead of him.
I get that the NFL would like to deny the 70’s Steelers ever existed, and that the players in that decade wouldn’t have to dominate every list the league draws up. It would fit so much better into their “all 32 teams get a trophy” profit-driven pipedream.
But, if the NFL Channel doesn’t want to be seen as the Comedy Channel, then they really need to up their game.
Tomlin Makes MVP
For those of you who want to see a whole new coaching regime in Pittsburgh next year, you’re flat out of luck. Once again, Mike Tomlin has reached the threshold of “Minimum Viable Product” this year. This is a term in the programming industry where you launch a software early in its development when it’s “good enough to be minimally viable” so you can start generating money to fund ongoing enhancements.
From a team ownership standpoint, Tomlin is money. This is because for the past fifteen years or so, his teams are almost always “in it” enough to keep the enthusiasm high enough to fuel home tickets and merchandise sales. There is no doubt, his consistency is impressive.
It may surprise people who read this column frequently, but I remain a strong Tomlin fan. But, this is mostly because I think he’s a good man and a great leader and consistently produces a strong product on the field.
However; I cringe a little at the discussion of him being a coach of the year candidate. I don’t think you should get that much credit for pulling your team out of a hole of your own making.
And, since he’s been heavily involved in personnel acquisition, I don’t give him a pass for having to play with a thin bench of healthy skill players. That’s as much on him as it is on General Manager Kevin Colbert.
When it comes to building a strong coaching unit, the only one who has distinguished himself this year is Keith Butler, and perhaps quietly, the defensive assistants. The rest of them? Time for an upgrade.
I do think it’s surprising he’s never won Coach Of The Year, and if he wins out this year, then he’ll get my vote as well.
But, things are looking like this year will be more Groundhog Day than Gridiron Glory, and if that happens, I’d grade this year in the coaching column as yet another “B”.
The Arms Race
If there is a silver lining to the unfortunate fact the Steelers are playing without their star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this season, it’s that they got to evaluate his young backups.
Although, both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges are rookies being asked to play with young, inexperienced skill players and generally non-contributing tight ends, it’s fair to say both of them got a decent enough opportunity to showcase their capabilities in the National Football League.
The results? Well…the ceilings are pretty low.
After watching the Steelers lose to the Bills, I saw some highlights of Aaron Rodgers playing that day and was reminded what an NFL arm should look like if you want to compete at the highest levels.
At this point, people always point to players like Drew Brees, who isn’t known to have the biggest cannon. Really? Have you watched him throw one of those laser beams down the middle of the field with razor-like precision? That’s also what an NFL arm should look like.
In all of the games that Rudolph and Hodges have played, I have seen plenty of relatively safe, deep prayer passes down the sidelines. But, I can’t think of one pass deep down the center of the field where I went, “Wow”. Have you?
Which is convincing me what would happen if one of them were to get named starter and get a season or two under their belts. From my perspective, I’d say they might be able to aspire to be a Mike Tomczak or Tommy Maddox type of player.
Can the Steelers win a Super Bowl with that level of quarterback play? Well…they kind of proved already that they couldn’t. Even though both Tomczak and Maddox were decent quarterbacks, and were supported by the kinds of defenses the Steelers have now…they weren’t capable of winning the big games for Pittsburgh.
And, that was with the likes of Jerome Bettis to lead the running game.
The problem with these types of players is they are too easy to game plan against. When you don’t have the arm to keep them honest, the safeties can cheat, and it makes playing defense too simple.
It wasn’t until a kid named Roethlisberger marched into town with an elite arm, strength and elusiveness that the Steelers became Super Bowl grade.
As for Big Ben? A guy who will be 38, recovering from a serious arm surgery? How long will that work?
Which draws me to this unfortunate conclusion. We’ve got some great prospects for future backup quarterbacks for our team in Rudolph and Hodges.
Unfortunately, the search for our next, great franchise quarterback…must continue in earnest.
Character Of Champions
What is most encouraging for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the remainder of this year, and for many seasons to come is the character and quality of the defense.
Think about it. Not only are players like Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Joe Haden extraordinary talents and leaders on the field of play, but they are also of the highest caliber of individuals.
When your superstars are also great guys, you can climb the highest of mountains.
Who is not to like on this defense?
Yes. The playoffs start this weekend against the New York Jets. When the Buffalo Bills came to Pittsburgh and thumbed their noses at the power of Renegade, they also threw Styx and stones at the Steelers playoff scenarios.
Forget about the goofy, loser math. The Steelers need to win out from here on out.
New York Jets assistant coach Hines Ward is hoping to earn a Gatorade shower by defeating his beloved Steelers and Le’Veon Bell will have his own axes to grind as well.
This won’t be a walk in Central Park for the Steelers.
The plain facts for Pittsburgh are this: This is a team with a dominant defense, and a bottom of the barrel offense.
It will take a Miracle On 34th Street for this team to go far. But, in Steelers Nation, we believe.
So, ho, ho, ho.