Let’s get ready to rumble! It’s the launch of the 2021 National Football League season for the Pittsburgh Steelers with an AFC Conference Championship worthy opening game against the Buffalo Bills.
Let’s hope the rumble…doesn’t turn into a stampede. As in the buffalo variety.
The Buffalo Bills are a team on the rise, with one of the league’s brightest stars in quarterback Josh Allen. His arsenal features a host of offensive weapons and he’s supported by a defense enthusiastic about imposing their will.
This is a more than adequate measuring stick for this year’s version of the Steelers to get an early understanding of whether they are as good as they believe they are…or as mediocre as many of the NFL’s experts are suggesting.
It’s the first game people! Only the first game! Don’t jump to any conclusions!
Yeah, yeah, we get it.
But, that doesn’t change the fact anytime you play one of the top contenders in your conference it represents a critical tie breaker when it comes to home field advantage in the playoffs.
So…this game already matters. A great deal.
In truth, it matters much more for the Steelers who started the 2020 season looking like Secretariat only to finish like Mr. Ed.
With a stumbling, bumbling conclusion to their year, they lost five of their last six including a paper bag-over-the-head worthy season imploding finale against the typically woeful Cleveland Browns.
That hurts to write in words.
Meanwhile, Buffalo made it to last year’s AFC Championship before falling to the offensive juggernauts Kansas City Chiefs. No shame there.
This game is important to the Steelers. This provides the perfect opportunity to remove any residual pie on their faces from last year’s free fall, and with all of the change they experienced in the offseason, these players need to believe that change is a good thing.
Speaking of a welcome change, will Steelers Nation get to enjoy the warm sunshine of winning ways again? Well…let’s give it a Spin.
The Family That Broke The Bank
In the most headlined and hand-wringing piece of business in Pittsburgh this year, All World T.J. Watt was awarded with a contract making him the highest paid defensive player in the history of the National Football League.
This same feat was also achieved by his older brother J.J. Watt just a few years prior when he was crowned the highest paid player in the annals of the league.
It’s just a matter of time when T.J. will receive another herald his brother already claims. That would be earning an award as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Many of the Steelers faithful were of the belief T.J. deserved to win it last year.
Not only is this a historic contract for the NFL, it’s a red molten steel melting for the Steelers Way of negotiations. Never before have such guarantees been offered in a Pittsburgh deal.
Some will say that T.J.’s groundbreaking contract from the storied and notoriously stubborn franchise is a one-off, but there is no such thing for an organization that prides itself on consistency and fairness.
For those of us who suffered through Pittsburgh’s obstinacy in the 90’s, when the modern free agency era was just getting its shape and Steelers superstars were allowed to drift away without a meaningful fight, this is a welcome level of pliability.
It should be noted the Rooney family often talks about their allowing Rod Woodson to be lost to free agency as one of their greatest acts of error. It’s refreshing to see they were willing to adjust to the times to make sure this next generational talent and personality didn’t escape as well.
The Steelers didn’t just secure one of the NFL’s most talented young stars for the next five years. They just greatly improved the odds that he’ll complete his entire career in a Black and Gold uniform.
Although this will complicate their negotiation strategies for years to come, the Steelers knew it was worth breaking the mold in this case. They will be able to headline the organization with a player who is the personification of Steelers values, and who will also be accompanied by one of the NFL’s most royal families.
Already, both T.J. Watt and his fullback brother Derek Watt will be firmly cast as Steelers players. But, that won’t be the end of it.
Here is the Spin’s bold prediction. As we know, in the twilight of players’ careers, they often make big deals with new organizations, only to be unceremoniously released for financial considerations a year or two later.
What is about to be revealed is guaranteed and you can carve it into stone. Absent major injuries, J.J. Watt will finish his career out as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
No…that wasn’t a typo. Yes, J.J. Watt will be a Steeler for life. But, in addition, at some point in the next couple of years, all three Watt brothers will be joining in a shared mission on Heinz Field.
You heard it first here.
Despite the Steelers precipitous fall at the end of last year, and a string of less than glorious seasons leading up to it, Coach Mike Tomlin is the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach for as long as he bloody well wants.
This will thrill some and frustrate others, but it’s a plain fact. He is admired throughout the league and even more revered by the Rooney family. He is their idea of the ideal Steelers coach.
Don’t like it? Buy or start your own NFL team.
Although Tomlin will be highly motivated to take this talented team to the next level, this season isn’t as critical as it will be to others earning a Steelers paycheck.
With the entire offensive line getting a complete makeover, offensive coach Matt Canada will get a free pass this year as well. On the defensive side, Keith Butler has enough goodwill in the Rooney bank to keep his seat at a comfortable temperature despite any outcomes.
So, who is going to be under the most pressure this year?
Clearly, it’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In a novel, no one talks about the early chapters. It’s always about how the story ends. That’s what they will always remember most succinctly.
This year, with each play, and each game, Big Ben is penning the most important pages in his story. How will this exhilarating adventure and occasional drama come to a conclusion?
Yes, for those of us who witnessed virtually every pass he’s thrown, each gyration to avoid frothing at the bit defensive linemen, and his courage in the crushing pockets of the NFL, we believe his legacy is already crafted in steel.
But, the argument of whether us diehards believe he SHOULD be in the Hall Of Fame is irrelevant. What matters is WILL he make it into the Hall Of Fame? And, will it be on the first ballot, or will it be drawn out and debated for years.
As admired as he is by his own fans, he’s never been an NFL favorite outside of Pittsburgh. How many major advertising campaigns has he been featured as the national spokesperson? There is a reason it hasn’t happened. Advertisers lean heavily on popularity data, and that’s a statistic where Big Ben is going to be far from elite.
And, like it or not, Hall of Fame admission is as much a result of popularity and responsiveness to current social winds as it is an impassioned review of the nominees’ merits.
Also, being objective here, Big Ben is not carrying a tremendous amount of momentum into the trailing portions of his career. His success in the playoffs has been below the line for more than a decade.
Just like the John Elways and the Peyton Mannings discovered, it’s good public relations to win the big ones as you’re sailing into the sunset.
Last year was all about his recovery from a career threatening injury. It’s key to note he did not get a Comeback Player Of The Year nod.
This year, the spotlight and pressure will be on him. It’s all about putting the right finishing touches on his legacy.
This defense is as strong as those that carried him to his first Super Bowl victories. He’s also proven he could win a a Lombardi Trophy while having serious questions being asked about his offensive line.
This team won’t go far without him having a career year. And, this will be the most important year of his career.
Ode To Tunch Ilkin
So much has already been shared about the life and times of Steelers legendary and player and announcer Tunch Ilkin.
Ilkin was an excellent player for the Steelers and a team favorite during the final years of Coach Chuck Noll’s reign.
In joining the league, Ilkin was not highly regarded as a rookie, coming in as a sixth round pick. He had to work his way into the lineup. He accomplished this feat by perhaps developing the finest technique of any offensive lineman the Steelers have ever boasted.
His savvy was such as a student of the game that at the close of his playing career he became a much sought-after offensive line consultant. He innovated what became know as the league famous “Tunch’s Punch”. A two-time Pro Bowler he was the kind of player and individual that any coach would dream of having in their locker room.
For me though, as a person of faith, what impressed me most was how comfortably and seamlessly he was able to express his beliefs in any environment. He was fearless and focused.
In one sentence, he would talk about the powerful and agile sweep blocking of an NFL offensive guard. Then in the next, without a blink he would be inviting listeners to a men’s barbecue at his church.
“Come on out and we’ll have dog on the grill for you.”
In describing the Steelers players on the team, he was so relentlessly uplifting that it would irritate listeners at times, including this one.
Tunch! That tackle just gave up five sacks on three plays. How can you still be talking up his potential?
But, the reality was, Tunch saw people through the eyes of eternity, and understood the hearts of the players were infinitely more valuable than whatever plays they performed on the field during their few years drawing an NFL paycheck.
Well done Tunch. You have coached us up in more ways than you could have ever imagined.
Paying Some Bills
The Pittsburgh Steelers come into this weekend in remarkably good health. Congratulations are due the coaches for keeping the team free from viruses and injuries, while getting the squad into game shape.
This is no easy task in these crazy times we live in.
Speaking of game shape, how ready will T.J. Watt be to express himself after sitting out all of the violent activities of the preseason?
He’s a Watt. So the answer is, he’ll be ready to rumble. How about you?