Monday, January 31, 2011

The Long, Improbable Road to Dallas: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. The Green Bay Packers

New Orleans knows how to throw a party. So when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV--their first ever Super Bowl victory--they knew what to do. The long-suffering Saints, forever losing, routinely written off mere weeks each season, had now finally reached the ultimate goal of every NFL team. And if there was ever a city in America that needed it, it was New Orleans. Decades of neglect and mismanagement had left the city a mess; propped up by tradition and culture but rotting from within. And after Hurricane Katrina destroyed this veneer and exposed its massive flaws for the entire world to examine from the safety of helicopter cameras and empty rhetoric, the city needed a win. From Bourbon Street to the Superdome, the dank, seedy, hazy atmosphere of New Orleans suddenly got a whole lot brighter. 

It was also a dank, seedy, hazy atmosphere a month later in a backwoods bar in Georgia. Two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger*, still on the favored-end cusp of being in the same breath as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, was getting his freak on. Big, clumsy, and stumbling, as football players are wont to be in any situation in a world built for smaller, less athletic individuals, Ben's sound judgment and lightning-quick reflexes displayed for sixteen-plus weeks every year was sorely lacking. The night, as recounted, is a mess of unverifiable chaos, deliberately confused memories, and, no doubt, subtle intimidation. The results would, for some, disappoint a city used to holding their envoys to a higher standard, while others saw it as a confirmation of what they already suspected. This is not how respected Super Bowl-bound teams start their seasons. But the minute the Saints hoisted that Lombardi trophy, the contest for Super Bowl XLV was on.
Let us back up. 2009 was a unexpected disaster for the Steelers, especially after coming off of their previous Super Bowl victory against the Arizona Cardinals. After a respectable beginning, they hit a catastrophic five-game skid, losing to decent teams but bottoming out with losses to two of the worst teams in the league at the time, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The playoffs were out of the question, and many people were scratching their heads in befuddlement. They still had a lot of the pieces that had worked the season before. And, sure, they probably had a Super Bowl hangover, as most teams do. But this year, it looked different.  They came out swinging and were destined to repeat again. This was not to be. Fans with short memories and little patience—i.e., Steeler fans—were starting to call for coach Mike Tomlin’s head.

Still, in 2010, little was changed. Antwaan Randle El came back—a veteran of the 2005 Super Bowl Steeler victory, but took a short, well-paid vacation to Washington in the meantime—and a few other players were tweaked. But while other teams have no problems hiring dubious ne'er-do-wells to fill out their rosters—hi, Cincinnati!—the Steelers prided themselves with players who respected themselves and the game.

But things had changed, and not without foreshadowing. Sports heroes are forgiven for a lot, for a variety of reasons, mostly involving pending wagers that don’t cover the spread. Big Ben's troubles in Georgia were still percolating, so the timing couldn’t be worse for one Santonio Holmes. He was already on the Do Not Fly list for the Steelers organization because of various violence and marijuana-related offenses. When he allegedly threw a glass at a club patron and cut her face two months after Roethlisberger’s troubles in Georgia, he was saved only by huge question marks about his involvement. But, finally, when the alarm went off one morning and he casually tweeted that it was time to “Wake N Bake,” the Steelers organization had had enough of his casual drug use and unprofessionalism and traded him to the New York Jets. A once-promising first-round Super Bowl MVP wide receiver seen as a replacement to the good but aging Hines Ward was unceremoniously traded away for a fifth-round draft pick. 

Ben, simmering under the spotlight, wasn’t faring much better. Cops were involved, as were lawyers, media spin doctors, and—most ominously—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. What happened that drunken night in Georgia will probably always be a mystery, but it ended up with pending sexual assault charges against Ben--something that had already happened once a few years ago, but with much shakier (and flakier) evidence. While criminal charges were obviously the biggest worry, Goodell 's influence could greatly affect the quarterback's fate--which is precisely what happened. When the top cop in Midgeville declared that no charges could be filed given the evidence gathered, he still held Ben morally responsible. Since that sort of thing isn’t what one goes to jail for**, Goodell took over where the law couldn’t: a six game suspension, with the possibility of being reduced to four if Ben took a battery of psychological tests and hung out at the stadium selling Girl Scout cookies or something.

So as the pre-season started, the average Steeler fan was peering into a dark, unfortunate tunnel. A star wide receiver and a top-tier QB were gone. Three QBs, none of Roethlisberger’s caliber, would be leading the team. Pittsburgh is a team not used to starting their seasons without hope, so many were understandably worried. Fans placed their stock on the dependable and able Charlie Batch—a Pittsburgh native, a solid player, perhaps a little fragile, but exactly the sort of straight-laced body the NFL (and the Steelers in particular) needed to see in a time of moral turmoil. And then—inexplicably—coach Tomlin refused to play him.

Instead, Tomlin let the two non-Charlie-Batch QBs fight it out, so the season would start with either the decent but fragile Byron Leftwich or decent-until-lately Dennis Dixon. Normally, this competition for a top spot brings out the best in people, but when you already had a pretty good player waiting to play it confused a lot of people. Tomlin chose Leftwich who then caused everyone's sphincter to pucker when he was injured in the last pre-season game. This left only two viable quarterbacks--Dixon and Batch. So Tomlin did what he should have done in the first place and bumped Batch to be the starting quarterback for the regular season.

Oh, no, wait. That's specifically not what he did. He went with the subpar Dixon, who had played decent in the past but had an awful preseason and training camp, where he was kind enough to give away a lot of footballs to a lot of devoted fans, though not by choice. And while he won the first two games, they were in spite of, not because of, his performance. Dixon lasted all of those two games plus part of a third when he was injured against the Tennessee Titans--when you have more quarterbacks than most teams and still manage to injure two of them, there is a slight cause for alarm.

Conspiracy theorists alleged that Batch's position as the team's go-to guy for the player's union and the pending lockout for the 2011 NFL season was a reason he was benched. These fears were confirmed when, indeed, Batch was sent in to replace Dixon, and the conspiracy theorists were proven correct. But when it was all said and done, the Steelers had managed to come out of Ben's suspension period 3-1, tied with most of the better teams in the league.

Out of (I'm sure) complete coincidence, the Steelers then had the next week off, and then came back against the much-hated and/or -pitied Cleveland Browns. There was a lot of speculation as to how the crowd's reaction to Ben's arrival would manifest itself. The answer was: not a whole lot. People cheered, not booed, but football was bigger than any Ben Roethlisberger, and so they went on to defeat the Browns, 28-10.

It was in this game that the Saga of the Grand Conspiracy To Bring The Steelers Down continued. Specifically, Roger Goodell began fining linebacker James Harrison for a series of brutal hits. With the off-season pressure from former NFL players concerned about concussions and other long-term injuries, it was clear that Harrison was made out to be an example to the rest of the league to stop making such hits. (In football terms, these brutal, finable hits were also referred to as "plays.") The exact definition seemed to drift from game to game as to what was considered an ugly hit, but the fact that the few others that were fined got much publicity and other, equally devastating hits by other teams went unnoticed started to become an issue. Harrison at one point declared that he may just hang up his cleats and retire to a lucrative life of...well, doing something else. But after thinking about it--and no doubt reviewing the situation with his agent and his contract--decided to solider on and keep playing, fines or no. 

Most fans put up with this, right up until a game against the Oakland Raiders. During this otherwise unmemorable 35-3 rout, one Richard Seymour punched Roethlisberger in the face after the play was dead, drawing blood and giving Tomlin a few moments of thought to subbing in Owen Wilson while Ben recuperated. More glaring than the blood or the dramatic ejection from the game of Seymour was the fact that no flags were thrown, nor were any fines levied. This cemented to many in Pittsburgh that a cabal of underhanded agents were trying to destroy any chances the Steelers had in making the playoffs, with their dismal 7-3 record as a clear indication of guilt.

The remainder of the regular season, to be fair, was fairly mundane. Aside from the divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens and a disappointing but somewhat expected loss to the New York Jets, the balance of the schedule was full of snorefests like the NFL Network Thursday night "highlight" game against the Carolina Panthers or the dead-in-the-water Buffalo Bills game (which ended up being surprisingly close). The only drama in the later games was regarding Jeff Reed, a once lovable and accurate kicker who had chalked up enough disorderly conduct and resisting arrest incidents to make everyone avert their eyes when he walked in the room, above and beyond the fact that it was statistically likely that he would be wearing a pink wifebeater and gold highlights. After missing several gimme field goals during the season, he then missed a few crucial kicks in the game against New England. A post-game interview started with the phrase "I'm not going to blame anyone," and then proceeded to blame everyone possible for his dismal performance--the media, the fans, the other players, the coaching staff, the Rooneys, the Penguins, the ghost of the Chief, the sun, the Federal Reserve, etc. A day or two later, this nine-year veteran of the Steelers was no more. He then went to the San Francisco 49ers, where, presumably, their paper towel dispensers are always full and difficult to destroy.

When it was all said and done, the Steelers ended up first in the AFC North, and beat the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets to head to Dallas for the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. The comparisons are trite and overused--"two blue-collar cities," "teams with storied franchises," "huge fan bases that travel well." We get it. This isn't World War II. It's not working with the homeless or working a shift at the sick kid's ward at the hospital. It's not even acing the SATs. When it's all said and done, people love to pay to watch street criminals chase a ball around a muddy field for millions of dollars. But that said, drawing on the dramatic and unpromising start that the Pittsburgh Steelers had--a suspect quarterback, a doped-up Super Bowl MVP, two injured backups, capricious fines, purse-carrying kickers--the fact that they are in the Big Game is, indeed, a story that's more interesting to tell than less.

After decades of lopsided contests for the Super Bowl, this year it appears like it is going to be a good old-fashioned gridiron smashmouth grudge match, the way football ought to be played--in a billion-dollar stadium owned by a rich crazy Texan***. As they say, how 'bout that?

*I will most likely refer to Ben Roethlisberger throughout this column as "Ben," not because of any affection or familiarity, but having to type out "Roethlisberger" each time I refer to him is tantamount to a war crime.
**Although, technically, by law, this entitles you to a reality TV show.
***Also known as a Texan.

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