"That's just Steelers football right there."
Steelers fans have long been subjected to this refrain, delivered breathlessly by commentators, with nostalgia but no sense of context. "Steelers football" refers to a particular strategy that has thrilled the Pittsburgh faithful for decades: pummel your opponent with a suffocating, aggressive defense, then run, run, run.
But the truth is that "Steelers football" is a fragile thing. Failure to meet expectations during any season in Pittsburgh is sure to lead to calls for a 1970s renaissance. And with the Steelers' defensive ineptitude in 2009 quickly explained by unfortunate injuries to stalwarts Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu, the brunt of offseason criticism has fallen squarely upon the shoulders of the Steelers' rushing offense -- or lack thereof.
Enter Pittsburgh Public Enemy Number One: Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians. If you spent any time on a Steelers message board last season, you were bound to run into an Arians tirade or two. And why not? Frustration has to be directed somewhere, and watching the Steelers flail through the 2009 season just a year removed from Super Bowl XLIII was nothing if not frustrating.
The charges against Arians are familiar. He passes too much. He's predictable. He refuses to bench Heath Miller or Mike Wallace in favor of a fullback. He won't run enough. The list goes on.
The clamor in the press and on message boards got so loud that even Art Rooney II weighed in, reportedly meeting with Arians and Head Coach Mike Tomlin about a more effective rushing attack. This was not enough for some fans, who responded with exultation to a mistaken report that the meetings had resulted in Arians' termination.
It's no surprise to see fans complain about an underachieving team. What is surprising is the form that those complaints take.
For many fans and commentators, Arians' strategy is troubling because it violates their idea of what Steelers football used to be. Bafflingly, the focus of the conversation is just as much about the Steelers' identity as it is about the effectiveness of Arians' gameplan.
Nostalgia about the franchise's identity pervades editorials and message boards. For instance, one fan on firebrucearians.com, a website unapologetically decorated with a picture of an angry mob at the top, wrote that if you want to watch "[wussy] offense...go watch the Colts. If you want man football, hope the Steelers go back to playing real Steeler football."
After all, what has three years of Arians' supposedly identity-challenging, new-fangled leadership produced? Nothing.
Nothing except two division titles, a 31-17 regular season record, and a Super Bowl ring.
Last year, Bruce Arians' offense was the seventh-best in the NFL, as measured by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a brilliant statistical tool pioneered by our friends at Football Outsiders. That means that the offense moved the ball more effectively on average than Arizona, Houston, Cincinnati, and Baltimore.
The Steelers had two 1,000-yard WRs, a 1,000-yard rusher, and a 4,000-yard passer. For the last two years, the Steelers have ranked fifth in the league in time of possession, meaning they have been doing just fine at running the clock down.
Nevertheless, it is fair to point out that it was not all sunshine and rainbows for Arians' offense last year.
The biggest part of the problem was the unit's inability to convert in short-yardage situations. To put it kindly, the Steelers were terrible at this, but observant fans know this is more a personnel problem than a play-calling one.
Fans are quick to criticize Arians for calling pass plays in short yardage situations, but there is a pretty simple reason he did this: the Steelers were awful when they tried to run.
Mark Kaboly of the McKeesport Daily News has put together a nice article illustrating this problem. The team experienced only a 50% success rate when handing off to one of their running backs on third and short. Numbers like that suggest that the problem was some combination of the running backs and offensive linemen. This deficiency also contributed to a middling third down conversion percentage (17th in the NFL). Arians' willingness to chuck it on these downs seems like a pretty reasonable response to the offense's inability to push the pile in short-yardage play.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against high expectations. However, it's one thing to insist on winning -- it's quite another to insist on winning in a particular way. I simply cannot think of another professional franchise whose fans can so consistently overlook substance in favor of style. Imagine if Penguins fans suddenly resented Sidney Crosby for not playing like a bruiser!
The fact is that even without Santonio Holmes, the Steelers still have players who are better suited for passing than power running. If that violates some pie-in-the-sky idea about how the Steelers are supposed to win, so be it.
Sports teams should not have identities, only strategies. Strategies take personnel into account, identities do not. Strategies vary based on opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, identities do not.
Strategies win, identities - well, you get the idea.