I know it's July and we're all waiting with baited breath for this labor nonsense to resolve itself, but let's not freak out about the long-term implications of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offseason. James Walker, whose AFC North blog on ESPN is usually very good reading, recently wrote a knee-jerk piece entitled "Are The Steelers Unraveling?"
Cue the dramatic music!
Walker begins with the not-so-bold prediction that the Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North in 2011. And why not? Despite safety Ryan Clark recently shrugging off the Ravens as a true rival, Baltimore has been to two AFC Championships in the last few years, which is hardly something to sneeze at. They're a very, very good team that's younger than Pittsburgh, so it's not unreasonable for Walker to pick the Ravens to take the division crown. (We all know it's not going to be the Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals, so it's really a coin flip in the first place.)
No, what's unreasonable about the ESPN piece is Walker's reasoning, if I can even call it that. Here's the basic premise of his argument:
I simply don't like what I'm seeing from Pittsburgh this offseason.
Fair enough. How could you? The Steelers have certainly created their share of what Walker calls "self-inflicted wounds." First, there was running back Rashard Mendenhall's idiotic tweet in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. Then wide receiver Hines Ward, who had just won a number of new fans across the country after his victory on Dancing With the Stars, decided to drink and drive. Finally, James Harrison said a bunch of things to a journalist, including some jabs directed at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a homophobic slur describing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Not exactly the kind of extracurriculars you want to see your team engaging in while the suits
mishandle the labor situation. But none of this stacks up to last year's tumultuous offseason, which had pundits unnecessarily freaking out. But let's examine what kind of implications these events will have in reality. (That is, not in our imaginations or in those of the media.)
If you asked your average 24-year-old basically any question about current events, the chances are pretty good that you would hear something at least as stupid as what Mendenhall tweeted. And it's not as if Goodell can suspend the kid for being a bit of a conspiracy theorist. (Although he should perhaps chip in for some newspaper articles circa September / October 2001, just to get Mendenhall, who was 14 at the time, up to speed.)
Ward, on the other hand, should not be drinking and driving. It's irresponsible, reckless behavior that shouldn't be tolerated from anyone, much less a 35-year-old millionaire who could afford a cab ride from Atlanta to Alaska if he had to. It remains to be seen what kind of on-the-field ramifications Ward's misbehavior will have, but despite this being Ward's first encounter with the law, it's easy to imagine a scenario where he won't play in Week 1 against the Ravens. Certainly a Ward suspension would help tip the scales in Baltimore's favor, but is that really enough to go on when predicting the division? The Steelers nearly beat the Ravens without Roethlisberger a couple years ago; they're more than capable of pulling out a win without Ward.
Then there's Harrison, who will (and should be) fined for his ignorant use of homophobic language - forget that it was directed toward Emperor Goodell the Ironfist. (Personally, I thought the second most offensive thing about Harrison's remarks was their logical incongruity; how can someone be both a "dictator" and a "puppet"? Come on, James -- you're better than that.) But Harrison should be used to fines by now, and like Mendenhall, he won't miss any time on the field.
Really, any offseason where Roethlisberger doesn't (allegedly) rape someone (again) and miss the first four games of the season is less catastrophic than last year's. Ditto to one where on your starting tackles, Willie Colon, isn't lost before the season with a blown-out Achilles tendon. Walker calls last year's Roethlisberger "distraction ... easy to resolve," since he wasn't allowed to interact with the team, which is a real head-scratcher since, y'know, he's kinda the starting quarterback and all.
To his credit, Walker does address some of the Steelers' personnel issues -- most notably the possible loss of cornerback Ike Taylor -- but every team has perceived holes in their rosters this time of the year, a fact that's only exacerbated by the current absence of free agency during the labor disputes.
Mostly, Walker relies on the Steelers' missteps just not sitting right with him and the fact that Pittsburgh has stumbled after their last few Super Bowl appearances:
Keep in mind, this is not a new phenomenon in Pittsburgh. Self-implosion is what the Steelers do best following Super Bowl appearances.
In 2006, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident and the Steelers finished 8-8. In 2009, Pittsburgh had to deal with Roethlisberger's first sexual assault allegation and Troy Polamalu's knee injury to finish 9-7. Both years they missed the playoffs.
So we're looking at a sample size of two here? Not especially compelling stuff.
Look, saying that a team who just achieved something great will fail to do so again isn't some Nostradamus-like exercise in foresight - it's counting on that team regressing to the mean of its abilities. The same applies to an individual player who achieves dominance, like Peyton Manning in 2004 or Tom Brady in 2007. Consecutive extraordinary accomplishments are rare, because extraordinary accomplishments are extraordinary in the first place. So predicting they won't happen is a lazy thing to hang your hat on.
If anybody wants to crown the Baltimore Ravens the AFC North favorite - for Week 1 or the entire season - they can go right ahead, that's fine, it's a perfectly valid stance. But if you thought that the reigning AFC Champion Steelers were the team to beat before, the recent events involving Mendenhall, Ward, and Harrison shouldn't change your mind, even if they've changed Walker's.
For more on the Steelers, check out Behind The Steel Curtain.