The week after a season grinds to a halt, whether it has been as a player or broadcaster, always becomes a time of reflection for me. Thoughts, games, plays, conversations - for all moments in time - would flood over me.
I can remember flashes of conversations with Mike Webster while lifting weights and laughing about his Bill Murray imitation in the huddle during a timeout in a game in Detroit, watching game film with Tunch Ilkin and seeing first hand in real time and then in slow-motion the first real pass-rushing power of some kid named Reggie White, or simply watching Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel talk in quiet tones on the plane ride home from some game in the not-too-distant past. All of them paint a kaleidoscope of images and moments in time just like music that takes you back to a favorite memory or time in your life.
I’ve always enjoyed those snatches of time, pulling them back out and unpacking them, as it were, to just reflect, regret or enjoy. Here are three from this past season:
1. Some weeks ago I happened to be walking by the press room on the upstairs floor of the Pittsburgh Steelers Worldwide headquarters on the South Side. The previous night, the Steelers had lost a heartbreaker to the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field on the strength of two Ezekiel Elliott fourth-quarter runs. The loss sank the Steelers to a dismal 4-5 record and thoughts of the playoffs were slimmer by the week. The Steelers had jumped out to a 4-1 record, then sank in misery for a month with Dallas being the latest of four straight losses. Wearied faces of the players and coaches masked somber thoughts hiding behind grim expressions. Players came in for treatment, coaches moved in and out of meeting rooms, busied bodies moving to day-after-the-game routines.
The door to the front office area opened and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley strode through with a tired but determined look on his face. I said hello to Todd, and made a remark or two in passing. He stopped, turned and looked with a conviction in his eyes that told me he wasn’t joking, and said, “You are about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of this franchise.” And with that declaration he turned on his heel and continued on his way.
I stood there shaking my head. I was uncertain as to how to download Todd’s forthright and determined statement, seemingly out of nowhere. What was he thinking? Seriously?
Well, he knew what he was talking about all right. All I can say is that Todd nailed it, knew it, saw it and spoke life into it.
The Steelers went on a 9-game winning streak that catapulted them into the AFC Championship game. That’s a serious turnaround. Nine victory Mondays in a row before New England stopped them. I wouldn’t have bet a lunch at my favorite buffet on that after that Dallas loss.
I've heard other people make declarations before. I have heard other teammates make predictions before. But nothing in my years came close to this moment.
Pretty cool if you ask me.
2. I stood on the sidelines at Arrowhead Stadium watching, and of course not hearing. Yes, I was all too familiar with the 142.2 decibels thundering down from the stands making whatever was in my headset a semi-painful experience. I have heard that thunder while on the field at Arrowhead as a player, and from the sidelines as a non-combatant who's constantly playing with the volume control in an attempt o hear the broadcast with Bill and Tunch. Playing the Chiefs at Arrowhead stadium has always been a challenge just from the noise perspective alone.
As this playoff game wore on, I found myself diligently watching left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. It was just over a year ago and change that “Big Al” had made the first start of his career at that very same stadium with Landry Jones at quarterback. The Steelers lost that day, and it had been a rough ride for Alejandro. Most pointedly, I remember the trouble Al had in picking up the “mike-you” game in which the inside linebacker came roaring straight ahead and tried to hit the gap between Al and Ramon Foster, with the defensive end coming around on a twist stunt.
Several times I remembered Foster pointing at Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and company, trying to alert Al to a possible blitz. Villanueva was as raw as he was tall, and more vulnerable to stunts than most rookies, considering that Al had been an offensive lineman for less time than any of the other Steelers linemen.
Now, over a year later, I was standing there watching the growth of a real NFL left tackle. I watched as the Chiefs ran stunts, blitzes, twists, and mano-y-mano pass rushes at Al. Watching Al kick-step out, hands up ready to punch, and watching him drive guys off the line of scrimmage on run blocks like a human Humvee on two feet, watching Villanueva lay out, fully utilizing his 6-9 frame to cut block on the backside of a run, finishing blocks, pounding guys and playing crash-and-burn football. Yeah, I was watching Al get a little get-back for some of the abuses he took on his first go-around at Arrowhead.
I was sure that this game was a tad bit more satisfying than Al ever let on, considering the first game. And I watched as Al came off the field with a smile. The smile of a man who has overcome far more adverse and dangerous encounters in far-off lands than anything the NFL can throw at him.
3. There's always something that occurs every year that shows off some sort of amazing athletic feat that would make others jump up off the bench. One year it was Billy Sims of the Detroit Lions leaving a cleat mark on Jack Lambert’s helmet after Sims had jumped into the air and made a cut off Lambert’s helmet.
The one I choose to finish with has everything to do with the fastest linebacker in the NFL, and if you don’t believe me, flip on the tape and watch this one.
I watched from groundhog level as Ryan Shazier got sucked up into the line of scrimmage on a play-action trap pass against the Miami Dolphins. Ryan read the onside guard pulling away from him down the line of scrimmage and shadowed him from his linebacker depth. Shazier was so fooled by the play-action that he actually made contact with the center and guard by racing up into the line, then realizing he had been fooled, turned and frantically sprinted back to his zone cover depth to look up and see the ball, and intercept it. He covered 25-something yards in less than three, maybe two seconds and change, all the while having to read, react and sprint, come to a Fred Flintstone screeching stop, turn around and then sprint some more and still retain the ability to snatch the ball out of the air as it floated over his head.
Phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.