Football serves as a nice distraction from the drudgeries of everyday life; a weekly respite from the grind of the 9-to-5. A 17-day holiday spread over more than four months, perfectly timed to coincide with Thanksgiving and Christmas. So in the spirit of the season, some reasons we can be thankful for the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Mike Tomlin. The first-year head coach started his career 3-0, but the final third of the season has tested the faith of the faithful. Injuries, inconsistent play, and a tough schedule all conspired against the Steelers, but through it all they're still 10-5, and newly crowned AFC North champs. Maybe Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm could've gotten the same results, but I think Tomlin was exactly what the organization needed after sleepwalking through '06 following the Jerome Bettis Sendoff Tour. The 35-year-old former college wide receiver has been accused of lacking emotion on the sidelines, something that was never an issue under Bill Cowher. For me, it's a refreshing change, although I'd be willing to make an exception for any plays involving Anthony Smith. It's not always about yelling and screaming. Tony Dungy and that evil-doer, Bill Belichick, are also known for their disposition (sunny or surly, both are understated), and the Colts and Patriots don't seem to have any issues with motivation, execution and ultimately, winning.
And if we're using football to teach life lessons, I can't think of a better example than Tomlin. Calm amid the chaos, focused on a singular goal with a plan to get there, but unmoved by the failures along the way (again, notable exception: A. Smith). Look around the league and I'm halfway convinced that dumb luck played a role in bringing Tomlin to the Steelers. Brian Billick, Eric Mangini, Marvin Lewis, Norv Turner, Scott Linehan, Herm Edwards, Rod Marinelli -- these could all be the guys donning the "HC" headset on Sundays for the Steelers. I think all you need to know about Tomlin was what he told NFL Network announcing team when they asked him about Bobby Petrino, the lamest coach in football history who couldn't face the prospects of finishing out his first NFL season and bolted for the familiar environs of big-time college football: "I hope Arkansas is happy with who they got." To me, that says it all.
Najeh Davenport. Davenport might seem like an odd choice here; after all, he's a career backup who is better known for his off-field indiscretions than his ability to carry a football. But he could be a big part to the Steelers making a legit postseason push now that Willie Parker is done for the year. Looking back, I'm convinced the Steelers weren't playing up Parker's strengths. After Bettis' retirement, Parker stepped into the role of a bruising, between-the-tackles back, even though the Bus outweighed him by 50 pounds. The last few games, Parker showed just how explosive he can be when he gets to the edge, something we'll hopefully see more of in 2008. In the meantime, Davenport is a 'tweener -- somewhere between Fast Willie and the Bus on the running back weight chart -- who has shown a knack for breaking tackles near the line of scrimmage and routinely falling forward when he finally goes down. He also has the wheels to get to the outside, better hands than Parker coming out of the backfield, and is no worse a blocker. This isn't to say he's Parker's equal, but I'm the guy who screams about running back fungibility at every opportunity; Davenport graduating to the first team won't affect the Steelers' game plan. If anything, those up-the-middle runs might actually work, and Ben Roethlisberger now has a more reliable check-down option in the passing game. Let's just hope Santa brings the Steelers continued health for the rest of the year.
Ben Roethlisberger. No-brainer. I've spent part of my week discussing the merits of Big Ben's first Pro Bowl, and have had some really smart people (okay, they were of average intelligence, but they acted like they're really smart) tell me Derek Anderson was more deserving. I can understand David Garrard, but Anderson? Really? Put that guy on the Steelers and he's Tommy Maddox without the foot speed. Look, Anderson's had a splendid season, but let's all put down the crack pipe. He's an above-average quarterback with an awesome offensive line, and an even awesomer group of pass-catchers. If -- God strike me down if this ever happens -- Big Ben played behind the Browns' offensive line, he would have thrown for 6,000 yards and 80 touchdowns. Roethlisberger does more with less than any quarterback in the league. Think about the elite-QB conversation: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, Tony Romo. You know what these six guys have in common? Solid offensive lines. Put any one of them behind the Steelers' front five -- save maybe Favre and Romo -- and David Carr no longer holds the single-season sack record. So, yeah, excuse me if I seem uninterested in your reasons for why Anderson deserves a Pro Bowl nod. How about he doesn't wet the bed against the five-win Bengals with a four-pick performance, and then we'll talk.
Like Tomlin, landing Big Ben had everything to do with being in the right place at the right time. One of my favorite Brian Billick memories -- and I do have many -- was during the 2003 season. It's Week 17, the Steelers were 6-9 and didn't have much to play for. The Ravens were on their way to the postseason and instead of Billick giving his troops a second-half break, he ran Jamal Lewis ragged in an effort to break the single-season rushing record. Baltimore ended up winning, knocking the Steelers to 6-10 and giving them the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft. A week later, the Ravens lost in the playoffs. Good times.
The 2007 Steelers. Here's the thing: this team has a first-year head coach, an offensive line chock full of holes, special teams that make the o-line look Canton-bound, a quarterback recovering from a serious head injury, and are playing without the starting free safety, defensive end, and Pro Bowl running back. And yet, the Steelers are 10-5, division champs, and have an opportunity to make some noise in the postseason. Sometimes the journey obscures the final destination. But if we knew the outcome before we all piled in the family truckster, how much fun would that be? Plus, it could be worse: we could all be Browns fans.
Here's to everybody having a safe and happy holiday season, another Steelers Super Bowl run, and as long as I'm asking for stuff, how about a Titans victory next week.
The Steelers make a great Christmas gift
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