Surviving the Off Season, Part 4: Someone’s Got to Pay

via ABNews Press/ Mike Tomlin, AFC North Head Coach of the Year

by Ivan Cole

The propagation of the Bust Mentality, as described in Part 2, doesn’t end with the players. Those who say that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan apparently have no familiarity with Steeler Nation. More to the point, there is no shortage of suspects as to whom will be held accountable when the Lombardi does not arrive.

While many rotate through the roster of the constellation of shame when it comes to the Steelers’ perceived shortcomings, there is one fixed star—Head Coach Mike Tomlin.

I would suspect Tomlin might be the first to admit that this is part of the job. Unless you are among the most feckless of fans, the experience pretty much guarantees disappointment. It is a matter of record that Steelers fans experience the highs and lows more acutely than others, so the desire to identify a scapegoat is irresistible.

Assigning blame is, of course, easy. As to whether it is valid is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Studies in neuroscience have shown that we perceive and interpret things in a very selective manner in order to support that which we believe to be true. This leads us to two important disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1. I am a Tomlin supporter, so if you are seeking ammunition to use against him you are likely to come away disappointed.

Disclaimer #2. If you are hoping to find the magic bullet in what follows that will send Tomlin haters into flight, totally discouraged and defeated, you are probably dreaming.

Some who have flirted with certain ideas because they haven’t thought too deeply about them may be turned around one way or the other, but for the true believers on either side this is a matter of trench warfare where progress is measured in yards and the end is not in sight. Certain lines of argument may be discredited to the point where they may be rendered useless, but the basic sentiments will remain intact, searching for new tactics to achieve the same end.

Head Coach Pittsburgh Steelers

Is it appropriate to blame the head coach for the failings of the team? That is, should he be held to account even beyond that for which he can immediately control? Fair or not, it’s part of the job description.

If you follow the metaphor of being a (Steelers) nation, then the head coach would most likely be its president. (The owner would be king.) Though the powers of a president are considerable, (s)he will be held accountable by some for things over which (s)he does not, cannot and should not control, like the stock market, the weather, individual happiness.

In the spiritual discipline of Sufism believers are admonished to choose the love that will not disappoint. When applied to the investment that many fans make in the team and its leadership, wiser words have rarely been spoken.

The shadow side of the widespread and deep connection Steelers fans have with their team is the great potential for some to experience deep levels of betrayal and disappointment when the franchise experiences the natural ups and downs inherent in professional football.

Steelers fans are among the most passionate in football. At its best this translates into those who are deeply loyal, knowledgeable followers of the team and the sport. But sometimes passion just intensifies and reinforces ignorance and generally amplifies all of the negative emotions and shortcomings that people bring to an experience.

There have been stories of how the Steelers ascended at just the time that western Pennsylvania entered into economic and spiritual crisis with the collapse of much of its industrial base. There have been many personal testimonies of how the Steelers served to ‘save’ the self-esteem of the region and its residents. This is both inspiring and also problematic.

Do I really have to go into detail concerning the dangers of one’s self esteem being held hostage to the outcome of a football game or season?

Obviously this doesn’t apply to all fans, hopefully not anywhere near to most. There is also another segment of the fan base whose attraction is connected in no way to the Pittsburgh area or its fortunes, but certain psychic investments in the team are similar.

Their successes over the past fifty years, and particularly in the seventies, elevated the Steelers to iconic status. Thus they have attracted more than their share of fans who are attracted to winners. In this sense Pittsburgh has become, in the reckoning of some, in the running to be the Yankees or Lakers of football.

What is common with these two fan groups is how essential winning is to the covenant they have with the team. It is fair to say that losing is not just an undesirable outcome, but betrays an unspoken promise, and worst of all may actually diminish the self-worth of the fan.

Somebody has to pay for that.

Worsening the situation are expectations which are often too extravagant for the realities of the National Football League.

Let us say that you are a passionate, but relatively inattentive follower of Major League Baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates. You notice that outfielder Andrew McCutchen has a career batting average of just under .300. You conclude that a good player should be able to at least bat in the .400 to .500 range, and that McCutchen needs to go.

Any true baseball fan  sees the problem here.

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, Westinghouse High’s football team was so dominant that they had only lost five league games in a quarter of a century. College teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, USC and others often ruled their conferences for decades. Similar feats were accomplished by teams in MLB, the NBA and the NHL.

But in the NFL the state of the art is six championships in fifty years. Some fans believe that anything short of a Lombardi every year is tantamount to complete and utter failure, and heads must roll. The situation for some is more urgent because in certain ways their very self-worth is at stake.

Again, you can see the problem here.

Impossible expectations

A number of years ago I flew into Pittsburgh to visit my hospitalized father. As I rode into town in an airport limousine the radio was tuned to a sports talk show. Several callers were discussing how Chuck Noll was a failure and had to go.

This would have been understandable to me if it had been in the late sixties/early seventies as he struggled to change the team culture and assemble the talent necessary to compete at the highest level of the game. It would also be equally understandable if it was during the eighties and early nineties when the team had fallen into a pattern of mediocrity.

However, this was 1977. Or, smack in the middle of a six year span when Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls.

There are voids that no one can fill. Worse still, there are resentments that cannot be reconciled. The offended party doesn’t want satisfaction, they want revenge. The in-law who believes you have stolen the affections of their child is not interested in peace. If they come for dinner the menu will always be incorrect, improperly prepared or served at the wrong time. If by chance you somehow manage to clear these hurdles it will be attributed to dumb luck and you will be requested to repeat the performance to prove it. The one weapon that they will never relinquish is the ability to withhold approval. If they cannot banish you they will settle for discrediting you.

Sound familiar?

The best current example of this kind of thinking in action is what some have done with The Standard is The Standard. I argue that, properly understood, this is a distillation of a guiding philosophy for the team. With Noll it was Whatever It Takes. I believe many would agree that the 2015 season represented a triumph of this conceptual approach, even though the injury situation became so extreme that it became a bridge too far in terms of achieving a championship.

But what has happened during Tomlin’s tenure is that some fans and team critics have hijacked the term and weaponized it in service to the absurd notion (like McCutchen’s .500 batting average) of All Lombardis All The Time. What was conceived as an aspirational set point is now a non-negotiable demand placed upon the organization by (and I use this term with purpose) an ignorant rabble.

To be continued

The rest of the series can be accessed from the links:

Surviving the Offseason Part 1: Evaluating the Evaluators

Surviving the Offseason Part 2: The Bust Mentality

Surviving the Offseason Part 3: The Nuances of Development


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