No sports league is more tailored toward bounce-back seasons than the NFL.
With its hard salary cap, evenly-divided national TV revenue and a 16-game schedule that defines the term “small sample size,” the NFL traffics in unpredictability. The level playing field generates legitimate hope among all but the most talent-dry teams, even if only 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs each winter, the second-lowest percentage of the four major North American leagues.
Of course, it’s also difficult to stay on top, although it helps to have a quarterback, arguably the most influential position in modern sport. Teams like the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and, yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been somewhat immune to the fluctuating NFL landscape over the past decade because they’ve gotten great signal-calling.
The Steelers have been good enough during Ben Roethlisberger’s tenure that last year’s 8-8 season matched the team’s worst record since Tommy Maddox was behind center in 2003. But while Big Ben’s often-spectacular quarterbacking has spearheaded six playoff appearances, three AFC titles and two Super Bowl wins, No. 7′s presence might be holding Pittsburgh back somewhat.
Having Roethlisberger is enough make the Steelers a constant playoff contender, but anyone who feels this year’s edition is one of the league’s best needs to curb his or her enthusiasm. As we hear constantly, the Steelers’ goal is always the championship; however, the franchise appears to be stuck in a football purgatory where 10-6 is possible, but a division or conference title is far-fetched.
To get back to NFL heaven, the Steelers need to get a little closer to hell. Outside Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh is stuck in between: the team is a volatile mix of declining stars and unproven youngsters. Coach Mike Tomlin likes to say “the standard is the standard,” but we simply don’t know if many of the newbies can meet the lofty expectations that come with donning the hypocycloid-adorned helmet.
Ideally, the Steelers would throw their untested players into the fire, for better or worse. If this year’s team doesn’t have the stuff to contend for a ring, what’s the harm? Find out what you have, get a high draft pick and reload for 2014, when your franchise quarterback will still be in his prime.
The worst thing for the Steelers might be if they hang around .500 all year, possibly sneak into the playoffs and generate false hope that they’re going about it the right way. 2013 should be a year of experimentation, especially on offense, where Pittsburgh can afford to open up the attack.
With Le’Veon Bell injured and the mostly-young offensive line still adjusting to zone blocking in the running game, why not join the 21st Century and put the ball in the air for playmakers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders?
We’ll probably see the Steelers try to grind out games the old-fashioned way this autumn, but that would be shortsighted. The fan support will always be there, so why not do the daring thing and punt? Taking the long view may be the quickest way to Super Bowl title No. 7.
It’s tough to bounce back when you never really fell off.