Hines Ward, a former Steeler that once called out his team’s two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback on national television for not playing with a concussion, joined the circle of seventh grade girls that has been the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room this offseason and chided the current team for airing its dirty laundry in public.
This is not what the Steelers do, you guys.
“Guys calling out other guys, that’s not the Steeler way,” Ward said on NFL Network last Friday in response to numerous players talking about what went wrong with the team in 2012. “We have always kept things in-house.”
It was November, 2009, and the Steelers were in the middle of a season-crushing six-game losing streak and preparing for a key Sunday night game in Baltimore. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with a concussion he suffered in the previous week’s loss at Kansas City, and on the Saturday before the game was officially ruled out for the contest after being questionable most of the week. His backup, Charlie Batch, was also injured in that previous game in the most Charlie Batch way possible — on a play where he handed the ball off.
That left the Steelers in the unenviable position of having to go into one of the toughest environments in the NFL (Baltimore on a Sunday night) with Dennis Dixon and former University of Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko, a player who had been picked up off the street that very Saturday, to man the position. And they — somehow — very nearly pulled off a win only to lose in overtime when Dixon made his only mistake of the game, throwing a terrible interception to Ravens rookie linebacker Paul Kruger.
But the real fireworks came before the game when Ward went on NBC’s pre-game show and did the exact opposite of keeping things in house. The focal point was on whether or not Roethlisberger, who was no stranger to head injuries, both the result of opposing defenders and the front of end of cars on Second Avenue, should play in the game.
“This game is almost like a playoff game,” Ward told NBC’s Bob Costas. “It’s almost a ‘must’ win. So, I can see some players or some teammates kind of questioning like, ‘Well, it’s just a concussion. I’ve played with concussions before. I would go out there and play.’ So, it’s almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room. You know, should he play, shouldn’t he play. It’s really hard to say.
“I’ve been out there dinged up. The following week, [I] got right back out there. You know, Ben practiced all week. . . . To find out that he’s still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to doctor’s didn’t feel that they was gonna clear him. . . . It’s hard to say, unless you’re the person. . . . I’ve lied to a couple of doctors saying ‘I’m straight, I feel good,’ when I knew I’m really not straight. But I don’t think guys really about the future when they’re playing currently in the NFL. . . .
“Trust me, the players, they wanna go out there because these games, you don’t get back. You’re never gonna get this Baltimore-Pittsburgh game back.”
If that’s keeping things in house, then that house must have been consumed by a raging couch fire only to be extinguished with gasoline. Quite honestly, that interview seems 10 times more outrageous today than it did at the time just three short years ago. Hines Ward, professional football player, actually used the phrase “it’s just a concussion.” Crazy times.
This all came up recently because an anonymous Steeler called out linebacker Lamarr Woodley to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saying he was “awful” in 2012 and that he wasn’t in shape during the season. Normally I find anonymous quotes to be useless (I would never use an anonymous quote — I’d tell the player to either attach his name to it or don’t talk to me) but assuming a Steeler really did say it, he wasn’t lying because Woodley was all but stealing money last year. But this still started a firestorm of chaos around the Steelers.
Larry Foote accused his teammates of being too friendly with the Ravens and talked about how the team went from trying to fight them outside the bus (remember that time Joey Porter was outside the Ravens bus screaming “He’s got a knife!” and then Ray Lewis tried to fight him? Good times.) to wishing them well in the Super Bowl.
Antonio Brown said that too many players in the locker room were more concerned about personal numbers than the team, a statement that might have been damning had it not come from one of the biggest underachievers on the roster in 2012. One that not only made more big plays for the other team (fumbles and turnovers) than his own, but one that also repeatedly brought attention to himself by running backwards into the end zone on two separate occasions — on plays that were negated by penalties.
All of this has led to the Steelers’ leadership being questioned, and concerns that locker room is fractured.
Maybe the Steelers, a team that has lost several key players and personalities in recent years to the salary cap, retirement, and free agency, are missing the leadership that players like Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and Joey Porter provided. Perhaps they just lost too many respected veterans that could police the locker room and keep shit from getting out of hand.
Yeah. Maybe that’s it.
You could believe that. It would be complete bullshit. But you could believe it if you wanted to.
The Steelers aren’t missing leaders like Faneca, Smith, Ward, and Farrior. What they’re missing is the type of TALENT that Faneca, Smith, Ward, and Farrior had when they were in the prime of their career’s and helping the Steelers make repeat trips to the Super Bowl.
Every team has their internal issues over the course of the season. With 53 different players, personalities, and egos of varying degrees you’re never going to have a situation where everyone is farting rainbows and puppy dogs and singing around the campfire. There will always be disagreements, fights, and “chemistry” issues. They just get talked about more when the team loses.
And things brings me to my concern with the 2013 Steelers. Where the hell is the talent going to come from?
Another roster purge is inevitable given the salary cap and free agency situation, and we already know that the team’s most talented wide receiver (Mike Wallace) and running back (Rashard Mendenhall) won’t be back. It’s also possible that Keenan Lewis played himself into a big contract elsewhere. And that’s to say nothing of the cuts that have to be made in order to get the team under the salary cap and the returning players that will simply be another year older (James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton — assuming they’re even on the team when the season begins and not part of the upcoming roster cuts.)
The Steelers find themselves in this position because they’ve made a habit out of restructuring contracts and pushing their salary cap concerns down the road. I don’t blame the Steelers for doing it because it helped them put together the second-best era in the history of the franchise, a run from 2004-2012 that saw them play in four AFC Championship games and three Super Bowls, winning the whole damn thing twice. It was worth it. But when you do that you eventually have to pay the piper. And now he’s here to collect.
It’s far too soon to write off the 2013 Steelers before we even know what the team will look like. Especially when they still have one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, and anytime you have that you should — in theory — have a shot. Teams in worse positions have turned themselves around in one offseason. But they need a big-time draft and some savvy free agent additions that their cap situation will alow, and a couple of bounceback seasons (I’m looking at you, Antonio Brown) wouldn’t hurt either.
My biggest concern as we sit now is how pedestrian the offense looks around Roethlisberger. Part of that is Todd Haley’s system (I hate it) and the fact there are no real gamebreakers at any of the skill positions.
My feelings on the replaceability of running backs aside, the current crop has nothing that resembles a big-play threat and the options in free agency aren’t really intriguing. Honestly, their best bet might be to sign a talented reclamation project coming off a down year to a bargain contract. A classic case of buying low and going for a big reward. But the guy that best fits that description is Rashard Mendenhall, and unfortunately that ship appears to have already sailed.
There is no use in banging the Mike Wallace drum any longer because he’s gone, and the worst-case scenario would have him going to Cincinnati (a team that’s looking for somebody to play opposite A.J. Green) to torch the Steelers twice a year. But with him goes the explosiveness that the Steelers offense used to have. It seems that Steve Breaston is the likely replacement if we’re to believe recent reports, and that’s a huge drop in talent and production. Breaston is going to be 30 years old (bad news for a receiver) and has no history of making the type of big plays a team needs to win in the NFL. Going into the season with a top-three of Brown, Breaston, and Emmanuel Sanders does little for me.
There is cause for concern when it comes to the 2013 Steelers. It’s not because players are calling each other out publicly (or anonymously).
It’s because they no longer have the talent they used to have.