Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Late Reflections on the Super Bowl and the Steelers

Easily the first two things that occurred to me when turning on the Super Bowl pregame were the words, "Matt Millen?"

In NBC's continuing effort to drown out the only three people in their commentator booth who shouldn't be launched into the sun — Cris Collinsworth, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann — they stuffed the Super Bowl pregame with former head coach and anthropomorphic walrus Mike Holmgren and, incomprehensibly, Matt Millen. If you haven't been watching football since the early 1990s, you probably think of Millen as a pretty decent TV analyst and a guy with four Super Bowl rings. If you've been paying attention since, you recognize him as the worst football executive in at least half a century.

Millen first raised his ignominious head above ground for NBC's analysis during the playoffs, and the appearance was nothing short of baffling and galling. Just weeks earlier, Millen had been fired as the President of the Detroit Lions. During his tenure, the Lions put up the worst record of any team since WWII. Millen's rolodex didn't have the number of a single coach that wasn't terrible, and he couldn't get through a season's draft without doing something unbelievable. If I'm not much mistaken, Detroit has traded for 12 first-round picks through 2013 that all have to go to wide receivers because "Joey Harrington needs more weapons." For years, fans demanded he be fired. He was so bad at his job, fans of rival teams supported him. And when he emerged in NBC's booth and Keith Olbermann asked him if he would have fired himself for his performance, his answer, yes, insulted anyone even remotely interested in football. Millen wouldn't have fired Millen because he never made a good personnel decision in his life. He wouldn't have fired himself because, even after seven years of unambiguous failure, he accepted a contract extension. Then the team went 0-16.

My personal outrage is almost quaint compared to the torrent of abuse for him and for NBC that greeted his appearances in the booth during the playoffs. It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that NBC would have removed him from the program come Super Bowl time, but there he was again. "Matt Millen? Really?" Hiring Matt Millen to talk about the Super Bowl is like CNN's hiring Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown to be their Repair and Reconstruction correspondent for a category five hurricane striking Miami. It's less defensible than staffing a gay affairs and public morals panel with Mark Foley and Larry Craig. Millen's very presence in the booth impeached the credibility of everything around him. How or why would anyone take anything anyone in the booth said seriously when they were obviously hired by the same person who hired the worst football executive in living memory?

Given the absurdity of the pregame, my days of ambivalence going into the game assumed an air of absolute clarity. While I respected the Steelers' organization, I didn't want them to win. (Arguably, they didn't.)

At heart, it's because I'm a California boy who grew up loving the San Francisco 49ers and who still can't really bear the idea of their no longer being tied with the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins for a franchise. I also really liked the plucky and unexpected Arizona Cardinals. And I also find the Steelers pretty much the second-most boring team in football. The first point's just jealousy. The other two seem fairly legitimate.

The Cardinals were just more fun. Given their meager number of wins in indisputably the worst division in football, nobody thought they'd make it out of the first playoff game, let alone stage the largest comeback to take the lead in Super Bowl history. Plus, they had interesting characters. Larry Fitzgerald not only seems like a completely nice guy, he's also an absolute beast. His catches are poetry. And Anquan Boldin—what can you say about that guy? They broke his face. People broke Anquan Boldin's FACE(!!!), and he denied himself painkillers and willed himself back onto the field after having something like 43 screws piece his humpty-dumpty head back together just weeks earlier.

Furthermore, while I ridiculed Kurt Warner and his evangelicism — not to mention his wire-haired man-goblin wife — ten years ago when he won a Super Bowl and seemed to cakewalk to another, his faith became sort of endearing over the last near-decade. If Job were a football player and had access to antibiotics to cure boils, he'd have had a career like Warner's. Once excellent, then concussed from team to team, supplanted by the feckless Eli Manning and second-rating behind the keg-standing Matt Lienart. Warner persevered despite being written off almost entirely and never once abandoned the positivity of his faith even at his career's nadir. It's easy to hear about God after someone wins the Super Bowl, but he doesn't come up much when the New York media is suggesting you get benched in favor of the human pork sausage Jared Lorenzen. Warner came off like a good guy, and he did so consistently. I couldn't help but root for him.

Plus, like I said, the Steelers bore me. Which is not to suggest I think they are bad people or a bad organization. They are, in fact, quite the opposite. I wrote here:
Establishing an America's Team for football is a trickier proposition, but I think if any team earns the distinction, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers. For several reasons:
1. An old and established team.
2. Classic American industrial city with working-class roots.
3. Great stadium, within walking distance of tons of neighborhoods, as close to the heart of the city as one can reasonably demand in this day and age.
4. Thirty years of consistent competence and frequent excellence.
5. Enormous nationwide appeal.
6. Appeal across all racial lines.
7. They philosophically represent a lot of what is great about America in that their owner, Dan Rooney, insisted on and helped pass the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities for head coaching positions. Not only is watching the Steelers rewarding from a "good football" standpoint, it's rewarding in a "good citizen" sense.
I won't retract a word of it, because I don't think my antipathy makes it any less true. They're still the leading contenders for exemplifying the best in football, but I still have every right to hope they get stomped.

Thus, I went in to the game with an antipathy I believed fully justified. And maybe it owes something to that "America's Team" pretense. For instance, there are Pittsburgh fans everywhere, which is sort of baffling. It's a city of only about 300,000 people in a state of about 12 million. Even with surrounding suburbs, there just aren't enough Yinzers to generate the national support that the team finds. The state itself is compromised by Eagles fans and also by fans of Ohio's, Baltimore's and New Yorks' teams. No realistic geographic or emigrant model can account for the terrible towels everywhere.

Which means, necessarily, that there are a lot of peripheral fans for God knows what reason. Of the two die-hard Steelers fans I know, one lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the other comes from Virginia. The last time I was at a bar with nice Steelers fans — which, actually, could be phrased as "the last time I was at a bar with Steelers fans, period," since their fanbase seems to be almost unfailingly kind (even though it's easy to be nice when you keep winning) — one was an Iowa resident, and the other came from Kentucky.

Even though I think they have a legitimate and compelling claim to being America's Team, it's hard to ignore just how much the Steelers have captured a diaspora of fans that aren't from that city or state. It bespeaks a bandwagoning. After all, despite some shaky years in the 1980s, the team has been consistently good. It flirts regularly with the postseason and always displays a basic competence. Given that, bandwagoners would cleave to it without doubt. Sure, they might not win it all this year, but jumping on the Steelers' train usually pays off. If you've rooted for the Steelers from the 1970s to the present, you've never really rooted for a team that was "out of it from the beginning of the season" except for a couple instances. It's a safe bet. It's a gutless bet. It's the thing you can glom onto, from whatever midwest redoubt you exist in, and from there you can embrace a chance at joy. Basically, Steelers fans as "authentic Steelers fans" are probably far lower than Steelers fans who dig winning, which made me want to see the team lose, if nothing more than to make people who like waving kidney-failure-piss-yellow towels question why they've bought into a franchise.

That dislike, though, finds community with the fact that the franchise is boring. It runs the ball and controls the clock. Boring. It relies on defense to stop someone else only as much as needed so the offense can squeak by. Boring. Pittsburgh football might be fundamentally egalitarian in its hiring practices and ownership and idea of the defense as an integrated whole, but the end result is annihilatingly fucking dull. I said earlier that they are the second-dullest franchise in pro football, and the one that exceeds them is Baltimore.

Baltimore relies on an excellent defense and special teams play to break a game wide open. On offense, it relies on running and ball control. When excitement breaks out, it's often a defensive player returning a fumble or interception. Pittsburgh relies on the same thing. Sure, there's the interesting personal element of Dick LeBeau being 72 and looking like he's 50, but the dynamic doesn't change. The most exciting part about the Steelers is when they exploit another team's errors. Being a fan of the Steelers because of their offense is like watching The Wire for shootouts or listening to Coldplay for sick guitar riffs. If you want to pass that off as your motivation, you're either a liar or a moron.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger is kind of fun. But not in a "watch an elite quarterback" sense and more in a "watch a dog try to figure out if it needs to fight or fuck a Roomba" sense. Watching the Pittsburgh offense involves watching him fail to make a read, run haplessly, not get tackled, then throw a shitty wobble 13 yards for a first down. It's not an offense: it's an absence of someone else's defense. It prevails, it works, because it outlasts the effectiveness of whatever faces it. Not because it possesses an elemental talent but because it will outlive the tactic that hinders it. Watching a team win by enduring is like watching the Russians defeat another invasion via winter and lice.

Roethlisberger isn't a good quarterback because of his abilities as much as his stature. When he's forced to make quick reads, he throws the ball into double coverage. He under- or over-throws his receivers. Under pressure in terms of the pass, he's frequently mediocre. But the thing is, he's heavy and big — more so than most quarterbacks. Thus plays where any other person would get sacked due to good pressure see him wandering around and chucking a wobble ten yards for a first down. It's neither a reflection on the defense or a reflection on his ability: he's just able to stand longer than expected, at which point defensive schemes break down and enable a tottering pass to profit. A shorter or thinner quarterback with the same skills would fare far worse. 

As soon as age catches up with Roethlisberger and his scrambling and getting pancaked is no longer viable, he will probably be mediocre at best. Without the ability to make a play by simply out-standing defenders, he'll have to rely on passing well, which he does with mixed results. If, at the same time, Dick LeBeau retires, the Steelers will lose their two anchors in terms of postseason success. What they'll be left with is a decent defense and ball control and a quarterback who succeeds less by what he does than by what mass he possesses and where other teams eventually fail schematically. The Steelers will contract into adequacy, and the world can go back to watching cretins bandwagon on the Dallas Cowboys and demonstrating their worthlessness to everyone else.

I can't help but respect the Steeler organization, and if I look at them objectively and in a kind of macro perspective about what they constitute for football in general, I have to admit that I sort of like them. But in my petty, mean, prejudiced heart — the heart that's operating when I'm actually watching the games — I want to see their defense scattered and confused and their quarterback crushed like an unprotected human skull in a motorcycle accident. While I recognize their win and appreciate what they've done, I wish them nothing but doom and obsolescence. Go away: you are totally boring.

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