By Jason Keidel
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It’s nearly impossible to kneel at my gridiron altar without breaking the agreement I have with WFAN: keep it local. I’ve bitten my literary tongue for nearly three years, save for the time we handed the Packers that Super Bowl, courtesy of Rashard Mendenhall’s loose grip on the loaf.
But now it’s time to rip the muzzle. Not only are the Steelers steamrolling into the Meadowlands, I’ve got Terry Bradshaw, an icon among the icons of my childhood, calling Joe and Evan, dropping knowledge with his southern, goofball charm, somehow laced with poignant insights on a position he played better than just about anyone ever has.
Has anyone with four rings ever been so lightly regarded? Only Joe Montana joins Bradshaw in 4-0, Super Bowl perfection, yet when the short list of signal-callers drips from your pen, Bradshaw is rarely regarded among the immortals. And I’m not sure why. If the argument is that he played with a Canton-clad squad, well, show me a transcendent quarterback with the requisite Super Bowl bling who wasn’t surrounded by supremely gifted teammates.
But now that my beloved black & gold are back on track, restored from a stumbling 2-3 to a surging 4-3, football winds at their broad backs, I have carte blanche to chat up the Stillers.
Just about every year the vultures hover over the Steelers, ready to eulogize a team that is inordinately successful, rewiring the programmed parity that is Roger Goodell’s nouveau NFL, the rags-to-riches coda reinforced by salary caps, draft placement, and abundant bounty from television contracts. The NFL could be the only economic model in history where socialism works. And somehow the Steelers remain supreme capitalists.
James Harrison and Troy Polamalu – two monoliths in the defense-dominated epoch that has kept the Steelers essential for the last decade – have been increasingly injured and are creeping up Father Time’s stack of files. Casey Hampton, an All-Pro, dump truck of a nose tackle, is also chronologically challenged. Safety Ryan Clark literally has a life-threatening medical issue (sickle cell) that keeps him from playing in high altitudes.
There are holes all over the Steelers roster, except at QB, which, no matter the mess on offense or defense, can cloak most pockmarks in personnel.
Ben Roethlisberger is the main reason Pittsburgh matters. No doubt Big Ben has engaged in inelegant conduct, but I’ve heard too many ignorant cries of “rapist” from feminists, fools, and haters, for me to take quietly. For the record, the two legal matters in question – one in Nevada and the other in Georgia – were never legal matters. Roethlisberger was not charged, arrested, or even handcuffed in either case. Is he a jerk for playing a spin the bottle with a 20-year-old in a bar bathroom? Clearly. Does that make him Hannibal Lecter? Hardly.
And no matter your football fandom, it is a site to see Big Ben bulge in the backfield like Paul Bunyan, gripping the football like cell phone while bodies bang and fly around and into him, as he sheds tackle upon tackle. It’s nothing new to see Big Ben pinball in the pocket on third down, bedazzling fans and befuddling foes over the years while he hits Hines Ward for eight, Heath Miller for nine, or Antonio Brown for ten.
But this game on Sunday is more than just one of 16. This is a referendum on success, two teams so close on the football family tree that they’ve literally married each other, producing one of America’s finest actresses (Rooney Mara). And the similarities just begin there.
Two Mesozoic franchises, corporate to the core, relying on a buttoned-down, traditional approach on and off the turf – a defense-first, drubbing running game blueprint that has worked more often than not – is suddenly and decidedly pyrotechnic, adapting to the new rules favoring the old, AFL template of matriculating the ball downfield, to quote the quotable Hank Stram.
The Steelers are on their customary perch, first in pass defense and ninth against the run. It’s their mutation in offense and migration to pass that belies their historical prerogative they established with Franco Harris down to Jerome Bettis. With the typical, turnstile at running back afflicting most teams who don’t have Adrian Peterson, the Steelers have, as always, drafted brilliantly, snatching skill position players who contribute immediately. (Much like Jerry Reese and the Giants, with Reese perhaps the most underrated GM in the NFL.)
The parts seem interchangeable, but that’s only because Pittsburgh drafts and trades so subtly well. How else do you explain losing your starting running back (Mendenhall) only to insert the immortal Jonathan Dwyer to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry? Is Plaxico Burress is a burden? Enter Santonio Holmes. Is Holmes a headache? Enter Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, with a dash of Emmanuel Sanders.
Who else plucks Hines Ward and Alan Faneca in the same day? Who can say they drafted four Hall-of-Famers in one year? In 1974, they bagged Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Mike Webster. Who trades a Super Bowl MVP for a fifth round pick only to find his replacement with that pick?
The two, epic clubs are crossing swords at a crucial time of the season. And the career arcs of their franchise quarterbacks are on display. Drafted the same year, the same round, the same day, Big Ben and Eli Manning will be forever compared on the ladder of contemporary legends. They headline a QB class – along with Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub – that could be the best since the famed class of 1983.
It raises two fascinating questions. Who is the model NFL club? And, given one draft pick for a QB to lead your fledgling franchise, do you pick Ben or Eli? There really is no wrong answer. Gauged solely by the objective hardness of wins and losses and leadership, they are virtually equal, even if their styles on and off the grass are quite contrasting.
Since I’m eternally biased, I recuse myself because my reflexive answer is the Steelers and Ben, backed by six Lombardi Trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances, including three by Ben.
At the same time, I’m oddly cynical, so devoted to my beloved black & gold that I always predict a loss, with winning providing more relief than rejoicing. Perhaps that just makes me a fan.
There’s no doubt here that the Pittsburgh Steelers have been the best franchise in the NFL since Chuck Noll, the most underrated coach in history, drafted Mr. Bradshaw, the most underrated QB in history, the aw, shucks, who, me? assassin who has laughed his way to the Super Bowl and the bank for 40 years.
But the Giants are just a bit better this year.
Giants win, 27-23.
Well, which is the model NFL club? What’s your prediction for Sunday? Be heard in the comments below…