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The Depressing Consistency of the New England Patriots

As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, watching the game between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars was like slowly bleeding to death.

Despite the Jags having a ten point lead in the fourth quarter, I’m not sure anyone really thought the Jags would win.  The Patriots were stopping the run and making Blake Bortles beat them. And as the pressure ratcheted up, the Patriots had all the energy and the Jags seemed to need heroic plays just to get a first down.  Bortles did not turn the ball over and played well for the most part, but the Jaguars offense seemed to lose confidence with every series in the second half. If you can’t run, play action begins to lose its power. Ending up in third and long is a recipe for trouble.

Sure enough, Tom Brady led a comeback; scoring 14 unanswered points. After recovering a fumble on a great defensive play, Jacksonville managed two first downs, three punts and turned it over on downs.  When the Pats got a first down on the subsequent series it was over.

The depressing thing is that this is just what Tom Brady and the Patriots are and what they do.  They relentlessly come at you until you crack under the pressure.  Even without Rob Gronkowski in the second half, Brady found open receivers and converted third downs. The defense made the necessary plays with the game on the line.

The contrast with the Steelers couldn’t have been greater.  Sure, the Steelers offense looked better but the Patriots gave up 6 points after halftime.  The Steelers gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter.  The Steelers never really pressured Bortles all game.  The Pats sacked him three times and pressured him consistently in the fourth quarter.  As if this wasn’t depressing enough, James Harrison had a strip sack. Think the Steelers could have used that?

I am not even going to get into the Brady QB sneak on third and one.

The cartoon above sums up my feelings about football.  It is not enough that the Steelers succeed, the Patriots must also fail.  But there is once again faint hope of that happening.  They are one game away from equaling the Steelers’ six Super Bowl victories and will be facing a team with a untested QB (or at least one who has never played in a Super Bowl).  Brady has been to half the Super Bowls (8) of his career (16 years).

Depressing.  Consistent, repetitive and depressing.

The Bittersweet Nature of Being a Pittsburgh Steelers Fan

The Pittsburgh Steelers football team won 13 games this season, won their division and had a bye week to set up a home playoff game.  Pretty good season, right?  Wrong.

They lost a bitter game to the New England Patriots when they were jobbed by the NFL which meant they would not be playing the Tennessee Titans but the Jacksonville Jaguars.  One of only three teams to beat the Steelers in the regular season when five interceptions (two pick-sixes) led to an embarrassing 30-9 loss. One of two teams with a winning record against the Steelers at home (the other? Yes, the Patriots).

That is what is called foreshadowing. So naturally, any remaining positive feelings from winning 13 games and the division is flushed down the toilet in demoralizing fashion when they lose again to the Jaguars 45-42.  One and done. End of season. Poof.  All of that offensive talent finally healthy and it doesn’t matter.  Fans who desperately wanted revenge against the hated Patriots, were instead handed another depressing loss to the Jaguars.  The wailing and gnashing of teeth will last for some time. Anger, depression, confusion, a swirling sea of emotion as fans come to grips that football is over for the year.

For fans of dozens of teams these bitter tears are sweet.  Browns, Bengals and Ravens fans are all enjoying this moment I am sure.  There are no shortage of fans who hate the Steelers and their fans (who often dominate visiting stadiums across the country thanks to all the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania folks who left to find job during the economic slide the region experienced).

But many of those same fans would also laugh at the bitter complaints of Steelers fans.  Who are not known for their calm and balanced reactions.

And it is a weird feeling to be so bitter about this franchise when they have experienced so much success.

In my lifetime (1970), the Steelers have won something like 23 division titles (my rough count), played in 8 Super Bowls and won 6.  They have won more Super Bowls than any other team in the NFL. They haven’t had a losing season since 2003.

After the legendary and dominant Steelers of the 70s, the Steelers are once again a perennial contender in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl wins in three tries.  Most fans would love their team to have this kind of record.  Heck, Roethlisberger has more wins in Cleveland than the Browns do.

And yet.  The fact of the matter is that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have dominated the NFL and the Steelers since Brady came in to replace an injured Drew Bledsoe to beat the Steelers in 2001.  17 consecutive winning seasons, eight consecutive 12 win seasons, 15 division titles since 2001, and five Super Bowls and counting.

Losing at home, after a bye, with all your stars healthy hurts.  To again commit critical turnovers and mistakes and to let a pretty mediocre QB beat you adds to the pain.  To watch helplessly as the defense gives up big play after big play, is demoralizing.

But what really pours salt in the wounds is to know that the Patriots are still favorites to win the Super Bowl.  It is the knowledge that the Patriots don’t seem to lose these games, don’t seem to let these type of seasons slip away, that lingers.

Today felt like a chance for the Steelers to reassert themselves as the team to challenge the Patriots.  Ben Roethlisberger’s career is coming to a close and he won’t have this much talent around him forever.  But instead of setting up the rematch everyone wanted and was expecting, they will be spending the offseason thinking about what might have been.  Even as Tom Brady seeks to add hardware to his already crowded shelf.

And that is a bitter pill for any fan to swallow.

The Perfect Pass by S. C. Gwynne

Sunday night I was sitting on the couch with my daughter enjoying a blowout win for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Thanks to their high-powered offense, and some ineptitude on the part of the Kansas City Chiefs, they soon built a three touchdown lead and never looked back.

What does this have to do with a book you review, you might be asking.  Well, it has to do with the change in the game of football and the Steelers are a good example of these changes.  Steelers football for years was identified with a punishing running game and a stingy defense.  These days it is more about its star QB Ben Roethlisberger, his favorite target Antonio Brown, and the other weapons he has around him.  Even running back Le’veon Bell, the other star in the backfield, plays an important role in the passing game.

And S.C. Gwynne argues we have Hal Mumme to thank for that.  Gwynne is the author of The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, an interesting story about influential football coach and thinker/strategist Hal Mumme.

the-perfect-pass-9781501116193_hrIn the tradition of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, award-winning historian S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of how two unknown coaches revolutionized American football at every level, from high school to the NFL.

Hal Mumme is one of a handful of authentic offensive geniuses in the history of American football. The Perfect Pass is the story of how he irreverently destroyed and re-created the game.

Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense that would soon shock players, delight fans, and terrify opposing coaches. The revolution he fomented began at a tiny, overlooked college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach, a lawyer who had never played college football, was hired as his offensive line coach.

[…]

In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated one, the game that tens of millions of Americans now watch every fall weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan, this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way from the margins into the hot center of the game we celebrate today.

There are basically two threads in the book: one focused on Mumme’s coaching career through high school and obscure colleges before a brief stint at Kentucky in the powerhouse SEC; and another focused on the development of his famous Air Raid offense.

A Collected Miscellany Of Football Books

Day three of our February blogapolooza brings us to Super Bowl Sunday. So in honor of the big game I figured I would hit the archives for some books on football. This helps in two ways: 1) it might give you some reading during the off-season and 2) you get to read a blog post you might have missed [3) I will have posted today].  Not surprisingly  they deal mostly with my favorite teams: The University of Michigan Wolverines and the Pittsburgh Steelers (neither of which exactly covered themselves in glory this season).  But I think the books would be enjoyable for any fan of the game.

Three And Out: Rich Rodriguez And The Michigan Wolverines In The Crucible Of College Football By John U. Bacon

Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. In one of those quirks of fate, a former student of Bacon’s worked for Rodriguez’s financial adviser. This connection led to the idea of Bacon’s writing a couple of articles about the spread offense coming to Michigan, and then maybe collaborating on a book.

It is the height of understatement to say things did not work out as planned.

For most Michigan fans (myself included), that makes this book particularly painful. It is like watching a replay of your car accident in slow motion, on repeat. You know both the ultimate end result and the final score of every painful game and yet you force yourself to read the excruciating details as you relive the nightmare.

But if you are simply a fan of college football, or interested in big-time college athletics more generally, it is a fascinating read. Ohio State fans might find it entertaining and strangely cathartic.

The Ones Who Hit The Hardest By Chad Millman & Shawn Coyne

Cover of "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: T...

Cover via Amazon

This is one of those books where the whole almost seems more than the parts. Not every section works, and all the threads are not neatly wrapped up by the end, but the stories along the way are so interesting that you don’t mind.

In the end what you get is a snapshot history of the NFL in the 1970s through the lens of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys with the labor movement of the steel mills as a background. For Steeler fans I think this is a must read – although those with a strong knowledge of the team in the 70s might already be aware of much of the history.

Anyone interested in the NFL or sports history, however, would find this a fascinating read.

The Ones Who Hit the Hardest by Chad Millman & Shawn Coyne

Cover of "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: T...

Cover via Amazon

The sting is beginning to wear off from the heartbreaking Super Bowl loss of my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers – but that game is likely to haunt Steeler fans for a while.

Continuing my attempt at topical or themed reading, I decided to read an appropriate book in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLV.

And one that was in the TBR pile fit perfectly: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ’70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul.

Steeler fans, those intersted in the history of the NFL and those with a connection to Pittsburgh will want to check this one out.

While at times the differing threads sit awkwardly together, and it is certainly a Steeler focused perspective, but I found it be an engaging and interesting read.

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