The ‘Haves’ And The ‘Have-Nots’ In The NFL – By Greg Stephens
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Major League Baseball used to be America’s Pastime – a grand, regal game full of heroes and legends, record-setters and record-breakers, dynasties and wanna-bes. Thanks to a strike, a steroid scandal, and gross disparity among teams, that is no longer the case. The National Football League is the most popular sport in this country, as evidenced by the consistently gigantic ratings of the Super Bowl and Monday Night Football.
One of the biggest factors leading to the NFL’s takeover of America’s sports loyalty is its commitment to parity. Unlike Major League Baseball, with the Yankees’ one hundred ninety-five million-dollar payroll as of April, 2006, compared to the Marlins’ payroll of fifteen million dollars, the NFL has attempted to retain a level playing field for all thirty-two teams by maintaining a salary cap of approximately one hundred two million dollars for 2006. While obviously not all teams pay the exact same amount in salary, the cap has done a pretty good job of making it possible for any one team to rise to the next level and contend for the championship.
There are certain exceptions to that last statement, however. It seems that no matter what happens in Detroit, things go horribly wrong. The Lions have not visited the post-season stage since 1999, going 33-66 in the six seasons since. Every season, by the beginning of October, Lions fans begin intermittently chanting “Get rid of Millen”, and “Next year’s our year.” The Lions have quietly replaced the Bengals and the Cardinals as the pinnacle of long-term NFL futility.
On the other side of the success coin is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since 1999, the Steelers have won sixty-four games and lost thirty-one, with one tie, while picking up four division titles and one Super Bowl championship. It would be very easy to explain this ‘Tale of Two Football Teams’ by giving Bill Cowher all the credit for the tremendous coaching he has provided the Steelers. It goes beyond that, however. As Marvin Lewis has addressed in Cincinnati, it’s all about the culture of winning verses the culture of losing.
The City of Pittsburgh has fielded a professional football team every season since 1933. Whether it was the Pirates, the Steagles of 1943, Card-Pitt of 1944, or the Steelers, Pittsburgh has had a continued presence in the long tradition of the sport. From 1933 until 1971, out of a total of thirty-nine seasons, Pittsburgh football teams managed a mere eight winning seasons. Coaching legend Chuck Noll came to the Steel City in 1969, inheriting a team that had won but two games the year prior. By 1972, he had laid the foundation that turned the franchise into a league powerhouse. In the thirty-four seasons following, the Steelers have only had seven losing seasons, winning five Super Bowl crowns and becoming a true dynasty.
If money is not a factor in the competitive ability of NFL teams, as it isn’t, given the differential between the Steelers 2006 payroll and the Lions 2006 payroll of an estimated eleven million dollars, what explains the difference between the ‘haves’ of the NFL, and the ‘have-nots’? What creates the culture of losing?
There has been a long-recognized psychological benefit to the fine art of trash talking. Virtually all sports involve an element of attempting to gain a competitive edge by affecting the mind-set of the opponent. Many believe this began with Joe Namath’s infamous guarantee in Super Bowl Three. Now you see trash talking on the gridiron, the baseball diamond, the basketball courts, even the poker tables. Golf may be the only sport not permeated by the impact of verbal psychological warfare.
Detroit’s Roy Williams has attempted to pump his team up this season by the art of the trash talk. After the Lions’ week one anemic loss to Seattle by a whopping score of nine to six, Williams guaranteed Detroit would prevail in week two against the powerhouse Chicago Bears, adding that it “…was stupid how close we were to putting forty points on the board,” in week one. Normally, coaches would be irate at what has become known as ‘bulletin board material’ such as this. This, however, was so ridiculous, and met with such derision from the media, any additional scoldings from his coaches would have been to rub salt in Williams’ wounds.
Week two came and, again, it was stupid how close someone came to putting forty points on the board in the Bears-Lions contest, as Chicago thumped Detroit 34-7. Williams, being the intelligent football player he is, quickly diverted any attention from his failed guarantee by making embarrassing first-down signs on the field after a catch while the Lions were already trailing ten to zero. After the game, when asked about the gestures in light of the score, his response was, “What does that mean? That means nothing to me. The score means nothing.” Apparently not, as he proceeded to guarantee a victory in week three against Green Bay. The sad part is, he’ll probably be right about that one, and therefore we will all have to endure his idiotic ‘guarantees’ and stupid gestures for the rest of the season, as the Lions no doubt end at 7-9, or 6-10. Roy Williams epitomizes the culture of losing that has plagued Detroit for many seasons.
On the other side of the coin, one has but to look at Pittsburgh’s own Joey Porter as the poster-boy of Cowher’s culture of winning. There is no question Porter is one of the top three trash talkers in the NFL. If fans look to Porter versus Williams, there are three reasons why Porter succeeds where Williams fails in the psychological warfare department.
First, Porter has the tools to back up his mouth, and does so quite effectively. Rule number one in trash talking is to never let your mouth write a check your butt can’t cash. Roy Williams can talk all he wants, but his career is nowhere near where it needs to be for him to make the comments he makes. In his first two seasons, he has posted numbers of 817 yards on 54 catches and 8 touchdowns, and 687 yards on 45 catches and 8 touchdowns, respectively. This year, he has 107 yards on nine catches and no scores. He is notorious for dropping passes and messing up routes. While he is an adequate receiver, he isn’t the guy that will send fear into an opponent with his level of play.
Porter, on the other hand, is regarded as a monster – literally. Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on Porter being the “Most Feared Man in the NFL”. Tom Brady was quoted as saying Porter’s the most intimidating player he faces because not only does Porter talk the talk, he walks the walk. We’re talking about a man that has taken the trash directly to the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, a feat few do and survive. He had ten and a half sacks last year and already has two this season, along with one interception he took to the house. Porter doesn’t mind talking, but he can never be accused of not backing it up.
Second, Porter knows the second rule of trash talking – timing is everything. Last season, Porter made a big splash by criticizing the officials after the AFC Championship game against the Colts. The game was over and the comments didn’t really involve the Seahawks, so those comments may have made a big splash on the talk-show circuit, but had little detrimental impact on his team. Over the course of the next two weeks, as everyone anxiously waited for Porter to say something stupid/inflammatory/insert adjective here, he obeyed his coach’s directive to keep a low profile. The only comments he made were complimentary in regards to the Seahawks and Shawn Alexander in particular. While everyone waited for, and focused on, the ‘bulletin board material’, it never came.
Williams needs to learn this rule immediately. A player will not achieve psychological advantages by bragging how close his team came to scoring forty when his team actually fell short by thirty-four points. When a professional football team loses a game by a score that resembles a Yankees/Red Sox box score, no one should be talking trash about it. Porter himself knows that. Early in the Steelers loss to Jacksonville Monday night, Porter was jawing with someone on the Jaguars offense. As the Jaguars managed to put points on the board, and Pittsburgh did not, Porter shut up. In fact, neither he, nor anyone else on the Steelers team, has made high profile comments on that game with the exception of very appropriate comments by Cowher and Roethlisberger taking much of the loss on his shoulders. No one is bragging how close they came to scoring forty points.
Finally, Porter embodies a cliche that has consumed our younger generations – he keeps it real. When fans see Porter jawing on the field, or read articles about him, or see his highlight reels on television, they are seeing the real Joey Porter. Like it or don’t like it, the attitude, the confidence, the ability is all real. He doesn’t care who likes it, and he isn’t about to change. When he kissed Cowher following his interception touchdown against Miami, he was being Joey Porter.
Williams may really be as delusional, naive, or stupid as his comments have come across, but his bravado doesn’t come off as genuine confidence. He knows he’s on a bad team. He knows he plays for a bad president and CEO. He probably knows his starting quarterback is, at best, a decent back-up. It goes back to yet another old saying, you can’t convince people of something you don’t believe yourself. Some may credit Williams for trying to be the leader and spark to a new fire in Detroit, but until he learns the proper use of trash talk and psychology, which, for him, may be to not use it at all, he will continue to be the dictionary definition of the culture of losing that separates the Detroits from the Pittsburghs of the NFL.