The legendary black-and-gold heads into the upcoming season with a tarnished image. Without the "7 to 10," how will things compute? It might all depend on you.
Roethlisberger to Holmes. That was the combination, wasn’t it? Super Bowl XLIII wasn’t that long ago, even though at the moment it might feel that way, and, besides, that hook-up, dubbed by some as the "Immaculate Extension," was pretty much awarded instant status as being unforgettable.
Not that anyone in Pittsburgh could forget the wonderfully implausible pass and catch that won the Pittsburgh Steelers their record sixth Super Bowl. A play that had black-and-gold fans thinking they were on top of the world.
It was the precise teamwork between Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback, and Santonio Holmes, the wide receiver, which made it work. There was no margin for error on either man’s part. Each had to toe the line, literally and figuratively, to pull it off. Yes, that was the combination: Roethlisberger to Holmes. Or, if you prefer, "7 to 10."
This fall, Steelers fans going to the games can pay a special tribute to "7 to 10" by stopping to purchase a T-shirt from any number of unlicensed merchants who peddle their wares on the bridges on the way to Heinz Field. Of course, Holmes (our old No. 10) is no longer a Steeler, but that’s irrelevant. In this instance, "7 to 10" does not refer to a pass connection but rather to a jail sentence. It’s the sentence, this crudely obscene shirt implies, that Roethlisberger deserved for his reckless behavior this past spring in Milledgeville, Ga.
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Roethlisberger to Holmes? It was arguably the second-most famous pass play in the Steelers’ history, but in retrospect it has proved to be anything but "immaculate." What was once the perfect symbol of a franchise’s greatness has devolved into a cheap punch line in less than two years. For one magical moment, they were two players at the pinnacle of their profession, playing for a team that was considered to be the model franchise in the NFL.
Now, they’ve fallen and they can’t get up. On their way down, they dragged the reputation of a franchise along with them. The wide receiver has been shipped to New York. He’s the lucky one. The quarterback is headed for parts unknown.
The same quarterback who once had fans wondering if he would someday surpass Terry Bradshaw’s record for Super Bowl championships now elicits a different kind of wonder in those same fans. No, it’s not about how he’ll perform after he serves the suspension dictated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That’s the lesser issue at the moment. Of greater concern is how he should be treated when he trots out onto the field for the first time.
Our quarterback: Right or wrong? Hate the sin; love the sinner? What’s a fan to think?
Steeler Nation likes to pride itself on its loyalty and devotion, but loyalty and devotion come easy when a team wins six Super Bowls. It’s easy when dependable, sane, local ownership is running the show as the Rooneys have for decades-when the stadium is sold out year after year and thousands more wait for a chance to buy in.
Steeler Nation has never been tested as this year will test them. As a group, Steelers fans have no trouble expressing antipathy to quarterbacks as Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Kordell Stewart and others would attest. Perform at the highest level-or else-is their standard, and they enforce it mercilessly. But what happens this year? Will simply a high level of play be enough to satisfy them? Should it?
Not that Steelers fans haven’t looked the other way at the transgressions of their black-and-gold heroes in the past. Linebackers have faced domestic-violence charges; place-kickers have been charged for resisting arrest. Even Holmes was charged with possession of marijuana just a few months before his catch put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and earned him MVP of the Super Bowl.
Still, Steelers fans have always felt comfortable chalking up such transgressions to the "boys will be boys" culture of pro football while taking the moral high ground against teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals, which have long been castigated locally as nothing more than a team of unholy miscreants.
Guess what? In 2010, the moral high ground has shifted. You can’t throw stones when you can go to YouTube and watch the 20-year-old college student describe what happened that night in a bathroom stall in Milledgeville. You can’t make fun of other teams when your quarterback shows up as a visual pun on an acidly satiric episode of "South Park" or as a punch line in a song by rapper Eminem. You can’t call it a normal season when a vital part of your quarterback’s preseason preparation includes a televised heart-to-heart chat with Sally Wiggin.
Yes, we all understand that the Steelers never were choirboys. Every era had its off-field troublemakers, lawbreakers and probably worse. You could argue that football is a sport that depends on a high number of violent people, some of whom can restrict all their energies to the field and some who can’t. Nice guys finish last and all that. Whether this situation is as it should be is irrelevant.
It is, as the sports cliché goes, what it is.
For generations, the Steelers were good for Pittsburgh-good for the region’s prodigal sons and daughters who fled for jobs across the country. In some particularly lean years, the Steelers were pretty much all that was good here. Jobs disappeared; the steel mills dotting our riversides became empty shells, and the population grew older. But the Steelers remained a bedrock. Remained proud, dignified. Remained winners even as the city lost. You could develop an attachment to a team like that.
There’s always been a sort of unofficial pact between fans and the players on the teams they support. Play the game well, and you will be adored. If you must misbehave off the field, keep it at a minimum, and please spare us any details. That way we can more easily pretend it doesn’t matter.
That’s a prudent policy, but it is not applicable when the quarterback is the player whose personality gets revealed. Fair or not, quarterback is the one position above all others that demands to be noticed. Everything he does is magnified, and, in turn, magnifies the transgressions of other players.
What Roethlisberger-and, to a lesser extent, some of his teammates-have done is pull down the curtain. We didn’t care to look behind it; we just liked seeing the wizard perform his miracles. Now that we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain, we can’t really turn away. We can’t turn away even if we want to say it doesn’t matter in terms of what happens on the football field, and it doesn’t matter in terms of how we feel about a team we have cheered on for decades.
On some basic level, it does matter.
However, it is extremely unlikely that the fans will withhold support for this team they have adored for decades and which they like to think reflects well on their hometown. The general disgust they may feel at the start of the season will certainly recede once the games commence. In a sense, Roethlisberger’s early-season suspension will make it easier for the fans to reconnect with the team. He won’t be around to complicate the relationship.
When he returns, the reaction of the fans will be as big a sports story as whatever the Steelers do on the field in 2010. The Steelers understand, as well as everyone else, that this has been an unusual off-season, but they have taken steps to demonstrate they will "keep doing business as usual," as a team spokesman put it.
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Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement this spring that stressed the fact that Roethlisberger met with him on several occasions, "not only to discuss this incident, but also to discuss his commitment to making sure something like this never happens again.
"The Pittsburgh Steelers take the conduct of players and staff very seriously. Ben will now have to work hard to earn back the respect and trust of Steelers fans and to live up to the leadership responsibilities we all expect of him," Rooney said.
Exactly what the fans will think of Ben is difficult to ascertain. Does cheering for a player constitute forgiveness for sins, real or imagined? Does purchasing a ticket, watching on television or going to training camp in Latrobe imply support for management’s handling of the situation? Is wearing a Steelers jersey a political statement?
Like it or not, this is the summer of our discontent. Nobody asked for it, and not everyone chooses to recognize it even now, despite all that’s been said, written and videotaped. But it’s out there nonetheless.
The Steelers did not have the luxury of wondering what to do this off-season. Instead, they acted quickly and decisively, even if it meant breaking up that magical combination, "7 to 10."
The organization-aware that Holmes faced a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy and also of the fact that he would become a free agent after the season-traded its star wide receiver shortly after he sent a threatening message to a disgruntled fan on Twitter.
In retrospect, it could be viewed as an example of the Steelers’ zero-tolerance policy for such incidents, but, most likely, it was simply a smart business move made more palatable to the fans because of Holmes’ erratic history of behavior.
As for "7," rumors persisted right up to the start of the NFL draft that he would be dealt, even though it figured to be hard, if not impossible, to get equal value in return for a 28-year-old franchise quarterback with two Super Bowls on his résumé. In the end, he wasn’t traded, which really says nothing about the Steelers’ attitude toward Ben’s off-the-field situation and everything about what makes perfect business sense in today’s NFL. Wide receivers, even those who can hold a game in balance as they tip-toe along a sideline, are replaceable. Proven, dependable, winning quarterbacks-not so much.
After the draft, Kevin Colbert, the Steelers’ director of football operations, said of Roethlisberger, "We can’t defend the behavior or actions, and as an organization we won’t. But we do defend his opportunity to make right. And I think that’s the right thing to do. This guy helped us win two championships and he’s made some mistakes, but he also deserves the opportunity to rectify those mistakes, and I know that we stand behind his opportunity to do that."
So, what will it be? Our guy, right or wrong? Our team, good or bad? Do we have any other choices?
If Steelers management demonstrated that the distractions of a turbulent offseason could not keep them from making the decisions to keep 7 and discard 10, so, too, must Steelers fans realize that there are bigger things at stake here. The Steelers are bigger than any one player or coach. They are bigger than any one owner. Their fans have embraced them over the years as much for what they represent as for what they’ve actually accomplished. That will not change.
So cheer the quarterback if you feel like it, or boo him if you prefer. (A moment of silent disapproval is probably too difficult to stage-manage.) Yes, his suspension could cost the team victories. Yes, his status with his teammates may have been compromised. And, yes, he may make rooting for your favorite team a little less fun for an undetermined amount of time.
Whatever happens this fall, the Steelers will live on, as always, but not because of noble players, wise management or kind ownership. Rather, because they are anchored by a heart and soul that refuses to be compromised or diminished.
If you are searching for a reason to cheer in this sure-to-be-strange season, cheer for that. You deserve it.