Thursday, January 5, 2012

"1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8... etc. etc. etc....!": A (Semi)Serious Look At the NFL Playoffs: Team 10

Despite my general dislike of zombies as a pop culture phenomenon -- zombies got played out way faster than vampires did, probably because of their low sex-appeal (zombies have low sex appeal in all cases except for this sexiest zombie story you'll ever read.)-- I opted to go with a zombie theme for team 10, the Pittsburgh Steelers because really, if there ever was a team that was just staggering around using some unknown force to propel it through society, it's the Steelers.

After staggering, hung over and wheezing, through last year's Super Bowl, the Steelers saw an inexplicable amount of credit and hype from the likes of Pro Football Weekly (which wishywashied their way to a commendation of the team) to CBS sports (which said they'd be in the "Super Mix", another wishy-washy, have it however you want it nonanalysisnonprediction) to probably others but I'm too lazy to look them up.

After all that prediction, the Steelers finished 12-4, good for second-best record in the AFC, so how can I say they're a zombie team running on fumes?

Simple: The Steelers' four losses came to Baltimore (twice), Houston, and the 49ers -- all teams ranked higher than Pittsburgh in the playoffs (Houston had 2 fewer wins but won its division).

That, combined with the fact that Pittsburgh finished 12-4 last year, too, but had higher net points (143 in 2010 compared to 98 in 2011) helps mark Pittsburgh, like Atlanta, as a team that made the playoffs mostly because other teams didn't. The Steelers' 98 net points this year put them near the bottom of the barrel of playoff teams, and I view net points as a mark of how good a team really is: keeping your opponents' scores down while yours up is an easy indicator of quality, because a high, positive net point score tends to indicate you outscore your opponents a lot and rarely get blown out. The Saints (208), Packers (201) and Patriots (171) have superhigh net point totals, and while their defenses are regularly maligned, the fact remains that over 16 games, the Saints have outscored their opponents by an average of 13 points, or two touchdowns. That means either their defense is better than it's given credit for being, or their offense is superpowerful.

Low net points is a mark of a weak offense, weak defense, or both. The Steelers won by less than a touchdown, average, this year.

The Steelers have finished 12-4 three of the past four years-- four years is about the longest you can look back in the current NFL, because of the turnover on the teams: the average length of an NFL players' career is 3 years; the average coaching tenure only 2.58 seasons, so after four years the odds are you've got a new roster and a bunch of new coaches on a given team. During that time, 12-4 meant they were the 6th best in the NFL (2011), 4th best (2010), and 5th best (2008), which, again, seems consistent over time.

So again: why a zombie team? Maybe the net points are down, but they're consistently in the top 6 of the league, right?

Right: but because of who they play. This year's 12-4 record was compiled against the NFC West, one of the worst divisions in football, and the AFC South, another of the worst. Playing the Seahawks, Cardinals, Jaguars, and Colts is hardly challenging. In 2010, the Steelers played the NFC South and the AFC North -- again, two bad divisions. In 2008, they played the NFC East and the AFC South again. So while pundits (?) tout the Steelers' record and reaching the playoffs, they fail to account for the effect of playing bad teams.

Here's how you measure that effect. In 2011, the Ravens finished with the same record, 12-4. In 2010, the Ravens finished with the same record as the Steelers: 12-4. In 2009, the Bengals won the division at 10-6; the Ravens and Steelers were 9-7 each. In 2008, the Ravens and Steelers were separated by only 1 game.

In other words, the Ravens and Steelers and sometimes Bengals are essentially the same team, and the strength of schedule is what's making them look good. Witness this year, when the Bengals, 4-12 in 2010 and starting a rookie quarterback, finished only 3 games behind the Steelers.


Or strength of schedule?

The NFL playoffs, of course, do not reward strength of schedule (the BCS used to but stopped in 2003); in fact, the playoffs detract from it, giving a home game to division winners regardless of record.

The Steelers, though, have posted the same record against weak divisions each year -- getting no better in terms of wins while enjoying worse and worse competition. They played, in 2009, the AFC West and NFC North, posting a 9-7 record and that year the NFC North had the Favre-led Vikings and the Rodgers-led Packers, while the AFC West saw the Chargers and Broncos post 21 wins between them.

This is a team, in short, that barely beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, barely beat the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, and then gasped its way to a second-place finish last year, only to stagger, undead, into the playoffs this year. The Steelers have shown no ability to improve, and no desire to improve. Like a pro version of the Wisconsin Badgers, they're content to feast on weak competition and provide a little postseason entertainment to their fans without really bothering to contend for a title.

Highlight Of The Steelers' Season: I'm shaking things up by adding another new feature here, a highlight meant to display everything you need to know about the Steelers and why they won't win the Super Bowl. In this case, the highlight for Pittsburgh was when they played the 49ers at Whateveritscalled Park, and the lights kept going out. Big Ben Roethlisberger (who I'm told actually got married this year) threw four picks but knew the real reason the Steelers lost:

"Just wondering how this happens at a professional stadium," Roethlisberger said of not one but two blackouts.
Way to take responsibility! Ben wasn't throwing the ball during those blackouts, but still, it clearly bothered him to have to face two power outages. Ben Roethlisberger, after all, is not one to take advantage of a blackout.

Symbolic Celebrity Fan: Michael Keaton.

Because he's played guys who have come back from the dead, see? Beetlejuice:

And Snow Dad, or whatever this was:

On a related note: I've heard that if you stand in a dark bathroom and stare at the mirror and say Roethlisberger three times, all charges get dismissed.

I would be remiss, though, if I did not also mention that January Jones is a fan of the Steelers, and by remiss I mean "An excuse to post pictures of January Jones."

What Kind of Cheap Stuff Can You Get In the Steelers' Shop, just in case you run into January Jones and want to have something to talk to her about?

While there's lots of cheap stuff at the clearance section -- mostly "terrible towels" and toddler clothing -- this caught my eye:

That's the "Real Tree Jersey," which is marked down from $99.95 to $69.95, and why it exists is a baffling mystery to me.

Was there a dearth of clothing that could emphasize one's love for nature at the same time as it emphasized one's membership in Steeler Nation? Is the irony of a wearing a nature-themed shirt that celebrates a team named for an industrial process that is terrible for the environment lost on Steelers fans? Are the fans anticipating a Hunger-Games-like apocalypse in which they will be forced to dwell in the woods, hunted for their meat, but despite that they still want to remember the good ol' days of NFL football?

Your guess is as good as mine, but not as good as a closing shot of January Jones:

Team 11: The (boring) Atlanta Falcons

Team 12: The Houston Texans.


Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

Wow, that tree jersey thing would be perfect for one of my Facebook "friends" who is a huge Steelers fan and also goes hunting/camping with her family.

Incidentally, if you've seen the latest "Dark Knight Rises" trailer you can see Hines Ward's cameo as a Gotham Rogues wide receiver. He's the one running as the field collapses, which would really throw Roethlisberger (who I heard is also in the movie) off more than two puny blackouts.

Tim Morrissey said...

Yah, but anybody who watches "Mad Men" knows January Jones is a total bee-atch.

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