2009 forecast: Hot sticky summer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
The course of the Steelers' upcoming three weeks in Latrobe took an unexpected turn this week. Mike Tomlin will expect the players to deal with it. But history shows that previous Steelers teams have not always dealt well with distraction when it's time for camp.
An old maxim comes into play as the Steelers prepare to report for training camp in Latrobe Friday: Be careful what you wish for: you may receive it.
To be fair, Mike Tomlin did not wish for distractions to gather around his reigning Super Bowl champions when the coach was asked how important it was to avoid them. The question was delivered at his most recent news conference June 11 that concluded his team's rather quiet spring practice sessions.
"My mentality in regards to distractions is really changing and that is probably how I am growing with the job," Tomlin said that day. "If you are going to be good, distractions are a part of it."
Welcome to Camp Distraction, only a couple vowels removed from destruction. That is what happened the last time the Steelers entered Saint Vincent College as Super Bowl champs, in 2006. That was the summer of the motorcycle accident involving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Bill Cowher's last as their coach.
This will be the summer of the Lake Tahoe effect involving Roethlisberger. There's no telling what effect the sexual assault civil lawsuit will have on Roethlisberger and his teammates, but history shows such distractions can be harmful to the Steelers.
The most immediate occurred in 2006, when the Super Bowl champs lost six of their first eight games. Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident may not have caused all that losing, but it certainly set an ominous tone for the season.
A more intriguing comparison occurred during the Steelers' otherwise glorious decade of the 1970s. You want distractions, 1977 was the summer of destruction for the Super Bowl Steelers.
They had won Super Bowls after the 1974 and 1975 seasons and lost to the Raiders in the AFC title game after 1976; Oakland went on to win the Super Bowl. After that season, Raiders defensive back George Atkinson filed a $2 million lawsuit against Chuck Noll after the Steelers coach labeled him part of the NFL's "criminal element" for a hit on receiver Lynn Swann.
The trial took place in the summer of 1977 and spilled into training camp. Noll left assistant coach George Perles in charge and spent the whole trial in San Francisco.
Others also testified, Swann and Dan Rooney included.
It was a fiasco that Sports Illustrated writer William Oscar Johnson described as "a spectacle so bizarre, so beyond the realm of common sense and ordinary imagination that it might have been the creation of some mad comic producer."
Noll and the Steelers won the case, but lost the season. As an exasperated Dan Rooney said then, "This trial has been the most depressing thing I have ever done."
Noll, during his time on the stand, was forced to acknowledge that he would include four of his own players as part of the league's criminal element: Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glenn Edwards. That so upset Blount that he filed his own $5 million lawsuit against his coach and held out that summer.
Linebacker Jack Lambert also held out for all of camp because he did not have a contract.
The Steelers were a mess.
"Chuck Noll used to always preach about distractions," then-Steelers personnel head Art Rooney Jr. said this week. "That was a true distraction. I was in camp and they all went out to the West Coast."
But Joe Gordon, then the Steelers public relations director, had other thoughts looking back on it.
"In my opinion, it was not a great distraction," Gordon said. "That season was almost the result of human nature, where you go through a cycle. We had great years in '74, '75 and just missed in '76. I think we were kind of due for a little down season."
"Down" for that team meant a 9-5 record and quick elimination in the playoffs to Denver. They rebounded from all those distractions by winning the next two Super Bowls.
Compared to 1977, the summer of 2009 has been quiet for the Super Bowl champs. Of course, training camp has not yet begun. And Roethlisberger's legal problems may have not yet either. If the civil suit filed against him last week is not settled, who knows how long it could drag on. At least in 1977, everything was contained to one summer.
And, it's not a backup offensive lineman this involves, but the heart and soul of the entire team. A debate began this year whether the Steelers could overcome the Patriots as the team of the decade; surely they do not want to become the team of the decadent. The longer the civil suit drags on against their quarterback -- who likely would have to attend if it goes to trial -- and the more lurid details that might emerge cannot help but become a distraction to the entire team.
"We have the desire to be a good team, a consistently good team, a world championship-caliber team," Tomlin said back in June. "You have to acknowledge some attention; some potential distractions come with that. I am not running away from that. I want to make sure we are very good at dealing with it and staying singularly focused on what is important and that is, of course, our winning performances."
Practice starts Saturday.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published on July 26, 2009 at 12:00 am
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