Steelers are the worst preseason team in the NFL: Is that a problem?


The Steelers are the worst preseason team in the NFL. So much so that it’s getting to be an annual event. The misery, the hand wringing, the confusion, chaos, the dashing of hopes. It’s like a terrible holiday that lasts a month. But you get football, so it’s not all bad.

It’s as if preseason has become this yearly test for fans. To make Steelers fans as pessimistic as possible prior to the season. Let’s just level off all that hope we might have accrued over the offseason with loss after loss. It’s something Steeler fans endure, and then … football season begins. We survive the harsh winter of summer to bloom in the spring of fall. Yep.

The Steelers are 1-9 in their last 10 preseason games. That is officially the worst in the NFL. The Steelers are the worst preseason team in football. But, they won their division last year. So what gives? Why the disparity? What does it mean?

Here’s the thing. Mike Tomlin does not care about preseason football. Or at least, he does not care about winning preseason football. He’s made this clear several times, both verbally and on the scoreboard.

Is there a method here? Is he playing the long game? It’s not a matter of lowering expectations, nor does he just delight in the opportunity to brush off the demands of notoriously demanding Steelers fans for four weeks before he needs to start heeding their call (although the latter is probably a little fun).

It could simply be that he’s developing players under conditions that develop them or weed them out. After all, the games, or their score, literally do not matter.

Take the NBA’s Phil Jackson. During the regular season Coach Jackson would often throw in bench players at the end of a close game. It could be a Lakers game against the rival Kings. The game is tied and there are minutes left. You’re at the edge of your seat. There’s Kobe, Shaq, Big Shot Bob Horry, and wait, what? You do a double take to make sure you aren’t seeing things. Is that Luke Walton? Tyrone Lue?

Yes it is. Win or lose, once the playoffs start you’ll be glad to have a bench you can turn to in the clutch because they’ve been there before. Coach Jackson could take those kinds of risks because he was confident they’d make the playoffs even if he lost a couple games by throwing certain players in situations they might not yet be ready for. Then when it matters most, they will be ready.

It’s a long term investment, a short term risk that you reap the rewards from later. Even if they fail, they still learn from the experience. Worst-case scenario, you at least know what you have ahead of time.

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In the NFL however, you get 16 games rather than 82 to get ready for and make the playoffs. Coach Tomlin can’t afford to throw Landry Jones in the driver’s seat during the 4th quarter of a close game just to see what he’s made of.

So Coach Tomlin is putting players, often young or deeper down the depth chart, in situations he could not afford to put them in during the regular season, but which he may have to if injuries or other personnel issues dictate. In recent years there’s been plenty of injuries forcing players like Vince Williams or Brice McCain to take on bigger roles.

But in that time he’s taken an 8-8 team and turned them into division champs despite a number of injuries and turned his offense into arguably the best in the league with a young group of skill players. It’s not despite but in some part because of the preseason strategy.

On the other hand. Some of it is more problematic. The training camp injuries are a perennial issue. Landry Jones is a big reason our preseason record’s been so bad. Yet he continues to man the offense the majority of time in preseason games, particularly at the end. There are other questionable personnel decisions as well.

A lot of these players are young or less experienced. But so are the players they’re playing against. A lot of them are going to be playing special teams if at all, but our coverage on kicks and punts is pretty bad.

Yes, we’re developing players but what habits are we getting them into? If winning is a habit we’re not developing these players with that kind of mentality. We’re not teaching them how to come from behind, how to keep a lead, how to make stops and score points.

I hate to pick on Landry, the back up offensive line, particularly the interior, has not protected him well. Some of them are going to be called on to be on the 2nd team of a good but thin unit. There’s also been a number of drops. The fact remains however that Landry Jones, among the most experienced players on the field at any given time during a preseason game, cannot win a preseason game.

This is not to say it’s his fault. But it’s an example of the way some small personnel or developmental mistakes add up to make the players behind the starters tough to watch sometimes.

Sure, the preseason has a reputation for not mattering but the players out there are going to be replacing starters either on injury or retirement. These aren’t irrelevant players. And yes, all the players out there are new, or young. But so are the other teams, so you’d think if it was just ugly to look at but not worse than other teams, but if that were the case we’d be 5-5. 1-9 would be a really unlucky coincidence.

Like I mentioned earlier though. If the Steelers put together the best offense in the league while not winning any preseason games, while teams with better preseason records don’t break records or win divisions, then maybe we’re doing it right and they’re doing it wrong.

Maybe any focus on winning is at the expense of development. It’s entirely possible that any amount of thought put into winning a preseason game is time taken away from focusing on and developing the players and putting a meaningless game as priority. Maybe in the preseason you really should think about the players and not the team.

So what do you think? Is winning a habit or should the scoreboard be ignored during the preseason?

Next: Steelers Defense Must Improve

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