THE 7’s STAGES OF GRIEF
1. Shock and denial.
This is a state of disbelief and numbed feelings.
I knew it, but I didn’t want to believe it.
Some of you who go back to the 2005 days at Stillers.com might remember that I had a vision dream that year after they hit 6-3. I saw Ben holding up the Lombardi in my vision. So I posted on the forum that I believed the Steelers wouldn’t lose another game that year. On Saturday night, I saw it clear as day: Ben’s shock and disgust and the looks on the faces on the “screen” in my dream… I knew what it meant.
Are visions real? Do they portend the future? I have no idea. More likely they are messages from your subconscious that tell you about what you really believe. Or maybe what you fear but are too afraid to face.
But no nightmare of the imagination could have equaled the first 15 minutes of last night’s game. It was as if every flaw of this team––real or imagined– that has ever, ever been mentioned or even thought about all came true. The First Quarter last night was the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
It was crossing the streams. And, as everyone knows, you never, EVER, cross the streams.
“Try to imagine the all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”––Dr. Egon Spengler
When Maurkice Pouncey’s first snap of the game sailed over Ben’s head, evaded capture by either Ben or James Conner, was swatted by Myles Garrett, and ended up recovered in the Steelers end zone by the opposing team, I paused the broadcast. I contemplated not watching another second of the game. I know well that games with this kind of mistake at ANY point. The chances of winning a playoff game after giving up a non-offensive score are dismal.
Even just being down 7 at the beginning of the game by any means reduces your win probability to 31%. Being down 14 with 9 minutes to go cuts that to 14.9%. Being down 21 with under 50 minutes to go reduces the win probability to 4.8%. Going down 28 made it 1.1%.. If you kept watching after that, God bless you, every-one. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
And it wasn’t just being down big… it was the shock and awe of it happening so fast & so utterly unexpected. Even if you feared the Browns might win or the Steelers’ flaw might be exposed, it was utterly overwhelming for us sitting at home. One can only imagine how the players felt. I know they’re supposed to be professionals who are unfazed by anything that happens on the field, but just stopping the bleeding had to be astonishingly difficult.
2. Pain and guilt.
You may feel that the loss is unbearable and that you’re making other people’s lives harder because of your feelings and needs.
Like every other Steelers fan on the planet, I started thinking about everything I had done that could have been bad for the mojo. I wore my Steelers’ jersey and played poorly in the morning. Hell, bad enough I did that––I didn’t wear my Steelers gear for any game for years after a bad Dropped the game-winning TD. Gave up two long TDs. I thought: nothing I do affects anything else… so maybe if I stop trying to do anything “lucky” maybe things will turn around. It got worse. I knew my Brother was pushing himself to stay up late on a night he had to get up at 4AM.
I texted him: “Set your DVR and go find something else to do for a few hours. If anything worth watching happens, I’ll text you.”
3. Anger and bargaining.
You may lash out, telling God or a higher power that you’ll do anything they ask if they’ll only grant you relief from these feelings.
Truthfully, I almost texted him at the end of the 3rd quarter, because damn if they didn’t threaten to make a game of it at that point. But that was before the Head Coach inserted himself into the fray.
But, before we talk about what may well have been the turning point in the game and the end of an era, let’s go back to an earlier punt.
The Steelers, down 28-0, had finally put together a drive of some substance: a 30-yard collection mostly delivered on 6 of 6 passing from Ben. On 3rd and 9 from the CLE 38, however, the first incompletion of the drive brought up 4th down and 9. I didn’t have to look up the analytics to know what to do, at least according to the book: you basically never punt on the opponent’s side of the field. Many––perhaps even most––coaches would punt the ball, but that’s because they are risk-averse even when it hurts their team. They think only about what can go wrong, how their choices will be perceived, and ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’ Given the amount of time left in the game and the way his defense had been playing, it was at least understandable, even though misguided, to think about pinning Cleveland deep in their own end and to let the defense get the team going, as they have so many times before. But let us go to the analytics.
The situation of 4th and 9 from Cleveland’s 38, down 28 at that point left Pittsburgh with a win probability of .8%. Hanging by a thread. Punting in that situation actually lowered their win probability from .8 to .7%. If they had gone for the 1st down and made it (this year about a 35% chance of succeeding), it would have DOUBLED the win probability to 1.6%. Throwing an incompletion on 4th down there is bad, for sure, reducing the win probability to .5%. So, the choice was: go for it (a 35% chance at 1.6% win likelihood or 65% chance at .5%) vs. punt for the outcome of .7%. It was a case of choosing the lesser evil at the expense of forgoing the possibility of a big decline in win probability. But we don’t live in our fears, obviously.
That decision seems at least somewhat debatable in hindsight. The decision Tomlin made at the start of the 4th quarter is another thing, entirely. The Steelers actually had engineered quite the makings of a comeback for the ages. Four scoring drives and 3 straight fruitless possessions for Cleveland left the Steelers with the ball, down 12, and sporting an updated win % of 4.7.! Things were looking up.
The head coach was left with a decision––the kind that is a crucial part of in-game decisions for every football coach. Double the chances of winning to 9.3% if you convert 4th and 1 or 2.3% if you fail. In a nutshell, you double your chances of winning the game if you convert or halve your chances of winning if you fail. Punting reduces your chance at winning to 3.4%. But then there’s that “gut” factor.
There is something to be said for the feel of the game and so on. The thing is: the feel of this particular game was: your defense has been clamping down the opponent, your offense has found real life, and if you score another TD on this drive, all the pressure goes back onto Cleveland, up 5, not having moved it for the whole second half, staring down a 4th quarter collapse and a serious case of dry mouth. Hell, if you go for it and fail, your defense might still be fired up, thinking they have to make a stand after the offense and coaches tried to go for it. But punting it? That’s like waving the white flag. You don’t believe in the offense to make the first down and you don’t trust us to stop their offense from the 38… why should stopping them from the 20 be any easier?
I had (I’m sure we all did) a flashback to the 2005 AFCCG, with a 16-1 Steelers team playing NE and scrambling to come back from an early deficit. The Steelers had 4th and goal from the 2 and a chance to cut it to 7 with almost the entire 4th quarter left to go (is this starting to sound familiar?) At that decision point, the 2004-05 Steelers had a win probability of 4.7%. Scoring the TD would give them an 11.7% chance of winning. Kicking the FG actually dropped their chances of winning to 3.5%. On top of that––predictably––the defense which had been holding NE down long enough to mount a comeback came out after the FG, visibly deflated. They promptly gave up a long drive to NE and that was that.
Cowher’s decision was so similar to Tomlin’s next choice. Tomlin went to the quarter break with a 4.7% chance at winning. Punting reduced the chances of winning to 3.4%. It’s almost EXACTLY the same situation and risks that Cowher faced and no one in the entire organization learned anything from that. Hell, Ben said in the presser that it was his coach’s decision and he accepted that. You can bet for damn sure that Peyton Manning isn’t even coming off the field at the quarter break. Ben of all people should have known this could be the last, best chance at victory––he lived this scenario at the very beginning of his career. Unfortunately, he’s stuck inside a nightmare that keeps repeating.
Sure, the Steelers have been godawful at converting 3rd or 4th and short this season. Sure, not making it makes the already slim chance of winning half as likely. But, c’mon, man. You passed on a chance to score a TD that would have given your team a realistic chance at 19% on paper––better than that if we’re including momentum and the gut feel for what was going on in the second half. With a QB that was balling out and an offense that wasn’t giving up. They were fighting their asses off and you abandoned them. Coach, if you’re reading this: remember that you didn’t lose your team… you left them, as surely as if you’d checked out and were thinking of your vacation plans on the sideline. Having you on the sideline was worse than if you hadn’t been there. Zero percent chance that Ben and his offense punt the ball there if there’s no one to tell them not to go for it.
Look, the players clearly were responsible for getting down 28. The best, most reliable players on the team––its leaders on and off the field––were the ones most responsible. Pouncey’s snap and Ben/Conner failing to even attempt to pick it up or knock it out of the end zone . Ben’s first INT, in particular. Mike Hilton’s halfassed chase down of Landry. Robert Spillane letting a RB he slammed in the hole to carry him 5 yards into the end zone while his teammates basically watched. Cam Heyward and TJ Watt being invisible for the entire first half. Stephon Tuitt being on a milk carton for the whole contest. Diontae Johnson dropping a ball that might have been a little more difficult than it should have been but which hit him in both hands while his feet were on the ground. No amount of coaching preparation nor adjustments were going to change the outcome of bad plays, although calling 2 straight FB dive plays with a guy who hadn’t touched the ball all year was a fireable offense, even ignoring the entirety of the season to that point.
But. Your leaders made plays and rallied their team. They outscored the Browns 23-7 in just under 17 minutes of football, bringing you to this decisive moment where it was your turn to put them in the best position to win. There was no thinking big picture about the season, or keeping guys healthy, or living to fight another day. There was just this choice: Do I want to give them a chance to keep the momentum going and get a real chance to win this game or do I want to postpone that decision for a later time in the game, just in case there’s another, later decision. Hell, Tomlin has previously used “wanting to keep pressure on their offense” for making counter-analytic decisions and he had no problem making risky point-chasing decisions early in this game. But he ended up punting, which just traded a golden opportunity on 4th and 1 for a possible later opportunity which turned out to be a must-make 2-pt conversion and an impossible onside kick when he ran out of time to do anything else. Does that sound like a good trade to you? To me, it sounds like postponing a tough decision so long that your indecision makes the decision for you.
Years ago, I heard a maxim that I think about all the time and I’ve found it holds up pretty well in life. Perhaps the eloquent coach should add it to his repertoire:
The closer you get to success, the more likely it is your weakest link will break.
It’s a variation of “pressure busts pipes”. I’ve seen it so many times. Your band signs a record deal after years of trying, any member’s character flaw is going to be exposed and become an incident.––I know multiple bands who broke up just as they hit success because of this. Finance deals that collapsed moments before the agreement. Relationships ended. The littlest flaws will turn out to be your downfall, given enough time, money, pressure, etc. Experience leads me to examine the flaws, no matter how small; to search for potential weaknesses… and to excise them, strengthen them, avoid them. I’ve become a crazed contingencies person. Managing a group as diverse as an NFL roster, with a product that is incredibly volatile and subject to human frailty in every conceivable interpretation of the term––I acknowledge that this is an extremely difficult juggling act. I will even remain steadfast that this coach is detail-oriented in terms of a wide array of things. I’ll also acknowledge that you can’t eliminate every weakness or solve every problem ahead of time. But, in the heat of battle, somebody has to believe. Someone has to reach for the improbable in order to make it impossible. Someone needs to be more than “take what they give you” and risk-averse. There’s another saying I like that Mike Tomlin would do well to take to heart: Fortune favors the bold.
All of Steelers Nation tried to beg, pray, make offerings, use whatever black and gold magic they could find. I deleted FC’s pregame Gospel from the front page. I changed his username back to EFCEE. I changed shirts. I pulled out my Terrible Towel––from where it’s been in storage since the 80s and rubbed it for luck. I changed seats and drinks. I walked out of the room for a while. I have no doubt that even the non-believers did the same. But even all the mojo in the world couldn’t save this disastrophy from taking place.
So it was, after repeated coaching decisions that effectively killed the chances of a comeback, a defensive collapse that destroyed whatever momentum they had built up in the previous 15 minutes of play, and a soul-crushing interception (the kind that can happen when you’re desperate, down 16 with under 4 minutes to go, and throwing it 61 times in a game) ultimately proved fatal. The time of death of the 2020 Steelers was 3:16 remaining in the 4th quarter of the Wild Card Round, but, in retrospect, the patient has been living with the symptoms for several years.
This may be a period of isolation and loneliness during which you process and reflect on the loss.
In the immediate aftermath, I admit that my spirit was totally crushed. I decided to completely walk away from social media and permanently give up my self-assigned role as defender of the faith. I would have never mentioned sports on Twitter ever again, except that there started to be some buzz about Ben retiring, and I took to Twitter to see if an even worse grief was coming down the pike. I saw a few Browns fans gloating to me and I graciously congratulated them and their team. But I think that’s it for me talking Steelers and football at that intensity for a while, maybe ever. As many of you may realize, I have so much invested in this team and my Steelers’-related sites and content. I spend hours and hours each week as a labor love; I also care deeply about this team and the sport. I have a soft spot for defending what is right and for defending the unpopular but important opinion. So, the emotional investment is what really got me. Seeing Ben and Pouncey sitting on the bench together, after a season of sacrifice and unwavering belief––seeing Ben’s tears––that was a gut punch to a degree that nothing else outside the real world has ever had on me. Every year Ben has been here, even incredibly disappointing ends to the season have been mitigated by the knowledge that he’ll be back next year and we’ll have a chance not only to see his greatness but a chance to win the Super Bowl. If this is the end of his era or the team’s Championship window, that hits with a finality that’s different than any time in my fan past. When Bradshaw retired, it hurt, but I was a young man and I didn’t think it would be my last chance to cheer a contender. Now, at 57, I have to seriously consider the possibility that, even should the Steelers be lucky and find another franchise QB who wins it all someday, there’s no guarantee I’ll be around for that. In 25 years––the length of time between ring #4 and ring #5, I’ll be 82 years old. I hope I make it that long or longer, but you get my point. Add to this that, while I’m not quite ready to stop my own touch-football playing career, you don’t have to be a professional scout to know that time isn’t far off, either. So, let’s call it a tough day all-around and a rough night’s attempt at sleep for yours truly.
5. The upward turn.
At this point, the stages of grief like anger and pain have died down, and you’re left in a more calm and relaxed state
Although this hurts like a MFer, it is, ultimately, just a game. The players we love and admire are just athletes and personas. They don’t win it all every year and we’ve been luckier and more fortunate than most. It was great rooting for a team that so rarely loses and so rarely lets a would-be rival like Cleveland off the mat and into the conversation. They’re no longer invincible and no longer kings of the hill. It was a great run while it lasted.
I think they could even overcome the coaching if coaching adapts and changes the way Cowher did in the 2005 playoffs. I think they might even build enough of a roster to be a contender to a degree in 2021. But, for the first time in a while, I don’t expect any of that to happen. We’re in for some dark times, so we might as well get on with it and focus on what we do have:
1. Kevin Dotson Couldn’t overcome the coaches’ loyalty to keep starting but I suspect he will be in the lineup from day 1 next year and won’t come out of it for 10-15 years.
2. Dionte Johnson has his warts, and some of those warts have been costly, but he does have a ton of talent and route-running ability that make him a valuable asset. So much to work with, so much to work on.
3. David Decastro can still play, whether it here during a rebuild or somewhere else after fetching a draft pick
4. Chase Claypool has been tremendous even as a rookie––it usually takes a little time for WR to break out in the NFL… the sky is the limit
5. Cam Heyward & Stephon Tuiit didn’t play above the line last night, but the remaining years of above-average interior play is really an asset
6. Alex Highsmith looks at least like a good player and a viable starter
6. Minkah Fitzpatrick wasn’t a factor last night, but he’s been a terrific addition who will be locked up soon, for years to come
7. TJ Watt Didn’t dominate the game the way we hoped, but he also may have been less than 100%. He and Minkah are the core around which you could build anything
8. Chris Boswell is pure money. If you discount the one season where he played with an injury for an extended period of time, he’d be the most accurate kicker in the history of the league. And he doesn’t play in a dome.
6. Reconstruction and working through.
You can begin to put pieces of your life back together and carry forward.
As for Devin Bush? Who knows if you’ve got something there to build around or if he’s just an average football player who is a little undersized for his role and not great in coverage?
James Pierre? Barely given a chance, made one play in his whole career… but there’s something there.
Mason Rudolph? Your guess is as good as mine.
Other than that, there a bunch of thoroughly replaceable vets (Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, Maurkice Pouncey, Vince Williams, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds, Jalen Samuels, Derek Watt, Chris Wormley), Special Teams JAGs, or Free agents to be (Alualu, JuJu, Conner, Dupree, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Matt Feiler, Zach Banner, Alejandro Villanueva, Robert Spillane).
When Ben looks downfield in his life from here, what does he see? I’m guessing it looks to him like a very tight throwing window.
Change is a-coming, whether Ben retires or not. I’ve kind of settled into the idea that Ben might finish his career next year on a re-done deal that pushes his money into future (and likely retirement) years. He becomes the bridge QB to the next guy. The Steelers likely draft a QB and LT with the first two picks and count on Ben to keep them respectable without a lot of roster. Imagine this:
CB Haden or Nelson-Pierre-Hilton or Sutton-Layne-Rookie
That’s a lot of contributions from newcomers without a lot of top-end draft capital and no money to sign outside vets. Maybe you could squeeze a cheap deal for Conner or a hometown deal from JuJu. Perhaps you could cut even more and re-sign Dupree at a post-injury, (never Batman always a Robin) deal… but that seems unlikely. You could do this without Ben and just start with Mason as the placeholder, but I do think Ben gives you a puncher’s chance, and more importantly, he’s teaching the players around him at an extremely high level.
7. Acceptance and hope. This is a very gradual acceptance of the new way of life and a feeling of possibility in the future.
I honestly don’t know if I’m ready for this stage yet, but I know it’s coming. Whether Ben returns, whether they pull a rabbit or three out of a hat and become a contender next year, whether they get the QB of the future or not… eventually, we’ll carry on, go on with our lives, live like other fanbases. Maybe, someday, if we live long enough, we’ll even see a new set of faces o the field and on the sideline who will make us smile, make us cheer, and give us hope for Lombardi #7.A1