Someone unfamiliar with the NFL might think that it's every fan's dream for their team to be in the Superbowl, and to a degree they'd be right. However, while I can honestly say that it's a dream come true that my Steelers have once again earned the right to play for the chapionship, these weeks leading up to the event are a nightmare. When the national media has nothing else to talk about for two weeks, they transform into a ravenous bunch of wolves, and every day I have to have the same five stories flung at me from every possible source. Now, while this might not seem any different from the other 18 weeks of the NFL season, it becomes especially infuriating these two weeks. Why? Because not only are the same dead horses continually beaten, but it seems as if journalists turn into sheep. Everyone has the same opinion on all the same issues. Whether I agree with those opinions or not doesn't change things-I just have hear the same argument repackaged and reworded by a couple different TV personalities and newpaper columnists. Maybe this consensus changes over the course the time period, but nevertheless, it remains a consensus. All that I really want is someone to stand up and say "You know what, I still believe what I thought about this team/player/coach before the Superbowl, and maybe what everyone else is saying is just a result of too much attention on one game." So, here's somebody saying just that. Here's my take on some of the stories that have been beaten to death for the last few weeks, and maybe, just maybe, it's a good thing that my views are different from what everyone else has been saying.
"Fact": The fact that Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers for four years is a major advantage for the Cardinals.
Nothing has been bandied about more than the fact that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt once coached the offense for the Steelers and was "passed over" for the head coaching job when Bill Cowher retired. Many feel that his intimate knowledge of the Steelers offense, and even defense, gives the Cardinals a sizeable advantage over the Steelers, with some implicating that Whisenhunt is out for revenge after he was "snubbed". While it was inevitable that this would all be brought up, there are fewer real facts in this particular Superbowl "fact" than in almost any other. First of all, let's examine those winter days in 2006 when Cowher said goodbye to the Steelers. Many, myself included, believed Whiz was the obvious choice for the Steelers' top job. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm was supposedly a very major candidate as well. However, Tomlin quickly emerged as a candidate, as did then-Bear's defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and even Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. As the search clearly moved on from just Whisenhunt, the Cardinals came calling, and he rightly jumped at the opportunity to run his own team. Soon after, Tomlin became the leading candidate, and despite reports to the contrary, Tomlin was ultimately chosen over Grimm and the others. To be clear, Whisenhunt made the first move. He acknowledges that it was his decision alone, and that there is no bad blood. Now to the second point, that Whisenhunt already knows what the Steelers will be running. I fail to see how many can even consider it. Yes, he had knowledge of the offense from 2004-2006, and regularly practiced against the defense. But then he left, and the team hired a new head coach, and a new offensive coordinator. Bruce Arians, the man filling Whisenhunt's shoes, has significantly changed the offense. Gone is the dependence on the run, and the hand holding of Roethlisberger is definitely a thing of the past. Arians gave Ben the keys to the offense, and things have really changed. In 2007, the first year of his system, Ben threw for 32 touchdowns on over 400 attempts, numbers nowhere even close to when Whisenhunt was coordinator. Arians also designed the no huddle package for Roethlisberger, placing total trust in him, and it has payed off, leading to several successful two minute drives in the past two years. It seems that the Steelers offense has changed a great deal in these last two years. Furthermore, the defense is hardly the same one he left. Tomlin brought a background in Tony Dungy's Tampa Cover 2 scheme, and added components of it to Dick LeBeau's already extremely complex zone blitzing 3-4. Assuming that Whisenhunt knows all about these changes seems naive. Sure, he may have some knowledge of some of the players, but at the end of the day, it will come down to what happens on the field, and how Whisenhunt adjusts to LeBeau's blitz schemes, not some inside knowledge.
"Fact": No one, not even the Steelers' number one defense, can contain Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has compiled 419 yards and 5 touchdowns in the postseason, and at times, has appeared unstoppable. The Warner to Fitzgerald combo has been the best in the playoffs, and among the best throughout the whole season. Many feel that, despite the Steelers being ranked first in both total and pass defense, the Cardinals' top receiver will reak havoc. But, let's consider the statistics. Over the course of the regular season and the playoffs, a total of 18 games, the Steelers have allowed their opponents' number one receiver to gain 100 yards or more a grand total of 6 times. They've collected the most sacks in the entire league, and they'll be going up against a team with one of the more porous offensive lines in the league, and a quarterback who is the owner of 27 career fumbles. So, while I am not denying that Fitzgerald is an incredibly gifted receiver, I do not see why absolutely everyone believes that he will eat the Pittsburgh defense alive as well. Given not only the strength of Pittsburgh's front 7, but the weakness of Arizona's rushing attack, I see no reason why the Steelers will not sit back in double or triple coverage and force Edgerrin James to beat them. Make no mistake: Pittsburgh is not Atlanta, Carolina, or even Philadelphia. They will not allow Fitzgerald to beat them, and considering Anquan Boldin's recent troubles, I don't believe that he'll be able to either. Either that or Ryan Clark will get in a Willis McGahee-esque shot on him and end the conversation about this all together.
"Fact": Hines Ward is injured and won't be able to be effective, thus crippling the Steelers' offense. Undoubtedly, Hines Ward suffered a bad injury in the first quarter of the AFC Championship game, reportedly spraining the MCL in his knee. So, of course, one of the things reporters have keyed on most is Ward's ability to come back from the injury and be effective. Many seem to believe that even if Ward is able to play, he will not be nearly as explosive and physical as he normally is, and this inability will ground the Steelers' passing game. To these people, I would only ask- do you remember Superbowl XL? Yes, of course, you remember his 123 yards receiving and the Superbowl MVP award he won in the process, but do you remember what happened in practice just two days before the game? Ah, that's right, he severely hurt his shoulder and was in a sling up until gametime. And then he took a pain killing shot, and his adrenaline got going, and he went out there and put up one of the best games of his career. So, excuse me if I find it hard to believe that a knee sprain that happened two weeks prior to the big game itself will slow this man who has proven his toughness beyond a shadow of a doubt. If anything, I would think that of all the wide receivers who have laced up their cleats for the NFL in the last few years, Ward would be at the top of the list of those who could most effectively play through pain. Maybe he won't be at his fastest, but it's a guarantee that he will still be out there laying punishing blocks and making some big catches. And if by some set of some circumstances the Steelers have to depend on their other receivers, it's not as if Ben will be throwing to a bunch of losers. Santonio Holmes has had the best postseason for a receiver outside of only the aforementioned Mr. Fitzgerald, and Heath Miller has been on the receiving end of more of Roethlisberger's third down throws than even Ward himself. Maybe Nate Washington can even get into the action, at the very least providing a few downfield opportunities, whether they prove successful or not. At the end of the day, I wouldn't worry about Hines, or any of the other Steelers receivers.
"Fact": Even though Kurt Warner has made it to another Superbowl, he is still not a Hall of Famer.
One of the popular things to bring up before the Superbowl, considering there is absolutely nothing left to discuss, is which big game participants will someday be bound for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner is perhaps the most polarizing of these figures, as his future seems very much in doubt. His detractors have pointed to the fact that, although he had some great years with St. Louis, and a few more great ones with Arizona, the years in between were really rough, and simply being a great QB for a few years does not warrant enshrinement. Now, if that was all there was to Warner's career, I would probably agree. However, one of the things that gets talked about the most in regards to Warner is probably the thing that, for me, makes him a true Hall of Famer- his beginnings. Warner didn't follow the traditional path to NFL stardom; he went from college, to arena football, to NFL Europe, and then finally getting a roster spot because of a freak preseason injury. He would then go on to win a Superbowl, and the game's MVP award, with the Rams, take them to another title game, win two league MVP awards, all while part of one of the most famous offenses in football history, the Mike Martz "Greatest Show on Turf". Yes, there were down years in New York, when he was put in a difficult situation given his skill set, but he ultimately found redemption in Arizona, and had one of the best seasons of all quarterbacks in the league at age 37. If that is not a unique, and inspiring, story I do not know what is. One of the ways I judge an NFL player's claim to a spot in the Hall, I consider what about their career really jumps out at me, and if that's really enough that they should be remembered forever. For Warner, I would remember not only a QB who preserved through substantial odds, but also a man who played one of the most athletically demanding positions in sports, and played very well, at an age where most are forced to retire. Maybe he's not a first ballot, no brainer, Hall of Famer. But his career certainly has to be one of the most unique in league history, and it deserves to be remembered.
Thankfully, Superbowl week is almost over, and after a day or two of analysis and parades, the frenzy will finally die down, no matter what the outcome. I won't be cliche and make some grand final prediction for the outcome of the game, or even the score; it should be clear how I feel about the game by now. It will simply be enough to me that the game has finally been played, and regardless of whatever anyone says, the best team will have won, even if that team is Cardinals. All that can be done now is to watch and enjoy.