A Tragic (relative to the importance of sport) Lesson in Accountability

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself 

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew his enemy on Saturday night.  Since his first season leading the black and yellow, Tomlin had faced the Bengals and Marvin Lewis 18 times—but this would be the first meeting of these two long-tenured coaches in a playoff game.

The teams had faced each other in the playoffs once before—under eerily similar circumstances. On January 8, 2006, The sixth seeded Steelers defeated the third seeded Bengals in the wildcard round of the playoffs en route to Pittsburgh’s first NFL title since 1979. Steelers coach Bill Cowher would retire following Super Bowl 40, and little-known Tomlin was named his successor.

Tomlin couldn’t have possibly known an enemy better than Lewis’s Bengals. Since 2007, no two head coaches have faced each other as often. And while, in theory, Lewis should have had equal knowledge of his opposition, the events of Saturday’s game would indicate otherwise.

Is it possible that Tomlin and his staff implemented psychological elements into their game-plan in an effort to cause the Bengals to implode? Was Mike Munchak’s slick pull of Reggie Nelson’s hair premeditated? What made Domata Peko come running on to the field—in full cape—to blindside Randall Gay?

The entire game seemed to be about the Steelers passively taunting the Bengals, and innocently raising their palms as they watched Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones—two immensely talented players who have a history of making poor choices–completely lose control of their emotions. Tomlin hacked into the epicenter of the Bengals spiritual leaders, and used their weaknesses to his team’s advantage.

This was football’s version of Shakespearian tragedy. It was Violent poetry. Psychological warfare. It was prime-time drama which built to one of the most engaging fourth quarters of football ever.  My instant reaction to the end of the game was to type out a text that read, “What the fuck did I just watch?”

The Bengals implosion was complete when Burfict and Jones managed to combine for 30 yards in penalties on the final play from scrimmage.

Joey Porter had been on the field monitoring Pittsburgh’s star receiver Antonio Brown. Having already benefited from Burfict’s out-of-control play, and a 15 yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit which may cause the league’s best receiver to miss the rest of the playoffs, Porter decided to push Jones for more. Suddenly a 50 yard field goal attempt was a 35 yard attempt. Chris Boswell quickly nailed the short kick, and the Steelers sprinted into the tunnel to avoid a potential hail of bottles from Bengals fans who’d already thrown things on the field earlier. Quite literally, Pittsburgh escaped Cincinnati with a win on a night that set the single-game record for arrests in an NFL stadium.

Not only had the Steelers caused the Bengals players to implode, Cincinnati fans were losing their shit, too.

And then.. The fallout…

 

The following day in Minnesota, the surprise division-winning Vikings played host to the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. While under normal circumstances, most would have expected the more talented Seahawks to handle the upstart Vikings. And while nothing is easy in the NFL, the third-coldest game-time temperature in NFL history created the perfect environment for an upset. In what has been a maddening, nearly weekly tradition, Adrian Peterson’s fumble helped Seattle take control of the game. But somehow, with only seconds left in the game, Minnesota found themselves only needing their reliable kicker, Blair Walsh, to convert a 27 yard field goal to prevent Seattle from playing a fourth consecutive division round playoff game.

In typically tragic Vikings fashion, Walsh’s kick immediately fluttered to the left of the goal-posts, temporarily destroying the lives of Vikings fans everywhere.

One cannot imagine how devastating it must be to lose a game like this.Walsh has doubtlessly spent his entire adult life preparing for the opportunity to convert a playoff game winning kick. To watch him fail, for anyone with the slightest interest in the game, or any capacity for empathy, was heartbreaking.

Walsh could have blamed his holder, Jeff Locke, for not properly spinning the football into a proper position. He could have blamed his long-snapper for not appropriately getting the ball into Locke’s hands. Walsh’s reaction to his failure, however, was slightly different from that of Jones or Burfict. “I’m the only one who didn’t do my job,” Walsh calmly stated on camera, before, reportedly, suffering a complete emotional breakdown down once the bright lights had been shuffled away.

What it means to compare these two events which occurred a day apart, I’m not entirely sure. In the big picture, sports are a meaningless distraction for most of us. But for a lucky few, they are one’s livelihood. It feels like there is a lesson in accountability to be learned from Walsh, Burfict, and Jones, who all made horrible mistakes during one of the most important moments of their respective careers. Jones could have made the conscious choice to walk away from an altercation, and saved his team 15 yards. But could Walsh have done anything to prevent his body from going haywire while doing something he’d done thousands of times before? Could Burfict have turned the volume down on the violent part of his brain–the part that makes him a great football player?

The Steelers gave assisant coach Porter the game ball after he struck the detrimental blow to Jones’s psyche, and I wonder if we’ll ever know what Porter said in that moment that made Pacman destroy the final hopes of his own team’s season. Hours and weeks and months of effort by 53 players–undone by one teammate’s need for immediate retribution…

The truth is that everyone fucks up–but it’s probably better to fuck up with dignity.

 

 

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