Ready or not, here it comes:
- The playoffs begin for the Steelers in the Wild Card Round on Sunday at Heinz Field. How this postseason comes to be judged, whether this is the one that adds a seventh Lombardi to the trophy case will be determined in large part by how successful Le'Veon Bell is at being Ben Roethlisberger's Terrell Davis.
- Roethlisberger himself is the one responsible for this storyline, having admitted as much during his weekly radio appearance on The Cook and Poni Show. In talking about the Steelers' upcoming playoff appearance, Roethlisberger told a story of having seen an NFL Network documentary on Terrell Davis, and how that show's depiction of Denver's Super Bowl championship teams presented an accurate version of his own reality today.
- "It was all (Terrell Davis). He was the one who really got (the Broncos) to the Super Bowl," Roethlisberger told his audience. "I told Le'Veon, I said, 'Listen, if we're going to make a run in the postseason, we're going to need you. You're going to have to be the workhorse. Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback and (Antonio Brown) and this stuff, but really at the end of the day we're going to need you to be the workhorse to get us where we want to be."
- Bell later told the media that Roethlisberger indeed relayed some pertinent bits of the Terrell Davis documentary, and digging through the old gamebooks proves its validity.
- Those Broncos were known as John Elway's team, but it wasn't until Davis arrived that they broke through and won a Super Bowl. And when Davis was added to the team via a sixth-round pick from Georgia in 1995 it seemed unlikely he was going to be the guy to reverse Elway's personal 0-3.
- When the Broncos were winning AFC Championships but losing Super Bowls in the late 1980s with Elway at quarterback, Chuck Noll once referred to them as "a will-of-the-wisp team." In other words, not nearly physical enough to handle what the NFC was sending to the Super Bowls in those seasons. Bill Parcells' New York Giants. Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins. George Seifert and the 14-2 San Francisco 49ers.
- By the time the 1997 season rolled around, the Broncos had developed a different identity thanks to the running of Davis. Despite finishing 12-4 that season, the Broncos had to enter the playoffs as a Wild Card because Marty Schottenheimer's Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West at 13-3. But that mattered little come playoff time, and Davis was the reason. He had finished the regular season with 369 carries for 1,750 yards (4.7 average) and 15 touchdowns. Then came the playoffs.
Check out photos of QB Ben Roethlisberger and LB James Harrison before every game during the 2016 season.
- In a 42-17 Broncos win over Jacksonville in the Wild Card Round, Davis carried 31 times for 184 yards and Denver's first two touchdowns. In the Divisional Round win over the Chiefs, 14-10, Davis carried 21 times for 101 yards and scored both Broncos touchdowns; in Pittsburgh the next weekend for the AFC Championship, Davis carried 26 times for 139 yards and a touchdown in a 27-24 win for Denver; and then in Super Bowl XXXII, a 31-24 win over Brett Favre's defending champion Packers, he carried 30 times for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
- If these Steelers get to where they want to be, Le'Veon Bell will have done a spot-on imitation of Terrell Davis.
- Last weekend's regular season finale served as a showcase for Landry Jones, the backup quarterback who has been of primary interest to Steelers fans even though he has played nothing more than a secondary role since arriving as a No. 4 draft pick in 2013. And now that Jones is just months away from possibly becoming an unrestricted free agent, he is becoming even more of a hot-button topic.
- Jones got the start against the Cleveland Browns for the regular season finale, and he finished by completing 24-of-37 for 277 yards, with three touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 103.1. Digging into those numbers a bit, Jones directed fourth quarter touchdown drives of 80 and 61 yards in turning a 14-7 deficit in to a 21-14 lead, and then there was the 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in overtime that turned a possible 24-21 loss into a 27-24 victory. That 75-yard drive was capped by Jones' 26-yard touchdown pass to Landry Jones.
- "I like Landry, but I liked him prior to that performance," said Mike Tomlin on the Tuesday following that win over the Browns in answer to a question about Jones' possible future with the Steelers. "None of those personnel decisions, long-term, occur in a vacuum. It's not just about an evaluation of Landry, or whether or not we want Landry. Free agency is what it is. It is musical chairs at times. There are limited numbers of spots, and oftentimes there are more candidates, and the salary cap elements of the discussion. All of those decisions are interrelated. They always will be. They always have been. People who suggest you can make decisions in a vacuum that way are inaccurate or are misleading you."
- What it likely will come down to for the Steelers and Landry Jones is his answer to the question: How do you see your professional future – as a starter or as a backup?
- With most professional athletes in most professional team sports, the goal always is to be a starter, but for quarterbacks in the NFL the role of backup is a distinctive career path. Backup quarterbacks have a value beyond providing depth at a position, and teams have come to learn that finding the right backup can be as important as finding the right starter.
- Because of the nature of the sport, it's important for a team to find the right fit in a player it identifies as a potential backup quarterback, just as it's critical for a player to put himself into the type of environment that can result in a long-term relationship.
- Based on Tomlin's assessment at that recent news conference, and looking back on how the Steelers chose to nurture and develop him instead of moving on at some point during the ups and downs of their four seasons together, Jones figures to have a future here as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger if he's interested in that. Or he might choose to chase an opportunity to be a starter, or at least compete for a starting job.
- At some point over the next few months, Jones will decide upon a career path that likely will define the rest of his time in the NFL. Be Roethlisberger's backup, or go out in search of a starting job. Stay with a team that is committed to providing its franchise quarterback with a quality offensive line to protect him and with the weapons he needs to succeed, or roll the dice with a different team with quite possibly a lesser roster and try to build something together there.
- In this space last week, I took the opportunity to praise Steelers fans who had turned out in such numbers and provided such energy on Christmas Day against the Ravens. Ditto for New Year's Day, and those 55,000-plus on Jan. 1 deserve an extra measure of credit for their commitment to a game that was meaningless in the standings. Steelers fans have taken over stadiums on the road all over the NFL, but what they did in their own backyard this holiday season might just be their most impressive feat of all.