Labriola On

Labriola on Pouncey's injury


The story the scoreboard told is that the Steelers were the winners yesterday at Heinz Field, that the 24-19 final score represented a victory over Green Bay. One of the stories the statistics told is that the Packers have an elite offense, that the 10-play, 80-yard drive orchestrated by quarterback Aaron Rodgers right out of the gate was a portend of things to come and should serve as a warning for every team on their schedule.

But there are times when scoreboards and statistics tell lies, and this is one of those instances.

It was the third of five preseason games for the Steelers and the second of four for the Packers, and the reality is the only things that happened during the three-plus hours to have any chance of impacting these teams come the start of the 2015 NFL regular season are two injuries – to Maurkice Pouncey's ankle and Jordy Nelson's knee.

Time for Mike Tomlin to reinforce his core message. Again.

The playing field is much more level in today's NFL, and it's a fact teams rosters consistently are re-shaped from the time training camps open until the end of the preseason by injuries. A team can go to training camp as a favorite to win its division, for example, only to have injuries take a hammer to those hopes. Or a team that opens camp thought of as an also-ran can get lucky and make it through these six weeks healthy and find its competition has come back to the pack.

In a league where parity rules the day, as evidenced by there being close to a 50 percent change in playoff participants from one season to the next, accepting that injuries are inevitable and then developing the mind-set to compensate for them is a critical component of winning football in the 2010s.

"I don't convince them, the guys who step up and play for the guys who go down convince them," Tomlin has explained. "There are some guys who have been around this football team since I've been here and heard me say that and have had tangible evidence of that. The more often that happens, the more they see guys are capable of stepping up and delivering and delivering big, it adds value to those words.

"And it's not something I'm trying to convince them of. It's something I believe in. These guys are professional athletes, and in the big scheme of things they're in the minute upper percentile of people who do what it is that they do. So what difference does it make if a guy is a front-line guy or a starter-in-waiting? They're all capable men, capable of playing above the line and providing winning ball for us. That's something we talk about openly. Everyone wants a disclaimer. Everyone wants to grade on the curve. We don't live in that world. That's one of the things about sport in general that I love. It's black-and-white, either you do it or you don't. You're successful or you're not. You win or you lose. I try to keep it as close to that as I can in everything that we do."

The Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 of the 2015 preseason at Heinz Field

That's a longer version of "the standard is the standard," and Tomlin was making sure everyone was on the same page yesterday afternoon during his first opportunity behind a live microphone, just a couple of hours after Pouncey had his work day end with a ride to the locker room on a cart.

Everything Tomlin said into that microphone was measured. He began with an assessment of the game, which acknowledged the tenet that sport is black-and-white, either you win or you lose. Then he got around to listing the injuries, and he was matter-of-fact. Not emotional, even though Pouncey is a two-time first-team All-Pro center and one of the team's young leaders. Tomlin then closed his opening statement with a reminder to his team that the NFL doesn't grade on a curve.

"On the injury front, Maurkice Pouncey has an ankle injury and we've evaluated it," is how Tomlin got around to addressing the subject that was the one reason to attend his postgame presser. "It's probably going to be surgical, but I don't know the length of time he will be out. We will analyze that after he has the procedure done … I'm sure the next time we get together, I will be able to get you an update on the status of Pouncey. It's part of the game, and we don't overanalyze it. It's as much a part of the game as blocking or tackling. We will make the necessary adjustments, and I expect the ball to keep rolling, because that's the business we are in."

Because surgery is required on Pouncey's ankle, there most likely is something broken in there. Maybe the doctors already know, maybe surgery is going to tell them more, either good or bad. But surgery on an ankle at this stage of the preseason is a major injury, and the best case scenario would seem to be something close to the minimum allowable stint on the injured reserve/designated-to-return list for Pouncey and then a return to action. Best case, the Steelers are without their All-Pro center until mid-to-late-November, and remember, there still are eight days left in the month of August. It's going to be a long time.

Photographs of Coach Mike Tomlin

Tomlin's approach to injuries can come across as callous, but football players look to their coach in situations such as this, and so he has to be careful he's not injecting doubt into their minds with his reaction. You'll never, ever hear Tomlin describe an injury as "a devastating loss to us and to him," as one NFL coach did last week when talking about his No. 3 defensive end tearing an ACL.

The Steelers lost a guy who's an All-Pro center, a leader, a big part of their social structure in the locker room for what's going to be a significant chunk of this upcoming season. Mike Tomlin never would use "devastating" to describe that, because he doesn't believe it is.

That's precisely what these Steelers need from their coach right now.

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