Classic Grind: Winners will win, losers will lose


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Martavis Bryant, foreground, sprints off the field along with Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and the victorious Steelers, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati. - AP

Each Saturday during the ongoing apocalypse, I’ll revisit an older column that ran on this site, accompanied by a handful of current observations about it at the bottom.

This one ran Jan. 9, 2016:

CINCINNATI -- Mike Tomlin and James Harrison had somehow gotten word.

The Steelers were making their exit, stage left into Paul Brown Stadium's visiting tunnel, late Saturday night, and the din down there was as thick as the downpour outside. The athletes were hooting and hollering, their dancing cleats clattering, their soggy backsides getting celebratory slaps moments after sensationally besting the Bengals, 18-16, in what forever should be remembered as the AFC Wild Wilder And Wildest Card game. And that noise was nothing next to the nearby fuss from the vocal, often violent football fans of this otherwise fair city, hanging over the tunnel railings to berate or pelt anyone who passed underneath.

"They got me with popcorn!" Jarvis Jones would exclaim later. "You believe that? Who hits anyone with popcorn? What's that?"

"Crazy," Vince Williams echoed across the way. "Just crazy. On the field. On the sidelines. In the stands. Everywhere."

"Not like anything I've seen in my career," Marcus Gilbert said.

Tomlin, too, seemed taken aback when calling it "a tough, tough, hostile environment."

But even amid all that, Tomlin and Harrison had heard inside that tunnel, right after the team strikingly ran off the field in unison -- more on that later -- that Ben Roethlisberger was the last of the Steelers still out there. He was still surrounded by cameras and microphones near the 20-yard line, still taking questions.

So Tomlin and Harrison went back out. And they didn't walk. They went full-bore sprint.

Upon getting there, Tomlin promptly shooed away all media, then placed his arm behind Roethlisberger to nudge him toward the tunnel. Roethlisberger obliged, and he proceeded just ahead of Tomlin and Harrison. As he approached the tunnel area, he doffed his cap -- with the left arm, the only one still capable of doffing -- to a handful of hardy souls twirling Terrible Towels. He even mustered a small smile. But as he got closer, other fans clad in Cincinnati colors began flinging in his direction whatever garbage they hadn't already flung. Cups. Cans. Probably some popcorn, too. Security rushed to the railings to try to prevent more, but the Steelers' trio took no chances. Roethlisberger's cap went back on, Harrison applied his helmet and all three closed rank and strode purposefully until inside.

Once at the locker room entrance, Tomlin checked with a staffer who'd been tracking the numbers, and only then was he sure he had all his men. The massive metal door slammed shut.

This is what winners do.


The Bengals won the AFC North Division. They were 12-4. They made the playoffs for a fifth year in a row and for the seventh time in Marvin Lewis' 14 seasons as head coach.

They haven't won a playoff game since 1990. Ickey Woods did the Ickey Shuffle that day. The opponent was the Houston Oilers.

After this game, Lewis offered little more than terse three-word non-answers to reporters' questions. Specifically regarding having two of his defenders commit personal-foul penalties on the Steelers' winning drive, both of those penalties profoundly obvious and even more profoundly stupid, Lewis had only this to say: "There were a lot of plays out there, and calls went different ways."

Cincinnati management will keep Lewis for a 15th year. Count on it.

This is what losers do.


Martavis Bryant had been challenged publicly by Roethlisberger earlier in the week, and it caused quite the stir. But every time in his young NFL career that Bryant has faced adversity, he's responded in kind.

On this night, he accounted for the Steelers' lone touchdown, one that brought a 15-0 lead in the third quarter, and he ... oh, just watch:

My goodness. I couldn't even come up with a coherent question to ask Bryant on this:

On a day when half of the roster's running backs and all of the roster's fullbacks were out, Roethlisberger knew the offense would need a big play from its primary big-play weapon.

This is what winners do.


Vontaze Burfict sacked Roethlisberger with authority at the end of the third quarter. It was a completely clean play, at least the takedown portion:

Roethlisberger would later call it a "quarterback-not-so-friendly hit" without elaborating, but the footage above would powerfully suggest Burfict drove his knee into the shoulder when getting back up.

And what came next was equally wrong, as the overwhelming majority of the crowd rose up and roared as Roethlisberger got carted off. At least one beer can landed within inches of his leg. Other debris came down. I could see people laughing. Fathers and mothers in front of their children.

Wherever this happens, including Pittsburgh, the people doing it are idiots. But I'd never seen it on this scale in any city other than Philadelphia, and that place is such a lost cause it barely counts.

Here's hoping this disgraceful scene, witnessed by a huge national TV audience, sticks with Cincinnati long enough to cut deeply.

This is what losers do. Not in football. In life.


Ryan Shazier was a star. And that's not hyperbole after 13 tackles, nine solos, two for losses, a quarterback hurry, two passes defensed, two outrageous plays to force fumbles and one recovery.

"I felt really strong out there," he'd say.

Like the magnificent home opener against the 49ers?

"Stronger," he came back to my question.

That's the idea, for the individual and the collective. Get stronger as you go. Champions in this league are crowned not on a body of work but on a buildup of momentum. If the Steelers have one area that needs to be strengthened, even in the short window of these playoffs, it's the defense. And if the highest-ceiling talents on that defense elevate, so can the rest.

Well, Shazier, Bud Dupree and Jones are the past three first-rounders, and each has been maligned to varying degrees for various reasons. But all showed up when it mattered most. Dupree was draped all over the Cincinnati backfield, and Jones registered a strip-sack.


"We're all proud of each other, and we all push each other," Dupree said. "Believe me, we're working our hardest to get better. In a game like this, maybe you saw what we could do."

Peaking in the playoffs?

This is what winners do.


The Bengals rallied in a big way in the fourth quarter to wrest away the lead, 16-15, on a 25-yard touchdown pass from A.J. McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining. The place was a madhouse. It was about to burst. This sad, sad franchise was about to be bullied no more. It was finally going to have its first meaningful victory in a quarter-century.

And if that weren't enough, on the Steelers' very next snap from scrimmage, Burfict intercepted a Landry Jones pass across the middle.

Of all people.

At the Pittsburgh 26.

With a mere 96 ticks remaining.

With Roethlisberger apparently done.

And yet, for reasons probably best left to advanced psychiatric research, not even that was enough for Burfict. Not content to be the hero with his devastating sack and now this dagger of a takeaway, he also had to be the clown. And so he was. He took that ball, and he ran and ran and ran, right off the field and right down the Bengals' tunnel toward the home locker room. A few of his mates joyfully followed.

Their message was clear. And it was received.

"Did you see that?" Jarvis would ask me. "Did you see them running down that tunnel? Did you see them saying the game was over?"

Sure did. And that also explains why, once the game actually was over, the Steelers followed suit and sprinted right toward their tunnel. No handshakes. No huddles with old college buddies. None of the usual after-party.

"We were done," Jarvis elaborated. "Our job was done. Really done."

You know what happened next.

And by now, you ought to know why.


Jeremy Hill, on the Bengals' very next snap from scrimmage, fumbled.

Because of course he did:

In the regular season, Hill touched a football, whether via rush or catch, 248 times. He fumbled only three times. But on this play, he was stripped by Shazier, and Ross Cockrell pounced.

Shazier showed first-round athleticism, agility and instinct to get the ball. But let's not pretend that a running back at any level is ever forgiven for a fumble. That's not the football culture, fair or not.

And yet, in his postgame session with reporters, Hill repeatedly lamented things "we" had done wrong, meaning all of the Bengals. He even wasted breath ripping Shazier for an earlier hit on another Cincinnati running back, Gio Bernard, as well as commenting on the officiating and other elements that had nothing to do with him -- singular -- fumbling.

"Words can't even really describe it," Hill replied when someone asked how he -- singular -- felt about the finish. "Just how hard we worked, everything you go through, everything right there in front of you, and to just have everything slip away ... words just can't describe it."

Sure they can.

That's what losers do.


Roethlisberger returned for the final drive.

Because of course he did.

There's bound to be some cynicism among the Nation about Landry Jones handling those two series while Roethlisberger stood on the sideline, hands in pockets. It was unsightly, for sure, especially after the Steelers' media relations announced in the press box that Roethlisberger "will attempt to return."

Well, stop that ball before it rolls. The reason Jones played ahead of Roethlisberger should be obvious: Roethlisberger couldn't throw down the field. Tomlin said it. Roethlisberger said it. One offensive lineman told me he worried if Roethlisberger would be able to throw at all.

How much pain was he experiencing?

"A lot," was his entire, telling response.

I believe it. And if you don't, then I'd recommend a second viewing of the Steelers' final drive, in which all of the plays were pint-sized, sideways catch-and-runs.

So out came Roethlisberger into the huddle, with 1:23 on the clock, all three timeouts in hand, at the Pittsburgh 9, and needing a field goal to save the season.

Gilbert told me these were Roethlisberger's only four words before calling his first play: "Let's win this thing."

Winners do more than say it.


Burfict is ... well, let's just go with Mike Mitchell's biting-his-tongue but bitingly accurate definition of this guy: "You know what? He's ... he's ... special."

And not in the good way.

The Bengals had this game won. Not once. Not twice. Three times, it could be argued. And even on the Steelers' final drive, as Roethlisberger's offense tiptoed up the field, Cincinnati unmistakably was in control. It needed a stop. One stop. Anywhere beyond the range of a rookie kicker.

The only thing that could ruin it all was ... Joey Porter?

Oh, my.

Burfict, apparently not content to be the hero and the clown, decided he'd be the dunce, too. When Roethlisberger finally reared back for a little extra to go downfield for Antonio Brown -- "I remember saying something back to the sideline when the play came in because I wasn't sure I could throw it," per Ben's memory -- Burfict didn't bother avoiding AB after the ball had sailed well over his head. He didn't bother trying to simply wrap him up to be safe.

No, he had to go and do this:

Sorry, but that's just deranged.

This individual needs help. When one sinks to the level where they'd sacrifice all that they and their teammates hope to achieve in a setting such as this, one in which the act is eminently avoidable, one in which injuring someone takes priority over winning, then if he doesn't take himself out of the NFL to get help, the league and/or the Bengals should do it for him.

Because this is what psychos do.

And you'd better believe I'm not done with him.


Brown was down, and it looked like he might have been out. The attack from Burfict was very real, and so was the concern. Tomlin, the athletic trainers and Porter jogged onto the field in his direction.

Yes, Porter.

The assistant coach responsible for, uh, outside linebackers.

A man whose only medical background, for those with long memories, is rapid healing from bullets to the buttocks.

It's highly unlikely we'll ever know why he was out there, if only because he's way too shrewd to share. But I'll take the initiative and lay out a scenario, based on the his history of bone-deep passion and based on a couple of conversations in the locker room, that he wanted nothing more than to spontaneously let Burfict know, face to face, that he's despicable.

And according to all concerned, including Burfict, that's what took place on the field.

"You got that coach over there, yelling and swearing at us," Burfict said in his only answer to any media question. "Joey Porter ... what's he doing out there?"

What he was doing was dropping bait to whichever genius would claim it first.

For all the fuss already emanating from this city over whether or not Porter was within NFL rules to come onto the field -- as of early Sunday morning, there was no direct answer from the league or other reference points -- what's really at issue here is that Burfict saw this as an issue at all. It shouldn't have mattered to anyone that Porter was on the field. It shouldn't have mattered to anyone that Porter was in the stadium or the hemisphere, for that matter. Not in that setting. But Burfict and other Bengals couldn't control themselves. They saw Porter, they heard Porter, and they lost whatever there is of their minds.

Best of all for the Steelers, Pacman Jones took a swipe at Porter:

The flag flew. Fifteen more yards, doubling what already was assessed to Burfict. That moved the Steelers into breezy kicking range, and Tomlin decided to end it right there: Chris Boswell booted away, and the Steelers beat the Bengals almost as much as Burfict and Pacman beat the Bengals.

Burfict is an idiot. Don't click that link. Don't watch it.

Pacman is an idiot. Don't click that link. Don't watch it.

They aren't worth it. They're losers beyond hope. And they're right at home here.


About an hour after the formal conclusion, all of the Steelers' players except for two had boarded the team buses. So Tomlin, conducting another count though now with considerably less urgency, again had to retrace his steps in search of those two.

Inside the interview room, Roethlisberger was at the podium for his formal media session. More cameras. More microphones.

Just outside in the hallway was Harrison.

"Come on, Deebo, let's go,"  Tomlin said in an uncharacteristically soft tone. "We're going to Denver, man. We're going. We've got work to do."

"Be right there," Harrison replied.

He didn't budge. Glanced over toward the interview room and temperamentally tapped his foot.


As promised, a few remarks:

• I chose this column mostly because I've never received more feedback from a piece so far after its original publication. This one's No. 1 in that specific regard.

In fact, the following year in the same setting, just for fun, I ended up reprising the theme in a similar column. And funny enough, it received a similar response.

• If I ever rank the most emotional locker rooms I've ever covered, it's ... disturbing how many of them would've been in Cincinnati. When these guys have gotten done with some of these games, they've looked rattled in an uncomfortable way. I could try all day and never come close to describing it, though maybe David DeCastro pulled it off in 2017 when saying, "Imagine if every game we played was like that."

Yes, even super-cool Ramon Foster could look and sound a little rattled. Might have to bring that up with him someday.

• I'm embarrassed to admit this piece wasn't fully up on the site until after 8 a.m. the following day. Readers who were checking the site thought something was wrong or that it was missing. I just couldn't finish it. There was so much material, so many different facets, each of which would've offered enough material for six, seven, even more separate columns.

That's why I chose the vignette approach. Short yarns with a recurring theme.

The Bengals were kind enough to provide the theme.

• I'm not wild about calling people idiots. It can come across as childish or, worse, homer-ish.

These two references were OK, though. Both those individuals are actual, documented idiots. This was solid ground.

• Shazier was brilliant. Wrote up his own special section up there, and it wasn't nearly enough. When I think of Shazier and Paul Brown Stadium, I'd much prefer to think of this one.

What a player.

• It's ridiculous, in a lot of different ways, that Martavis isn't a star in the NFL. He could do things that other receivers couldn't. so much more than a straight-line deep threat.

The league's easing of marijuana restrictions this year was the right move all along, and it would've made a difference for him, if only to keep the suspensions -- and his frustration -- from steamrolling him. That's not to let him off the hook for breaking rules, but a stupid rule's a stupid rule.

I felt like I got to know him, maybe more than some others. Grew to believe in him a bit, as well, albeit tentatively because that frustration was always a layer down.

What a player he could've been, too.

• The things Ben did in that game aren't things that any of his current AFC North quarterback peers can do. Not now, maybe not ever. Bear that in mind before gazing over at the allegedly greener grass.

• Part of me's convinced Marvin's still the coach out there.

• When Ben was asked about the brutal nature of these games after the 2017 edition -- the one where Shazier was hurt, though the players didn't know at the time how severely -- he replied with three words: 'AFC North football.'

The NFL doesn't do everything right, but the divisional alignments are near perfection, if not geographically. And everything that's come of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland has me yearning for a day when all three sports have their own version of an AFC North. The cities are so very much the same in countless ways that it only adds to it all.

• I really want to cover games again. And locker rooms. No way I could get through this revisiting without reciting that yet again.

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