Not to belittle what New York and New Jersey are struggling with, but I would rather the Steelers were playing just about anybody else this week. Honestly, the match-up with the defending Super Bowl Champs on a normal week does not intimidate me particularly. After all, they lost once to the Cowboys and watched a 23-point lead almost slip away last week against them. And, face it, the Cowboys have challenges all over the place. But, on Sunday they will take the field with the weight of the entire city’s expectations on their shoulders. They will feel an obligation to give New Yorkers a lift. If they were playing anybody else, I would be rooting for them. But, the Steelers, who need the win to keep on digging out of the early season hole they found themselves, march to meet them with the world watching. The Steelers will be traveling from the city that, somewhat surprisingly, was spared Sandy’s wrath. Other than some minor flooding and a few downed trees, it is just miserable late fall weather here. They land in a city with a very different story to tell in the wake of Sandy. Great drama? Absolutely. But the Steelers need the win. Do the Giants need it more?
Many will say it doesn’t matter what has happened off the field. This is professional football and the best team will prevail. And, others will – and have – pointed out that the Giants prep time has been severely compromised, giving Pittsburgh an edge. But, here’s my concern: professional football players are all high performers, and any given team is, in the sum of its parts, about on par with one another in terms of talent. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t see a team like the Raiders or the Cardinals knock off the Steelers and the Patriots respectively. Therefore, it is the intangible factors that will often determine the outcome of a game. Coaching, fan support, team rapport, whatever. And sometimes it is the higher calling of being the shining beacon of hope for a city battered and bruised that gives the team the edge.
Dr. Jim Taylor wrote an article for Psychology Today that was published three years ago yesterday actually about what motivates athletes. He wrote, “…motivation will impact performance. It is also the only factor over which you have control. Motivation will directly impact the level of success that you ultimately achieve. If you are highly motivated to improve your performances, then you will put in the time and effort necessary to raise your game. Motivation will also influence the level of performance when you begin a competition. If they’re competing against someone of nearly equal skill, it will not be ability that will determine the outcome.”
I believe the Steelers can go toe-to-toe with the Giants. I believe that co-draftees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning can match talent and wits on the field. I believe that both head coaches are among the elite coaches in the NFL. So, what sets them apart? Home field advantage and a will to bring home a win to a fan base that wants it badly. But, which fan base needs it? What team feels the motivation a little more? I guess we will see.
In the meantime, best wishes to all of those affected by Hurricane Sandy.