Why Steelers are still playing to win

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers haven’t even been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and yet some are clamoring for them to use their last three games to take a look at some of their younger players such as rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton and rookie safety Shamarko Thomas.

I get that sentiment, especially since both of those players could play prominent roles next season with an offseason of significant turnover looming for the 5-8 Steelers.

But people who questions why coach Mike Tomlin is playing with the unequivocal goal to win the rest of the way have to understand that football is simply different than other sports.

There are not multiple games a week as there are in baseball, basketball and hockey.

There is one, and the sheer manpower that goes into preparing for that one game makes winning a goal that doesn’t change no matter what the standings say.

The players don’t just show up for a couple of hours of practice and then go home. Their work days start early and usually don’t end until late afternoon. And their work isn’t finished once they leave Steelers' headquarters as many engage in extra film study or receive treatment.

The coaches, meanwhile, spend days at the practice facility that start early and stretch well into the night. And, unlike players who get an off day a week, per the collective bargaining agreement, the coaches are at the Steelers’ practice facility every day.

It is a weekly grind for both the players and the coaches and that’s just for one game a week. So imagine their reaction to the notion that the Steelers should play out this season with an eye toward the future.

“I enjoy this game, whether it’s in football camp or practice, whether it’s in games or you’re playing for Super Bowls or whether you’re playing games you have left without perhaps any playoff contention,” Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “If you enjoy sports, this is what you play for. You play for the very next snap, very next game. I’ve never, ever gone into a season or game worried about playoff implications. To be honest, my mentality hasn’t changed.”

Neither has Tomlin’s, and he scoffs at the idea that the Steelers can’t evaluate their young players and still play to win.

“It’s not like it’s a one-or-the-other proposition,” Tomlin said. “The evaluation of young talent is not only within stadiums but it’s also within this building in terms of some of the things they do on the practice field. That’s always ongoing. I think it’s really kind of na├»ve and really not realistic to assume that you either do one or the other.”