A 16-game NFL regular season is a long slog. A seeming lifetime of drama, excitement, frustration, injury, speculation, intrigue, pain, joy, disappointment and (hopefully) victory packed into a mere four months.
And plays. Above all else, every season features lots and lots of plays.
Very few team sports (baseball, cricket and golf are the only ones that come to mind) are as discrete as football. Action is never continuous as it is in soccer, rugby, hockey or basketball. Instead, it is parceled into little six-second increments between the snapping of the ball and the referee’s whistle. A burst of activity, then a pause.
Those self-contained units become the building blocks around which entire games and seasons are constructed. Like atoms in a molecule, like cells in a body, plays snap together to form drives. Drives pile up to become a game. Sixteen games run together to become a season.
Our entire understanding and enjoyment of the game centers around this one indivisible unit of football. We can never talk about a drive or a game without coming back to the plays that made it what it was. Either a team strung together enough good plays to score or it didn’t. Either it made enough plays to win or it didn’t.
At the same time, their discreteness gives football plays a sense of importance that is not always justified. Sometimes a play means a season. Sometimes it means nothing. Sometimes it tells you everything you need to know about a team. Sometimes it is just an aberration.
The trick for fans and analysts is sorting through the inevitable detritus that accumulates over the course of a season and figuring out which ones really matter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the field for 2417 offensive, defensive and special teams snaps during the 2012 season. There were touchdowns, field goals, interceptions, fumbles, long runs, short passes, incompletions, kickoffs and punts.
Lots of those plays were little more than white noise. A few really mattered. A handful told us what we needed to know about this team, where they were heading and what we should expect from them.
The following is a compilation of one play from each of the 2012 Steelers games that offered insight into the recently concluded season.