The Standard Bearer

By Andrew Malkasian

In the wake of the No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001, states across the country began creating learning standards that identify – for specific grades and content areas – what students should be able to “do” at certain points in their academic careers. These standards are – supposedly – easy ways to assess achievement and determine teacher effectiveness.  In the intervening 20 years since the passage of the law, standards have become a major component of the teaching profession and have also become a point of serious contention.  To define success by meeting a specific standard can certainly be limiting.  But, so long as the standard is a qualitative measure where students are rewarded for their efforts, then the standard is worth defending. 

In a more literal sense, a standard is something carried. Think of the proverbial “standard bearer.” Someone who, despite the obvious dangers or pitfalls, will carry the standard at all costs.  In war, the standard, or flag bearer,  helps to lead the charge or indicate a prudent retreat. Furthermore, the standard bearer also  represents an esprit de corps, a duty, a loyalty, and a sense of honor. The standard can never be lowered, if the bearer is struck down, someone else must drop their weapon, throw caution to the wind, and ensure the standard is raised once again.  To put it simply, the standard is the standard. 

Tomlin and the Standard

In 2015 Mike Tomiln was asked directly what he means by his famous “The Standard is the Standard” quip that Steelers fans have grown accustomed to hearing him exclaim at the end of games.  In typical Tomlin fashion he didn’t mince words.  “I don’t know. I don’t think a lot about the things I say, to be honest with you.” While the standard is clearly defined in education, and on the battle fields, Coach Tomlin would have us believe that the standard is not well  defined within the Pittsburgh Steelers. organization.

I’ll buy that he’s not willing to divulge it’s true meaning to the media, but there’s no chance he hasn’t thought about its larger meaning or that the phrase doesn’t mean something to those players. There’s a reason it’s affixed to the wall outside the Steelers locker room. There’s a standard call that each player, veteran or rookie, knows and understands.

Recently, Najee Harris was photographed in front of “the standard is the standard’ quote that is bolted to the wall just outside the team locker room. The photo was shared on social media immediately after Harris visited Pittsburgh for the first time.  I saw the photo and it immediately got me thinking a bit more about the meaning of the word “standard” in terms of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  There’s certainly a standard within the organization; there’s a way of acting, a mindset of patience and calm, and an eagerness to adjust when necessary, and an intense loyalty that we’ve seen expressed not just from the organization to veteran players, but also from veteran players to the organization.

The Steelers have a certain standard of play that is obvious to anyone, especially recently. You fumble the ball, Tomlin will sit you down. You drop the ball on a crucial third down, and you’re going to become quite familiar with the sideline. You prove yourself destructive to team morale or boost your personality beyond the face of the team and you’ll be finding another jersey to pull over your shoulder pads.  Even still, there’s a standard of stability too.

In 1969, the Steelers have hired a relatively unknown defensive coach from Baltimore who would later construct the first post-merger dynasty and capture four our out of six super bowls.  Since Chuck Noll’s hire in 1969, the Steelers have had a total of three coaches, one owner, and one GM (yes, the latter was only added recently in an official capacity, but it’s a going point nontheless).  The team seeks continual growth over sudden spurts of success necessarily followed by shattering rebuilds. That doesn’t mean the team hasn’t retooled or even reimagined parts of their game, it simply means that the team maintains a standard of growth and of maintaining a certain order.

The Future of the Standard

From the perspective of the X’s and O’s, the standard is a stout defense, an unmatched physicality  and a strict reliance upon the run game.  This last draft seems to emphasize the exact definition of the Steelers Standard.  Player’s who will not only bring youth and energy to the team, but also reaffirm the tenants of a Pittsburgh Steelers playoff team.  

When I see Najee leaning against the wall seemingly embracing this seemingly redundant phrase, I imagined – in a literal and a proverbial sense – that Najee will be the new Steelers standard bearer. Not just of the future, but of the past too.  He already shows a media savvy, a level of intelligence that modern players need to navigate the labyrinth of disasters awaiting them.  He also shows a true and growing affection for the team. Even before the draft he publicly expressed a desire to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.  He knows the expectations that come with the Black and Gold and the City of Steel and he knows the standard expected.   He also advocates for charitable causes that emphasize community over self and care over pride.  He’s a player that will push the Steelers into the future by personifying the tenacity and integrity that’s has defined the team for years but he’ll also show a loyalty and pride ensuring the standard remains the standard. 

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