A few comments and observations as a new season begins in earnest. A preemptive strike or two at the naysayers and the Lunatic Fringe of the Nation as we enter a period of high expectations. And maybe a prediction or two.
It has been said that a sign of a life wisely and successfully led is the ability to understand and appreciate the blessings that all of us receive on a daily basis. We are even more fortunate if we are able to see what we have while we have it. More often than not we, as the saying goes, 'never miss our water until the well runs dry.' So, in the closing hours of a championship off season, are you feeling blessed? Consider that 15 NFL franchises, nearly half the league, have never had a championship off season during the modern (Super Bowl) era. Consider also that even for an organization like our own which holds the record for Super Bowl victories, a championship must still be viewed as a rare event, occurring on an average of once every 7 years. And that number goes to show you how deceptive statistics can sometimes be. When Chuck Noll's 70's Steelers won the 4th Lombardi I had been married for about a year and a half and we were childless.When Bill Cowher's squad won the 5th my daughter had finished college, commenced her career and had started her own family. 25 years, a generation later. Nor was this some sort of peculiar quirk. In the 70's three coaches; Noll, Don Shula (Dolphins) and Tom Landry had combined for 12 Super Bowl appearances and 8 titles during the decade. Each man coached into the 90's. But from 1980 on they only combined for 2 SB appearances and 0 championships.
How about a more specific example? I moved to the Washington DC Metro area in 1987. That year the Redskins made their 3rd appearance in 5 years, winning thanks to a magnificent performance by Doug Williams. They would return to that stage one more time within the next four years. And then Joe Gibbs retired for the first time. Owner Jack Kent Cooke would die. The Super Bowl drought is now in its 18th year. This year the big news heading into the season is a front page article in the Washington Post. The picture shows a woman in her 70's, a Redskin season ticket holder for decades, weeping because she has lost her income and can no longer afford her season ticket package. The Skins, bless Dan Snyder's soul are sueing her. Feeling blessed now?
So why am I bringing this up now? While officially we remain the champions until a successor is crowned in February, we all will be swept up the drama of trying to repeat starting now. With expectations high and the margin for error slim we may quickly forget how good we've had it lately and how long it might take before we reach these heights again. Don't get me wrong. during the remainder of this post I will argue the possibility of the opposite, a rapid return to the mountaintop. Just trying to keep things in perspective.
I'm pretty optimistic about our chances this season. In fact, a lot of astute observers at BTSC have been pointing to this season for a couple of years as a probable opening of a window of opportunity where this team could make some noise. This does not have that much to do with what happened last year, that was pretty much a total surprise. The fact that the Steelers did win the championship in spite of significant lineup weaknesses, a brutal, unforgiving schedule and real bad luck in regard to injuries is pretty amazing quite frankly. As for this year; still some weaknesses, especially with the offensive line, but lots of depth, championship experience up and down the board, a lower bar to making the playoffs, excellent leadership. But still, no guarantees, particularly after the playoffs commence. And, of course, the normal disclaimers concerning injuries.
Mike Tomlin.I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Tomlin is just beginning his 3rd year as a head coach. His strengths reflect those of a much more seasoned individual. Unlike a lot of young guys that bring a lot of high energy and emotion to their work, Tomlin seems to be more Zen like in his approach. Energy is channeled toward maintaining a high level of focus. Standards of expectation remain high regardless of who it is that is saddled with the responsibility to meet the standards. Most important, is that Tomlin himself is showing signs of continued improvement. I don't believe that it is just good fortune that the Steelers come out of training camp in a much better posture injury wise than last year. You have to watch carefully because they keep it pretty close to the vest for obvious reasons but this is one well organized group. And let's all hope the Tomlinisms keep coming. There'll be enough for a book eventually.
Ben. Ben hasn't peaked yet in his development as a QB. A frightening thing to consider if you aren't a fan. It appears that his legal problems will not amount to much and that he and his reputation will emerge relatively unscathed. He appears more at peace with himself as both a player and a leader. The sports punditry often lag behind reality. Herd mentality says that Brady and Peyton Manning have their own perches at the top of Mt. QB with Ben a tier or so down with the likes of Eli, Rivers, etc. If he can avoid serious injury and repeat that thinking will go out the window once and for all. Three championships, the same number as Brady, but at a younger age and one more than Peyton and Eli combined puts Ben no worse than equal to the absolute best.
Harrison.A number of people not given to hyperbolic conversation, including Tomlin and LeBeau are saying that James Harrison is better. Frankly, I have a hard time conceptualizing how such a notion will play out in the real world, but it can't be good for opposing offenses. He was just named a team captain as well. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Special Teams.This is NOT a rhetorical question. I honestly don't know the answer for certain, but has there ever been a better combination of place kicker and punter than what the Steelers potentially enjoy with Reed and Sepulveda? Some quality contributors have been eliminated such as Madison and Davis. But a core including Fox, Bailey and Frazier remain, and hopefully newcomers like Summers, Lewis and Burnett will step up. And then of course there is Stefan Logan. For the first time in a long time we may not have to hide our eyes on punts and kickoffs.
Receiving Corps.Should establish themselves this year, if they haven't already, as the best ever for the Steelers. Better than the crew headed by Yancey Thigpen. And, yes, better than Swann/Stallworth. And this is coming from a [Cough] 'seasoned' observer who has witnessed all three groups. Strong headliners (Ward, Holmes and Miller) and great depth.
Defense. The only possible problem is that offensive coordinators have been working in their labs all spring and summer trying to figure out ways to bring LeBeau's defense to heel. Otherwise it's the same situation as with Harrison. They are not just good, they're better. And I really, really think that they are not just going to stop other teams, they're gonna beat the Hell out of them as well.
Limas Mendenhall.Last year's high draft choices stepping up is going to be really big plus for this team. It may not be until the second half of the season that the full impact will be felt. This is especially true for Mendenhall. Age matters and Rashard is still younger than some of this years rookies. Look for similar second half improvement from Timmons and perhaps Ziggy Hood.
The First Month Of 2009.I'm not so sure the Titans will be the factor in the AFC that they were last year. The organization has absorbed some tragedy, still seem to be struggling with just what to do concerning Vince Young, the Colts won't go away, the Jags are desperate and the Texans are improving. While it would be embarrassing for the Steelers to lose, this is a much more important game for the Titans. Here are the reasons the Steelers are likely to win. The Steelers tend to come out strong in openers, and that has been particularly true under Tomlin. They are also usually very successful on the big stage such as Monday Night games and situations like this one where the whole league will be watching. The Hoopla surrounding recognizing the championship, and despite what is said, the desecration of the Terrible Towel may also be factors. But most important of all is that I understand that the US Ambassador to Ireland will be in town. You don't think that the entire organization won't try to show out for the Chairman? Think about the 75th year celebration when they blew the Ravens out of town.
The Chicago game could turn on the play of special teams. Its going to be a very big deal in Chicago. Tough game to win.
The AFC North could be much tougher than imagined this year. Steelers have run roughshod over the division in the Tomlin era. But if Palmer is healthy the Bengals should be competitive. An important game that may resonate later in the year when it comes time to face the Ravens.
It would be best long term if we win at least two with the Bengals game being essential.
Some comments for the Lunatic Fringe.Because we care Steelers fans can get very passionate about the performance of the team. Occasionally, I believe we all make trips to what I refer to as the lunatic fringe where perspective and compassion take a back seat to generally negative passions. Now, while we all visit from time to time, some of us clearly live there. The danger in a high expectation, low margin of error (repeat or bust) kind of season is that things could get out of hand. With that in mind a few pieces of advice for fringe dwellers.
Bruce Arians.The recent spate of O coordinator firings have stmulated fantasies of throwing BA under the bus once and for all. I understand. I have had my issues with BA myself from time to time. However, consider the following; the Steelers just won the Super Bowl, Ben seems to like him just fine, it was not LeBeau's defense but BA's offense that pulled our fat out the fire in the Super Bowl and he is very quietly been fighting cancer. So I will write this slowly: B...A...is...not...going...anywhere...! Lower your voice. Have a seat. Take a valium. Take two. And enjoy the games.
The Running Game.Saint Jerome is retired. Franco has been retired longer. John Henry Johnson I believe is deceased. 260 pound running backs who can gain 10,000 or more yards in a career and can run over Brian Urlacker do not grow on trees. Besides, we are paying Ben entirely too much money to simply pivot to his left and hand off, then pivot to his right and hand off, and then pitch out left...If FWP and Mendenhall remain healthy we'll be okay. Really. Besides you can't just let two SB MVPs rot from lack of work. In the meantime, until the next truly great runner comes along hold onto your wallet and, perhaps, your private parts if someone comes along with any of the following nicknames: M-1 Abrams, Half Track, Hummer, Nimitz Class, Galaxy Class, Dump Truck, Eighteen Wheeler, Bulldozer, Earthmover, Hippo, Rhino, War Elephant, Water Buffalo, Killer Whale, Great White, Black Angus, Bronto, T-Rex, King Kong, Godzilla, Womb Killer, C Section, Big Daddy, Baby Huey or Tiny.
The Patriots.They're not even on our schedule. Nor are the Giants, Eagles or Colts. The Dolphins. Now there's a group that should feel disrespected with all this New England talk. Now if we meet in the playoffs, put our foot up their ass and that'll settle things. In the meantime, worry about the Ravens.
The Offensive Line.Let's take Darnell Stapleton as an example. About a year ago conversation about Darnell was that of a raw, young talent who people hoped would do well enough in camp so that he could make the practice squad at least, and, hopefully make the 53 man roster and even dress on Sundays. Injuries result in him being thrown into the starting lineup, way too soon and not in his position (center). He manages well enough that he heips us win the Super Bowl and we want to thank him by giving him a one way ticket to Palookaville. GIVE THE KID A FRIGGIN' BREAK!!! GIVE HIM TIME TO DEVELOP, OR PLAY AT HIS NATURAL POSITION BEFORE YOU THROW HIM INTO THE TRASH COMPACTOR.
Charlie Batch.The Sporting News recently name the Steelers QBs the best quarterback corps in the NFL. Not bad given one of them is a cadaver. Yeah, Ol' Charlie is getting up there in years. But I think he moves around pretty good for a dead man.