PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 19: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes during the game against the New York Jets at Heinz Field on December 19 2010 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
Given the potential problems and distractions that characterized the early portion of the year, the 2010 regular season played out about as well as could be reasonably expected. This is not to say that the Steelers didn't come tantalizingly close to the league's best record and a #1 seed, but c'mon, how many of us honestly thought when they announced Ben's suspension last spring that a season with only four losses would be remotely possible? The stumbles have been few and each was followed by a strong, impressive recovery. As a result (regardless of what transpires this Sunday in Cleveland) the team has earned a trip into the rarified air of January football. All we can do now is hope, pray and dream about what might happen then. But now would be a good time to acknowledge a job well done as far as the regular season is concerned. So please play along if you are so inclined with recognizing the Black and Gold for a remarkable regular season.
Rookie of the Year
Antonio Brown. With the addition of two veteran free agents, including returning fan favorite Antwan Randle El, as well as a higher round draft pick (Emmanuel Sanders) Brown would seem to be a long shot at contributing this year. Even the subtraction of Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed would not seem, at first blush to be sufficient to consider this player as anything more than a practice squad project or a reluctant late cut. An impressive performance in training camp and a kickoff return for a touchdown during his first play in the NFL cemented his place in the future plans of the Steelers receivers corp. Dangerously elusive after the catch, Brown has earn a hat and regular work with special teams and the receivers during the last quarter of the season.
Maurkice Pouncey. A first round draft choice who has not disappointed, Pouncey has attracted some attention for Rookie of the Year honors for the entire league; not an easy accomplishment for an offensive lineman. In the short run Pouncey has proven to be a valuable anchor for an offensive line that has been snake bitten by injuries. Taking the longer view, he looks to step into the long tradition of excellent play by Steelers centers. This tradition was interrupted by the retirement of Jeff Hartings five years ago.
Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders has climbed the ladder and supplanted ARE at the #3 receiver spot. The immediate future would seem to have him as a regular part of the receiver rotation and the heir apparent in the starting line up to Hines Ward, whenever he decides to step aside. He's playing so well no one seems to mind that he's wearing Lynn Swann's old number.
My Choice. Pouncey. Barring major injury, scandal or contract issues we are seeing the foundation of the offensive line for a decade or more to come and one of the stars of the league. The season where the offensive line is viewed as the weak link is about to come to an end, and with it is the end of the offense taking a back seat to the defense. With Ben and Heath reaching their most productive years in mid-career and plenty of young talent maturing at the skill positions, management need only to surround Pouncey with necessary complementary pieces for the offense to be the match of the defense.
Special Mention. Usually it takes several years to judge a draft, but I feel comfortable going out on a limb and stating that the class of 2010 has all the earmarks of being one of the great draft classes. If just two of the remaining members (Butler, Dwyer, Sylvester and Worilds) reach their promise it will truly be exceptional.
MVP - Offense
Maurkice Pouncey. With no disrespect intended, let's consider where we would be if Hartwig were the center this year and Pouncey wasn't part of the equation at all. The bright spot in losing both Willie Colon and Max Starks to injury is that we had Pouncey to stand in the gap (with considerable assistance from Flozell Adams, Chris Kemoeatu and others).
Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is destined to suffer the same lack of respect that all great quarterbacks whose style strays from the purely orthodox have had to bear. This stretches back to individuals such as Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach thru Doug Flutie, Warren Moon (sometimes skin color alone is cause for expulsion from orthodoxy) thru Ben and Michael Vick. Most will not acknowledge that they are on par with the Brady's and the Manning's. All anyone needs to know about Ben can be found in that last drive against the Jets. Even in failure he was absolutely magnificent. All indications point to the possibility that his recent misfortunes are a blessing in disguise. He is one of the most dangerous offensive forces in football, especially because he can accomplish so much without advantages such as perfect pass protection.
Mike Wallace. In the beginning of the season the concern was if Wallace could build on the promise of his rookie season and be nearly as good as the man he would be replacing (Tone). Today we can begin to seriously entertain the thought that he might be, in fact, better. Leading the league in yards per reception for his second year in the league is unprecedented and should land him a spot in the Pro Bowl. He appears to be getting better every week. Contemplating a mature crew of Wallace, Sanders, Brown and a still effective Ward is enough to have you salivating in your beer.
My Choice. Wallace. A superstar in the making he is one of the few legitimate ‘homerun hitters', someone who can score from anywhere at any time. So far the only effective defense has been the occasional lack of range of the arms that are trying to deliver him the ball or lack of sufficient real estate.
Special Mention. Isaac Redman has gone from being an inside joke in Steeler Nation to best actor in a supporting role on offense. You would be hard pressed to name another individual who has done as much with as little in the way of opportunity to contribute to victory as Redman. Charlie Batch with insufficient preparation and little in the way of support from either the team or fans played a crucial role in the team's remarkable 3-1 start and taught a lesson concerning the true nature of professionalism.
MVP - Defense
James Harrison. What was done to Harrison by the League this year is, in the words of my late mother, a sin and a shame. As Mike Tomlin has stated, his performance was at Defensive Player of the Year standards, a reward that, unless it is denied him by the superior play of one of his teammates, will most likely be denied him as part of an ongoing campaign by the NFL to discredit him and paint him as the poster child for outlaw behavior.
Troy Polamalu. Has anyone anywhere made as many dramatic game altering performances? At least for now he seems to have passed clearly passed Ed Reed as the best safety in the game.
Lawrence Timmons. He is finally coming in his own. During the first portion of the season he was clearly outperforming Troy, Deebo and everybody else on the defensive side of the ball. The level of his play seems a bit less spectacular in the later stages of the season, but he is still highly effective. And the really exciting thing is that he is probably just scratching the surface of what he can do.
My choice. Polamalu. The person most likely to beat out Deebo for Defensive Player of The Year. Troy's continuing high level of play combined with his growth as a verbal leader bodes well for coming playoffs and seasons to come.
Special Mention. Ike Taylor is having a great year because no one is throwing at him. As a consequence Bryan McFadden has been catching quite a bit of heat this year.
MVP - Special Teams
Special Mention. Love the intensity of Stevenson Sylvester. Hope there is some way to increase his role on the team in the short term.
Coach of the Year
Sean Kugler. Has been making chicken salad out of chicken sh*t all year. Makes you want to shiver when you think of what he might be capable of if they got him some real talent to work with.
Dick LeBeau. We're left to wonder if on the occasion of his Hall Of Fame induction, Coach Dad is building his Masterpiece. If this team makes it to Dallas (and wins) it could very well be on the back of a defense that comes frighteningly close to perfection (especially if Aaron and Troy are close to full strength).
Mike Tomlin. What do you think the record of the Patriots would be if they were without the services of Tom Brady for four games? The Ravens without Flacco? The Saints without Brees? The Jets without Sanchez? The Colts without Manning? The Falcons without Ryan? What if three of those four games came against potential playoff teams like the Falcons, Ravens, Buccaneers and Titans (before their team imploded)? In addition, what if your team was subjected to a distraction where some of your best players were indiscriminately being fined outrageous amounts and threatened with suspension on a weekly basis. All of the sudden the league seems to have declared war on the very essence of your style of play. And to top things off you lose both starting offensive tackles and your best defensive lineman to season ending injuries, your place kicker loses his mojo and your punter wrecks his knee. In response, you have the second best won/loss record in the league, am on the cusp of winning your division for the third time in your four year career and you are definitely in the playoffs.
My Choice. Tomlin.
Comeback Player/Coach of the Year
Bruce Arians. I still don't like some of his decisions and I am sure that some of you will hate him until he dies and then spit on his grave, but...He effectively guided the offense during the early season quarterback carousel, he generally has been true to run/pass balance, has included aspects that many predicted he wouldn't such as the two back formation, the wildcat and some interesting gadget plays. Does anyone really believe that his job is in jeopardy at this juncture?
Willie Gay. He has overcome the image of being trampled half to death by Adrian Peterson. Lost in the last second defeat to the Ravens were his two big plays on the earlier goal line stand. His rejuvenation as a nickel back has been impressive.
James Farrior. Dismissed as too old and washed up, many were predicting that he would be put out to pasture in favor of Larry Foote or just about any other linebacker on the roster. His performance and leadership speak for themselves this year.
My Choice. James Farrior.
Most Improved Player
Ryan Mundy. If we had rallied successfully against the Jets, Mundy would have been one of the heroes.
Isaac Redman. The joke is on us. He is one of those special projects that may flirt with greatness.
My Choice. Isaac Redman. I think the case can be made that he is being seriously underutilized. Don't be surprised if he makes some noise during the playoffs.
Most Underrated/Underappreciated Player
My Choice. David Johnson. Blocks, catches and runs with ball better that Matt Spaeth. Tough customer who flies under the radar all the time.
So, what do you think?