Just one year ago, the Steelers sat and watched Baltimore at Oakland, hoping beyond hope that QB JaMarcus Russell could manage to knock off the Ravens, thus giving the Steelers the final AFC playoff spot.
It wasn't meant to be. JaMarcus Russell is, well, JaMarcus Russell.
What followed from that dark Sunday was a string of perhaps the best management this team has ever seen, and definitely the best that won't be recognized until it's all over.
March, 2010 - QB Ben Roethlisberger is accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old female with whom Roethlisberger was drinking in MIlledgeville, Ga. The media circus that surrounded it came in wake of the Steelers missing the playoffs, and many pundits wrote the Steelers season off.
April, 2010 - WR Santonio Holmes is traded for a fifth-round pick to the New York Jets, just as the league announces Holmes will be suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Holmes was facing something of a criminal entanglement as well, being accused of throwing a glass at a woman's face in a nightclub in Florida.
April, 2010 - Roethlisberger is given a six-game suspension by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said Roethlisberger's actions could lead to the suspension being reduced to four games.
Sandwiched between these two events, the Steelers select Florida C/G Maurkice Pouncey in efforts to shore up its sagging offensive line. It's thought off the bat Pouncey would compete for a starting spot at right guard as he's groomed to assume the center position when incumbent Justin Hartwig's contract expired.
The Steelers also dealt a late draft pick to Tampa Bay to re-acquire former back-up Byron Leftwich. They used the fifth-round pick they received from the Jets to trade for former starting CB Bryant McFadden from Arizona.
This completed the Steelers roster modification, which included the free agent signings of WR Antwaan Randle El and LB Larry Foote; both key contributors to the team's Super Bowl XL championship. Foote started at the mack linebacker position for both championship teams.
The lesson? Rely on what you know. Amid the chaos being caused by internal (or formerly internal) resources, the Steelers had a mini shopping spree on their former players, and established the foundation for a season above the haters' low expectations.
They had to get away from this philosophy when veteran free agent signee Jonathan Scott was promoted to starter after RT Willie Colon was lost for the year due to an Achilles injury. The Steelers signed veteran Flozell Adams to fill Colon's roster spot.
The front office had done its part. A successful draft, including Pouncey, dynamic linebackers Jason Worlids and Sylvester Stephenson, melded well immediately with the veteran-heavy roster.
The Steelers bus the entire team to Canton, Ohio, to watch the Hall of Fame induction ceremony of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He speaks eloquently of every starter on the defense longer than he speaks of anyone else, showing a look inside the familial bond of one of the best defenses of the past 20 years.
Not long after that, expected starter Leftwich suffers a knee injury, thrusting Dennis Dixon into the starting role for the second time of his career. He edged out veteran Charlie Batch for the start against visiting Atlanta (a team that clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC at season's end).
Dixon leads the Steelers to a 15-9 overtime victory over the Falcons, throwing for 236 yards with one interception. The Steelers defense holds off a charging Falcons team despite a missed field goal by Jeff Reed at the end of regulation.
In Week 2, Dixon suffers a knee injury early against AFC rival Tennessee, putting the Steelers 4th quarterback, Batch, at the helm. Batch fails to lead the offense to much production, but the Steelers defense was playing at a level unseen in the NFLin recent years, sacking Vince Young and Kerry Collins (who replaced Young in the second half) four times and notching three interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Batch gets the start against a pesky Tampa Bay team (finished 10-6 and just out of the money in the NFC), and from out of nowhere, led the Steelers to touchdowns on four straight possessions in the first half, routing the Buccaneers 38-13. Bucs back-up QB Josh Johnson leads the team to a late touchdown, just the second the Steelers defense had given up in three games.
The 3-0 start was well above expectations for a team that was thought to be just aiming for 2-2 before Roethlisberger's return. Unfortunately, rival Baltimore got the better of Batch, and QB Joe Flacco capitalized after the Steelers' offensive miscues late in the game, throwing a touchdown pass with less than a minue to play, giving the Ravens a huge come-from-behind victory.
After a bye week, Roethlisberger returned to Heinz Field, and with surgeon-like prowess, dismissed the Browns with three touchdown passes and one interception. It would be one of only five picks Roethlisberger throws in 12 starts.
The remaining 11 games saw a Steelers team lose its left tackle (Max Starks), the creation of untested methods of punishment for legal hits (LB James Harrison racked up $125,000 in fines, before having one of them reduced $25,000 after appeal), the loss of stalwart DE Aaron Smith (but the team chose not to put him on IR, thus betting on their ability to make the playoffs without him, giving them the chance to be healthy for the post-season).
Those games also saw the emergence of WR Mike Wallace as Holmes' legitimate replacement. A far superior deep threat, Wallace lead the NFL in yards per catch for most of the season. Injuries led to a game of musical chairs among the offensive line, putting six different combinations of starters into those games - the rookie Pouncey started all 16 games at the same position.
He would also be selected to the Pro Bowl.
Despite the havoc among the offensive line, the Steelers wound up being the 10th best rushing team in the NFL, greatly increasing their success in this area from the previous season. There was also turmoil in the kicking game. Tomlin made the surprising move to cut veteran K Jeff Reed after a subpar performance in a loss at home to New England, signing Shaun Suisham for the remainder of the season.
When Reed was cut he was 15-for-22. At the end of the season, Suisham was 14-for-15. Another great move.
They beat Baltimore on the road in the highly anticipated re-match late in the season, giving them the edge for the AFC North championship over the highly favored Ravens. Before a big game against the Jets, the Steelers chose to rest soon-to-be-named Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu a la Smith, and despite losing that game, they clinched a return ticket to the playoffs.
JaMarcus Russell be damned.
They kept Polamalu healthy, beating lowly Carolina on Thursday Night of Week 16. He returned to the field in a must-win Week 17 clash against Cleveland, and responded simply by notching his seventh pick of the season on the third play of the game.
The Steelers supply the Browns with as savage and thorough a beating as one team can give another, and the Steelers, the team written off in May, won the division. The team that was chastised for trading Holmes, spat on because of Roethlisberger's alleged indescretions and forced to win with Dennis Dixon. And with Charlie Batch. And with new offensive linemen each week. And without Smith.
That team is a division champion.
The Steelers wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and their third AFC North title in the past four years. And they did it in a fashion where they have a rested and healthy Polamalu for the playoffs. They'll possibly see the return of Smith. Calculated gambles that could pay off in a Lamar Hunt/Lombardi Trophy combo pack.
I haven't mentioned Coach Mike Tomlin's name intentionally, because leadership is making waves without being noticed. It's succeeding despite adversity.
Name one coach in the NFL who characterized either of those traits better than Tomlin.
Let's look at the bigger picture. If an average coach goes into training camp with the following:
- A franchise quarterback convicted of rape by the Court of Public Opinion
- Without his leading receiver
- A rookie center
- A journeyman right tackle
Does that coach win? Nope.
While Patriots coach Bill Belichick leads the favorites for the Super Bowl championship, and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris took a team at the bottom to a seven win improvement, neither reached the height Tomlin did while dealing with the amount of adversity he did.
The NFL Coach of the Year award isn't given to a man who doesn't deserve it, but sometimes it's not given for the right reasons. Tomlin personified leadership this season; he responded with the best leadership of his career.
Coach of the Year award be damned.