What has been lurking in the shadows is now taking center stage and will remain there for God knows how long. The CBA. There hasn't been much focus on this and for good reason. Besides the obvious, whether or not there will be a season this year, this process will also say a great deal about the structure of the game. The length of the season, the size of the rosters, pay scales, salary caps, free agency and injured reserve restrictions. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the NFL may become a very different game in a number of ways come next fall. I'm not sure everyone who is speculating about next year is taking this sea change into account. Of absolutely extreme importance is whether the model of player acquisition and development that has been so rewarding for the Steelers franchise can be swiftly and successfully adapted to whatever will be the new realities and continue to keep us among the elite organizations in team sports.
. A lot of people don't know that the Rooney family did not restrict their sports ownership to football teams. Race tracks have been a very lucrative business for the clan. The younger among us may also be forgiven if they did not know that in the early to mid 20th century the big three among American sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Fifty years ago baseball was still king. But forty years ago, when the AFL and NFL merged and ushered in what most would view as the golden age of football. The point here is that the NFL did not find itself in its current enviable position because its popularity was inevitable. Its position relative to, say, baseball changed as America changed from being mostly small town and rural to mostly urban. The telegenic nature of the game, the built in drama of time limits and relatively short schedules, its peculiar form of violence, its relationship to the college game all contributed to, first its growth, and then its domination of the American sporting scene. The Rooneys are one of the few ownership groups that directed the League's phenomenal growth. And they find themselves in the minority of their fellow owners as to the many of the proposed changes for the game such as the eighteen game schedule. Here is the question we must all concern ourselves with;
Will the NFL be Snyderized?
What does being Snyderized look like? The easy answer is the Washington Redskins. A more recent example might be the just completed Super Bowl week in Dallas-Fort Worth. Providing profitable entertainment is not enough. Greed demands that whatever was enough today will not be enough tomorrow. Find what the market can bear and then push the envelope.Tax payers are conned and extorted to commit precious and dwindling community resources to palatial stadiums that are of limited value to all but the owners while schools, infrastructure and other public services crumble from neglect. The product is priced beyond the resources of the average individual. In the Snyderized world public access to the stadium is discouraged then they are charged hundreds of dollars for parking. And as Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins pointed out during the recent SB in Dallas parking spaces went for as much as $900, a Margarita would sell for $19, a beer for $10. This in an environment where unemployment is stalled in double digits, and those who have jobs have not seen their wages rise in real terms in quite some time. But beyond the almost comedic pathology of greed on the margins, these relative newcomers also conspire to distort the game to make it more ‘entertaining'. A generation ago baseball owners looked the other way as players engaged in an arms race of sorts. Offensive stats, particularly home runs went through the roof. Everything was great until the scandal hit. The ramifications of Steroids, the juice that literally fueled the explosion are being felt to this day. Now we have football owners wanting to tone down the defense (and attendant violence) and amp up the offense. In order for that to happen quarterback play needs to be emphasized, and we certainly can't have players like James Harrison pounding quarterbacks to dust or Ryan Clark knocking receivers silly. They also want to increase the number of games, which is another way of saying they want to play these guys until the wheels come off the wagon.
Where do the Rooneys come down on all of this? Dan Rooney sent a shock wave of sorts when being interviewed by the New York Times he responded to the notion of an 18 game season by saying "I'd rather not have the money."
I don't agree that there is nothing on the line for us as fans in this labor dispute. Nor do I think that our sentiments would be irrelevant to the discussion. Successful entities whether they be individual teams, a business or a consortium of businesses can be difficult to build but very easy to destroy. A discussion for another time maybe, for now it serves as background for a few observations about the team moving forward.
Quarterbacks. I have to say that I was a wee bit disappointed overall with this group. My expectations may have been unrealistically high but I expected more out of Dixon and Leftwich (even before Dennis' injury). This is also the scene of one of Tomlin's few outright coaching miscues. Were it not for the untimely and inconvenient injuries to Dixon and Leftwich Charlie Batch would have been dispatched without any real opportunity to fight for a job. Tomlin like many of us added up a string of injuries and advancing age and came up with the wrong answer. Charlie's play against the Bucs looks even better given the low expectations for Tampa at the time and how their season turned out. Even more impressive is that he played well enough that the Steelers came within thirty seconds of beating the Ravens in their first meeting. This probably won't be viewed as Ben's best year, but all things considered he did a lot better than many expected, made great progress in establishing himself as a team leader and covered a lot of territory in rehabilitating a reputation that was in tatters eleven months ago.
Going forward. With a 53 man roster four quarterbacks is too many The favored scenario would likely be Charlie gracefully bowing out. Personally, I think Batch still has good football within him, but with his appointment to the Board of the Players Association and the work that is likely to entail this year, a gracious retirement is probably in order. With Ben having likely solidified his long term status on the team, Dixon may likely leave for greener pastures, that is to say places where he could compete for an eventual starting position. Leftwich, if he is smart will take Batch's old job as reliable backup and sidekick. I don't see him securing a starting job anywhere else, and, quite frankly, the only position in football that might be better than starting quarterback is backup quarterback. However, if rosters are significantly increased its possible that all four may stay.
Offensive Line. Ben was sacked once during the Super Bowl. Most of the time during the playoffs the Steelers were able to run effectively when they wanted to and there were a number of times during the SB that Ben had all the time he either needed or wanted in the pocket. Regardless of talent offensive lines need time to evolve chemistry among the players. Pittsburgh's injury driven revolving door made that difficult. Or think about it this way; if a year ago you came on this site and Michael Bean said he had just time traveled forward and the Steelers' starting offensive line in the Super Bowl would be Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster and Flozell Adams, the almost universal reaction would have been "What the Hell?" There is certainly a need for more talent, especially at guard, but they might be in remarkably better shape at center and tackle than could be imagined.
Going Forward. Assuming that they pass muster physically, there are free agency and contract concerns involving Max Starks, Willie Colon and Flozell Adams. What can Kugler do with youngsters Hills and Chris Scott? Depending on the answer does Jonathan Scott even make next year's team without a roster expansion. Set at center. Pouncey and Legursky (would be really set if they could finagle a way to get their hands on Pouncey's twin brother). Expect some early struggles next season as chemistry building must commence anew, but not the wholesale changes that might be expected from a group that lacked talent or potential.
Running Backs. Before he fumbled to begin the 4th quarter Mendenhall looked to be on track to being SB MVP. This is a particularly important development in that all four of Tomlin's top draft picks are performing at the high levels that one would hope for (Mendy, Timmons, Hood and Pouncey). These are the four cornerstones of the team's future. At this point all Rashard needs is more carries. For whatever reason, perhaps because he was the functional equivalent of a rookie, the coaching staff seemed slow to place much confidence in Isaac Redman. Once they do the running game could really take off next season. Thought Mewelde Moore was through, but he played pretty big during the playoffs.
Going Forward. Will Dwyer be next season's Redman? Barring injury I believe we are in very good shape at running back.
Receivers. An embarrassment of riches. Michael Wallace answered all the necessary questions concerning his ability and growth potential. Hines is becoming the elder statesman, still effective, still clutch, undisputed leader of his team. Manny Sanders is, coming on fast, but perhaps not as fast as Antonio Brown. You figure that there is no further use for Antwaan Randle El. But if you were to review the most clutch catches, the most spectacular catches of the year ARE is over represented.
Going Forward. Is Limas Sweed out of the picture? Before you scream yes!, he brings one novel and important element to the picture that all the others don't have; size. Don't be surprised if ARE survives for one more year. Arnaz Battle would be a surprise.
Tight Ends. Heath had a subpar year in my opinion. Nothing to be concerned about, it happens. Expect Johnson to be around for a while.
Going Forward. BA pretty much demonstrated that tight ends can provide the blocking necessary for a successful running attack. Hard to imagine a need for players like Frank Summers, but...
Defensive Line. Britt Keisel and Ziggy Hood are in and quickly entering their prime respectively. I'm expecting to hear a lot of old man talk concerning Hampton, Hoke and Smith. Aaron is in the same space Batch was last year; a series of injuries and age, he must be washed up. Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is that whatever issues there may have been with the defense this year, it didn't really involve the defensive line.
Going Forward. It will be important to find one or two young guys to develop and as insurance against injury, but in this case, if it ain't broke don't fix it. As long as Britt and Ziggy are reasonably healthy this crew will be up to the task.
Linebackers. The best in the business and will continue to be so if we can hold onto Woodley who is likely to be franchised. The scapegoaters in the wake of the SB loss want to revive the put Farrior out to pasture talk. Pay it no mind. Lost in the tears of last Sunday was a pretty fine performance by Lawrence Timmons.
Going Forward. Last time I felt this way was seven years ago with both James Harrison and Willie Parker. Somehow someone has to figure a way to get Stephenson Sylvester on the field beyond just special teams.
Defensive Backs. I join the chorus of those who are wondering what's up with Troy? There may have been some sensible strategic reason to use him the way they did, it is clear in hindsight that the Achilles injury was probably more severe than anyone associated with the team was willing to let on. Tempting to say that might have been the difference, but I'm not ready to concede that until I hear a more convincing argument. Ike Taylor had a fine season and deserves every effort the FO can make to retain him. Ryan Clark had another good year, but Troy's difficulties cascade down to him to a degree. Love his leadership. Gay is not and probably will not be a great player, but nonetheless I think he's nowhere near the bum that others are making him out to be. He's made some big plays for the team this year. Unfortunately, he seems destined to be one of those guys whose failures will always make a greater impression than his successes. I do have questions about McFadden. I wonder if he is big enough in this era to not be a liability. I wonder why it took him so long to finally take the starting job from Deshea Townsend. And I wonder about his stint in Arizona. Generally speaking I am happy about the play of Mundy and Madison within their roles. I'm inclined to think that we will need help in this area sooner rather than later.
Going Forward. It would be nice if someone; Lewis or Butler stepped up over the next six months. Otherwise we can hope that Colbert and the FO can work some of its magic either in the draft or the free agent market. However, the defense, just like last year, is not exactly on the road to Hell. The most important free agent signing will be LeBeau.
Kicking Game. There is a lot I like about Suisham, but that field goal attempt last week is enough to convince me that this is a problem that has not been completely solved. Otherwise congrats to Coach Everest for righting the ship on special teams.