A few years ago a consensus began to form within the BTSC community. Michael Bean based a post on this earlier this summer, so I’m not plowing any new ground here. The belief was that based upon what was known at that time that a window of opportunity would open for the Steelers between 2010 thru 2012, with 2011 being the most likely year for a championship run.
Folks were looking at veteran players that would still likely to be around like Hines, Casey, and Aaron, maturing players such Ben, Brett, Ike and Heath, as well as young guys on the come like Mendenhall. But there were a lot of unknowns as well. No one had any idea what form the new CBA would take, and certainly could not anticipate the lockout. There would obviously be some personnel additions and deletions that could not be predicted in any reliable manner. And then there were the X factors; who knew about Georgia and Reno, or the situation with Santonio Holmes or Dan Rooney being named Ambassador to Ireland?
But, lo and behold, in spite of all the twists and turns, that original consensus still appears credible. Indeed, the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl a year ahead of schedule (though we were assuming a win), and all things considered, including much knocking on wood, the team appears to be particularly well positioned to make a strong run in ’11. Of course, there are any number of factors that could lead to bitterness and despair; injuries and jinxes, scandals and (especially these days) acts of God. Let’s be clear, this is not a prediction. Rather, I’m seeking to illuminate some issues that might lead to success, or framing it another way, might derail the effort.
The Big Three
One of the big unknowns over the past couple of years that is beginning to become clear is what, exactly, would be the impact of the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin partnership. Granted, Dan Rooney is not completely off the scene. But the same was true over 40 years ago when Art Sr. turned over the reins to Dan. What resulted was a dramatic turnaround in the team’s fortunes. So, it was reasonable to ask what the impact would be as the mantle was passed on to a third generation of Rooneys. Would things pretty much stay the same, better, worse? The early returns would indicate that we can take "worse" off the table. And, though it is too early to say so definitively, there is some evidence to support the assertion that this franchise is in the process of making a leap to an even higher level.
Art II deserves very high marks for his handling of the issues involving Ben, Santonio and Deebo. And by all indications he played a big, positive role in the resolution of the CBA and the lockout. He sent a clear message to fans, his team and coaches on the need to stay true to Steelers football, as well also making it clear that getting the seventh Lombardi was not just a nebulous ambition, but an urgent priority.
I think that folks here at BTSC and elsewhere in the Empire appreciate the job that Colbert has been doing over the last decade. Like so much else about this franchise he’s flying under the radar everywhere else. I believe that being promoted to General Manager is tantamount to a lifetime contract. I would be surprised if Colbert doesn’t retire a Steeler.
Generally speaking I believe the compressed chaos that the lockout created with the preseason works strongly in favor of the Steelers. One of the advantages is the experience and stability of management as a factor in coping with the unknowns and peculiarities like new practice rules and condensed practice time among other issues. But I also believe that in a year like this one, there will be a premium on coaching and organization. And I think you’d agree that with Mike Tomlin that is potentially a huge advantage for Pittsburgh. While not a perfect or finished product as a coach, Tomlin’s progress has been impressive. His critics (almost all internal to Steeler Nation these days) have less to work with every year, and will soon, if not already, run the risk of being viewed as just being nitpickers.
It was a travesty and a scandal that Tomlin didn’t receive Coach of the Year honors this past season. He proved once again that he confounds low expectations by shepherding his team to a Super Bowl appearance when everyone, including the team’s own fan base, had written the Steelers off before the first game was played. (Remember that in ’08 we were supposedly doomed by the difficulty of the schedule). A couple of new things we learned as part of that process was that he moved beyond the apparent unofficial policy of once you leave the Steelers you cannot go home again by bringing back Foote, Randle El and BMac. The on field benefits of doing so were significant if not spectacular, though I suspect the leadership benefits were off the charts. He also showed a capacity to strengthen his staff with the addition of Kugler and Everest.
If you haven’t noticed, the team, once feared to be weakened by the Ben scandal is now tighter and stronger than ever. Nor has the Steelers brand been damaged as was predicted during the Spring of 2010. In spite of the fact that Santonio Holmes is still recognized, and rightfully so, as one of the top receivers in the league, you can’t really say that we’re wringing our hands in Black and Gold Country over the situation at wide receiver; quite the contrary, that area of the team is considered not only to be strong, but appears to have one of the greatest assembly of talent in team history. The staff upgrade continues with the hiring of Lake as secondary coach and hopefully a similar upgrade of that aspect of the team.
The challenge for Tomlin this year is whether he can handle the potential pitfalls of high expectations and erase the stain of the ’09 season (and, though it occurred before his time but must weigh on the minds of the older veterans, the disappointment of the ’06 season as well). It will also be interesting to see if he makes progress as a game tactician, an area of weakness for him previously. What is clear is that this is now definitely his team from staff through the players. They reflect his personality and philosophy. Want to bet against him?
A Veteran Team
One of the reasons I believe that there might be a Super Bowl jinx is the fact that when you play into February you end up with very little down time relative to other teams in the league. This would be particularly problematic for a veteran (read ‘older’) team that recovers less quickly from the aches and pains of the game than the young. And the sad thing is that they don’t really need the work, but appearances must be maintained. No one wants to answer the questions leveled at you if you are perceived to work less than other teams and you don’t win. In this sense the team made out pretty well with the lockout. While other teams are still trying to determine fairly important issues such as who the starting quarterback will be Pittsburgh probably could have started league play a couple of weeks ago.
More importantly, this is a team that has a rare championship pedigree. The list of teams that have had at least three Super Bowl appearances in a relatively short time frame (six years) with at least two wins is short; Dolphins (‘70s-2 wins), Steelers (‘70s-4 wins), Cowboys (‘90s -3 wins) and Patriots (’00s -3 wins). Elite company indeed. Expect a team that is confident, focused and a little pissed off. The younger players have nothing to show for a great season, the older ones feel the sting of a missed opportunity as the hourglass runs low. Playoff qualification, division titles, conference titles are just milestones on the way to the only thing that matters; a Super Bowl win. Everyone is drinking out of this particular vat of Kool-Aid. If they don’t make it the cause will not be complacency or lack of focus.
Look for the offense to carry a greater share of the weight. Defensive coordinators will be up late at night trying to devise strategies that will attempt to adequately offset both their brute force running attack as well as the Roethlisberger aerial circus. Few teams will be able to effectively stymie both (some won’t be able to handle either). Unable to outmatch the skill positions, my guess is that will have to rely on trying to overwhelm the offensive line. If this offense can consistently fulfill their potential opposing offenses will be under tremendous pressure to try to keep up against the still potent Pittsburgh D. Watching the Steelers should be a much more exciting experience this year, or more frustrating if all this potential regularly misfires.
The potential for this to be Ben’s best year ever is definitely there based upon three factors. He’s still peaking in terms of mastering his skills as a quarterback; he has the most diversified and powerful toolbox at his disposal since his rookie year, and besides the team-wide need to prove something this year, there could be a personal ‘chip’ that Ben carries based upon the past eighteen months and an entire career as an afterthought in the discussions of elite quarterbacks. The only active quarterback ahead of Ben in terms of championships and SB appearances is Tom Brady, and, unlike Brady, Ben had an apprenticeship that lasted exactly one game. They have rated Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers ahead of him, then Drew Brees, now Aaron Rodgers. Tomorrow? Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and whoever may be starting at Central Catholic High School or any Pop Warner team you can name. Another championship and his peers are Brady, Bradshaw, Aikman and Montana. That’s it. Hall Of Fame, first ballot if there remains any justice in this world.
Byron’s injury was tragic and a bit sickening, but bottom line; all it did was push back the difficult decision of which quarterback will have to be shown the door until much later, probably next year. Does anyone appreciate how absolutely loaded the Steelers are at that position?
I really liked what I saw with Rashard Mendenhall this preseason. There is very little wasted energy in his runs now. He knows where he’s going and how to get there. He should be able to at least match his performance of last year, but don’t be surprised if he really breaks out as a complete threat at running back. But as exciting as that sounds the big story could be Isaac Redman. He may levitate and fly into the end zone, split in two and reassemble fifty yards downfield, or he may disappear altogether and reappear bearing fruit from the 7th dimension. Moore doesn’t get much respect in these parts, but he is a very solid contributor that frequently delivers much more than you expect from him. Dwyer looks good, but the reality of it is that, barring injury, he’ll struggle to get a helmet on Sundays.
There is a scene in the movie Fame (the original one with Irene Cara and Debbie Allen) where a high school football team is brought in to work out side by side with dancers. The jocks are wiped out, the fitness demands of dancing being far greater than that of football. The big surprise this year is that Hines’ stint on "Dancing" may have extended his career. He was moving extremely well in the preseason. He’s almost been the forgotten man with all the talk of the Money guys and Cotchery. He could have a much better year than expected; but having said that, if the young guys continue to improve the assumption that Hines can play as long as he wants may go out the window. I doubt if he would be pushed out, but if they manage another championship soon, the hints may come concerning going out on top. With all the hype surrounding Wallace and now Brown don’t be surprised if a healthy Sanders out performs them all. Hard not to get crazy excited by the possibilities here.
The position gets an upgrade by deletion rather than addition. Johnson moving into the #2 role improves both blocking and pass receptions. Saunders is raw and intriguing.
Achilles Heel? Not necessarily. Now that the auditioning is completed give them a few games to get completely comfortable with each other. I believe they will be fully competent with the run and serviceable for the pass. Happy with his performance last year? Watch Maurkice Pouncey achieve greatness right in front of your eyes. He, along with Kemo, Legursky and Colon are a nasty, hardnosed group. I have concerns about Scott, but have to trust the judgment of management until events prove otherwise.
With the benefit of hindsight it could be argued that Dick LeBeau hinted at his Hall Of Fame speech last year that last year’s defense could have been his masterpiece. If Troy’s Achilles tendon had held up he might have been right. This year the fly in the ointment may very well be James Harrison’s lower back. Otherwise the case can be made that this year’s unit may prove more stout than last year’s record setting group.
True to the quiet excellence that characterizes its role in LeBeau’s 3-4, the D-Line has achieved the goal of becoming younger and deeper, with the veterans still performing at high levels. The fact that seven players were retained on the final roster (for now) speaks to the tremendous depth of talent at the position. With Aaron Smith apparently all the way back, and Keisel coming off a breakout year, the fact that the first unit (along with Casey) can be rested without much in the way of a drop off bodes well for a season of consistent high quality play How do you run against this crew? Answer: You probably don’t.
Besides the trials and tribulations of Deebo, the big story here will, hopefully, be the breakout year for Lawrence Timmons. While I was hoping for a bit more from both Worilds and Sylvester, this is likely one of the few clearly negative consequences of the lockout as opposed to a concern about the eventual development of these two guys long term.
Everyone has been clamoring for an upgrade and I think this year you’re going to get it. I think perhaps the light has come on for Lewis. The loss of Butler (and Warren) speaks to the general talent squeeze on this team, as well as specifically at corner. I have been most impressed with Mundy this summer. Nobody can replace Troy, but he is a solid player and along with Allen provides a nice backup to Polamalu and Clark.
The new rule book may have provided the best boost to STs. The new kickoff rules may have spared us the heartbreak of Joshua Cribbs. If Robopunter can keep his knees together, we’ll be better than fine there. The one concern is Suisham, a refugee from the Redskins who one of my friends says will "sooner or later break your heart."
You folks were right about when that window of opportunity would open. However, because the Steelers are doing very well with draft choices, retention and procurement of free agents as well as player development the back end of that window has expanded. Even though it is likely that Hines, Aaron Smith, Farrior, Hampton and several others will step down in the next few years, quality replacements are already in place in some instances. Indeed, there is serious talk of some of these guys being pushed out before their natural expiration so younger talent can take their place in the sun. If I’m right about this, then we may witness two things this season and beyond.
The Steelers may have found an antidote to parity. The problem that we see this season and may be a pattern is that there are more quality players that can play and want to play here than the team can retain. Thanks to Colbert and the scouts the cup runneth over with new, young talent. Thanks to Rooney and Tomlin current players want to stay and will do so, uncomplaining, often at a relative discount. Former players want to come back. And an expanded group of veteran free agents from other clubs are considering Pittsburgh as a viable option, again at a discount relative to what they might be able to receive elsewhere. The really good news is that other teams can’t quickly follow. You can’t transform team culture overnight, and most wouldn’t know how to do it if they could.
What is possible this year and in the foreseeable future is that if certain key players such as Ben can remain upright and relatively healthy the possibility exists for a team that is not just very good but dominant. Does that mean a Super Bowl victory? No guarantees. Even teams like the ’85 Bears and the ’07 Patriots stumbled (and in the case of the Patriots at the most inopportune time). A lot of things can happen to derail this train, and there are a number of quality opponents out there. Superstition requires that I say these things so as to appease the football gods. But I really, really like the hand we’ve been dealt. Sure would be nice to be playing in January.
However, this may be a particularly difficult year for the fans. In many ways we’re in a no win scenario. The standard is high, but normally it’s understood by all but a few that reaching that standard is extremely difficult. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter to ever live, in his best season failed six out of every ten attempts. The Steelers rate of success is the best in the league during the modern era, but they still fail more often than they succeed. But this year with this team anything short of a return to the Super Bowl and a victory will be viewed as a disappointment, and given the rising expectations, a crushing one at that. Under the circumstances if the team actually gets the seventh Lombardi this year, for some the dominant emotion may not be joy so much as relief. And if they fall short? Well, we don’t even want to go there do we.
Simply enjoying the ride under these conditions will be challenging. Some will allow themselves to be swept away in the promise, but many others, in an effort to protect their hearts, will be hyper cautious and hyper critical. An example of how this works; when the various pundits predict the teams they believe will make it to the Super Bowl and the Steelers aren't included in the upper echelon I get resentful and concerned (No respect!). When other pundits include them I get even more concerned ("We’re being set up!"). Every shortcoming, real, potential or imaginary is cause for concern or alarm. Joyful anticipation and foreboding become strange bedfellows. So, I say to all of you (and especially myself), it should be a fun year, try to enjoy it. But remember to lock away the sharp objects and other household hazards on game day.