NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Quaterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers stands on the field prior to the home opener between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium on April 13, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
It looks good. It looks really good for the Steelers after the events of this past weekend. I admit that I am riding as high as anyone over the quality of the draft. The optimism is deserved. One could find fault in one aspect or another of the draft; the character concerns of Adams and Rainey, should we have invested in other players. These are issues that at the end of the day have to be dismissed as quibbles. Generally it is believed that the front office played their hand just about as well as it could be played and much better than expected.
But what does it all mean? Does Pittsburgh retake the division? Do they make it back to the Super Bowl? Or did all that the Steelers earn was that they kept pace with the Ravens and Bengals? None of these questions are really answerable at this point. There are too many unknowns; too many X factors that can turn things in either a positive or negative direction. Here are some things to watch for as the weeks unfold.
Todd Haley and the new Steeler offense
This is a huge unknown, but there are a number of reasons to assume that this will be an improvement, some valid, some not. The best reason in my estimation is that Mike Tomlin's track record with new hires and upgrades has been excellent to this point. It is not unreasonable to hope that like, for example, the addition of Carnell Lake, that Haley marks an improvement for the offensive scheme. Further cause for optimism lies in the fact that Tomlin has said that while Haley as offensive coordinator is responsible for the offense, he (Tomlin) and others on the staff have had input in the development of the new system. For me that is a source of comfort, especially given the fact that Haley's addition was met with mixed sentiments by Steeler Nation.
The less valid reason for believing that the offense will be better is that anything would be an improvement over Bruce Arians. I understand the sentiment, but such a position constitutes a failure of imagination. Things could be worse, much worse than Arians. I'm not saying that's likely, just that it's possible, and therefore, a questionable basis upon which to assume significant improvement. There is also the question of how long will the learning curve be with the new system and will that affect the ability of the offense to compete as everyone gets comfortable with new terminology and related issues.
On balance I believe that the new system will be a positive and a huge advantage given the fact that our rivals will be on a learning curve as well (something Tomlin has also alluded to). And while I am not as passionate as some in terms of my feelings about Arians failings as an OC, there were flaws in his approach that we can hope will be rectified, and hopefully not replaced with bigger flaws. But for now we must caution ourselves that the only people that can speak of this new system intelligently are all at the Southside facility. The rest of us are reduced to speculation until the summer.
It is generally believed that the 1974 draft class of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the greatest of all time. Nonetheless, one of the players drafted, a tight end, was a bust. That opened the door for an undersized, UDFA by the name of Randy Grossman to earn four Super Bowl rings. Another UDFA in that class by the name of Donnie Shell went on to be one of the all-time Steeler greats.
A few points here. Even the greatest draft class of all time had some disappointments. And while few people remember who was selected in the rounds after John Stallworth was picked in the 4th, free agents Shell and Grossman have become part of Steelers lore. Neither made large contributions right away, but over time their roles became larger and more important.
As we bask in the possibilities that these new editions represent we must also remain mindful that we, or anyone for that matter, knows who will fulfill their potential, who will exceed the most fanciful expectations and who will fail. It's unlikely that all will succeed. It is also unlikely that success or failure will occur in a manner that coordinates with draft order, though anything is possible. The questions are; in six months who will we be uplifting as the next great Steeler? Who will have already started their life's work? Who will we dismiss as a bum only to eat those words a year or two later? The correct answer is we don't know.
The maturation of Tomlin
Most likely sometime between the end of the mandatory minicamp and the beginning of training camp the Steelers will quietly announce that Mike Tomlin has signed a new contract. Before the last owners meeting Art Rooney II revealed that intention during the course of an interview. We can be forgiven if we forget how young Tomlin is, and with that knowledge recognize that in spite of his precocious nature there is considerable room for growth. Let us remember that when his journey began as the Head Coach five years ago, he inherited his coaching staff and most of his players. This year and in all succeeding years in the foreseeable future his imprint on the personnel and character of the team will increase and evolve. Not surprisingly, Tomlin gets little in the way of recognition for being one of the more competent and accomplished coaches in the NFL. However, those of us in Steeler Nation must not be guilty of that oversight.
Who rises, who falls
Every year in the crucible of the NFL players rise and fall in the competition. Sometimes you can predict how this falls out, but there are surprises as well. Last season Willie Gay rose, Hines Ward fell, Antonio Brown rose, Bryant McFadden fell, Steve McLendon rose, and Chris Kemoeatu fell. This year will Trai Essex's dramatic weight loss help him to rise? Will Jonathan Dwyer's improving work ethic help him to rise? What will increased competition do to David Johnson and Ramon Foster. Will Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown continue to rise, or will they plateau or decline? Will Charlie Batch finally be too old? What about Larry Foote? Will Stevenson Sylvester rise to compete for the starting job or must we wait for someone else? Some of these questions will be easy to answer, some are impossible to know in advance. All are of great importance in determining the ultimate fate of this team.
In professional football they are unavoidable. The more relevant question is are they survivable. Last year they were not. Before this season even begins we know that we will not have Rashard Mendenhall or Casey Hampton for much of the year. There are concerns as to whether after suffering successive injuries can we rely on the durability of Willie Colon, Manny Sanders, Maurkice Pouncey, Troy Polamalu and Byron Leftwich. Ben has not fully recovered from the high ankle sprain he suffered during the season. Did the knee injury to Baron Batch last year amount to just a minor detour to a promising career or a dead end? How often will the team be scheduled to travel to Denver, sidelining Ryan Clark? Who will go down this year? And for how long?
Leadership and other questions
The loss of Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke left a significant leadership void. Who and how that gap is filled may go a long way toward defining this team for this season and beyond. How will the Mike Wallace situation be resolved? And how about the Weslye Saunders suspension; just a bump in the road? And for those who write him off, how is his situation that much different than that of Mike Adams? Does Kirby Wilson fully recover, and what level of inspiration will that be for the running backs?
You may have strong opinions concerning all of these issues, but definitive answers won't be available until the season unfolds. The draft was great, but in the final analysis just another step in a long, complicated journey with twists and turns that are impossible to predict. But so far I like our chances.