CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 13: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after making a first down reception against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joy. If you consider yourself a member of the community that we call Steeler Nation and not excited at this particular moment, you might want to check your pulse, because you could be dead. As I write this the first team practice that is open to the public is just commencing. I am insanely jealous even though I plan to be at Saint Vincent next week this time myself.
The Check Down began during the off season and has been a creature of that period of relative slumber and limbo. The pre season is a different animal. The amount of information that would be processed in a week in the off season may transpire in a day at this time of the year. Any news at all would qualify as a top story then. Now? Hopefully, there won't be too much that falls between the cracks. But I keep in mind that this is a better problem to have than the alternative.
In a breaking news item, the Steelers have signed WR Antonio Brown to a five year contract extension, locking in the receiver through 2017. Details are not available as I write this. Worry warts who have been concerned for months that securing a long term contract for Mike Wallace could potentially hurt the team's chances of resigning Brown now have one less thing to worry about. All Hail Omar Khan! And, of course, this would have to be considered a shot across the bow to the Wallace camp.
A lot happened this week in Steelers football, but it's no contest as to what the top story is at present. The players reported on Wednesday and everyone who was expected to show did so. Apparently all survived the conditioning run, and a few rookies surprised enough to merit comment from Tomlin. Only one of the players placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) List struck me as a borderline surprise, and some of the others reflect an err toward caution approach. If anything the news on the injury front is as benign as it has been at this point of the year as it has been in quite some time (knock very hard on wood), with some players and one coach being definitely ahead of the curve in their recovery. The obstinance of the Wallace camp is the only dark cloud over the week's proceedings, but though unpleasant and a little mystifying at the moment, it is not totally unexpected, and besides the anger and frustration of some fans, does not rise to the level of being a major problem for anyone other than Mike Wallace. Thus ends the executive summary.
This is a great source of Steelers related information throughout the year, but it a particularly useful place now. Bob Labriola and Mike Prisuta host a live daily wrap up of camp activities at 5pm ET (the video is available at other times). On Thursday they covered Mike Tomlin's post practice press conference, an interview with Running Backs Coach Kirby Wilson, a conversation with Art Rooney II, snippets of interviews involving Ike Taylor, Manny Sanders and Ben Roethlisberger, and a summary of a discussion with Ken Colbert over the Wallace situation. A report on the running back competition was cancelled due to a threatening thunderstorm. Teresa Varley also maintains a blog that features several short stories daily.
The site also breaks Steelers related news such as the Tomlin contract extension (and not the Wallace signing hoax) before any other news sites. And, obviously, they have the best access to players, coaches and team officials. After that the next best source of information are the Pittsburgh news sites (Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review). Each has multiple reporters at camp and provide video reports. Expect to be frustrated and disappointed if you are relying on the likes fo the NFL Network or Espn. Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow don't play for the Steelers and the Wallace situation doesn't rise to the level of pathology that warrents much attention from the national media. At best the team will receive one 32nd of their coverage, probably less unless Wallace continues to refuse to sign his tender.
No doubt we were so happy about the resolution of last year's lockout that there wasn't much attention given to impact of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). You may have noticed that at Latrobe and around the league that though camp at most facilities have been underway for a couple of days, there has yet to be any padded practices and physical contact (The Steelers first padded practice will be Saturday). Consequently, newsworthy items have been light. The focus thus far has been on "installation" with the meat of the competitions that fans have been craving still in the future. It'll be interesting to see if the new practice rules has a positive effect upon injuries.
Another aspect of the new CBA whose impact is now clear is that the process for rookie contracts is now, with very few exceptions, drama free. First round draft pick David De Castro signed a contract for four years and nearly $8 million dollars earlier in the week. This was the last of the rookie signings and puts everyone under contract besides You Know Who.
News about the actual competition has been sparse, but there have been a few nuggets that have been gleaned from Coach Tomlin.
The performances of Mike Adams, Kelvin Beachum and David De Castro in the conditioning runs was a pleasant surprise.
The first team offensive line at Thursday's practice was (from left to right) Essex, Colon, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert. Message: jobs will not be handed to rookies.
Tomlin was asked if consideration would be given to what Baron Batch accomplished at training camp last August. Tomlin's response: "I don't remember what happened last August. He's going to have to earn his stripes."
Wilson, Mendenhall, Harrison and other injury news
One of the big news items during OTAs was the recovery of Kirby Wilson who was able to coach while sitting in a golf cart. At Saint Vincent the golf cart is no longer necessary. Wilson is not only walking, but jogging as well. This story has been covered at Steelers.com, the Post-Gazette and the Trib. The national media couldn't care less. Isaac Redman, Ben, Tomlin and Art Rooney have all spoken movingly of Wilson's progress. Good stuff.
Mendenhall and Harrison, along with Jason Worilds, Max Starks, Casey Hampton and Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith have all been placed on the PUP list. Mendenhall has been tweeting that his surgically repaired knee feels "wonderful". Significantly, Mike Tomlin concurs with that assessment, meaning that the worst case scenario, Mendy not being available until late in the '12 season or not at all is unlikely. And the more miraculous alternative, an early season return, is not off the table.
Harrison, who had an issue with fluid on the knee in the spring is being held out for precautionary reasons and is not considered a long term concern. In fact, Harrison reports being in much better health than last summer when he was only six months removed from back surgery. Worilds and Cromartie-Smith are coming off wrist and shoulder issues respectively, and are also not considered long term concerns. Starks and Hampton are coming off of knee surgeries with Starks projecting to be available by the beginning of the regular season.
Harrison Inquisition continues
The persecution of James Harrison for all the evils of football continues apace. Another group of ex-players have gotten involved in the head injury lawsuit movement. A prominent member of this group is ex-Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny Stabler. Among other complaints, this group has suggested that James Harrison be banned from football; presumably for committing Crimes Against Humanity. Harrison responded by asking; Who is Kenny Stabler?
The younger generation can be forgiven for not knowing who Stabler is, but there is something of a historical coincidence, if not a precedent for this case. About 35 years ago, the Raiders through defensive back George Atkinson dragged Steelers coach Chuck Noll into court. Why? Well, Noll was being mean to Atkinson for suggesting that the man was a thug ("criminal element" was the exact term) because he kept trying to put Lynn Swann in the hospital. To this day almost every other NFL Films presentation that profiles Swann or the Steelers has Atkinson referring to the Hall of Fame wideout as being "Soft". Well, yeah, if you keep clubbing a guy in the head from behind because you can't actually cover him then that might make him 'soft'. This is why Steelers fans who remember the 70s had to constrain themselves upon hearing of the death of Al Davis from rushing to the gravesite and committing some kind of atrocity.
So, a group who's leading figure is a 70s era Oakland Raider is proposing that a Pittsburgh Steeler be thrown out of football for being...mean. Hmm.
As you must undoubtedly know by now Wallace did not sign his tender and report to camp, prompting the Steelers to discontinue contract negotiations which were reported to be moving in a positive direction. Multiple sources both local and national are reporting on this, so take your pick as to information. Players and management of the team seem to be taking all of this in stride, many of the fans, not so much. While I don't agree with the more strident critics of the Wallace camp, it is hard to argue with the frustration that a lot of fans feel. I won't begin to pretend that I know what is going on here. But history clearly shows that Wallace is playing a really bad hand.
The Trib and Steelers.com reports that Ivan (that's his given name - I have better hands, but then again who doesn't?) is doing his bit to step into the alleged leadership void on the team at the beginning of camp. He reportedly was encouraging players who were struggling with the conditioning run. He also addressed questions related to his performance in last season's Wild Card Playoff.
Tomlin and team leadership
Arguably, the most impactful long term news this week was the signing of Mike Tomlin to a three year contract extension, tying him to the team throughout the 2016 season. The timing of the announcement is interesting in that it guaranteed that this event would pass without much in the way of fanfare. Although widely reported, coming as it did on the cusp of the beginning of training camp its doubtful that many outside of Steeler Nation, as well as many insiders noticed. And completely buried in the news was that the Steelers also promoted Omar Khan, a move that has particular significance in the wake of the Brown contract extension (Remember when all the talk was that the Steelers were in salary cap hell and would not be able to retain many of their key players? Seems there's a way to sign Brown and Wallace. Surprise!)
For the past few years I have wondered how things would work out with the leadership team of Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin. I think we have an answer now; not just the question of whether or not they can match the success of previous Steelers leadership combinations, but also a pretty good idea of their style. Progress can be hard to track given the long arch of success of the Pittsburgh franchise. Compared to other organizations movement can seem to be glacial. Everything that has been spoken of in this Check Down, including (especially!) this move with Antonio Brown reflects both fidelity to the Steeler (Pittsburgh) Way, but also some growth and development that reflects present realities. We miss the day to day presence of Dan Rooney, but we don't pine for his leadership. The team is in very good hands. And we should be certain to add to that leadership group Omar Khan who most of us wouldn't recognize if we passed him on the street.
I've written about this elsewhere but bares repeating, the Tomlin extension ends any thought of a probationary period for him to join the very small pantheon of the great Steelers coaches (If there was a Mount Rushmore of Steelers coaches, the fourth member of that group is yet to come). We are now fully in the midst of the Tomlin Era.
Coca Cola and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been linked in the public mind since the Cleo winner commercial featuring Joe Greene. Things change. The Steelers have switched sides and contracted with Pepsi Cola. We are now in the Pepsi Era.