I was driving home from bowling Sunday evening right around the time the Steelers were settling for a Shaun Suisham field goal after failing to score from the three yard line on three straight attempts early in the first half. I didn't get to see the sequence of plays, but I do know that Ben Roethlisberger missed a wide open Heath Miller in the end zone on 3rd and goal. Even though I was disappointed that the Steelers had to settle for three instead of seven, I couldn't help but find it humorously ironic that the team failed to execute on its first golden red zone opportunity of the Todd Haley Era of play-calling.
I found it humorous because lack of red zone execution was one of the major gripes of the Bruce Arians Era of play-calling. Obviously, I realize that it was only one drive, and ultimately one game, but after the Steelers 31-19 loss on Sunday, I started listening for little murmurs of dissatisfaction among my fellow Steelers fans. Admittedly, there wasn't a whole lot of criticism of the play-calling, but I didn't really expect an overwhelming overreaction right away. After all, everyone was so eager for Bruce Arians to leave town, it would be almost foolish for fans to get on Haley's case after only one game. However, I did read little bits and pieces of angst. Like for example, in the comments section of BTSC on Monday morning, someone suggested that Haley's game plan was too predictable. Another poster claimed that there didn't appear to be a plan at all. I believe it's quite common for offensive coordinators to not have a plan of attack during a loss, or at least that's what we fans would like to believe.
But criticism of the offensive coordinator isn't exclusive to Bruce Arians or to Steelers fans. It happens in every city that houses an NFL franchise. I read an article from Post Gazette columnist Ron Cook a number of years ago. It was about the Arians-bashing and how football fans are more prone to criticize offensive plays than they are defensive plays. Arians was even quoted in the article. I don't remember the exact quote, but it went something like this: "Fans never say, 'Why'd they blitz!' But they'll always scream, 'Why are they passing the ball so much?'"
Arians was just the most recent example of OC second-guessers. There is a long list of Steelers offensive coordinators that, according to the fans, never lived up to that standard that was set long before their arrival, and is still the standard today, and will always be the standard no matter what. Ask Kevin Gilbride or Ray Sherman or Joe Walton. They'll tell you.
Obviously, there are good offensive coordinators and there are below the line offensive coordinators, but I'm pretty sure they all call their plays with the intent of wanting them to work. To quote John McKay, the late, great head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: "It's not like we draw a play on the board and then say, 'Now this will not work.'"
In all fairness to Haley, I've heard mostly praise regarding his game plan against Denver. But it's still the honeymoon phase, and as I said, we fans are so emotionally invested in the notion that Arians had to go that we won't be so quick to jump up and criticize the new guy.
Most Steelers fans know about the Kordell Stewart Era. He was the Steelers on-again/off-again quarterback from 1997-2002, and some might say he was the Arians of his day. Sometime during the '98 season, Steelers fans had decided that Stewart wasn't the man to lead the Steelers offense, and they never let go of that notion from that point on. No matter how well he played, no matter how many points he helped put up, Slash was the reason for any team short-comings. In game three of the '02 season, Tommy Maddox replaced Stewart late in a game against the Browns and led the Steelers from behind in an overtime win. Tommy Gun was named the starter and soon became the toast of the town as he tossed footballs up and down Heinz Field and other NFL stadiums. The new and exciting Steelers offense validated the fans sentiments that Stewart just wasn't the man to lead the Steelers anywhere.
Unfortunately, Maddox had a close call in a game against the Titans and suffered a spinal contusion and was forced to miss a couple of weeks. In Tommy's absence, Stewart quietly led the Steelers to a couple of important, late season victories. But Steeler Nation still couldn't wait for the return of Tommy Maddox, and they got their wish on December 8th, 2002, in a game against the expansion Houston Texans at Heinz Field. Despite the fact that Maddox and the Steelers out-gained the Texans 422-47, Pittsburgh lost, 24-6, thanks to a fumble and two interceptions by Maddox that led to three defensive touchdowns by Houston. If ever there was a reason to boo a quarterback and blame him solely for a loss, it was that day, yet the stadium was strangely silent. As I said, the Nation was so emotionally invested in the sentiment that Stewart was the main culprit for everything that ailed the Steelers and had so quickly decided that Maddox was the answer, nobody quite knew how to react. Of course, within a year or two, Maddox found out just what happens when you don't quite live up to the standards that are the standards. Overtime loss to the Jaguars, anyone?
A few too many failed red zone sequences and Todd Haley might find that out, too. Right now that early goal line failure is being blamed mainly on execution, or the lack thereof by Ben for missing Miller in the end zone. But "lack of execution" is a shelter that no coach is ever able to truly hide under, especially an OC.
If you would bring up lack of execution as a reason why an Arians play didn't work, his detractors would say, "Well, he shouldn't have asked his players to execute that play! He didn't have the right personnel for it!" Fans are impossible to defeat. They're tougher than an all-out blitz or even Terrell Suggs.
Right now, the fans are being patient with Haley, and rightfully so. However, as I said, there are those murmurs, those tremors. And those 19 points? That's 3.6 points lower that what the Steelers averaged under Arians. What's that all about, Haley? And the 75 yards on the ground? I mean, come on!
Slight tremors might not seem so bad now, but every earthquake is preceded by a tremor. Every tornado is preceded by a stiff wind. Every flood is preceded by a curiously deep puddle.
Speaking of tremors. I was discussing the Steelers game with a buddy of mine on Monday, and one of the first things out of his mouth was, "I thought Arians was better. I don't know what the hell Haley was trying to do with that game plan.'
Did you feel that, Todd?