It took until March 6 for Winter to find the DC Metro area. House bound and mesmerized by the snow I find myself contemplating a path to New York and the Super Bowl in early 2014. From my normal perspective this is crazy. There is just too much missing information. Nobody knows exactly how free agency will pan out and the draft is an even deeper mystery, at least to me. But hey, why let a little thing like crippling ignorance stand in the way of an intriguing fantasy. So, putting on my Colbert/Tomlin hat I'm laying out the army Pittsburgh can assemble that can bring that seventh Lombardi Trophy to the South Side.
First let me lay out some assumptions that will guide my logic.
1. The Steelers had a broken season but they aren't broke. If I didn't believe this I wouldn't even attempt this exercise because the outcome would have to depend too greatly upon new additions. To be sure, new additions may make the difference between success and failure in some circumstances, but let's remember that Pittsburgh only got flat out beat in one game (San Diego) in spite of all the injuries flaws and failings.
2. The impact of newcomers is overrated. In none of Pittsburgh's championship seasons did a first year player (rookie or free agent) make a discernable difference in the outcome. For instance, of the four Hall of Famers whom the Steelers drafted in 1974 only one, Jack Lambert, was a starter that year. Newcomers may enhance the effort and could make the difference under certain circumstances throughout the year, but this team will likely rise or fall around the core of key players that are already in place.
3. There will be injuries and probably other discontinuities, but they will be surmountable.
Management leadership. The return of Dan Rooney will be a huge but largely invisible factor in the team's course correction. I think the metaphor of the diplomat is apt for the former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. His greatest area of visibility may be outside of Pittsburgh where his wisdom and leadership is desperately needed with a league that, in spite its indisputable success is facing some massive public relations and potentially legal challenges and have been handling them badly. But I would assume and infer the following about his influence within the Pittsburgh organization. While others are understandably and appropriately in the lead, Rooney's fingerprints are likely all over both the strategy and negotiations involving the handling of free agency. He is no less involved than Robert Kraft, Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones, but somebody else will be doing the interviews. There won't be a repeat of the Arians fiasco. Expect better front office discipline.
Tomlin is forty and we forget that he was extended last summer. As good as he's been it should be assumed that he continues to be a work in progress. But regardless of whether you accept that notion or not, this staff and roster will represent the most unalloyed expression of his influence and will. So far the most beneficial off season move has been the fact that Omar Khan is still with the organization.
2013 Offensive Line
Starters: LT Gilbert, LG Colon, C Pouncey, RG DeCastro, RT Adams; key reserves Beachum, Legursky and ?
Alternative scenario: LT Gilbert, LG Beachum, C Pouncey RG DeCastro, RT Adams
This will be the most improved unit on the team regardless of scenario. The hopes that fans had for this group will be fulfilled, it will just occur a year later than many thought. Here's why.
It's a good market league wide for offensive line talent, particularly at tackle. Max Starks and Ramon Foster are competent veteran players who should be welcomed to return, but they can probably realize better performance and financial opportunities elsewhere. The likelihood that these two players are leaving leads to one of the reasons that I believe that Colon stays. Intangibles are factors as well. Ben is legitimately close with some of his linemen. He was Max Starks' biggest fan, and Colon was with him in Georgia. Do you delete both of them? A couple of other arguments in defense of Colon. It would be a mistake in my view, as tempting as it may be to some, to see Colon's injury this year as part of a pattern. Willie's previous injuries were physical breakdowns, but this last one came as the result of a cheap shot. I'll be repeating this a number of times as we proceed, Rome wasn't built in a day. Colon was tasked with learning a new position and there is every reason to believe that after a year (a pretty good one for the most part) that there still is the possibility of hin developing into one of the best at his position in the league. And I would hate to lose the leadership and attitude he brings.
The Rome business goes for DeCastro as well. I feel from some fans unspoken disappointment about this player, probably based upon his play at the end of the 2012 season. But I would caution against the Pouncey Effect; the notion that someone walks in and sets the world on fire right away. Maurkice did that but I wouldn't expect as a regular thing from any and all newcomers. Even though DeCastro didn't lose the whole season because of his injury, make no mistake that it did set back his development significantly. Expect more and better from Adams, and I suspect, Gilbert as well. Now don't take this the wrong way but I see Beachum as Essex 2.0. He redeemed himself well after turning off the fan base during the preseason of '12. What I believe is ideal (and another reason I am rooting for the return of Colon) is that he has the potential of being that jack of all trades (position flexibility, another ongoing theme) that can be plugged into situations where needed and perform competently. Given the injury history of this unit an important capability to have.
2013 Tight Ends
Starter: Heath Miller (mid-season), David Johnson, David Paulson
Credit Hombre de Acero for this one. I was in the stadium in Philadelphia when David Johnson went down with a season ending injury. He was playing really well to that point. D. Johnson seemed to drop out of the consciousness of the Nation not long after. Many were excited about the prospects of Will Johnson, and with Saunders and Paulson backing up Heath there seemed like no particular reason to get bent out of shape at he loss of D. Johnson. Bad luck. See ya. But the combination of him and an improving Paulson provide a serviceable stop gap until Heath is up to speed without fishing for free agents or a higher draft choice. And...position flexibility.
2013 Wide Receivers
Starters: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders Reserves: Jerricho Cotchery, Steve Breaston, ?
Why Breaston? Whatever he can contribute on the field is fine. And if he is a third or fourth receiver matched up against a third or fourth defensive back it may be considerable, but his most important contribution may be on special teams. Again, position flexibility. If he can provide what we got from Brown and was hoping to get from Chris Rainey, then that would be a good investment. An alternative scenario which may be financially more problematic than makes sense would be to bring back Plaxico Burress. Don't think of his value as a 1 or 2, but rather a 3 or 4 and what that does in terms of match ups. Also there is his value in the red zone, especially in the absence of Miller, not to mention leadership, championship experience, rapport with Ben and with Steeler Nation. You lose a lot of splash deleting Wallace, but a crew of AB, Sanders, Cotch and Plax would not be chopped liver.
2013 Running backs
Starters: Rashard Mendenhall, Will Johnson Reserves: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch
Okay, calm down. I'll try to explain. Anthony Defeo has a piece out on fan criticism and it reinforced some things that I have had turning in my mind for some time now. In many ways our attitudes as fans concerning players is more reflective of middle school thinking then anything. Its more about 'popularity' and whether we like them that colors our thinking. Rationalize it saying you don't like the way he runs. Jim Brown didn't like the way Franco ran. Is that a reason to get rid of Franco? He fumbles. He acted like a jerk when he didn't come to work. How many people do you fire for acting like a jerk? Start with Ben and go down the list. Here's the argument in favor. I reviewed his overtime touchdown run against the Falcons from 2010. He's our best running back, and I don't see a comparable replacement on the horizon. Additional points to be given for the fact that he may have not been 100 percent given the timeline recovery from his injury. That this was his audition year for free agency would explain the motivation to rush back, and to some extent his bad reaction to being benched by Tomlin. Now, do you want a Lombardi or do you want to stay in middle school?
With Dwyer and Redman I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Remember Mendenhall is the elder statesman of this crew, so there is still space for growth. Though one or both of these players might be let go if a player to complement Mendenhall can be found. As for Batch I'm thinking Chidi Iwuoma, a player whose greatest value may be special teams. But also a player who was effectively a rookie last season and could still blossom into something more, ala a Mewelde Moore type player.
Starter: Ben Reserves: Charlie Batch, ?
When he can't beat the Ravens in Baltimore anymore then we'll get rid of Batch. As for the other guy? I agree with those who say it shouldn't be Leftwich. But beyond that, as I've said before, if we're talking about playing anyone for Ben over an extended period we're pretty much screwed anyway.
2013 Defensive Line
Starters: Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood Reserves: Steve McLendon, Cam Heyward, Al Woods
Alternate Scenario Steve McLendon Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood; ? Cam Heyward, Al Woods
Reports of Casey Hampton's demise have been premature. He probably has one and perhaps two good years left. If he can get a two year deal somewhere with good money I would certainly understand him leaving, but the ideal circumstance for the Steelers given both depth and leadership issues would be for him to hang around for at least one more year in a transitional arrangement where McLendon got more reps. If Hampton doesn't return do you continue to invest in Ta'amu? Some have been impatient with Heyward and dismissive of Hood. Maybe you're right or maybe the development arc is longer than you think. But, in spite of all the sky is falling talk this is still the number one defense in the league. How much tampering would be prudent?
Starters: LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, James Harrison Reserves: Jason Worilds, Sean Spence, Stevenson Sylvester or (?), Adrian Robinson, Chris Carter
Just like John Mitchell telegraphed the emergence of McLendon last off season, has Dick LeBeau done something similar for Adrian Robinson? Fat and lazy? Perhaps, but Woodley is still one of the best linebackers in this league, as is Harrison when he is healthy. And it appears that Deebo may be all the way back. If he is retained and the duo can manage to remain on the field for the majority of the season, then problem areas with this defense, like turnovers, may simply go away. With Timmons finally consistently playing up to his potential, they have three Pro Bowl caliber linebackers. The greatest need is depth, and while it would be helpful on the outside it is most necessary inside where it unclear as to when or if Sean Spence can make it all the way back and the shelf life of Foote is running out.
2013 Defensive backs
Starters: Keenan Lewis, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor Reserves: Cortez Allen, Will Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, ?, ?
Alternative Scenario: Cortez Allen, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor
I'd rather they had Keenan, but the move to get Gay guarantees that this group will remain strong regardless of how that issue is resolved. Gay was unimpressive under Horton in Pittsburgh, flourished under Carnell Lake, rejoined Horton in Arizona and regressed. Could he revive after returning to the influence of Lake? Lake proved this past season that the turnaround in 2011 wasn't a fluke. If they retain Lewis and get that safety that LeBeau covets then this crew could do some extraordinary things behind a healthy front seven.
Drew Butler, Shaun Suisham
The only projected change here is that long snapper Greg Warren might be vulnerable to a cheaper alternative if they can find one. There is precedence there.
The team could use some depth and upgrades at linebacker, mainly inside if Harrison is retained, young talent in the pipeline at safety and defensive line if Hampton goes away. On offense it is depth on the line and at tight end, one or more running backs who might have to contribute immediately if Mendenhall goes away, a better back up quarterback alternative than Wilson I suspect, and various best player available to create some push across the board and shore up special teams.
It wouldn't take much for this roster to go deep into the playoffs.