We are digging into April now and there are still far more questions than answers in the Steel City. The Steelers have had about a third of the rookie prospects that league rules permit to come in to town on visits as fans and the media try to figure out what the team's intentions actually are. The two starting safeties speak out on some issues, while two other players deal with legal concerns. Speculation on the draft picks up and activity on the mock draft front is becoming hot and heavy. A player returns to the fold with mixed reviews. Sidney Crosby broke his jaw, but that's another sport.
It appeared that Ta'amu's career would be over before it really started when he was arrested and charged with a variety of offenses related to drunk driving. The team released him shortly thereafter but brought him back. On Thursday he pleaded guilty to some of the charges related to his arrest (others were thrown out) and was sentenced to 18 months probation. The second year player is no where near out of the woods yet as three sets of questions stand out as he attempts to move forward with his life.
Though he has served a suspension meted out by the Steelers and has resolved his issues with the criminal justice system, he has yet to learn what the league may do in terms of additional punishment now that he has admitted his guilt in the incident. Another hurdle has to do with how or if he can make any significant contribution to the team. The opportunity is certainly there with the unlikely return of Casey Hampton and Steve McLendon unsigned as of this writing and largely untested regardless. Ta'amu didn't see much of the field last season, but this is not all that unusual for defensive linemen in the Steelers' system. Whether he can play at a high level may go a long way to help resolve the last set of questions related to whether he can repair his relationship with Steeler Nation as well as resolve his issues with alcohol. As is usually the case in these situations fan opinion is split between those who realize that people make mistakes and hope that Ta'amu can pull it together and the zero tolerance crowd who would just prefer that he was gone.
The Steelers signed the inside linebacker this past Wednesday. The team did not offer Sylvester a tender as a restricted free agent but have brought him back as an unrestricted free agent. There was no apparent market interest. Some were surprised or disappointed by the move as it seemed to continue a pattern of what is perceived to be underwhelming moves in free agency. Looking at it from a chess player's perspective it may be a strategy that has worked out as designed. All things considered Sylvester is a player whose greatest value would be to the Steelers. There would be little chance that another team would invest much to obtain him, certainly not at this stage of the free agent game. Whether his return is some sort of commentary on the status of Sean Spence as some have speculated is unclear. But given the lack of experienced depth at the position as well as his solid contributions on special teams those factors alone would justify his return as a prudent move.
Old issues has the Steelers wide receiver in the news. Last week Burress had his drivers license suspended and this week had a home in Virginia Beach put up for auction in relation to a judgment rendered in a case in Florida from 2008 while he was still a member of the New York Giants. It should be emphasized that this situation predates his current tenure with the Steelers and previously, the New York Jets. Another bit of old news was brought up when Giants coach Tom Coughlin contended in an interview that the incident where Burress shot himself in the thigh constituted a major distraction and in his view was a key factor in the team's inability to earn another Lombardi during the 2008 season.
The Steeler safety held court on the loss of linebacker James Harrison and what it might mean in terms of replacing him both on the field and in the locker room.
In a recent ESPN interview Troy opined that players should have more input in rules changes claiming that the game may not be becoming safer so much as softer.
"Football is a very physical sport, and a lot of what separates the good from the great [is] the ability to receive contact, to give contact, to overcome the mental block of injury when you have contact," Polamalu said. "I understand that they want the sport to be safer, but eventually you're going to start to take away from the essence of this game, and it's not really going to be the football that we all love and have a passion for."
The Steelers chairman was the subject of two articles in the Post-Gazette this week. In one he reflected upon his time as United States Ambassador to Ireland and the challenges and accomplishments involved in that role. The second piece focused on his responsibilities and roles in his return as chairman of the team. With his son Art Rooney II now in charge of most day to day decisions the elder Rooney is more involved with community and, shall we say ambassadorial duties. He offered solid opinions in the interview; his disappointment in the lack of minorities being hired to head coaching or front office positions in spite of the fact that there was compliance to the Rooney Rule. He also spoke out against the 'next man up' concept spoken of by Mike Tomlin and other coaches;
"Coaches will say, 'We have to play with what we have and guys are supposed to step in.' You can't say that you're trying to build up a young guy in his first or second year and get him to be able to play; you can't say that if you get your first-line guy hurt that you're going to put one of these guys in here and they'll play the same."
I found his position on this refreshing, somewhat necessary, and, if anyone was wondering, a complement (rather than a contradiction) to the perspective of a head coach. While he acknowledged that the standard for the Steelers is different with an 8-8 season being below the line, he also refuted the notion that injuries did not play a significant factor in the team's performance. This being important because this issue impacts perceptions as to what steps need to taken to right the ship.
Pre Season Schedule
The preseason games were announced with tilts against the Giants, Chiefs, Redskins and the now annual meeting with the Carolina Panthers. Only the August 19th game at Washington will be televised nationally on ESPN so you may want to start planning now as to how you can get access to the game if KDKA isn't current part of you cable or satellite package.
The Future of the Game (cont)
Bob Labriola's fine series continues with the seventh installment. Mike Tomlin issued a challenge to those who have benefited from the game and still believe that participation has positive value to stand up and be counted. A number of individuals have responded and those testimonials take up a portion of the article. But most of the piece involves an interview with former Heisman Trophy winner and 15 year professional and All Pro running back Herschel Walker. Walker cautions against placing the entire onus of the difficulties experienced by former players on head injuries suffered while playing the game. Walker cited that issues such as alcohol and drug abuse as well as other pathologies unrelated to the game itself may be factors as well. These rebuttals and push back (see Troy above) against the criticism that has been leveled against the game is healthy in my view and is a necessary element in sorting out the proper steps to take in guiding the game to a responsible future.
ESPN's AFC North correspondent Jamison Hensley did a piece on some of what he terms the "pillar needs" of the Steelers and the Bengals. His take on the type of cornerback that is needed in the Steeler defensive system is worth a look.
Job Openings for rookies
The Bleacher Report identifies four positions on the Steelers' roster where a rookie could come in and seize a starting position. Nose tackle and running back are two of the four. Find out about the others here.
The Salary Cap
The NFLPA released salary cap information for the league this week. The Steelers are $2 million dollars under the Cap for now. See the list for the entire league here. In a related item, PaVaSteeler's piece on free agency stimulated a lively discussion within the community about how the team is managing the free agent process as well as general player procurement both short and long term.
We're into mock draft season when we all take our shots in trying to research and intuit the direction that teams will take when the big day comes at the end of April. Big_Jay71 put together an interesting piece on past draft predictions and comparing them to the actual picks. Dale Lolley assesses the prospective rookies that have been visiting the Steelers facility with and eye on trying to predict what position need the team will attempt to fill with their first round pick. Meanwhile Tony Villiotti at the National Football Post assesses the draft through Draftmetrics.
The free agent market
Also in the National Football Post, Joel Corry gives a rundown of the free agent market leaguewide based upon the results in so far.
That what Jack Bechta argues is the basis of working effectively with players in terms of their off field issues such as finances. See what they are here.
Finally Steeler team captain Brett Keisel was a participant in the annual White House Easter egg hunt on Monday. Keisel remarked that the visit reminded him of the team's trip to the White House after their victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Keisel also met with the President and the First Family.