Someone could have great material for a study on mass psychology by just chronicling the change in mood and assumptions of Steelers fans from the end of the 2012 season through today. Throughout the winter and early spring the conversation seemed to be dominated by a sense of pessimistic fatalism about the state of the team, both players and management, and the gloomy prospects for the future. Since the draft the pendulum has swung and optimism has been ascendant. Do we believe that the acquisition of Jarvis Jones, Le' Veon Bell and Shamarko Thomas is going to turn things around 180 degrees? Not likely.
Based on the facts alone the earlier dark mood was hard to justify. An 8-8 season, missing the playoffs by a game, does not quite rise to the level of the fall of Rome no matter how much you try to skew the perception with the idea of being governed by a higher, more demanding standard. On the other hand if we should have learned anything from last year its that a promising draft class doesn't necessarily translate into a championship posture. The positive or negative conclusions we draw probably has more to do with the dominant narratives that we buy into in our heads. There is enough 'truth' in the form of statistics, historical patterns and the like to provide a reasonable veneer but at the end of the day it comes down to what we simply choose to believe enhanced by the field effect of the prevailing mass narrative.
We can indulge in a season of hope (or despair) at this time of the year precisely because we are relatively unencumbered by a bunch of pesky facts. The OTAs and mini camp yield little useful information that translates into what the team will actually do once the lights come on, but it could be viewed as knowledge overload compared to what we're facing over the course of the next six weeks. The amazing thing is that our editor Neal Coolong will still find plenty of stuff to write about. So, acknowledging that there has not been one practice in pads, that roster formation may not be complete, that we are nearly two months from the first preseason game; as we make vacation plans and turn our attention to baseball to pass the time what would be the reasons to have hope for the 2013 campaign?
Dan Rooney. The impact of the presence of the Steelers Chairman will be hard to quantify. But there were a number of opportunities for some situations to have been mishandled this off season that weren't. The Bruce Arians 'retirement' of last year resonates to this day. A lot of major changes have occurred with a minimum of drama, coaches moving on as well as players who have been major contributors to the team's success in the past. In spite of goading by the media the team did not take the bait and engage very deeply in the 'team is in decline' panic narrative. Now I can't prove that Dan Rooney had much to do with any of this. But I believe we all perceive that a tone has been set by the Steelers organization that is steady, focused and determined, and that tone alone has had a great deal to do with the growing sense of optimism concerning the team's prospects going forward. These things usually start at the top. I don't believe we'll see any direct involvement by Rooney this season, but his influence will be unmistakable if you know where to look.
Mike Tomlin. Give the critics of the Steelers head coach credit for effectively putting his supporters on the defensive. Is it possible to praise this man's work without being accused of being a mindless sycophant? Let me try. Like prophets Steelers coaches aren't always appreciated in their native land. If a segment of Steeler Nation could call for Chuck Noll's head in the midst of the team's multiple Super Bowl run in the 1970's then is any Steeler coach safe? Like the parent who cannot be satisfied no matter how many high grades and awards their child receives, some fans respond to excellence by upping the ante and demanding perfection. If, by chance, perfection is somehow achieved then the bar is moved again. Now perfection must be sustained. Realistic? Absolutely not. We could talk about projections concerning the critics own sense of inadequacy but let's not go there today. There is also the matter of not being able to recognize what one is witnessing. For example, how many coaches have managed to secure one Super Bowl appearance for their teams? Two? Finally there is the matter that few want to confront directly and forthrightly, the accusation of being an "Affirmative Action" hire and all that implies, and the distorted perceptions that follow (He won with Cowher's team. Hell, how often was Cowher able to win with his own damn team?)
The respect that Tomlin receives from his players is impressive. But what I've also noticed this spring that assistant coaches (Haley and Bicknell Jr. specifically) making unsolicited references to how Tomlin sets the tone and standard of performance. How often do you hear that from other staffs? Those who are considered his practical contemporaries such as Belichick and Tom Coughlin tend to have decades more experience in coaching. He is no where close to being a finished product and to witness his growth as he responds to the year to year challenges is exciting. It is clear that, as he explained a few days ago, that a tone and a foundation has been established that is positioning the team to make a realistic run at a championship. Whether they actually get there is contingent upon factors that Tomlin nor any coach can totally control, but he is doing his part and doing it well.
Ben Roethlisberger. This is another talent who I believe is undervalued and under appreciated though unlike Tomlin who seems be thought of more highly outside of Steeler Nation, the opposite is closer to the truth for Ben. Only one other active quarterback has appeared in as many as three Super Bowls, only three have won as many as two. And unlike other players on a team who it could be said to be fortunate to be along for the ride, quarterbacks usually have a great deal to do with whether a team makes it to the ultimate game. Yet when the conversation turns to the better field generals in the game there are always at least two or three others that need to be spoken of first; Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers when he was drafted, then Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, then Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Now RG III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and any other Johnny come lately. By now you must know that he was ranked 61st among the top 100 players in the league. You could pick a number of reasons as to why this perception exists. Given some of his off the field difficulties in the past an unwillingness to promote him, or the feeling that Steeler excellence is system driven rather than talent driven. My inclination is to believe that it is Ben's style of play that may prejudice perceptions. It wouldn't be the first time a quarterback was thought less of because of an unorthodox style of play.
The good news is that Ben is, in spite of the knee surgery, healthy and in the prime of his career. If one thing was proved last year was the value of keeping him upright. The new system actually worked rather well for the first half of the season and everything from the play calling to the blocking schemes seem designed to protect Ben while maximizing his skills. In addition we can hope that Ben has a lot of Hines Ward in him in that he will feel that he has something to prove about his value. And no one mentions anymore how marriage and family have stabilized Ben's life off field. So, if he's healthy, with the weapons and an effective system tailored to his skills at his disposal and the backup of a stingy defense how do you like his chances?
Haley's offense. Its not unusual for it to take more than one year for a new system to take hold. Imagine how long it would take to get LeBeau's defense down if it were introduced as a new system. The process by which the transition was undertaken didn't help matters any as well. With adjustments being made in terminology, personnel and schemes, I think its reasonable to believe the suggestion of significant improvement in the offense may be more than just preseason happy talk. The Steelers have never impressed me as an organization that tried to pacify their fans or the media through false or misleading statements. They don't say much and therefore what they do say usually carries additional weight. There seems to be genuine excitement around this offense. They may be wrong, but not because they don't believe in what they're saying.
Jack Bicknell Jr. and the offensive line. I was impressed with the interview the new offensive line coach conducted during mini camp this week. While much has obviously been made of the zone blocking scheme he is not doctrinaire about its use, emphasizing that the O line will take what defenses give them. He also spoke of position flexibility not only among the backups but for the entire unit. Readers have expressed some nervousness about this group, but quite frankly, this is for the most part what you asked for. And even taking into account the injuries incurred last year among newcomers like DeCastro and Adams, few people whose opinions I respected was expecting all that much out of these guys the first year. This group may make a jump this year, they may not, but since this is an article about hope...
Running backs. Two questions about the running backs that may challenge the assumptions that some have about being able to predict what we may see in this area. How will each adapt to the demands of the new scheme, in particular making decisions as to where to run? How will their performance be effected if there are real holes to run through? Depth at this position is such that it seems a pretty good bet that one or more talented players won't make the final roster. Many think that Baron Batch will definitely be the odd man out. I'm not so sure. He can do precisely the thing that might keep Le'Veon Bell off the field; he is an able and willing blocker. In addition, and maybe even more importantly, he brings value to special teams. He reminds me of Chidi Iwouma. this is a different form of position flexibility. There are a lot of question marks here but also more depth, a different scheme, players in contract years and more experience all around for a relatively young group of backs, the competition and incentives could take things to a whole new level. And I'm not including Will Johnson in this assessment.
Wide receivers. You would think that Mike Wallace was the entire Steeler offense and the greatest Pittsburgh receiver ever based upon what people are saying. This certainly be a better unit with Wallace, but without him, and even if Wheaton turns out to be a bust and, say, Burress proves to be way past his prime, this group is hardly chopped liver. As Todd Haley said this week, there is still plenty of speed left in the persons of Brown, Sanders and Wheaton. This is supplemented by veteran savvy from Cotchery and Plax. Good things are being said about the new coach Mann. This is another unit where some lucky team is likely to pick up a quality player or two off the street.
Heath. Hopefully he won't come back too soon, but there is a good chance he'll be around for a playoff run if it comes to that. You don't easily or adequately replace a Pro Bowl caliber player, the group that will try does not lack for either talent or experience. And like the running backs and receivers at the end of the day a very good talent may find themselves as odd man out.
Worilds, Jones and Robinson. A year ago there was much concern about the lack of depth at outside linebacker. If the issue is experience (not a small concern given the complexities of the LeBeau defense) then there is still concern. But talent may not be as much of a issue. The bar is set high given the need to replace James Harrison's production but an intense and lively competition should help. Although it seems unlikely to me some are suggesting the possibility that Jones has a shot at winning the starting position. Even more impressive to me is that in spite the addition of Jones, no one in the know with the Steelers seems to be backing off from the assessment that Adrian Robinson could be making some noise this year. With there still being some uncertainty concerning the durability of LaMarr Woodley that is comforting. And Jason Gildon hanging around to give a helping hand can't hurt.
Defensive secondary. Can you imagine what the conversation must be like? Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau, Mike Tomlin and Rod Woodson. Two Hall of Famers, five Super Bowl rings and a wealth of experience concerning defensive secondary play among them. Woodson has been helping out during the mini camp and also will be around for training camp as well. Datruth4life2.0 has suggested that the Steelers consider hiring Woodson. I think that might be a good idea. But let me establish something first. Carnell Lake has not done anything to suggest that he needs any help. But hiring Woodson would go a significant distance in correcting one of the few big mistakes the Steelers franchise has made over the past 40 plus years. Woodson should have ended his career as a Steeler. Having the benefit of his presence and his wisdom, and he having an opportunity to re-associate with home could be a shot in the arm on a lot of levels.
For a team that many thought as recently as February was shot unless it underwent major renovations, it looks remarkably healthy, competitive and deep going into the summer. Between the competitions that are sure to rage in Latrobe and Tomlin's expectation that players show up at a maximum level of fitness, woe be to the man who thinks these weeks are a time to kick back and relax. As for Steeler Nation, we have plenty to hope for.