The week's top story
We might be tempted to think that the signing of LeGarrette Blount would be it. But let me propose that it is the story behind this story that is the biggest, not just for this week, but for the entire winter/spring as well.
That the Steelers have remained active in free agency despite hovering so close to the spending ceiling -- they were roughly $1 million under the cap prior to the Blount signing -- is not a surprise.
Remember, this is the organization that was supposedly in the salary cap equivalent of Leavenworth only a month ago. The Steelers have since put on another clinic in managing the cap, as they have shed salary without compromising the core of the team.
The process isn't over yet. Free agency continues and the draft is still more than a month away. Clearly we won't sort out the fruit that will be harvested from this effort until the end of the year. But talk about 'A' for effort. Of course, not everyone agrees.
Great signing! I guess Tomlin has no say when it comes to signing free agents because they all seem to be good, smart selections.
As you can see, the sourpuss fringe of Steelers Nation has far too much wiggle room to back down now. If Tomlin, Colbert and the FO walked on water they would complain that they didn't know how to swim.
And then there are some of their critics in the media. Sports Illustrated graded the Steelers free agency efforts a C-. But see if Chris Burke's reasoning makes sense to you.
The Steelers barely had any money to spend in free agency because of a horrid cap situation. Still, that hardly lets them off the hook for their utter inability thus far to upgrade a porous offensive line.
Got that? He sounds like he's a member in good standing in the lunatic All-Offensive-Linemen-All-The-Time fringe of Steelers Nation. Only he gets paid a salary.
These folks are clearly in the minority at this point, cries of 'Idiots' being drowned out by the exclamations of 'Genius', at least for the moment. So, a review of what makes the case for such claims.
A month ago the headline was that the Steelers had somehow sidestepped salary cap hell. Now we see that they have been highly active, more so than what would be considered normal for this team, with the best move thus far being the latest. LeGarrette Blount is a Pittsburgh football fan's wet dream. He's a 250 lb bruising running back. He punches people out. He's got this 'Le' name theme connection with Le'Veon Bell with all the slogan and marketing possibilities that the Nation's imagination can muster. He also has a ready made nickname 'Winnebago', and you know what they did with 'the Bus'. He taunted the Ravens by doing the Ray Lewis squirrel dance on their logo after scoring a touchdown. Yeah. I think he'll fit in here. Oh, and by the way, running back troubles? Jonathan who?
Lost in the hosannas being offered for the signing of Blount is the acquisition of Arthur Moats, previously of Buffalo. Because of that thing called position flexibility Moats is a twofer, addressing both the problem of a veteran presence at inside linebacker as well as the depth issue at outside linebacker. Two for the price of one. Creative problem solving.
The free agent, late of New Orleans signed a contract and selected a number this week. Unlike Blount and Moats, opinion is mixed about Moore, with the conversation being centered in part around the idea of the need for a tall or big receiver. There may be a minority who may contend that a quality big receiver brings no added value at all, but the debate more sensibily centers around the dispute between those who believe that a quality (emphasis on "quality") tall receiver is a nice to have as opposed to those who believe that such a player is essential to championship aspirations. The question of receivers seemed to dwarf most other concerns this week. Drafting a tight end high (something I have difficulty seeing given that Heath Miller was just extended, Michael Palmer just signed and Matt Spaeth and David Paulson are under contract) or a wide receiver (possible, but needs on the defensive side are more pressing IMHO) has been a constant drumbeat lately. Whether or not this is just another example of runaway group think remains to be seen.
Compensatory draft choices
Christmas came in March for the Steelers as they were awarded three compensatory draft choices by the league. They now have nine picks going into this May's draft. In spite of it being in vogue to criticize the drafting abilities of the Steelers brain trust (an issue I'll take on more fully below), the team's recent draft history has been pretty good, actually very good. Its hard to imagine, particularly given the zone that they seem to be in at the moment that with nine swings that they won't get some solid hits. And that's not even including their usually quality track record with UDFAs. And those who are of a statistical bent, there is a draftometrics piece at the National Football Post that provides some perspective on the impact of compensatory draft picks on certain aspects of team success.
Reimagining Kevin Colbert
It is the privilege of being a fan that we can experience these wild mood swings without someone issuing a court order to force us on medication. It is amazing how a person can go from being a genius to an idiot and return to the Mensa list with one business decision or the bounce of the ball. Colbert is celebrating his 14th anniversary with the team this week. Colbert's competence has been challenged over the past two years. One 8-8 season is enough to send that train in motion with Steelers Nation, and there have been two in a row. And after all, if the team's record isn't indictment enough how do you explain the 2008 and 2009 drafts for starters. Well, since you asked, I'll take the prerogative of authorship and offer my thoughts on the matter.
The National Football League despises the idea of a dynasty and structurally does what it can to thwart the possibility of one being created. Of all the major sports in the United States, the NFL Draft exists in a position of particular prominence in part because in a sport where talent has such a short shelf life, the process of replenishing the ranks is a very serious business year in and year out. Teams with dynastic tendencies such as the Steelers of the mid 70s and the mid 00s have two crosses to bear. The first and most obvious is keeping pace in the competition for talent. Consistently successful teams are punished with consistently poor draft position.
Ziggy Hood was a first round draft pick in name only. 31 other teams had to pass on him in order for him to fall to Pittsburgh. Just an excuse? Much has been made of the great 1974 draft class of the Steelers the 'greatest of all time'. Well, what about the drafts of '75, '76, '77 and '78. The first rounders of those classes were Dave Brown, Bennie Cunningham, Robin Cole and Ron Johnson respectively. All solid players to be sure, but there will be no movement to get any of them into the Hall of Fame. Did Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn and company become a bunch of bums overnight?
The second, related problem is that of reps., especially if yours is not transcendental talent; which would describe the new talent pool of late drafting teams. If a team is playing at a consistent championship level you don't change out the horses so a developing player can get reps. Even if said reps are important for that player's development. Instead, your preference would be, whether management, players or fans to ride that group until the wheels come off. From this perspective, rather than to think that somehow these people all became incompetent, this could be viewed as an inevitable consequence of sustained success. The dynasty and the system will come into conflict and the system will win.
The best thing about the past two seasons is that it freed management from the obligations of dynasty. Now they have the creative freedom to build the next one.
Free agency vs the draft
A couple of items that may provide some perspective in the midst of the free agent season. Last year's free agent poster boy, Mike Wallace is the subject of trade rumors coming out of Miami. And there is some data that argues that the most reliable path to championships is via the draft and UDFAs
Tomlin I - staff building
The coaching staff was recognized this week for being the only one in the league that has three former head coaches (LeBeau, Haley and Munchak) on board. Before the impressive free agent moves the team has made this off season, there were excellent staffing moves. The additions of Munchak, Porter and Saxon has created a level of excitement that has matched that of the players procured. When was the last time there has been this level of excitement over a coaching staff? But lets not overlook some of the deeper significance of this situation. Tomlin is the second least experienced member of his own staff. What kind of dynamic does it take to hire and retain not one, but several people who could very well take your job? What kind of a job environment enables someone, or several someones to feel sense of fulfillment in a diminished role after they experienced being in charge? Unless he is just the fortunate beneficiary of effective public relations machinery, the one truth that Tomlin's critics must ignore is that people, players and coaches want to work with this man. The feelings of the players league wide is a matter of record, and would have to thought a consideration when quality players choose to come to cap strapped Pittsburgh as opposed to places where they might enjoy a more robust payday. The coaches seem happy to be here too.
Tomlin II - team building
In the first extended comments made to the media since the end of the 2013 season Tomlin spoke on the importance of relationships in the team building process as well as priorities for rounding out the roster for the 2014 season.
Tomlin III - Hard Knocks
Pittsburgh could possibly be selected as the focal point for the popular reality program this season. Tomlin let it be known that he would prefer not. Fans are torn between understanding the distraction involved, but also attracted to the opportunity to get an indepth look at their favorite team. If ratings are a consideration then for HBO and the league this is a slam dunk.
Tomlin IV - Rules changes
As a member of the league's Competition Committee Tomlins held forth on some of the proposed changes.
Another part of the equation are the anticipated contributions, if any of players who had been shelved for significant periods due to injury. One of the subtly unremarked upon stories of this off season is how relatively little of the group consciousness has been occupied with injury concerns. For the past few years there has always been the question of when or whether multiple players might return to the field at full strength, or at all. This year that list has been whittled down to Maurkice Pouncey, and then...who? We could talk about Sean Spence, but you have to acknowledge that he's in a different category; one where any contribution at all would be considered gravy. Yet it may be possible that a return by Spence might be something more that a fanciful daydream. His return would not only enhance the team's ability to compete physically, but the inspirational dynamics would be difficult to calculate.
Combining the subject of injuries as well as the ongoing navel-gazing concerning receivers, the second year wideout had surgery this winter to, hopefully, more fully repair the finger difficulties he experienced during the season. Wheaton will probably have more to do with whether the receiver corps successfully weathers and maintains their high level of performance after losing Sanders and Cotchery to free agency. It is rare for a receiver to come to Pittsburgh and make a huge contribution in their first year. Wheaton's promise may have been the reason that the team so meekly allowed Sanders and Cotch to walk.
Remember how most felt about a year and a half ago when Kelvin Beachum made the roster coming out of his rookie training camp? This week the jack of all trades offensive lineman has been rewarded with a pay increase based upon performance.
Steelers vs Bills
Beginning this summer the team will practice with Buffalo during training camp in Latrobe. It has been several years since the team has practice with another squad when they partnered with Washington while the latter still practice at Carlisle Pa.
The American Football League pioneer and the only owner the Bills have ever had passed away this week. Questions will arrive concern the future of the team remaining in Buffalo going forward.
The Commissioner gave what would be considered to be the equivalent to the state of the union address at the owners meeting in Orlando this week.
Players will no longer be allowed to dunk over the goal posts and many will not be able to jump that high based upon rule changes approved by the owners this week. Anthony Defeo questions why an organization that is highly challenged to effectively enforce the rules they already have would add even more.
Unionization of college football players
The decision this week by the National Labor Relations Board should be welcomed by anyone serious about opposing the exploitation of children, even if those children are rather large. Thanks to the efforts of players from Northwestern University, the time may come when those who provide the financial windfall accord universities by football will realize employee protections and maybe even a guarantee of full educational opportunities.
The Ravens running back was indicted this week and could do some jail time. This development should remind us that the KQ (Knucklehead Quotient) for the Steelers has been down significantly in recent years. Tomlin's admonitions to not be That Guy seems to be working.