We are now in that time of the year that I call football wasteland. I begrudgingly give credit to the NFL for how they have marketed the Combine, free agent signings and the Draft - creating 'must-watch' spectacles out of undeniably uninteresting spectator events. But even if you are a big fan of such things we are days from the Combine, weeks from free agency, a few months shy of the Draft and a long ways off from OTAs. Training camp is somewhere over the horizon. I, for one, am grateful that it is an Olympic year.
Its also a good time to take a look at the big picture in the sport. Super Bowl XLIV marked the official end of the decade of the Oughts. Time for some random observations about what this decade in football has meant and what may lie ahead for the game in the coming years.
Team of the Decade
New England Patriots
Sorry. Hate to kick things off on such an offensive note, but it is what it is. Appearances in six conference championship games, four Super Bowls with three championships won. While many choose to see the Pats as a dynasty in progress, I argue that though still a power to be reckoned with, they have failed to secure a title for five years now. Their period of dominance was the early portion of the decade. Since then the Colts and the Steelers have improved sufficiently to surpass the performance of New England in the latter half of the decade, but not enough to claim this particular title.
Coach of the Decade
What, no Mister Bill you say? In spite of the fact that Belichick has more titles, Dungy's impact on the game has been both more far reaching and significant. Dungy's fingerprints are all over two championship teams; Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Paying close attention to how far Dungy brought the Bucs, and how quickly they declined under his successor Jon Gruden, I think the case can be made that their championship was largely the result of his system, players and assistants. Then there is the issue of integrity. What is significant about Spygate is that Belichick hasn't won a title since that came to light. Dungy, on the other hand, is a best selling author whose books place a heavy emphasis on issues related to integrity. As a pioneer Dungy has literally changed the face of the game. The glass ceiling for African-American coaches has been shattered. But there is more. In addition to his own championship appearance in SB XLI, three other black coaches have made it to the Super Bowl, all disciples of the Dungy coaching tree, including, of course our own MIke Tomlin. Belichick's coattails are a bit less impressive. The ramifications of what Dungy accomplished during this decade should resonate long after New England's three titles becomes nothing more than fodder for stat geeks.
The 6 - 4 lead in championships really is the work of just three organizaions; Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh. Otherwise a good case can be made for conference parity. The AFC West was particularly disappointing as a division. the South divisions of both conferences were consistently strong. Three of four teams in the NFC South made it to the Super Bowl, and the fourth (Atlanta) also got in during the late 90s. A 2 - 2 record in Championship play is quite respectable.
As mentioned earlier, three AFC organizations dominated the competitive aspect of the game over the decade. And just as Coach Dungy's fingerprints are all over the Colts and Bucs, the Steelers and particularly Chuck Noll's fingerprints are all over the Colts and Steelers. My guess is that history will be even kinder to the influence of the Steelers.
And the last shall be first
The decade will be known for teams who exhibited generational ineptitude reaching great heights. The Cardinals, Buccaneers, Seahawks and Saints made it to the championship game with New Orleans and Tampa prevailing. Teams like the Jets began making noise in the playoffs after long absences, while former perennial powerhouses such as Washington and San Franciso descended into mediocrity or worse. When the decade began ten teams had never gone to the SB and seventeen had not won a championship in the modern era. Going into next decade those numbers are reduced to four and thirteen respectively. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that three of the four remaining franchises to not go to the SB are under twenty years old. ( Jacksonville, Cleveland, with Houston being under ten)The influence of free agency on this trend might be interesting to examine as well. One disturbing development may have also obscured this rise in parity.
The most Overrated, Overhyped Team ever
The Dallas Cowboys
Before they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last month, the last time Dallas won a playoff game was when they defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith all played in that game. They are now all in the Hall Of Fame. You have to be retired at least five years before becoming eligible for induction iinto the HOF. I understand some of the rationale for this, but other organizations deserve their moments in the sun (the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame so to speak). Dallas, Dallas, Mighty Dallas! Despite the labors of Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells and a star studded cast, these guys have won...nothing.Their superstar quarterback may very well be third best in the division. As much as they would like to characterize themselves as the Yankees or Lakers of the NFL, there is this nettlesome problem that unlike those teams the Cowboys don't dominate. This is a scandal that involves the NFL and their media partners as well. Based upon their performance over the past two years the Saints, Colts, Jets, Vikings, Patriots, Ravens, Chargers, Bengals, Packers, Cardinals and Steelers are more deserving of air time.
The most Disappointing Team (AFC)
San Diego Chargers
Start slow, make a hard run during the middle/late regular season, charge into the playoffs and then fall flat on their faces in the middle of the last lap. That's the Chargers. I predict that the trend will continue as long as Norv Turner (overrated Dallas guy) remains the head coach.
The most Disappointing Media Partner
The NFL Network
What they could have been: a perfect compliment to sites like BTSC. They could leverage their 'official' status into indepth interviews and access to all teams and their personnel. They had the inside track on players, coaches, front office, NFL Films, the Commissioner, you name it. What they have become: ESPN's twin.
It has been a great decade for the franchise. A lot of us tend to be 'the glass is half empty' type of folk, meaning we have a hard time recognizing how good we've got it. The Steelers are the legitimate runner-up for team of the decade. Four conference championship appearances, two SB appearances and two championships under two different coaches. Establishment as top franchise in the modern era. Growing support as measured by both team popularity and income in areas such as apparel locally, nationally and internationally. A current and former assistant coach have just been voted into the HOF. The owner was selected to be Ambassador to Ireland. Not bad.
The Steelers All Decade Team (An incomplete list)
Offensive Line: LT - Marvel Smith (Max Starks-2nd) LG - Alan Faneca (Chris Kemoeatu) C - Jeff Hartings (Chukky Okobi) RG - Kendall Simmons (Trai Essex) RT - Max Starks (Willie Colon)
Tight End: Heath Miller (Mark Bruener)
Fullback: Dan Krieder
Running Back: Jerome Bettis (Willie Parker)
Receivers: Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes (Plaxico Burress and Antwan Randle-El)
Third Receiver: Nate Washington (Cedric Wilson) Honorable Mention: Mike Wallace
Quarterback: Ben Rothlisberger (Charlie Batch)
Defensive Line: E - Aaron Smith (Travis Kirshke) NT - Casey Hampton (Chris Hoke) E - Kemo Von Olhofen (Britt Keisel)
Linebacker: OLB - Lamar Woodley (Clark Haggans) ILB - James Farrior ILB - Larry Foote (Lawrence Timmons) OLB - Joey Porter, James Harrison (tie)
Cornerback: Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, Bryan McFadden
Safety: Troy Polamalu, Chris Hope, Ryan Clark
Kicker: Jeff Reed (Kris Brown)
Punter: Chris Gardocki (Daniel Sepulveda)
Return Specialist: Antwan Randle El (Santonio Holmes)
Some Issues to consider moving into the next Decade
Will the third generation of Steeler leadership (Art Rooney II, Colbert and Tomlin) be as successful (more or less) than the first two?
My take: We will find out who Art II and MT really are based upon these next two years. How they adapt to the new CBA, if there is one, and other developments may tell the tale.
Will the League make significant strides in internationalizing the game? Will teams be established outside the US?
My take: This may begin to happen a lot sooner than some would suspect, particularly if you begin in North America and the Western Hemisphere where travel and time issues won't be as disruptive initially. The Steelers would do quite well under such a scenario.
What are the biggest challenges coming up in the next decade?
My take: Greed. Professional sports leagues in general are pushing the limits of what the paying public can tolerate in terms of the cost of being a fan. Signs of rebellion are in the air. A lot will depend upon whether owners like the Rooneys prevail or the Daniel Snyders.
How many SBs will the Steelers win in the Teens?
My take: Four. Not all at the same time.