Excitement is building as we move ever closer to the beginning of the 2010 season. Answers to a variety of questions about the composition of the final 53 man are taking shape while a number of tantalizing issues remain outstanding over starting jobs and roster spots. Leftwich or Dixon? Pouncey or Hartwig? Brown or Logan? Worthington or Eason? And what about Grisham, Sylvester, Hills, Adams, Harris, Worilds, Madison, Burnett, Gay, Battle, Butler, Wright and of course (please cue the organ music and the choir) Redman? These questions and uncounted variations will occupy our conversations and musings for the next two weeks and beyond. Short of the direct experience of the season itself, there are few other times when it is greater to be a football fan.
But something else is going on now as well. It is a drama that exists simultaneous to that of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers squad and its journey up the mountain. This is a narrative that is of longer duration than the story of any individual season; it unfolds more subtly and more slowly. It is a story that is less urgent than that of this or any individual season, but is, ultimately, more important. As we enter the fourth year of his regime we are now beginning to see a clear outline of Team Tomlin; the component parts, character and role players of the Pittsburgh Steelers as conceived, developed and managed by Mike Tomlin (in partnership with Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II). For the three years up to this point we have watched how Tomlin has managed a team that was largely not of his making. It has been a transitional period that has had its share of triumphs and disappointments. It has also been a time of ambiguity and missteps as players, coaches and the FO sought to find their bearings. The process is nowhere near complete but enough of a picture is beginning to emerge, like the steel skeleton of a skyscraper, that we can begin to watch in awed fascination.
The Core. This the foundation of talent and leadership that the team will build upon for the next 6-10 years (barring injuries or other unforeseen issues). These are Tomlin's first four top draft picks; Lawrence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Evander "Ziggy" Hood and Maurice Pouncey. Currently, these players range from having crucial to ‘not very' roles in the success of the 2010 squad. All four share the quality of being very young, something of note in a sport where the physical maturity that comes with age can play quite an advantage. That they were all selected first rounders at such young ages makes a statement about their talent and their growth potential over the coming years. It may be fair to say that Timmons and Mendenhall have developed a bit less quickly than hoped for, while the opposite is proving true for Hood and Pouncey. When Timmons does hit his stride the comparisons may be more in line with Polamalu, than say, a James Harrison. He has similar transcendent athletic qualities. Right now Mendenhall stands the best chance of being the disappointment of the group given a tendency toward spotty play and fumbling. Otherwise, he has the potential to be one the greatest backs to wear the black and gold. And that's saying something. Hood and the rookie Pouncey have already been anointed the twin sensations of this year's camp. These two project to be the anchors of the defensive and offensive lines respectively for a decade or more and may likely be pro bowl/All Pro caliber throughout.
Bridging Veterans. The core group is still in their apprenticeship. They may be important to the short term success (this season) of the team but more critical are those players that got their start under Cowher. These players are divided into two groups. The first are those who we can call aging veterans; players that have, perhaps, a few years of peak performance left to give the team. If they are still around as the core of the Tomlin players (and their supporting cast) mature it will be as spot contributors at best. This group probably includes Hines Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, maybe James Harrison. The others are more mid career players who could still be going strong five or more years from now. Ben, Troy, Ike Taylor, Heath, Kemo, Max Starks. All of these players will have legacies that span both the Cowher and Tomlin eras but the greater association will be with this group, particularly if the older guys can manage another championship before they ride off into the sunset.
Prodigals. This is a group pretty much peculiar to the Tomlin era. Before, if you left the Steelers you didn't come back. Today prodigals Larry Foote, Antwan Randle El and BMac are getting rings, robes and the fatted calf. So far it has helped with depth, leadership and I suspect, morale. I'm tempted to include Ryan Clark in this category as well. As policy it is certainly more forgiving of both players and management, allowing for second chances. And it can be particularly beneficial for an organization like Pittsburgh that is likely to compare favorably against most of the competition.
Supporting Cast. Draftees in the 2nd thru 7th rounds, plus, in Steelers tradition, the odd free agent rookie will build on the foundation set by the core group. LaMar Woodley, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Daniel Sepluveda, Ryan Mundy and others. One of the things that might be concluded about the Tomlin era is that the approach may be more patient and expansive (example the prodigals)than previously.. What this might allow is for players that might need more time to develop, as may seem to be the case with Hills, can do so without the pressure of having to constantly fill talent voids as players go out the revolving doors. Could mean we haven't seen the last of Limas Sweed. Remember, Tomlin has a Lombardi and two rings and he hasn't cracked the age of 40 yet. Probably hasn't peaked as a leader yet either. If anyone is in the position to successfully marry the process of laying a successful foundation for the future with the urgency of winning now its him.
Free Agents. More important than we like to give credit for with our emphasis in Pittsburgh on the home grown, free agents (or those obtained by trade) have played important roles in the team's success. Cowher era free agents included Kevin Greene, Jerome Bettis, James Farrior, Charlie Batch, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark. After a big misstep (Mahan) we have gotten good value with the likes of Mewelde Moore and Hartwig. Wil Allen is looking more like a quality addition. Jury's out on Flozell Adams.
Ultimately what happens on the labor front with the new CBA will determine the final form that team building will take. But if you look closely beyond the roster decisions of the moment, we are beginning to see a pattern of player selection, development and evaluation that is uniquely Tomlin. What have you noticed?