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Bruce Arians redux: My Take on the 2010 Coaching

I've just read one too many "Arians sucks" comments, and I'm not going to take it anymore.  I wrote the following reply to one such comment:

Just because you keep saying something doesn't make it true. We had some good runs, and we had some that were stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, including the infamous fumble that was the death knell.  We had some throws that ended in an interception, some that kept hope alive, some that ended in a TD.  You act as if the right play call somehow magically makes the other team lay down and concede the game.  The logical call can end in heartbreak because of brilliant execution by an opposing player - see most of Troy's interceptions this season.  What looks like a wrong call can suddenly become brilliant in retrospect when it fools the other team and gets a critical first down or a touchdown.  Hindsight is 20-20, as my mom would say. 

I'm not attempting to claim that every call made by our coaching staff this year was correct. Sometimes you go with the percentages, sometimes you go with your gut, and you live with the results either way.  And whether a different call might have worked in some parallel universe is scarcely germane to the discussion. Say what you will, there were enough correct calls, correctly executed, to get a struggling team to the Super Bowl.  In fact, there were enough correct calls, correctly executed, to come tantalizingly close to winning it.  So to all of you who feel that "Arians sucks" is a necessary and insightful comment, I just want to say that I will read your comments when you can definitively demonstrate that some specific offensive coordinator (presumably one of the ones who was watching the Super Bowl from his couch) could have made a difference to Sunday night's outcome.  And when you can do that, I will also ask for investment advice, because I also presume that you have a crystal ball.

I didn't post that, though, because instead I want to give a more thorough defense of the coaching staff.  As a person who is often on the leadership side of things I thought I could perhaps bring some insight into what goes into the calls that are made - insight that wouldn't be necessary if the players were animations in a Madden game instead of flesh and blood human beings.  And don't worry, I'm not going to bring in any of my dreaded choral analogies - this is going to be long enough without that.



First and foremost, coaches are leaders of men.  Flawed, fallible human beings.  Human beings that have good days and bad ones.  Even if we had a team stocked with the best possible player at every position - something that is impossible in the current NFL model of salary caps, free agency, and revenue sharing - some of those players would make mistakes at critical times.  That's part of being human.  But let's look at the team-building element, because it is the first step in the equation. 

Presumably most everyone with an opinion feels that the Steelers badly need to address the secondary.  Teams have figured out that if you have an accurate enough QB, a strong enough offensive line, and enough capable receivers, you can do some serious damage to our team.  So fine - let's draft (or bring in via free agency) a top corner, re-sign Ike no matter how much he is asking, and draft a few more corners in lower rounds, just in case Lewis/Butler don't pan out.  Great idea.  But we also have a number of defensive players who are approaching their sell-by date.  Some of them have some young up and comers behind them who will eventually fill their role (linebackers, for example) and some not so much (nose tackle, for example.)  Ignoring that need this off-season might come back to bite us sooner than we think.  Or maybe not - maybe one of the back ups is almost ready to be a worthy successor to Casey Hampton, or maybe Hampton has three more good years in him.  None of us know that at this point. 

And what about the offensive line? While we have injured starters returning next season, if there is a season, one of them is at the end of his contract.  Do you re-sign him, stay with this year's replacement, who is at or very near the end of his useful life, assume that one of the other guys is ready to step up, or draft/sign a replacement?  And what about guard? The fact that right guard was a revolving door all year, not entirely because of injuries, indicates that there is a need there.  There are questions all the way across the line, except for center.  And if your line isn't functioning well, you're not maximizing what is your greatest investment, your 102 million dollar QB.  Coaching can do a lot - Sean Kugler has been amazing - but we have possibly the best defensive coordinator ever, and the defense wasn't particularly impressive on Sunday night.

We love to make mock drafts and love to discuss possible roster moves, but in the end we lack several pieces of critical information. Therefore we will seldom manage to guess with any high degree of accuracy how the Steelers will draft and what they will do in free agency.  The Front Office and coaching staff have some of the answers to questions like whether there is a need to draft a nose tackle, how to balance the need for a right guard with the need for a really good corner, and so on, because they have a better feel for how the people they have are likely to develop than anyone else can. But even they are guessing to some extent.  They also have to make the call as to how to juggle the available resources, combined with what players are actually realistically available to them, either in the draft or via free agency.

Case in point - who, right now, can say with complete assurance whether or not Limas Sweed will pan out?  It may be that next season is the year that he finally has the right combination of opportunity and luck.  It may be that he will never succeed on this team, but can start over somewhere else and develop to his potential.  He may forever be a sad footnote to the assessment of the Steelers 2008 draft. Certainly none of us have the answer, and I would be surprised if the Steelers organization knows for sure, either. If hard work and talent can make it happen for him, it will happen.  But his struggles appear to go deeper than injury, ability, and effort, and therefore he is a big question mark. And although the coaching staff can make a better guess than we can, I'm quite sure that they don't have the definitive answer.

But let's say that between a combination of tireless effort, luck, and players taking a home-town discount to re-sign, we end up with a roster that looks fantastic on paper.  Hopefully it actually turns out to be that, because as my previous illustration demonstrates, not all players work out the way you expect them to, for a variety of reasons. The coaches assess what they've got, and start to get a feel for what the new players are capable of.  Some of what they see we find out about.  Rashard Mendenhall wasn't preparing sufficiently last season.  Tomlin pulled him from an early-season game, and that took care of that problem.  Tomlin told the world what he was doing, and so we knew.  Had he played in the Chicago game and made some mistakes as a result of his insufficient preparation, we might well have not realized that, and might have blamed, say, the play-calling instead.  The fault would still have been partially on the coaching staff, for allowing him to get away with not being prepared, but that blame would likely have been assigned for the wrong reasons.

But some of what they see is not going to be visible to us - maybe ever. After all, if we know about it, opposing teams surely will too.  And part of being a good coach is knowing what your players' limits are, both in the overall sense and in any given game situation.  Why didn't they run Mendy more on Sunday, or Redman?  Why didn't they put Troy up at the line of scrimmage more?  For that matter, why IR Pouncey and sign a player that you don't even dress?  I certainly don't know.  But I also don't know that the outcome would have been different if they had done those things, or any of a thousand other things, differently.  It is more than possible that the outcome would have been worse, in the sense of a bigger score disparity, than it was.

I don't contend that no coaching mistakes were made on Sunday.  Mike Tomlin wouldn't agree with me if I did.  He admitted to at least one specific mistake - the 52 yard field goal attempt.  I'm sure there were others, because Tomlin, Arians, and LeBeau are human.  But as to why they did or didn't call a particular play, we will never know, unless they tell us.  And the calculations that went into those decisions were almost certainly not based entirely on what the best or highest percentage  play in that circumstance would be in an ideal world.  What they felt their players to be capable of at that particular time has to factor to some degree into their calculations.  I'm sure they make some calls because it is the best probable call in that situation, knowing that the player upon which it depends may not be able to deliver, but also knowing there isn't a better option.  But if you know that Player A is ordinarily a better player than Player B, but that Player A is for whatever reason only at about 70% of their normal capabilities, do you make a call that depends on Player A executing at a high level, a call that expects Player B to step up and player better than what you typically see, or try something else altogether?  The ultimate decision has to depend on the circumstances and what else you know about those players. In the end, a smart coach works with what he's got, not with what he wishes he had. And the really tough part is that what he has changes constantly, sometimes from play to play.

There are also things the coaches can't see, or can't accurately predict, like injuries to generally non-injury-prone players. Mike Tomlin says from time to time that football is a game of attrition, and both the Steelers and the Packers demonstrated plenty of attrition this season. In the end, the Packers overcame their attrition better.  Why? Possibly because they made better decisions about how to deal with the injuries, or had better depth behind them. Maybe we should have been less optimistic about some of the walking wounded. Maybe we had little choice but to be optimistic.  But in the end, it would have been pretty surprising for anyone to predict at the beginning of the season that either team would make it to the final game, knowing the players each team would lose during the course of the season.

It is a natural reaction to want heads to roll after a disappointing loss, and sometimes that's a good answer.  Last year the O line coach and the Special Teams coaches were replaced, and in hindsight those were both excellent moves.  But let's not try to fix something that isn't broken.

Is Bruce Arians the best offensive coordinator to ever work in the NFL? Almost certainly not.  If he was, he would have been snapped up for a head coaching position before now.  Is he the worst?  Surely even the "Arians sucks" crowd wouldn't claim that.  Is there room for improvement?  Well, since he's a human being, obviously yes.  Has he improved?  I would also say yes.  In the end, the question is the same as every other question the Front Office faces - does he have more upside than downside?  I have a hard time concluding that their answer won't be yes.  And although many of you out there may never see it, I think he did a hell of a job this year, and I hope he's back next season.