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State of the Pittsburgh Steelers: Looking Back but Mostly Forward

Okay, now that everyone is sober, what is it that we see? Or, to be more honest, what do I see now that I am over the disappointment and, embarrassment of a very difficult exit for the 2011 Steelers. What follows are some comments and questions about where the team is and where it might be going. Also, some reactions to what folks have been saying on this site for the last few days.

On the difficulty of achieving sustained excellence.

I don’t always agree with how they go about doing it, but one of the NFL’s strengths is how it has maintained widespread fan interest through a legitimate sense of parity. Of course the bad news is that it’s hard to get to the top and even harder to stay there. I point this out, am in fact repeating myself because of the commentaries that I have been reading that would suggest that the Steelers are more flawed than perhaps they actually are.

What teams should be highlighted as doing things the right way, or at the very least better than Pittsburgh? We agonize and others fawn over the Patriots, but they haven’t won a championship since 2004, have made it to the championship round only once since, and have had their share of early exits from the playoffs in recent years. The Saints were bumped from the playoffs last year in a manner that was just as mind boggling and embarrassing as was our little adventure in Colorado this year. In spite of their excellent season I am not at all surprised that the Packers will fail to repeat. In two years the Colts have descended from conference champions to the bottom of the league. Are we not giving enough credit to the Ravens for doing what they had to do to successfully compete in the AFC North? Otherwise how secure would be Harbaugh’s job?

Bottom line; of the remaining four teams in the playoffs who do you envy to the extent that you would trade our hand for theirs in regard to front office, coaching, coordinators or players? I find much to admire and respect with regards to New England, the Giants, 49ers, and others, but it is more than just blind loyalty that I’ll take the hand we’ve been dealt in Pittsburgh now and in the foreseeable future. When you consider the built in challenges of the salary cap, the rules of free agency, the inevitability of injuries, the competitive pressures to continue to improve and adapt, and the dynamics of establishing team cohesion and chemistry year after year I can’t help to conclude that many of us just don’t get the degree of difficulty involved. Just look at those coaches that have fielded highly competitive teams over a number of years; Andy Reid, Norv Turner, Rex Ryan, and how their jobs are now considered to be at risk. Consider how quickly a number of coaches find themselves on the street after just a couple of years or less of sub par performance. Jerry Glanville once said that the NFL meant Not For Long. Never has that been more true. In that context how bad would you say that the situation with the Steelers is?

On the desire to discard and replace.

I freely admit to a certain bias about player personnel matters Maybe I’ve just gotten lazy over the years, or perhaps it is the fact that I have become very jaded about the college game and don’t play very close attention anymore. But I don’t get as excited and obsessive as some do over mock drafts and the like. Nor have I developed much in the way of confidence that others have that if we just got this free agent or another that things would be better and our problems solved. Part of my thinking comes from living in an area where the local NFL team (the Redskins) continues to reside in competitive hell for 20 years running based on just that kind of thinking. I do have a pretty good memory about a few things, and I don’t recall anyone saying that we should really move heaven and earth to get our hands on Antonio Brown or Isaac Redman. Or that James Farrior, Mewelde Moore or Ryan Clark would be useful free agent pick ups. I know that it’s a lot of fun for fans and media types to engage in this sort of speculation. And occasionally folks get it right. But I doubt that anyone would have said that Andre Carter would have a much greater impact with the Pats than Chad Ochocinco. Remember how many people in these parts were all hot and bothered over Nnamdi Asomugha? How’d that work out for the Eagles?

So we’re going to hear for the next few months how we need to get rid of everybody over 30 and replace them with just about anyone under 30. And that will solve our problems. To be sure for some players it’s time, either because their skills have deteriorated (or never developed) or because of cap issues and other business considerations. But have you checked out Michael Bean’s recent article on Hines Ward? The loyal denizens of Steeler Nation are falling all over themselves to push Ward out the door. To argue otherwise is to be dismissed as being sentimental and insufficiently business-like in our thinking.

What I believe is reflected in the thinking of many is the idea that all problems and all solutions are related to talent. In addition, injuries, particularly multiple injuries are increasingly viewed as an excuse and opportunity to replace. For older players it is automatically assumed that they are finished. And younger players? I’ve seen comments that would indicate that our relationship with Maurkice Pouncey might be reevaluated, presumably for being too fragile. Some want to move on relative to Mendenhall and Sanders. This is a basic human failing. We’re always thinking that there is a better relationship, job, whatever, just around the corner. But, frankly, this borders on the absurd. Let us hope that Steelers management is not as panicked and deluded as many of their fans.

Should we be reevaluating the coaching staff?

I have been pretty much an unabashed cheerleader for the coaching staff. Was I wrong? I guess it all boils down to how you view the situation overall. I’m sure many think that this team has seriously underachieved. I think they overachieved. A 12-4 record, the number 1 ranked defense with important roles being filled by the likes of William McLendon, Isaac Redman, Doug Legursky, Trai Essex, William Gay, Jason Woirlds, Ryan Mundy, Ramon Foster, Cortez Allen; a collection of rookies mid round draft choices, free agents, household names all. Must I remind the readers how much confidence these players inspired in these parts? However, flawed and limited as they supposedly were, they managed to almost get the number one seed in the playoffs. I think we can attribute some of that to coaching.

To be sure, they are not perfect. Tomlin still has some work to do as a game tactician. But this is the kind of thing that comes with experience. And when you think of it Tomlin’s success is all the more remarkable given his relative lack of experience. LeBeau may have been overconfident at times, Arians too predictable. But generally they got the job done and with less than a full toolbox for the most part.

The argument has also been made that Tomlin’s previous success is due to the fact that he was coaching Bill Cowher’s team. How far do you take that line of thought? Are the 49ers Harbaugh’s team or Singletary’s? When the Buccaneers won the championship was it Gruden’s team or Dungy’s? At what point can we say that the baton passes from one administration to another?

The team’s weak links, special teams and the defensive secondary were transformed into strengths. For the second time in two years the team had to be guided and maintain focus through a period of controversy. What more do you want?

How do we evaluate the players?

Was the offensive line simply terrible? Do we need to bring back Russ Grimm? Funny how many games you can win with a terrible offensive line. To be fair, given all the injuries and discontinuity how can any judgment be rendered on this group this season? And how can you make a negative assessment of Kugler? Crazy. It may not happen as quickly as some would like, but the team’s weaknesses have been shored up slowly but surely, on the fly and they have managed to remain competitive. I say keep Colon, get Pouncey and Gilbert healthy and used them as the foundation of the line.

What about the receivers? Should we pay Wallace or let him go? As has been written on another site, at least part of the blame for Wallace’s relative lack of production in the second half lies with Ben; both his decision making and the accuracy of his long throws, which this year were not the best. The money crew of Wallace, Brown and Sanders should remain the foundation of the receiver corps for the rest of Ben’s career. The only reason that ties should be cut with either Hines or Jerrico should be money.

Mendenhall and the backs? It has become fashionable in some quarters to be down on Mendenhall. Hard feelings for that Super Bowl fumble? Who knows, but I’m not buying. The only issue I see with the backs is the problem of who do you cut loose. If Batch fulfills his promise and Dwyer continues positive progress then you have six guys who could play for this and a lot of other teams.

The problem that Arians, Ben and the offense has to address in the future is the issue of distribution. The running game deserves more carries, Heath is overlooked too often, and five receivers deserve touches. To use a boxing analogy, they have to become more adept at throwing combinations and when to break tendencies. They have the tools.

Ziggy Hood. Brett Keisel is an nine year veteran who has been playing his best ball over the last three years. Ziggy has just finished his third. It has been understood that defensive linemen in this system need time to develop. Hood has had no such luxury. For most of the playoff game he was the most experienced defensive lineman on the field. May I suggest that his best years are in front of him. This is probably truer for Hayward, which is a rather frightening thing to contemplate.

Ryan Clark. When he played for the Redskins he complimented the late Sean Taylor in the same fashion that he partners with Troy. I believe he was the player whose absence had the most impact in Denver. No knock on Mundy, but Clark allows Troy to be Troy without penalty to the defense.

Charlie Batch. If Ben has proven anything it’s that he is incredibly durable, and he has apparently stabilized his life. It’s too early to be preparing an heir. Charlie is good enough all things considered. And he’s a Pittsburgh guy which for all you non-Pittsburghers, counts for something with this organization, though I can understand if the team chooses to go in another direction.

If I’m the front office I would certainly on the lookout for a guard and an inside linebacker, as well as some additional defensive lineman. But expect them to go for the best players available given that with the possible exception of tight end, there is a desire for depth everywhere. This is not, nor should be a desperate team. Some veterans will go for business or health reasons, but this is true every year. They will get younger, but rebuilding is too strong a word. If there are coaching changes it won’t be because of competency issues based upon this season.

Unfortunately, there is only one way that this season wasn’t going to be a crushing disappointment in the minds of many. Let’s put aside the ‘Standard is the Standard’ rhetoric and acknowledge that at the end of the day such expectations are unfair to all of us. If you can’t find some level of satisfaction and pride with this team then you may want to find another hobby, so to speak. Please read Rebecca Rollett’s January 11th post concerning the character and sacrifices that define this team’s season. They’ll be back, and they’ll represent as they normally do.