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Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley showing his true colors

When Haley was hired, many thought it was a mismatch. So far, it appears they were wrong.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

In an article titled "Steelers ramp up the run" Tribune-Review writer Mark Kaboly discusses the evolving run game of Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. Several of his comments caught my attention:

It’s taken about a month, but Haley is finally nailing down who can do what the best for the Steelers, and he’s putting it into effect—especially in the run game.

He quotes left tackle Max Starks:

You start to figure out what the identity of your team is, start to figure out what they’re really good at, and you start creating more ways to get those plays into the offense and into the game plans...I think he’s done a great job of adjusting to that.

Haley himself said:

I think everybody is growing together and getting more and more comfortable, and I think it shows. I’ve said—and it hasn’t been just hot air—we have made progress each and every week...but the bottom line is that we have to continue to get better.

Haley included himself in the remarks, admitting he was "knocking the rust" off his play-calling skills, as he hadn’t called plays since 2008 [as a coordinator.]

These remarks made me think back to last winter’s hiring of Haley and the discomfort many of us felt with him. People had many and varied objections. Some felt (as Ron Cook of Sports Radio 93.7 expressed just a few weeks ago) it was a mistake to upset the quarterback. Some felt Haley’s style was completely unsuited to the "Steeler Way," whatever that is. I’m sure there were a great many other objections, but I suppose the latter of those two would be pretty much what I felt.

But I don’t think any of us realized Haley at his core is very much in the Steelers mode. Despite the histronics and the very public meltdown in Kansas City, he is apparently a patient man.

When you are teaching or leading people (and a coach is a combination of both a leader and a teacher,) there is generally more than one way to skin a cat. I suspect coaching has many similarities to conducting a choir, and have more than once compared them. Here’s how it plays out in a choir, and you can decide for yourself how well it compares to coaching an NFL team.

A choral conductor starts the season with a roster. S/he has "drafted" the most talented singers available, but because of budget limitations, geographical factors, and so on, is highly unlikely to have equally talented people at every position. Some have beautiful voices but are less strong at sight-reading or rhythm or less musically sensitive, and so on. Some of these things were already known to the conductor before the singer joined the "team," and some of them are discovered as s/he works with them. Some new singers are "development projects," at least to a limited extent, and some of them are exceedingly accomplished musicians. (Generally "development projects" have to be played right along with the rest of the roster. How problemmatic it is depends on how large the group is, and consequently how well any rough edges can be camoflaged.)

It is always a thrill to find a singer who has it all—beautiful voice, excellent skills, great musicianship. The conductor’s main job in this case is not to mess him or her up. But even with such singers there can be an issue—they may not fit into their section particularly well.

Since a choir is a team sport, it is necessary for a section to work together as a unit, rather than to feature a star diva who gets all the attention. This can require some delicate adjustments on the part of the conductor.

Always throwing the ball to the same fabulous receiver is not a recipe for success, because opposing teams will learn to merely shut down said fabulous receiver. Of course, this is not a perfect analogy for a chorus. Wouldn’t it be awesome if it was, though? The basses from Choir A, say, would be allowed to rush the sopranos of Choir B if one of them stands out, sacking the conductor in the process.

But I digress... In reality, one has in one’s roster some singers who require a fair bit of help and/or experience to become a fully functioning part of the ensemble. Others are not only veterans but very proficient veterans. There may also be veterans who are perhaps a bit past their prime, and whom one has to utilize carefully to maximize and conserve their strengths. Others may be quite experienced and very strong in some areas, but have never properly developed other necessary skills.

One begins the season with a limited amount of time and some defined goals. There is a real juggling act taking place for every conductor or coach. There are those "players" who are not sufficiently strong in the fundamentals, and those who are very experienced in them. Although it never hurts even the most experienced veteran to revisit those fundamentals (and indeed it is necessary) you will lose them if every rehearsal is spent harping on them.

There is also a "playbook" to learn. For a team with no coaching changes, the playbook may not change much from year to year. But with a coaching change it is bound to be radically altered. Most choruses change their "playbook" almost completely each year—not how things are done so much as what things are done. A few choruses repeat music over and over, but most of us primarily program new music for each concert of each season. (I use the term "new" in the context of "new to the group" as opposed to "newly composed," although most of us use at least some newly composed music as well.)

The defined goal is the same in both a chorus and a football team—to perform well, or at least well enough not to go out of business due to public indifference. Both choruses and the NFL have a mechanism in place to help avert this. In the case of the NFL it is revenue sharing. In the case of choruses there are various sorts of what one might call public assistance—foundations and government agencies charged with the support of the arts to which one can apply. But eventually a chorus, at least, has to show some signs of improvement, or they will have to fold. (I don’t know of any cases where a chorus has been sold to Los Angeles, but it isn’t inconceivable : )

I’ve now dispensed a novella’s-worth of explanation and can proceed to my premise, which is, there is a quick and dirty way to accomplish one’s goal, and there is the proper way. There are tricks to help a singer sound better in the short run (assuming, say, one has a strong musician with a problemmatic voice.) These "tricks" almost always lead to increased vocal problems in the long run. There are ways to cover up the singers whose lack of musicality or rhythmic ability or whatever is compromising the quality of the end product. But these do not address the root problem, and the singer doesn’t improve.

Perhaps the best analogy for what I’m getting at is the playbook. One can, rather than face the problems the new playbook presents, retreat to the comfort of the old playbook. While this is a valid scheme on occasion, it slows the full incorporation of the new playbook and the hopefully consequent improvements it brings. You never improve, either as an individual or a group, if you continue to do the same things over and over in the same way. Even if it is "working" have to challenge yourself with something different, something possibly more difficult, before you improve. Besides, your audience gets bored if the same pieces are on every concert, and don't bother to come any more.

In the NFL, if you become too predictable to opposing teams they figure out ways to defeat you. This was probably the most frequent complaint about Bruce Arians. Even under circumstances where "they know you are going to run the ball, but just can't stop it," a bit of misdirection keeps the opposing defense honest. Although Isaac Redman estimated the number of run plays had been whittled down to about eight, there are also plays in which one of those eight is run out of a different formation. Haley has apparently brought a winning combination of familiarity and enough variation to keep things fresh.

As a choral director I am charged with putting on an excellent concert, in the same way the Steelers are charged with winning games. In one way, the Steelers have the easier task—they can win ugly, so to speak. But I believe the coaching staff of the Steelers, even while they are charged with winning, are able to take the long view. They realize the issue is not necessarily who wins the most games at the beginning of the season.

At the end of Week 3 the Steelers, Patriots, and Packers all had 1-2 records. The Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, and Atlanta Falcons were all 3-0. The Texans and Falcons are clearly the real deal, although whether they make it to the Super Bowl remains to be seen. The Steelers, Patriots and Packers all appear to have righted the ship and are on course for a good to great season. A fast start out of the box doesn’t guarantee a win in the end, any more than a slow start signals the coming apocalypse. What matters is whether fundamental soundness backs up the initial surge, or whether a slowly-developing team is getting the fundamentals down.

Clearly there is a point of no return, and an NFL team (or, for that matter, a choral director) can only have so much patience. But we’ve seen how well knee-jerk reactions work. A classic example is the Philadelphia Eagles.

Last season they began with one of the most-hyped teams ever. They had spent lavishly in free agency and had acquired some very impressive players. The only problem was, they didn’t figure out how to put these players together into a team until it was too late. They won their last four games, but it was only enough to garner them an 8-8 record, in a strong enough division to deny them a trip to the playoffs.

In the typical fashion of a team under duress, this season they fired their defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, and the defense promptly got worse. One could easily argue the defense was not the problem in the first place. They might have been far more effective if Michael Vick hadn’t given the ball to the opposing offense 13 times in the past seven games.

The Steelers’ struggles earlier in the season are well documented. Some of them are attributable to injuries. When you lose the services of all-pro players, generally the level of play is going to drop, especially if the replacements don’t have a lot of game experience. Starters-in-waiting are all very well, but they can only "step up" to the extent their talent and experience level makes possible.

I have on occasion had to replace an excellent singer more or less at the last moment. While the replacement may surprise me by showing a level of skill and sophistication I didn’t know they possessed, there is generally a reason they weren’t the first choice. They may develop and eventually become as good (or even better) than the person they replaced, but initially they don’t have the same number and level of repetitions and experience with the group to perform as well as the person they replaced.

My premise, however, is the Steelers took the long view at the beginning of the season. Whether or not they knew they were likely to be without Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley, among others, for a significant number of games, they knew the offense was likely to experience some initial discomfort and an adjustment period to the new playbook. In the end, the offense managed to put up points and control the ball in a very heartening manner, but I don’t think anyone involved would say it was firing on all cylinders. And considering two of the three losses were by a field goal (and a last-minute one at that,) a single touchdown rather than a field goal in each game would have given a struggling defense the breathing room it needed until it figured out how to hold a fourth quarter lead.

The main point is, Mike Tomlin and the front office didn’t panic. Dick LeBeau wasn’t fired because the defense struggled. Todd Haley wasn’t told to axe his new playbook and go back to Bruce Arians’ methods. The brass showed they trusted their people to deal with the fundamentals, and the wins would follow.

It is entirely possible this Steelers team will only win a few more games. Anything is possible, especially if the injury bug continues to cull some of the best players from the team. If Ben Roethlisberger goes down all bets are off, although I’m thinking this year’s offense is as well equipped as any in recent years to make do with a passable passer and a rhythm-based short gain offense. For one thing, they are apparently remembering how a running game works. (This Sunday without Jonathan Dwyer or Rashard Mendenhall may well tell the tale.) But what I’ve seen so far, combined with Todd Haley’s remarks in the above-cited article as well as yesterday’s post-practice interview on makes me believe he is one of the best hires the Steelers have made in the Mike Tomlin era. Luckily for him, he was hired by a team who gave him the tools and the time to once again excel.

[The linked interview is worth watching just to see the receiving corps in the background throwing footballs to each other. I wonder how many more trick plays are being planned?]