It was unlikely that anything could match last week for the number of blockbuster news items during the doldrums of the NFL offseason, but we didn’t suffer a shortage of news this week either. And there was a lot of Steelers news as well. Let’s start with a feel good item from late last week that may have passed under the radar if you don’t live in the Pittsburgh area.
For 42 years fans who didn’t travel to Steelers games by car or boat made the trek by foot over one of the bridges crossing the Allegheny River to the stadiums on the North Shore; first Three Rivers, and now Heinz Field. Last week, a light rail link was completed that will transport fans from the southern regions of the Pittsburgh area, through downtown to the very doorstep of Heinz Field. That’s good news, but it gets even better. The Steelers have subsidized the project such that on game days fans traveling from downtown to the Heinz Field will be able to do so for free over the next two years. Just one more reason to be proud of being part of Steelers Nation.
The Steelers lost starting cornerback Willie Gay to free agency this week, while I lost an important tool in taunting some of the haters in Steeler Nation. Transport Steelers fans in a time machine from this time last year to this week and they would be confused and perhaps shocked by the tone of melancholy reflected in many of the reactions to the loss of Gay. In just one year he went from being a prime candidate for a Darwin Award to being one of the Steelers' defensive standouts. It remains to be seen whether Gay's performance this year was an anomaly, or, as PaVaSteeler has suggested that he will regress under the influence of his former position coach Ray Horton. The good news is that he left with the respect of most fans, with a few exceptions that just couldn't let the anger of past failures go.
It should also be mentioned that this Pittsburgh/Arizona thing is pretty amusing. The Arizona desert has become a reliable conduit for Steelers' players and coaches seeking new beginnings. This Pittsburgh West thing is for real.
The Chairman to Return. It appears that Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney will be returning to the team sometime this summer. Mr. Rooney, who pointed out that he still is employed as US Ambassador to Ireland, would not discuss the matter, but it is speculated that he could rejoin the Steelers as early as the beginning of training camp in July and would take on undisclosed duties. Mr. Rooney attended the NFL Owners Meeting this week in Florida and his return was greeted by expressions of great respect and joy by his former colleagues. And for good reason. Without his leadership the league has struggled with navigating the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the ongoing issue of player safety and head injuries and other matters. Fans of Steeler Nation and the NFL could certainly benefit from a larger dose of Dan Rooney's wisdom, and it would be great to have him back with the team on a day to day basis.
The coach was in the news this week for his press conference in Florida. But a significant piece of news came out an interview conducted with Steelers President Art Rooney II.
The Steelers are looking to sign Tomlin to a new contract sometime during this off season. "We're obviously very happy with Mike and the job he's doing and we hope he's going to be here for the long term and I think I'm comfortable in saying that will be the case." Mr. Rooney said in an interview published last Saturday. This news stands in contrast to various reports over the past few months that might suggest a lack of confidence in Tomlin's leadership. At present Tomlin owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in franchise history with four playoff appearances, three division titles and one championship in his five year tenure.
Mike Tomlin Part 2
Tomlin's press conference at the AFC coaches breakfast during the owner's meeting was the first extended session with the media since shortly after the playoff loss in January. The headline was Tomlin's claim that the dismissal of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the hiring of new coordinator Todd Haley were both his responsibility and decision. This contradicted the notion that these actions were either initiated or heavily influenced by team president Art Rooney II. Tomlin's silence over the past couple of months served to fuel this sort of speculation, but then again, in the tradition of Chuck Noll there is a tradition of being unconcerned with what others, particularly the media, may think about developments on the Southside. What is the truth of the matter? Who knows?
The really important news in my point of view, and the piece that should fuel a lot of anticipation among Steelers fans was the revelation of the revamping of the Steelers offense under Haley.
This news has all kinds of exciting implications for Steelers football moving forward. First, it signals a clean break from what has characterized Steelers offensive football for over a generation. At best it can be expected that what will be unveiled this spring and summer will be an offense that is more flexible, more responsive to the opportunities and demands of offensive football in the current era and more tailored to the talents and capabilities of the offensive talent on this team without necessarily breaking from what is thought of as Steelers football. This also signals Tomlin's exerting his philosophy on the offensive side of the ball. When you think about it, Tomlin did not come to the Steelers able to put his full imprint upon his staff. The offense was inherited from that which existed largely from the Cowher years. It is significant to me that the one area of the offense that Todd Haley will not touch is the blocking schemes for the offensive line. Kugler is Tomlin's coach.
The team that will be unveiled this fall will likely be more fully Mike Tomlin's team than any that we have seen thus far. It will be a team that, as the coach implied at his news conference, will have some surprises in store for its division rivals on the offensive side of the ball. It will have new leadership, relying more heavily on players who have spent most or all of their careers under Tomlin. While I have had my doubts about Haley, I have to acknowledge that Tomlin's track record on his new assistant hires have been stellar. If this extends to Haley then it will make the Lake Effect (for example) pale in comparison. For certain it will make the months leading up to the season even more compelling than they ordinarily are for Steelers fans.
For certain it will make the months leading up to the season even more compelling than they ordinarily are for Steelers fans.
No News is Good News
The Mike Wallace Watch continues. As each day goes by, confidence grows that the team will be able to retain Wallace for at least one or two more years. There are concerns. It is still possible, but a lot less likely, that some team will make some sort of massive offer before the April 20th deadline. There are long range concerns over whether the team can retain all three of their Young Money receivers over the long haul. I believe that the results so far validate the strategy, considered risky by many, that the Steelers front office undertook in handling the Wallace situation and by extension quell concerns that they are mishandling cap management and other personnel issues generally. The main concern at this time is that until this issue is resolved the personnel process will likely be constipated, delaying the signing of other free agents.
According to a source with the Denver Post the Sunday night season opener will be played between the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos and the Steelers in Denver. This potential matchup would be so intriguing and challenging on so many levels, if the league and the networks weren't planning it they should reconsider. To say that it would be a ratings bonanza would be an understatement. The only negative from my perspective is that for second consecutive year Pittsburgh has to play a high caliber opponent in an away game. Additionally, it will mean putting safety Ryan Clark on the shelf as well. But this brings to mind a Tomlinism from a few years back that best characterizes this situation; it's a five star matchup because we're (Pittsburgh) in it.
One of the rule changes proposed by the Steelers passed at the owners meeting in Florida.
The rules for play in overtime will now be uniform for both the regular season and the playoffs. Another rule proposed by the Steelers banning horse collar type tackles on quarterbacks did not pass. Other proposals such as allowing for a non-season ending injured reserve designation were tabled until meetings in May.
Again, considering the time of year, a busy and significant week of news.