At this time of the year we stand on the cusp between fantasy and reality; the hopes and dreams of the off season and the challenges of an NFL campaign. This weekend marks the halfway point of the preseason and everywhere there is evidence of this duality.
On one hand, many if not most of our fanciful imaginings remain in place. We are still over three weeks away from playing a game that counts. The new offense still resides mostly under wraps; unavailable to any level of scrutiny that might suggest that it was anything but fantastic. Player performance is a mystery as evidence upon which to base a reliable judgment is scant.
On the other hand, as the saying goes, battle plans tend to go down the toilet as soon as the first shot is fired. All of those pristine, finely reasoned roster projections are now scarred and distorted by injuries and factors that can't be measured or predicted with any real reliability, though trying to do so is the source of endless entertainment to some. Unlimited promise bumps its head against development curves, inexperience and the demands of a higher level of play. So, for example, while the promise of top draft picks David De Castro and Mike Adams remains high, their performances to this point serves to remind us that there is no rush to prepare their induction speeches for Canton. As we wait for evolution to take its course Ben and the other quarterbacks continue to be classified as 'at-risk'. Issues that looked to be speed bumps early on (Mike Wallaces's contract, James Harrison's knee) are now threatening to become barricades. Surpluses become deficits (running backs) and vice versa (offensive tackles) in the wink of an eye.
How you decide to react to this depends I suspect on your awareness of history. If you have a short memory and tend to swallow the hyperbole being served up this off season hook, line and sinker, then you might be disappointed, even a bit panicked at this juncture. Those with longer memories will understand that championships are not won in August and some of the Steelers' most successful seasons have followed difficult beginnings. You would be crazy to not be concerned, but whether this is all just part of the intrigue of the season or if it rises to the level of spoiling your dinner and sleep schedule is more a slave to your perspective at this point.
All of this complexity is reflected in our top stories, and we begin with...
Pittsburgh sports in the national media
I tend to be disappointed with the national media when it comes to their coverage of the Steelers. Their coverage often is dated, inaccurate and lacking in complexity. But three pieces appeared this week that bucks those assumptions. The most interesting and surprising development is that the perceptions of the Steelers' prospects as reflected in the national media has changed from earlier in the year. The common wisdom concerning the Steelers nationally has been that this would probably be a relatively down year as new personnel step to the fore and changes are made to the offensive scheme. That view has evolved to something more closely resembling the point of view of those of us in Steeler Nation, which is to say a favorite for a division title and a deep run in the playoffs. I don't know how to take this given my superstition that the team does better when expectations are low. But I find that I really can't fault the arguments presented.
"This is football heaven," was the assessment of Albert Chen of Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in the SI.com postcard from training camp segment. One area of improved understanding is with the situation at running back where Chen writes that there is anticipation of improvement not just because of the upgrade of the offensive line, but also the recognition that though they are not household names and lack reps, the talent carrying the ball is solid. And then there is this revealing nugget concerning the evolving relationship between Ben and Todd Haley.
when I suggested that everyone's waiting for the first blow-up between quarterback and coordinator, Haley laughed. "Look, I'm passionate about this game and proud of it, but it was always about what the situation dictated at the time," he said, pointing out that at his prior stops, Arizona and Kansas City, the teams were mired in losing situations.
The last point is an important one. Haley's outbursts in those situations may have been as much about trying to transform a losing culture as anything. If so then the argument that this dynamic must repeat itself in Pittsburgh falls apart.
Michael Weinreb's piece at Grantland.com isn't about the Steelers but the Pirates. It is also very much about Pittsburgh and how the city and its fans have weathered the drought of baseball excellence that has been ongoing for twenty years. Anyone with Pittsburgh ties will find the article affecting. And the picture of Bill Mazeroski from the 1960 World Series is worth the look alone.
Andy Benoit does a good job of covering most, if not all of the bases in his season preview of the Steelers that appears in the New York Times. As good as the story is you'll really like the bottom line:
The offensive line should make a big leap over the course of 2012. That could make the offense as a whole borderline unstoppable. And this for a team that should again have one of the league’s stingiest defenses.
Predicted Finish: 1st A.F.C. North, Super Bowl appearance
Pittsburgh sports in the Pittsburgh media
Considering my misgivings with the national media expressed above, I have been heartened by the fact that the internet helps me to obtain easy access to Pittsburgh media sources when I seek Steelers news. Given my history I have been a bit more biased to the older, more established Post-Gazette. But lately the Tribune-Review has been upping its game. I've been impressed particularly with the addition of Alan Robinson. Our own Hombres De Acero makes the case for Robinson, as well as leveling some criticism at PG+ bonus coverage offered by the Post-Gazette on his blog.
What a roller coaster this is turning out to be. As I have been writing this word has come down that Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton have both been removed from the PUP list, a development that comes weeks, perhaps months ahead of many people's expectations. When you read this you will probably have a better grasp on the details than I do at this point. But even without this very good news the injury situation with the Steelers has not been that bad all things considered, unless you really believe that any team in this league can get through a season relatively unscathed.
Let's start with the bad news. The one player who is lost for the year is fullback David Johnson who tore his ACL during the first preseason game at Philadelphia and had season ending surgery this week. For that segment of the fan base who are consistently seduced by the siren song of untested potential over the proven and experienced, this is a win. Ready or not Will Johnson now has his chance to show what he can do. And for all of our sakes let us hope that he is a fast learner and up to the task. Despite the wishes of some, DJ was likely to make the roster because of his versatility. He also was playing well up to moment of his injury, catching two passes coming out of the backfield on the Steelers' opening drive of the game. Fortunately, given the depth on the roster this is a loss that the team is likely to handle with few obvious ill effects. Besides WJ, the loss likely closes any remaining discussion, if there was any at this point, concerning Weslye Saunders and his place on the roster in spite of his upcoming suspension. It may also open an opportunity for Jamie McCoy.
James Harrison also had surgery this week to address a lingering knee problem that has kept him off the field throughout the off season. Obviously there will be some short term misery, as Tomlin would be fond of saying as we cannot assume that he will be 100 percent or even available for the season opener and who knows how much further into the beginning of the season. There is also long term concern as to what impact this will have on Deebo's ability to play at a high level over time. Exacerbating the anxiety is the continuing absence of Jason Worilds. Now for all we know Worilds may be coming off the PUP list as I write or you read this, however the nervous nellies and the Worilds haters have a different vision which they are not bashful about sharing as often as they are able. The opportunities here are for Chris Carter and especially, Adrian Robinson. And perhaps Brandon Johnson too if you buy into the worst case scenarios for both Harrison and Worilds. Unfortunately, what may be the absolute worst case is that once again the emergence of Lawrence Timmons as a likely All Pro caliber player would be sidetracked if he were forced to play outside once again. Good news for Stephenson Sylvester and Sean Spence, but overall, bad news for the defense.
Rounding out the really bad news is the loss of John Clay who was injured/waived due to a groin and hip injury. Whether this marks the end of our association with Clay or just a postponement to next year remains to be seen. This all seemed a lot worse a few hours ago as an area of the team that seemed to hold an embarrassment of riches appeared to go completely in the opposite direction in very little time. In addition to Clay, Super hero Isaac Redman was having a wee bout with the Kryptonite and Jonathan Dwyer was nicked with a shoulder strain. Good news for Baron Batch who moved off the bubble and was getting lots of reps in practice. But he and Chris Rainey were our only healthy running backs. This makes the timing of Mendenhall's return particularly welcome. So much so that I suspect that even the Mendenhall haters are glad to see him back in spite of the secret wishes that some undoubtedly had that he not show up until November or ever.
On the positive side, in addition to the unexpected early return of Mendenhall and Hampton (I'm sure there are also some disappointed about Casey's return as well), Max Starks came off the PUP list earlier in the week. Mike Adams and Willie Colon also returned to practice this week meaning that the O line is as healthy as you could hope for at this stage of the game.
This means that the only area of deep concern is outside linebacker. And given how these other situations have played out I suggest that instead of rending our garments we simply wait and see. If one thing is becoming clear as all this unfolds is that the team is not interested in pandering to the anxiety of the fans or the curiosity of the media as far as these injury issues are concerned. At his press conference this morning (Friday) Tomlin absolutely refused to play along concerning speculation about Harrison's injury or a timetable for his return. I've found it sad and not a little off putting that some speak of Worild's continued absence as if the man is committing some kind of sin. First, I don't recall there being any announcement as to a definitive date of his return such as to suggest that his rehabilitation is somehow not on schedule. Second, the decision to return to action is not just the player's but doctors, trainers, physical therapists and coaches are involved as well. The season is still a ways off. Remembering that fact would do wonders for our blood pressure.
Leonard vs Hagler, uh I mean, Brown vs Taylor
One of the ongoing stories of the now concluded training camp has been its decidedly prickly nature. Fights broke out on a fairly regular basis, with the main event being a brawl conducted in multiple rounds by Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor. From what I witnessed during my visit to Saint Vincent I can't say that I was shocked. While many of the starters and other high profile players on the team took a back seat to others who needed both reps and exposure, Brown and Taylor provided the rare circumstance where two marquee players with big talent and strong leadership qualities went head to head on a consistent basis. The competition was intense. The altercation was of such significance that front office personnel and teammates felt it necessary to get involved in the aftermath. The two players appear to have patched things up during the off day on Monday. And Brown was scheduled to appear as a guest on Taylor's radio show.
Taylor also had this to say about camp in his weekly piece for the Trib.
In all of my years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I can say, without a doubt, that the 2012 training camp has been the most intense and productive that I have yet to be a part of. I’m impressed beyond words with the young guys and how fast they are developing. It seems like every year the rookies get more and more talented and driven. It’s a great feeling to know that we have so much strength coming in this year to reinforce our squad.
I saw the fights in a mostly positive vein. They reflected in my mind the seriousness of the competitive spirit on this team, and did not appear to carry any negatives that would hinder the team building process. I was particularly struck by the fact that Brown behaved in such an undiva-like manner. I just compare what he made headlines for as opposed to Chad Johnson.
The buzz among Steelers players, insistent enough that it has attracted national media attention, is that the return of wide receiver Mike Wallace is imminent. Ike Taylor, Emmanuel Sanders and Ben Roethlisberger have all expressed the belief that Wallace will report to the Steelers soon. I believe it is worth noting that these players gave no indication that they were miffed by the drama that has played out around this situation, nor is are they dismissive of Wallace's value to the team.
In what easily wins the award for the feel good story of the week, Woodley donated $60,000 to the Saginaw Michigan school district to offset the cost of a $75 participation fee that families would have been required to play in order for their children to participate in extracurricular activities including sports. The story in and of itself is wonderful, but it must also be mentioned that context of this effort is that it is reported in an environment that for the time being at least is competely devoid of negatives (unless you want to count fights in training camp). Unless you believe that the Steelers have just been lucky lately then a tip of the hat is due an organization that is successfully practicing good citizenship