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Moves Steelers are making in free agency seem system-based instead of talent-driven

The Steelers are putting a unique spin on an original story, bringing up shades of Norman Dale in Hickory, Ind.

Jared Wickerham

I appreciate the art of storytelling.

I won't go as far as saying that art is long gone, as some book snobs suggest, but it's definitely less important in today's culture. I admit I'm a victim of that, but it's also fair to point out even the broad spectrum of human imagination can eventually be limited.

I remember a guest lecturer in a literature class I took in college presenting a 50-minute theory on how an original story hasn't been told since "Beowulf." Seemed ridiculous, but it was entertaining.

It dawned on me about halfway through it he was making a deeper point; in the segment where people in the class would suggest something they felt hadn't been written before, and he would invariably shoot them down through one reason or another. He was doing something original. He was getting us to think critically about storytelling.

Eventually, just to get his reaction, I asked him if he thought the movie "Hoosiers" was original. He laughed, and said the classic underdog story has been told since neanderthals discovered the ability to carve images on caves. My response was the originality is in the fact people are still copying that formula. It depends on the definition of "original." Something being original and something being unique are two different things, and that's a key difference in culture today and in the past. But the one thing they have in common, as I pointed out, is the reaction.

That's always the same. That's what makes a story a classic. That emotional connection and response.

That was going through my head when I read Tribune-Review reporter Alan Robinson's piece on the Steelers' sales pitch becoming harder to buy.

His take is currently unique, but it's far from original. The Steelers and Bill Cowher didn't re-invent the Steelers after a few miserable drafts and a lack of success; they locked down and remolded the team into something more tangible.

I can't imagine the reactions from SteelerNation would have been much different if the 24-hour news cycle existed at the same level in 2000 as it does now. While there would have been scores of people writing how Troy Edwards isn't worth the 11th pick in the draft, much like Tavon Austin isn't worth the 17th pick in the draft.

Thinking more about the movie "Hoosiers," though, it seems like the Steelers are aligning some of what they're doing along the same principles of Last Chance Hotel resident coach Norman Dale.

Dale mentions to Myra's mom as he's stripping corn stalks on his quasi-dinner date with the embittered single teacher, "there's a lot of talent there, it's just raw and undisciplined." When asked what he intends to do about it, he says, "I'm gonna break 'em down, and build 'em back up."

One can't help but notice the transaction wire for the Steelers is far larger than usual. On one hand, it's easy to assume the worst, much like many are screaming. It's also easy to put on the Homer Specs and repeat the mantra that everything is fine.

What if it's both?

The art of the story consists of telling three parts; a beginning, a middle and an end. There has to be established conflict and representation of good and bad. The conflict with the Steelers story is a basketball-obsessed hick town who's longtime head coach recently passed away. A group of yokels get the no-nonsense former Chief Petty Officer Dale down to the local barbershop to discuss zone defense with him. Dale politely tells them all to do something personal and private to themselves, and leaves.

The locals don't like this.

Dale gets pissed off at a player who is refusing to pass four times before taking a shot. After making it rain for a little while, Dale sits him down. The crowd cheers for their new hero, the guy who shot the ball, as Dale appears to realize he stands alone. After a player fouls out, Dale refuses to put Rade back in the game, going with four players in the second half of a home game.

Principal Cletus says incredulously, "I'm trying hard to think you know what you're doing here."

Dale responds, "I know what I'm doing."

And therein lies both the originality and the connection to the Steelers. Maybe this is just Gene Hackman, the outstanding actor he's been through four decades, maybe the script is written this way, but there's a lot of self-doubt on his face.

Does he know what he's doing?

As Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin appear to be breaking down their roster to build it back up right, presumably, the right pieces, we, the militant crowd, the same group that would call Colbert into the barbershop to let him know all we play here is zone defense, perhaps doesn't see Colbert's genius. Perhaps there's no genius to be seen.

Let's keep in mind, the Hickory Huskers don't seem like a great team until Jimmy Chitwood joins, but only if coach Dale remains the head coach. Jimmy sees something in him, whether that's his hoops acumen or just the fact he didn't bug him about playing remains to be seen.

Everyone's on board with Coach Dale after that, even when Coach Dale keeps around the drunken fool Shooter, who wandered out on the court screaming at an official for making what appears to be a pretty obvious foul call.

Everything Dale does, though, has a reason.

Matt Spaeth could not have attracted much attention on the free agency market, so why sign him now? No one will mistake Spaeth for Tony Gonzalez, but perhaps his greatest value rests in contribution to the system they've as of now not shared top to bottom. Ditto for Ramon Foster and Larry Foote, two other free agent signings the Steelers chose to keep, instead of perhaps spending an additional $700,000 on a second-round tender for Emmanuel Sanders.

Maybe the scheme is above the team's individual talent. I'm not going to pretend I know what that scheme is, or continue to proliferate the idea they will completely overhaul their offense into a pure zone running concept.

I just think the originality of the Steelers' story has yet to be revealed. There's a difference between team talent and individual talent. Dale needed Chitwood to eventually take down the Mighty Bears of South Bend Central, but it was Ollie, with his underhanded free throws, that knocked off Linton in the state semifinals. It was Strap coming off the bench to dominate the middle post when the team needed him that set Ollie up.

"Team, team, TEAM! No one more important than the other," said Dale, in the process of bringing that raw and undisciplined team together.

While we may be somewhat fair in saying to Rooney, Colbert and Tomlin, "I'm tryin' hard to believe you know what you're doing," and maybe there's a pang or two of self-doubt in them through what appears to be a rather significant roster overhaul.

There is no Jimmy Chitwood coming, and maybe that's exactly the point off which the Steelers' brass are building this roster. If they don't have the ability to go and get any elite talent in free agency, they may as well bolster the roster with affordable complimentary players.

Maybe they're aiming for a unique spin on the same ol' "team first" story. Fitting players into a system as opposed to creating a system off the players.