Prior to the start of the 2013 League year, one topic of great concern for Steeler Nation has been the salary cap purgatory the team finds itself in. A direct result of the front office's decision to retain a core group of defensive players has resulted in its repeated restructuring of veterans' contracts to get under the salary cap, and thus pushing more and more monies into future years. This has been done to such an extent that the Steelers have accumulated $17 million of restructured overhang monies through 2015, which represents 14 percent of this year's salary cap level. That's $17 million dollars owed on top of the annual salaries contractually owed to the players on the roster; a 14 percent premium, or cost overrun, on the team's normal payroll.
Other criticisms of Colbert and the Steelers have centered on the seemingly low quality of drafts in recent years. The Steelers have no players left from the 2008 draft, and of the players still on the roster since being drafted in 2009 onward, the Steelers rank in the 27th percentile in the league; meaning 22 teams have a higher retention rate of their players than the Steelers.
However, as maddening as their methods have been, maybe there's a method to the Steelers madness. Maybe the Steelers aren't in transition as Colbert claims, because they are about right where they thought they would be come 2013.
Since 1969, when Art Rooney Sr. turned the reigns of decision making over to Dan Rooney, the Steelers have always thought strategically; they took the long view of things. That’s why the Steelers have only had three head coaches since then. Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin have all been afforded the luxury of making mistakes, of having bad years, and being able to learn from those mistakes without the fear of losing their jobs hanging over their heads. And as a result, the Steelers have amassed 6 Lombardi trophies while becoming the model of patience and success.
If we accept the Steelers as being long-term planners, could it be more than a coincidence that the change in offensive coordinators was made when it was, or the change in the offensive line coach? Isn’t it possible that the "core" Colbert has spoken of also included the coaches?
After the ignominious defeat to Denver in the playoffs in 2011, the first order of change might have been the coaches. Maybe the Steelers knew that as Roethlisberger got older, the gun-slinger aptitude would have to be replaced with a more controlled, precise approach, and let that be known to those coaches charged with making the change but failing to do so, to start looking for their life’s work elsewhere. This becomes seemingly more plausible when you take into account the comment Art Rooney II made to the Post Gazette in January 2010:
I think Mike and I certainly agreed coming off the season that we need to run the ball more consistently to get to where we want to get to," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday "So that's part of the thinking in the offseason: We need to figure out how to get better running the football."
The Steelers have long been known for their defense; and the defense has long had the responsibility to bail out the offense and win games. Other than Roethlisberger, name one offensive player whose contract carries as much burden as many of the players on the defense. There isn't one, now that Willie Colon is gone.
Look at the emphasis placed on the offensive line the past few years, the type of lineman selected, the hiring of Jack Bicknell Jr as the new offensive line coach. They aren't the hulking behemoths forming a Maginot line behind which Roethlisberger drops deep to throw a bomb, only to be blitzed by more athletic defensive pass rushers like the Germans bypassed the French fortifications. Instead, the Steelers drafted the likes of Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Mike Adams ; mobile, athletic linemen because they wanted to establish a running game behind a moving wall of nastiness to control the game and reduce the number of hits and the threat of injury to Roethlisberger.
And would it be a too much of a stretch of Steeler Nation's collective imagination to believe that many of the defensive contracts that have long burdened the team in terms of the salary cap are expiring, as planned, at just about the same time as the first non-rookie contracts of some of these offensive linemen are coming due, which happens to coincide with the advent of the new, and supposedly richer television contract?
So even though the entire league was becoming more and more "pass-happy", the Steelers looked at their past and into the future of their franchise quarterback and chose to go against the grain and re-establish the run as the blunt force instrument with which to batter opponents, and re-cast Roethlisberger more as the matador who concludes a bull fight with a precise estocada, the sword thrust that kills the bull.
Todd Haley is known for his creative offensive schemes, play action plays, misdirection plays. And with his linemen pulling and his backs pounding against the defense combined with his quarterback's passing abilities and the way he makes plays out of nothing, Roethlisberger would certainly flourish being the estocada that puts an exhausted opponent down for good in the fourth quarter.
This would not be the first time the Rooneys changed the morphology of the Steelers. The operational control change done in 1969 was the first and most impactful, but the Steelers underwent a similar change to what we may be seeing now; the period between 1998 and 2000 saw the team go 7-9, 6-10, 9-7 before emerging as the dominant team Steeler Nation now knows them to be since the turn of the century.
Changing the morphology of the Steelers means evolving more than just their franchise quarterback from a Wild West gunslinger of rough standing into a matador, and requires a certain unique aspect in keeping with Colbert and the Rooneys, who may appear to be "just plain folks" but are in fact far more intelligent and savvy businessmen than their humble character and media appearances would belie.
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