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Steelers 2013 draft class is just one piece of a complex puzzle

If the Steelers improve this season and have a successful playoff run will it primarily be the infusion of new personnel that makes the difference?


A recent article in the Atlantic laments the difficulties that large companies like Google experience in trying to identify and hire good people. In making their case the author cites the NFL as an example of the very inexact science of targeting and hiring great employees.

Picking football stars is hard. First-rounders tend to be better than second-rounders, but superstars are quirky and elusive. A football draft study this year from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute found that second-round picks have nearly the same production as first-round picks at less than half the price. Indeed, the best football players aren't often the first few selected. Sometimes, they're not even the first 100 picked. Tom Brady was a 6th rounder. So was Redskins running back Alfred Morris. Some of the best defensive players are big surprises.

The article goes on to say that the NBA realizes greater success in this regard, but this is likely due to the fact that NBA teams are relatively small compared to the large complex organisms that are organizations like Google or an NFL football team. Football is not called the ultimate team game for nothing. As such the impact of any one individual on the success of the team is harder to achieve or quantify. To suggest just one example, the success (or lack) of a Le'Veon Bell may have as much to do with the capabilities of the offensive line as well as that of the defense to keep games close as it has to do with Bell's talents as a running back.

As someone who has worked in the field of career development for a number of years it comes as no surprise that it is being discovered that the evaluation tools in use fall short of accurately predicting how well someone will actually do on the job. Currently, 40 percent of the hiring that occurs in the private sector comes by way of what is known as the relational system (as opposed to merit), where relationships with other people is one of the chief methods of identifying potential employees. While this process carries the dangers of cronyism, nepotism and other forms of corruption, it is usually far superior to the merit system in assessing important issues such as character (a factor that Rebecca Rollett recently wrote about) and 'fit', how a potential employee will mesh with the existing culture and fellow employees.

The system is less vulnerable to fraud and other fabrications that can occur when you are dealing with total strangers, as well as an over reliance on metrics that seem impressive but may not be particularly relevant in predicting success in achieving job specific tasks. How important is a 40 time for a nose tackle, or even whether he can bench press a certain amount of weight 25 times as opposed to 20? What's the relevance of being able to lift 350 pounds when the job only requires that you hoist 25 pounds, and only occasionally. Would you claim being better qualified than someone who can only lift 200 pounds?

Underlying our fantasies concerning how a draft class and other personnel acquisitions affect team success are two assumptions that upon close examination are somewhat questionable.

The first assumption is that the team's failures in 2012, or any year, were based upon a deficiency in talent. The second being that the inclusion of any one player, or even a group of players will make the difference between team success and failure.

Certainly talent is important, crucial even to team success. But there are any number of complexities that are also absolutely essential to team success such as character, chemistry, fit and scheme. Even what most would consider a clear negative like injuries can have a determinant effect or not depending upon the context under which they occur. Ben Roethlisberger was injured mid season and missed some games in 2005 and 2012. In 2005 the team won the Super Bowl. In 2012 they missed the playoffs. Then there is that narrow margin of error that is so much a factor in Steelers football. When a handful of plays can make the difference between making the playoffs or not how confident can you be of any predictor? Two Antonio Brown fumbles (Oakland and Dallas) by a player who was not known to be a fumbler or particularly inadequate in anyway relevant to football could be viewed as making the difference in a season.

The problem is it's much easier to measure and discuss talent. These other factors are largely beyond our view during the off season and are even somewhat inscrutable in season. We are not privy to the locker rooms, meeting rooms and the innumerable interactions where these factors play out. So we understandably fall back on what we know and can evaluate such as 40 times.

In my opinion, four of the most impactful draft picks in Steelers history have been Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Rod Woodson and Ben Roethlisberger. None of these players lifted the team to championship status their rookie years, though Franco and Ben came close, each playing a leading role in runs that took the team to the conference championship game. But the irony in both cases was that the expectations weren't that high going into their initial campaigns. Ben was not slated to start his first season but was pressed into service due to an injury to Tommy Maddox. Franco had labored under the shadow of Lydell Mitchell at Penn State. Like Larry Csonka, who was similarly situated relative to Floyd Little at Syracuse, he was considered a complementary back. That both he and Csonka would lead there teams to multiple championships while their more famous college backfield mates would fail to do so says a great deal about how what happens at one level of the game may or may not translate to another.

What we now consider the greatest draft class in NFL history did not have that much of an actual impact on the team during their first year. Jack Lambert was the only starter, and this occurred due to an injury to the incumbent starter. John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster were all platooned, playing in the second and fourth quarters behind starters Frank Lewis, Ron Shanklin and Ray Mansfield respectively. Swann was able to make a substantial contribution as a punt returner. The fact that Pittsburgh won their first Super Bowl that year probably had more to do with coincidence as it related to this draft class.

Two of the greatest plays in Steelers as well as NFL history came in the 2005 and 2008 Super Bowls. Both were made by undrafted free agents. Willie Parker made it into the starting lineup in 2005 more or less by default, his opportunity coming when Jerome Bettis pulled up lame in a preseason game in Washington. Heralded free agent from 2004 Duce Staley was also hampered by injury. Both injured backs would make their contributions; Staley at Green Bay, Bettis during the important December run to secure a playoff spot, particularly the game against the Chicago Bears played in the snow. But Parker did the lion's share of the work that year and his 75 yard touchdown run, still the longest in Super Bowl history, could not have been predicted in the months prior to the season. This is another example of where injuries in and of themselves were not enough to derail the team.

James Harrison had to wait until Joey Porter left in order to come into his own. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and his 101-yard interception return in the Super Bowl needs no further comment. In addition to having one of the toughest schedules in league history, this was a team that also had to weather a substantial number of injuries, including ones to Marvel Smith, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker and Hines Ward for all but a few plays in the AFC Championship Game If you haven't seen it lately check out the America's Game program on that season. It is an enlightening and sobering account of what goes into a championship run (You can catch it on YouTube). And there is little there that points to the transformational contributions of any particular draft class.

It is indicative of the season that a lot of noise is being made about what certain players must show in the coming season in order for the team to achieve success. I certainly wish them all well but I would consider the following as well.

Depending upon what LaMarr Woodley, and to an extent Lawrence Timmons do, does it really matter what Jarvis Jones accomplishes? If Woodley's difficulties continue it is unlikely that Jones (or Worilds) will be able to do enough to compensate. The same would be true for Shamarko Thomas. If Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark play to form where will there be room for him, besides special teams, to shine? If history is a guide Wheaton may show flashes his first year (and that may be enough) but unless the play from returning veterans is really substandard, then the rookie wide receiver should be a bit player at best this coming season.

The point here is that the success of the Steelers or any football team is contingent upon a complex blend of factors with no one factor in and of itself carrying so much weight that it alone could be considered determinant. Take Heath Miller who arguably had his best season as a Steeler last season. The team did not make the playoffs in spite of his efforts (Pittsburgh had already been eliminated before he suffered his injury). Is it possible the team could do better with a lesser contribution from MIller this year? Absolutely.

I hope the newcomers do well and take their place among the long, proud line of Steelers contributors and become household names in Steeler Nation. But even if they meet or exceed our highest expectations they will still likely be only small pieces in a large, sophisticated puzzle that would lead the team back into the playoffs and, hopefully to trophy number seven.