Let me start with the disclaimer up front. If you're looking for yet another set of predictions in what is the season of predictions you will be sorely disappointed here. I don't do predictions, don't believe in them. I'm sure someone will hit the nail on the head as to how the 2013 season will unfold, and there will be a certain element of skill involved in their assessment, but there will probably be a lot of luck involved as well.
What I attempt to bring to the table are some observations as to how to think about what factors might be key to a positive outcome for the Steelers this season. Specifically, what has to happen (and what has to not happen) in order for the team to, hopefully, make it to the playoffs and have a shot at the world championship.
This year the exercise is particularly exciting because, as Anthony Defeo and others throughout Steelers Nation and beyond are saying, there are a ton of unknowns to sort through. The question of whether the Steelers are involved in a major transition has clearly, in my mind, been answered in the affirmative. What is decidedly less clear is what that will mean in the short term, meaning this season. The cockeyed optimists and the surly 'realists' are drawing their lines in the sand. I think what makes this year particularly fascinating is that only the most obstinate and myopic among us would contend that one side or the other doesn't have a solid foundation upon which to base their conclusions. However, since the subject here is the case "for" the Steelers it is, by definition, skewed toward arguing for optimism.
Depth, injuries and maturation. There will be a couple of themes that will flow through everything that follows and how these issues play out will most likely define the success of the season.
One of the things that I believe that Steelers fans have taken for granted over the last decade is the depth of experienced talent on the roster. This team has continually struggled with injuries and other discontinuities, even during their Super Bowl runs, especially during their Super Bowl runs. During the three Super Bowl seasons of 2005, 2008 and 2010, key front line players had left, were injured or suspended. These included the likes of Ben, Jerome Bettis, Santonio Holmes, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Marvel Smith, and many others. Replacements stepped in, some, particularly in '08 and '10 may not have been as talented, but had the championship pedigree, the understanding that the standard was, indeed the standard to stand successfully in the gap and compensate for any weak links.
I don't think that front line talent is a problem with this team. I don't believe that Ben was just blowing smoke when he spoke of the offensive line as being the most talented group in his tenure with the club. The potential problems are that they, as well as a number of other individuals and position groups are young and/or inexperienced. They certainly can compete, but can they compete at the high end, championship level? This is really what the standard is about. It is something that teams must learn to do, and it really transcends things such as high end talent, clever schemes and the like. That is why the Patriots, Giants, Ravens and, yes the Steelers, have gone far with some rather pedestrian outfits having uneven seasons while talented crews in Atlanta, Houston and Cincinnati are still trying to figure it out.
I have no doubt that this group can figure it out and learn to win. The infrastructure, from the ownership and management, and the remaining veterans is too strong, plus the expectations are simply too unforgiving. If you think that 'the standard is the standard' is just a bunch of hooey that Mike Tomlin made up you are sadly mistaken. He's just guilty of clearly articulating the reality of this franchise. The outstanding questions are the length of the learning curve; can they finagle enough victories early in the season in order to keep them in the mix for later when they will likely be a much more formidable team. And can they avoid or survive the injuries that can strangle the baby in the crib. In the past injuries have been a nuisance. This year they could well be deal killers if they happen to the wrong people at the wrong time. Its not just Ben we have to keep upright this year.
Dan Rooney. The Chairman is back on a full time basis. And his is not a ceremonial position. He's running this ship which is a huge asset. What is harder to discern is what is the actual impact of his influence. His is, by disposition, and probably calculation, a low key, behind the scenes presence. But I would stick my neck out and assert the following:
Notice what hasn't happened. Arguably the biggest controversy we've seen in Pittsburgh over the past few months is why was Jonathan Dwyer released. Compare what's been going on here with developments in New England, New York (Jets), Cleveland, San Francisco and other places. The media and fans have certainly been trying their best to stir the pot, but they have had precious little to work with. And while Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for keeping the focus on football, certain things such as the controversy over Arians last year were well beyond his control. This is coming from the top. Even the stabbing of Mike Adams has left hardly a ripple, pretty much forgotten, is it not? And think about the difference in how Maurkice Pouncey responded to the Free Hernandez controversy as opposed to his brother with the Dolphins. The organization is focused, together, relatively free of distractions and that will count for something down the road.
Have you noticed the decidedly Pittsburgh area theme in the personnel decisions of the past several months? Two of the three new coaching additions (Richard Mann and Danny Smith) are area natives. Many of the new player additions were from the area or had ties to area colleges; Gradkowski, Stephens-Hollings, Moye, Farrell, Justin Brown, Ventrone. If you want to say its a coincidence I don't have any evidence to refute it. But understand that the Steeler Way is also the Pittsburgh Way meaning that these moves could signify anything from an attempt to reassert the roots of franchise to a conscious effort to extend job opportunities to deserving natives. We have to consider what having spent a few years as an ambassador to his family's country of origin, as well as being separated from the team by an ocean may have contributed to the maturation of Dan Rooney.
Colbert and the front office. The GM caught a lot of heat over the winter for the team's circumstances. We heard about how he'd blown recent drafts and how so many of the players added over the past several years were busts. Okay. Now consider this. Think about how many starters and key contributors will be products of the past two drafts alone (DeCastro, Adams, J. Jones, Bell, Beachum, Paulson, Wheaton, Thomas). He and the scouting department have to get a huge amount of credit for this, as well as for the addition of the likes of Will Johnson, Moye, Kion Wilson, Vince Williams, Al Woods, Steve McLendon, Jerricho Cotchery, Cortez Allen, the list goes on and on and ... And by the way, the bust talk directed at the likes of Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward has been a little tamped down this preseason hasn't it?
Tomlin. I believe I wrote last year that Mike Tomlin was not appreciated as much outside of Pittsburgh as he deserved to be. I think I was mistaken. The opposite may actually be true. Admiration for the Steelers head coach seems to be growing from the outside. It can be muted in some cases within the Nation. Two factors contribute. First there is the perfectionist streak that exists among some fans. Any fan base that contained persons who seriously advocated throwing Chuck Noll under the bus in the midst of a four Lombardi championship run are capable of all kinds of boneheaded atrocities. And as was pointed out in a recent fan post, though generally an enlightened bunch, there is some racism lurking in the weeds out there. I grew up in Pittsburgh and anyone who has would not be shocked by such a revelation.
One of the slanders directed toward Tomlin is that he is overly tolerant of his players and staff. That perception may be the result of our stereotype of the coaching disciplinarian. This would be the ranting, screaming martinet, a crazed control freak (or maybe someone who spits when he gets excited). Tomlin certainly respects the men on his team to have the agency to function responsibly. It is also clear that in some cases they have hung themselves with the extra rope their coach has given them, and once that happens, they are held accountable like men and are gone.
Consider the decisions rendered on Weslye Saunders, Chris Rainey and now, Jonathan Dwyer. The tolerance for knuckleheaded behavior on this team is low and dropping. In his early years players were admonished to not be That Guy who would be outed if he brought embarrassment and dishonor to himself and the team. But it seems now that it is increasingly the case that these individuals are likely to be quickly shown the door. Ta'amu wasn't even retained on the practice squad. And I'm thinking that Tomlin and his staff probably lost more sleep when they cut Baron Batch, who did everything that he was asked to do, than Dwyer who had to have the proverbial gun to his head before he did a little thing like report in proper shape. In this sense Tomlin is not just being priggish. When trying to achieve that championship edge the little things are the big things.
In recent hours it has been rumored that the decision to part ways with Dwyer was done over the objections of the coaching staff. Possible. If you thought that any of the Steelers head coaches have enjoyed total control over the past 44 years you are sadly mistaken. Chuck Noll on more than one occasion was ordered to fire some of his assistants. If Tomlin is not behind these moves its probably the Rooneys, particularly Dan. Looking at him and listening to him speak, it might not be your first thought. But remember this man fired his brother. He's going to have done what he thinks is right and if toes are stepped on in the process, so be it.
On the other hand I'm not sure I completely buy the rumor. Several veterans have commented upon the refreshing attitudes that they have found with the rookie class. This is probably not a coincidence. Talent is not the only factor of consideration in the selection process. Troy has commented upon the improvement in team chemistry. Dwyer and Ta'amu didn't fit the model. Tomlin may not have been the sole author of this, but I doubt he had to have his arm twisted to go along. Bottom line is that leadership (some combination of ownership, other front office and the coaching staff) have dialed the tolerance level way down. Tomlin has said that he is unsentimental, and based upon the moves of past few days that statement seems to carry more bite than previously.
To me the message of the past few days from leadership is that they'll fire anybody to get where they intend to go. I suspect the team, those who remain, have gotten the message.
In Part Two the Steelers offense will be addressed