Kevin Colbert is stepping down as the Steelers general manager, and although he reportedly wants to stay with the team in a different role, the Steelers are already looking for his replacement. But if Kevin Colbert is stepping down, and a new GM will be taking over, shouldn’t that GM run the draft? Shouldn’t the team let the new GM start putting their vision for the Steelers roster together right away?
No, they shouldn’t. Let’s look at why.
Whose scheme is it anyway?
It seems like a nightmare scenario for a team about to head in a new direction to invest one more years worth of assets in the old direction. The Steelers should start that new direction now, don’t draft players the new GM doesn’t want, drafting players that fit Kevin Colbert’s system isn’t going to do anything to help the team execute the vision of the next GM.
On the surface, that argument makes sense, but it doesn’t fit the reality of NFL teams. A GM doesn’t just run the draft, just like a head coach doesn’t just run the draft, at least on any well run team. The Steelers defense and offense don’t run Kevin Colbert’s system. Kevin Colbert isn’t drawing up the offensive and defensive scheme, that isn’t his job. Kevin Colbert’s job, and the job of the next general manager will be to find players that fit the system the team is trying to run. Who the GM is doesn’t change that at all.
The Steelers have changed how they play several times during Kevin Colbert’s run as GM. From the run-heavy offense of the Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher Steelers to the pass-heavy offenses of the “Killer B’s”, the type of players the Steelers were looking for changed, and Colbert stayed the GM. So the systemic changes that the Steelers offense is going to go through aren’t going to be driven by the general manager, they are going to be driven by the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, and the direction the Steelers, from Art Rooney II, through Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin, to Matt Canada and down to the position coaches are choosing.
The Steelers aren’t getting rid of Kevin Colbert to go find a “mobile QB” general manager, you don’t change general managers to fit your scheme, and general managers don’t bring a different scheme with them to a team. Ideally the team gets input from their coaches, owner, general manager, Tony Defeo, all the most important and knowledgeable sources, processes that and figures out what is the best direction to head in. In the Steelers case, right now that involves Matt Canada’s offense. The Steelers brought him in because they wanted to move in that direction, and that’s the way they are going until they decide to change that direction. No matter who the GM is, that scheme is going to dictate where they go with the offense.
And while the defense is in a bit of flux with Keith Butler retiring as the defensive coordinator, the Steelers aren’t likely to change the defensive scheme much, not while Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all on the team. The scheme is going to be built around what works best for their three star players, just like most of Ben Roethlisberger’s career the offense was built around him. Supporting and getting the most out of him.
No new general manager is going to come in, change the offense or defense, have to change the coaches and players to fit their agenda. At least, not a good GM. And any well-run organization would avoid hiring a general manager that would operate like that.
The Draft process is a long process
The process for this NFL draft started years ago. Steelers scouts have been watching and reporting on college prospects every week of every season. Some of the players becoming eligible for the draft this year have been seen many times over their career, before the scout is specifically evaluating them for the draft.
In 2010 Kevin Colbert did a series of articles called “On the Road” with Steelers.com where he talked about his work. In the December article he talked about college scouting, and while it is worth a read, here’s the passage I think is most important for what we are talking about right now:
Each of our scouts will talk to our college coordinator once a week to give him their grades from the previous week. The college coordinator will then talk to me so we are all on the same page, even though these grades are also submitted electronically into our college scouting system.
Throughout the college season, Kevin Colbert and the college scouting coordinator are interacting with the scouts. Part of that interaction is to make sure the scouts are evaluating players for the traits and skillsets that the Steelers are looking for. When the Steelers were switching from Dick LeBeau’s defense to Keith Butler’s defense, they changed the skillsets they wanted from their defensive lineman. The Steelers wanted more penetration and attack focused lineman and less of the 2-gap run stuffers Dick LeBeau’s defense used. That meant different evaluations of defensive lineman, and it meant the traits the college scouts needed to look for in defensive lineman changed.
The GM’s job was making sure the scouting coordinator and the scouts were looking for the right traits to make the new direction work. A job that doesn’t start when the football season ends, but one that runs from right after a draft until the next draft. But that isn’t all, the GM needs to understand the direction the team is going, the type of players the team is looking for, and the personalities that are in the coaching staff and among the rest of the team to find players that will fit the scheme, work well with their position coaches and be an asset to the culture of the team.
Mike Tomlin doesn’t watch the draft from home
Whose job is it to hire position coaches, to monitor the interactions of players and coaches, see what types of players thrive with those coaches and in the Steelers scheme, and make sure the team is acquiring talent that will develop and benefit the team the most?
That’s the head coach. As important as Kevin Colbert’s job organizing and leading the scouting department is to the draft, making sure that he and head coach Mike Tomlin are on the same page is just as important. Another installment of “On the Road” saw Colbert talking about the pro-day schedule, and how he involved Mike Tomlin in the process.
Between our scouts and coaches, we will cover approximately 60 of these Pro Days. When trying to schedule where we will go, we will prioritize any Pro Day that might include a top-rated player who didn’t work out at the Combine. Secondly, we will prioritize going to a school that has a player we like who may have not been invited to the Combine.
At times we may have a scout and coach go together, while at other times we may go separately. Coach Mike Tomlin and I will go to schools that have both quality and quantity in their draft class. This approach allows Coach Tomlin to see as many top prospects as possible in the minimum amount of time.
The Steelers end up drafting a player that Mike Tomlin saw in person at a pro-day or met with at the combine in the first round almost every year. That’s important. Your first round picks should end up being your leaders. While not every first round pick works out that way, when you look at the leaders on the Steelers, Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, lookng back to Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, most of the leadership are first round picks, and Mike Tomlin met personally with them before they were drafted.
Kevin Colbert and the scouts can try to be on the same page, but the head coach is going to be involved too, verifying the reports he receives from his scouting department. When the Steelers traded their 2020 first round pick a few weeks into the 2019 season, they acquired a player in Minkah Fitzpatrick that Mike Tomlin had met with, as he had joined Kevin Colbert and Keith Butler at the 2018 Alabama Pro-Day. Frequently the Steelers acquire players that they had liked but were unable to draft. They put a lot of trust in the draft process.
They put a lot of trust in the work that Kevin Colbert and the scouting department do, and the close relationship between Colbert and Tomlin that make it work. Which brings me to a great quote from a former Steeler, Mike Wallace in an interview with Teresa Varley for Steelers.com just over a year ago.
Once you go and play for other teams, there is nothing like playing for the Steelers. I can promise you that. People won’t want to hear this, I loved playing in Baltimore. It was great. But nothing compares to playing for the Steelers. Not even close. The way they run the program, the way Coach and Kevin Colbert work together. The family environment, the love, the genuine feeling, you can’t get that everywhere. I played for the best organization in sports and that is something I will carry with me forever in life.
Wallace specifically brought up the relationship between Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert as something that makes the Steelers better than any other team.
The process is bigger than any one person
That’s the bottom line here. The Steelers are bringing in a new general manager, but that general manager is going to have to fit in to the system the Steelers have. The Steelers next GM isn’t going to re-shape the team in his image, he’s going to be tasked with working together with Mike Tomlin to build a united vision for the Steelers, and to keep that vision going strong.
Mike Tomlin joins the draft preparation late in the process. But that process needs to be run the same as if Mike Tomlin had a clone of himself that was involved from day 1. That is a big part of the GM’s job. To take the information from the coaching side, really grasp what the team needs from future draftees, and make sure the scouting director and college scouts are on that page with him and the coaches so that the organization can run as one.
Too often teams are hampered by fights between the head coach and general manager. The Steelers aren’t immune to such problems, Tom Donahoe left his post as the Steelers director of football operations after the 1999 season because he and coach Bill Cowher were having an increasingly hard time working together. By the time the Steelers finally got Cowher over the hump and won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, only a handful of players drafted by Tom Donahoe were left on the team.
You can imagine being a player on a team where the coach you have to deal with and the GM who holds the power over your contract are looking for different things, or openly fighting with each other. If you’ve ever had a job where your supervisor and department head want two different things from you, you can understand Mike Wallace’s comments.
The Steelers are going with Kevin Colbert through the 2022 NFL Draft because the NFL Draft is a year in the making, and the vast majority of the work is done. If the Steelers bring in a new general manager from outside the team and put him in charge of the draft, they will either need to catch up on almost a year’s worth of work, let Mike Tomlin run the draft on his own, or draft for the Steelers without really knowing what the Steelers need from the players they draft. Drafting talented players that don’t fit what the Steelers are doing isn’t going to help this team improve. That’s why the Steelers are sticking with Colbert. And if the next GM’s desire to win is bigger than his ego, he’ll find a role for Kevin Colbert in his staff and have a mentor for how to run the Steelers organization the right way.