There’s plenty of consternation about Matt Canada’s return as offensive coordinator for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers. Local writers like Dejan Kovacevic can’t stop talking about it, and I’ve seen plenty of pessimism in the BTSC comments too.
This angst is not completely unfounded. Canada’s only year running an NFL offense was 2021, and the results were mixed. The Steelers made the playoffs and swept both Cleveland and Baltimore, but the offense itself was 21st in points, 23rd in yards, and looked not just ineffective much of the year, but boring. You could make the case (and some have) that the Steelers won in spite of Canada, rather than because of him.
So why retain the offensive coordinator (OC)? Is there even an argument for it? Well, potentially, yes. Several, in fact.
For example, you could claim that one year is too short to determine whether Canada can be a winning coordinator, particularly in his first ever OC position. One-and-done is pretty out of character for the Steelers, as well. It’s why they’re so stable, and one reason they’re so good.
You could also claim that Canada and Ben Roethlisberger were poorly matched, especially at this stage in Roethlisberger’s career — where his legs were no longer able to sandlot the team through trouble, and where Ben hadn’t endured a major schematic change in a decade.
You could also claim Canada was saddled with unexpected key injuries, David DeCastro and JuJu Smith-Schuster as examples, a wretched offensive line, and four rookie starters. And all of these would be true.
But those are easy; I’d rather explore something hard. A better question, and perhaps a more tenuous reason for optimism, is about whether Matt Canada has the ability to grow. I say “tenuous” because we really can’t know yet if Canada is the type to learn from his mistakes. But if retaining Canada is a good move, and the Steelers offense comes to life again in 2022, that capacity in the OC will be one of the most important factors.
It’s probably important for us as fans to also remember: this wouldn’t be the first time a Steelers coach endured a learning curve on the way to a Lombardi, or four. We have short memories in Steeler Nation sometimes, so here’s a survey of how we’ve seen this movie before:
Chuck Noll learns that psychology and confidence matter
After drafting Louisiana Tech gunslinger Terry Bradshaw at No. 1 overall in 1970, 2nd year coach Chuck Noll stuck his new quarterback right into the lineup — starting Bradshaw in Week 1 of his rookie year. To complicate matters, Noll, who resented his own former coach, Paul Brown, for using him as a “messenger guard,” shuttling in and out of action, relaying plays to Otto Graham, swore he’d let his quarterbacks call their own plays as a coach. The result of this was rookie Bradshaw throwing six touchdowns against 24 interceptions, and completing 38% of his passes. Yikes.
Over the next couple of years, Noll would play Bradshaw right up until the Blonde Bomber screwed up. Then, in would come Terry Hanratty or “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam, until they screwed up themselves. This method allowed the maturing brick wall of a defense to carry the team as it improved year by year — even making the playoffs in Bradshaw’s third and fourth seasons — but it kept Bradshaw nervous and tight, knowing he’d be yanked at the first sign of struggle.
In 1974, heading into Week 12, Gilliam had started six games, Bradshaw five, and Hanratty one. That week, Bradshaw got the start and lost, completing six of 20, for 60 yards in a division loss to Houston. This should have led to another QB switch, but Noll called Bradshaw into his office during the week and told him, “we’re riding with you, win or lose. This is your team.”
Six weeks later, the Steelers were Super Bowl champs. And five years after that, they won their unprecedented fourth, with Bradshaw collecting his second consecutive MVP.
Noll had to learn, and then relearn, how to manage his wildly talented but sensitive quarterback. And he did.
Bill Cowher learns that you can’t coach just on preconceived principles
In Bill Cowher’s rookie season, 1992, he was NFL Coach of the Year, and the Steelers entered the playoffs with the AFC’s No. 1 seed. This is usually explained as a reflection of the Chin’s intensity, giving the already-outstanding roster a shot of adrenaline, and the coach’s decision to shift the offense into a one-back scheme, with Barry Foster in the catbird seat (where he set the still-standing team rushing record). But another element is that Cowher shifted the quarterback job from fiery gunslinger Bubby Brister to low-risk game manager Neil O’Donnell.
O’Donnell was injured late in the ‘92 season, and the Steelers had to turn to Brister (who’d won playoff games in Pittsburgh already, and had been coached by Chuck Noll for six years). Brister had won a couple of games in relief midseason, and lost a couple late, after O’Donnell’s injury, then played lights-out in the closer against Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns, to take the division and clinch the first-round bye.
By the Steelers first playoff game, it had been over a month since O’Donnell had suited up, but Cowher believed no one could lose their job because of injury. So when the Divisional contest arrived, he stuck O’Donnell back into the lineup, despite Brister’s experience and quasi-hot hand.
In the playoff against Buffalo, O’Donnell threw two picks against no touchdowns (39.9 rating). And the Steelers were upset 24-3.
Check back in at the end of Cowher’s career and we see Tommy Maddox starting the 2004 season. In a Week 2 blowout loss to Baltimore, Maddox was injured and rookie Ben Roethlisberger entered for cleanup. You know the rest of this story: the team finished with 14 straight victories, and came one game (against a totally not cheating opponent) from the Super Bowl. But here’s the thing: Maddox got healthy again. He was in uniform as backup before the year ended, and even started (and won) the season finale as Ben and the starters sat.
35 year-old Bill Cowher would probably have stuck Maddox back into the lineup when he was healthy at midseason. But 49 year-old Bill Cowher had learned.
Mike Tomlin learns to pace for a full season
In Mike Tomlin’s rookie season, he had a tall order in front of him: getting the respect of a successful and veteran team as a 35 year-old first time coach — a team that had notably followed up its Super Bowl season by missing the playoffs altogether. To drive home the point that the past is past, Tomlin worked the Steelers hard in training camp, and pushed them to earn their way back to the top.
It worked. In his first eight games as coach, the Steelers won five ball games by 20+ points. They improved their record by several games from the previous year and won the AFC North. But he definitely worked them too hard. The players were exhausted heading down the stretch, closing the season on a 1-3 skid, before being upset at home against Jacksonville in the Wild Card round.
What did Tomlin learn from that? Well, he took it easier in training camp in the future. But he also started extending Wednesdays off for veteran players like Hines Ward and James Farrior. As a result, the team was fresher heading down the stretch in the next few years, and won two AFC titles and a Super Bowl over the next three seasons, before the heart of the roster aged out.
That is, with aging players on the cusp of their retirements, the Steelers played extra-long seasons repeatedly, and nonetheless wound up the most successful team in the game for a half-decade. Tomlin’s initial instinct about work and conditioning wouldn’t have allowed that, but he learned.
Dick LeBeau learns to adjust to the opponent
I wanted to throw a coordinator in here too, so where better to look than the inimitable “Coach Dad”?
Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz schemes were developed in the 1980s to confuse and pressure west coast passing attacks like Bill Walsh’s 49ers. Like Walsh, LeBeau’s schemes were highly designed and the coach trusted the scheme implicitly. He might change the disguises from game to game, but the coverages and pressures were largely the same. And like Walsh, LeBeau’s schemes created winners, as Coach Dad is now regarded as one of the greatest defensive coordinators (DC) of all-time.
Unfortunately, as we all know, smart and well-coached quarterbacks could sometimes pick his teams apart. Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers both illustrated this in Super Bowls, but you’re probably thinking of Tom Brady when I say that.
Brady’s Patriots didn’t light up the Steelers often, but they beat LeBeau’s defenses more than they lost — usually by quick dink-and-dunk passing that worked the middle of the field and didn’t allow the Pittsburgh edge rushers time to collapse the pocket. Brady’s biggest weakness is pressure up the middle; without that, a zone scheme’s empty spots are too easy to locate. So LeBeau’s edge-rush and zone combo played exactly to Brady’s strengths.
Then came 2011, where the Steelers were defending AFC champs, hosting Brady’s Patriots in Week 8. The Pats entered the contest clearly believing they’d get the typical Dick LeBeau zone blitz, but LeBeau crossed them up, dialing up press coverage all day long. Brady was flummoxed and ineffective, and New England totaled a pitiful 213 yards of total offense. Pittsburgh pounded them 25-17, a game which was truly not that close — the Steelers doubled them in yards and held possession for over 39 minutes.
This was a very good Pats team — they’d go on to win the AFC that year — but the Steelers outplayed them up and down, because Dick LeBeau learned he couldn’t just keep throwing the same scheme at them and expect a different result.
Mistakes happen to the best of them. You can’t hang a guy for not being perfect. The question of whether Matt Canada was any good last year is answered by stats and numbers; the better question is whether Matt Canada will learn something from 2021’s sputtering. He’ll have fewer rookies that have to start; he’ll have a more mobile and agile quarterback (no matter who gets the job); and he’ll have fewer surprises as a second-year OC.
Now it’s on him. Some of you have already given up hope, but I think one year is too short to know. This is not a prediction, it’s also possible he won’t learn a thing, but I think there’s reason for optimism.
Time will tell.