I'm trying to remember when was the last time that I felt this kind of excitement at the dawn of training camp. Normally, I'm sort of a Grinch when it comes to this particular phase of the football year. Fans are starved from the end of the previous season (which for Steelers Nation came seven long months ago in December), with the worst of it being these last empty weeks from the end of the minicamps. Training camp initially seems a Godsend, but often quickly disappoints because if you have a veteran team which the Steelers have been for most of at least a decade, besides a few position battles and some drama surrounding the bottom of the roster, nothing much really happens.
The alternative scenario is when a team is bad or struggling and you're fretting and searching for signs of hope. Will players emerge that are good enough to make a difference and turn the team's fortunes around?
Not this year.
Two things makes the training camp for 2014 different than just about any other since the turn of the century. From the top of the roster to the bottom, and across every position group, this year training camp matters. And (here's the fun exciting part) pretty much all the changes and questions to be resolved involve upgrades.
Okay, first the disclaimer so that some of you don't have a heart attack because you think I'm jinxing this thing. The team could still definitely fall short of the playoffs again this season. A key player could step into a gopher hole on the conditioning run on the first day of camp. Someone could be 'Gilberted' and have a joint exploded. Johnny Manziel could actually be the Second Coming, which would, based upon his behavior, be a bit strange.
But, just for fun since nothing has started yet and we can still dream, let's imagine that we'll have our share of bumps, bruises and injuries, but nothing particularly crazy or catastrophic. We do know that the team has become younger, faster, deeper and more versatile across the board. And we can agree that these are good things. I'll address some of the issues in detail later, but now consider the following.
It would be one thing if the excitement was just being generated via the hyperbolic statements of over enthusiastic fans. But the media and veteran coaches such as Tomlin, LeBeau, Haley, Mitchell, Butler and Munchak have been speaking in glowing and soaring superlatives of the charges under their care. In a most recent example, linebackers coach Keith Butler says that "We have inside linebackers out the butt", and then says about second year player Terence Garvin that he's good enough to start some day in the NFL, but there exists the question as to whether he can even make this year's team.
This dilemma will be common this year. In addition to Garvin, other players who have done their jobs well, are improving or have good upside like Derek Moye, Robert Golden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Brian Arnfelt, Jordan Zumwalt and Chris Carter are considered to be 'on the bubble' and not assured a roster spot even if they do well.
The best feel good story to hit this franchise since Rocky Bleier returned after being injured in Vietnam and became a starter is the possible complete rehabilitation of linebacker Sean Spence. But even if he is able to make it all the way back it is unknown where he will fall in the pecking order of inside linebacker.
Who's punting for this team? And who's going to be returning punts? Just two of a number of intriguing questions that have to be answered over the course of the next six weeks or so. But first, cleaning up some loose ends from the off season.
MSU Part One. The Pouncey twins
A week ago some were all a twitter (a little joke) about an alleged assault involving Maurkice and Mike Pouncey in Miami. By Tuesday the story had pretty much fallen apart and seemed pretty clear that this was probably just (as Dale Lolley put it) an attempted money grab. If you insist on keeping score of these sort of things then it would have to be yet another black eye for social media as well as raising ongoing questions about internet etiquette which provided the vehicle for this mess to gain legs, as well as gaining some momentum from, unfortunately, more than a few people who frequent this site who fell for the okey-doke (some because they simply wanted it to be true).
Of course part of the concern is the 24/7 pressure to have something to talk about which mitigates against properly vetting some stories before they go flying around in cyberspace. There'll be more about that in the next segment. And maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but I see a difference between asserting your First Amendment rights and popping off, referring to someone being a 'thug' when holding forth among a few folks in, say, a bar as opposed to hiding behind a screen alias and slandering someone to literally thousands of people around the world. Perhaps people should have to use their real names when they comment.
MSU Part Two. On polls and rankings
The diseased siblings of mock drafts, these rather worthless exercises give folks something to do (besides defaming people) while waiting for Labor Day weekend. And so they mix in with the previews from the NFL Network, and nfl.com, and ESPN and Mike Florio's Pro Football Talk, the National Football Post and they're ranking coaches as well. There are any number of potential problems with these things. They are based upon extrapolating from what happened the previous season when the NFL by design doesn't allow teams to stand pat for good or ill. It jumps the gun in terms of what happens in terms of injuries, position battles, team chemistry and so forth. Ignores history in that every season certain teams will exceed or fall far beneath expectations. For example who could have predicted that in 2013 teams like Washington, Atlanta and Houston could have fallen so far? You can also pretty much count on a team or two rising to the heights from mediocrity of worse, while one or two playoff caliber teams are likely to fall into destitution. That's part of the fun of the NFL.
Of course what the average fan thinks of these measures depends upon how well their own team or favorite players are ranked. Though many Steelers fans are superstitious like me. We prefer the predictions that say the Steelers are going to suck, believing that there is a definite benefit for being dissed and flying under the radar. So I was actually pleased that one poll ranked the team 20th. Lull them to sleep. just a bunch of youngsters and has beens in Pittsburgh. Nothing to see here. I think Jeff Hartmann's take is on the money.
Training camp preparation
The annual stories concerning the preparations underway for the beginning of camp at Saint Vincent College began appearing this week. The fields being groomed, the food being stockpiled, with extra consideration being given to the fact that provisions may have to doubled at some point to accommodate the probable inclusion of the entourage from Buffalo during the planned joint practices.
A few things that make camp stand out this year. It will be the first held at the field named for Chuck Noll since his passing. It revives a practice of the Noll regime where joint practices will be held with another franchise. And it is worth mentioning that going on retreat away from team facilities is a practice that is in decline around the league. If you have the time and resources (and if you live within a half day's drive, 'resources' basically amounts to a tank or two of gas) then you're talking about a family reunion in a beautiful setting where parking and admission is free. In addition to all the new faces, position battles and the competition against 'aliens' during the last week, this year's camp promises to be more intriguing than normal.
Training camp issues
So what are we going to be seeing beginning around the time we meet again next week? While there may be relatively little change among the starters in many of the position groups, the backups, roles and configurations of those groups are all up for grabs. There will even be some drama at quarterback as competition breaks out everywhere, in this particular case over the number three spot on the roster. Might you, for example, prefer Brandon Kay for no other reason than the belief that it will be easier to keep Ben upright this season and stashing Kay on the practice squad would free up a roster spot for a sixth receiver or a ninth linebacker? But at this juncture we're don't even know who all the competitors are going to be.
The rumor earlier this week was that team might add tight end Jermichael Finley. That seemed a little far fetched to me, but just a little. What we do know is that the team still has a bit of money to play with and are not necessarily committed to standing pat. In fact, the opposite is more likely true, meaning that some key players this season may not even be on the roster yet. There are still questions concerning the status of Brett Keisel and James Harrison that may not be answer for certain until sometime in August. But I would caution that there could be a move pending that might appear to be coming completely out of left field. Its been that kind of year.
Rushing and stopping the run
Handling the running game on both sides of line (being able to move it on the ground on offense and stopping that on defense) has been a cornerstone of team culture going back to the days before even the arrival of Chuck Noll. Bryan DeArdo addresses the less remarked upon issue of the ability to shut down opposing teams running games at will. Key to this is the performance of the defensive line. At this point the only job assignment that is assured is Cam Heyward's. Where Cam Thomas, McLendon and Tuitt fit in is less certain. Whether Nick Williams, Arnfelt, McCullers and even a Josh Mauro can be part of the equation is an open question. Which is why Keisel is still part of the conversation.
On the other side of the ball the cast of characters are more stable but what their roles will be is more fluid. The likely ascendancy of the no huddle changes a lot of the specs. So, if you were thinking that LeGarrette Blount was just going to be an inside running short yardage specialist, you might want to think again. And clearly the intention is to use Dri Archer to stress defenses in a variety of ways. And despite the competent play of Gilbert and Beachum, how do you keep arguably your best rushing tackle, Mike Adams, off the field?
As has been pointed out earlier, the situation at inside linebacker has flipped dramatically in less than a year. So much so that Larry Foote has reported being surprised at his release from the team. According to a piece by Hombre de Acero, the possible belief that an upgrade would be available in the draft (that turned out to by Ryan Shazier and Jordan Zumwalt), the development of Vince Williams and Terence Garvin, the free agent acquisition of Arthur Moats and the return of Sean Spence doesn't have anyone second guessing the move to let Foote go.
There has been some conversation about depth on the outside, but there is considerable debate within the BTSC community as to whether Chris Carter is yet another player to be prematurely dismissed as a bust at just the point where he may be breaking out. There is also the matter of the position flexibility of Moats, Garvin and Zumwalt. And then there is always the possibility of Harrison.
And, of course, you'll want to know what Bill Cowher has to say about Joey Porter's coaching career.
Focuses on Lance Moore and perhaps why, beyond number one receiver Antonio Brown, we won't be clear until the dust clears at Latrobe what the pecking order at wide receiver will be.
And we can't just assume that we even know what all the questions are much less the answers. A Terence Garvin, a prospect that seems to come out of nowhere and makes the team is closer to the rule rather than the exception with the Steelers. That is part of Chuck Noll's legacy as well. So are we sure that Mauro, or wide receivers like Danny Coale or C J Godwin, or linebackers like Howard Jones or Vic So'oto won't be part of the equation as well?
Rewinds of Super Bowls XIV, XL and XLIII were run this week, as well as a pictorials of the 2005 AFC Championship game, and the teams of the 1990s and 2000s. The MMQB delved into the history of the Terrible Towel.
Information released this week citing the value of the Pittsburgh franchise and how it measures up to others.