On Friday afternoon nearly 90 men assembled on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. and took the first steps in a journey that they and tens of thousands of fans worldwide hope will end with the hoisting of a seventh Lombardi Trophy in February 2015.
Besides the collective vision, each man will be pursuing an individual dream of beginning or continuing a career in professional football. For nearly a third of them that dream will either end or be deferred on these fields. The causes could be age, injury, inadequacy, miscalculation or bad luck. Some will move on to what the late Steelers head coach Chuck Noll characterized as 'their life's work'. Others will rededicate themselves and try again either on these fields or others in North America.
Those graced to survive the competition will continue the pursuit of the individual and collective vision. They will do so risking their long term physical health and mental faculties playing a brutal, professionalized version of a game that many in this country played as children and adolescents.
In return for the experience of the ambiguity of high achievement married to high risk they will receive a financial compensation in the short term that is beyond that of the vast majority of the human race. Tens of millions will passionately follow their exploits, cementing and fracturing relationships, courting ecstasy or depression, financial windfall or ruin with the results. Every available detail of their lives will be the subject of examination, imitation and judgment. They will be admired, worshiped, envied and resented as a consequence. These are the costs and rewards of the journey, of being an NFL player, and a Pittsburgh Steeler in the 21st Century.
Behind The Steel Curtain will do its best to chronicle that journey and Weekend Checkdown will hopefully contribute its part. It is a tribute to the strength of the sport that for the last seven months we have maintained a high level of interest evaluating and debating what transpired during the 2013 season, evaluating, speculating and debating what has been done in reaction to the 2013 season and in preparing for the 2014 season. Now, the tangible process of teambuilding has begun, though we would be mindful that six weeks remain before the regular season actually commences.
Congratulations on staying faithful and engaged through another off season. Good luck to us all as we embark on the journey that is the 2014 season.
Loose ends from the off season
Its been mentioned before, but bears repeating, especially since we are now officially in the clear; the Steelers experienced the best off season in the Mike Tomlin era and perhaps beyond. How is this measured? No injuries of consequence. No holdouts or other immediate financial or contractual concerns. No suspensions current or pending. No arrests. No internal dramas or controversy. We won't know for some time whether this period of relative peace in combination with the moves and acquisitions made will have a positive bearing on the team's prospects which is all that matters.
Good, but not perfect. There are a couple of nuisance items going forward, and for those who aren't happy unless they have something to stress about, another couple of clouds on the horizon.
All sorts of dark meaning has been inferred concerning if or when the team would extend Ben Roethlisberger's contract. Art Rooney II attempted to bring some clarity to the situation that may put the speculation concerning Ben's future on the back burner for now. There are a lot of additional contracts that need to be resolved as well. Deferral at this time could make sense given that there will be much more clarity concerning priorities on the back end of the coming competitions, and in the case of Roethlisberger the finances will be more favorable during the next salary cap round.
During the spring much was said concerning the condition and prospects for this team moving forward. You can review a number of these comments here.
The Renegade, Neal and Homer
Previews and profiles are all over the place this week. Every Steeler focused outlet has something going on in this regard and BTSC is no exception. For the second year managing editor Neal Coolong's brainchild The Renegade is providing soup to nuts reporting on camp and the upcoming season. A number of our stable of contributors have chipped in and produced the usual level of high quality work (not that I'm biased or anything) that has become the expectation here. However, not taking anything away from the other contributors, two pieces deserve special mention.
Every time Homer J's byline appears its a special occasion. Not only is his piece on Chuck Noll in keeping with that standard, he has managed to top himself. With exclusive interviews with Andy Russell, Jon Kolb and Joe Gordon, Homer gives us a deeply moving tribute to the legacy of one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFL.
And then there's Neal.
Two things you might not know about Neal that he revealed to the world upon publication of The Renegade. First that he, and therefore the nerve center of BTSC will, beginning this weekend will be based in Pittsburgh for the first time in its existence. This correlates with some positive developments in Neal's career which will likely translate into good things for both him and the BTSC community. Second, his young daughter has been battling cancer. The Coolong family story is extraordinary, moving and for me, incredibly inspirational and life affirming. Please honor him by checking it out.
Camp arrivals and the run test
The arrivals of the players to camp on Steelers.com is always a treat, even though it is minus Brett Keisel and the tractor this year. Featured interviews include Ike Taylor driving in from Pittsburgh, tweets involving Maurkice Pouncey, Ryan Shazier, Lance Moore and Shamarko Thomas sharing Troy Polamalu's ninja training routine.
The featured event of the day was the 'run' test where players are challenged to complete a timed run, a series of 110 yard sprints, in order to test their level of conditioning. In the past this exercise has the focal point for some drama, most famously when Casey Hampton was unable to finish and was placed on the PUP list as a consequence. This year, like the off season, there was no drama as the entire team passed, and to hear Mike Tomlin speak of it, did so impressively as well.
Tomlin's first press conference
It was good to see the coach back in the saddle again where he, obviously, spent some time deflating some of the off season narratives such as the value of speed, whether the specter of an 8-8 season hung over the proceedings. I bet you can imagine what his responses to those issues were like. He revealed that Adam Podesh and Ramon Foster were absent from the proceedings (a birth and a death respectively). He also confirmed that when the pads go on Monday, like last year, there would be hitting.
And Tomlin's second
Commenting on the first practice and the Game of Thrones
I've argued that In spite of the good fortune enjoyed so far that injuries would be inevitable, and that because of the need to incorporate so many new faces, they could have a more significant impact early this season. Mike Mitchell and Alvester Alexander got that particular ball rolling as both were placed on the PUP list with groin issues and are likely to be out about a week.
The first of the 90 to have his dream deferred was linebacker Kion Wilson who was released on Friday. While some are surprised with the timing of the move, it is probably advantageous to Wilson who was a long shot at best to make the team and now has time to try to catch on somewhere else. His replacement, Lew Toler, a cornerback from Rutgers would also have to considered a long shot to make the team.
Not a roster move by the Steelers, but a significant development is center Fernando Velasco being signed by the Carolina Panthers. Given the value he brought to the team last season I'm sorry he didn't have an opportunity to be part of the team this year. But am happy to see that he landed with a team that is likely to be a contender.
One of the most important competitions this season will center around the wide receivers. Who wins the number two position playing opposite Antonio Brown and the pecking order beyond may be a critical factor in how far this team can go. Some of the participants in that struggle, Lance Moore (here), Darrius Heyward-Bey (here) and Martavis Bryant (here) were profiled this week.
Derek Moye and the bubble
Moye who unexpectedly outplayed Justin Brown last season and made the 53 man roster has probably improved as a player has probably improved a great deal, but still finds himself in similar circumstances this year. In fact, the odds may, in fact, be longer. In this piece by Scott Brown, Moye is profiled along with a few other players who are living on the edge.
The fullback is facing a different sort of challenge, adding tight end duties to his repertoire. With the implementation of the no huddle skill players will have to be able to perform a wider variety of skills in order to qualify being on the field.
There are challenges on the other side of the ball as well. There is no doubt the first round draft pick out of Ohio State has been impressive in the early going and is likely to be a significant contributor to this team. But the question remains how quickly he can get up to speed in the complex LeBeau defense. This is a question facing Stephon Tuitt, Dri Archer, Jordan Zumwalt and Martavis Bryant as well.
Spence's big test
Its been so far, so good for Sean Spence throughout the spring. But though encouraging it could all just be one big tease unless he manages to handle the rigors of physical contact when the pads go on Monday.
Taylor spoke freely to the media concerning voicing his displeasure with his pay cut while again emphasizing his loyalty and devotion to the Steelers
Shaq and Mauro
Quickly getting up to speed is also the theme of these two pieces by Jim Wexall on Shaquelle Richardson and Josh Mauro. The matter is probably a bit more urgent for Mauro seeing that failing to do so might cost him a spot on the team.
The opening of training camps around the league wasn't the only big NFL story this week. Once again Commissioner Roger Goodell demonstrated his knack for pissing a lot of people off through his inconsistent decision making. Rice, as you may recall, apparently KO'd his fiancé, now wife, in a casino elevator, the results of which were captured on video. The punishment, a two game suspension, seemed to many a little light given that its suggests that knocking out a woman carries the same penalty as smoking a joint and less, much less, than using a performance enhancing drug.
Needless to say, in spite of the fact that Pittsburgh will benefit directly from the suspension which includes the week two game against the Ravens, it nonetheless, rips the scab off of old wounds involving feelings of disproportionate punishments inflicted upon the Steelers and their players. Most prominent being the six game suspension leveled against Ben Roethlisberger for being, in essence, boorish.
But Pittsburgh is hardly alone. (Nor is Goodell for that matter as the Ravens come in for some harsh feedback as well). A lot of people have weighed in on this one. Included here are Ed Bouchette, the New York Times, Peter King and Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated
And, speaking of Ben, Ron Cook does a piece that speaks to Ben's priorities concerning winning and money, while the Ron Jaworski quarterback ratings are evaluated with an explanation as to why Ben always seems to have lower ratings in these types of things.
I also had to do a double take when I saw photos of Ben on the first day of practice Saturday. He was wearing a gold (defense) jersey. Turns out it was Brett Keisel's number 99. Draw your own conclusions.
With Cleveland first up on September 7th, we are reminded that the Chuck Noll helmet decal will be unveiled that day. We are also reminded of the intense feelings and bad blood involving this rivalry as a Cleveland player refuses to sign an autograph for a young Steelers fan.
Hoping you'd never have to see those godawful bumblebee uniforms again? Too bad. They will be on display when the Indianapolis Colts come to town Week Eight. The Steelers have always won with the throwback unis, I contend because opponents either laugh themselves to death or develop vision problems over the course of a game.
5020's Steelers by the numbers
And speaking of uniforms, sort of, there is a tradition here at BTSC that regulars in the community get assigned uniform numbers community member 5020. Its fun to see the logic used to assign the numbers. For instance, I have been give number 24, Ike Taylor's, whose given name is Ivan. I may have lost a step though.
Bowlen and Newhouse
The owner of the Denver Broncos has been forced to step down due to illness. Robert Newhouse, a running back for the Cowboys in the 1970s passed away this week. Some may recall that Chuck Noll favored drafting Newhouse in 1972, but was pursuaded by Art Rooney Jr. and his scouting staff to instead take a running back from Penn State named Franco Harris.
The folks in Vegas have declared the Steelers chances as 20-1 to hoist that Lombardi this year.
Memories of training camps past
Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter share their experiences at training camp.
First day Photos
Here are some of the images from the first practice of camp on Saturday