Standing with PaVaSteeler outside of his home in the dark not long after the Steelers had put away the Atlanta Falcons. We were having one of those bottomless conversations that Steelers fans can have at the drop of a hat. Is there ever anything not to talk about, especially in the warm afterglow of a win? A playoff spot and division title had yet to be clinched, and while we certainly aren't always on the same page on everything, we were in easy agreement on one, even before the really good news of the 2014 season had been made manifest. The Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to good things. Had they arrived? absolutely not. But unlike the previous two seasons the lists of needs and desires was far more manageable.
Our thinking wasn't by any means unique. With the exception of that tiny group that is cluelessly over optimistic, and that larger and more vocal minority that is stubbornly cynical, it was this consensus on the direction of the team that served to temper the disappointment of Saturday's playoff loss to the Ravens. The all too brief return to January football as satisfying as it was, and might have been with a win or two more, was not as important as the emergence from competitive purgatory that it represented.
Certain aspects of the conversation that is commencing are as predictable as the season. Who's too old or unpromising to retain. Contract and salary cap issues. Free agency and mock drafts. Staffing issues, rule changes, a familiar list. However, there has been a shift. The conversation will not be about whether the team and its leadership is capable of competing for a championship without engaging in wholesale or radical changes in personnel at all levels and philosophy, but rather what targeted adjustments must be made to get over the final hurdles. This will be a different and more constructive conversation. Unfortunately that will not spare us from those who believe that the team should trade Ben for some kid who has good Combine numbers or showed out in the eHarmony Bowl. Like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, or the guy at the local barbershop or pub who is an expert on everything (and therefore doesn't have to actually work like the rest of us), these folks will always be with us, but more marginalized.
Wild Card Saturday
I chortled at Twitter in the wee hours Sunday morning, with the calls for Mike Tomlin’s head. "Hasn’t won a playoff game in four years!" was the general theme. People, hasn’t it become pretty clear how the Pittsburgh Football Steelers operate? I call your attention to this interesting point made by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:"The Steelers have not fired a head coach since 1968 … Of the Steelers’ two previous coaches [Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher], neither was fired; they left on their own and Pittsburgh was their one and only head coaching stop." Tomlin is more likely to go gray before the Steelers show him the door.
- Peter King
Well they had to try though. This team had its sins and perhaps this is the reason they could not prevail in their first playoff game in three years. It is to the credit of the team, media and fans that there were not much in the way of excuses; specifically, the absence of team MVP Le'Veon Bell. But is that valid? Again, outsider King's take:
I think for those who would say, "The Steelers would have lost even with a healthy Le’Veon Bell playing," I say … not so fast. There was a vital play in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers down 23-15 with eight minutes left, trying to drive for the tying touchdown (plus two-point conversion). Two things Bell does exceedingly well—and two things a Steelers back would have to do exceedingly well to be known as great—are picking up blitzers and catching the ball out of the backfield. Ben Tate, just signed last week, failed to pick up the blitz, putting Roethlisberger in big trouble. Then, with Tate leaking out as the hot receiver, Roethlisberger had no choice but to throw it to him under pressure, and the ball came in a little high, and it was a ball Tate should have caught but didn’t, instead tipping it into the air and enabling Terrell Suggs to intercept it. On one play, Bell was missed twice—in blitz-pickup and receiving—and on the next play Joe Flacco threw the insurance touchdown pass to end it.
It seemed that everyone had a take on the end of the Steelers' season and what to make of it, but Steelers.com's Bob Labriola had one of the more interesting pieces, with a few details worthy of comment. Labriola takes the comments by King further in that he noted that the Steelers had actually put a contingency in place for the possible absence of Bell in the person of LeGarrette Blount, who would have been perfectly suited for the circumstance. However, in a case of the best laid plans, it fell apart because the incompatibility of Blount to core Steelers principle and the team staying true to said principles. It is fair to say that Pittsburgh fell at the hands of its own virtues. An acceptable way to go down.
Many have been critical of the team all season for not doing more about improving the defensive secondary, but as the Ravens showed, the play of the front seven may be the more vital element of an effective pass defense. When the Steelers front seven played well during the season, secondary play was usually acceptable.
Then there was the Dallas game. I didn't actually see the game but was grateful that the Steelers' season didn't come to a conclusion due to such sketchy circumstances. Then Labriola pointed out that the referee crew was under the leadership of Peter Morelli. The same Morelli that almost ended the Steelers' Super Bowl drive in 2005 with his reversal of a Troy Polamalu interception in the divisional round game in Indianapolis. OMG! Poor Detroit.
The coaching staff
With Mike Tomlin's job security assured until his next loss, attention has focused this week on the status of some of his key assistants. It was revealed that offensive coordinator Todd Haley has quietly signed a contract extension taking him through the 2016 season. The big question this week is the what will become of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Attention was given to comments made by Tomlin that were non-committal, but as Neal Coolong (via Dejan Kovacevic) points out here, the fate of LeBeau more directly lies in the hands of Steelers president Art Rooney II. This points to what I believe may be a common misconception concerning Steelers leadership.
Though the late Myron Cope labeled him Emperor Chaz, none of the three Steelers head coaches of the past 45 years have had autocratic control over all aspects of team operations including the composition of their own staffs. Noll was forced on more than one occasion to fire assistants at the behest of the Rooneys. Bill Cowher was involved in a messy power struggle over having more influence over personnel decisions. If Tomlin had any great flexibility in the selection of his initial staff he certainly didn't exercise it. And, to my understanding the decision to remove Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator was driven by Rooney II. Who knows whether Tomlin agreed with the decision or if his feelings mattered. Owners keep hands on team operations to varying to degrees as is their prerogative. The late Al Davis' to the point that Oakland head coaches were believed to be mere figureheads. The mettlesome Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder have been thought to undermine their team's competiveness with their interventions. The Rooneys it would seem do a better job of getting it right, and manage to keep a sufficiently low profile that the extent of their influence is largely unknown to the outside in any case. But it could go some way to add some texture the longevity and stability of the head coaches, as well as to why criticism that focus solely upon the head coach may be at best, incomplete, and at worse ill placed.
His contract status, expected extension and all the related ramifications is guaranteed to be one of the top stories throughout the off season until the issue is resolved. Expect continual discussion concerning his abilities relative to other top quarterbacks, his legacy, the financial impact of any potential deal and whether he's worth it all.
Passing the torch
Almost every year certain players reach the point where their bodies fail them in their ongoing quest to be contributing members of a football team. Given the recent history of the Steelers it means contemplating parting ways with players who possess championship pedigrees and potentially Hall of Fame resumes. Topping the list of likely departures is Troy Polamalu, a difficult circumstance given that, like players such as Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis, his popularity matches his prodigious talent. The common wisdom would also suggest that Troy may be joined by Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel. For those of us who aren't just into rooting for uniforms but the men who occupy them as well this is one of the hardest times of the year to be a fan.
In an interesting development, the one player everyone seemed certain wouldn't be back next year has upgraded to a 'maybe'. While all the old members of the band struggled with their health in one respect or another, Harrison's difficulties were less severe. And whatever deterioration of his skills that he experienced were less in evidence, as much to his own surprise as anyone's. What he has accomplished this season certainly hasn't harmed his legacy. The jury is definitely still out on this one, but the surprise is that there is a discussion at all.
There are a lot of question marks involving this group beyond that of James Harrison. Next to Ben, the contract status of Jason Worilds will be a huge issue going forward. With that will be a robust debate concerning his worthiness, as well as his value to the team given how thin the situation is at outside linebacker. This is good news for Arthur Moats who, though underutilized, and likely to continue to be so under most scenarios, is nonetheless a valued commodity and will probably be a priority for retention.
Questions are being raised around first rounders Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier. Never mind their respective injury situations. Steelers Nations penchant for impatience in beginning to express itself. The improvements Jones showed toward the end of last season and the early part of this are apparently forgotten. Shazier has gotten a little credit for how he's come on at the end. But it is certain that these two will remain under suspicion until they have the opportunity to prove themselves when the bullets start flying next season.
While Sean Spence was the under-emphasized feel good story of this and many other years, and Vince Williams has been coming along nicely, it is also clear that the honeymoon, particularly in Spence's case, even though in terms of game reps he's been nothing more than a rookie, is likely to be short lived. Improvements are expected. Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons appears to be the only player in this group that doesn't have a question mark of some kind associated with him. Terence Garvin resigned with the team.
Mitchell and Moore
The performance of this year's group of free agents has been underwhelming. Who would have thought that Brice McCain would be the star of this group? Arthur Moats did well when utilized which was not so much given the surprise rejuvenation of Harrison. LaGarrette Blount is gone, Cam Thomas despised. Mike Mitchell has been viewed as a disappointment and Lance Moore has been barely used at all.
It may be wise to reserve final judgment on Mitchell. It has been a pattern with Pittsburgh (I am unfamiliar with other places) for players and team officials to be closed mouth about injuries not severe enough to prevent play, but impactful enough to disminish the quality of play. James Farrior, Troy and Ike are three examples of players who soldiered through significant injuries with the public being none the wiser. In each case it led the believe that the player's skills had declined permanently, when that was not the case. It was revealed this week that Mitchell played the season with a torn groin. How will he perform with some experience in the system and a healthier body? Maybe there will be no improvement at all. He deserves the opportunity to prove himself.
Moore's problem is different. Before the season it was unclear when or even if young receivers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant would be able to produce at an acceptable and consistent level. It wasn't even certain that Antonio Brown would be able to maintain the pace he established in 2013 absent the support of veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. In this context the acquistion of Moore seemed both prudent and necessary. Less so now. Wheaton and Bryant performed close to the upper range of their potential. And while you could still technically categorize Brown as being 'young', it harder to determine what veteran leadership might be provided by Moore or anyone else that could not be gained from Brown. Add too the unsung value of coach Richard Mann and Moore's presence through no real fault of his own could be viewed as superfluous. Who would you take snaps from in order to give him a larger role, and why?
Free agent status and roster moves
The process of building the roster for 2015 has already begun. Your scorecard for where current players stand free agent wise is here. Roster moves are already been made. Intentions are already being signaled as the process of exit interviews were taking place. Influenced by retirements, contract negotiations, cap issues and the draft, this the game we will be playing until Pittsburgh takes the field in September.
The state of the Steelers
As noted earlier, a consensus is emerging concerning where this team is and where its going. There is plenty of disagreement about certain particulars, but viewed in comparison there are areas of broad agreement. Included are assessments by Tomlin, players, including members of the 2014 rookie class, media types such as Kovecevic, Smizik, Starkey and Cook, and fans such as Simonsen.
Hall of Fame finalists
We are moving into the final phase of the HOF selection process with Jerome Bettis, Kevin Greene and Tony Dungy being among the finalists. Fans will likely be on pins and needles for the remainder of the month wondering whether there actually is an anti-Steeler bias based upon some bad logic regarding fairness, and as a consequence Bettis in particular is at risk for being snubbed simply because of the franchise he represents. This is not the only hall of fame conversation involving Steelers. Alan Faneca is soon to eligible, and if Troy does retire the clock will start ticking for what should be a first ballot selection.
Goodell and the Mueller report
The excitement of the playoffs also means that the season is moving rapidly towards its conclusion. The bad news for the league is the distraction from its rather daunting off field issues will soon be gone. The Mueller report on the league's handling of the Ray Rice situation is being released. The good news for beleaguered commissioner Roger Goodell is a vote of confidence from two of the leagues most respected and powerful families the Rooneys and Maras.
That was the title of the email that Bill Steinbach sent me alerting to this piece that suggests that John Harbaugh be considered the next Chuck Noll. This wannabe the Steelers game that the Ravens are playing just went too far.
Here is the take by former Steeler Ryan Clark on the Espn sportscaster who passed away this week.