Hate may be too strong a word for how I feel about this time of the year, but it certainly is challenging to find truly relevant information to share as the NFL world goes dark in the weeks prior to training camp. This week has been a time to look back fondly and reverently on glories past as a special Hall of Fame celebration approaches. It is also a time to look ahead with some heady optimism, a good bit more than has been the case in the recent past I might add, for a team full of promise, but also a lot of unknowns as well.
Its beginning to sink in here and elsewhere that wide receiver Antonio Brown may well be not just the best at his position in the game, but in the running for consideration as one of the best players in the league without qualification. The first national football broadcast of the year will be the Hall of Fame game on NBC's Sunday Night Football (Steelers vs. Vikings). One of the first faces viewers will see representing the league in the opening sequence will be that of Antonio Brown. You will also find Brown on Espn, as he is nominated for an Espy this year. Jeremy Fowler of Espn and others are getting around to discovering what was obvious to anyone with eyes who witnessed this in training camp last year; that the Ben Roethlisberger/AB passing duo is pretty much unstoppable. Over at Steelers.com, Bob Labriola is giving his take of the best of the Modern Era (1990s to present) Steelers. Not only has Brown emerged from an impressive field of candidates, including two Super Bowl MVPs, there is no doubt that he is viewed ahead of even fellow selectee Hines Ward. And all this at what is likely just the beginning of the middle of his career.
Honoring the past
The Labriola series feels appropriate for the approaching Hall of Fame season; a time to reflect on those who built the game and stood out both on and off the playing field. What I like about it is that it is only halfway complete meaning there will be at least one thing new that you will be able to link to over the 4th of July weekend. Of the categories covered a couple, quarterback and tight end, are one person no brainers (anyone want to make the case for Neil O'Donnell or Kordell Stewart?). The conversation at running back, wide receiver and the offensive line are somewhat more intriguing. Good fodder for conversation during a cookout.
One of the Modern Era selections will be entering the Hall of Fame on August 8th and attention is being refocused upon the achievement and its magnitude. Former head coach Bill Cowher talks about the greatness of the man who may have been as responsible as anyone for getting him his Super Bowl ring. Meanwhile, the team has announced that it will honor the Bus this season. The scenario is similar to that surrounding the retirement of Joe Greene's jersey last season. A game against a divisional opponent at the beginning of November. Only this time substitute the Bengals for the Ravens. And you remember what happened to Baltimore that night or any night that has a Homecoming type vibe. Cincinnati should plan on buckling up.
Know your history
One of my pet peeves is the lack of attention, now epidemic in this country, given the path that has been traveled creating our current circumstances. This includes everything from our personal and family histories to that of the nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers is the most successful branch of arguably the most successful sports/entertainment operation in the world. Reaching and maintaining that level of excellence hasn't been just a matter of dumb luck. Part of the dysfunction on display daily at this and other fan sites (as well as other places who should really know better) are all the helpful critiques and suggestions given to 'help' the team succeed that ignore and/or contradict that history and the lessons learned. With that in mind it might be worth a little time to learn a little more about Bert Bell, Johnny "Blood" McNally and Art Rooney Sr.
Who is on the rise
Back to the future. All through the spring we are searching for clues as to who may shine once the lights come on in the stadiums in the fall. To say this is an imprecise science is a radical understatement. The good news about that is that the bar is so low that virtually anyone can play. Months will pass if you happen to be proven wrong, and with shortened attention spans, you're safe from the shame of failed predictions for the most part. With all that in mind, what looks promising as spring transitions into summer in 2015?
Locally and nationally defensive end Cameron Heyward is beginning to be recognized as one of the rising stars of the league. Robert Klemko of the MMQB gently reminds us that Heyward had been labeled a 'bust' by many when his development didn't manifest as quickly as some would like. With Brett Keisel, and with him the last of the defensive line that reigned during the last two world championships now gone, Cam emerges from the shadows as a leader, as much from necessity as merit.
Thomas and Bryant
Heyward has his own opinions as to who among his returning teammates are rising. His choices are safety Shamarko Thomas and wide receiver Martavis Bryant.
NFL.com thinks it will second year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier that will break out this year. The former first round draft pick has had to overcome high expectations combined with the ADD tendencies of many fans, the perception that injuries represent the incompetence and personal failings of the player and the persistent belief among some that we would all be better off if he were converted to safety.
Williams and Harris
The fact that there is no hope that either free agent acquisition DeAngelo Williams or second year running back Josh Harris can fill the shoes of Le'Veon Bell is not a knock on these players, but rather an acknowledgement of the greatness of Bell. That being said, these two aren't necessarily destined to be chopped liver either. Williams has an extremely impressive resume in spite of the fact that much of this was accomplished part time. He has also impressed with his level of professionalism, perhaps being able to provide for a,still, young Bell and the rest of the running back room a more helpful and supporting demeanor. And as I have stated before, Harris' problem last season was simple math. With the excitement surrounding LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer, both of whom would eventually fail, Harris was odd man out. It wasn't because he lacked talent. With Blount gone and Archer on probation a second year leap by Harris shouldn't be viewed as a shock if it occurs.
Dupree and Golson
This year's first and second round draft picks are being touted in some corners as being capable of cracking the starting lineup of the defense this season. We'll see.
Walton and the defensive line storylines
Webb and Fogg
It seems that almost every year someone comes along from the basement of the depth chart and cracks the roster. When speaking earlier of history, this is a characteristic of the team culture put in place by Chuck Noll over 40 years ago. Can it happen this year? Here are two possibilities. But of course, the fun is that it is often someone that no one expects at this time of the year.
The Commonwealth contingent
Something that is not at the forefront of our consciousness right now will be the coming competition for the team punter. The irony is that the two chief competitors both hail from the same community in Australia. This means we can can comfort ourselves with the fact that, along with Canadian placekicker Shaun Suisham, we are guaranteed that the Steelers kicking game will continue to be the product of the British Commonwealth Mafia. And who says we don't value diversity?
LeBeau and Moore
Some recognition of the lifetime achievements of two former Steelers assistant coaches.
Assessing the competition