The two most important things that happened in the first week of OTAs were that everyone showed up, which can be interpreted as a team that is on the same page (and alleged issues such as Antonio Brown's supposed holdout being overblown, at least for now), and, most important of all, no one got hurt. The most important thing about the second week of OTAs is that no one got hurt. Beyond that it is, indeed, football in shorts and observers will see promise or problems as befits their individual makeup and concerns.
But if you are an observer of this process and have a little bit of a memory, what is interesting and revealing is how the narratives have shifted, not just from last year to this, but also from just a matter of weeks ago to now. Expectations and possibilities are being viewed somewhat differently, and the theme of this edition will focus on the shift.
If you have been a fan of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger your ongoing frustration has to be centered upon him being consistently underrated and under appreciated. This was certainly the case with the national media, and there was even a level of impatience from some Steelers fans who consciously or unconsciously were giving indications that we could do better (wondering if he was worth an extension, thoughts about grooming a replacement). That has changed. After years as being viewed on the fringes of such discussions, Ben is solidly in the conversation of the top echelon of elite quarterbacks. No questions about whether he deserves his contract, his physical longevity or his value to the team or the league. Certainly the rise in the offense over the past year has something to do with that (Speaking of changing narratives, where are the Haley haters this spring?). And Tom Brady being taken down a couple of notches probably didn't hurt either. Could you have imagined a year ago that in a time when offensive football is at its peak that Pittsburgh is comfortably being considered at the pinnacle of the profession, with Ben (and AB and Le'Veon Bell) being objectively viewed as possibly the best that the game has to offer at their positions?
Throughout the entire Mike Tomlin tenure the state of the offensive line has been a reliable source of angst for Steelers Nation. Bringing in Mike Munchak last spring gave a sense of hope but still an absence of evidence and plenty of doubts. A great example would be Maurkice Pouncey. Coming off injury he was viewed by a very verbal segment of the community as overrated, perhaps not worthy of a contract extension and whose greatest value would be as trade bait (some believing that the Steelers would do well if they could get a third round draft choice in exchange). The story is different now. David DeCastro's ascent into elite status is viewed as a given. If there is any concerns about starting the same group that was on the field last season it is decidedly muted. Most are concerned that they stay reasonably healthy and that capable backups are in place. They are seen as the cornerstone to the predicted offensive greatness, and the swagger that comes with that is obvious. When your top concerns are extending Kelvin Beachum and whether to resign Ramon Foster then its safe to say you have taken a leap.
Remember wringing your hands over Cam Thomas? He's not even part of the conversation now. Why? On what is expected to be the first unit, Steve McLendon is healthy and expectations for second year player Stephon Tuitt are high. This is not unexpected, but it is the second unit that is the surprise. By all accounts Dan McCullers reported in excellent shape and is being viewed as less of a science project and possibly a significant contributor. And, get this; he's not the biggest human being in that room. That honor goes to Clifton Geathers who has an inch in height on Big Dan, is in the same ballpark in terms of weight, comes from a family with an impressive football pedigree and was an object of desire for defensive line coach John Mitchell. At 6-5 and 319 pounds sixth round draft pick L T Walton is a runt by comparison. For Thomas, reportedly out of shape, it may be life and death as to whether he will be part of the final equation at all.
Antonio and Le'Veon
Like Ben, there really isn't much 'if' involved concerning where these two players stand within the league hiearchy. There is no longer disbelief associated with AB being considered by many as the best receiver in football in spite of a lack of prototypical measureables. Bell is already in the conversation as the greatest Steeler running back ever (his competition includes four Hall of Famers, one of whom, Jerome Bettis, is pushing this particular narrative). The only clouds in the clear blue skies of these players' careers is the ongoing specter of possible injury, Bell's upcoming suspension and Brown's contract. Otherwise this triplets thing is for real.
Colbert and the draft
As mentioned earlier it has been slim pickings for Todd Haley haters as it is difficult to say much about what is projected to be possibly the best offense in football. Similarly, it is tough times for haters of GM Kevin Colbert. Empirical evidence is surfacing that the Steelers draft performance in the past decade and a half has been rather stellar. And even if you don't buy into the statistics it is still an intuitive challenge to judge a guy who has had only one losing season on his watch and brought to the franchise the likes of Ben, Brown and Bell as an incompetent who needs to be fired.
Remember all the talk about salary cap hell? That's over.
Remember too when the conversation was about an aging team, making the transition to youth and the potential cost. That's over now as well. Ready or not, the young, new and hopefully improved Pittsburgh Steelers are here. You can count the number of two Super Bowl ring players on the roster on the fingers of one hand and have a finger remaining. The cost has been ridiculously low; two .500 seasons followed immediately with a division title. For Rooney, Colbert and Tomlin haters this really sucks. And as the perception and reality obviously change, the torch and pitchfork crowd who were hellbent upon purging every aging veteran immediately if not sooner have softened a bit. The beneficiary at this time would appear to be Heath Miller. With youth being served with potential replacements in the persons of Jesse James and Rob Blanchflower in the wings, and capable co-contributors in Matt Spaeth and Will Johnson, the panic surrounding Miller's decline is easing.
Revisiting the 'busts'
Some fans simply have no tolerance for injuries, Much of the disenchantment mentioned earlier surrounding Maurkice Pouncey was caused by the perception that he was injured too much to be of value to the team. With that kind of attitude having legitimate currency it is little wonder that players feel pressure not only to inadvisably play through rather severe injury, but to not even let it be known that they are playing hurt. So, many think that Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier are busts when, in the case of Jones, he was doing rather well before dislocating his wrist. Injury also slowed the development of Shazier, but to some he was just a failure. How about Mike Mitchell? Think having to have your groin surgically repaired might slow you down a bit? And how we view Shamarko Thomas? And even Cortez Allen? Now any or all of them may turn out to be bums, but hopefully you would agree that they should be healthy before making the final determination. And if good health is the only thing standing between them achieving to the potential that we have hoped then the future of this team could be much brighter than some imagine.
Unfortunately Dri Archer doesn't have this excuse. But we were treated this week to reasonable explanation as to why he shouldn't be completely written off just yet.
Bryant, Timmons and other good veteran news
Having the triplets of Ben, Brown and Bell is an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball. So the possibility that another 'B', second year player Martavis Bryant could be developing to the level of being their equal is a little mind boggling. Lawrence Timmons, who is finally being recognized for his talent and contributions is wanting to be a Steeler for life. The rule changes concerning extra points could prove an advantage for the Steelers if kicker Shaun Suisham manages to maintain his consistent ways. Antwon Blake, like AB and rookie corner Sanquez Golson is dismissed because of his size, enjoys more confidence from his teammates.
And good news from the newcomers
You won't catch me jumping the gun on predicting what the first year players will or won't do this early in their careers, but there is promising news. With the signing of seventh rounder Gerod Holliman, all the hay is in the barn contract wise for 2015. First rounder Bud Dupree is receiving good early reviews, as are Golson, third rounder Sammie Coates and former Buckeye Doran Grant.
On quarterbacks not named Ben
The narrative coming in was that any drama in the quarterback room was whether Tajh Boyd could unseat Landry Jones as the number three signal caller. But things have gotten more interesting. Former quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy are making favorable impressions in the, now, ridiculously deep receivers room. The fact that Murphy in particular could possibly fulfill a role very similar to that of a Kordell Stewart or Antwan Randle-El throws an intriguing wildcard into that entire situation.
Ranking the Steelers
MMQB's Peter King and Ike Taylor both are predicting a return to relevance of the team and the defense respectively, Team Orthopedic surgeon Dr James Bradley also has been the recipient of a high ranking as well.
Making the case for his inclusion into the Hall of Fame.