Maybe it’s the tactical necessity of “Win now” for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are staring down the barrel of a reality with their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, nearing the end of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Perhaps it’s simply a shift in philosophy now that Art Rooney II is the de facto head of the organization. It might even be a long-term, strategic shift in perspective for Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert now that roster cut-downs are no longer a two-step process.
Whatever the reason, one noticeable change emerged during the last week in Pittsburgh. Past production has taken a backseat to future potential. Let’s momentarily marvel at the what, rather than hash through the why.
With Saturday’s 4:00 p.m. deadline to finalize 53-man rosters around the league, the Steelers broke tradition in numerous ways. Cuts began leaking early, with the first rumored moves being the releases of running backs Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint. More news leaked out as Friday evening rolled along, but the biggest news would come on Saturday.
As Saturday morning progressed, we were alerted first that cornerback Ross Cockrell, and then wide receiver Sammie Coates had been traded for draft picks. Both were intended to be season-long starters in 2016; both are young and had demonstrated at least competency in their jobs. But Cockrell had become a victim of shifting defensive approaches, with the team publicly stating they want to run more man coverage in 2017. Coates, meanwhile, had struggled with injuries. In the past, these issues wouldn’t have been enough to cause the Steelers to jettison the players in question. But with Roethlisberger very publicly contemplating retirement this past off-season, it’s possible there’s a collective realization that the team-building philosophies more prevalent in baseball and hockey, where near-term success often takes precedence over long-term planning, now are more appropriate for the Steelers.
Maybe they were paying close attention to the Penguins, who have won the last two Stanley Cup Finals by continually evolving their roster and approach, adjusting to available personnel and to other teams. Sometimes old dogs can learn new tricks.
Now, I’m not saying the Steelers were the only team active in the player market on Friday night and Saturday morning. Far from it, really. With the new NFL policy of a single, enforced roster cutdown, it makes good sense. Any capable player who gets cut is going to find himself in high demand, so it makes sense to find a team in particular need of that player’s services and cut a deal. Better to end up with something when the dust settles, after all.
Despite the fact that a change in approach made sense, though, the Steelers have typically rolled to a practiced, long-thought-out methodology, eschewing the personnel practices followed elsewhere in the league. This time, though, they embraced the change in rules and found opportunities to make the team better, both now and in the future. It’s that kind of wheeling and dealing that has endeared Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford to a notoriously finicky Pittsburgh fanbase, and now it looks like the Steelers might begin to follow suit.
But, as I said before, what truly stands out this year is that the Steelers are prioritizing potential over proven production. Cockrell and Coates both have started for the team, and each was replaced — Cockrell by rookies Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, and Coates by Justin Hunter, who hasn’t exactly excelled so far in his NFL career, but who showed up in a big way early and late in the 2017 preseason.
Cockrell and Coates aren’t the only ones, either. Other players who have started games for the Steelers who ended up being cut on Saturday include receivers Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton, tight end David Johnson, and Toussaint. For Ayers and Hamilton, their replacements are a combination of Hunter and Martavis Bryant, who is returning from a year-long suspension. But Johnson’s replacement is Vance McDonald, who was acquired from the San Francisco 49ers earlier this week for a pittance. McDonald was adequate in San Francisco, even with less-than-stellar quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick throwing to him, so the potential is definitely there. And Toussaint was replaced by both James Conner, a 2017 third-round draft pick, and Terrell Watson, who was one of the two most exciting players for the team during the preseason, but who failed to stick with the Cleveland Browns, of all teams, last year.
Finally, there was a single player to make the cut who might be wise to consider himself officially on notice. Corner back William Gay is facing a huge push from former undrafted free agent Mike Hilton. Despite failing to stick with both the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots in 2016, Hilton showed up to camp ready to play, and exceeded all expectations. In all aspects of his game — coverage, run defense, rushing the passer and as a gunner on special teams -- Hilton simply stood out for all the best reasons. If he’s not the primary slot-cornerback on opening day, Gay will likely be on a very short leash in that role after a less-than-inspiring preseason.
But, none of that is unexpected with a team facing so many changes beyond the roster in such a short period. From ownership to future key retirements, it’s easy to see a need for adjustments given the finite nature of the Steelers’ current timeline. The fact is, their steady leadership has taken multiple hits. Long-time team patriarch Dan Rooney’s passing earlier this year came at the same time when it became obvious that their quarterback is only willing to commit to the 2017 season. It’s not an enviable position for the team but, at the same time, they now get to behave like a team with nothing to lose. There’s a certain freedom in that.
As the adage goes, “when you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” And what the Steelers almost always have gotten is playing second fiddle to the New England Patriots. Changes in approach were necessary to buck that trend and, with an uncertain future on the horizon, that message was heard, loud and clear.
Whether it’s for better or worse remains to be seen. But as for the shift in approach, mission accomplished.