Surviving the Off Season, Part 2: The Bust Mentality
by Ivan Cole
[You can read Part 1, “Evaluating the Evaluators,” here.]
Ground Hog Day
We are at that time of year when Punxsutawney Phil holds court. But I am thinking more in terms of the movie, where during the NFL off season the same day is repeated over and over again. While some of the particulars, specifically the names of the innocent, will change, the same sorry spectacle plays on an endless loop. The name of the game it seems is how quickly one can get on record declaring failure.
It was mentioned in the last installment that Draft God Mel Kiper issued a pronouncement that regraded the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 draft class. This is to say that Mr. Kiper has doubled down on the notion that one can declare who the class valedictorian will be before the freshmen have taken their first class. Mr. Kiper (and understand that in this context he is as much a metaphor as a real person) hadn’t graced us with his presence 42 years ago, but let’s imagine that he had.
The Steelers draft class of that year stands unchallenged as the greatest of all time with four Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert John Stallworth and Mike Webster. And that’s not even accounting for undrafted free agents like Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman. But how would they have been judged after the draft, or at the end of that first season?
Some in the local media were not too impressed with Lambert and Webster. Neither had ideal measurables. Lambert came from a nothing school. Nobody had probably heard of Stallworth being that he came from a black college that wasn’t Grambling. Swann, the number one choice, was a product of a USC Trojan juggernaut which was every bit as impressive as the Alabama and Ohio State programs of today, though there is an interesting bit of Steelers lore behind this pick that I’ll get to soon.
During that first season only Lambert was a full time starter. And that may have been credited in part to a training camp injury to the incumbent at the position, Henry Davis. Webster, Swann and Stallworth were platooned behind starters Ray Mansfield, Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis respectively. Swann was also a special teams star, returning punts, and being successful in a manner recognizable to those who have witnessed Antwan Randle El and Antonio Brown in the same role.
Truth be told, their contributions to that first championship season, though not insignificant, wasn’t likely to be seen as a difference maker either. The Steel Curtain defense, for example, was doing just fine before Lambert came along, and he was injured and not on the field for most of the second half of Super Bowl 9.
So applying the mindset and values of Kiper Time to this situation, what must we conclude? Lambert may have exceeded low expectations, but the group generally would have to be viewed as underperforming disappointments at best, especially the first rounder Swann who couldn’t crack the starting offensive lineup, at worse the ‘B’-Word. Busts.
The Greatest Draft Class of All Time
Slightly off topic, but generally relevant to the larger theme, is the fact that if it had been left up to the discernment of head coach Chuck Noll, Swann would have likely not been a member of the team. Noll would have preferred drafting Stallworth in the first round, meaning that the high profile Swann would almost certainly not be available later. Art Rooney Jr. and the late Bill Nunn persuaded him that he could have his cake and eat it too if he took Swann first. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nor was it the first time that the personnel/scout people prevailed on Noll to change his mind. Two years earlier Rooney dug in his heels in championing Franco Harris over Noll’s preference, Robert Newhouse.
But one need not dwell in the relatively distant past to find similar examples. For those still hanging on to the bizarre notion that Mike Tomlin won with Bill Cowher’s players, it is worth noting that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not Cowher’s or Kevin Colbert’s choice, but that of Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. So Noll, Cowher and Tomlin won with the Rooney family’s players, if you want to get technical about it.
I point this out because what is implicit in the thinking of the Kipers and their acolytes, who by now unfortunately are legion, is a slap in the face to the player personnel professionals in league. They are only doing what someone who is sitting in their mother’s basement pursuing as a hobby can do as well or better. Until that is called out the absurdity of what follows eludes many.
In all endeavors of life people develop at different speeds. Some people can hit the ground running and never look back. For others it may take some time for their work to yield the necessary fruit. For some the realization of what they must do is slow in dawning.
Kiper Time does not recognize or respect the concept of development. Who you are at the snapshot is what you will be. Judgment is rendered swiftly and decisively.
It’s almost easier to list those Steelers stars and key contributors who wouldn’t be considered busts given this criteria. From the seventies, Joe Greene would make the cut, LC Greenwood wouldn’t. Franco would make it, Terry Bradshaw would decidedly have not.
Currently, Ben, Heath Miller, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Stephon Tuitt qualify.
The following would have all been deemed failures in Kiper Time and in most cases have been declared as such by media, fans or both:
Offensive line: David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Mike Adams, and, in reaction to his injuries, Pouncey. Of those listed, only Adams is at risk of actually being a bust, and in spite of what many, maybe most think, I don’t believe the matter is settled yet.
Wide receivers: Markus Wheaton, Antonio Brown (lost the two-dogs-one-bone competition and couldn’t get a helmet for most of his rookie season), Emmanuel Sanders (winner of two-dogs-one-bone and is on his way to the Super Bowl, but a chump to many in Steelers Nation), Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates. Martavis Bryant will be on the bubble here for quite some time.
Quarterback: Landry Jones.
A pause here to recognize that a construct that does not honor diversity in early player development is also dogmatically rigid in the matter of player decline at the back end of the career as well. With that in mind, Ben has also been declared as one of these age busts by some, following similar sentiments expressed about Charlie Batch earlier. He is done because the calendar says he ought to be. And the beauty of it is that inevitably one who makes such an assertion will eventually be right, maybe not in this decade but eventually.
Joining Ben is Michael Vick. Vick’s problems are age of course, conveniently forgetting that he missed OTAs, minicamp and most of training camp and then was asked to work in a system that most of his teammates literally took years to master. Results: successfully managed the remainder of one game (Rams), won one largely on his own efforts (Chargers), would have won another if teammates, Josh Scobee and –wait for it- Antonio Brown hadn’t failed him (Ravens) and stunk the joint out once (Cardinals). Verdict: bust (and we don’t like him for the dog thing anyway).
Tight end: Jesse James (horrible debut and didn’t unseat Miller), Matt Spaeth, Heath Miller (age bust)
Running back: DeAngelo Williams (age bust), Fitz Toussaint (fumbled), Jordan Todman (almost fumbled). Le’Veon Bell (on the bubble, getting injured too much).
Defensive linemen: Cam Heyward, Daniel McCullers, LT Walton. On the bubble: Steve McLendon. If he were still on the team, and social media was in his early years in the league functioning at current levels, Brett Keisel, who took four years to climb to the starting lineup would be included as well.
Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier. Not many thought Sean Spence could come back from his injury, and some wondered why the team continued to carry him through his rehab. James Harrison? He gets it as both ends. At least five years to become an overnight success and then the age bust at the back end.
Defensive backs: William Gay (Drop the mic). Will Allen (age), Robert Golden, Senquez Golson (hurt, and before that, short), Shamarko Thomas, Doran Grant. We might also want to mention recent Steelers alumni Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.
I don’t recall there being very much outcry because of their predicaments, so it is safe to say that Chris Boswell and Ross Cockrell were busts in the minds of many as well.
There are some who get it after a time and realize that statement about insanity in repeating the same actions and expecting different results might have some merit. But for depressingly large numbers, it’s Groundhog Day. Year after year.