Surviving the Off Season, Part 2: The Bust Mentality

william gay

via Pittsburg Sporting News/ William Gay, draft bust?

 

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.

Kiper Time

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.

1974

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.

Bust City

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.

 

To be continued…

13 comments

  • Mel Kyper is an idiot that reduces the oxygen in every room he enters, thankfully the Steelers FO doesn’t listen to him. I don’t understand what the draw is with him. That’s an impressive list of names in this article and shows that maybe the Rooney’s know what their doing better than a guy sitting in his mom’s basement watching tape

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  • Every word you said, Ivan. Every single word.

    Especially when referring to how the Rooneys and Bill Nunn overrode the Coaches on key draft choices.

    I suggest folks google “Can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little” and read what Vito Stellino said in the Post-Gazette right after the Steelers drafted four HOFers in five rounds. And Vito was a helluva writer.

    You never know.

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    • Great points. But not sure its 100% accurate to say that the Rooneys/Nunn overrode Noll, and then Cowher and Colbert on Franco, Stallworth and Roethlisberger. If you go by what Dan Rooney says in his autobiography, when he saw Colbert and Cowher talking about Whatever that Guard’s name was, he says he threw out Roethlisberger’s name and from there they arrived at the decision to pick him.

      Reading accounts of Stallworth and Franco, I get the feeling it was more a matter of convincing Noll than overriding him.

      But, I know you have sources in the organization, so I realize you might be in a better position to gauge this than the rest of us.

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      • Probably just sloppiness on my part. I have no idea who actually pulls the trigger on the picks though I imagine involves some form of consensus. Influence rather than overrule would likely be the better choice of words.

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  • After reading your list I’ve realized it’s a miracle the Steelers have ever even won as many as 8 games in a season! All those busts! Oh, wait, are you saying that sometimes we jump the gun just the teeniest bit?

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  • Ivan, great article. I was going to cite the Vito Stellino instant analysis following the 1974 draft, but Homer beat me to it.

    Let me add in an element from a slightly fresh angle. Much of your commentary centers on our friend Mel Kiper Jr. who, quite frankly, is a professional and should know better.

    But I think part of this “Bust” mentality that dominates much of the fan base is actually a result of how well the Steelers have drafted. Most Steelers fans think Ziggy Hood was a bust. And to be honest, as a first round pick, he did not deliver the value he should have. But Ziggy Hood was not a bust. He was average.

    The Steelers went from the early 1970’s until picking Aaron Smith in 1999 without picking a Pro Bowl defensive lineman. Think of the Gary Dunn’s, Keith Gary’s and Aaron Jones of the era and Chuck Noll and Dick Haley would have been happy to have drafted Ziggy Hood instead.

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    • And Hood just signed with Washington, and they appear glad to have him.

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    • As for the issue of professionalism, I burrow a little deeper into that in Part Three which appears next week. I really do think that the so-called professionals bear much of the responsibility for setting the tone for this type of thinking.

      You also raise an interesting question as to what actually constitutes an evaluation of ‘Bust’. It would seem for some that failing to become All Pro would be the criteria. Hood has found and maintained work in the league, not a small accomplishment every year since he’s been drafted. If this is the expectation of all high round draft picks then a lot of players are doomed.

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      • How much influence the professional press has on the thinking of the average fan is interesting (and a more interesting question/task would be to try to chart how that role has changed today vs. yesteryear i.e. pre-social media, and pre-internet.)

        The landscape we live in is dramatically different today, than say 20 years ago.

        Although I’ve only done it once, I can listen to Mike Tomlin’s press conferences live on the internet while at lunch. Ten years ago, I could go to the Steelers website and copy/paste them into Word, and read them at my leisure. FIVE years before that, I was dependent on Ed Bouchette et. al. to write stories based on what the coach said, deciding what information to share and what to leave out.

        With that said, the ability to “official” organs of the NFL to shape debate, if not opinion is tremendous, particularly during the season when all sorts of rules and restrictions govern what credentialed writers can say.

        If the Steelers make, publish an interview with say Heath Miller on Steelers.com and make him available to the press, you will see the major dailies and TV-related sites do stories. Bloggers will follow suit.

        In terms of impact of opinion, it is a little harder to gauge. I’ve been looking fairly closely at the Steelers press coverage since 2008, and one of the things that I have noticed over the last year or so a change in the attitude of the professional press, at least those based in Pittsburgh.

        In the 1990’s and even in the first part of the 00’s, every time a free agent left town “The sky was falling, the sky was falling.” Tom Donahoe even said, “No offense, but I love proving you guys wrong.”

        However, over the last few years, it seems like Pittsburgh-based writers are pushing back against the “Fire Everyone” mentality. Jim Wexell has written about it, Dale Lolley has commented on it, and Ed Bouchette has made similar remarks.

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        • Some say that journalism isn’t what it used to be. I disagree. Journalism exists…it has simply been pushed into the background by sensationalism. ESPN isn’t a news source, they are into entertainment. Opinion columns, shows, radio…those are all far more popular than anything factually focused. They are popular because it allows folks to feel more involved. “Hey! That guy on tv said something similar to my own ill-thought out opinion! He’s great!”
          There are so many outlets of information now that in order to stay in business, everyone had to switch over to sensationalism over journalism. Opinions and bluster over facts. “Analysis” over analysis. That’s why a site like this is so refreshing, even though it isn’t journalism. It is, however, not sensationalism and that’s a bonus.
          There’s an almost absurd situation now where most people distrust anything ‘official’ but believe any hackneyed blurb on the internet.

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