Rebuild vs. Reboot: Did the Steelers Do It the Hard Way?

AP photo/Mike McCarn

Part 1

Although it was stoutly denied by all parties who should know, in retrospect it seems pretty clear the Steelers went through a gradual rebuilding process that began around 2012 and may or may not be over, depending on how you look at it.

There are lots of different ways to do this, naturally. A lot of people thought the Steelers should just clean house. Clear out the older players (presumably except for Ben), take the pain in a couple of massive doses, and voila, you’re back to the Super Bowl!

The Steelers owners and coaching staff aren’t big fans of losing games, and also don’t appear to be fans of wholesale purging of players. Instead they chose the gradual road. They managed to get through the process (or most of it—I think there is a reasonable argument that the defensive backfield is the last stage in the rebuild) without ever having a losing season.

During this time we have seen several example of teams who did it differently.  We will look at what they did and how successful it was, and eventually compare the various outcomes to how the Steelers went about their own process.

The first is the Carolina Panthers, who just went to the Super Bowl. In 2010 they were the worst team in the league.

How did the Panthers achieve this nadir? During their years with John Fox as Head Coach (2002 – 2010) the Panthers were practically bi-polar. Here is the record:

  • 2002: 7-9, 4th in NFC South
  • 2003: 11-5, 1st in NFC South, lost Super Bowl
  • 2004: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South
  • 2005: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South, lost Conference game
  • 2006: 8-8, 2nd in NFC South
  • 2007: 7-9, 2nd in NFC South
  • 2008: 12-4, 1st in NFC South, lost Divisional game
  • 2009: 8-8, 3rd in NFC South
  • 2010: 2-14, 4th in NFC South

Although the Panther’s ownership seems to be pretty patient, they decided it was time for them to part ways with Fox, and they hired Ron Rivera, a previously untested head coach. (Rivera was, of course, one of the candidates interviewed by the Steelers before they ultimately hired Mike Tomlin.)

Rivera rebuilt the team during the following two seasons, and in 2013 the Panthers impressively went 12-4, although they only made it as far as the divisional round in the playoffs. Although their 7-8-1 record in 2014 was scarcely impressive, it was, bizarrely, good for 1st place in that season’s weak NFC South, although they again lost in the divisional round.

So how did Rivera do it? His present success is, naturally, at least partially the result of having the No. 1 overall pick in the year (2011) Cam Newton was the No. 1 prospect. The Panthers did not have a second-round pick that season as they had traded it to New England the previous season. And although the rest of their 2011 draft was rather a bust, at least from the Panther’s point of view, they did a lot better in 2012.

Let’s take a moment to consider the drafting of Newton. Just the previous year they had drafted Jimmie Clausen in the second round. It takes some cahones to draft another QB the year after you spent a pretty high pick (No. 48) on Clausen, who furthermore had surprisingly fallen out of the first round. In hindsight it would have taken even more, knowing that the rest of your draft would be essentially worthless to you.

To return to the 2012 draft, with pick No. 9 they took the guy I wanted for the Steelers (although even I was aware it was hopeless,) Luke Kuechly, who has been just as good as projected. After the first round they continued to hit on good players—only their fourth and seventh round picks are not still with the team, and they got their very capable punter, Brad Nortman, in the sixth round, and corner Josh Norman in the fifth round. They also got an offensive guard and a defensive end in the second and third rounds. That’s a pretty spectacular draft.

Strangely, given Rivera was a defensive guy, the first improvement came in the offense. Even though the Panthers had a losing season in 2011 they became the first team in NFL history to have three players rush for 700 yards or more—DeAngelo Williams (836), Jonathan Stewart (761) and Cam Newton (706.) The improvement on offense was spectacular, as the Panthers moved from last in the league in 2010 to No. 4 in 2011. (All figures from Football Outsiders.)

Next came the defense, which was worst in the league in 2011. The spectacular 2012 draft focused heavily on defense, with only their second and seventh round picks being offensive players.

The 2012 season didn’t begin well, with the Panthers losing eight of their first 10 games, but after splitting the next two game they won the remainder of the games that season. The defense ended up at No. 11, although the offense slipped to No. 10.

The defense continued to improve, ending up No. 3 in 2013 and No. 2 in 2015, with a bit of a down year in 2014. The offense continued to be top ten for every year except 2014.

In 2015 they went to the Super Bowl. They had not been since 2003.

The story isn’t entirely straightforward. After 2011 the General Manager was fired. During the 2012 season’s losing streak many were either calling for Rivera’s head or assuming he would get the axe. Owner Jerry Richardson gave Rivera some breathing room, but not the sort of breathing room a Steelers head coach gets. But Rivera managed to turn things around, and I expect Richardson is pretty happy he stayed the course.

As to how much of the improvement was due to Rivera’s coaching and draft picks, I couldn’t say. I did try to ascertain how much of the previous roster Rivera turned over in 2011. It was, as it happens, a lot. According to this article the average turnover is 17 players. (It was based on what went on in a single point in time, but as an average I expect it’s pretty reasonable. It’s also taking into account only the 53-man roster.)

The number of players brought back by Rivera was a lot less than the players he didn’t bring back. I don’t know how many were cuts as opposed to players the Panthers let walk in free agency, but more players were released, or released themselves, than returned—out of 69 players listed by The Football Database  as being on the roster one way or another (they include players on IR) only 32 of them were back in 2011, which comes to 46%.

Compare this to the Steelers’ 2011 and 2012 rosters. [I would consider this to be the equivalent point for the Steelers’ rebuild.] Even though some notable names, among them Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior, didn’t return, 41 players were back, out of a total of 64 players appearing on the 2011 roster list. This comes to 64%.

So although this doesn’t represent a wholesale clearance by Rivera (nor, really, could any NFL team afford to do so) he did make some pretty substantial changes to the roster. It would also be interesting to contrast this to the changes when Mike Tomlin took over from Bill Cowher. Since that isn’t the point of this series I’ll save it for another time, though.

To return to the question of how much of the Panthers’ improvement is due to coaching, I do present this story as some sort of evidence. It is from an undated article on an undated article on NBC Sports::

Ron Rivera sat in on a positional meeting as he watched one of his Carolina Panthers assistant coaches dress down the players. The assistant had given his players a written exam to make sure they fully understood their assignments and the team’s gameplan. The players only filled out the parts of the test they thought applied to them.

“Where’s Page 4?” the coach asked one player. He shrugged.

“Where Page 1?” the coach asked another. It wasn’t done.

“You guys are starters!” the coach screamed. “And you didn’t even fill out the whole test. What kind of example does that set? You let your teammates down! You took the easy road!” He made other such points with the usual enthusiasm and vigor of an assistant football coach.

Rivera watched all this quietly. In moments like these, he can look more like a professor of poetry pondering Yeats than a football coach and one-time member of the Chicago Bears. Have you seen him on the sideline? Stoic. Placid. Rivera got up to leave, but the coach stopped him and asked if he had anything to add. Rivera paused as if considering something.

“Yeah, I’ve got something to say,” Rivera said, and then he looked at the players. “Let me tell you guys something. Last September, when we started, I showed you a picture of my house after the fire. You remember that? Let’s me tell you, a house fire, it’s traumatic. It impacts you. It changes you.

“You know what happens after a house fire? They bring in lawyers. They bring in the fire investigators. They bring in the police. And they all start questioning you. They ask about your personal finances. They ask if anybody is out to get you. They ask if you are out to get anybody. It’s personal. They break you down.

“Then we go inside the house. And I’m looking at the fireplace. I have a family nickname. My kids call me Mr. Safety. My whole life — and I get this from my father — before I go to bed, I check the house. That’s what I did before I went to bed that night. And, still, we had a house fire. So I’m looking at the fireplace, and a detective comes up to me and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking. And you need to stop thinking that. You could not have prevented this.’

“And then, do you know what he said to me? He looked around at my house, at all the damage. And he looked at me and said, ‘This happened because somebody did not do their job.”

And with that, Ron Rivera left the room.

This impresses me. I’ve never believed the best way to motivate players is to scream at them. Rivera told them a story I expect they never forgot. The house fire was a year ago. I don’t know when the above meeting took place, but I would like to think it was the point in the season where they had a few near-misses over unimpressive teams.

How much of the Panthers’ turnaround was coaching, how much was drafting, and how much was luck is definitely debatable. But when you consider they tanked just when one of the few, shining franchise quarterbacks was available in the draft, you can’t entirely discount the luck factor. However, Rivera had to have the courage of his convictions to draft him, and the skill to figure out how to best utilize him.

To be continued…




  • roxannafirehall

    You give us great insight into why Rivera is a great coach.

    As to the Steelers rebuilding, I think we did it the right way. Even when we were 8-8, a few plays could have turned those seasons into 10-6 and a playoff berth. I think every situation is different, but I respect and organization who tries every year to field a winner while keeping their eyes on the goal of rebuilding a SB contender. It may not always be possible. In fact, I view this rebuilding we have come through as anomalous and nothing short of remarkable. We have replace a perennial top five defense, almost the entire defense in five years without a losing season. We also lost two pro bowl wide receivers and never missed a beat, building a top offense.

    If we did it the hard way, so be it. We did it the right way.


    • Agreed. Again, I’ll have more to say when Rebecca rolls with the appropriate article, but for now I will say that this idea of dynamiting a team and starting over is a lot harder, and a lot riskier than it looks. Seriously.

      Yes, there are examples of doing it and making it work – the Panthers are one.

      But the Washington Redskins have essentially been trying to do this since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999. The Cleveland Browns have tried to do this since 1999. The Oakland Raiders have tried to do this several times. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to do it though out the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

      OK, the Raiders and Redskins seem to be getting better, but that’s also because there’s been a commitment to having at least SOME continuity in those organizations.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I think for all intents and purposes, the Steelers rebuild started after 2012. YES, the Steelers did say good bye to Aaron Smith and Hines Ward after 2011, but it was after 2012 when Kevin Colbert said, “How many essential players do you have on an 8-8 team.”

    2012 was also the year that the Steelers slipped in to salary cap purgatory. They couldn’t resign Keenan Lewis (in part because they were counting on Cortez) and that has hurt them. But people forget that they couldn’t even resign Will Allen and gave up on Ryan Mundy (who, looking strictly at stats, has played pretty well for NY and Chicago).

    The Carolina example is a good one, but I don’t have a lot to expand upon. There are a lot of points to make about the Steelers rebuiild, but I will save them future articles.


  • I never understand the teams that try to do a full blow up. So much of putting a good team together is timing. Having the QB, WRs, OLine, Defense, etc. jell at the same time…that’s not an easy thing to do. It’ll be interesting to see what Denver does.. they have a title, but that defense is good enough for a couple more…but by the time they get a decent QB, that defense will be dismantled.

    The Browns ‘start over’ every few years. Never end that cycle.

    Also, it is spelled ‘cojones’ 😉


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