Rebuild vs. Reboot, Part II
In Part 1 we looked at the Carolina Panthers, who had the worst record in the league in 2010 and went to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season. I’m not whether the Panthers ownership would have called it a reboot, but it certainly had many of the elements, at least, of one: new coaching staff, and [eventually] a new general manager, high draft picks for a few years, cutting and/or letting walk in free agency over half of the roster.
Compare this to the Steelers—no change in head coach or general manager, minimal (and incremental) changes to the remainder of the coaching staff, a slow, steady divesture of the older veterans, and a good enough record during the process to never get a higher draft pick than No. 15 (and mostly lower.)
Today’s comparison is to the Baltimore Ravens, a traditional, bitter rival, and a team whose front office, and particularly their GM, Ozzie Newsome, is very highly regarded throughout the league.
In stark contrast to the Steelers, who tried to keep as much as the 2010 Super Bowl team together as possible for another run at a Lombardi, Newsome chose to basically blow the team up after Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2013. Let’s see what he did and how it worked out.
The first, and most visible, loss from the Super Bowl team was Ray Lewis. Astonishingly, Lewis was drafted by the Ravens during their very first year in the league  and was not too surprisingly the final remaining member of that team. He had declared at the end of the regular season that he would retire, come what may, and he did.
A number of veteran players who had been integral to the Ravens’ success that season were let go or cut. Some of this was undoubtedly due to financial concerns. The Ravens had chosen not to try to do a deal with Joe Flacco prior to the 2012 season, and they paid dearly by having to retain him with a Super-Bowl-winning QB size of contract.
But I have a feeling part of it is just Newsome’s philosophy. The team released or let walk many of their wide receivers, five out of eight of their offensive linemen, almost half of their defensive backs, including FS Ed Reed, over half of their defensive linemen, etc. They only retained 50% of the previous roster, even when you count reserves who moved up to the active roster. (I didn’t consider practice squads, as they are pretty fungible.)
Newsome’s philosophy, as I infer it, is to let guys go when they get expensive and expect to restock from promotions, the draft, and fairly small, cautious incursions into the free agent market. It sounds pretty much like the Steelers, in fact, with one major exception. At least until very recently, the Steelers have waited a lot longer to throw young players, particularly young defensive players, into the mix.
This appears to be changing due to somewhat of a fiat from Art II. It is also quite possibly some of the reason the Steelers were willing to part ways with legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. His complex system didn’t lend itself to expecting substantial contributions from rookies.
But to return to the Ravens, let’s see how it all worked out for Newsome.
The 2013 season was a disappointment. The team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time in head coach John Harbaugh’s tenure. But they rebounded with a 10-6 season in 2014. They then crushed the hopes of Steeler Nation by beating the Black and Gold in the first round of the playoffs. They were then defeated by the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Although this was undoubtedly a disappointment to Ravens fans, they seemed poised to move back into Lombardi contention during the following season.
And then, somehow, the wheels fell off. They still had their expensive quarterback, who may or may not be elite, depending upon who you ask, but he certainly wasn’t playing as if he was elite. Their first-round pick in the 2015 draft, Breshad Perriman, a wide receiver they desperately needed, was injured and never recovered sufficiently to play. He was finally put on IR in November. He joined an increasingly large group of players on IR, including Joe Flacco, who had never in his career, dating back to high school, missed a game due to injury. The first to go was OLB Terrell Suggs, in the first game of the season.
The Ravens ended up with their first losing record of the John Harbaugh era—5-11. It’s really unclear what went wrong. Although they lost a great many players, some of them quite important ones, so did the Steelers. In fact, for the first half of the season the Steelers were far worse off, and their record through eight games was 4-4. Not what one would like to see, but given that over half the games were played without Ben Roethlisberger, not terribly surprising. During that same time span, during which they had the bulk of their team more or less intact, including their quarterback, the Ravens went 2-6. (In fact, they had Flacco until the very end of their tenth game, at which point their record was 3-7.
The losses were mostly close—very close—as were the few wins. The first loss by more than a touchdown was to the Arizona Cardinals, in Week 7. Only one of their five wins was by more than three points—a 33-27 victory over the Cleveland Browns. (Their first game against the Browns, at M&T Bank Stadium, was a 30-33 overtime loss.)
So what happened? Was it just an insufficiency of veteran experience? A quick comparison of the roster to the 2012 (Super Bowl season) roster shows the only players still on the team in 2015, not counting the kicker, punter, and long snapper, were Joe Flacco, Dennis Pitta (who began the season on the PUP due to an injury from a year previous, and was eventually IR’d,) OG Kelechi Osemele (who had by 2015 been moved to OT), OG Marshal Yanda, ILB Albert McClellan, Terrell Suggs (who was IR’d after the first game), CB Jimmy Smith, and S Anthony Levine (who was an inactive in 2012.) Even by NFL standards that’s a remarkably small carryover.
By contrast, the players on both the 2012 and 2015 Steelers rosters were:
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Antonio Brown
- Heath Miller
- David DeCastro
- Kelvin Beacham (IR)
- Ramon Foster
- Marcus Gilbert
- Maurkice Pouncey (IR)
- Doug Legursky
- Cameron Heyward
- Steve McLendon
- James harrison
- Lawrence Timmons
- Will Allen
- Robert Golden
- Mike Adams (PUP/IR)
- Cortez Allen (IR)
- Sean Spence
In addition, both the long snapper and kicker were supposed to be the same, although of course Shaun Suisham was IR’d before the season began.
Eight players for the Ravens. 18 for the Steelers. This, as much as anything, highlights the difference in philosophy.
For the Ravens, it wasn’t a reboot in the same sense as the Panthers. The head coach and general manager stayed the same, for one thing (although there were a lot of losses of assistant coaches, as is so frequently the case after a Super Bowl win.) And the Ravens didn’t have the benefit of high draft picks, although they will this spring. But in terms of the guys who are actually out there on the field, it feels like pretty draconian measures were taken, either through necessity or preference.
So who is “right?” It’s hard not to think that with a bit more experience and continuity the Ravens could have weathered their run of bad luck rather better than they did this past season. But admittedly this is a Steelers homer talking, and talking about something which can never be proven one way or the other, because you can’t repeat the experiment.
to be continued