The Case for The Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016: Part 1

by Ivan Cole

Dan Rooney, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Art Rooney II

AP photo

In some ways it can be argued that this post is premature. For one thing, as I write this the roster hasn’t been cut to 75 yet, much less the final 53.

However, this year, more than most, the issues which will influence this team’s fate seem pretty straightforward and are unlikely to be significantly affected by personnel decisions involving lower in the depth chart players.

Also, as they say, any battle plan goes out the window once the first shot is fired. Acknowledging such, I am more interested in some level of accuracy as it relates to the broader themes as opposed to the details, and to my thinking, the themes are clear.

Leadership and management

I haven’t been paying as much attention to the day to day conversations taking place in Steelers Nation, but it would seem that one of the most significant indications of the state of things is a relative lack of the kind of corrosive naysaying and criticizing that have been so characteristic of the off season environment in the recent past. Not that anyone will mistake the current state as some sort of Kumbaya lovefest. There are a variety of significant, even troubling questions that have yet to be resolved. Was the Ladarius Green acquisition a white elephant? Judgment and character concerns involving Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell will have on the field repercussions. What of the contract issues involving Lawrence Timmons, David DeCastro and Antonio Brown? There are concerns at positions like tight end and cornerback.

But as Bob Labriola, and, no doubt, other sober minded observers have pointed out, please name those NFL teams that don’t have issues of one sort or another. There is a difference between a decision or situation that doesn’t happen to work out and, say, a pattern of poor judgment or incompetence. What follows is relatively indisputable.

In 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers are considered a solid favorite for winning the Super Bowl. They did not reach this position through accident, dumb luck or a one-time confluence of favorable circumstances. Their cupboards are full of good, high quality talent, their coaching leadership is highly regarded and well respected. Drama, distractions and team dysfunction are at a minimum.

It would be foolish to assume that the haters all died or are converted. As those reading must surely know, we are one bad performance from suggestions of a pink slip fest. But for now that energy is largely in remission, having little to chew on except uninspiring preseason performances. And then even that was taken from them in New Orleans.

The Rooneys, Colbert and the Front Office

The results have been uneven so far, but it is hard to fault the intentions. The Nation wanted them to make a heavy investment in defensive secondary talent, and they did with their first and second draft choices. Those looking for immediate high level results are disappointed, with the injury to last year’s second rounder Senquez Golson adding

to the frustration. But those with decent memories will recall a similar pattern in the rehabilitation of the offensive line.

There is a difference between a bad decision and a decision that turns out badly. The situation with Green would definitely belong to the latter category, though if Mike Mitchell is your guide it might be wise to reserve judgment for a little while longer. The concept was sound, even brilliant, if you were in the position to anticipate the losses of both Heath Miller and Martavis Bryant. It appears that under the best of circumstances, Green was an investment that would not pay off until or even after the season began. For terminally impatient Steelers Nation this is both annoying and worrisome. But it fits the pattern.

It looks that you might be able to add Jarvis Jones to the list of players that fans and pundits, in kneejerk fashion, declared busts only to be made to look foolish later. In recent years that list has included the likes of Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Jason Worilds and Vince Williams. And it looks as if there are those who seem hell-bent upon adding Bud Dupree to that list as well. The point being that while there are always personnel failings, in a pathetically familiar pattern the tendency to cry ‘bust’ and ask questions later continues.

The team also continues to find players in the lower rounds, free agency and off the street who are blossoming into quality contributors—Javon Hargrave, Anthony Chickillo, Eli Rogers, Alejandro Villanueva, just to name a few.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the politics of salary negotiations, but I am not necessarily buying the easy explanation that the signing of Williams to an extension portends the end for Timmons. In fact, speculation concerning salary negotiations and team finances may be the one area where Steelers Nation is even worse in our discernment than we are about player evaluation. My position is that you probably aren’t going to make a lot of money betting against Omar Khan.

Tomlin and staff

If you believe there is a better staff in business at present, please let me know in the comments. The head man is entering his tenth season without a losing record in that time. He is still among the younger members of his own staff. Even though some on his staff have been head coaches and could be again, no one seems to be in a particular hurry to leave. He appears universally respected by his peers, league officials and players. He has adapted well to the changing demands of the game. And, as one might expect, he has grown as a leader. (For example, when was the last time you heard a complaint about his clock management skills?). He has built what many believe to be the state of the art in the NFL this year and has done so with his own players (only Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Greg Warren are holdovers from the Bill Cowher Era).

His teams are known to be remarkably resilient, overcoming key injuries and the most difficult schedule in decades to win one Super Bowl, overcoming a four game suspension of Roethlisberger to participate in another, rebounding from an 0-4 start to come within a missed field goal of making the playoffs, and surviving a blizzard of injuries and suspensions that took down over half of the starters on the team and managed a playoff run.

His team development model is for a fast, hard hitting, well-conditioned group that is strongly bonded and honestly believes and buys into to the ‘standard is the standard’, ‘next man up’ philosophy. This is, if you think of it, the only coherent response that can be made in response to a game where debilitating injuries are the norm. One of the key factors to watch is whether the cohesion which was create in 2015 is renewable. If so, then they have a chance unless the injury situation this season somehow is worse.

The big question going into last season was whether Keith Butler was up to the task of replacing the legendary Dick LeBeau at defensive coordinator. Whatever the capabilities of this defense, that question doesn’t appear to be on the table. And remember when Todd Haley was a figure of controversy? Richard Mann, John Mitchell and Mike Munchak seem to be among the best at what they do. No one is questioning Joey Porter’s abilities, as a coach or an agitator. [Admittedly the latter may well be hampered this coming season by the new Joey Porter rule…]

to be continued

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