Happy New Year 2017
by Ivan Cole
The new league year began about a month ago, but there is really no rush to focus on what’s to come. The Steelers have, typically and predictably, moved slowly and unspectacularly in free agency. With the draft and subsequent signing of undrafted free agents still a few weeks away, there are huge outstanding question marks concerning the pieces the team must try to piece together for a championship effort in 2017. We also will continue to be subjected to major spasms of MSU, with the major focus now upon these endless and idiotic mock drafts. [Editorial alert: several of those endless and idiotic mock drafts will be going up on this august site beginning Wednesday, and I have developed a new and even more pointless metric to add to the usual Best Looking Player Available mocks…] But the end is, mercifully, in sight. Time to take stock and begin to look forward.
Art, Mike and the front office
If you haven’t noticed, though Dan Rooney is still technically Chairman, Art II is now the sole public voice of the Franchise. This, to my thinking, reflects a natural succession process, accelerated by health issues involving the elder Rooney. It’s Art’s team now.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is entering his second decade at the helm of the team. Coach T will continue to have his critics as long as there are citizens of Steelers Nation with unrealistic expectations and screwed up perspectives and priorities, racism and a media environment dependent upon contrived controversy to generate ratings and revenue. That being said, with a lengthy tenure that includes two trips to the Super Bowl, one championship, no losing seasons, a high level of respect from players, peers, bosses and the most respected voices associated with the game, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a sustained case against the man without looking somewhat ridiculous. You may not like him, or how he coaches, but like Bill Belichick of New England, that is more a matter of personal taste rather than a legitimate case against his being a great coach.
A minor, and to me, pleasant surprise has been a lack of any significant changes with the staff. While there is still time for that to change between now and the beginning of training camp, it is looks, for the moment, the organization will stay the course in terms of team leadership.
I would suspect both Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert, another one whose haters are having a terrible time making a case against without appearing unhinged, will get extended later this spring. No one poached Omar Khan or any of Tomlin’s assistants. The controversy surrounding Joey Porter evaporated quickly. No one retired.
Credit quality hiring, management, a sane, legitimately worker friendly environment for the stability and lack of defections. Something that is depressingly rare elsewhere around the league. Count this as a considerable, though subtle to discern, advantage.
Of course, there are too many unanswered personnel questions to say much definitive about the overall prospects of this team at this time. But I think newcomer cornerback Coty Sensabaugh created the proper perspective when he said he came to help this team win two more games. So here is how I look at things after about a month of activity.
The number one question/concern. For that offense that has just about everything, what of Martavis Bryant? His reinstatement, coupled with the state of his spirit and game could be the most significant difference maker. If he is whole (and everything said here assumes a minimal and manageable injury situation; a big if), then his potential for greatness is no less than that of the other ‘Bees’ on the offense. Bryant’s presence, beyond his own considerable abilities instantly makes Antonio Brown a more dangerous player, creates better opportunities for third and fourth receivers (Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, whomever basically) and renders the loss of Markus Wheaton painless.
The second (offensive) question: What is the condition of Ladarius Green, really? In my fantasy I see the team coming up the line of scrimmage on a second and three situation with Le’Veon Bell, AB, Bryant, Green and Jesse James, or Coates, or Rogers and Ben Roethlisberger just has this big grin on his face and mumbling ‘Eenie, meenie,..’. If Green isn’t up to it then it is a tragic but survivable circumstance competitively. But if he’s whole then it just wouldn’t be fair.
All other questions on this front (again, speaking of fantasies, taking injuries off the table) are minor or inconsequential. Ben is not retiring, whomever his backup will be is not going to be a championship level talent, nor utterly incompetent (not even Landry Jones). To begin thinking about succession at this position is understandable, but it is not an urgent concern. And in my view, any thought of prioritizing resources on a backup or replacement for Ben is misplaced energy.
With AB and Bell contractually committed (there is really no great benefit for either side in the Bell situation to rush matters on a contract) then Pittsburgh has the most formidable offense in the league regardless of the supporting players at the skill positions. As someone commented recently, only in Pittsburgh can you secure the top receiver and running back in the league and be criticized for not doing enough to help your team in the off season.
The only questions concerning the offensive line is depth at tackle, a relatively minor issue that could be put to rest if Jerald Hawkins, the forgotten man from last year’s draft, emerges in a fashion similar to that of his draftmates. There are a few question marks at running back behind Bell. It appears that DeAngelo Williams will not be part of the equation, which for both substantive and sentimental reasons is unfortunate. Will free agent addition Knile Davis justify the decision? He’s younger, is enticing with the promise of bringing game breaking potential (Finally ?!?) to the kickoff return game, and at minimum would appear to be an improvement over Fitzgerald Toussaint in that regard. And he should certainly do well running behind that O line. Bell has clearly demonstrated that when healthy, there is not much more that is needed to supplement his contribution.
Defense is a little more complicated, but shows wonderful promise. There is more of a need for seasoning (solved by time and experience) and depth (the addition and/or development of talent). How this is addressed (draft picks, free agent acquisitions, present company growing up or stepping up) will be interesting to watch over the coming weeks.
The defensive line would seem to be in the best shape as Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt get high marks as rising stars and solid leaders, with Javon Hargrave whom, with due respect to Sean Davis and Artie Burns, is my choice for the most impressive rookie of the 2016 season, is positioned to making that big second season leap. The addition of free agent Tyson Alaualu can be viewed in this context; a starting caliber swing player who could potentially thrive being part of a winning system. With the hope that others, such as L T Walton, Daniel McCullers and Johnny Maxie can grow into their upside potential, and with, allegedly, a lot of quality talent available at this position in the draft, the crucible of internal competition could result in one of the great Steelers defensive fronts.
Every year it seems, there is one transitional move that breaks my heart. Last year it was Kelvin Beachum moving on. This year it is Lawrence Timmons. His departure, along with that of Jarvis Jones creates in my mind at least an illusion of a depth issue. I say illusion because last season’s reality was that of a linebacking corps that was ridiculously deep, so much so, citing one example, that the team loses Travis Feeney, due most likely to a lack of available helmets. Nonetheless, I believe there are some legitimate concerns here as well.
It is only prudent, in spite of his paradigm-defying behavior, to be concerned about James Harrison’s durability over the course of a long season. Though a disappointment in the relative sense of not fulfilling first round expectations, Jarvis Jones was not a failure on the field, and a good supplement to Deebo. Jones, along with Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree have not been models of durability, though the talent of the latter two is unquestioned. There is plenty to work with beyond those mentioned in the persons of Vince Williams and Matakevich, Chickillo and Moats, Fort and Johnson. Even Mel Blount’s kid, and whomever they will likely add over the next few weeks. But Timmons will be a tough act to follow.
The addition of Sensabaugh means less worry about the possible decline of William Gay, whether Senquez Golson can make it back and deliver on his promise, or Ross Cockrell as an essential cog in the Pittsburgh secondary. In other words, the potential exists for this area of the team to at least maintain, if not improve if nothing else of note occurs between now and the beginning of the season.
In sum, the formula for success would seem to be, beyond the blessings of good health and a lack of scandal, making some relatively minor additions, tweaks and creating strong internal competition to a winning group that fell a little short last season. While recognizing that it is as a process more fraught with peril than it sounds simply stating it, am also pushing back against those who have difficulty accepting how thin the line can be between ultimate success and failure and, therefore overreact to in terms of remedy. I am also resisting the ‘win the Super Bowl in March/April’ mindset, that is so prevalent at this time of the year.
I have found that over the past several years I have been challenged to reevaluate and refine my commitment to the sport. Over time I have largely stopped watching college football based upon what I can no longer ignore concerning the abuses that scholarship athletes are subjected to. The head injury issues and other league practices have caused a lot of soul searching, and this has impacted the amount of energy I devote to following the game. Entering the 2017 cycle, the state of the game can be condensed to following.
Add to the ongoing issues permeating the NFL sausage factory institutionalized drug abuse. What makes this worse in my mind is the juxtaposition of this is to the outsized punishment of Martavis Bryant and others over a substance that is legal for recreational use in many of the communities where league franchises are located. The foot dragging and apparent hand wringing over his reinstatement doesn’t help. In the larger context of things, please spare me any sanctimonious moralizing in word or deed from an industry that either promotes or tolerates (until publicly exposed) practices such as health threatening, life shortening drug abuse, domestic violence and other abuses that places the NFL in league with other enlightened industries such as coal mining.
Granted, the league is not alone in navigating the absurdities and contradictions surrounding policy on marijuana. But there is the sense that the Goodell regime is too corrupt or ethically clueless to redeem the game. So why continue?
Part of my maturity is the realization that there are few human endeavors that are conveniently entirely good or bad. If, for example, my base involved my local league (Washington) franchise, then walking away would be easy to do. Fortunately (or not) my allegiance is to an organization whose values and practices deserve, perhaps even demand uplift and our support.
Al Villanueva’s story is the norm, not the exception, with this organization. It is the glowing ember of hope amid many dispiriting practices. It is the reason beyond just habit and blind loyalty that I can continue to root for the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Happy New Year.