The Problem With Haley: Ivan’s View

By Ivan Cole

From a 2011 interview with Steelers super scout Bill Nunn:

Ivan Cole: I have been looking at what the Steelers have been able to do over the past 42 years. After all, Tony Dungy was originally part of the Chuck Noll coaching tree. Tomlin was part of the Dungy tree, meaning we’ve come full circle.

Bill Nunn: And who hired Tomlin? Dungy. The tree is really interesting. [But] Nepotism is becoming a great part of this now. With the salaries, they’re trying to get their kids into it.

Nunn has more to say about coaching, not all of it kind. He speaks to the promotion of coaches and coaching to the detriment of natural athleticism. Like this:

BN: If you’re always thinking and you’re a natural athlete, then something isn’t right. Now if you’re smart and you know what’s going on, you can make it look like you’re reacting on instinct. Is that instinct? Now another guy, if he has to think he can’t react with his natural skills. So now you have two different types of people.

Now who’s coaching them? See, coaches are making so much money. So, now they’re like, “Hey, I’m making all this money I’ve got to be doing something.” They’ve got these huge playbooks. What do you need all that stuff for? They’ve got something for every kind of scheme…If I were playing I would have been lost.

IC: That’s why lawyers have their particular jargon…

BN: And doctors are sending you to other doctors. And they mess up. Like doctors mess up, but you can’t prove that they messed up.

And as a result, who’s coaching today? Name a really great football player who is coaching in the NFL today. I say this because a couple of weeks ago this kid runs this computer program and gives me a list of all 32 head coaches in the National Football League. Only two or three had ever played football in the league.

Back to Ivan:

My daughter was a top basketball prospect in high school where she averaged 20 points a game. In a big district contest with first place at stake during her senior year, her coach decided to move her away from the basket (she was a post player) and use her as a decoy.

I arrived late to the game and was standing behind a couple of coaches for other teams in our district who were laughing, because that tactic accomplished something they were never able to achieve on their own—stop my daughter. They lost the game.

You can certainly argue with some of Bill Nunn’s reasoning. Having played the game doesn’t necessarily give an automatic leg up on coaching. Keith Butler, Joey Porter and Carnell Lake are former NFL players while Mike Tomlin and Richard Mann are not.

The fundamental point here, and it is in no way restricted to Todd Haley, who is more a symptom of the disease, is this—the idea that it is about the coaches as opposed to the players.

First, an important disclaimer. My conversation with Nunn occurred a year before Haley joined the team. That being said, Nunn’s remarks fit Haley, and a depressingly large number of coaches, especially offensive coordinators around the league rather well.

Nepotism? Check. You would think, given the personnel patterns over recent years, that certain families have been genetically engineered to produce professional football coaches. Schottenheimer, Shanahan, Ryan, Phillips, Gruden, Shula and Haley. Not exactly a meritocracy.

So, let’s get some things straight here as we move along, starting with some of the comments by Wes Lee and others that are flat out erroneous.

THE DEFENSE DID NOT GIVE UP 45 POINTS! The offense gave Jacksonville a touchdown directly, and relinquished the ball once in Pittsburgh’s own red zone. Do you blame the defense because they couldn’t prevent a score from point blank range? So, now we’re at 31 points, still too many, but there’s more.

What kept Buffalo in the game the week previous was following a field position strategy leaning on an injured Sean McCoy, which almost worked until they got a first and goal at the two-yard line and the Bills decided to do some coaching.

Pittsburgh had a totally healthy Le’Veon Bell. It was decided to utilize him the way my daughter was utilized in that basketball game.

The first three offensive plays were from the spread empty set formation. Message to the Jaguar defense: ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads about stopping Bell and the running attack, we’ll do that for you.’ And that, presumably, was the scripted part of the offense.

Result: Three and out, so much for field position, having the best back in football running behind the best offensive line. We’re playing 12-dimensional chess here, you wouldn’t understand.

They apparently amped it up to 14 dimensions when it came to those fourth down plays. Both plays were preceded by a time out, so there was time to give consideration over what to do (And please don’t blame Tomlin. He makes the call as to whether to proceed, the OC calls the play).

I guess this is the point where someone suggests that “we don’t live in our fears.” That would be making the mistake of believing that conservative decisions are always fearful decisions. Being bold is one thing, being imprudent (Twice!) is another.

Betting the mortgage money at the craps table is not being bold. Neither is having no faith in the league’s best running back being able to gouge out half a yard behind the league’s best offensive line.

Results: Great field position [for the Jaguars,] augmented by a swing in momentum and two touchdowns. And for that you want to blame and fire the defensive staff. Oh, please.

I would consider those 14 points as a collaborative effort. Or put another way—the Steelers offense put up 42 against the Jags and played a healthy role in kicking in 28 against its own defense.

Those 42 points were the most that the Steelers offense has produced all season. This offense, with four Pro Bowl caliber linemen, the best receiver in football, the best running back in football, and a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback managed to score 30 or more points four other times this season. They scored 20 or less five times.

The defense gave up 30 or more points three times, twice to the same opponent. They held the opposition to 20 or fewer points 11 times, 15 or fewer six times, and played six games without their best player and defensive quarterback. And now they are being declared a dumpster fire.

Continuing with getting some clarity here. Haley/Munchak/etc were gifted their talent. And the process of putting together that offensive line, Ben, AB, etc. began before either of them arrived.

Want to impress me? Generate those stats with Ben behind Chris Kemoeatu, Darnell Stapleton and Justin Hartwig. Isaac Redman. Limas Sweed. The argument can certainly be made that this group is underachieving. In contrast, your assessment of a young defense is to try Cleveland’s method. How’s that working for them?

So, if the stories are to be believed, Haley ran off a few assistant coaches, including perhaps Munchak before the ax fell, had Ben musing early retirement, alienated Antonio Brown, and who knows how many other players. He had one of the best offensive toolboxes anyone has ever seen, but it was life and death getting past 30 points because he has more faith in his schemes than in his talent. And you want to fire Carnell Lake.

I didn’t know the opioid problem in Pittsburgh was that bad.

17 comments

  • Well said. Though I believe the defense must improve, I believe the two turnovers were the most important cause of the loss. No. 2 in my list is underestimating the Jags who are a very good team.

    Let’s hope next year, we can take the final step and make it back to the SB.

    Enlightening as always, Ivan.

    Liked by 1 person

  • good read Ivan. Outside of BTSC I haven’t been hearing a loud cry for the heads of Lake and Porter. BTSC is a far cry from what it used to be so I wouldn’t place much weight on the prevailing sentiment there.

    As per the standard for Steeler defenses I don’t think this year’s group made the grade. Just by my eye test watching the games which I admit is far from technical. Far too many big plays and weak against the run. I like Tomlin as a coach and I think he will get the defense back on track. I think Haley’s play calling held this offense back overall and I hope Ben has more influence in the play calling for the rest of his time in the black and gold. He has shown good aptitude for reading defenses while running the no huddle and I believe he has earned the right to change plays when he sees the need.

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    • I agree about the defense. But let’s keep this in mind, this was a defense which was broaching “shut down” status prior to the Haden and Shazier injuries.

      Now I think that the defense STILL under performed, even if you account for Shazier’s absence.

      But losing him was a big, big blow.

      For example, playing alongside Shazier, or even someone super athletic like him, Vince Williams is a pretty effective inside linebacker. Without that, he’s not nearly as effective.

      Like

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Ivan, an excellent article as usual.

    This rambles a bit and I don’t know if I actually have a point here.

    When ever there is a massive failure it is usually a combination of smaller errors and failures that allow/enable the massive failure. A second feature of major failures is that there is usually enough blame to go around. Enough for everyone. Failures on offence exacerbated the problem of a defence that had been hollowed out by injury and inexperience. If the defence wasn’t so wonky would the offence have been called on to take so many chances.

    Haley was a solution and a problem. Hopefully we have not traded one problem for another.

    Disgruntled players (Bell and Harrison come to mind) had to be eroding the team’s effectiveness. Tough decisions needed to be made but the team’s previous actions in dealing with previous problems (i.e. Blount) provided a blueprint for players who wanted to get themselves into a more, personally, advantageous situation.

    Another way of dealing with an unhappy situation is to get rid of the coach.Bell and Blount never had this type of leverage but Ben does. Was Ben’s shakiness, at times this season, all just Ben being rusty or was it Ben rebelling against Haley. This is complicated by Ben’s having taken such a physical beating over his career that it really is possible there is permanent damage to his body and, since his brain is part of his body, his thinking processes. I don’t know if Ben coming back for another season really is the best thing for him or the team in the long run. Unlike Brady, Ben doesn’t have the refs looking out for him every play (how many holding calls were there against the Pats o-line yesterday). Like the people who openly worried about Shazier tackling style well before his injury (I remember seeing quite a few), I am worried about Ben.

    I am writing this with several interruptions so continuity is not what would be desired.

    How with the Ben/Fitchner era look? Will Ben be calling all the plays or will Fitchner? Will there be conflict?

    Speaking of conflict, the Steelers defence was inexperienced and beat up. It’s lack of depth (it is in the middle of a rebuild) caught up with it. I will be surprised if 3 of our first 4 choices this spring are not on defence. ILB, S and OLB are at the top of my list. There were some great free agency additions last season (Alualu and Hayden spring to mind). Hopefully we can keep them and add another player or two to the mix. ILB is my #1 concern, particularly someone who can fill Shazier’s role (neither Fort nor Spence seemed up to it). If a suitable replacement cannot be found then a rethink of the defence is needed.

    Will Tomlin continue with the role of defensive play calling? Is that a good idea? I just don’t know.

    Hopefully Connor will spend the off-season learning to pass block. He cannot be effective if defences are going to assume he is always going to either carrying the ball or going out on a route. Ridley looked adequate but I think we see at least one RB in the top 4 choices unless Ben changes his mind and retires in which case all bets are off when it comes to the draft. We already have amazing WRs at 1 and 2 (depth after that isn’t what I had expected or hoped for at the beginning of last season but there you go).

    Continuing with the draft theme and potentially contradicting what I said earlier, I think the Steelers will be drafting the BPA at ILB, S, OLB, RB, TE and WR. MacDonald is a bit of a glass cannon and I will not be surprised to see Martavis Bryant traded to move up a few spots or to grab an extra draft choice. I don’t think Eli’s injury is here nor there. I think of him as a fringe player with a limited role. The CFL is, or was, full of guys like him.

    Feel free to grab any or all of this for the 5 questions segments. I am probably repeating past questions but that is the advantage of getting older, you get to cover the same ground over and over.

    Like

    • I think you capture the complexity of it. I wrote this before the championship game, and two things were immediately clear to me. First, that the Jags were a better team than everyone in Steelers Nation, from the team on down to the fans were willing to give credit. Score one for hubris. On the other hand, those who thought a Steelers defeat at the hands of the Pats were wrong in the other direction.

      The ultimate fate of this particular collection of people may depend upon how certain character challenges are resolved. I was not a big fan of Brett Favre in his latter years because his ego sank his teams as often as he elevated them. That potential exists with Ben. Similar questions can be raised about any number of personalities in this organization.

      Patriots fans can be blinded by smugness, Eagles fans by mercurial passion that can too easily morph into the vulgar. For Steelers fans it is a sense of entitlement that causes us to either to not see our flaws or exaggerate them.

      Two things sank Haley, and I believe many others. First, in the final analysis the game is very simple. No concept or scheme will prosper without basic execution. The greatest players and coaches understand this. Most of those great pass plays from Ben to AB reflect this reality. Second, its never about any one individual, least of all him. His job was to put his team in the best position to succeed. When you have an advantage in talent it may be surprising how success can be achieved by simply lining up and punching the opponent in the mouth.

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      • “For Steelers fans it is a sense of entitlement that causes us to either to not see our flaws or exaggerate them”.

        That is Steeler Nation in a nutshell and it will be the same for Patriot Nation after Bill and Tom ride off into the sunset.

        I guess it could be worse. We could be Browns fans and have zero expectations and no sense of entitlement.

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      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        Brett Favre was definitely on my mind… Also Dan Fouts though I don’t know why that would be. I don’t remember much about Fouts later years but I do remember thinking that for all their offence, in the end they were not a serious threat in the playoffs but my memory and knowledge are very limited there.

        I also didn’t make it clear that I expect Bell to be gone next season. Some times less is more.

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    • Quick point. I don’t think Ben was intentionally not playing well early in the season out in protest. Given the tone and tenor of what you wrote, I don’t think you want to say that, but that is how your comment could be interpreted.

      But you’re very right. Ben was NOT playing well early in the season.

      Like

      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        I think there were probably several factors behind Ben’s poor play ranging from disputes with Haley to inconsistent play on the part of some receivers to Ben being nervous about injuries to… well the list could go on. I don’t think there was one or even two factors… rather there was a multitude of issues that needed to be worked on and overcome. Haley being gone will solve one issue but I expect some changes in personnel on offence which will add some new issues (solvable but..). There is also be an entire off-season of his wife (and possibly others) trying to get him to retire. Even if he doesn’t retire, it will be in the back of his mind and once you have seriously started thinking about retiring in this game…

        I think we have seen peak Ben and now it is a question of whether the rest of the team and coaching staff can make up for his upcoming decline. I don’t know if he is doing the team any real favour by hanging on. People with more football acumen than myself can argue that one out.

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        • I generally agree. At this point, however, I wonder if the public “I’m thinking of retiring” wasn’t more Haley than anything else. I mean, he went from “year to year” to I want to play 3 more years….

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  • Saying that the offense had a “healthy role in 28 Jags points” is ridiculous. After they stopped us on downs, they had to go 75 and 61 yards for TDs. Are we supposed to consider those gimmes? The first one is a standard drive! And, yes, giving them the ball on the 18 was a bad thing, but a 1-play, 18 yard TD? That’s bad.

    Face it, the D had a VERY bad game against an offense that looked like it couldn’t get out of it’s own way the previous three games. Bortles is still waiting for the first Steeler player to even breathe on him. Bortles HAS to be pressured; he makes mistakes when he does.

    I read that they went in with a containment game plan, not necessarily to get to him, but to contain his running. That was a poor decision.

    Like

    • And I stand by the statement. You would have to agree that the 14 from the two turnovers are indisputable. So, the question I would ask you is why don’t teams go for it on fourth down all the time if field position and momentum are inconsequential? It precisely because the defense was struggling that those failures were so potentially devastating. It is just not the extra distance, but the restrictions to what offenses do at different areas of the field that should be taken into account. That is why New England and Pittsburgh will somethings deliberately deliver kickoffs short of the goal line and try to pin the opponent behind the 25 yard line.

      Then there is the issue of momentum. You don’t think that there weren’t members of both teams who didn’t realize how unwise those decisions were? Its like bringing a gun to a knife fight and then deciding that rather shooting the person with the knife you’ll just pistol whip them. Stupid! And you do it twice. That’s what ridiculous, particularly because it cancelled out a great and timely special teams play (blocked punt).

      Liked by 1 person

      • If a team scores from their own 25 and the defense doesn’t get the blame, when would they ever get the blame?

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        • Not saying the defense was blameless, just that the offense was in ways both large (turnovers), and small (play calling that went away from unit strengths and low percentage) complicit. Even if you say that the offense gave just seven points, that is still the difference between a win and a loss. And check the record. More than once this season has the defense had to carry an underperforming offense. Is it unfair to expect some reciprocity? And is it fair to hold a young, developing defense, absent it’s best player to account while giving an offense that has none of those excuses a pass?

          Like

  • Great comments Ivan.

    I am perhaps the lone soul in Steelers Nation that wasn’t/isn’t up in arms about the two field 4th down plays. Beyond the fact that they were risk-reward calls (the other two went for TD’s) I agree with Tomlin that they execution issues. Now, does that make them “good” calls, well no it does not.

    My issues stem from some of the other points that Ivan has honed in on.

    Why was it that the Steelers were down by 14 before the offense made a first down? Why was it that the Steelers were down by 21 before the offense moved into the Red Zone?

    And your point about the blocked punt is right on target.

    If you’re looking for the key series where the Steelers lost the game, its right there.

    Score there, and the dynamic changes dramatically. But the Steelers couldn’t get it done.

    While it is dangerous to give one player power to push a coach out, given what we know publicly, it doesn’t take too great a leap of faith to concluded that Ben had a role in Haley’s departure. Perhaps nothing was ever said, and Rooney/Tomlin made the move as a way of being proactive.

    But I refuse to think that Ben would have committed to coming back before the Jags game unless he knew or strongly suspected Haley would be gone.

    Ben Roethlisberger can’t win a Super Bowl by himself. And its possible that the losses of Shazier and Bell will close the window while he’s still here. But if anyone wants to see what happens to the window when Ben hangs it up, simply see if you can get your hands on footage from the days of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister.

    Like

    • The plays I had an issue with were the outside run on 4th and 1 against a fast Jags D and the couple times we played man on 3rd and 8 or so and got burnt by Bortles running for a first down. Why didn’t we at least have a spy on him, when we know he can run?

      Like

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