The Real Issues Facing the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers
By Ivan Cole
I have written previously about the ‘fake news’ that rises this time of the year concerning the Steelers and the rest of the NFL. We are still some distance from clarity as to all the operative narratives that will fully describe the 2018 season, but some of the potentialities are obvious even as the off-season conditioning effort is just commencing, and we are still weeks away from the draft.
Ryan Shazier will not play for the Steelers in 2018, but the trajectory of his life and NFL career may well impact this season and the organization for years to come. If you are young or otherwise not much up on the history of the franchise you might be surprised to learn that this isn’t the first time that a player and the organization faced a verdict of ‘may never play again’. Taking a look at the two most notable examples we learn something uplifting and important about the human spirit and how two men and the leadership of the Steelers organization responded to these challenges.
In the case of Lowell W Perry, a catastrophic injury did result in the end of his playing days but, due in no small part to the intervention of Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr, not the end of his football career.
The Chief offered him a job, and Perry became the first African-American coach in the modern history of the league. Later he would join the team scouting department and attend law school at Duquesne while employed with the team. Eventually, he would become the first nationally broadcast African-American color analyst.
Rocky Bleier’s story was different.
Bleier’s injury occurred while he was serving in Vietnam, but the verdict was similar to the ones projected for Perry and Shazier: He would never play again. However, the outcome was different. He would be a starter for the Super Bowl teams of the 70s, and even had a 1,000-yard season.
So, what will become of Shazier? Many don’t think he will ever play again, and a lot don’t want him to even try. If history is our guide then we can project that this story isn’t close to being over with, or fully defined yet.
Is there a one-year window for success with this team?
There are some complexities in this question that may well be influenced heavily by things covered in other segments of this piece. This is more about the opportunity afforded a configuration of players rather than the franchise. Specifically, I have three players in mind—quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Martavis Bryant.
In the case of Ben the question is how long he can continue to play at a high level. And when the decline comes, will it be gradual or a more dramatic collapse? This is an issue that exists independent of his desire to play or the impact of coaching changes.
As for Bell, it is all about the outcome of his contract talks. It is hard to imagine he would be with the team this year without a long-term deal in place.
Bryant’s impact is probably the least affected by the overall fortunes of the team. If his game continues at its current level or improves, (as does JuJu Smith-Schuster’s,) the economics dictate that he leaves.
What positive impact, if any, will Randy Fichtner and the other coaching additions have?
The Steelers’ staff has remained rather consistent over the years. There have been some significant changes in personnel and roles this year, as well as one impactful retention (offensive line coach Mike Munchak). This raises a variety of questions that we can contemplate over the course of the year. These include:
• Exactly what is it that John Mitchell will actually be doing?
• Will Fichtner facilitate an upgrade in the capacity and efficiency of the offense
(and what would that look like,) or will he mainly help Ben and the others feel
better about themselves, leading to improved performance?
• Receivers coach Darryl Drake and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar each have big shoes to fill in replacing Richard Mann and Mitchell respectively. Drake has worked with the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Hines Ward, but can he hold serve and maybe even provide some value added to a group that he calls “state of the art?” A key for Dunbar, who has history with both the organization and with head coach Mike Tomlin, could be whether he can salvage the career of Dan McCullers.
• Defensive backs coach Tom Bradley may be in the least enviable position. Those who have been following the team for at least a decade will recognize that we are experiencing an orgy of frustration and frenzy similar to that surrounding the offensive line in earlier years. The technique seems to be the same—throw anything and everything against the wall and see what sticks. Are things as bad as some seem to believe? If so, is it a problem with talent, or coaching and scheme? Bradley will be in the middle of all that.
Nat Berhi, Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett. Mitchell 2.0 or Farrior 2.0?
Translated, the question is whether these free agent newcomers will provide an upgrade for the defense and special teams and an even trade off, in terms of depth and leadership, for the loss of Will Gay, Robert Golden and Mike Mitchell. Or is it a step back?
Can Colbert and Company make it three in a row in the draft?
It is far from a guarantee that a good team with good talent can improve themselves significantly when picking low in the draft. Yet two years ago, the Steelers did just that, adding Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave in the first three rounds. They did even better last season with T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Connor and Cam Sutton. Can they do it again?
Wild Card # 1
Can a diamond in the rough from the lower rounds or among the UDFA class emerge?
Will there be a Mike Hilton this year?
Wild Card # 2
Who, if anyone, makes the ‘Leap’ this season (or who goes into decline)? James Connor, Brian Allen, Keion Adams? Or Daniel McCullers? (He’d better…)
Wild Card # 3
Trades and unexpected windfalls:
Might there be another Joe Haden or Vance McDonald out there? And will an off season of acclimation improve the contributions of these two?
We won’t know the answers to these and other questions for about six months. But the fun of being a fan is following the progress of events.
Thanks to Ivan for another great and thought-provoking article. In the meantime, my grandkids have headed home and the draft approaches, so you will be seeing a good bit of draft “coverage” in the coming two weeks as I present the Steelers’ brass with some food for thought of my own. Because I’m quite sure they await my draft coverage with breathless anticipation…
And in case you’re wondering, the picture at the head of the article is Morgan Burnett, from his Twitter account.