An Update on the Real Issues Facing the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers
By Ivan Cole
Since last we met on this topic the personnel situation has advanced significantly. The draft has occurred, free agents signed and a significant trade. How have these developments advanced the narrative?
A quarterback controversy
I don’t believe that we have had a full-blown version of this phenomena during the Ben Roethlisberger era, although there has been some drama and conversation surrounding back- ups. But the drafting of Mason Rudolph has impacted the entire quarterback room and will likely be a focus of conversation for years to come, regardless how the situation unfolds.
The current bottom-line as I understand it now is that unless there is an injury/IR circumstance like the one that unfolded during the 2010 season when Ben, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon were all on the roster, when the 2018 edition of the Steelers begins play in September one the players in that room, Ben, Rudolph, Landry Jones or Joshua Dobbs, will be gone. What should we look for going forward?
Media and the fans
This is an unalloyed victory and windfall for much of the media. Indeed, the games have already begun. This is one of those issues not really effected by the time of the year or quibbles such as hard evidence. All of Steelers Nation will be involved in the evolving debate, but it will be (sorry if this sounds rude and unkind) the lowlifes, the bottom-feeders, the ignorant and the vulgar among both the media and the fan base who will be most engaged.
Undoubtedly, some are already predisposed toward Rudolph—though the poor man has not even had the opportunity to prove anything—based upon him being the shiny new toy. Ironically, this will include many who declared Dobbs the darling last season.
Want to know how bad this could potentially get? Unless Rudolph proves a monumental bust during the preseason, I will leave it to your imagination to consider the quality of the conversation if Ben were to have a game like the 2017 regular season contest against the Jaguars.
In that constellation of irritating topics that occasionally go into remission, but never really go away, Ben vs Mason has the potential of being right up there with Mike Tomlin’s competence, Le’Veon Bell’s value, why wasn’t a tight end drafted, will Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen be converted to inside linebacker, and, if Ryan Shazier returns, should it be as a safety?
He still retains the title of Quarterback Coach. You know he must feel some kind of way about all four players, though we are unlikely to have a candid confession until these events are in the past. And while Kevin Colbert, Tomlin and some others may have had their fingers closer to the trigger of the gun that set this into motion, being the incoming Offensive Coordinator gave Fichtner some say and influence in the decision. Makes one wonder whether things would have played out the same if Todd Haley would have been still around.
The drama queen accusations are already being leveled by some, but Jim Wexell and others bring some nuance to this. Consider the following, starting with the least selfish:
• Ben is THE leader of the group currently occupying the Steelers locker room. Among other things, with James Harrison and William Gay now gone, he is the only player with a Super Bowl ring, newcomer Morgan Burnett excepted. Team management and fans can afford the luxury of thinking about how to win the Lombardi in 2023. The majority of the current team will almost certainly not be a part of that. Their priority will be the urgency of winning now. In that context, the question of the investment of a fairly high draft choice on a player unlikely to be a difference maker in the here and now is valid and probably shared by a number of his teammates who do not have either the platform and status to express the sentiment.
• Ben is the leader of the quarterbacks. Fans and media can be cavalier about Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs being measured for a spot under the bus. Ben can, but should not.
• On a personal level this does have career implications for Ben, regardless of how he plays in the coming years and how beneficial it may be for the organization. Because of his age and price tag, a rising heir apparent will impact his negotiating leverage and make for a less pleasant work environment.
The assumption has been that Jones is in the more favored position, with Dobbs being the odd man out. I don’t necessarily agree. If the upside potential is really there, then Dobbs can work as either a two or three on the depth chart. On the other hand, Jones only works as a two in such a scenario.
This means Jones remains viable only if he beats out both Dobbs and Rudolph in camp. Assuming Rudolph doesn’t do an Alonzo Jackson, Ben looks healthy (and why would you have him do anything beyond throwing balls into trashcans until September?), and Dobbs fights Jones to a draw, what do you do? A trade would be a real possibility. And, lets be honest, fairly or not, Jones continues to be despised by many, therefore, any excuse to push him out the door by some would be welcomed.
At first blush the situation seems to really suck. But if that upside potential is really there, and there have been no indications that he has performed below expectations so far, then Dobbs may have a friend in Fichtner. By this I mean that if the new Offensive Coordinator believes that one of the youngsters (Rudolph or Dobbs) could (aided by his quarterback whispering) carry the team through a short-term emergency, then Jones becomes expendable, and the controversy morphs into Dobbs vs Rudolph, with the loser signing a fat contract somewhere else in a few years. Plus, Dobbs is stylistically different enough from Rudolph and, unlike Jones, genuinely popular as that rocket scientist underdog (also a fourth round pick himself) that he can’t be so easily written off.
The feelings here fluctuate between envy and pity. He has the luxury of development. If he is, in fact, a first round caliber talent, he will be spared the burdens and pitfalls of having to immediately carry a flawed franchise (a prerequisite in most cases to procure first round talent). Unlike what was the case with Ben, the chances that he will be called upon to lead the offense before he is ready to do so are exceedingly small, given the presence of a Hall of Fame quarterback still operating at the peak of his powers along with that of a competent and experienced back-up. Whenever that moment comes, it is almost a guarantee that he will be handed the keys to a top-of-the- line vehicle, with technical support second to none. If he truly possesses the potential, the path to personal and competitive success is wide open.
But (and there are several).
Expectations are high; often unrealistically and unreasonably so. The problem with being placed on a very high pedestal is it makes for a hard, uncomfortable landing when they decide to kick you off. At any point if those expectations aren’t met or exceeded, we can be certain that the ‘unrealistic’ will be ignored by those brandishing the torches and pitchforks.
Rudolph is entering a world where some were calling for the head of the coach (Chuck Noll) while he was in the midst of a six-year, four championship run. The ‘jury is still out’ on the current coach (Tomlin) whose body of work compares favorably to the likes of Curly Lambeau and Don Shula, among others. The Hall of Fame quarterback and the running back generally recognized as a generational talent and the best in the game currently, are often subjected to scathing criticism, along with frequent musings that the team might be better off without their services. A 13-3 season is dismissed as just being deeply disappointing and below the line.
There is a good chance that he won’t get his opportunity until some point well beyond when he became ready, and when he does the chances he will disappoint a significant segment of the Nation regardless of the actual quality of his performance is, in my estimation, 100 percent. Hope he’s ready.
For years now, the wide receivers have been one of, if not the cornerstone of the team. Last season, as it has been often, the greatest concern was who among a deep, talented group would be able to secure a helmet. As it developed, three players who made significant contributions in 2016 (Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers) found themselves on the outside looking in.
This season is different. Things are fine at the top with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith- Schuster, but with the loss of Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers to trade and injury respectively, things get a little thin.
Viewed another way, this continues the controversy in the quarterback room, because Ben Roethlisberger and others may see the transaction as Bryant for Rudolph. If so, I might be a little annoyed as well.
Let’s be clear. The most important acquisition from Oklahoma State at present is wide receiver James Washington. If he turns out to be closer to JuJu 2.0 than Coates 2.0 (or God forbid, Sweed 2.0), then no worries. Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey fill out the bottom of the depth chart just fine, Darryl Drake has plenty to work with, and by Columbus Day no one is missing Martavis.
While freely acknowledging its difficulties, I would also gently remind the reader that neither Dick LeBeau or Johnnie Mitchell were great fans of throwing young, inexperienced players into the fray too soon. Perhaps, now we know some of the reasons why. And the Steelers defense remains very young.
While there are intriguing questions everywhere, including the coming roster battle between Dan McCullers and Joshua Frazier and the depth issues at linebacker, the questions involving the secondary are particularly fascinating.
Perhaps we should look at this situation backwards. What would have to go wrong for this unit to not improve significantly in 2018?
- Tom Bradley would have to be a bust as a hire. This is not unheard of. There were a few disappointments with offensive line coaches until Mike Munchak came along.
- Either Artie Burns, Sean Davis or both have peaked in their development.
- Joe Haden is, in fact, in decline. So much so that a year in the system will not have a positive impact.
- Nat Berhe, Morgan Burnett and Coty Sensabaugh are all free agent busts, providing, at best, no value added to the departed Robert Golden, Mike Mitchell and William Gay.
- Despite spending much of 2017 on IR, Cam Sutton’s presence doesn’t materially improve the quality of the group.
- Mike Hilton was performing way over his head and devolves.
- Brian Allen does not improve.
- Terrell Edmunds turns out to prove the pundits right and is just okay, and maybe even substandard as a first round talent. Both he and Marcus Allen may pan out after a couple years of seasoning.
- No one knows who Jordan Dangerfield possesses compromising photos of, but that must be it.
- There is no ‘this year’s Mike Hilton’.
That’s a lot of things that need to go wrong (injuries aside). So, cheer up!
Thanks to Ivan for a lot to chew on, as always!