The Journey to Seven Lombardis: Part 1
By Ivan Cole
If you are interested enough, the entire football year can be endlessly intriguing. As we move into the second week of OTAs it is still far too early to make much sense of where the Steelers stand in relation to securing that seventh championship this season, but enough of the puzzle pieces are in place to allow for some educated speculation.
Injuries and other handicaps
In past seasons the team often struggled with a high volume of injuries. As Head Coach Mike Tomlin has said, the injury rate in the National Football League is 100 percent, therefore it has been tempting to throw one’s hands in the air and declare that it is all just a matter of luck as to how things work out.
A few years ago, Art Rooney II threw the gauntlet down and declared the organization’s intention to get a better handle on the situation. It sounded at the time like Owner Speak, putting an optimistic face on a problem that was really beyond the capacity to influence.
However, since then, whether by luck or other means, the number of injuries has come down. Unfortunately, although only one player missed the entire 2017 campaign due to injury, the timing and severity of those that did occur were sufficient to be both a factor in the Steelers’ ultimate failure last year and a specter haunting the team building process for the coming season.
The headliner is Ryan Shazier, not only because the impact of his loss to last season’s efforts, but because of the challenge in replacing him going forward, in that he will not be returning in the foreseeable future, if ever. The dramatic and catastrophic nature of Shazier’s loss served to help mask other significant losses.
Many forget that Tyler Matakevich, who replaced Shazier after he was injured, also went down later in the same contest against the Bengals, and although he never missed a game he was unable to play at the inside linebacker position for the rest of the season. Similar issues reportedly affected Javon Hargrave, and haunted Mike Mitchell throughout his Steelers career. Antonio Brown’s loss was relatively brief but could not have been more ill-timed. Vance McDonald struggled throughout the year. When he arrived Cameron Sutton impressed, but he missed a lot of time. Keion Adams lost the entire season. Eli Rodgers’ loss came too late to materially affect last season but may likely influence events this year.
Then there is the “other handicaps” category. Here I am speaking to those who have lost time due to non-football offenses. We have to wonder if the team would have so easily parted ways with such a gifted talent as Martavis Bryant, even considering his impending contract situation, were it not for his at-risk status due to substance abuse issues. His loss of an entire season due to suspension was no different in impact than if he had suffered an injury, and he is one slip-up from being as unavailable as Shazier. (Am I the only one concerned with him joining a team that is on its way to Vegas with only Jon Gruden standing between him and the Devil?)
Similarly, would Le’Veon Bell have more negotiating leverage were it not for the combination of his legitimate injury history and “other handicaps”?
Then there is Marcus Gilbert. Injury time plus a suspension for Performance Enhancing Drugs may have proven more problematic for the team in 2017 were it not for the heroic performance of the now departed, swiss-army-knife Chris Hubbard. It remains to be seen whether the under the radar acquisition of Chukwuma Okorafor proves to be the most impactful development from the third round of this year’s draft.
As mentioned in this space many times before, injuries may rarely make or break a season in and of themselves, but they can make matters so much more difficult. History also teaches us that it is not too early to begin keeping track of these things. A seemingly innocuous soft tissue injury suffered in OTAs or minicamp may linger long enough to retard progress or derail a career. Senquez Golson anyone?
These are all the artificially created and inflated storylines that keeps sports media types and fandom busy and allegedly engaged during those times of the football year characterized by low levels of newsworthy activity. Thankfully, we are obviously past the peak of mock drafts, instant evaluations of the actual draft, and player movement. In Pittsburgh we have been entertained for a time by the Quarterback Chronicles, which will undoubtably flair up again in training camp. In the meantime, the best bet is to trot out Le’Veon Bell and his contract situation, whereupon they will proceed to whip that nag to death.
2. Actual Distractions
These are legitimate, non-football concerns as likely as to show up in the Metro section of the newspaper as the Sports page. The best recent example involved Todd Haley. Workplace issues such as those involving James Harrison can also slip into the mix. All things considered, from where I sit there has appeared to be something of a lull in these sorts of things during the Tomlin Era. Three possibilities why that might be so:
- Luck. For whatever reason, there has been something of a lull in team related bad acting. This could change at any moment.
- Deft situation management. Apparently, for example, there were areas of conflict involving Haley and players or other staff that those within the Steeler Nation bubble either did not recognize, or conspiratorially ignored.
- Legitimate improvement of the culture. All of Rebecca’s Character Accounts reports may have yielded some sort of harvest. From what we have seen, character is part of the equation for determining who belongs in this Steelers organization.
There are larger concerns, some that are merely league or industrywide, others are societal that will affect the team. Three are in play this year, with two almost certain to threaten how the team navigates the season.
1. Player safety.
As we have been saying for years, this isn’t going away. Specifically, there have been some rule changes involving player contact whose impact won’t be clear until the pads go on and the physical competition begins.
Its unclear what the ramifications of this will be immediately.
3. The Anthem.
The culture wars and the Lose/Lose energy that it brings now has a solid outpost in the NFL. This has the potential of bringing a little of everything to the forefront: political/ideological polarization, racial animus, questionable labor practices, hypocrisy, greed, in short many of those things that people come to sports entertainment to escape. It is almost a certainty that the league will lose fan support from all sides of the issue—competing boycotts if you will.
Want a little insight with a decidedly Steelers spin? Here’s a piece by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins featuring Rocky Bleier:
Surpluses and shortages. The truth of the matter is while football in shorts is a big step up from nothing, that’s not to say that much that is discernible or noteworthy is going on. However, conditions that drive the internal competition that will shape this team are firming up some.
On offense the quarterbacks and running backs are in surplus, wide receivers in shortage, and the offensive line and tight ends more in equilibrium. The key in making these determinations is whether the competition is at the top or bottom of the depth chart.
On defense the secondary is in surplus, the linebackers in shortage and the defensive line in relative equilibrium.
Don’t misconstrue any of this to mean that management is standing pat on player acquisition and movement. All one has to do is contemplate the circumstances through which the following players came to the team: Alejandro Villanueva, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden, Chris Boswell and Mike Hilton.
Key players (those who need to hold service or take a step up) heading into and throughout the summer:
TE Vance McDonald, WR James Washington, RB James Connor, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Javon Hargrave, LB Tyler Matakevich, LB Bud Dupree, S Sean Davis, and CB Cam Sutton.
Wild cards (those who bring a little—or a lot—more than expected):
LB Keion Adams, LB Anthony Chickillo, LB T. J. Watt, DE L.T. Walton, S Terrell Edmunds, S Marcus Allen, DB Brian Allen, QB Joshua Dobbs, WR Marcus Tucker, LB Matthew Thomas, TE Christian Scotland-Williamson, RB Jaylen Samuels, WR Justin Hunter, WR Quadree Henderson, and TE Xavier Grimble.
On the bubble (stepping up or out):
OT Jerald Hawkins, DT Dan McCullers, DB Coty Sensabaugh, and RB Fitz Toussaint.
This will be amended as necessary throughout the summer.
Thanks for your always thought-provoking words. In case you’re wondering, that’s my hand in the photo, wearing Bob Labriola’s Super Bowl ring, or, I suppose, one of them. (The staff get them too.) This was taken at a “Ladies Night Out” event at Heinz Field, back in 2011.
And my apologies to Ivan. This was supposed to go up on Tuesday, and in fact WordPress said it was published, but I just noticed it didn’t actually happen. Perhaps my internet, which is varying between flaky and nonexistent, is to blame.