Fresh Eyes: Part 1
photo: Rebecca Mehling/Steelers.com
by Ivan Cole
As Rebecca has already mentioned, life has slowed both of us down a bit but that should not be construed to mean that interest has been lost in the fortunes of the Steelers. For me it represents an opportunity to approach the upcoming season in a manner opposite from that which has been the case since I have been privileged to communicate with you concerning the fortunes of what I believe to be a model of what a first class organization, in sports or any endeavor is, as it strives to reach its goals.
The norms have been such in recent years that those who report on the NFL have had to pretend that there is more legitimate news than actually exists. This has resulted in all manner of speculation, fortune telling, creation of controversy—all designed to generate clicks and conversation and, presumably, interest during a period when little of real relevance is going on. This season I circumstances have freed me from all of this, and I am going to take advantage as best I can.
Let me be clear from the outset: I probably know a lot less about the state of the team than many of you reading at this point. What I will be bringing is a set of fresh eyes, augmented with a bit of experience, to raise what I believe will be some of the important questions. The answers may very well help to define the relative success of the 2019 season. There is no particular order of importance of how they will be presented.
Question #1. Whose (or what) loss from 2018 poses the greatest challenge to team success going forward?
The answer to this question has become dramatically and tragically complicated in the last forty-eight hours, but the bottom line hasn’t changed.
The casual, mainline answer would have seemed to be the loss of Killer ‘B’s Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. I say no. Recent events have rendered this decision more obvious, but even absent the more outrageous of their recent antics I believe it is important to establish why certain assumptions about team building have to be challenged.
I decided that for this series a good point of reference would be the 2008 team, the last one to win the Super Bowl. One thing stands out: Compared to many of the less successful teams that preceded and followed, they weren’t an outstandingly talented team. In several keys areas they were quite the contrary, which made the absurd assertion that Tomlin was winning with Bill Cowher’s players even more so given that some of those players weren’t that good.
That ’08 team’s running backs featured Willie Parker, who was still effective but not as incandescent as he was during the championship season in ’05. He also had some struggles with injuries. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall was knocked out early in the season by Ray Lewis, meaning that there were times when the feature running back was Mewelde Moore, who qualifies as an answer to a trivia question. The receivers included Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, whose substance issues resulted in a critical one game suspension that contributed to a loss to the Peyton Manning led Colts, and the immensely talented but enigmatic Limas Sweed, who at critical moments could not catch a cold. Viewed purely in terms of talent, an impressive group, but things were more complicated in practice.
Currently, I am comfortable saying that Bell and Brown give with their talent but then take via their character flaws. Right now, the good people in Oakland and New York are reduced to hoping that the talent that will be on display during the season will be sufficient to offset the disruptions each player is causing. While at Latrobe I didn’t hear of anyone pining for the Steelers to have that kind of problem. And why should they?
James Connor is a Pro Bowl running back. The other players in the room compare favorably with that ’08 group at least. And besides, when did Bell actually play? As for the receivers, it could be argued that Brown’s demands for the ball served to suppress the potential of this group. Connor, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald are each dangerous, dominant receivers in their own right, with Jaylan Samuels, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers, among others, capable of developing in a similar manner, particularly giving the amplifying nature of playing with Ben. I have come to the theory that some of the distortions and maddening inconsistencies of the Steelers’ offense recently was in an attempt to work around the demands of Brown. We’ll see.
So, if not those two, then who? My vote would be for Mike Munchak.
It should be amazing for anyone who has been following the team for more than a decade and has a decent memory to note the casualness in which it is asserted that the Steelers possess one of, if not the best offensive lines in the league. It was inarguable in 2008 that the O line was the weakest unit on the team. All Pro guard Alan Faneca and Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings were gone. The best remaining player left tackle, Marvel Smith, was on injured reserve. Guard Kendall Simmons was forced into retirement due to complications related to diabetes. That left us with the likes of Jeff Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton. Cowher’s players indeed. These guys won the Super Bowl playing the toughest schedule anyone had seen in thirty years and managed a number two seed. No coaching involved though.
Today the offensive line is the strongest unit on the team. From right guard to left tackle it either has two All Pro and one Pro Bowl player, or viewed more conservatively, three Pro Bowl players. The rest of the unit is deep and versatile and populated as much by undrafted free agents as blue chippers.
The fortunate thing is that if I am right, the impact of his loss will almost certainly not be felt this season unless there is a rash of key injuries. And it may not be felt at all if he was successful in coaching his most important student—his successor Shaun Sarrett.
Now there is a wild card at play. I will address, later in this series, the complexities involved with the receivers room moving on from Antonio Brown. The sudden passing of their coach Darryl Drake…well, do I have to say anymore?