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Pittsburgh Steelers Should Offer Mike Tomlin a One-Year Extension

Published: December 16, 2009

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Mike Tomlin seemed bulletproof for much of the season. With a few exceptions, very few people were willing to criticize him openly, even as nearly everyone was machine gunning Bruce Arians with a mix of fair and well-earned criticism and toxic venom not fit for print.

Once it became clear that the season was lost following an inexplicable and humiliating humbling at the hands of the Browns, the floor fell out on Tomlin’s once-golden reputation.

Now, one of the loudest questions being asked is “What do we do about Tomlin?” The criticism directed his way is deserved, if a little late.

He did nothing to address the deficiencies in the play calling and appeared lost in the face of adversity. While the Steelers certainly need to replace their offensive coordinator and special teams coach, Tomlin should not be made to feel overly secure.

Every coach is going to have some rough seasons. But, this team was too talented to collapse the way it did down the stretch, losing to three teams at the bottom of nearly every power ranking while looking lost.

The Steelers still have the pieces in place to compete for another title. While championship windows can be notoriously hard to predict, the Steelers’ window should not close for three to five more years if they can adequately replace a few of their aging players, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

While this is no sure thing, the window represents the time when both Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu should be playing at their peak.

Tomlin has one year left on his contract and he should be given a chance to show that this year was an anomaly. The Steelers top brass should offer him a one-year extension to provide a small show of confidence that they think he will turn things around.

But, if the team significantly underperforms next year, the organization should thank him for his service and replace him.

These next three games, all against good but not great opponents, bear close watching. Will the team come out firing, intent on proving that they are better than their last five games?

Will they fight for their coach, recognizing that their play will have a significant impact on his potential future?

Or will they fold their tent and call it a season?

They now have the chance to play the spoiler in all three games, which should be a role they relish. It returns them to the “us against the world” role that they have relished in the past.

Heck, they even have an outside shot of sneaking into the playoffs, especially since they can deal defeats to two of the primary AFC competitors for the final playoff spot, although they would still need plenty of help, especially at derailing Jacksonville.

If they seize that opportunity and play hard for their embattled coach, even if they drop a couple more games, I will have more confidence that Tomlin can turn it around next season.

If we see more of the same listless play by a team that seems confused and without direction, it will further erode confidence in Tomlin.

Some Steelers’ fans are pining for a return of Bill Cowher, which is somewhat understandable. But the real comparison that deserves watching is Ken Whisenhunt.

The fates of the two coaches, who faced off in last year’s Super Bowl, will forever be intertwined just as Ben Roethlisberger is frequently compared against the two quarterbacks who were drafted before him, Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers.

Whisenhunt looked like a near-lock for the Steelers head coaching position in 2007. His passion reflected that of his predecessor and his innovative play-calling made the Steelers’ offense something to be feared.

At one point, it seemed a near certainty that he would be the next Steelers’ coach. But, the Steelers opted to go with Tomlin who wowed the Rooneys during his interview.

The knee-jerk reaction after the Super Bowl was to believe that the Steelers made the right call.

Actually, I think they made the wrong call and managed to win a Super Bowl in spite of it with a very talented football team, not unlike the Dallas Cowboys with Barry Switzer calling the shots.

That is not to say that Tomlin is not a good coach. It is more a belief that Whisenhunt is a superb coach, even a special coach. And the Steelers’ owners should have recognized what they had in Whisenhunt, a guy that made average players look great.

Too often now, their offense makes great players look average. Whisenhunt was a huge part of leading the Steelers to a first Super Bowl win after a long drought. And he was rewarded by being passed over.

He has shown the gumption to make the tough calls. He fired his defensive coordinator after coming within inches of winning a Super Bowl because he felt the defense underperformed.

He also brought in a veteran off the NFL scrap pile in Kurt Warner when he was unhappy with the golden boy young quarterback’s performance, a move that was not altogether popular at the time. He was rewarded for both calls.

Do you doubt for a second that Whisenhunt wouldn’t step in and take over play calling if the offensive coordinator was coming up short? That might not be an altogether fair comparison since Tomlin is more of a defensive guy.

Perhaps a better question would be, can you imagine the fiery Whisenhunt clapping and nodding as his impotent offense trotted off the field following its fourth consecutive three and out?

I don’t have the same level of confidence in Tomlin at this point in his career, although I think he may develop into a very good football coach in time. If the Steelers play uninspired football next year on the way to a losing record, it will be time to move on.

One of my primary concerns with Tomlin goes well beyond what I saw this year.

I’ve been very concerned with the way the Steelers have drafted during the Tomlin tenure.

I realize that Kevin Colbert is the top guy when it comes to personnel decisions, but the direction of the draft sure looked different under Cowher, where you could usually predict which players the Steelers would target in the early rounds.

Cowher’s drafts were usually centered around fixing needs, occasionally to the point of fault as when the Steelers reached badly on Troy Edwards because they needed a wide receiver.

The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, with the team ignoring some of its biggest need areas, although this year’s draft was more obviously targeted at need areas than the last two drafts.

I suspect the head coach has plenty of input into the process. It only takes a few years of bad drafting to turn a championship roster into the bad news Browns.

One of the primary objections I’ve seen posted here over and over is that this isn’t the Steelers’ way. They hang on to their coaches for the long-term.

As with much conventional wisdom, this is dead wrong. It is akin to saying that the Browns would lose to the Steelers since they hadn’t beaten the Steelers since around the time that Jim Brown was toting the football for them.

We all saw how that worked out.

Or, that the Steelers would stick with Sean Mahan for the long-term because they like to maintain stability at the center position.

Each coaching career follows a unique arc. Both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher provided plenty of reasons to allow them ample opportunity to coach for an extended time in Pittsburgh.

Early success was followed by sustained success which was ultimately followed by a long period of dominance.

They had some down years along the way, but quickly rebounded. Noll was kept around longer than perhaps he should have been, but turning a loser into a four-time Super Bowl champion will have that effect.

Cowher turned a team that struggled through a forgettable decade into a sustained NFL power. While it is easy to forget Cowher’s early years, the turnaround was dramatic and easily exceeded expectations.

If Tomlin returns the team to the top of the NFL heap next year, he will be on his way to earning similar consideration.

But, hitting big on a couple coaches back to back doesn’t mean a team will hit the jackpot the third time around. In fact, it seems statistically unlikely.

If Tomlin’s squad falls flat next year, it would be foolish to stick with him out of some belief that this is somehow a Steelers’ coaching tradition.

If he shows certain qualities that makes the owners believe he deserves another chance even if the team falters for another season, that is understandable.

But, to stick with a coach for no other reason than to show that you stick with your coaches would be foolish. And I don’t think the Steelers’ owners are foolish.

The Steelers do not need to rush to replace Tomlin because there are some good potential head coaches on the market this year, as I’ve seen argued by some.

While this is true, there will also be good head coaching candidates on the market next year. And the year after that.  And the year after that. 

The pool of candidates will feature some big name retreads and some innovative coordinators who have attracted notice, as it has in every other year since the beginning of time.

And the Steelers’ top job will remain an attractive one for the better candidates.

Tomlin deserves a year to see how successful he can be in righting the ship. And a one-year contract extension that presents the appearance that the organization is confident he can do it is the right answer.

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Mike Tomlin: Elite Head Coach or John Gruden?

Published: December 1, 2009

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How many times do we hear that a team hired a young coach looking for the next Mike Tomlin? It is almost a weekly occurrence while watching a game that features a young coach.

After winning a Super Bowl in his second year, Tomlin became something of a rock star celebrity coach and is constantly credited for influencing another franchise’s hiring decisions.

I like Mike Tomlin. He exudes confidence. He seems like a first rate guy and has connected very well to the players.  He gives superb press conferences and I liked the tone he set after this week’s loss, which is an important job of a head coach. 

He has had plenty of success in his early career.  And, like his predecessor, he certainly looks the part.

But, to me, the praise heaped on him and the lack of criticism directed at him seems to be out of proportion. I am not convinced he is as good of a head coach as most people give him credit for at this point in his career.

I’m concerned that he might be the equivalent of John Gruden, a young coach who took over a very talented roster, connected with those players in a way his predecessor no longer seemed able to do, and led them to a Super Bowl win before backsliding to a very average career before ultimately being replaced.

I hope that couldn’t be further from the truth, but I, at least, think it is a real possibility.  

So, what accounts for what I believe has been over the top praise of Tomlin?

There are a few factors that account for it.

For one, the hiring was made by a nearly lionized Dan Rooney who is almost universally loved across the NFL, and sportswriting, community.

Very few people were willing to point out that he was taking a chance on a young and largely unproven coordinator, turning away from what appeared to be a more qualified candidate, at least not in a critical way. The reaction would have been a whole lot different if the hiring was made by Al Davis.

Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. That will always result in a fair share of praise and it was certainly something to be celebrated.  It was Tomlin’s team and he certainly deserves plenty of credit for it. 

But, the sportswriting community tends to overvalue the “now,” without looking at other potential trends.

We see that trend each week as sportswriters overreact to the games of that week. I think that same trend happened with Tomlin.

Another factor to be considered is Tomlin’s youth.  I think this has shielded, or at least dampened, some potential criticism he may have otherwise received. 

That can at least partially explain the fact that Steelers’ fans almost universally despise offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, but very few are willing to even benignly criticize Tomlin.

Some of the play-calling has been bad. That is undeniable. But, the complete absolvement of responsibility for Tomlin is not natural. He is the head coach and should shoulder some of the blame if the fan base is unhappy with the playcalling.

Does he not have some input into the game plan?  Ultimately, if I hire an employee who can’t do the job and then refuse to try and replace him, who is more at fault?  I don’t think Arians should be replaced midseason, but if he is not replaced before next season, regardless of how the Steelers’ finish, it will be a bad sign of things to come.    

I mildly question the decision of Tomlin not to replace Bruce Arians in the off-season.  I know it is tough to replace a coordinator after a season in which you win the Super Bowl, but I think he should have made that tough call. 

Normally, a head coach takes a fair amount of criticism if the locker room appears to be fracturing, as may be happening with the Steelers. Those stories are frequently overblown so it is hard to tell.

Still, it is a media narrative and Tomlin has not been criticized for it.

There are a few reasons that I fear Tomlin’s early success could be temporary.  

For one, I have not been enamored by the drafts in the Tomlin era.  This is my biggeset area of concern. 

I realize that the ultimate responsibility for the draft rests with Kevin Colbert, but I refuse to believe that Tomlin does not have significant input into that process.

During his first draft, when it was clear that the offensive line was already showing signs of decline, the Steelers drafted linebackers with the first two picks, which appeared to be a position of relative strength. Both of those players, Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley, look to be very good and have promising careers ahead of them.

But, that still struck me as a misguided way to spend those draft picks. Last year’s draft was equally perplexing, when the Steelers drafted a running back and wide receiver, leaving their offensive line unaddressed and allowing the defensive line to get one year older without putting adequate replacements in place for grooming.

This year’s draft inspired a bit more confidence for me. At least the picks lined up with very clear needs and it is hard not to be excited about the prospects of third round pick Mike Wallace. I know there is debate about drafting the best available player versus drafting for need.

But, even at that, teams avoid obvious needs over a stretch of time at their peril.  And, no matter how good of a coach you have on the sidelines, he will not be able to overcome a string of bad drafts.

Secondly, there have been a lot of questionable decisions made by Tomlin over the course of his young career. There have been a few times where he hasn’t thrown the red flag where I thought it was warranted.

Perhaps the biggest head scratcher for me dates back to his first playoff game. With the Steelers coming back against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he elected to go for two. Very good call.

But, then a holding call moved them back ten yards making a conversion highly unlikely. Instead of kicking the extra point, he elected to still go for two.

After thinking through likely scenarios that could play out, I was screaming at the TV to kick it. It was a terrible decision and it may have cost the Steelers that game. The Steelers lost by one.

All coaches make mistakes, and every young coach is going to make his fair share of them.  No coach should be judged based on one mistake. 

But, if it starts to become a trend, it becomes a point of concern. 

It has not reached the point of a trend yet, but there is enough evidence for at least some concern.

Tomlin did make a good choice in keeping Dick LeBeau on his staff.  A lesser coach might not have made that decision.

LeBeau may be the best defensive coordinator in the history of the game. He is that good.  He had a huge hand in last year’s success, more than is typical for a coordinator.

But, ironically, it is partially because of the presence of LeBeau that I am not as completely sold on Tomlin as a coaching giant just yet. 

LeBeau is a once in a lifetime coordinator.  Any head coach is going to look a heck of a lot better with LeBeau running the defense.  Just think back to the Bill Cowher years.  Cowher was a completely different coach when he had the luxury of having LeBeau at his side. 

Because of LeBeau and the defense’s prowess last year, the Steelers won a Super Bowl largely in spite of their offense. That is the type of thing you can expect to happen about once every millennium.

The genius of LeBeau may be partially responsible for the Steelers’ loss to the Ravens. It was a potentially LeBeau-inspired defensive scheme by the Ravens, with the defensive lineman dropping into the throwing lane, that resulted in the interception that secured the win.

It brought flashbacks of the call that resulted in the James Harrison interception in last year’s Super Bowl, except my jubilant cheers were replaced with an understated groan. 

Let me end by saying that I’m not anti-Tomlin. I think he is already a good head coach, but so was John Gruden.  For that matter, so was Brian Billick.  He may prove to be a superb coach in the long run and I certainly hope that is the case.  I don’t think he has met that threshold yet.

This sentiment has nothing to do with this weeks loss.  Losing at Baltimore with a third string quarterback cannot be laid at the feet of the coach. It is a minor miracle that the game was so close with the Steelers almost winning it.  

But, I think it is too early to declare Tomlin the second coming of Vince Lombardi and some of the over the top praise should be dampened.  Tomlin deserves at least some of the criticism that is being reserved exclusively for Arians.  

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Pittsburgh Steelers Lull AFC Into False Sense of Security

Published: November 24, 2009

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The abomination at Arrowhead was all part of “the plan”.

So was the loss to the Bengals the week earlier.

The Steelers have set out to lull the rest of the AFC playoff field into a false sense of security. Any time now, they will spring their trap.

After all, no team can possibly give up four kickoff returns in five weeks, right?

That must have been intentional.

Maybe the special teams were just itching to set a record. Maybe they were feeling unappreciated since everyone was talking about the defense last year. Well, everyone is talking about them now.

A midseason swoon that looked like it was cooked up in the depths of hell worked so well in 2005 that it appears the Steelers have decided to pull a page out of their playbook from that season.

Actually, the loss to the Chiefs was not that surprising. There are a few things to consider before throwing in the towel on the 2009 season.

1. There are no give me games in the NFL.

Every team is loaded with elite talent, even the ones who inspire the most pity. Was it really that big of a shock that the St. Louis Rams, thought just a few weeks ago to be the worst team in the league, almost beat the New Orleans Saints, the top dog of most power rankings?

If a team doesn’t bring its “A” game, it can even lose to the Cleveland Browns.

Consider that if the Detroit Lions matched up against the Florida Gators, they would probably run them right out of the stadium…not that I wouldn’t pay to see a matchup of that kind if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. It would be a heck of a lot more interesting than the Pro Bowl. 

2. These Steelers have a painful tendency to play to the level of their competition.

They did the same thing last year, rarely blowing out even their worst opponents. While some Steelers’ fans were celebrating what appeared to be a much easier schedule, I was not at all sure that was a good thing for that reason.   

A team that is comfortable winning ugly will lose some games. The law of averages says that some years you will win a majority of the close games and some years you will lose most of them. Last year, the Steelers won most of their close games. This year, the coin has flipped. 

3. This year’s defense is plenty good.

But, last year’s defense was one of the best in the history of the league. It is easier to win the close games when a defense is nearly impenetrable.   

4. Every game features two teams who want to win.

Sometimes, as fans, we forget this. All wins are attributed to the glorious might of our team. All losses are attributed to the glorious incompetence of that same team who we were burying in praise the week before.

Rarely do we ever shrug and say, “Oh well. The other guys played better today.” That was the primary answer as to why the Steelers lost to the Bengals. The Bengals’ coaches were better on that Sunday, and their players were a tad better. That is usually all it takes.

The loss to the Chiefs is one of those rare games that says more about the problems the Steelers’ are struggling through than anything to do with the Chiefs. There is no question which team was more talented. That was fairly obvious. But, the more talented team does not always win.

5. Spotting a team seven free points each game is a huge burden to overcome, especially for a team built to win close games.

That is essentially what these Steelers are doing by allowing a weekly kickoff return for a “torchdown.”

Last year’s kickoff unit was one of the best in the league. Now, they are the worst in the history of the league. That is shocking. It may indeed be time to start kicking the ball out of bounce, or perhaps trying a few onside kicks. 

But, for all of that, there is still plenty of reason for optimism in Steelers Nation. The glass is still half full.

Here are five reasons why:

1. There is no dominant team in the AFC ready to run away with this thing come playoff time. So the Colts are 10-0. Big deal. They do not look at all impressive. Each week features their latest escape. Are they a good team? Absolutely. You don’t run off that kind of record if you stink.

Are they scary good? Not even a little bit. They are a consistently good team. In 2005, the Colts looked truly unbeatable and nobody thought they could be had come playoff time. They murdered almost everyone they faced. They looked invincible.

And they were promptly bounced by a Steelers’ team in the divisional round of the play-offs that suffered a similar mid-season run of futility, including being blown out by that Colts’ team. 

2. The Steelers’ offense truly has the potential to be something special. Mike Wallace, despite a subpar game, has the potential to be a real game breaker. Rashard Mendenhall is developing into an elite runner. And the offensive line has improved dramatically from last year, although the loss of a much improved Chris Kemoeatu will hurt.

For some reason, these guys can’t quite put it together for a full 60 minutes. But, the fact that they have not peaked is encouraging. They would be in a lot more trouble if they had already peaked and were still losing. There is still time for it to come together before the playoffs with six games left.

3. The Steelers are still well positioned for a playoff run. And that counts for something. They are 6-4. I think 10-6 will probably get a team in this year based on the current records. 11-5 will definitely land a team in the playoffs.

The Patriots were sent packing at 11-5 last year, which was a glorious thing, but that is rare. After the Colts and the Patriots, there are no sure things when it comes to the playoffs on the AFC side.

The Chargers and Bengals will probably land there. But, the other two spots are wide open. And this looks like one of those years when a wildcard team can do plenty of damage.

The Steelers were bad this past weekend. That is an undeniable fact. But, so were most of their primary competitors for the last two wildcard spots.

4. Adversity sharpens a team’s desire and prepares a team for the serious tests that await come playoff time. It also conditions a team to be able to handle pressure and respond when the going gets tough.

The Steelers have faced plenty this year. The Colts and the Saints have not faced much, other than a few injuries. That is a tribute to the fact that both are very good teams.

But, I think the best thing that can happen to either of the two remaining undefeateds is to lose, and perhaps even lose badly. Not only will that give them a taste of adversity, but would remove the pressure cooker that builds with each successive win.

It was the adversity that the Steelers faced as a team in 2005 that prepared them for their playoff run. It was the adversity faced by the Giants in 2007 that gave them the confidence to knock off a juggernaut.

The Steelers of 2008 also faced plenty of adversity with a viciously tough schedule and a few humbling losses, including that to the Titans that cost them the top seed in the AFC.

5. The Steelers are indeed built to win ugly. That doesn’t always look so hot during the regular season when other teams are lighting up the scoreboard seemingly at will. But, it becomes a much bigger asset during the playoffs when you need to be able to win close games when the pressure is sky high.

If you ask me which team is more likely to blow out the Detroit Lions, the Steelers or the Coltriots, the Coltriots would win in a landslide. If you ask me which team was more likely to lose to the St. Louis Rams, the Steelers or the Coltriots, the Steelers would win in a landslide. But, if the Steelers meet the Coltriots in the playoffs, I still like the Steelers and I would feel that way even if I wasn’t a fan of the team.

There are plenty of other reasons that go unmentioned here. The biggest is that I will never count out a Ben Roethlisberger-led team once it gets to the playoffs.

The Steelers will also likely have the best defensive player in the league back to his fully disruptive self.

For all that I wrote above, the Steelers desperately need the win this week, although not quite as desperately as the Ravens need it. Will they get that win? I like their chances. And if they do get it, they can easily get right back on the tracks.

Even if they lose, the clock will not have struck midnight just yet.  

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Mike Wallace Looks Like Next Steelers Star

Published: October 6, 2009

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Going into the draft this year, I thought the Steelers would likely draft a wide receiver in the first round. There were two reasons for this. 

One, it was an area of need assuming that Hines Ward is unable to play until he is 86 years old. I also didn’t think there would be any offensive linemen left worthy of a first round pick when the Steelers would be on the clock. 

The player I thought they would likely grab was North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, but he was off the board when the Steelers drafted, pegged to become one of Eli Manning’s new best friends. 

So, the Steelers addressed their aging defensive line in the first round and waited until the third round to grab their wide receiver, snagging Ole Miss speedster Mike Wallace with the 84th pick to go along with the offensive linemen (Kraig Urbik) and cornerback (Keenan Lewis) that shared the spotlight in that round.  

What a grab it has been.

Mike Wallace has been one of the biggest surprises of this early season, supplanting Limas Sweed and becoming one of Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to guys. 

Way back in 1998, the best wide receiver in Steelers’ history, Hines Ward, was also drafted in the third round. So, it would be fitting if his eventual replacement also came out of that round. Even their draft position was close. Ward was drafted #92 overall.

The normal expectation is that third round picks should eventually develop into solid starters by perhaps their third season. This is especially true of the wide receiver position where rookies are not supposed to make the kind of impact that Wallace is making—especially receivers drafted outside of the first two rounds. 

It is one of the hardest positions to play and many pro receivers take time to make the
adjustment, to learn how to find the holes in the defense and adjust their routes. 

Some highly drafted pass catchers can never make that adjustment, so if Sweed ultimately fails to make that adjustment, which seems like a good bet, he’ll be in good company, joining a long list of receivers drafted in the first couple rounds that never amounted to anything, including plenty of former Steelers. 

Wallace has shown a knack for getting open and making the tough catches. He has blistering speed, enabling him to run away from defenders, as he did when he burned Jonathan Joseph during the Bengals game for a 51 yard play that should have gone for a touchdown.

In a game that featured three highly regarded wide receivers (two Super Bowl MVPs and he-of-the-changed-name), the rookie was the best receiver on the field. 

He has also shown good field awareness and strong nerves, coming across the middle to make a huge catch that helped the Steelers secure the win against the Titans. It is rare that a quarterback will look to a rookie receiver, especially with a game on the line, but Big Ben has looked his way early and often and has been rewarded for it. 

Wallace is a legitimate offensive rookie of the year candidate. He has been the primary beneficiary of the extra attention demanded by Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, and Heath Miller. It is hard to see that changing.

I thought Sweed was due for a bust out year for the same reason, but his Ike Taylor-esque hands have landed him in the doghouse and perhaps a permanent spot on the bench.

As teams take more notice of Wallace, Holmes and Ward will also become beneficiaries as teams have to pick their poison on how they will defend the receiving trio.

The disappointment that Sweed has become is easily being offset by the surprising development of Wallace. 

Even the most optimistic of us rose-colored glasses wearing Steelers fans thought the most we’d see out of Wallace this year was the ability to contribute on special teams and perhaps get a couple looks in four and five receiver sets.

He has already destroyed those modest expectations.

While he isn’t a tall receiver in the mold of Plaxico Burress that Big Ben used to dream about, his off-the-charts speed can lead him to becoming a Steve Smith type of receiver, a guy that is almost impossible to cover, who can turn even small plays into big ones. 

Plenty of coaches, general managers, and owners have boldly proclaimed, “You can’t teach speed,” before drafting a guy whose only fault is that they were born without hands, a problem that plagues that species known as the speed receiver.  Al Davis makes a yearly ritual out of it.

Alas, Limas Sweed appears to have that incurable disease.

Wallace does not appear to share that problem, catching anything that comes near him. So, let’s see, he brings a combination of blazing speed, good hands, steady nerves, and solid route running.

Remind me why he was still there late into the third round?

I wrote a parody piece after the draft suggesting that Al Davis made a mistake and accidentally drafted Darrius-Heyward Bey, not realizing that Wallace is faster. In the parody, he was demanding a straight up trade. In retrospect, I think the Steelers clearly got the better receiver. 

If the Steelers catch fire and make another deep playoff push with Wallace continuing to be an integral part of their offense, he will continue to gain prominence. 

The development of Wallace is easily on track to become one of the most interesting side stories for the Steelers this year.

I can’t wait to tune in over the next two weeks to see how he does against the Lions and Browns.

Even if the Steelers had lost to the Chargers and the season looked all but lost, I still would have tuned in faithfully week after week, and a big reason for that is to see the development of this exciting rookie playmaker.

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Steelers 2008 Draft Ending With a Whimper

Published: September 24, 2009

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“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” So wrote T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men.

The oft-quoted line in one of Eliot’s most famous poems could have easily been referring to the 2008 Steelers’ draft. It started with such high expectations, but is well on its way to ending in a whimper.

The Steelers entered that draft with its biggest need being the offensive line. But, after a depressing run on extremely talented offensive linemen preceded their pick, few blamed them for grabbing Rashard Mendenhall, thought by many to be the best player still on the board at the time.

But Mendenhall’s career is off to a terrible start. He was injured early in his rookie campaign, but even during that year, he showed little during the preseason and during his limited playing time.

He has been so unimpressive in 2009 that Steelers fans are all but begging the top brass to bring somebody, anybody, up from the practice squad to carry the football. He did have a great run against the Bears, causing me to practically bounce off the ceiling.

But blasting for a 40-yard run after a string of no gainers and negative yardage runs is not a key to success.

By comparison, the player who was chosen one after them, running back Chris Brown, has become the heart and soul of the Tennessee Titans’ offense. I bet the Steelers would like to have that pick back.

In defense of Mendenhall, it is tough to have success on the ground when you constantly have to avoid tackles in the backfield.

The Steelers rarely miss with their first pick. That, along with a propensity for finding gems in the later rounds, is what has largely set them apart from their rivals. Hopefully, Mendenhall will still prove to be one of those guys, but it is now something of a long shot and I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.  

While I didn’t expect much out of Mendenhall this year, I had very high expectations for Limas Sweed. While he was plagued by drops in 2008, he showed plenty of athleticism and seemed like he might be ready to become an important component of the offense in 2009.

However, he has been all but invisible during the opening two games with the Steelers investing more playing time and looks into rookie Mike Wallace.

While it is great that they are showing such faith in Wallace, that bodes badly for Sweed.

The second year is an important one for receivers, when they frequently take a huge step forward after struggling to adjust to the pro game as rookies. If Sweed doesn’t make that a significant step forward this year, chances are that he won’t.

On to the third round. Third-round pick Bruce Davis has already been cut. He lasted one year. I found this to be staggering. Even if a player stinks and shows no upside, rarely will a team admit defeat so quickly.

I give them credit for biting the bullet instead of pretending they had something that they didn’t in Davis.

Projecting an undersized defensive end to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker is more an art than a science. Sometimes, you are going to miss badly.

The Steelers have hit spectacularly at times on these projections with players like Greg Lloyd, Jason Gilden, Lamarr Woodley, and James Harrison. But Davis falls into the same junkyard category as Alonzo Jackson. He just couldn’t make the switch.

In the fourth round, the Steelers selected tackle Tony Hills. Despite having major problems on their offensive line, particularly in the run blocking, Hills hasn’t gotten anywhere near the field.

The fact that the Steelers overpaid to keep Starks was certainly not a bid of confidence in Hills.

The Steelers’ offensive line is the Bad News Bears of run blocking, although it has shown improvement in its pass blocking. Even at that, Hills remains in obscurity, locked out of the discussion.

None of the late round picks has proven to be much of a gem, although Ryan Mundy will see some playing time due to the injuries to Troy Polamalu and Tyrone Carter.

I thought Dennis Dixon, that year’s fifth-round choice, had the potential to be a great change of pace quarterback who could be used as a wildcat style player. But the Steelers apparently gave a serious look at Michael Vick, making me question whether they think Dixon can ever be their quarterback, even as a backup situational player.

The bottom line: With each passing game, the 2008 draft is looking worse.

Drafting is hard business and every team has bad drafts. The key is to keep them to a minimum. A couple bad drafts strung together can put a team on a path to becoming the Detroit Lions or the Oakland Raiders; good drafting is one of the absolute cornerstones to a successful team.

The pain that comes hand in hand with galactically bad drafts does not become apparent immediately. But, the bill comes due at some point and it is paid in competitiveness.

A team that misses on an entire draft will end up with significant problem areas somewhere in the near future. Our expectations following that 2008 draft were high. But, unless something changes soon, they are ending with a whimper.

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After Pittsburgh Steelers Sign Heath Miller: Who’s Next?

Published: August 3, 2009

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The Steelers made one last big preseason move with the signing of Heath Miller to a six-year $35.3M contract, all but announcing that this will be their final big signing before the start of the season.

This was a signing that had to get done. Miller, a fan favorite, is still in his playing prime and is arguably the best tight end in the history of the team, a guy equally effective in both the running and passing games.

Back when he was drafted in 2005, I could not believe that Miller fell all the way to the Steelers at the bottom of the first round. Based on his college play, he looked like the perfect Steeler, and that is exactly how it has played out.

On a more selfish note, I had just ordered a “Heath Miller” Steelers jersey for a niece as a gift, so I’m glad that she’ll be able to wear it for more than one year. 

The Korean lady who I ordered the jersey from originally misunderstood me, and my niece was almost the future proud owner of the only No. 81 Terrell Owens Steelers jersey in town.  Not sure how I would have explained that one.

But, Miller was the last Steeler entering his final contract year who I thought was a lock to be resigned. 

With the salary cap situation being what it is, the Miller signing signals that a lot of key players are likely entering their last season in black and gold.

The core Steelers who will be playing in their final contract year are Jeff Reed, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Brett Keisel, and Ryan Clark.

I think it’s safe to say that none of these guys will be hitting the unemployment line at the end of this season. But, some of them will almost certainly move on to new teams after one final Super Bowl quest in the black and gold.

Brett Keisel and Willie Parker are almost certainly gone after this year with their replacements already on the roster in Evander Hood and Rashard Mendenhall.

Both of these guys have been superb Steelers, and Parker remains a very dangerous running back. No doubt the Steelers top brass would love to keep both guys around, especially Keisel, since you can never have too many good defensive linemen.

But, with so many teams moving to a 3-4 defensive alignment, the price he will demand, especially when factoring in his age, will simply be too high.

As for Parker, he has age, durability concerns, and the presence of a viable replacement all conspiring against him. The only scenario I can see where the Steelers try to find a way to bring back Parker is if Mendenhall proves to be a disastrous bust and Parker’s value drops to the point where they can afford to bring him back.

That’s not a likely combination of events, nor one that the Steelers are hoping to see happen.

Considering Keisel and Parker were a seventh round pick and an undrafted free agent respectively, both guys have been absolute gems for the Steelers. But, the odds are squarely against either of them returning to the Steelers after this season.

The Steelers will no doubt have a stronger interest in bringing back the other three core players that consist of Hampton, Clark, and Reed.

What Casey Hampton has going for him is that a likely replacement is not on the roster. He is ably backed up by Chris Hoke, but Hoke will be 34 at the end of Hampton’s contract, one year older than Hampton.

The other thing he has going for him is that good nose tackles who can play in a 3-4 defensive scheme are a real commodity, harder to find than a Browns fan in Pittsburgh, or Cleveland for that matter after last season.

Hampton also has gone on record as saying he would like to finish his career in Pittsburgh, which I think counts for something. What he has going against him is his age, the concerns about his weight, and potential durability issues.

Personally, I think the weight issues are a little overblown. When a guy’s primary responsibility is to be an unmovable force gumming up the middle of the line, are a few extra pounds really that big of a problem?

The other factor that could work against his return to Pittsburgh is that even at 33, he would still command a hefty salary on the open market now that so many teams have switched to a 3-4 base defensive scheme.

In terms of Hampton, a potential uncapped year would be a double-edged sword that would cut both ways. It would enable the Steelers to make him a respectable offer, but it would also allow every other team in the league do the same, driving up the price.

The nose tackle is a cornerstone of that defense, the guy that hogs up all the blockers in the middle so the linebackers can run free and make plays. And several of the teams that have adopted that defense don’t have anything close to a Casey Hampton on their roster to make the scheme work.

My gut feeling is that the Steelers, without an heir apparent on the roster for Hampton, will find a way to bring him back, but only if he is willing to take slightly less than he might make somewhere else.

Ryan Clark’s status is more challenging to discern and it will all come down to what it will cost to bring him back. Clark was an absolutely superb free agent signing for the Steelers and gave them a credible free safety to pair with Troy Polamalu, something they were missing ever since Chris Hope left town.

He is the hardest hitting member of their defensive secondary, and pound for pound, one of the hardest hitting players in the league. He also is underrated as a cover guy, which is important since it frees up Polamalu to wreck havoc all over the field.

But, playing such a key role on one of the best defenses in the history of the game may price him outside of what the Steelers can afford to pay. If the league does have an uncapped year, the Steelers will make a serious run at keeping Clark since I think he is largely undervalued outside of Pittsburgh.

If Clark does leave, I’m not sure if the Steelers have a potential replacement on their roster.  If they do, it might be one of the rookie cornerbacks or a veteran cornerback, like Deshea Townsend, who could potentially convert to free safety for a few final seasons. 

As for Jeff Reed, I don’t think the Steelers will let him go. I can sum up my primary reason for that gut feeling in two words: Todd Peterson.

If you don’t remember that name, he was the horror show of a kicker for the Steelers before Reed came to town. Think Mitch Berger as the punter, and magnify your feelings of disgust by about ten. That’s what it was like watching Todd Peterson kick at Heinz Field.

In defense of Peterson, Heinz Field is a kicker’s nightmare. Even good and seasoned kickers can look foolish there. But, in reasonable distance situations, Reed is as close to automatic as you can get.

Kickers don’t command huge salaries and Reed’s steady kicking at Heinz Field has been instrumental in several key wins. While kickers aren’t drafted high or paid much comparatively, they have a huge impact on a team’s overall record.

What Reed has going against him is his flaky behavior.

Even factoring that into the equation, I don’t think the Steelers will want to roll the dice with another kicker and will bring back Reed.

So, in the final tally, my guess is that Keisel, Parker and Clark will leave town in 2010 while Hampton and Reed remain with the Steelers. The best case scenario would have all but Keisel and Parker returning, but I would not be at all surprised if all but Reed ended up leaving.

Dennis Dixon Is Surer Bet for Steelers Than Michael Vick

Published: July 30, 2009

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The Steelers and Patriots are the two teams that sit atop just about all of the key pre-season power rankings as the teams most likely to win the Super Bowl this year. 

The teams share something else in common.  Las Vegas oddsmakers have made them the odds on favorites to sign Michael Vick, with both teams being given 4-1 odds.

While I realize that Las Vegas is a town where you can bet on anything and everything, I just don’t think it is in the cards for the Steelers.   

And it has nothing to do with the team’s reputation for not bringing in low character players.  Nor do I think there will be sizable protests or fan reaction against whatever team eventually signs Vick, which I think is a grossly overblown media concoction.

Michael Vick has served his time and certainly deserves the shot that he is being given.  Americans are a forgiving people and we almost universally believe that after someone has paid the consequences for his actions, he deserves a second chance. 

The exception in this case will be the PETA diehards.  But, what are the Vegas odds on finding a PETA commando who is also a football fan or, for that matter, brave enough to protest at some of the less hospitable NFL venues on game day?   

I have a hunch that Vick will be a model citizen when and if he comes back to the game, meaning that whatever team takes him could actually benefit from the redemption story that he will bring with him, especially with the almost universally beloved Tony Dungy staking his reputation on him. 

After all, who doesn’t love a redemption story? 

If movie fans could embrace Darth Vader, the ultimate villain, after he threw the wrinkly old guy with the weird eyes who shot lightning from his fingers into a pit, I’m guessing that football fans can welcome back Michael Vick, even if he is no longer a human highlight reel.      

The bigger problem with Vick and the real reason that most teams will not look in his general direction is that he has been out of football for two years.  His skills have almost certainly atrophied. 

This is a bigger concern on Vick than it might be on some other quarterbacks because his game was always about his almost superhuman athleticism, and not about pinpoint accuracy.  Those are the skills that are the first to go. 

In the case of Vick, once his athleticism starts to slip, the party is over.

So, why not the Steelers as the team where Vick can write his redemption story?  The short answer is Dennis Dixon.    

When the Steelers drafted Dennis Dixon in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, I was intrigued by the pick. 

I still am.

People forget how good he was in college when he was the signal caller for the Oregon Ducks.  He was absolutely incredible until he was sidelined by injury with a torn ACL, arguably the best player in college football at the time. 

Think Michael Vick, but with slightly less athleticism and a better passing touch.  He was absolutely scorching the best defenses in the land, including Michigan, back before they became a national punchline, and USC.

If he hadn’t gone down to injury, Dixon was a very real threat to win the Heisman trophy and almost certainly would have been drafted in the first two rounds.  For that matter, he may have led Oregon to a national championship. 

But, because of the injury, he slid all the way to the Steelers in the fifth round.  And with both a superb starting quarterback and a solid veteran backup, the Steelers were perfectly positioned to take a flyer on Dixon, giving him time to rehab from injury while improving his skill sets and learning the offense.

For their Super Bowl run in 2008, the Steelers had two savvy veteran quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger in Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch.  Leftwich is now gone and Batch is a year older. 

Dixon is also a year older and one more year removed from the injury that upended his sensational senior college season.  It is likely that Dixon will challenge for the backup role and may well be the surprise Steeler of 2009. 

And if the Steelers truly are looking for a player they could utilize in a “Wildcat” role, Dixon is that guy, not Vick.  

The key word in that last sentence is “if.”  While the “Wildcat” offense remains a popular topic, I’m not convinced it will have a huge impact this season. 

Part of its early success was that it surprised defenses.  It no longer has that working for it.  And as an innovation, it doesn’t exactly rank up there with the forward pass, which was largely ignored despite being in the rules until Notre Dame unveiled it to shock then football power Army. 

The “Wildcat,” which is used differently by different teams, is more of a back to the future wrinkle that uses a single-wing formation.  It genuinely seemed to catch teams off-guard last season, working especially well for the Miami Dolphins. 

But, its unexpected success may ultimately lead to an early demise.  It was adopted by so many teams in one form or another that it won’t surprise anyone come next season.  Defenses will no longer have to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to scheme against it. 

After this season, we’ll have a greater appreciation for whether or not it has staying power or if it was more of a one-hit wonder, the NFL’s version of “Come on Eileen.” 

My bet is on the latter. 

In the case of the Steelers, I’m also not sure offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is a “Wildcat” kind of guy.  He did not show a knack for innovation in 2008, taking predictability to an art form at times. 

If someone like Mike Mularkey or Ken Whisenhunt were running the offense, two innovative coordinators who were always looking for new ways to use their players, I would put more stock in seeing the Steelers put emphasis on adding those plays to their playbook and perhaps giving a brief look in Vick’s direction.

But, Arians strikes me as more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy.     

The other event that has caused speculation to surround the Steelers as a potential Vick suitor are Ben Roethlisberger’s current legal problems.  But, this is also a red herring. 

Roethlisberger is facing a civil trial.  Even if he loses there, which seems highly unlikely, he will not be convicted of a crime, meaning he almost certainly won’t be suspended.  

Even the no-nonsense commissioner is unlikely to suspend someone solely based on the outcome of a civil trial, especially one that is likely to devolve into a “he said, she said” affair.

The bigger football concern with Roethlisberger is whether he can stay healthy if he continues to get sacked 50 times a season. 

And if Roethlisberger does go down, does anyone really think Michael Vick will be an ideal full-time starting quarterback this season? 

The only quarterback I can think of who I would less like to see suiting up in the black and gold to lead the Steelers’ offense is Brett Favre.

The bottom line:  I don’t think the Steelers are likely to show much interest in adding a Wildcat flavor to their offense.  But, if they do, they don’t need Michael Vick to do it.  They already have an ideal Wildcat quarterback on the roster in Dennis Dixon.   

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Untradeables Set Them Apart

Published: July 20, 2009

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When I was a kid, I used to collect football, baseball, and hockey cards.  Part of the fun of collecting cards was trading them with friends or flipping them in an attempt to win more cards.

But, I always had a few of my favorite cards that I kept back, never to trade or flip.  They were the “untradeables.”

You can apply a similar concept to an NFL roster in an attempt to gauge the strength of that roster.

You know you really have something special in a a player when you absolutely would not trade that player for a single other player at his position in the league. Nada. Not one.

Most teams are lucky to have one or two players that warrant this type of consideration. The Pittsburgh Steelers have at least eight and a strong argument could be made for a couple more.

There are a number of factors that go into this analysis. Skill is obviously the biggest factor meaning what kind of impact the player makes on the field.

Age is another critical consideration. How long will this player be able to play at his current level?

Leadership and character are also important considerations overlooked at a team’s peril.

The status quo wins out in all tiebreakers, simply meaning that you don’t want to trade away a current player and risk damaging locker room chemistry unless you are sure the player you get will succeed at a higher level in your system.

A star in one system can be a dud in another.

One final factor is salary cap implications. This must be factored in. No team can collect all the best players in the salary cap era, so sometimes the best player for a team at a given position is not the best in the league, but the best player for a given salary amount.

So, here are the core Steelers’ players that I would not trade for a single player at their position in the league and my reason why.

Ben Roethlisberger—This is something of a no-brainer. No player on the Steelers generates more comments from fans saying they wouldn’t trade him for anyone. And for good reason.

He is clutch, perfectly fits the Steelers’ system, is young, and is incredibly skilled. The guy just wins. 

The two players who some would argue are better quarterbacks are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Both are older than Roethlisberger and lose significant points for that reason.

Even apart from the age issue, neither, in my opinion, would flourish as well as Roethlisberger has in the Steelers’ offense.

Santonio Holmes—Holmes is being judged as the No.2 wide receiver here. Can you think of a better No.2 receiver in the league? Wes Welker? I wouldn’t do it. Anthony Gonzalez? No way. Anquan Boldin? Don’t make me laugh.

The argument could be made that Holmes should be considered a No.1 receiver since he may be transitioning to that role. But, it would be foolish to count Hines Ward out just yet. He likely still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

And, when Holmes does emerge as the No.1 receiver, he can then be evaluated against other No.1 receivers. Even if he was evaluated against the No.1 receiver, there are only a couple in the league who I would definitely take over Holmes, to include Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.

Heath Miller—Miller has emerged as one of the elite tight ends in the league and arguably the best in the team’s storied history. He is an outstanding pass catcher and blocker. And he is still young. While there are a few tight ends, such as Jason Whitten and Antonio Gates, who are considered to be better, I wouldn’t take any of them ahead of Miller.

Troy Polamalu—Polamalu is easily considered the best strong safety in the league as well as being a high character guy.

The only safety even mentioned in the same breath as Troy is Ed Reed, a free safety. Those are not the same position and they play very different roles for their teams. Reed is more of the ball hawking center fielder. Polamalu is the ultimate hybrid safety who moves all over the field, acting as an extra linebacker on one play and then shifting into more of a cornerback role on the next snap.

He is one of the few defenders in the league who must be accounted for on every snap.

James Harrison—Harrison was named defensive player of the year in 2008 so his skill set is certainly not in doubt. The one knock on Harrison is his age since he is over 30. But, Harrison got a late start to his career, mostly playing on special teams when at all.

So, his age is not as big of a consideration as it might be if he had already started for several years in this league. He is also a workout warrior, showing a complete commitment to football.

Nobody is more intense than Harrison, who looks like a psychotic axe murderer when he stares across the line at the opposing quarterback. And nobody makes more game changing plays. Harrison has earned his spot on the untradeables.

Lamarr Woodley—Harrison’s partner in crime isn’t much of a downgrade. Woodley is still a kid, but he is an absolute wrecking ball, bringing a tremendous amount of pressure opposite Harrison. Quarterbacks have to pick their poison. If they shift away from the Silverback, Woodley is right there waiting.

While there may be a few outside linebackers who are better at this point in their career, Woodley’s combination of skill, youth, and tremendous upside land him safely on this list.

Ike Taylor—Taylor will probably be the most controversial player on this list. Why? Because he has hands of steel, meaning that anything that hits them bounces off like a pinball.

But, Taylor lines up against the best wide receivers in the league week after week and shuts them down, or at least limits their damage. He is still young, meaning he has many great years left.

So, given the chance, why not trade him for one of the more highly regarded cornerbacks, like Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha? Have you seen Asomugha’s salary cap hit? The Steelers couldn’t afford him even if they could broker a straight up trade.

Even at that, I’m not sure any cornerback in the league is that big of an upgrade over Taylor. He is the best shutdown corner the Steelers have fielded since Rod Woodson.  Even when he gets beat (as all cornerbacks do), he is usually right there in the neighborhood. 

Jeff Reed—No stadium in football is tougher to kick in than Heinz Field. Yet, Reed makes it look effortless time after time. When you find a kicker who is reliable at Heinz Field, you keep him at all costs. End of story. Reed is to clutch kickers what Roethlisberger is to clutch quarterbacks.

There are a few other players who would have made this list a couple years ago but due to age, have slid off the list. Hines Ward, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith are the players who certainly belonged on this list in recent memory.

But, because of their age, I can no longer fairly say that I wouldn’t trade them for another player at their position in the league if given the opportunity.

That is not to take away from what these players still mean to the team. And their skills have not dropped precipitously yet.

Even with the age issue, I still came close to putting Smith on the list because I think he remains one of the best 3—4 defensive ends in the league. But, I couldn’t quite do it.

So, that’s eight guys I would not trade for a single player at their position in the league. Considering a team has 22 starters on offense and defense, that means that the seven offensive and defensive “untradeables” count for about 31 percent of their two key units.

And that isn’t even accounting for such stalwarts as Farrior, Hampton, Smith, and Willie Parker.

No team in the league boasts as many “untradeables” as the Steelers. Some don’t boast a single one.  That’s why the Steelers have to be considered a good bet to repeat as champions in 2009.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Football Should Be a Fluid Concept

Published: July 13, 2009

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One common complaint on message boards and blog sites throughout 2008 was that the Steelers had gotten away from “Steelers football,” at least on the offensive side of the ball.  

By “Steelers football,” the writer is typically referring to an offense built around a power “between the tackles” running game. 

It also could mean lining up a hulking power runner behind a fullback and plowing full throttle into the middle of a line until the opposing defense is ready to wave the white flag in surrender.

This idea of “Steelers football” is all about lining up across from the defense and smashing them right in the mouth again and again and again.

But, this style of offense only works when you have the right kind of personnel to execute it. 

There have been plenty of times in their history when the Steelers had the perfect personnel to play this style of ball. 

Throughout much of the 70s, the Steelers had one of the best power backs in football with Franco Harris running behind a bruising run-blocking offensive line. 

But, it is worth noting that nearly all offenses during this era were oriented around a power running game.  The difference with the Steelers is that they did it better than just about everyone else.

But, the Steelers’ offense had evolved by the late 1970s.  The Steelers’ offense that won the last two Super Bowls of that decade was not the same offense that captured the first two. 

The Steelers slew the Cowboys in round two in the 1979 Super Bowl and the Rams in 1980 with an aerial circus attack that turned John Stallworth and Lynn Swann into household names.

Terry Bradshaw overcame three interceptions in his final Super Bowl to lead the team to victory and capture the MVP trophy.

John Stallworth and Lynn Swann are in the Hall of Fame today largely on the strength of their playoff performances during those two Super Bowl runs.

This was not the same risk adverse team that believed that three yards and a cloud of dust, when backed by defense that took no prisoners, was the ultimate play, as was the case with the 1975 squad that battered the Vikings.

In the 1980s, the Steelers tried to return to their power football roots out of a sense of necessity. 

Their quarterbacks, with such headliners as Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone, were wretched.  Unfortunately, their running backs weren’t a whole lot better with the highly touted Tim Worley serving as the last failure at that position of that decade. 

The 1990s saw Bill Cowher take over the reigns of the team and reinstall a successful power running attack.  He was able to put together the pieces that ushered in a return of “Steelers football” in the first half of the decade with running backs like Barry Foster and Bam Morris running behind very good offensive lines.

But, Cowher played to the strength of his players.  The superb 1994 and 1995 Steelers’ squads relied every bit as much on its passing game, featuring Neal O’Donnell throwing to Yancey Thigpen and Andre Hastings, as it did on its running game.  O’Donnell was the team MVP in 1995. 

O’Donnell is arguably the most vilified player in the history of the Steelers, but we forget that he headlined some very effective passing attacks, especially when he was paired with the underrated Thigpen.

The Steelers acquired one of the best power runners in the history of the game in 1996 in Jerome Bettis in what might have been the best trade in team history, ushering in another era of power running football. 

But, by the time the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005, Bettis’ best days were behind him. The Steelers were not a power run team that year with Bettis filling a niche role on the team.  It was an important role, but not central to their offense in any way.

They built their leads behind their passing game while featuring a speed back in Willie Parker that kept defenses off balance. 

They primarily switched to the run game after building their leads through the air, using the run game to run the clock.

It is at best a myth and at worst an intentional slander to say that Ben Roethlisberger was along for the ride on a team that featured the run en route to the Steelers’ 2005 Super Bowl title, although you hear that on a regular basis, even from sportswriters who should know better.  

The story was much the same in 2008.  When the Steelers offense was most successful in the playoffs, it built leads through the air before shifting to a run game that was mostly stuck in neutral.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, when it comes to the offense, “Steelers football” should be a fluid term. 

While the team has frequently relied on power running games throughout the last four decades, it has also shifted to a more pass oriented attacks when the personnel were better suited to that style of offense.

The problem I had with the playcalling in 2008 was that the Steelers and Bruce Arians seemed to over commit to a run game that was not working. 

Sure, the fullback was scrapped.  But, I’m not sure the Steelers would have been much more successful running behind a fullback.

The playcalling was predictable enough that I had a pretty good idea what was going to be called on any given down.  There was little ingenuity and flexibility.

As such, the Steelers were the No. 23 ranked offense in the league in 2008.  Considering the dominance of the defense, it is not unfair to say that they were one of the worst offenses in the NFL during the regular season.

What I’d like to see in 2009 is a less predictable offense that maximizes the strengths of the players while minimizing their weaknesses.  If this means largely scrapping the power running game until a future date when the personnel line up better with that style of offense, it wouldn’t be the first time. 

If it means more screens and misdirection plays, that is what the Steelers should emphasize. 

The Steelers current offensive strength seems more weighted towards the passing game.  They have an outstanding quarterback, good receivers, and an offensive line that has shown more improvement in its pass blocking than in its run blocking. 

In a healthy dose of irony considering its power running reputation, the team features two wide receivers who have both captured Super Bowl MVP trophies, making it the first offense in history to feature such a tandem.

While I’m not quite sure I want to see the Steelers try and imitate the Dan Fouts’ led Chargers of old or the team never to be mentioned’s aerial circus of a couple years back, I think they would benefit from relying a bit more on the pass. 

I’d love to see Ben Roethlisberger given the opportunity to run a no huddle offense more often, not just when the game is on the line.

Flexibility should be the key attribute of an offense that seeks to attack a defense’s weaknesses while playing to its strengths.

If this means we have to reevaluate what it means to play “Steelers football” on the offensive side of the ball, that is a small price to pay for overall team success. 

Pittsburgh Is the Nation’s Premier Sports Town

Published: July 4, 2009

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Arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport on a trip back to the city to attend my brother’s wedding, we were greeted at the top of the airport’s escalator by two lifelike mannequins.


One was of General George Washington suited for battle, celebrating his history in the area and the other was of Franco Harris, also suited for battle, a tribute to the city’s incredible sports legacy. 


And those competing images are the perfect representation of a city whose history and culture is so seamlessly intertwined with its sports traditions.


Pittsburgh is a special place.  I wasn’t ready to admit that after leaving the city not long after graduating from high school. 


Like many kids, I figured the grass was greener on the other side.  There was a great big world out there to explore…the land of Rocky Mountain highs (natural of course), California Girls, Oktoberfests, and all such things. 


But, after living all over the country and the world, I’ve come to realize that Pittsburgh is one of the most unique cities in the U.S.  I think those of us who have left the city know best what we left behind. 


No city generates as much civic pride in its residents as Pittsburgh.  When people ask me where I’m from, I always feel a sense of pride when I establish my Pittsburgh “street cred.”

Contrast this with the reaction when the President announced Pittsburgh would be hosting the G20 Summit. 


The elitists in the White House press corps, a group collectively unaware that there are cities in the U.S. not named New York, Washington, or Los Angeles, actually laughed. 


That, in and of itself, is also a point of pride, that some people will never understand why we love our hometown so much. 


There are several factors that I think account for why Pittsburgh is such a fascinating place to both be from and to call home. 


There is the very powerful historical narrative…the pride we feel in the city’s blue collar roots.  We take pride that our fathers and grandfathers worked in the steel mills as part of the industry that helped build our nation, even if that industry is no longer the lifeblood of the city.


The city and the surrounding area also played huge parts in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars which were so important in forming the identity of our country.

There are the distinctly Pittsburgh traditions, like eating a hot dog at the Original “O” in Oakland or a Primanti Brother’s sandwich, waiting in the long line to get in the back seat on the Thunderbolt roller coaster at Kennywood because it is the best seat, stepping onboard the Gateway Clipper riverboat to be ferried to old Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Steelers or Pirates, riding an incline up to Mount Washington on light up night, or listening to Donny Iris tell us that some girl named Leah “is looking better than a body has a right to.” 

There is the diverse flavor of so many different areas like the South Side, the Strip District, and Oakland, areas that hold so many memories for nearly all of us who ever called the city home.


There is the city’s rebirth as an educational and medical leader. 


There is the wide variation of distinct neighborhoods that generate not just civic pride, but pride in your neighborhood. 


There is the quirkiness of one of the most unique accents in the country, an accent that resulted in plenty of wonder, and more than a bit of laughter, in my first year at college in Colorado despite what I thought were more mystifying ones all around me.


One of my friends would ask me to say the following sentence, “I’m going out downtown with yinz to the mountain to wash some clothes.”  He would then crack up. 


There is the beauty of the Pittsburgh skyline outlined against the Point, where the three rivers come together.


Against this backdrop, it is the sports tradition that binds all of us together as one community. 


Pittsburgh might be a small city whose contributions on the national stage are overlooked or even laughed at by those who should know better, but it has the greatest sports history and traditions in the U.S. 


At the top of the list, the city hosts the greatest franchise in football in the Steelers. 

What makes the Steelers so special when compared to other professional sports teams is the way that the team and even the players fit the image of the city. 


The team has always been a “blue collar” team, emphasizing strong character and teamwork.  The mentality of the team is all about slugging it out on the ground while playing excellent defense. 


The city isn’t about gimmicky bells and whistles and neither is its football team.  No other team has generated the national following of the Steelers with the very real phenomenon of Steelers Nation. 


In every single place I’ve lived, the Steelers were either the favorite team or the second favorite team. 


Even in Colorado, in the heart of Broncos Country, the Steelers had a huge following, a fifth column ready to show up at the Broncos game whenever the Steelers came to town. 


When I lived less than an hour from Cincinnati, the Steelers were the team of choice, not the local Bengals.  Thanks to Hines Ward, my current home in Korea is even Steelers’ Country. 


Everywhere I’ve ever lived, if I throw on a Steelers’ jersey and head out, I’m bound to be greeted by other Steelers’ fans.


Clearly, the Steelers’ winning tradition is a big part of this phenomenon.  But, it is more than that. 


It is the sense of identify that the team has established by being true to its Pittsburgh roots.  It is the fact that when the city was struggling economically in the 1970s, it was the Steelers who became the glue that held everybody together and kept the sense of community intact.


That team has a mythic quality.  Remember when Joe Greene shared a Coke with a kid and then threw him his game jersey?  Oh, that was only a commercial.  Nonetheless, that was cool. 


The city also has plenty of great sports history with both the Pirates and Penguins. 
We hang on to the heroes in all of our teams. 


I grew up listening to stories about Roberto Clemente’s exploits at Forbes Field, about how Harvey Haddix threw the best game by a pitcher in the history of baseball…and lost, and about Bill Mazeroski’s homer that slew the mighty Yankees in the 1960 World Series, the most dramatic conclusion to a World Series in the history of baseball. 


Speaking of Forbes Field, it is one of the most storied baseball field ever to open its gates to the public, the field where Babe Ruth hit his final home run. 


I remember looking on the part of the wall that still stands in Oakland and wishing I had the opportunity to see just one game there.  That stadium first opened its gates almost 100 years ago to the day and had a profound impact on the history of baseball.

While many of us weren’t alive to see these incredible moments or watch Clemente play at Forbes Field, listening to our elders tell the stories helped shape our character and first fanned the flames on a passion for sports that unites nearly all Pittsburghers. 

The Pirates of the last several years may be a bunch of bums but they are our bunch of bums.  And we remain ever hopeful that they will once again live up to the legacy of the players who came before them.   


Pittsburgh has also become one of the nation’s most exciting hockey towns.  This is because the Penguins have featured three of the most dynamic players ever to lace up a pair of hockey skates, turning rabid football fans into puckheads, at least during hockey season.


In hockey, we also have our stories.  The greatest of them is the story of Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, a guy who would later save his team from leaving his adopted hometown and lead it back to glory while mentoring a new champion and all-world leader in Sidney Crosby. 


And the team just drafted the son of one of my all-time favorite Penguins, Ulf Samuelsson.  Now that is cool.

Perhaps the part of sports I miss the most since leaving Pittsburgh is Friday night high school football.  I used to love watching the highlights on the Fedko Zone to see who came out on top in the Woodland Hills-North Hills grudge match.

 I’ve never lived anywhere where high school football is as important as it is in Pittsburgh. 

When I was in high school, there were two things in high school football you could count on…North Hills was going to win, and my team, Baldwin, was going to lose.  Everything else was up for grabs. 

Our sports teams touch every fabric of our lives.  They bring fathers and sons together.  And we all have our stories associated with those teams. 

You know the stories.  Like meeting that really cool girl at a Pirates’ game and scoring her number even though the Pirates lost. 

Or seeing your favorite player at an area restaurant.  Or walking by “Badger” Bob Johnson on your way to a baseball game and having him nod and say, “Have a good night, boys.”   

The players that come to Pittsburgh understand that special relationship between player and fan that, if not unique to Pittsburgh, is at least at its highest form in the Steel City. 

That is why so many Pittsburgh greats adopt Pittsburgh as their hometown when their playing days are done; players like Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Rod Woodson, and Mario Lemieux. 

It is why Troy Polamalu did not hesitate for a second when answering whether he sees himself as a Californian or a Pittsburgher.

All of this and so much more is part of the spirit of Pittsburgh.  That is why Pittsburgh is not just one of the greatest sports towns in the United States, but one of the most special places in the entire country.

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