Steelers Thoughts #1 (1/24/14): Vexing and Vortexing

o-line

The hiring of recently deposed Tennessee Titans head coach and Hall of Fame Houston Oilers guard Mike Munchak as the Steelers’ new Offensive Line coach predictably has the hearts and daydreams of both our fanbase and local journalists all aflutter. I’m right there with them. Grabbing one of the best linemen in NFL history, with years of proven experience (and results) as first a line then a head coach? Score! He’s a local guy who wants to be in the ‘Burgh and brings instant unspoken authority and credibility to a line that is already trending up, despite having had more members than Spinal Tap in the last five years (including four centers in 2013). I don’t know how you classify that as anything but a coup, honestly. Lots of pundits are already calling this the best offseason move we’ll make, and it’s hard to argue with the concept. This is a pretty solid OL group in my opinion. It just needs coaching and continuity. The former now worries me no longer, and if the latter should get screwed up (and it almost certainly will), who better to help steer the ship through rough seas than someone with Munchak’s track record?

Some of the intelligentsia are concerned Munchak will bolt the Steelers as soon as his name becomes a hot commodity again. Two points on that: 1) they should be, and 2) what would it matter? I’m pretty sure we’ve got him for at least 2014. You think his teaching and influence aren’t going to make David DeCastro, with his boundless potential, a better guard THIS season? What about providing a steadying, motivational hand for Maurkice Pouncey, a star center derailed by and now rebounding from such a tough injury? Or Kelvin Beachum, still on the upswing and growing every day as a jack of all trades and possible choice at starting tackle? Or unlocking the puzzle that is Mike Adams, who is so far little more than the sum of his outstanding physical measurables? Somebody needs to be put to work solving that puzzle. I have as much faith in Munchak’s ability to do so as anyone you could mention.

I’m not somebody who puts countless hours into analyzing coaching hires, but in this case I really didn’t need to be. This was as close to a “splash hire” as can be made by a relatively understated organization for an under the radar, comparatively thankless job like O-Line Coach. (I must say that I think the current emperor of empty splash hires, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, actually pulled a pretty decent conventional one off with the addition of Bengals O-coordinator Jay Gruden* as their coach) I’d think head coach Mike Tomlin had some kind of inside information when he fired Jack Bicknell at the start of the Steelers’ offseason, but Munchak hung around in Nashville for a good while after, only reportedly finally getting the axe when he refused, as a then head coach, to make a summary sacrifice of other coaches on his staff in atonement for the Titans’ underachieving season. Why wouldn’t you want that kind of guy on your side, especially with his established bona fides? Munchak had serious interest not just from the Steelers but also from Penn State and from the Cleveland Browns (but, to be fair, you did probably too, and you stayed).

*ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski, when discussing the Gruden hire on morning radio recently with his trademark aimless but torrential enthusiasm, responded to the non-question of whether the ‘Skins would’ve rather hired Jay’s famous older brother, Super Bowl winning coach and current MNF shill Jon, thusly (paraphrased): “Well, people think of Jay Gruden strictly in terms of his older brother Jon, and Jay and Jon are of course both very good at what they do. But let’s also not forget Jay and Jon’s father, Jim!” To which my brain immediately responded, “and his boy, Elroy! Daughter Judy! And Jane, his wife!” I am a simple creature sometimes.

Munchak’s hire means that there are now three former head coaches on Mike Tomlin’s staff (D-coordinator Dick LeBeau and O-coordinator Pariah Carey, er, Todd Haley, are the other two), and it has been the perfect occasion**, at least on social media, where every other comment is a brain cell killa, to reopen the highly engaging debate on exactly how crappy a job Todd Haley is doing as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, and whether he should be fired now, should’ve been fired last year, or perhaps should’ve been exiled to Bangladesh as a condition of leaving the Chiefs a few years ago so we could already be well rid of him. This is, in my opinion, conventional wisdom that, while always a bit shaky, has now been fairly well refuted by facts, but has mutated into a tiresome, knee-jerk, incredibly pervasive sort of groupthink anyway. To review: the Steelers lost their Pro-Bowl center and veteran middle linebacker in the first game of the 2013 season, made some awful mistakes across the board, and got off to an 0-4 start from which, by rights, no team should recover. From being called one of the handful of worst teams in the league, they did recover to a degree, showing solidarity and signs of increasing life and confidence, strategically deploying and often thriving in a no-huddle offense, establishing multi-talented rookie Le’Veon Bell as the running back of the future, Antonio Brown as one of the top ten receivers in the game, and cementing Ben Roethlisberger as one of its handful of true franchise quarterbacks.

**Other occasions which almost invariably reopen the debate: any social media or internet story concerning any aspect of the Steelers whatsoever is both posted and contains a comment section; more than 2-3 Steelers fans gather at any time, in any setting, under any circumstances; the wind blows; the sun rises; the Earth rotates on its axis.

The Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of the season, and, as fans are all so painfully aware, barely missed making the playoffs with a .500 record. Many fans seem to be especially receptive of the Munchak hire because they feel that it makes Todd Haley finally, definitively expendable. They point to Ben’s comfort with the no-huddle and the offense overall, and, indeed, it was energized, exciting and firing on multiple cylinders by year’s end. Here’s the rub though: Ben Roethlisberger is not Peyton Manning. He did not invent the concept of the no-huddle offense, nor did he invent the game of football. Todd Haley was specifically brought in as OC to reimagine and reconfigure the vertical passing game that made Mike Wallace a very rich probable free agent bust into something that would allow the Steelers’ many weapons (Brown, TE Heath Miller, Bell, probable future rich free agent bust Emmanuel Sanders) to explosively work their magic in space. And, even though I hate bubble screen passes as much as the next thousand guys (except, of course, when they work), the results have been telling. Brown had a career year in 2013, and Bell set a franchise record for most yards from scrimmage. Neither man is the least bit close to his ceiling yet. Ben is content, the Draft’s approaching, and the reasons for optimism on the offensive side of the Steelers ball are myriad.

Above all, Haley was brought in to teach Ben to get rid of the ball quicker and to take fewer hits. The two have obviously had a fraught relationship, as breathlessly reported and speculated on by the media, but the proof is officially in the pudding. Ben showed terrific marks league-wide in terms of touchdowns and passing yards, in no small part due to ownership and better decision-making on his part (outside of those first four games, which were a four alarm nightmare for everyone), increased use of the no-huddle, and the simple fact that he played in all 16 games, which has been a serious anomaly in recent years. We finally learn to keep our franchise QB both productive AND upright and everybody wants to fix that immediately, just because they can’t stand to not be bitching about something at all times? Stupid internet. This offense, I concede, can be both highly frustrating and highly entertaining depending on the day, but I feel it is definitely trending up. We have the weapons, and it all starts with #7. Protect him, or else, yes, please fire Todd Haley and replace him with Mike Martz, then everybody chip in to buy Ben a sweet new wheelchair after he’s sacked 13 times a game and is inevitably on injured reserve by mid-season. It’s just silly. Thank heavens Tomlin and the Rooneys are too competent and connected to reality to allow bellicose fans any voice or the slightest influence in this matter.

In 2013, Ben had statistically his best season since 2009, which, not coincidentally, was also the last time Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl. The Munchak hire is a huge piece, another step in the right direction, and it’s well worth the excitement currently rippling through the fanbase. But if Steelers fans want to find themselves singing that awesome, annoying song (you know the one, here we go) again anytime soon, and we do, I think some perspective on Haley is in order. When some team finally does hire him as a head coach again, let it be because he did so well as the Steelers’ OC and not because the Browns picked him off the proverbial scrapheap.

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