Because of the (seeming) increased importance, or at least commensurate media coverage, of the free agent period and draft, fans like me can often find themselves with a skewed subconscious understanding of the NFL off-season. With the draft a mere (albeit punishing) two weeks away and free agent activity now reduced to a trickle, it feels on many levels like the off-season is winding down when, in reality, it’s barely half done. Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers might particularly already wish it was over, for the 2015 off-season – which, you’ll remember, began with Dick LeBeau’s emotional departure and Keith Butler’s promotion to defensive coordinator – has had a whiplash-inducing quality to it so far, with exceedingly long periods of eerie quiet suddenly punctuated not by a free agent signing, the kind of good faith reloading efforts that provide fans a moment’s excitement during the extended doldrum periods, but rather a full-blown life event, the magnitude of which might cause the recipient to update his insurance in real life. The Steelers have been about as active in free agency thus far as they ever are – losing CB Brice McCain to the Dolphins while signing Panthers all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to spell Le’Veon Bell, retaining stealth pass rusher Arthur Moats, quality blocking TE Matt Spaeth, and, somewhat crucially, man-beast James Harrison to spell 3rd-year redshirt Jarvis Jones and periodically inject life into the linebacking corps – but elsewhere the rumblings have been seismic in scale, and even as the losses suffered might not be borne out as catastrophic on the field, they will always be sad and instructive reminders of what we, as a fanbase, not only have lost but, almost miraculously, what we had, in abundance, for so very long.
Just look at that frigging picture, man.
Troy, Da Beard, and Swaggin’ U
I might’ve just as easily written this post last week, when, after months of subdued but prolonged speculation, all-time great Steeler safety Troy Polamalu finally announced his retirement. For that transaction, one of the “life events” I referenced above, the writing had been on the wall since the midpoint of the season, if not before. I sat at Columbus, OH’s best Steelers bar (Gresso’s in German Village) one Sunday and, like so many of my peers before me, found myself lamenting aloud, with not a little confused sadness, that the NFL’s original whirling dervish seemed to have lost not only the extra step that allowed him to gamble with such an astonishing success rate over the bulk of his career, but the dependable instincts that had combined with his fearless, some would say reckless, tackling ability and straight line recovery speed to make him such an unprecedented, disruptive defensive force. Troy was still among the team leaders in tackles last year, though he seemed to overrun or slide off of as many as he made, and, crucially, he ended 2014 with zero interceptions, his first such year since 2007. He wasn’t a coverage liability, but he was also clearly no longer the X-factor that had long struck fear into the hearts of quarterbacks the league over. In fact, particularly savvy QBs began subtly exploiting his tendencies, knowing that if they happened to choose wisely and catch him way out of position, he was no longer fast enough to be a factor in the play on anything but mop-up duty. It was a long, sharp fall, so painful to witness for fans to whom, for the better part of a decade, Polamalu had seemed damned near superhuman.
I only bring up the grind of Polamalu’s final years on the gridiron to define it as an anomaly, and to help underline just how much he meant to the team, the city, and the fans of Pittsburgh. For close to a decade, Troy was the most dangerous defensive player in football, a soft-spoken, kinetic marvel who delivered pulverizing hits and acrobatic splash plays in equal measure and worked with amazing facility in both run support and deep ranging. Polamalu could be deployed as a rushing linebacker in Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz, which of course is predicated on disguising which defenders are attacking and which are dropping into coverage, racking up 12 career sacks in addition to 32 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles. Opposing quarterbacks were often the unwitting “beneficiaries” of his uncommon skills as a ballhawk, as Carson Palmer famously discovered in 2004 while foolishly trying to deny his former college roommate a pick-six interception return, and a dazed Joe Flacco realized only as Polamalu leapt over his heavy goal line offense to defuse a critical 4th and 1 sneak attempt single-handedly. Time and again, Polamalu’s freakish instincts and athleticism pulled Pittsburgh back from the brink or pushed it over the pile. His 2009 fingertip interception against Tennessee springs to mind, as does his pick-six to seal the 2008 AFC Championship against Baltimore. His impossible, tumbling interception of Peyton Manning in the 2005 playoffs should have iced that victory well before Bettis and Ben and Mike Vanderjagt ever had a chance to involve themselves but was called back by a refereeing crew that clearly did not believe in magic, resulting in the single angriest flamethrowing moment, sports-related or otherwise, of what, for me, has otherwise been an incredibly zen life.
The eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year was every bit the defensive standard-bearer for the Steelers’ new millennium success story that all-time icon “Mean” Joe Greene was for the fabled defense of the seventies. I’d be remiss in discussing his contributions to the team, however, by not mentioning two long-time teammates who also departed the Steelers in the last few months. Brett Keisel was the ultimate overachiever, a 2002 seventh round pick who grew over the course of thirteen years into one of the fiercest and most beloved players in Steeler history. Though his trademarked steroidal lumberjack beard somewhat overshadowed his play in later years, Keisel as a defensive end was all motor, a brutal, opportunistic, point of contact grizzly bear, powering through linemen and quarterbacks to an impressive 30 career sacks, upending a scheme where linebackers, not linemen, generally get the glory. In later years, as his fame and “Da Beard” brand grew off the field, the former special teamer turned lynchpin unveiled more facets to his personality, as defensive stalwart, as community leader, and as willing teacher. Keisel, who helped rescue the 2014 defense before going down late with a serious muscle tear, was released as a cap casualty early in free agency. Like Polamalu, he had time and money left on his contract. Unlike Troy, he had, by most objective measures, played up to and perhaps exceeded expectations. That Pittsburgh didn’t afford Keisel the same amount of time to decide his future as it did Polamalu was read in some corners as a slap, though Keisel, for his part, was all gratitude and class in his exit, as was to be expected. Not having been privy to whatever conversations the two sides had, I have to think that the Steelers disagreed on the rehab possibilities surrounding Keisel’s injury, or at least that the two saw the issue in different lights. Old age, as the adage goes, is undefeated, but Da Beard may not yet wish to concede, whereas the Steelers are governed by more pragmatic concerns. Keisel may follow his (and our) beloved Coach LeBeau to Tennessee eventually, or he may also finally decide to call it a day. Either way, I wish him the absolute best. He was a loveable beast.
The final departure, for whom it turns out I subconsciously delayed writing this post, came only a few days ago. Ike Taylor was a raw, physical, prototypically-sized cornerback out of Louisiana-Lafayette, a fourth round pick in the same 2003 draft that yielded Polamalu. His early years were uneven and contentious, and he was even benched by then-coach Bill Cowher in 2006 – a circumstance widely likened to current wunderkind Cortez Allen’s sharp regression this past season – but rose above it, eventually becoming one of the very best low profile corners in the game. You know, the sort that Chris Collinsworth invariably touts on every MNF telecast like he’s imparting privileged knowledge. Ike was a fun character and a dependably great interview, who invented a mythical college – “Swaggin’ University” – for use in his primetime player intros and, in spite of hands that sometimes seemed clad in oven mitts, was as rock solid a defensive back as any in the game for a seven or eight-year stretch. The Steelers felt comfortable enough with his performance as half the equation during this period that they consciously avoided drafting an “elite” CB, thus paving the way for all the Santonio Holmeses, Lawrence Timmonses, and Cameron Heywards of the world to get their own chances to shine in black and yellow. Like Troy, Ike suffered some serious regressions in later years, routinely getting beat deep by the same types of receivers he used to shadow so capably. Assuming he has any money left, Browns shooting star Josh Gordon should consider cutting Taylor a check for making him look so good during his breakout year. Like most CBs, Ike was oft-criticized. By my reckoning, it’s the second most perilous position on a football team perception-wise, though it carries none of the ego-stroking benefits that QBs receive when they’re riding high. Taylor faced down every obstacle with steely determination and a frankly insane work ethic, and elevated himself into a position arguably at, or at least near, the game’s elite on little more than pure effort. Then, like his celebrated draft mate, he retired at, if not precisely the right time, then an opportune one, having left the game, his city, and his beloved team far better than he found them.
As better scribes than I have already written, the simultaneous loss of Polamalu, Keisel and Taylor certainly represents the “end of an era” of sustained defensive dominance, though I think the trio’s impact today runs yet deeper. The reborn Steel Curtain under LeBeau reached its pinnacle in 2008, culminating in Super Bowl XLIII and one of my favorite (Mike) Tomlinisms ever captured on film, when, as he huddled his D up before they took the field for the critical final series against Arizona, the head coach proclaimed, “Style points don’t matter! We win the game, this is a legendary defense. Now go out and put an exclamation point on your work!” And did they ever. The starting safety that night? Troy Polamalu. The starting left end? Brett Keisel. Starting corner? Ike Taylor. And now they’re gone. Not only is that legendary defense now reduced to rubble in the face of a 2015 squad that, at least as currently constituted, poses several more questions than answers (and exceedingly few exclamation points), peeling away another layer yields another disquieting thought: How many current-day Steelers were on the team for Super Bowl XL? The answer is three (Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, James Harrison). How about Super Bowl XLIII? Answer: Five (Ben, Heath, Deebo, Ramon Foster, Lawrence Timmons). For Super Bowl XLV? That’d be (only) twelve, meaning that, in a scant five years’ time, we’ve turned over 78% of our roster. Heath and James themselves may only have a year or two left, max. On the one hand, these stats engender just concern for the future of the franchise, even as the offensive matures into something potentially magnificent and defensive leaders like Cam Heyward and Lawrence Timmons start to assert themselves.
On the other, it should serve to remind us of precisely how good we as fans had it for so long. Twelve years of year-in year-out playoff contention. Three Super Bowls. Two Lombardis. Countless memories. It’s worth taking an extra breath to ponder. Farewell, dear friends. Your efforts were sterling, thrilling, and most appreciated. Fly your colors, love your families, and please keep in touch. A grateful Nation thanks you.
Ben’s contract extension
It’s safe to say, for the most part, we saw the above moves coming, though the offseason’s one triumphant life event was also its most predictable: Ben Roethlisberger’s contract extension. The new five-year deal pays him more than appropriately without quite forcing us to stare into the yawning abyss that is “Flacco Money” – in the team press conference, Roethlisberger and team president Art Rooney II characterized the deal as “fair” and emphasized how important it was to both parties to keep the franchise QB in Pittsburgh – and Ben gets to finish his career in his adopted home town. At 4952, Ben tied Drew Brees for the league lead in passing yards (on fifty fewer attempts, it should be noted), and would surely have surged ahead if he or the sideline were a little more cognizant of such things instead of being focused on winning. He had top 5 numbers in almost every positive quarterbacking category, and, most importantly, spearheaded an offense that has surrounded him with some of the deadlier weapons in the league to reach the playoffs again following a two-year drought. Roethlisberger also threw for 500 yards not once but twice, making him one of only fifteen men all time to join that club (and the only one to do so twice). If today’s Ben plays in Super Bowl XL, I don’t think there’s any question he rotisseries the 2005 Seahawks. Heck, if today’s Ben played in Super Bowl XLV, I think we might well have seven rings instead of six, and I’ve always thought that, based on his full body of work and not just the fourth quarter, he was the true MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. Like it or not, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger is the engine that makes this team run, and when he’s working well, as in recent years, it’s truly a thing of beauty. Ben Roethlisberger is in the middle of his prime at this very moment. There was no other option for the Steelers but to seize it.
The upcoming draft
I’ve spent most of my NFL offseasons in recent years poring over mock drafts as a hobby. It helps pass the time until baseball season begins and my Mets invariably begin playing themselves out of playoff contention. The post-draft/pre-preseason blahs are my most despised time of the year as a sports fan, in part because we expend so much energy gearing up for the draft only for it to fizzle out immediately after. We invest months of speculation in preparing for a different sort of speculation, which itself also takes interminable months and doesn’t even have the spark of the unknown powering it anymore. Ugh. I’m going to self-reflect myself into a stupor here. Already by its nature a crapshoot, the upcoming draft presents a particularly interesting, potentially confounding, case, because even though the Steelers’ needs are both known and glaring – CB, OLB, TE, S – who might or will be around to fill those needs, or which candidates among clustered groups are even best suited to do so, seems to be absolutely anybody’s guess…and everybody has a guess. A cursory review of prominent mockers and mock sites, of which there are more than the number of Kardashians populating your worst nightmare, reveals an almost comic degree of indecision. Will Pittsburgh seek to enhance its pass rush early, hoping that either Nebraska’s Randy Gregory or, more likely, Kentucky’s Bud Dupree fall precipitously to them at #22, or might they reach unwisely on a rush talent better suited for the high second round? Will Pittsburgh target CB in the first round, and, if so, will they pick Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, who is the most polished and game ready, LSU’s Jalen Collins, who is heady and physical but still not a finished package, or Washington’s Marcus Peters, who presents arguably the highest upside but also a behavioral red flag, since he was kicked off the team for arguing with and undermining coaches? If Alabama safety Landon Collins is hanging around at #22, do the Steelers attempt to draft Troy’s heir, thus throwing their underwhelming current balance into potential turmoil? When do they draft a TE, and is drafting one CB even enough?
My gut feelings on the above questions follow…
First off, Landon Collins won’t make it to #22. If presented with the opportunity to draft him there, I’d be sorely tempted, but probably pass. After Minnesota’s brilliantly-named Maxx Williams, there are no upper-tier TE talents, so waiting until at least the third and maybe fourth is advisable. You might still find value there in the person of, among others, Penn State’s fellow all-star name Jesse James, or OSU’s Jeff Heuerman, who I can report from years of watching him on Saturdays, is very much in the blue collar Heath Miller mode – dependable, sure-handed, and a capable blocker. In my opinion, the team would be well served to consider drafting two CBs in the top half of the draft. ESPN’s positional rankings contain several interesting prospects in the third round area, including Miami (OH)’s Quinten Rollins and Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a seriously polished defender whose stock dropped like a rock due to a season-ending leg injury. The drop off between first round and second round talent at OLB is steep, and the position’s established stalwarts will all have likely been picked over by the time our first round slot rolls around, though several, like Utah’s Nate Orchard and Washington duo Shaq Thompson and Hau’Oli Kikaha, would make excellent second round values if available. Basically, if Bud Dupree is somehow loitering at #22, by all means take him. Since he won’t be, and assuming (Landon) Collins won’t be either, which would really muddy the works, the Steelers should seek to maximize value by selecting the proper CB to make a first year impact. The team has been most linked in the mocks I’ve seen to LSU’s Jalen Collins, but those assessments devolve into “scout-speak” that I have trouble parsing, so the pick for me comes down to Wake’s Johnson and Washington’s Peters. I’m intrigued by Peters’ ceiling but distressed by his possible maturity issues. I’m more comfortable with Johnson’s total package if I’m the Steelers. The idea that he can develop into an early starter, at least at nickel, assuages my positional anxiety somewhat as training camp starts, and might also provide a crucial competitive push to demoted comeback kid Cortez Allen, who we definitely all want to earn his generous contract in season two. If we pass on Peters, however, you may rest assured that the Ravens will not, and he will seek to torture us. Caveat draftor.
Round 1: Kevin Johnson (CB); Round 2: best OLB on the Steelers’ board; Round 3: best CB on the Steelers’ board; Round 4: Jesse James or Jeff Heuerman (TE); Rounds 5-7: developmental prospects, in the following order of position preference – S, OLB, DE, OL(G), CB. I kinda love this draft, personally, which means it is unrealistic as hell. We need to hit and hit hard on at least half the picks, I think. As ever, it’s all about coming out of camp better than you went in.
Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks. Ugh. It’s as if the football gods saw Pete Carroll’s stupid Super Bowl call fail and decided to fix it retroactively/reward him for being a crappy coach in the most specific positive way possible.
Aaron Hernandez is a now convicted murderer who, in a bold, practically unprecedented defensive tactic, admitted he was at the crime scene when all the $#|+ went down. Those two facts connect in some way, I’d imagine.
Not content to limit the snickers to their previously announced, much ballyhooed combo platter of font change, slightly more cartoony dawg to lead the Pound, and a 0.05% brighter shade of orange, the Cleveland Browns have, with their recent reveal of a slew of brand new uniform configurations, officially rebranded themselves into oblivion. I have good friends who are die hard Browns fans, and, as such, would like to assert that I wish the team only sufficient ill will, tidings, and results, and nothing like the metric ton through which its fans wade, swamp-like, on a near-yearly basis. As with anything focus tested and overdeveloped, these new uniforms harken back in some aspects and speed ahead in others, losing their place in both directions and seeming mostly confused. The colors aren’t distinct enough anymore, I hate the “Cleveland” legend just under the collar, and I absolutely abhor the futuristic “Browns” legend adorning each pant leg vertically. These jerseys annoy me on an almost elemental level, as one of the only really cool things about the Browns, at least from an outsider perspective, is the club’s rich and abiding history. You can flush all that now, and thank your lucky stars that the Steelers are a family-controlled business with an entrenched sense of tradition.
When they wanted to shake things up a few years ago, the Rooneys merely introduced arguably the league’s worst mascot, Steely McCowher, against whom I can always shut my eyes tight and think happy thoughts until the camera’s attention wanes. You can’t unsee these new Browns uniforms, however, nor wish them away with any level of success. Even we only wear our infamous “bumblebee/prisonbreak” 80th Anniversary throwbacks twice a year (at best). Like those abominations, this new Brownswear fall collection will have both its larger than life and mumbling, understated supporters. My biggest purely aesthetic complaint is that the jerseys seem much more collegiate than professional. As a regular Big Ten watcher, the parallel I immediately drew (at least on a couple of the designs) was to the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, though Cleveland gasman Jimmy Haslem has been up front about wanting the Browns to be the “Oregon Ducks of the NFL”, presumably owing to that team’s dizzying array of uniform combinations and alleged sartorial splendor contained therein. It makes some small amount of sense that, in choosing to emulate the Pacific Northwest’s preferred Nike whores over the team that beat them for the NCAA championship, the Browns picked the soulless, short-term profit of the former over the winning ways of the latter.
That’s symbolism, people!