Steelers Thoughts #13 (3/23/16): Runaway Baggage Carousel!

coaches

Comedy gold is minable from all corners of the internet at any given time. For instance, I got a chuckle yesterday upon closer inspection of a picture taken Monday at the ongoing NFL Owner’s Meetings in Boca Raton, which assembled 7/8 of the league’s current head coaching fraternity into a canned moment suitable to be immortalized and treasured just shy of forever. I’m ashamed to admit I only fully recognized thirteen of the twenty-eight commandantes in this class picture, including three from the Steelers’ home division*. Jeff Fisher and John Fox canoodled like (only) momentarily interrupted drinking buddies. Rex Ryan looked like he desperately wanted to sell you something from the Bills’ Pro Shop. Bruce Arians looked like he was late for his tee time. Ron Rivera looked like a guy whose team just went to the Super Bowl, though, oddly enough, not as much as did beaming Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team I’m utterly, earthshakingly certain did not. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who clearly wasn’t having any of it, staked out his spot at the very end of the back row, and the mug he wore for the camera struck me as a resigned, conspicuous mixture of sun-blindness and roaring impatience. I couldn’t help but smile, and understood, or at least intuited, instantly where he was coming from. An (outwardly) clipped, all-business character like Tomlin is always going to feel a little exposed in a glad-handing, back-slapping arena like the Owner’s Meeting. I assume he’d just as soon be back out on the road scouting players – hopefully multiple DBs and rough diamonds on both sides of the line – for the not quite as upcoming as I’d initially thought NFL Draft, which, as of this writing, is still over a month away. It’s already been a handful of an offseason, one part raging normalcy, another understated upheaval. The Steelers take the offseason as seriously as anyone, and strive to make impactful, financially responsible transactions without disturbing the larger pond. Legitimate headlines, as a result, are exceedingly rare occurrences, though hardly unheard of.

*I went into this exercise expecting to at least be able to make a glib remark about how far, as usual, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stands out from the otherwise racially homogenous crowd, but even with he and Marvin Lewis both removed from the equation, was shocked to learn that the NFL apparently has three unidentifiable (to me) African-American head coaches from whom an interested observer might pluck new Browns capo Hue Jackson. (Got it on my second try!) FWIW, the number of Caucasian coaches I couldn’t identify was merely ten. Strange to think that this in some small way constitutes glacial institutional progress, huh?

Ever since the failed decapitation attempt that nevertheless callously removed future Dancing with the Stars finalist Antonio Brown from the AFC Divisional Playoff and a tantalizing chance at even more, the 2016 Steelers’ offense has been held up by lazy pundits and wide-eyed commentators alike as a potentially special unit. With its hall of fame quarterback, a reconstituted/strengthened O-Line, two of a handful of the league’s very best skill players, and a supporting cast brimming with both promise and depth, 2016 – everybody sing along! – seemed primed to be the Steelers’ year. Potential energy is, of course, unspent energy, and any number of factors are contingent or contributory to its eventual realization – so many, in fact, that you’d think the analysis-minded intelligentsia would recognize the fallacy in attempting to handicap or prophesy events still five full months removed from their first meaningful moment. I guess when you’re paid for your opinion, quantity trumps quality. Regardless, that vaunted Steeler O took two body blows early on in the free agent signing period, first with the emotional but inevitable (though possibly slightly premature) retirement of stalwart TE Heath Miller, and then with the surprising, thudding expulsion for at least the 2016 campaign, if not yet beyond, of budding star WR Martavis Bryant for repeat violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. Both men were highly useful cogs in a potent machine, and their unexpected absences present problems and opportunities alike for the team they leave behind. Despite being far and away the greatest receiving tight end in team history, Miller’s true worth was rarely ever discernible from a simple box score review. He was a human Swiss Army Knife, fitting the blue collar needs of an otherwise dynamic offense, offering peerless work ethic, dependability, class and humility, and the surest hands this side of Rembrandt. Over his eleven-year career, Steelers fans embraced Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket like they did few others, and we tend to love our heroes with special ferocity. I, frankly, only ever really saw it for current and future Hall-of-Famers Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward, and, of course, for our Heath, who almost certainly will have to buy his ticket to Canton like the rest of us but, from a football perspective, was absolutely invaluable.

Bryant’s abrupt removal from the Sunday stage a scant few weeks after Miller’s announcement is both disappointing and worrying, not simply because he was beginning to come into his own as a pass-catcher but more because of the troubling things it suggests about his personal life. I’m not here to speculate, and the Steelers have basically had Bryant’s back on this, the occasion of his second drug-related suspension in as many years, albeit in a “disapproving parent” sort of way. They seem exasperated but fairly resolved, and one imagines there will be no surviving even the appearance of a “third strike”, at least not with this organization. That we should even have to contemplate such an end disturbs me. Here was a kid with all the raw ability in the world, who was beginning to make strides toward manifesting the volcanic potential (that word again) present within him. At times, he was a spectacular football player (somersaulting playoff end zone catch v. Bengals, anyone?), but, at others, his concentration, or, apparently, his motivation, simply wasn’t there and Roethlisberger was reduced to calling him out publicly as a psychological ploy. That gambit worked, seemingly, but how might he react when the stakes are this high? Bryant issued a comprehensive apology via statement the other day and seems intent on checking himself into drug rehab, though who exactly is overly inclined to take his sincerity without the proverbial grain of salt anymore? His agent argued that ongoing issues with depression were a contributing factor to his drug use, which is nothing to take lightly, but Bryant himself dropped his appeal of the suspension to the league. Time out of the spotlight could either help Bryant get his priorities in order or pitch him off a cliff. If it’s the former, the Steelers will retain his exclusive contract rights after what will essentially be a mulligan of a year, though that’s nothing to dwell on at such a fraught moment. If the latter, I hate to think of it.

Where once they had been far enough ahead to take laps, the loss of Miller and Bryant strips just enough luster overall to return the Steelers to a comfortable spot merely among the frontrunners of the NFL’s offensive pack. Though hope tends to spring eternal in this column, there’s no way to plausibly assert that any team could absorb those sorts of blows without missing a beat. What I will suggest is that the Steelers, benefitting from a series of canny personnel moves made both before the departures and in their wake, may well emerge from the mandatory adjustment period almost as strong as they ended last season, though it’s impossible to know how long it might take the offense to fully gel. As replacements go, free agent TE acquisition Ladarius Green and second-year burner Sammie Coates seem well suited to provide a fluid, if not seamless, transition to the new guard. Green understudied in San Diego behind the still formidable Antonio Gates, and capably spelled him during an early season suspension, producing eye-catching numbers before his performance leveled off with Gates’ return. Green’s size compares favorably to both Miller and Bryant, and his straight-line speed blows the beloved Virginian off the road like so many passing Honda Fits likely had before that. If the athletic TE Green could possibly touch track star Bryant in the speed category, he would represent a new post-post-Gronkowski paradigm for offensive weaponry, so we’ll instead focus on what he does bring, which is considerable. Green figures to mitigate both losses by virtue of his versatility, lining up at TE but being too fast for linebackers to comfortably cover (the future is officially now, Steelers fans) and presenting a tall, accomplished, presumably sure-handed target for Ben’s red zone exploits. Now forcibly removed from Bryant’s shadow, Coates has a real chance to be the Steelers’ breakout star of the year, and his speed and athleticism, if properly cultivated and deployed, could be the stuff of DB nightmares, given who he lines up alongside. Green presents as a willing but thus far negligible blocker, though the Steelers are also happy enough with the development of 2015 draftee Jesse James, who should see the field more in Miller’s absence and has the potential to grow over time into a sort of legitimate “Heath, Jr.”, instead of just hearing the famous “HEEEATH” chant every time he catches a ball…and, possibly, in his dreams. We chant ‘cause we love, buddy.

I feel a bout of fresh Tomlinian impatience coming on, pondering the Steelers’ accomplishments thus far, with so much frigging offseason yet to come, and wanting overwhelmingly to just get on with it already. As alluded to earlier, offseason transactions for this team tend to make minimal noise. There’s actually been a sneaky amount of progress. We want to retain the best of our own players (Ramon Foster, William Gay, Robert Golden, Greg Warren, Darrius Heyward-Bey, etc.) and augment those moves with strategic signings when the time is right. That’s why we apparently flirted with Eric Weddle before the Ratbirds poached him for significantly more money – I doubt the move was made explicitly to weaken us, since Weddle is still a gamer, but I also imagine such thinking didn’t hurt – or made a contract offer to Russell Okung but wound up signing freshly minted Super Bowl champ Ryan Harris as affordable but still excellent tackle depth. Whether Harris supplants or simply pushes the ascendant Alejandro Villanueva, I believe the result will be wholly positive, for both men and the team. Who knows, with Antwon Blake’s not particularly surprise departure to play under Coach Dad down in Tennessee, who’ll be starting CB opposite Will Gay – Ross Cockrell? Senquez Golsen? Cortez (Frigging) Allen? Leaving the Motel 6 light on for a Brandon Boykin return? – but I’ll almost guarantee he’s already on the roster. Trust the process, even when it occasionally feels wrong to you. Like some of you, I scour the team blogs and sites for even the tiniest morsel of news, though I’m never sure whether it’s because I especially want to, or because I feel on some level like I have to. Much as the standard is the standard, the process is the process. It’s just that we’re all such an impatient lot. I’ve often thought of the NFL offseason as the waiting area at an airport terminal, inexplicably open at 7am for a flight that departs at midnight. It won’t be packed until just before takeoff. Some people are still navigating the airport, maybe stopping to take a selfie with the Franco Harris “Immaculate Reception” statue. Some people don’t know their final destination. Some do, but haven’t parked yet, and some haven’t even left the house. Instead, people shuffle about, checking their phones or listening to tunes, taking a nap or talking to their neighbors. Some realize they’re on a different flight as others come in. Steve McLendon and Sean Spence wrote lovely and heartfelt notes to the city, Steelers’ ownership, staff, teammates, and fan base before leaving for NYC and Nashville respectively. They were swell, talented dudes who gave their all. We’ll miss them.

But soon enough this terminal be filled with familiar names, and its massive stores of potential energy will be incrementally supplanted by the buzz of activity. I picture DeAngelo and Le’Veon showing off pics of the fam to each other and comparing vacation stories; Antonio idly polishing a(nother) trophy and periodically flashing a smile that may be the only thing comparatively brighter within eyeshot; Ben encouraging and subtly coaching up Sammie Coates in a quieter corner; Cam and Tuitt good-naturedly hazing their newly drafted linemate; Will Gay setting the backfield pace and expectations early; Maurkice Pouncey laughing with teammates new and old; defenders both green and seasoned gathered around James Harrison in genuine awe; and, standing near the departure desk, Mike Tomlin, wearing an altogether different look than he did on Monday, a knowing, easy sort of smile that says, “let’s go.”

See you at the Draft.

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