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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Steelers' Organization Has Some Growing Up to Do

It’s hard to say that a team with the pedigree of the Pittsburgh Steelers needs to become more “mature” in its approach.  They are inarguably the most successful NFL franchise since the NFL merger.

Their history prior to 1970 is not good; but it is, nonetheless, history.  The Rooney family is legendary.  You have to dress up to go to church in Pittsburgh—unless, of course, it’s a playoff Sunday.  Even the preacher can wear a jersey on those days, as long as it’s not a Ben Roethlisberger.

The are two statues that greet you when you get off the plane at the Pittsburgh airport.  One is of George Washington; and the other is Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception.  And there is little debate about which statue Pittsburgh natives consider most important.

How can this organization possibly need to grow up?

The answer is fairly basic and obvious.  The Steelers have a great reputation for patience and loyalty, for generosity and thrift, for wisdom and winning.  Those values will be put to the test with some players, coaches, and organizational approaches.

Here are a few of the “grown up” decisions that the Steelers need to make:

1.  To keep or cut?
Hines Ward and James Farrior have the Steelers in a tough situation,  but there are some tough decisions to make across the board.  Will the front office make the smart business move, as they did in 2000 with Levon Kirkland and Dermontti Dawson?  Players may take the Jerome Bettis route and accept a pay cut in order to stay (my personal preference).  Farrior and Ward would probably consider that option.

2.  Will the coaching staff remain stagnant?
It’s hard to imagine a more polarizing figure than offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.  During the wild card game in Denver, Phil Simms asked why Arians is never considered for any head coaching jobs.  Perhaps Mike Tomlin and the front office should think long and hard about that question.

For those who want Dick LeBeau to be fired:  Stop it.  The Steeler staff may have 99 problems, but LeBeau ain’t one.  It’s the other side of the ball that presents a problem.

Forget the fancy passing stats.  The running game has declined.  Red-zone offense is maddeningly inconsistent.  Play-calling and schemes are predictable.  Weapons such as Heath Miller, along with newcomers Weslye Saunders and Isaac Redman, are under-utilized.  Ben Roethlisberger still holds the ball too long and takes a UFC-esque beating every play.

If Mike Tomlin wants any of this to change, he better change the person running the offense.  Roethlisberger may like Arians, but it may also be time for Big Ben to listen to a different point of view.

3.  Speaking of Roethlisberger…
I love Big Ben.  If I had to choose a quarterback to win one game or take a team on one drive, it would be THE #7.  But Big Ben needs to make changes as well.  It remains to be seen if Big Ben will take the next step in his development as a quarterback.  That step will tell whether or not he can be good as an old quarterback.

It’s well-known that Roethlisberger is a diva who loves to pull a “Willis Reed” and come hobbling onto the field to lead his team to victory.    Realistically, he’s been sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL since 2004, and his 30-year old body is being held together by duct tape.  Diva or not, he is tough as nails.  But he needs to think more with his head than with other parts of the male anatomy.

Part of the problem is scheme (see item #2).  But the other problem is his refusal to take the check-down to his very capable 3/4/5 options (again, Miller/Saunders/Redman).  Roethlisberger must learn to do that, or he must be made to do that whether he likes it or not.

That leads us straight to the head coach.

4.  Like Mike…if I Could Be Like Mike…
That’s not a reference to Jordan.  It’s a reference to Tomlin.

I will shamefully admit my “man crush” on Mike Tomlin.  Any coach who quotes Robert Frost on the way to the Super Bowl is great with me.  But Tomlin is young, both in age and coaching experience, and he still has a lot of room to grow into his position.

The things that make me love Tomlin are also the things that drive me insane.  He is confident and unwavering in the decisions that he makes.  However, that sometimes looks stubborn and unwilling to change.  If he keeps the status quo this off-season, my fear is that he will repeat this year’s ending, losing games with a team that resembles a MASH unit.

And finally…

5.  The Colbert Report
Will Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert work together to address personnel changes on the field and in the draft?

A lot of Steeler fans will accuse me of dismissing the work of Rashard Mendenhall.  It’s not that Mendenhall is bad, but Isaac “Red Zone” Redman has earned the right to try his hand as the starter in Pittsburgh.

I like the Steelers offensive line a lot more than I have in the last three seasons.  But they are built for the run more than the pass.  They have a chance to be a solid running team behind this group, if Tomlin and Colbert will allow an unknown free agent to take the place of a first-round pick.  Redman has all the tools to be the starter, and Mendenhall will soon be too expensive to keep.

Speaking of the line, it’s time for Colbert to find a way to improve the fronts on both sides.  Good lines can make up for ills in a lot of other areas, and it’s time to make that a priority.  If they cannot get draft picks to fill the need, then the wallet needs to open up to bring in some free agents that are more than some other team’s leftovers.

Judging from the teams that remain in the playoffs, tight end could use a boost.  I believe that Weslye Saunders is a “sleeping giant” at the position; and, along with Heath Miller, the Steelers have a serious dual threat.  If they organization does not see that, they need to seek help elsewhere at tight end.
The priority for the off-season should be protecting Big Ben.  That means Tomlin is going to have to make some changes on his coaching staff and his offense.  Kevin Colbert has to let go of some top draft picks and start finding ways to build up his front line guys.  Whether or not the Steelers are willing to make those changes will dictate their ability to challenge for title #7.

They need to grow up fast, before their history becomes a distant image in the rearview mirror.

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