The winds of change often move at break-neck speed in the National Football League. Teams typically fire coaches within just hours of the final regular season game and will release players as soon as it is contractually allowable. The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves three days removed from a tough and somewhat embarrassing loss to the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers also find themselves in a position they have not been in since 2007 when they were one and done in the playoffs. This offseason will prove to be the most important that Pittsburgh has faced in the Free Agency Era. No, that’s not being overdramatic either. When you look at several key factors such as aging players, a salary cap overage expected to be $20 million plus and the suddenly polarizing offensive and defensive coordinator situations, you have a potential ‘offseason of discontent.’
I realize Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians has been polarizing amongst the Steelers Nation since he arrived here several years ago, but suddenly even the God-like Dick LeBeau is starting to show signs that perhaps his time has come to move on. Immediately following the Steelers devastating loss to Denver, message boards and phone lines were barraged with fans questioning both Arians (always expected) and LeBeau especially following the final play of the game.
Apparently this has all been made a moot point though because it has been announced that both coordinators will return 2012. If you heard a loud scream earlier and couldn’t figure it out where it came from, there is your answer. The vast majority of fans has had it with Arians and now must endure him for another season. For LeBeau, who is far less questioned than Arians, doubts will continue to remain.
So just what does all this mean for Head Coach Mike Tomlin? I am of the opinion that this is another reason why this offseason is the most important in many, many years. Tomlin would be the first to tell you he adopted a team loaded with talent and experience but much of that needs to go for numerous reasons be they age, production or salary issues. Right now the bigger issue is the coordinator problem as I see it.
Tomlin has gotten off to a very poor start by retaining both coordinators. LeBeau I can live with, but to a point. His on-the-fly adjustments have faltered in recent years (see Super Bowl XLV and the recent Denver loss) and his game-planning this season was questionable with perhaps the exception of the Patriots game. Because of the presence of Linebackers Coach Keith Butler and Defensive Backs Coach Carnell Lake, I remain slightly positive about the defense.
Arians being retained is the real issue. He is not the worst offensive coordinator in the league when you look at rankings over his five-year tenure as the OC, but they are far from stellar. The team’s performance in the Red Zone has been atrocious to put it mildly and Arians’ ability to adjust on the fly is not any better. In Super Bowl XLV when Green Bay All-Pro defensive back Charles Woodson left the game due to injury, most Steelers’ fans were licking their chops at the prospect of Ben Roethlisberger going to work on the back-up corner which never materialized. When asked about it after the loss, Arians stated that, “We stuck to the game plan.” Dumb, idiotic and ridiculous were some of the nicer words used by fans the next day.
Coordinators in the NFL are typically meticulous. They plan offensive game plans each week based upon the opponent and their tendencies. What they do well versus what they do not. In reality, it’s all about match-ups. When you get a favorable match-up, you take advantage and more often than not, Arians struggles to do this.
The highest the Steelers’ Offense has been under Arians is 7th in 2007 when the team lost in the first round to Jacksonville. The worst was 2006 when the team ranked 22nd and did not make the playoffs. In the two Super Bowl trips under Arians, the offense averaged a ranking of around 15 and 1/2. So not great, but not horrible. If you look at the rank of TDs versus field goal attempts more of the story starts to emerge. The Steelers never ranked higher than nine in ‘offensive touchdowns scored in a season’ and on the low end, the team ranked 19th and 20th.
Compare those numbers to ‘field goal attempts per season’ during Arians stint. Three times the Steelers were in the top 14 in that category and the other two season ranked 17th and 26th. Not surprisingly, the year in which the team ranked lowest in FGs attempted, they had their highest ranking (nine) of TDs scored. When you consider that the two number one seeds in this year’s playoffs finished dead-last in total defense, you can see how this league has changed and how crucial a great offense is.
You can factor in all the variables you want to including the eight games per season at Heinz Field where it is annually one of the toughest places to kick, but the bottom line is that Arians’ teams struggle to score touchdowns. This fact coupled with a pretty darn good quarterback and solid receiving corps tells me that Bruce Arians is NOT the guy to be calling plays and designing the game plans.
The reason this decision is so crucial for Tomlin’s long-term future is that it appears to the fan base that he is doing nothing more than appeasing his star QB. Roethlisberger consistently lobbies for Arians to remain as the OC and has been granted this wish. Only Ben and those on the inside know why exactly so I can only be critical from a distance. Assumptions range from Ben liking the freedom that Arians gives him in the offense to the fact that Arians doesn’t seem to be too hard on the veteran QB regardless of his play. Some in Steelers Nation think any player, not just a QB, could use a kick in the pants every now and then and I personally don’t think Ben gets it from Arians or Tomlin.
I recognize that Tomlin wants consistency, especially with a talented and veteran team. I also know how difficult it can be when players have to adjust to new coordinators. With that said, I still believe Tomlin is taking a risk here. His handprints are now on this team, but how firmly are they there? There is still a lot from the Bill Cowher tenure that remains. Tomlin has yet to make what I would call a ‘difficult decision’ so far in his career in Pittsburgh. He has been overly loyal to veterans and obviously continues to stick with much of the same staff. Consistency is normally a really good thing, but much like the winds coming off the confluence, change in direction should be expected from time to time.
Marc 'Steel Dad' Uhlmann