Smizik: Could Steelers be headed for a losing season?
Saturday, April 21, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the Steelers take to the field this weekend with a voluntary minicamp at their South Side complex, hopes run high for the team whose following dwarfs that of any other in town. A return to prominence, perhaps to the Super Bowl, is on the minds of most fans.
But while optimism reigns, a dangerous trend is all but obscured. Super Bowl victories, understandably, have a considerable effect on masking negative statistics.
Still, what cannot be dismissed in evaluating the team's chances is this: In the past three regular seasons, the Steelers have gone from 15-1 to 11-5 to 8-8.
If such a downward drift continues, the Steelers will be 6-10 in the 2007 season. Don't laugh. It could happen, as it did in 2003. That 6-10 season was preceded by ones where the records were 10-5-1 and 13-3.
Maybe Bill Cowher didn't just want to spend more time with his family. Maybe he saw the future and wanted to get out with his reputation unsullied and nothing to stand in the way of him becoming the highest-paid coach in the NFL in 2008.
This isn't to suggest the Steelers are doomed to another playoff-less season or even a losing record, but to point out such a finish is hardly out of the question.
There has been a significant unraveling of the team that won the Super Bowl after the 2005 season. Not only is Cowher gone, but so are his two top offensive assistants -- Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. So are two players who were Pro Bowl performers as recently as 2005 -- Joey Porter and Jeff Hartings, both of whom were key team leaders.
Team captain, perennial Pro Bowler and all-around solid citizen Alan Faneca did not show for the voluntary minicamp yesterday and is believed to be unhappy with his contract that expires after the 2007 season.
In some organizations, these happenings would be reason to panic. In some organizations, it would be time to run out and find high-profile coaches to replace those that departed, and time to spend madly in the free-agent market to secure the kind of talent that would turn the team back into a winner.
The Steelers, of course, are not "some organization." They do things the "Steelers Way," which means they never panic. It is business as usual -- always -- with the Steelers.
It may seem maddening at times, it may seem stupid at times, it may seem cheap at times. But in the end, it usually looks pretty good. Doing things the "Steelers Way" has made them one of the most successful teams in the NFL.
The manner in which the Rooney family replaced their departing coaches speaks directly to the "Steelers Way."
When Cowher left, they didn't throw big money after a big name, which is what a lot of teams will do to Cowher when he decides to return.
Instead, they replaced him with Mike Tomlin, an obscure defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings.
To fill out Tomlin's staff, they didn't necessarily hunt down the best, the brightest and the most expensive.
To replace Whisenhunt, they promoted from within and named receivers coach Bruce Arians as their offensive coordinator.
To replace Grimm, regarded by many as the best there is in the NFL, they brought in Larry Zierlein, who had been the assistant offensive line coach with the Buffalo Bills.
To replace running backs coach Dick Hoak, the man who tutored Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, they brought in Kirby Wilson, who had the same job last season with Tampa Bay.
To replace Arians as receivers coach, they hired Randy Fichtner, who had been the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at the University of Memphis for the previous six years.
None of the above is to make light of the new coaches. Good coaches can be found on every level of football. But it points out how the Steelers do business.
The team's player personnel moves in the offseason were equally restrained.
If the Steelers noted their victory total had been alarmingly decreasing, they didn't let on. Well after the big names had been plucked, they signed offensive lineman Sean Mahan to a five-year, $17 million contract. Mahan, who played more guard than center in his four seasons with Tampa Bay, looks to be nothing more than a journeyman. He will compete with Chukky Okobi and possibly starting guard Kendall Simmons for Hartings' old job.
They also signed linebacker Marcello Church, who, because of injury, has not played since December of 2005 when he was a senior at Florida State, and defensive end Nick Eason, who was a backup with the Cleveland Browns.
In terms of talent, they lost considerably more -- Hartings and Porter -- than they gained -- Mahan, Church and Eason.
For a team that has gone from 15-1 to 11-5 to 8-8, that would not appear to be a good direction in which to be moving.
(I don't know what to think of this article, am I mad or disappointed, Of course. Although, he does make some interesting points especially in the bold. We did lose a lot of good talent and brought in mediocre. the Steelers are known as winners and they know what they're doing. Obviously, we got a chance for an winning season at 11-5.)