Stillers Offseason Outlook - Jan '00
(note: to read last year's off-season outlook, click here.)
The Stillers embark on undoubtedly their most critical offseason in years. Coming off two embarrassingly poor seasons, the franchise is in disarray & there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel, unless it�s a freight train carrying the Titans, Jaguars, Ravens, and Browns.
Before looking at offensive, defensive, & special teams needs, I believe its worthwhile to take a macro look at the franchise, and discuss what strategically needs to be addressed. That includes (each will be discussed in detail below):
1. A shift in paradigm
2. Capability overmatch
3. Adding speed, impact players, and football players
4. Stop the reaching in the draft
5. The Law of the Harvest
Let's examine each of these key strategic aspects.
1. Rooney, against the wishes of the voting public in Allegheny County, swindled tax money from the PA legislature, stating that he needed the new stadium to remain competitive in the NFL. Although I disliked the swindle job he pulled off, his desire for a higher revenue-generating stadium was plausible and made good business sense. The new stadium is being built, and will be ready for the '01 season. Added to that is the state-of-the-art practice facility that is a joint venture with UPMC and Pitt football. However, these initiatives are nowhere near enough if the team is going to plod along with its "business as usual" approach using "the Steeler way". The "Steeler way" was fine before free agency. It no longer comes close to making a team competitive for a championship. When an organization has to totally abandon its old ways of doing business, and move to a higher, more effective level of conducting its affairs, this is known as a paradigm shift. Clearly, the entire organization needs a paradigm shift in the way it conducts its offseason personnel activities. No longer can it sit around, waiting to pick up the unwanted scrap heaps, or waiting for the "throngs" of players who supposedly are frothing at the chance to play football in Pittsburgh. If the repeated statements made by Carnell Lake -- one of the most intelligent, loyal, and truly professional athlete in all of sports -- don't sink in with Rooney and the front office, nothing short of an atomic bomb will do so. The paradigm shift, IF it occurs, will address the remaining aspects I will discuss, as well as the following:
a. Thoroughly plan for free agency, and aggressively pursue those players who are part of that plan. In other words, don't sit around until late March playing "let's wait and see"; rather, go out on February 11th and bring in the players who are on the team's planned list of desirable free agents.
b. Concurrent to "a" above, is to plan to cut the wheat from the chaff by getting rid of dead wood on the roster. The staff should have a firm idea of who needs to go and who can easily -- and perhaps more cheaply -- be replaced. The team has sagged badly the past 2 seasons with the assortment of stiffs that litter the roster. They surely will do no worse by ferreting out these stiffs and replacing them with a combination of either more talent, more enthusiasm, more energy, and more motivation.
c. This must all happen in a parallel processing environment. This, in and of itself, is a huge paradigm shift for the Stillers, who have plodded along for years operating in a sequential processing environment where everything is done mind-numbingly simplistically, one step at a time. If the team is interested in three free agent WRs, for example, only one will be brought in for a look-see, negotiations, etc. The other two will be totally ignored. Eventually, the "first" FA will spurn the Steelers and sign elsewhere. A vast amount of critical time has been wasted. When the team turns toward the other two guys, they've already been signed elsewhere. The entire business world has abandoned sequential processing in favor of parallel processing; it's high time Rooney and his FO gets out of the 70's and starts thinking along these lines.
I have grave concerns that this much need paradigm shift will ever take place with such a stodgy, mulestubborn collection of people led by Rooney and Bill "The Mule" Cowher. Just look at the GM situation. Donahoe was fired 12 days ago, yet no one has been hired to take his place. Worse, no one has even been flown into Pittsburgh for a job interview. (Just this morning, however, it was revealed that talks have taken place with A.J. Smith of Buffalo.) If Rooney cannot plan for a GM replacement when he fires the GM, and he cannot move any faster than pond water, then this whole idea of a paradigm shift is as pie in the sky as Kordell Stewart becoming a Hall of Fame QB.
2. The team needs to strongly look at its schemes and its players, and discover where they can achieve what the US military refers to as a "capability overmatch". Think back in history. Some of the bloodiest wars were the Civil War and WWI, where both sides had essentially the same weapon capabilities and the resulting battles were bloody stalemates. The Steelers suffer the same problems with their personnel -- no overmatch capabilities whatsoever. The military nowadays is striving to field weapons systems that have a "capability overmatch" in which the weapon is clearly superior in firepower, range, accuracy, reliability, and/or mobility. The Steelers need to do likewise. Look at the teams in the conference championships --- all stockpiled with capability overmatch, be it Bruce, Sapp, E. George, Kearse, Faulk, or J. Smith. The Rams' offense is a superb example of this, as they consistently strive to get matchups where their capability is clearly superior to that of the defense. The Steelers, on BOTH sides of the ball, have a severe dearth of ANY capability overmatch. Only Troy Edwards is capable at WR to do this, and with his smallish size and lack of a complementary starting receiver, this rarely turns into an overmatch. Bettis can overmatch a defense when his shoulders are squared and he faces only one tackler, but the rest of the offense is so sagging that that this rarely occurs. Defensively, we have NO ONE who can consistently overwhelm the player he is guarding or is fending off. NO ONE. This is perhaps the saddest indictment of how poor this team has regressed. In years gone by, we had the Rod Woodsons, Greg Lloyds, and Chad Browns to overmatch an offense. No more. Kirkland perhaps comes closest to being able to do this, but his hefty fat prohibits him so badly from helping out in pass defense that the team has literally had to use smaller players to cover mobile TEs. None of the linemen on defense can overmatch an opponent, nor can the pedestrian OLBs. Holmes is a fierce competitor and a key contributor, but is not quite big or athletic enough to consistently create a capability overmatch. Ditto for Flowers, who is a vicious hitter but only a so-so cover-guy. Somehow, someway, the team has got to address this problem --- thru a paradigm shift --- and get some players who can create this kind of overmatch that ultimately creates big plays and produces wins rather than close defeats. If all you do as a football team is earn a "draw" at every position, the best you can hope for is a tie game or a rare fluke victory. This, then, is partly what causes a team to finish 6-10. You can't "win" at all eleven positions, but you hope you can at least tie in several of them and overmatch an opponent at a few of 'em.
3. This then logically leads us into a need to add speed, impact, and FOOTBALL players. Anyone who has watched even 10 minutes of the playoffs can see how relatively slothful our team speed is. It's pretty sad when teams like then Rams and Oilers each have well over a dozen players who are faster than anyone on the Steeler roster. Since I have the DSS dish, I got to watch every team this season, and I was continually reminded of how flat-out slow this Steeler team has become. Sure, some of this has to do with the lax, softee conditioning programs of Bill Cowhead, which obviously are no more strenuous than bowling or jarts. But up and down the roster, this team is undoubtedly among the 5 slowest in the entire league. The need for impact players goes had-in-glove with the capability overmatch problem. Your impact players are your QB, RB, WR, CB, and OLB. Look at ours. With the exception of RB, you won't find a more vanilla, mediocre band of ragbags in all of pro football. Finally, we need to start getting football players. This may sound bizarre, since everyone in the NFL is supposedly a football player. That's a fallacy. By football player, I mean a man who can PLAY the game of football with speed, hustle, intensity, grit, effectiveness, and a lust for winning. We have too many "athletes", "projects", and "he's-got-potential's" on this roster, and not enough football players. Hacksaw Reynolds was a football player. Ed McAffrey is a football player. Chris Spielman was a football player. Prior to his injuries, Justin Strelzyk was a football player. I'm tired of seeing "athletes" like Carla Emmons getting blown of the ball and doing nothing. I'm weary of projects like Will Jackwell who have had 3 seasons to do something and have literally done nothing. Bottom line: we need to shift our paradigm, and add speed, impact, and football players.
4. We need to stop reaching in the draft. This has been primarily caused by the FO's slothful activity in free agency. When we'd lose a FA --- be it Eric Green, John Jackson, Rod Woodson, or Charles Johnson --- the "Steeler way" has been to sit around, do nothing, and then reach in the draft for a player to cheaply plug in for the departed free agent. This is why we've drafted Bruener (replaced E. Green), JaMain (drafted to ultimately replace J. Jackson), Chad Scott (Woodson), and Troy Edwards (C. Johnson). The paradigm shift could cease this nonsense. We need to look at the draft and start drafting players who are clearly the best football players available, not simply the guy who happens to conveniently fill a void created by free agency. The Jevon Kearse blunder epitomizes exactly what can happen when you reach.
5. Finally, the team needs to start considering the Law of the Harvest. The Law of the Harvest is simple: You cannot take short cuts or bastardize the growth process; only a carefully planned, carefully executed developmental process can reap the harvest of what has been sown. This obviously works in farming, and in virtually every other endeavor one can think of. You're better off studying throughout the semester, than cramming just before finals. You're better off taking care of your car, or your kids, or your spouse, or your employees, with a consistent, planned approach, than with "crisis management" when problems heat up to a boil. So it is with players. You can't draft a youngster, then rot him on the bench for a couple of years, and then throw him to the wolves and expect him to play consistently well. You've got to take a youngster, and gradually develop him with a planned approach that provides playing time and feedback to hone skills, rectify errors, and take advantage of his talents & aptitude. This team has done a downright shameful job in applying the Law of the Harvest to its player development. Given the hateful nature of this team in regard to participating in free agency, this is rather ironic; you'd think they would firmly embrace the Law of the Harvest. Clearly, they have not. They have not groomed a starting QB since handing the job on a sliver platter to Kordell Stewart in 1997, and have watched 4 young QBs (Miller, Quinn, Gonzalez, and Wright) sit around collecting mold with little or no PT. The offensive line is perhaps the sickliest evidence of the harvest problem: in the past 8 some years, only Alan Faneca (a talented 1st rounder) has been 'groomed' to play at an acceptable level in the NFL. They have not groomed a capable OLB since Chad Brown was drafted in 1993. As with all the other strategic aspects, the Law of the Harvest can only be applied if a paradigm shift occurs.
The Stiller offense is a fantasy come-true for opposing defensive coordinators. As I've alluded to, the current offense offers no capability overmatch whatsoever to an opposing defense. Stack the line to bottle up Bettis, shade coverage over to Edwards, and keep a spy on Stewart, and you can stop the Steeler offense as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. All the skill positions are manned by players who are either too slow, too small, too unskilled, or a combination thereof. Bruener, a slowpoke who has been made even slower by 2 serious leg injuries, can be covered by ANY player on the defense, be it a nose tackle or a 160-pound cornerback. Witman, the "do it all" fullback, is so slow and lacking in ball-catching & RAC skills that many teams don't even bother to assign a defender to cover the stiff. Bettis is too slow and plodding to add oomph to the passing game. Hawkins is a twerp, Ward is severely lacking polish and receiving skills, and Shaw is a crafty RAC receiver but not able to flat-out beat many defenders downtown. Blackwell has proven to be a worthless bust. Huntley does have solid potential to add impact, but as long as Bettis remains on the team, Huntley will always play second fiddle unless he's inserted as a FB --- and that would require a significant paradigm shift.
The play of the offensive line needs improvement (hold on to that thought, by the way), but it matters little if we sign 4 Pro Bowl linemen this spring, if we do not do something to address our lack of overmatch. Clearly, a strong, seasoned, sizable skilled veteran WR MUST be aggressively pursued in the offseason. Ward, Shaw, and Hawkins (if retained) are solid complementary receivers, but none are capable of complementing Edwards as a starting receiver and drawing some coverage away from him. It's also apparent that Stewart never recovered from losing his security blanket, Yancey Thigpen --- the scattershot Kordell loved having a big, trusty receiver to throw to. Maybe Carolina's Mohammed is the answer, but the search should include more than just him.
Obviously, QB is a HUGE need that absolutely, positively must be addressed in free agency. We cannot go into camp handing the starting job over to The Western Union Man, with no one else legitimately able to fight for the starting job. Competition breeds better focus, intensity, and production, and we must bring in a genuine, capable QB. Jim Miller might well have fit our needs and Rooney's stingy budget, but since Bill Cowhead is still around, this has less chance of occurring than Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr becoming business partners. Trent Green is a solid choice, but if he's pursued by other teams, it's likely the stingy Rooney will be outbid. The bottom line, is that we need a far better challenger for the starting job than Mike Tomwhack and Pete Gonzalez (who coincidentally will be gone, since Wright passed him up on the depth chart by season's end).
Without question, another FB must be brought in to camp, if for nothing else, to provide Witman (if we're foolishly going to keep him), with competition, something he's had little of the past 2 seasons. Actually, Witman should be dumped at the earliest opportunity. He ties up $768K in cap money and gives us nothing in return. NOTHING. His blocking is thoroughly unacceptable for a team desiring to play smashmouth football, and his other "do it all" skills are a farce. Donahoe was a fool to give the fragile, slowpoke Witman the fatty 3-year deal last spring, but we should not have to live with this outrageous mistake any longer than need be. Trade the stiff for a 7th rounder, or cut him after June 1st in order to maximize the reduction in cap money.
The offensive line is in rather sad shape. Dawson is showing signs of wear & tear, and while he likely has a couple more solid years left, the team needs to examine the draft to see if a future center can be acquired with a mid-round pick. A guard to challenge Brendan PigStai is even more of a priority. PigStai not only played shabbily in '99, but he's regressed from his decent play of '95 & '96. While Gandy is no superstar, and Faneca's pass blocking did not improve one iota from his rookie season, both these positions are adequately manned for the next few years. Right tackle, obviously, is another glaring problem. Chris "The Mannequin" Conrad proved beyond all doubt what a turd he is, displaying gross ineptitude not typically seen beyond the middle school level. Anthony "Skates" Brown appears to be a mediocre journeyman who isn't anywhere skilled enough to start in the NFL. The wild card could be Shar Pourdanesh, who rotted on the sidelines the 1st 14 games, but then played admirably against K. Green & Kearse in the final 2 games of the season. Of course, I'd rather not go into camp with Pourdanesh penned in as the lone RT. Many are optimistic about Justin's return and Kris Ferris, but I believe both of these options are follies that have miniscule chances of panning out. Justin, a greybeard who's had 2 serious leg surgeries in the past 16 months, is unlikely to be ready for camp and is unlikely to regain the footwork and blocking ability he once had. Ferris has exactly one MORNING of NFL camp under his belt. Not one game, or one week --- one morning, in which he then broke his foot, and due to keeping 4 QBs on the roster so that 2 could rot, he didn't have a place on the PUP list and had to be placed on IR. I think it's far too Alice-in-Wonderland to expect Ferris to waltz into camp, dominate opposing defenders, and play solid football as our starting RT. I have an easy internal solution to our RT problems --- move TE Mark Breuner to right tackle. He's got the frame --- 6'4", 265 pounds --- to easily bulk up and add another 30 pounds. All we've ever heard during his NFL tenure is "He's such a great blocker". Great. Let him be a great blocker at right tackle, where we've gotten blocking the past 2 seasons that has ranged from crappy to horrendous to downright vomit inducing. Larry Brown made the move from TE to RT for the Stillers in the 70's, and became a far better value to the team as a RT than he was as a TE. Breuner offers us nothing at TE other than a slow, plodding receiver whose career high in receptions is 26 (made in his rookie year, by the way). We would lose NOTHING at the tight end position but would gain a solid, hard-working, good-blocking player to man a position (RT) that has given us fits the past 2 seasons. It would cost us nothing against the salary cap and would give us a player who already has a good working relationship with the rest of the offensive lineman.
At tight end, Matt Cushing seemed to really impress the coaches late in the season, and he and Tuman could fight it out for the starting job. Lyons, a UFA who suffered a hideous knee injury late in the season, should obviously not be re-signed.
UFA Sweeney served his purpose but is clogging a roster spot for a younger player who can be groomed. UFA Mike Prozac should obviously not be re-signed, although he is obviously one of Bill Cowhead's most beloved players, so its scary to think what Cowhead --- who now has far greater personnel power --- will do with his favorite ballplayer. UFA Hawkins should be resigned ONLY if he'll accept a $500K per year offer and ONLY if Cowhead will refuse to start him -- even if the entire WR corps comes down with chicken pox, the flu, or even terminal cancer.
This once proud defense has fallen so miserably that it is now regarded as one of the softest in the entire conference. Only Cleveland gave up more rushing yards per game, and few defenses produced less pressure on the QB than the softee Stiller defense.
Paramount this offseason is to address the status of Fat NT Joel Steed. Steed's knees are questionable and he's contemplating retirement. Unless a solid NT can be acquired --- such as Cinci's Kimo Van Olehofen (sp?) --- is would be pointless to run a 3-4 defense. Staat is far too tall --- and therefore cannot create LEVERAGE --- to play NT. Plus, as I've railed about since the end of the '97 season, we have hardly anyone to play the OLB position -- the big-impact, glamour-boy position in the 3-4 defense. It seems foolish --- but stubborn & oh-so-typical of Bill Cowhead --- to insist on trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. If ya don't have the players to make a certain defense work, you ought to use a different defense. And Steed isn�t the only concern on the defensive line. Roye, the team's best defensive lineman, is a UFA, and given our past history, might be gone when a few teams show more interest than the Stillers do. Roye's signing is as close to a "must" as we can get, because the team simply does not have another def. lineman even remotely as skilled and capable as Roye is. Harrison, the china doll who is as fragile as a vase from the Ming Dynasty, is a UFA and should be chased out of town by a mob armed with hockey sticks & pitchforks. Henry is an average DE, at best, who is barely ok but nothing more. Staat has proven to be as wasteful a 2d round pick as Will Jackwell, and perhaps more, since we actually had to trade up to draft this over-rated, underachieving stiff. Without question, the draft must be used to get another solid lineman in the mold of Roye.
The starting OLB spots --- which I continually wrote about the past 2 offseasons --- are as sorry a twosome as there has ever been in the history of the NFL. Jason Gildon remains an over-rated flop who never, ever, does much of anything unless he's totally unblocked --- and even then it's seldom that he does much. Carla Emmons is as soft and worthless an OLB as you can possibly find in pro football, to include the Arena League. Emmons, fortunately, is a UFA and should be gone, though he, like Hawkins, is apparently one of Bill Cowher's favorite players of all time, since he's been handed the starting job 2 years in a row with absolutely no justification whatsoever. Porter should get the ROLB job, and Gildon should be traded for ANY draft pick in order to reduce his outrageous $2.1 million burden on our salary cap. Given his "nice to look at" sack stats the past 2 seasons, it shouldn't be difficult to swindle another club --- under the guise of "we have a new GM and we�re also looking at a new defensive scheme" --- into trading a 5th rounder for Gildon. A draft pick, plus a veteran signee (remember last year when I screamed for us to sign either Jamir Miller or Lonnie Marts?) could man the LOLB spot. As I've already pointed out, OLB is an area where we could -- SHOULD -- be capitalizing on an overmatch, but instead we are actually getting overmatched here because of gross softness & incompetence by our current starting OLBs.
This is the year for Vrabel to either crap or get off the pot. I've heard enough about his potential. He either puts up at camp or joins the ranks of the unemployed. Fiala is turning out to be a solid, trusty special teamer. Kelsay should be on the bubble at camp, since he showed little and has scant potential. If we move to a 4-3, Kirk would man the middle, flanked by Porter and Holmes. I can just hear the yelps of, "But how can Porter and Holmes cover passes?". First, Holmes would be removed in both the nickel and the dime defense. Second, Porter, with his speed, would probably be a primary blitzer or even moved to one of the 4 down linemen in obvious passing downs. Third, this is a novel idea for a team with such poor coaching as the Steelers have, but the coaching staff should work with Porter all offseason, and day & nite at camp, to refine his total linebacking skills, o include pass coverage. Lastly, someone show me a film clip --- any film clip --- of either Gildon or Emmons breaking up a pass play the last 2 seasons (32 games, mind you). I'd rather have Holmes and Porter --- one man who can stuff the run and one who can harass the passer --- rather than a pair of stiffs who can't do ANYTHING at all.
The secondary needs to be examined and sorted out. Chad and DeWayne are set as our starters, and while not spectacular at all, are capable and acceptable. Since serious knee injuries typically take a good 2 years to recover from, I expect Chad to play with more confidence and quickness this season. Townsend is a decent backup at CB, though he did struggle at times in '99. I believe he is best suited to playing in-your-face man to man, rather than this softee 12 yard cushion, where he seems to struggle. Sure, we need to add youth and depth and speed at CB, but there's no need to reach. Lee is set at SS, and Shields should win the starting FS job at camp. I'd actually be in favor of cutting Davis after June 1st, but at $600K he's not terribly pricey. Oldham and Lance are both UFAs, and frankly I won't shed any tears if either man departs. Yeah, yeah, Oldham is a fan favorite, but he's also tying up a roster spot for someone who may be younger, faster, bigger, stronger, and more athletic.
One final help might be if Jim "The Vanilla Man" Haslett is hired away by some foolhardy team to be a head coach. In 3 seasons as our DC, Haslet has done NOTHING innovative. All he's ever done is roll out the same vanilla slop week in and week out. A new DC might actually add some innovation to a defense that has gotten overly stagnant and predictable.
It appears we are set at both kicker and punter, with Kris and Josh turning in stellar seasons. Schneck had a good season long-snapping.
The one grave concern is in the kickoff/punt return game. Edwards showed flashes but floundered about, citing a lack of "comfort" with catching punts. Blackwell is a total joke as a returner, since he lacks football speed, and more importantly, guts, to be a solid returner. Huntley tries hard but simply is not slippery or elusive enough to excel as a kickoff returner. Our return game gives us no boost at all --- no threat of scoring a quick six and little threat of providing the offense with golden field position. I think Amos can be a good kickoff returner --- assuming he'll be allowed to play this season --- but I have my doubts that he take punt returns to the house. The team needs to seriously look for a WR or DB in the draft who can also boost our sorry return game.
Key draft needs: Stud defensive lineman, an offensive G or T, speed DB, kick returner, OLB, QB (in mid rounds), center (if avail. in mid round).
Key Free agent needs: Starting QB, starting WR, nose tackle, and an offensive lineman (for depth).
Players who should be considered to never again wear the Black & Gold: Witman, Emmons, Harrison, Prozac, Stai, Davis, Blackwell, Sweeney, A. Brown, Conrad, Gildon, Hawkins, Lyons, Fu, Duffy, Gonzo, L. Brown, Simmons. (This might seem excessive, but remember to shift your paradigm. Teams that finish 7-9 and then 6-10 don't have a lot to lose by paring away some of the fat from their roster. And, if they don't pare away fat, they'll likely be mired in perpetual 6-10 seasons.)
The Still Mill