I wish I had a crystal ball to show what the Steelers need to do to be successful in 2013. First, let me define successful. To me, success is competing at the highest level in all games and being in the championship. I think the best success is a Super Bowl ring, but I like to see good, meaningful competition overall. Maybe I don’t look at this the right way, maybe I do. However, I think it is unrealistic to expect a perfect season. Heck, if it hasn’t been done since 1972 (when it was a shorter season) then should people even expect it? Would that be a dream season? Yes. Is it a practical expectation? No.
So what to look at during the off season? Two ideas.
Personnel – specifically the OC and the QB: There are a lot of personnel prospects out there in the upcoming draft and there will be a plethora of free agents to sort through – some from the Steelers current team. However, I still contend success is not just about selecting the right players. I truly think the Steelers need to take a step back and look at their structure. I was starting to get on the bandwagon about change at the offensive coordinator position last year before Bruce Arians was fired/retired. I thought something was out of whack, but I did not like how the Steelers went about changing their OC. It didn’t seem completely above board and I still think Mike Tomlin wasn’t as much in the loop because of his family situation as he would have liked. Todd Haley is not a bad guy but I think he put an emphasis on changing how Roethlisberger played as if Ben was a terrible quarterback and the franchise needed someone to ride in on a white horse and save it. Certainly the organization should be concerned about Roethlisberger’s injuries, particularly as he ages. The Steelers invested an unprecedented amount of money (for this organization) in him. However, I think it is wrong to require Roethlisberger to change who he is as a quarterback without his input. It’s clear to me that Haley is a “my way or the highway” guy, but he wasn’t handed a rookie to work with. There needs to be a give and take and Roethlisberger’s skills should have been taken in to account. Was Roethlisberger refusing to give and take? Hard to say. We can only speculate, but something wasn’t working for a long term system. I liked that for the first part of the season the Steelers had the best 3rd down conversion rate. However, the game plan wasn’t ready for when the opponents planned to counter the shorter pass game plan. I agree with what Craig said the other day: Roethlisberger never came back 100% healthy. The game plan wasn’t ready for that. Could any game plan survive an injury to the quarterback? Well, the reality is that they need to. It’s a quarterback-driven league and the opponents are going to come after the QB. Teams are likely to be using a quarterback with a diminished capability by the end of the season – or an outright back-up quarterback. In the end, I think we all are scratching our head at some of the coaching decisions. It wasn’t just that things didn’t go the Steelers way. It’s that they didn’t put themselves in a position to succeed at critical moments. If Todd Haley moves on I won’t be upset. However, I think the staffing decisions need to go differently this year. Who do you point to for that?
Injuries: Injuries are a part of the game and they are changing based on the concussion rules. Say what you will about the concussion rules; head injuries need to be dealt with. I think there is something to be said against people using their heads as battering rams or feeling like they can absorb that kind of hit. However, the alternative are hits that twist knee and ankle joints. I’d like to see the stats over the last two years of MCL/ACL and ankle type injures – sprains and season-ending surgeries – and compare them to the previous 10 years. Yes, those injuries don’t have a mental impact. However, teams now have to a plan for an increase in those injuries. Perhaps the active roster needs to be bigger or the practice squad needs to be larger to allow for more replacement training. Oh, wait, that would cut into the owners profits from the ticket and food sales – we can’t have that! Well, maybe it could be offset by more jersey sales. Either way, players are coming out of the game sooner – with good reason – but the coaches don’t have enough flexibility or reserve to deal with the injuries. At one point, the Steelers were down so many offensive linemen in a single game the commentators were wondering what would happen if they lost one more. Perhaps the league needs to look at how many players can be active for a game. Perhaps the NFLPA would have a problem with that, but it’s clear to me that the injury planning factor has to adjust. If you are going to ask your offensive linemen to get in a pushing and shoving match for 30 to 40 minutes every Sunday and you only have 8 or 9 active and 5 must start every offensive play – well, I think the problems will mount as the low, knee-level hits add up.
I don’t have a crystal ball and some of what I am saying is purely my impression mingled with speculation – as has been pointed out by readers before. But, something didn’t feel right this season. One thing that I have loved about watching Steelers football over the last 10 or so years is the passion the players had for each other and the game. This year I just didn’t get that feel on a consistent basis. Some players were upbeat and positive no matter what, but I guess with social media we get a glimpse into how they really feel and it didn’t always reflect well on the team. I point to the atmosphere the coaches foster. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve worked in places where the leadership didn’t foster camaraderie or team spirit and the product was inferior and the team was frustrated. I think if the Steelers reinvigorate the coaching staff along with sound player decisions and look back at where the consistent 2012 injuries, it can go a long way toward sound planning for 2013.