What are the Steelers doing?

Tomlin has had varied levels of success with the draft. How will he go this year? Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

What is the Steeler way? We’ve heard about it, read about it, but what is it? Is it watching the yearly parade of players depart for the greener pastures of free agency? Is it making questionable draft choices? Is it an apprenticeship system on defense where young players sit, then start for a year and leave via free agency? Is it re-signing players off a mediocre team? Is it re-signing players that the team once let go? Because if it is, then the Steelers are in trouble.

How is it that the deeper, more talented teams like the 49ers, Ravens, and Seahawks can continue to add talent to its roster, yet all we hear about the Steelers is how tight against the cap they are, thus they cannot sign anyone with the exception of offering tenders to players nobody else wanted ( hello, Stevenson Sylvester)? The team doesn’t need a salary cap expert; they need the Gandalf of salary cap management.  With very few exceptions, Steelers fans have resigned themselves to watching guys leave Steel town that were starters or solid backups while the team relied on the draft to re-stock the roster. But unlike past seasons, the team did make some solid free agent acquisitions or trades to support draft picks bringing in guys like Jerome Bettis, Jeff Hartings and Dwayne Washington.  However, brining in a solid free agent or two to supplement the draft picks no longer seems to be in the teams’ plans. To be honest the 2013 offseason makes me question if the team has a plan at all.

What does seem to be in the teams’ plans is to re-sign most of its own players, even if it is off of a very pedestrian 8-8 team. The team’s recent decision to match the Patriots offer of $2.5 million to WR Emmanuel Sanders can be debated endlessly. Signing him gives a little relief to a depleted receiving corps, yet it now also puts the team less than a million dollars under the cap. Yikes. Plus, everyone knows there will be no way Sanders will stay beyond this year, unless the team throws a silly sum of money at him as they have done in the past by throwing big extensions to guys like Chris “Mr. 10 yard holding penalty” Kemoatu or Willie “Mr. IR” Colon. Colon’s $5.5 million salary will at least come off the books in June so the team can sign its 2013 draft class. And if you think the 2013 cap is scary, the numbers on the 2014 and 2015 ledgers will have you running for the hills.

Ah, the draft. If anything signified the mystical “Steeler way”, it was to build through the draft. The draft is by no means an exact science and like many other teams the Steelers have been burned by some bad 1st round selections (Jamain Stephens????). Heck, the Bengals made an art form in the 90’s of bad 1st round choices, but even they now seemed to have figured it out. The Steelers however, seem to be moving in the other direction. As the first GM in team history (his previous title was director of football operations), this is the most important draft for Kevin Colbert and his staff. His entire 2008 class has been an unmitigated disaster and although 2009 produced both Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis, they have now left for Miami and New Orleans respectively.  And apprenticeship system or not, neither Ziggy Hood nor Cam Heyward have proven to be worthy of their first round status. While Maurkice Pouncey has been the lone home run of the last few years, it seems Colbert has lost his touch.

This brings us finally to head Coach Mike Tomlin. It’s clear he has lost control of this team and whatever motivational tactics he tried to apply in 2012 didn’t work. Tomlin had better be doing some serious soul-searching this year to figure out how to reign this group in and put the fire back in their bellies. There is no way under Noll or Cowher that word of a ‘divided locker room’ would ever have leaked out, it would have been handled in-house and that would’ve been the end of it. Not so under Tomlin. And recent drafts have not only revealed that Colbert has lost his touch, it has also revealed Tomlin’s major weakness: identifying talent.  Coupling this with the fact he has a divided locker room, the seat on Tomlin’s chair should be quite hot going into the 2013 season.

Unless something magical happens between now and September, it would not surprise me to see the team fall to 7-9 or even 6-10. Is an 8-8 or 9-7 or even 10-6 season possible? Of course. But nothing I have seen the team do this offseason convinces me of it. The offense last year regressed under Todd Haley (whom I was not a fan of hiring), Ben still missed time due to injury and they lost their lone deep threat in Mike Wallace. The backs are a hodgepodge and the team’s most reliable weapon, TE Heath Miller will miss the start of the season while he rehabs from injury.  While I still like Dick LeBeau, I don’t think his system allows for rookie contribution. Apprenticeship system or not, if a young player displays playmaking ability, you HAVE to get him on the field. Guys like Aldon Smith, JJ Watt and Luke Kuelchy have come in from day one and make major impacts for the 49ers, Texans and Panthers. Would they have under LeBeau’s system? Hood and Heyward aren’t out there because they aren’t impact guys; I don’t care what anyone says. There is trouble in Steel town. Whatever the ‘Steeler way’ is, it had better do its thing. And soon.

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