2009 NFL Season: A Cold Dose of Steel Realism

Deja Vu All Over Again

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been down this road before.  This road is the arduous path following a Super Bowl victory by an experienced team that fails to meet expectations in the following season.  The 2009 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers has, in many respects, been a repeat of the 2003 season he spent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a defensive coach under John Gruden.  As the calendar turns to 2010, the Steelers find themselves in the unusual position of desperately needing a win over a tough Miami Dolphin team and requiring assistance from at least two other teams.  It is uncomfortable, to say the least, and Mike Tomlin has rejected the very idea that the Steelers should spend a moment watching the scoreboard.

After all, this 2009 team put themselves in this historic bind by losing to several of the lowest performing teams in the league: Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland.  When you drop the type of contests that Pittsburgh has in ’09, the last thing you should want is help.  Moreover, there is very little evidence that the team has made much more than modest headway in resolving the problems that lead to these losses in the first place.  A tight win over the Green Bay Packers came down to the final play and required a legendary throw from Ben Roethlisberger.  A week later, a win over the Baltimore Ravens was tainted by a competitor’s lack of discipline and a bevy of whistles and bizarre breaks.  So, while the Steelers have a lot to prove, they are fortunate to have a coach who understands fully what the challenges are before them.

Consider this:

  1. Back in 2003, the Buccaneers lost two close games to a division rival who would up playing in the Super Bowl.  This year, the Steelers lost two games to a division rival (Cincinnati) that is clearly good enough on both sides of the ball to play in the Super Bowl.
  2. In 2003, the Buccaneers ran the table vs. the NFC East.  This season, the Steelers didn’t run the table against a single division, but they were 4-0 vs. the top finishers in the AFC West (San Diego, Denver) and the NFC North (Minnesota, Green Bay).
  3. Both Gruden and Tomlin inherited successful veteran teams from winning coaches (both of whom were former employees of The Great Conservative, Marty Schottenheimer) who were widely reviled for losing close playoff games.
  4. At the time of their respective Super Bowl victories, both Gruden and Tomlin were the youngest such coaches in the league.
  5. In 2003, the Bucs ran a running back by committee featuring three different backs: Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones and Aaron Strecker.  The 2009 Steelers have used Rashard Mendenhall, a powerfully built runner like Pittman with a tendency to fumble, Willie Parker, and Mewelde Moore.
  6. In 2003, the Bucs star defensive players were all over 30.  John Lynch was 32 and headed to Denver.  Warren Sapp was 31 and headed to Oakland.  Derrick Brooks was 30, but he would remain as an anchor until 2009.  The Steelers defense is also led by many aging players: the injured Aaron Smith (34 in April ’10), Casey Hampton (32), and James Farrior (35 on January 6).
  7. In 2003, the Buccaneers signature loss was a Week 5 dandy on Monday night vs. the Indianapolis Colts.  The Bucs were throttling Tony Dungy’s new team in his first visit back to Raymond James Stadium.  Many folks probably tuned out, after all Tampa was up 21-0 at halftime.  Peyton Manning and the Colts scored 28 points in the 4th quarter and Marvin Harrison went 11 for 172 and 2.  In 2009, the Steelers have more signature losses than they’d care to recount, but most of them involve a 4th quarter collapse.

Understanding Gruden’s Legacy

It is clear that a great deal of what has transpired this year should look familiar to Mike Tomlin.  The 2003 Buccaneers finished the season 7-9.  They did not make the playoffs.  Jon Gruden who was brought in to lead the offense and build a sustained winner coached for 7 years.  In those seven years, the Buccaneers offense ranked 18th, 18th, 23rd, 20th, 31st, 18th and 19th in scoring.  Gruden did not do the job he was hired to do — and a long shadow was always cast over his accomplishments there because he came to Tampa with the one playbook that would allow him to win a Super Bowl.  Bruce Allen was brought to Tampa, from Oakland, by Gruden to renew the franchise.  He was successful in remaking the Bucs under the salary cap, but…  Allen never drafted a stud…he never drafted a positional fixture/icon for the Bucs.  He never even drafted a Pro Bowler — unless you count guard Davin Joseph who filled in as a reserve.

Buccaneer Braintrust: Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden

And this is the cautionary tale for Mike Tomlin.  Don’t do what Gruden and Allen did.  They effectively destroyed a unique Buccaneer system which consistently drafted high-quality starters.  Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to turn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a mix of the Green Bay Packers and the Oakland Raiders – all the way down to the Al Davis Vendetta Style of Personal Alienation.  It failed miserably.  That the Bucs did not disintegrate sooner was solely the result of conceptual continuity on defense.  Monte Kiffin kept the wheels from falling off.  Derrick Brooks kept the wheels from falling off.  Tony Dungy kept the wheels from falling off, in absentia. Raheem Morris came in to pick up the shattered pieces of a team that was 9-3 in 2008, but lost 4 consecutive games and descended into acrimonious back-biting as everyone headed for the doors.  It is ironic that the most statistically impressive win for the Bucs this season was over the Green Bay Packers.

The Steel Future

The Steelers are going to face a difficult rebuilding job on defense soon.  It won’t be easy to replace men like Smith, Hampton and Farrior for two reasons: 1) they were each possessed of high skill levels, and 2) the demand for players who can do what they did in a 3-4 scheme has increased exponentially since these men were drafted or signed by the Steelers.

The 2003 Buccaneers were aging on defense, but they also had some nice young players in the fold.  Where the team was really aging was on offense.  Brad Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Keyshawn Johnson, Ken Dilger, Mike Alstott and others from the 2002 team were in the last days of their careers.  The Steelers are young enough on offense.  The only offensive player for whom age might be a concern is WR Hines Ward — and he had more catches this season than New England Patriot WR Randy Moss.  As stated above, Jon Gruden was never able to rebuild that offense.  Statistically, they went from bad to worse during his reign.  Tomlin can’t have the same failure when the challenge is front and center with respect to rebuilding this defense.  Dick LeBeau can’t coach forever (Can he?).  Smith, Hampton and Farrior are not going to be better than they have been.  If Mike Tomlin’s Steelers are to be as good as Bill Cowher’s Steelers, he’ll have to work with GM Kevin Colbert to make sure there are many more hits than misses.  And that may very well mean not trying to turn the Steelers into the Buccaneers or the Minnesota Vikings.

Identity Politics

Football is, at the end of the day, just another form of identity politics.  The identities and legacies of teams are very often shaped by the stadiums in which they play and the weather.  Mike Tomlin, prior to coming to Pittsburgh, did not have to coach in an environment where weather was a principal concern.  Two road games each season (at Lambeau and at Soldier Field) simply are not decisive.  The Steelers can change with the times, but they are not the San Diego Chargers.  They simply cannot rely on playing perfect weather games in November and December.  They do not play in a dome under controlled conditions.  They play in a stadium where ball security, turnovers, force and physicality determine championships — and this is consistent with the identity of the franchise, the fan base and the region.

Mike Tomlin clearly understands this.  He must continue to hold this understanding close in his thinking if he hopes to climb the mountain with this bunch one more time.  Some of the faces will be different, but if Tomlin climbs the mountain again, he’ll need to do in a way that John Gruden could not.  There is no need to panic because if nothing else, everyone should know that Mike Tomlin knows who he is — and who the Steelers have to be.

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