Sunday, January 29, 2012

The "Retirement" of Bruce Arians Might Have Been Ill-Timed

As everyone knows by now, Bruce Arians has "retired" from football. Well, at least football played professionally in Western Pennsylvania, that is.

Look, let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: I'm no fan of Bruce Arians. I've been down on him as offensive coordinator since the infamous naked draw on third and six in the January 5th, 2008 Jaguars playoff game. The seed was planted at that point and kept growing with plenty of limbs and flourishes.

Arians' predictability and inconsistency at times were mind-boggling. It was almost as if he sometimes was thinking, "I'll run THIS play. I know it'll work because I just ran it the same way and it didn't work then, so I know they won't be expecting it again so soon. I'm so smart. I deserve a chocolate milk for that. *chocolate milk, chocolate milk, I love chocolate milk...*"

Ok, let me stop...I made him sound like he rode the short bus to school, and that isn't the purpose here. I'm simply writing this in an attempt to temper the actually undeserved and unnecessary Bruce Arians hatred.

While I have no problem overall with the departure of Arians, I just don't have nearly the same urge to run around like the Queen of Hearts either, saying, "Off with his head!" as others do. My biggest issue with this was just the timing. That's what bothers me. Arians' inefficiencies have been evident for a couple of years now. So, if he'd been gone two years ago, I'd have been carpooling with the rest of you to the South Side to help Arians pack. ("Ok, Bruce, what do you need? Just "need", not want. C'mon, move it! Let's get these boxes filled! Move it, move it! Your ride is waiting outside! He's got the engine runnin! Go, go, go! This is the last chopper outta Vietnam!!!")

Now, though, with these young wide receivers, a new, young tight end just starting to blossom and mature, and with your quarterback in his prime, the last thing you want is for that growth to be stunted by a completely new play book with new terminology, hand signals, etc... Thus, the so-called "power play" by the aforementioned QB to promote Randy Fichtner to be the new offensive coordinator.

Without getting too deeply into it, Fichtner has a good track record. He spent time at Memphis from 1990-1993, and then Fichtner returned to Memphis in 2001 to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, instituting a new and effective spread offense that set school records for total offense. His new system allowed the teams to amass prolific offensive statistics, totalling over 5,000 yards in both 2003 and 2004 to rank in the top 10 for both yardage and scoring. A spread offense, by the way which ran the ball over 50% of the time as well.

Tomlin and Fichtner also have a history dating back to 1998 when working at Arkansas St. together. As soon as Tomlin became the Steelers head coach, Fichtner was one of Tomlin's first hires. So, considering he's already the quarterbacks coach, he'd make sense as being the next OC since he would take into consideration what plays the quarterback would want.

Getting back to the main subject, Arians has often been accused of questionable play calling, and of being predictable and/or inconsistent. Ok. Yeah, I'll give you those. Like I said, I've had my problems with him for a while. So, I know all too well about those imperfections. But, with all of that being said, I could still make, and often have made, the argument that there were just as many execution errors that led to the various offensive problems the Steelers had this year as inept play-calling problems caused by Arians.

There are several examples to choose from with regard to the aforementioned issues, both from the OC/play calling and from the execution standpoint. I've already mentioned the 3rd and six play against Jacksonville as one example, so we know Arians can be inept and leave you scratching your head. But there were also good plays that plain and simple were executed poorly. There were numerous missed hot reads, there were dropped passes, over and under thrown passes, missed blocks and missed assignments that were seen all year. All of that plays heavily into the 3rd down and red zone issues as well.

A good example of this involves Hines Ward. This year, Ward became the eighth wide receiver in NFL history to record 1,000 catches. He accomplished it on a shuffle pass in the week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns. Many have expressed dislike for the bubble screen and the shuffle pass both, except when they work of course (and by the way, the numbers show that they work the majority of the time), and this was an occasion when it didn't work.

Why, though, didn't it work? Was it poorly disguised? Poorly timed? No, it was poorly executed. It was a play that would have produced positive yardage had Mike Wallace or, I believe, Jerricho Cotchery, even thought about blocking D'Qwell Jackson. Instead, Jackson comes in untouched to register it as a completed pass for -3 yards. Poor execution of a potentially good play.

There are plenty of other examples to choose from, as well. Plus, remember that we are dealing with a pass-happy QB here who has the right to call audibles and change plays as he sees fit.

There are those times when we don't know the exact play called, but the results were obviously still basically player error. A good example would be from the 49ers game this past season.

In that game, Ben had a great opportunity to check down to his running back, but instead decided to force the ball into double coverage. Mendenhall was just standing there waiting. He even waived his arm(s) at one point. Ben just said, "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall just stared, jumped, and shouted to get his attention. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall called Ben's name with a bullhorn and shot a starters pistol. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall brought the marching band onto the field and had them play a Steelers polka. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." What happened? Ben ignored the check down and threw an interception. Just try and blame that on the OC. Please, I beg you to try and do it.

You're saying to yourself, "Ok, Jason, l'll give you that. The team had their issues with regard to execution. But Arians was just too predictable." My response to that would be that I agree, but even if your offense is "predictable", even if a defense does know what's coming, they still have to be able to stop you.

We all remember the vintage Vince Lombardi film clip of him preparing his team. It was the classic, "We want to create a seal here and a seal here, then we'll run it right up the alley." The Packers did just that. Often. With precision. Despite the fact that teams knew it was coming. So, yes, you can be "predictable" if you've executed your end of things like you should. That aspect of it ultimately falls to the players. Ultimately, players have to make plays.

For those who didn't like Arians because of the presumed lack of running the ball and/or lack of a true fullback, I'd like to remind them to turn the page on their calendars...then to throw it away because it expired in 1992. The rules changes have made the NFL a very different game. Steelers fans thinking you can win Super Bowls pounding the football for 3 yards at a time between the tackles are not living in the real world. This game simply benefits the passing teams now.

Besides, the Steelers did run the ball. They ran it more than may be realized and more than other playoff teams did, especially on first down. The Steelers ran 55% on 1st down last year for a 4.6 yards per carry average. By way of comparison, the Packers and Patriots ran 45% on 1st down, and the Saints and Giants ran 43% on 1st down. Notice that it's the Super Bowl teams that ran it the least on first down.

So, the problem, organizationally, was that it was not run enough overall. That's where Art Rooney II stepped in.

We know that Rooney II wants to see more running and that this played into not extending another contract to Arians, but does that mean he wants to return to three yards and cloud of dust? While I do believe he wants more running, I don't think he means substantially more. I think they want quality and effectiveness. i.e. running 25 times to attain 125 yards as opposed to running 35 times for the same number of yards. Accomplishing this will still allow the play-action open up, Ben will take fewer hits, the whole offense will get better and the defense conversely will be able to rest more as well.

All of this having been said, at some point you do still reach a critical mass with the other inconsistencies and all that we tend to see. The bottom line is that Arians wasn't nearly as bad as people made him out to be. Was he great? No. Was he the football version of the anti-Christ? No! Only next season, though, will be able to tell us whether or not this was ill-timed.

This one thing is true, people in the NFL who actually know football were knocking on Arians' door as soon as he was let go. He's already the OC for the Indianapolis Colts. So, all the haters who forget that you need to breathe through your nose and not your mouth are either patting themselves on the back or ready to slit their wrists. It'll be interesting to see how much of which unfolds first.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Art Rooney II talks Steelers offseason player and coaching situations.

On Monday, Steelers President Art Rooney II sat down and spoke with Mike Labriola of Steelers Digest regarding the offseason and what that means for Ben, Hines, the salary cap and which other players are of concern going forward. The talking points of the interview will be discussed here, but the first part of the interview can be seen on via this link:

One of the things spoken of firstly was the way the season ended. While the Steelers did finish 12-4 in the regular season, and were the only team to finish with 12 or more wins in three of the last four years, the early playoff ouster was certainly not expected. Rooney pointed out that the "goal is always a championship" and the Steelers fell short of said goal. He pointed out, though, that it's "not a situation where we're looking to tear things apart and start over." Further on the early exit he said, "You have to be careful about using injuries as an excuse." So, it's a matter of reloading, not rebuilding, and holding oneself accountable.

The next topic presented to Mr. Rooney was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Ben turns 30 this year and Mr. Rooney hopes that means that Ben is only half way through his career with the Steelers. But, he realizes that his taking fewer hits would be good for Ben, and also that fewer sacks would be good in general, which, as he stated, is a responsibility of the offense on the whole.

Speaking of players' careers, Mr. Rooney said he has talked to Hines Ward and will continue to talk to him, and others in the organization, about his future. Mr. Rooney was not ready to say, however, if Ward will be back for 2012 or not.

One of the points of interest, and sometimes contention, of late is the contract situation of Mike Wallace. When asked about the restricted free agent wide receiver, one of the brighter young stars of the Steelers offense,  Mr. Rooney said that "no question" Wallace will be one of the priorities in the offseason. He also said of defensive end Brett Keisel that he is "still being evaluated" after injurying his groin to determine if surgery is necessary.

One of the things that the Steelers must contend with this offseason is the salary cap restraints and the upcoming Rule of 51. At present, the Steelers are about $25 million over the cap. Per Mr. Rooney, it's "probably as big an issue as we've had to face" in reference to past cap issues. On how the cap issues affect the roster, he said: "There will be tough decisions." Keep on the watch starting March 1st, Steelers fans.

As other points of interest, Mr. Rooney said that he expects his father, Dan Rooney, to step down as Irish Ambassador and rejoin the Steelers in 2012, and that the Steelers will add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field after the 2012 season.

Although he cannot yet say which Steelers might retire or not be back,
Mr. Rooney did say a few Steelers coaches are also thinking about retirement. A point which possibly came to fruition this evening as Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette reported that Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians may not return in 2012.

Mr. Rooney was fairly candid in all he had to say regarding the Steelers and even stated that the team will be wearing new throwback uniforms in two home games in 2012 as part of a celebration of its 80th NFL season. As a part of the celebration of the NFL's 75 anniversary in 1994, the Steelers wore the old Pirates' striped jerseys. Will they be similar to those? Most likely not. The speculation is that the new throwbacks will be the "Batman" jerseys from the mid-to-late 60's. Appropriate, if so, considering The Dark Knight Rises, the newest Batman movie, was partly filmed in Pittsburgh and has scenes with Steelers players and at Heinz Field. Here is what that uniform looks like:

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE: It has been announced by the organization that the Steelers have signed 10 players to futures contracts: OG John Malecki, TE Jamie McCoy, OT Chris Scott, OT Trevis Turner, DT Corbin Bryant (all of whom re-signed with the team after spending 2011 on the Practice Squad), QB Jerrod Johnson, DL Mike Blanc, DT Kade Weston, CB Marshall McFadden and DB Antonio Smith.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The 2012 Salary Cap May Be The Steelers Toughest Opponent

The Steelers 2011 season ended abruptly on January 8th and, for all intents and purposes, the 2012 season began. After going 12-4 for the third time in four seasons, an accomplishment unmatched by any other team in that period, the Steelers and their fans had high aspirations going into the post-season. Those aspirations, according to running back Isaac Redman, "got Tebowed."

Now the Steelers organization must look ahead to next season with several questions needing to be answered: Will Rashard Mendenhall and Max Starks be ready for the start of training camp? Will Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith and/or Hines Ward retire? Will there be salary cap room for the likes of James Farrior and Larry Foote, especially with consideration of the Rule of 51? How will they handle the contract of Casey Hampton considering what he is due to make next season? How will the questions surrounding the offensive line, including Willie Colon and the role Starks' injury will play, be answered? What about backup quarterback? Do the Steelers look for a future successor this year?

Several questions indeed. And I haven't even addressed anything NFL Draft related. I didn't mention free agency either. I mean that more so, though, from the standpoint of whom we could lose as opposed to whom we could possibly gain.

One thing that has been seen is that the Steelers have already started to put together the offseason roster. The Steelers signed practice squad players tight end Jamie McCoy, offensive lineman John Malecki and defensive end Corbin Bryant to three-year Futures contracts. I had John Malecki penned to this blog's final 53-man roster/practice squad prediction at the start of the season and all three did actually start the season on the practice squad. Bryant did actually see the 53-man roster once this past season, but was released the next week and re-signed to the practice squad once he cleared waivers. Also signed were tackle Trevis Turner, defensive back/special teamer Anthony Madison, wide receiver Jimmy Young, defensive tackle Kade Weston and quarterback Jerrod Johnson.

Regarding the items discussed in the beginning, there are many things to be considered moving forward. And the salary cap is what determines most of them.

The most immediate issue is Rule of 51 compliance, i.e having their top 51 salaries at or under the $125 million salary cap by the beginning of March. Being that the Steelers are still almost $20 million over the cap, this means there will be several cuts. Just to be clear, there are 44 players under contract for 2012 and the Steelers still need to fill the offseason 80-man roster. Plus, they have to tender their restricted and exclusive rights free agents as well. Several cuts. So, what does that mean for our beloved Steelers? Will those names we've come to depend upon be deleted by March 1st? How many will we see deleted by June 1st? More than we may realize may be gone sooner than later. Some of them may be brought back, but even that might be problematic.

Let's just go ahead, then, and look at the most likely roster moves with regard to contracts, age and health:

Casey Hampton - Big Snack will count about $8 million against the cap, he will be 35 and he has a torn ACL which was suffered in the playoff game against the Broncos. This one is a touch complex as Hampton is supposedly due a $1 million roster bonus in March. Might the Steelers come to some form of injury settlement with him to avoid this? They could save around $6 million with a conventional release before the paying of the bonus, so his knee injury plays heavily into this. Regardless, because of the contract situation and the injury he sustained, the best option may just be to eat the roster bonus, cut him by June 1st and then sign him back but at a substantially lower amount. But, that's just isn't my money.

Hines Ward - We will absolutely know by March 1st how this scenario will unfold. Hines will by no means be back next year at the over $4.5 million he's currently due. It simply won't happen. He said he wants to play another year and would take a pay cut to do so. If so, the Steelers would have to completely tear up the current deal, cut him and then sign him back to some sort of veteran minimum contract. Hines is a no. 4 or 5 receiver anymore and his real role(s) would be locker room leader, receivers mentor and coach-on-the-field. Is that feasible? Look, I'm one of the biggest Hines Ward fans there is, check this blog for the articles written about him, but even I realize it may be time for him to simple hang up his cleats.

Chris Kemoeatu - Big Juicy was a big pain most of the season. His erratic play, stupid post-snap penalties, knee problems and $5 million cap hit will almost certainly sign his walking papers. I said in this blog in the aforementioned final 53-man roster prediction that when his head is in the game he is one of the best pulling guards in the game. I stand by that. There game film to prove that. But, his head just isn't seemingly in the game nearly enough. He was demoted during the season because of it. The next demotion will be off of the team. The question is when it'll happen. Because I do believe he would actually would save the Steelers more money if he is cut by June 1st as opposed to March 1st. So, keep your eyes open regarding this one.

James Farrior - This is a tough one, not just because I really like Potsie, but because of the lack of experience behind him. He would count around $3.8 million against the salary cap, but the Steelers could save over $2.75 million if they cut him by March 1st and re-sign him to the veteran minimum or so. Something has to figured out here so that Stevenson Sylvester can learn from Potsie as Sly assumes a bigger role throughout the season. Something similar could be said about Foote with regard to this, though. With that being said...

Larry Foote - Foote is right there with Farrior. He counts over $3.5 million against the cap and that simply won't happen. He'll need to restructure in order to be in Black and Gold next year, At the same time, though, he's only 32 while Potsie is 37. Will that play into which of them stays?

Jonathan Scott - Can I simply say, "Goodbye, JScott?" Please. Seriously, he gets rolled up more than Zig-Zags. Ben probably has nightmares because of this guy. This is $2.7 million the Steelers could better spend on...well, anyone.

Aaron Smith - The Unsung Hero. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Aaron Smith. There isn't anything bad that I can say about him. But, it's time to ride off into the sunset. His contract was restructured this year so that room could be made for the signing of Max Starks. So, he'll count almost $3 million against the cap. That won't happen, especially not after neck surgery. Thank you, Aaron, for all you did for the Steel.

Chris Hoke - He had the same surgery that Aaron Smith had and is in basically ths same boat as Aaron. It's time to part ways here also.

Bryant McFadden - I said at the beginning of the season that BMac wouldn't see a Steelers uniform next year unless it was from the other side of the line of scrimmage. I stand by that. He was demoted to special teams shortly after the season started, and for good reason: he got burned more than MJ in that 1984 Pepsi commercial. The guy is marginal at best. He's due $2.5 million against the cap and that's free money at this point. The Steelers could always bring him back for the veteran minimum at the start of camp for depth and special teams, but I hope not.

There you have it: the offseason, for the most part, in a nutshell. At least from the viewpoint of the salary cap situation. Not much to consider, is it? Now, about the NFL Draft...