The Optimist’s Take – James Saxon’s Influence

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: What kind of impact can new running backs coach James Saxon have on the offense?

While former running backs coach Kirby Wilson was highly respected throughout the organization and the local media, his stable of running backs have not always exceled since he has been with the Steelers over the last seven seasons.

It is widely believed that had he not suffered life-threatening burns in a house fire, he would have been promoted to offensive coordinator after the ‘refiring’ of Bruce Arians following the 2011 season.

It is also widely believed that his ambition to be an offensive coordinator and the evident signs that Haley wouldn’t be going anywhere led to Wilson taking the running backs coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings, after failing to acquire the offensive coordinator position for the Baltimore Ravens.

The Vikings job was made available when a coaching regime change gutted Minnesota’s coaching staff. Part of that overhaul was the firing of the running backs coach: James Saxon. The Steelers were fairly quick to replace Wilson with Saxon, in essence the two teams trading coaches. Wilson will now have Adrian Peterson to play with, while Saxon will help foster the young Le’Veon Bell’s future.

How exactly might that go? Well, Saxon did coach Peterson to a near-record-breaking 2097-yard rushing season in a year coming off an ACL injury.

Interestingly, Saxon was a running back (more specifically a fullback) in his playing career, while Wilson was a defensive back in the CFL. Saxon thus brings actual in-game knowledge and experience to the position.

Additionally, while he was not productive statistically as a fullback, his production was spread evenly between rushing and receiving, gaining 533 rushing yards in his eight-year career compared to 515 receiving yards. In his penultimate season, in fact, he had just eight rushes in comparison to 27 receptions.

That obviously plays in favor for the Steelers’ front office, who drafted Bell with the idea that he will be a workhorse back that can do it all, and he showed that with his 45 receptions in 13 games as a rookie. That’s perhaps something that Saxon can nurture. His blocking ability as a fullback will also help perhaps the weakest aspect of Bell’s game.

Did I mention he was a pass-catching fullback? I think the Steelers might have one of those that could use some grooming as well.

Saxon certainly has the track record for the job. While serving as the running backs coach for both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins—both teams that he played for—he led five different running backs to Pro Bowl seasons.

Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, and fullback Tony Richardson all thrived under Saxon in Kansas City, while Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams found some of their greatest successes with him as their coach. Peterson, of course, makes a sixth Pro Bowl runner. What is there, really, to suggest that he won’t make Bell his seventh Pro Bowl protégé?

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