Raw talent plays a tremendous role in the success or failure of both individual players and for teams as a whole, of that there can be no doubt. And coaching fills in most of the rest of the variables in the winning equation. But that doesn’t mean that all the learning comes in the form of coaches telling players what to do.
Much of the learning is not transmitted from one hierarchy to another, but rather through peer to peer. The further down the coaching tree you get, the more specialized is the wisdom. The head coach is responsible for the entire team. Coordinators are further specialized to one side of the ball, and so on and so forth.
But some lessons can only be conveyed from player to player, from somebody with whom you go to battle. That is not unique to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room, of course, but they have long had a tradition of such ‘player coaches’ who have a great deal of influence on those around him, particularly in his position group.
James Harrison is such a player, and that is one of the principle reasons that the front office was quick to re-sign him last offseason. To a player, every linebacker in the group will cite him as a key influence in how to be both a linebacker and a professional. Vince Williams in particular has described him as a mentor.
This topic comes up in light of not just his pending future, of course, but also the recent retirement of tight end Heath Miller as the Steelers now officially enter the next chapter at the position. Jesse James, the Steelers’ rookie tight end from a year ago, will be a part of that transition, and I wrote about his apprenticeship under Miller yesterday.
Perhaps the most important player-to-player relationship that we have seen in recent years was the one shared by Cameron Heyward and those who preceded him, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. The Steelers prepared for the defensive line transition by taking two defensive ends in the first round in 2009 and 2011.
While Heyward was the only one of the two who stuck, he has since become the nucleus of the defensive, one deserving of the role of captain. The fifth-year defensive end moved into the starting lineup in his third season and has since then led the team with 19.5 sacks, among other contributions, of course.
And now he is passing along that knowledge, chiefly, to Stephon Tuitt, drafted in 2014 and entering the starting lineup late in his rookie year. Tuitt began coming into his own in 2015, finishing just behind Heyward with 6.5 sacks on the year.
There are, of course, other player leaders throughout the team, in every position group. The veteran players serve as a conduit, a translator who takes the lessons and decodes them from theoretical coach speak into practical player application. The Steelers lost an important one in Miller, for sure, but as always the case must be, the gap will be closed, or at least shrunk, through group effort.