One of the annual conversations that takes place in the late stages of every summer in football country concerns the value of the present versus the future, or known quantities versus potential. When it comes to building a 53-man roster, it can be a very delicate process, knowing that you not only have to build a team for the current season, but also for the long term.
It is a two-fold process in that sense, trying to weigh the crucial importance of constructing a roster that can win games now, which requires leaning on players whose potential to produce with regularity are already known, against the prospects of finding players who can develop into important pieces later, which offers little in the way of the present, and is also lacking that certainty.
There are those who lean toward one side of the aisle more than the other. That is, after all, the only reasonable explanation for why, given a choice between James Harrison and Anthony Chickillo, there are more than a few people who would choose the latter option.
I do believe that there are any number of instances in which we—indeed, including myself at times—become overly enamored with a potential prospect at the expense of an assured item that may be standing in its path. Part of this might even be fueled by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ supposed tendency to rely on veteran players excessively.
But that is a dangerous way of thinking—or more accurately, of building a team—that can quickly get you into trouble as soon as a couple of your decisions show themselves to not work out. Where there is potential for greater reward, there tends to be an equal increase in the risk level involved.
I liken the roster-building process to the process of natural selection—somewhat ironic given that putting together a roster is very much artificial selection. But both processes serve that dual necessity of producing a sustainable product while also assuring that each stage of the evolution is able to fully function without hindrance.
This is an analogy that might work best for a team such as the Steelers, whose perennial goal is always to win the Super Bowl, and to make efforts toward winning the Super Bowl year in and year out, rather than bottoming out in order to start over.
In natural selection, if an offspring is produced that is deficient in some way that prevents them from reproducing, then there ends that particular line of genetic code. For a football team, if there are one too many deficient rosters who fail to reach the playoffs, you might see the end of that front office and coaching staff—and it might be in Cleveland.
This is why it is no easy task to be a general manager, and that Kevin Colbert’s job is not to be envied, because it requires a complicated balance between present success and future potential, weighing risk and reward at each roster decision along the way.
Colbert has been with the Steelers for a decade and a half because he has consistently fielded units that have been at least competitive, with only a losing season here and there—and none since 2003. Stable ownership, of course, helps, which would be the equivalent of having the right ecosystem in which to grow. And the Steelers are a growing team right now, regarded as one of the best odds to win the Super Bowl this season.