I know, I know.
Here’s crazy Alex trying to defend the indefensible again. But hey, Danny Smith is still here. And presumably will be for the 2017 season, provided he doesn’t go the way of Al Everest. That idea will probably make you race to the comments section and hey, I get it. I legitimately had no idea if Smith would be back and said time and time again, it was a coinflip.
So hear me out. Friends, Romans, that whole thing. Because I know I’m pretty much alone in writing this article. I’m the one dude at the end of the bar defending how awesome the Pontiac Aztec is. And then dealing with a wave of carnage, 300 style.
If you’re totally against him, then I probably can’t reach you. But if you’re up to hear an argument for him, here we go.
There’s always going to be a faction of fans who want some particular coach fired. There’s the Todd Haley Haters, the Keith Butler Bashers. When there’s gripes with Haley or Butler, ones I tend to disagree with, but actual points to address, they tend to focus on schematic issues. For Haley, it’s often being too cute with a playcall or not focusing enough on the run game, especially in the red zone. Butler’s common complaints circle around not being aggressive enough, dropping his OLBs into coverage too often, or not playing enough man coverage. Fair enough.
Of course, you always get that one guy who calls them both idiots and then bolts. That’s just always going to exist.
For Smith, the argument against becomes broader, vaguer, and feels more player-centric than coaching. A poor coverage unit, a poor return unit, a punt that gets blocked. They’re fair criticisms, and often legitimate problems, but they don’t answer the question of if the issue is player or coach.
Yes, the answer is often both. And sure, player performance can be a reflection of coaching. But come on, we don’t blame Butler for when Sean Davis misses a tackle or Haley when Ben Roethlisberger throws a pick.
Let me meet you in the middle, staunch Smith denier, whose vigor is even more potent than the Flat Earth Society. Smith is far from absolved of any schematic problems. We – I – have pointed them out several times. The too risky fake field goals. The breakdowns on blocked punts. Whatever the heck he was trying to do with Jordan Dangerfield. Sharp, and well deserved criticisms, and ones we were on the forefront of. It hasn’t been all roses, it was a bad year, and I don’t think any of us have tried to hide it.
So…we’re not off to a good start with this defense of Smith. What is the good?
Coaching isn’t just X’s and O’s and scheme, as much as I love to talk about it. And you know I do because doing otherwise would probably force me to go outside and live in the real world. Not about to start that life.
But coaching is about developing players, working with people. And I think Smith does that exceptionally well.
On the surface, he has the reputation as a yeller. Also gum chewer. But mostly that first one. At camp, he’s the loudest dude there, even louder than the one guy in the stands every day screaming out Antonio Brown’s name.
I will stuff you in the back of my McLumina.
But listen to Smith more, mostly during his weekly fireside chats with Bob Labriola on Coordinator’s Corner, and you get a different feel. There’s a genuine love for his players and heartbreak when it all goes wrong.
Take Roosevelt Nix. A guy who, by the way, Smith developed from a total unknown to a guy who made the roster solely for special teams work. Keeping two fullbacks is shades of 1973. In 2015, after his season ended with a broken foot, Smith seemed genuinely upset. Here’s his comments.
“He’s an excellent player. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss him bad. He loves football, he’s a real football player. He can do a lot of things. He’s a good teammate, a good person, he’s a tireless worker. Those kind of guys you feel bad for.”
“I love the guy. I love what he does. I love what he does for this organization. I love what he has done for this team. And I love coaching him.”
That’s some heavy stuff, beyond just the standard fanfare you could say. Special teams is about buying into a belief system. It’s a dirty job most guys coming up through the college ranks didn’t have to do or at least, left behind early in their college career. They were starters, stars, not the ones breaking up wedges or the left tackle on the punt team. Guys have to embrace it. That comes from coaching.
The Steelers are a unit that has pride in their special teams. Don’t confuse that with always being good, they weren’t, but there’s pride. Nix and Vince Williams are the tone setters. Darrius Heyward-Bey gets legitimately upset when he misses a tackle or is having a rough game. And we’ve seen guys like Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich replace big shoes and become key cogs in this unit.
Caring alone doesn’t mean you’re suitable to be in charge. I get that. It’s the same reason why I was a terrible parent for my Guinea Pig, Squiggles (sidebar: RIP Squiggles), when I was a kid. But it’s the foundation for being a good coach.
Overall under Smith’s tenure, the special teams unit has been good. Last year wasn’t and it needs to be fixed. Fast. But he’s has earned the right to see it through for at least another season.
I’m not even going to stoop to using injuries as an excuse. Pittsburgh had a lot but in this town, that line doesn’t fly. He got dealt a similar hand in 2015 and did a tremendous job. By season’s end, L.J. Fort was playing his first snaps with the team and Ross Cockrell running down kicks, something he didn’t have to do until the playoff run. And the group, overall, held firm.
The problem with special teams is that it’s like auto pay for your bills. Generally ignored until there’s an issue. So when things go well, unless in an extreme case like the Kansas City Chiefs’ game this year when that unit was so strongly under the microscope, no one throws a parade. When there’s an issue, then things go haywire.
And yes, there were issues in 2016. Many. But Smith didn’t stick trying to do the same thing. There were different formations, different alignments, different ways to scheme things. Some were too far outside the box, as we showed, but a bad coach just does the same thing over and over again. Good coaches work through their issues by changing personnel (Daniel McCullers got removed from the FG block unit) and scheme (the blocking scheme with Dangerfield looping around).
Smith has two, to me, undeniable traits.
1. He’s a smart coach. His knowledge of the game runs deep as someone who has been coaching up special teams since the mid to late 90s. He’s been in basically every situation you can imagine, prepped for every player and scheme, and is able to adapt on the fly because of it. I don’t know if he’s the smartest guy in the NFL, statistically, probably not, but I think he’s up there.
2. Players love him. You see that in the things they say about him and the way they fight for him. When a coach loses his guys, that reason alone is cause for firing. When he has their back and they have theirs, you have a puncher’s chance.
If all that can’t sway you, think about this.
He’s the one guy who seemed open about the things that pissed you off. Mainly, Antonio Brown’s situations. Publicly at least, Smith was the only coach who seemed upset about his celebrations and immediately after it first happened against Washington. Again, publicly, he was more vocal about it than Mike Tomlin really ever was. Because Brown’s actions hurt Smith’s units more than anyone else. They had to bear the brunt of that mistake.
Where does this leave us? It doesn’t change the fact there is a Bends-inducing amount of pressure on this unit in 2017. Should the unit struggle again, Smith will likely – and rightfully – be jettisoned aside. The question isn’t if Smith’s unit has problems. They do. It’s a question of if he’s the right guy to fix them.
Welcome back, Danny.