Emerging expectantly through the rubble of 2020, the National Football League is back on the menu and about to dish out much needed entertainment and escapism to its action starved fans.
Give us something to cheer about…even if it’s just 350-pound grown men clearing pathways to sports glory for their fellow millionaires.
Close calls. Big plays. Coaches signaling in audibles. Check downs at the line of scrimmage. Clock management. Men in motion. Instant replays. Pads cracking. Fingers pointing. Sky cams providing 360 degree views. Even questionable calls by zebras. Bring it on!
Are you ready for some football?
Remember everything we complained about as Steelers fans last season?
Any of that matter now?
Heck, just roll that rock onto the field and let ‘er rip. We’re just thrilled to experience football again.
So…let’s get those towels spinning. And, let’s start off the season with a strong Spin.
The Lost Season
My favorite time of Steelers football is the pre-season. I know, that sounds bizarre and non-credible, but it’s the only time you get to see the second and third tier players on the field for any considerable length of time. It’s our only chance to get a glimpse of the future and it’s a crystal ball that reveals the true depth of the roster. For me, it’s old school football. It’s not about record-breaking contracts. It’s about young men reaching for their life’s dreams. In a way, it’s already partly a lost season, as something truly is already missing. It’s especially discouraging for those undrafted players who needed those pre-season games to get a chance to show what they got.
The Sad Truth
Yet, as much as I enjoy it, the preseasons don’t really matter as much as they used to back in the day. Where it once was a time for teams to get coached up and to develop an edge through hard work, it’s devolved more into just something to get over with and done without injury. With 53-man rosters, few unknown players ever earn much more of a chance than making it to the practice squad. The real preseason is the first four games of the year, so maybe we didn’t miss that much after all.
All Those Coaching Changes
Look. This is Steelers Nation. The team is one Bubble Screen away from half of the fanbase demanding coaching resignations across the board.
We’re a fickle lot. Pretty much like all fans who know more about chicken wing sauces and reclining chair stuffing than they do about pro set formations.
Still, that being said, it was shocking…shocking I say…that the Steelers organization didn’t reshuffle the coaching deck more in the offseason.
This, despite the fact the offensive playcalling and team execution was just north of abysmal in many games. Case in point is the abject failure of the scripted offensive plays that were used to start games. This is a coaching staff’s opportunity to display their prowess at film study, game planning and team preparation.
It’s the opening chess moves in football. Yet, in the Steelers case, they just never worked.
And…personally…the “But The Quarterbacks” broken record song is grating my soul. After all, who exactly was responsible for drafting, recruiting, training and coaching up the backup quarterbacks anyway?
Is it acceptable to be caught off guard because your quarterback who’s tossed probably more than a hundred thousand passes in his lifetime, has a throwing arm that wears out?
Which brings us to Coach Mike Tomlin. Many wanted to award him the Coach Of The Year because of the “miraculous” turnaround of the team. That was…of course, before the team fizzled out with a season throttling losing streak to be left out on the playoffs sidelines again.
Is Tomlin among the elite coaches? Or is he slightly above average?
I believe the correct answer is both. When you’ve been granted the opportunity to coach for so many years in this league, as the Steelers do with their head coaches, then you’ll have some strong years, and you’ll have some that are less than scintillating.
This year? This is Tomlin’s Half of Fame coaching year.
With everything going wrong in the world, can you possibly think of a better coach on the planet to keep his team calm, focused and knit together like family?
No. This year, there absolutely is none better than Mike Tomlin.
The NFL Draft has become a major sporting event and despite the incessant booing of the league commissioner, it’s become prime time, heart pounding viewing for fans. Every team get excited about their new crop of talent. These are the players that are going to fill all of the holes and make all of the difference.
The only problem? ALL of the teams are adding exciting new talent. Which means, you only really move forward if you completely ace your draft.
How did the Steelers perform in the draft this year? Like they have for most years under General Manager Kevin Colbert’s direction. They are a high floor drafting organization. They rarely hit it out completely out of the park, but you can almost always count on them for getting extra bases.
Being generous, we’ll grant this year’s first round draft pick as S Minkah Fitzpatrick, a player Colbert traded for early in the 2019 season. That’s about as successful of a mid-round first round draft pick you can get.
As for the rest of the Steelers 2020 draft? You’ve got three flyers in WR Chase Claypool, LB Alex Highsmith and RB Anthony McFarland Jr. All three have a chance to be stars in the league, but they each come with questions.
How much have the Steelers helped themselves this year? Beyond Fitzpatrick, it’s to be determined.
The Big Man Is Back
Everyone is talking about the return of QB Ben Roethlisberger to the field of play again, and for good reason. Clearly, this offense runs like a clock, only if that clock is Big Ben. His big arm, big leadership and big playmaking ability will rise all boats again in the offense, maybe even elevate them to be among the top in the league.
But, in terms of big men coming back, don’t forget about DE Stephon Tuitt. Before prematurely departing the season with injury last year, Tuitt was not only the best defensive player on the Steelers, he was trending as one of the best players in the league. His return could take Pittsburgh’s already fierce pass rushing attack to a whole new…quarterback frightening…level.
Yet, all things are right in Steelersville because the team’s unquestioned leader, DE Cam Heyward will be able to finish out his career on his own terms in Pittsburgh. With the ink freshly drying on his four-year extension, you can expect the Captain will keep the defensive ship steady in all storms. His re-signing may very well be the most significant accomplishment of the franchise this year and for the next few years to come. Not just because of his playmaking ability, which is underrated, but because his characters flows through the core of the organization.
Which, if you put everything together, this is turning out to be the most Happy Meal of a team Tomlin has coached in over a decade. Drama free, to the extent of off-the-field boredom, this is a group singularly focused on football and family. This is the team the organization has always wanted. Do good guys finish first? We’ll find out this year.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few players with chips on their shoulders. Two of the team’s biggest offensive stars are entering contract years in WR Juju Smith-Schuster and RB James Conner.
Conner’s on field excellence is undeniable and his class and backstory are off the charts inspirational. The question is whether he can stay on the field and it’s a legitimate one.
With Smith-Schuster, his highly self-promoted expectations were unmet last season as he tried to fill Antonio Brown-sized shoes. A victim of poor quarterback play and injuries, to be sure last season, he’s now excuse free in setting up the terms of his impending free agency.
Look for a big bounce back this season, with Big Ben returning to the pocket, and this year’s rising star WR Diontae Johnson starting to draw away the top cornerbacks. Having WR James Washington and Claypool in the mix, will allow Smith-Schuster…to get back on the bicycle and re-state his claim as one of the top young receivers in the game.
The Elephants In The Room
‘Tis the season of great cheer for all football fans, as their teams begin the year undefeated and full of lofty dreams and expectations. Steelers Nation will be experiencing the same adrenaline rush as this year’s edition of the Steelers is ripe with ascendant possibilities.
But…there are those elephants in the room. Like in the same division. The Baltimore Ravens look formidable…and for years to come. They have clearly reloaded. The Browns, even being the Browns, are overflowing with talent.
And whose to say whether rookie QB Joe Burrow will be the next Patrick Mahomes or just another Bungle?
It’s a bit frightening in the AFC North. And that’s before you look at the Kansas City Chiefs. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s opening performance you wouldn’t be crazy to project that last year’s Super Bowl winners added the Rookie Of The Year. The rich got richer.
How are you going to beat them?
But, Who Cares, Anyway?
Football is back. Even though it’s with empty stadiums, thousands of masks and social distancing. Who cares about that stuff? Because, the Steelers have a defense again. After a decade of disappointment, the world is spinning in the right direction again as the Pittsburgh boasts perhaps the best defense in the league. Let’s never let that change.
Are You Ready For Some Football?
Oh my…the Spin certainly is. Some people would argue that sports don’t matter, but there is something about playing football again that makes you feel as if everything is on the mend. And, on the broad shoulders of our defense, and with the return of Big Ben, the Steelers have a chance to make sports history again.
And as has been said in the Burgh more than a few times: “I’ve got a feeling.”