It’s time for the 2021 National Football League draft? Already? You’ll have to forgive us. It’s been a long, strange trip of a hangover.
Did our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers actually start off last season 11-0 with Super Bowl expectations higher than Cheech and Chong?
And, did that carriage really turn into a pumpkin of a disappointment, with the black and gold dropping five of their last six games?
While we’re pressing the bruise, please tell us it isn’t true that our last two losses were back to back thumpers against the…(checking notes)…Cleveland Browns?
The Charlie Browns? The Brownies? The Roethlisberger Dominated Ohioans? Those Browns?
It’s true. So sad, but true.
In fact, these Steelers have been the same horse Coach Mike Tomlin’s been riding for the last few years. It’s the heartbreak filly, that sprints out the gate smartly and clears the field early by a couple of lengths.
But, by the third turn, the old nag is gasping for air, foaming at the bit, and you can hear someone mumbling, “Call the glue factory.”
I was a relatively spritely 41 years old when Tomlin became my coach. Now at 55, the years of Lombardi-less disappointments are etched in my still ever-Steelers faithful face.
But wait? This year will be different? The Steelers will be victorious this time in their run for the roses? Should my Super Bowl Trophy be half full?
All we need, is a little help from our friends in the NFL Draft.
Isn’t that what we’re all being sold?
Well… heck, I’m just like the rest of yous. Ready and eager to drink the Kool-Aid once again. I’ll ignore the fact there will be 31 other teams at the talent trough as well.
Rack ‘em up. Break it hard. It’s time to give the 2021 season a thorough spin with our annual Pre-Draft State-Of-The-Union.
Who would have thought we would have arrived here? Once considered one of the top three quarterbacks in the league and a shoo-in for a Hall of Fame nod, Ben Roethlisberger is getting nothing but rotten tomatoes from the NFL pundits.
A liability? Drifting the team toward salary cap bankruptcy? A shadow of his former self? The weakest quarterback in the AFC North?
All of these things and more are being said about Big Ben, except within the halls of the Steelers organization, where they keep going “all-in” on their aging, great warrior.
It’s hard to describe a man who’s extracted $100 million out of the NFL as a player with a chip on his shoulder, but that’s pretty much the case with Roethlisberger.
Many will point to his age, and his general lack of interest in following the TB12 training regimen throughout his career. But the fact that he’s another year removed from his elbow injury gives pause for optimism.
Maybe his arm was as strong as ever last year (as was claimed). But if so, it was hidden strength, because it wasn’t showcased in Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner’s maligned schemes. Another offseason to regain health and confidence in his arm — and someone else, anyone else, calling the signals — should make him a better player than last year.
Big Ben’s idol was another number seven, John Elway, who late-bloomed when it came to Super Bowl victories.
Elway clinched his Hall of Fame credentials with back-to-back championship wins, and Roethlisberger’s legacy could use some insurance as well.
Did the offensive line miss the coaching skills of Mike Munchak that much? Or did they precipitously lose both talent and will before our eyes?
Last year, this offensive line had no forward gear in its transmission. First down on the opponent’s five-yard line? Why, we might as well throw it three times and send out the field goal kicker.
What was once the strength of the offense became it’s main source of brokenness, and there isn’t any unit on the team more in need of a hearty talent infusion.
The good news is there is some rising young players on the squad and a blue-chipper or two could turn fortunes around quickly.
The brightest stars are in the receiving corps, and another year of seasoning could move this unit to elite status in the league. The signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster was both surprising and encouraging as he is the closest to Hines Ward this team could hope for.
One has danced with the stars… and the other danced on the star… but we digress.
The glaring hole in the offense is at the running back position, especially with James Conner heading to cactus land.
Don’t expect that hole to be there too long.
Old quarterbacks require premium running backs. Drew Brees had Alvin Kamara and Aaron Rodgers has Aaron Jones.
You can expect Big Ben to have either Najee Harris or Travis Etienne to hand off to in the coming season.
Not only is it a quality strategic move, but it’s essential for the Steelers brand. Art Rooney II will be filling out this card.
Nothing brought more joy to Steelers Nation than a resurgence defensively. Not only does Pittsburgh have one of the league’s finest defensive squads, there’s enough youth on the team to ensure they’ll be at the top of the charts for years to come.
Players like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alex Highsmith, Cameron Sutton and the returning Devin Bush will offer a formidable foundation for years to come.
But, it’s the old guys like Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu who bring the prerequisite heart and leadership that wins championships.
The Steelers have their mashed potatoes on defense. Any talent they add through the draft will be gravy.
Remember when “the Boz” had a rough patch in his career?
That got put to rest with another strong season by Chris Boswell, which vaulted him back to among the league’s best.
It also was a boomerang appearance by Australian Jordan Berry who proved to be better his second time around.
Ray-Ray McCloud never matched his early season expectations in returns, but his splash roles on offense proved to be a pleasant surprise. As long as he doesn’t get displaced by a rook, he should have a stronger year in 2021 after getting the opportunity to settle in.
The Steelers generally hibernated through the offseason as they typically do. But one of the headlines was the three year extension granted to coach Mike Tomlin, keeping him with the Steelers through the 2024 season. It was a move that drew both cheers and raised eyebrows.
When your coaching career is compared most closely with that of Marty Schottenheimer, it’s a mixed salad of accolades. Marty could bag the wins during the regular season, it was the postseason where he got flustered.
If you’re going to grade Tomlin as a coach over the course of all of his years leading the Steelers, probably the most generous one you could grant him is a B+ overall.
He scores off the charts as a true genius when it comes to being a leader of men in the National Football League, and he garnishes and deserves the highest levels of respect in this area.
But, he’s also he’s “O” for his last 12 attempts at having a Super Bowl-winning season, and that song doesn’t play well on Pittsburgh radio.
As brilliant as he is as a coach at many levels, his greatest Achilles heel is being tone deaf when it comes to listening to any advice that comes collectively from Steelers Nation. Worse, it’s almost as if it’s his life mission to prove us all wrong.
The emperor had no clothes when it came to recognizing the liabilities of Randy Fichtner at offensive coordinator and Shaun Sarrett as the team’s offensive line coach.
His stubbornness in resisting change at the end of the 2019 season was another in a long line of those type of head-scratching decisions through the years. That failure to make needed changes probably cost him the 2020 season more than anything else.
Still, Tomlin’s strengths vastly outweigh his flaws, and his integrity and consistency of producing team excellence and stability can’t be overvalued.
The Front Office
This aren’t your father’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Not even your grandfather’s.
Since the great Dan Rooney passed, his son Art Rooney II has presided over more of a Steelers, Inc. than the former Super Bowl-or-bust franchise.
Few risks are taken, radical changes are rare, and it appears the team’s primary owner is perfectly content with a “B+” enterprise.
When it comes to team talent, Kevin Colbert is among the league’s best at his position. His shift to year-to-year contracts causes concern about his commitment to the team’s future. But his performance has been always steady, and at times spectacular.
But hey! Football is a team sport. And at the end, the whole is much more important than the sum of its parts.
Especially if you’re a Mike Tomlin-coached team.
Sure, the end-of-season collapse was disappointing, depressing, and an additional plethora of dark clouded adjectives.
But, in the end, this is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is easy to love. The team is virtually free of drama. There are no malcontents. The leaders of the team are men who are highly-regarded human beings.
This may not be the most complete Steelers team ever rostered, and there are some glaring worries. But, with a dominating defense and with the hope a great quarterback can head into the sunset under clouds of glory, this could be the season of seasons.
At least, that’s what the Kool-Aid is making me say.
That’s it for the spin. Shhhh… listen up. The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the clock.