The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the offseason along with 31 other NFL teams, all of them gearing up for a successful season. With dreams of shiny silver being hoisted above their heads, the decisions made by the Black and Gold will decide whether their upcoming 2012 campaign will be....well, black or gold!
Fans throughout the Steel City are watching the franchise's every move intensely, trying to gain that first gut instinct of what will unfold from training camp, into the preseason, throughout the regular season, and- hopefully- what will be a spectacular playoff campaign that ends with the team living the dream.
With opinions sweeping Steelers Country like wildfire, everyone has a unique voice about the right and wrong moves made by the team thus far.
Among those perceptions of loyal fans, a few dominant themes have emerged. I believe that a handful of these beliefs are not wholly accurate, or at least skewed.
Here are six misconceptions about the 2012 Steelers offseason to date.
"After everything he's done for the Steelers..."
"I can't imagine him in another uniform, wearing those ugly colors..."
"Gosh dangit! Now I have to buy another jersey!"
"Don't pull a Franco, man!"
"Well, if they'd have just given him more opportunities..."
It's been said as many different ways as listed above, and then a whole lot more! Nobody wants to see Ward's smiling mug leave this outfit. No way, no how!
Yet, life doesn't put itself on hold for the emotions of fans or a franchise or a player that are all so endeared together.
Obviously, Steelers Country (and, really, fans in general) is comprised of two types of people: those who admire the moxie and mounds of wonderful qualities of Hines Ward... and those who don't have a clue.
With a potential Hall of Fame resume and a physicality rarely seen at the receiver position, ranging from his blocking ability to occasional quarterbacking, Hines was the embodiment of a "Steelers guy."
Nevertheless, the time comes when a players' performance isn't correlating with the team's ultimate goals of a championship, or more succinctly, isn't adequate.
For those who chastise the Steelers, assuming hypothetically that Ward does not return, let's take a moment to consider the things the franchise DID do for their loyal employee.
They placed him in a system where his strengths flourished, complete with blocking assignments, gadgets to demonstrate his other strengths, and gave him top billing as receiver in a league being quickly dominated by flashy fantasy stats.
Ward, largely a special teams player when he arrived in Pittsburgh, earned his way onto the starting roster, putting up amazing numbers for multiple seasons.
However, despite the offense's transition into a more aerial-based strategy, Ward's statistics have not inflated along with team passing numbers. In fact, the opposite has occurred: they've deflated.
Many will point to Ward's lack of opportunities in 2012, but it's important to remind one's self of who started alongside Mike Wallace early in the season: Ward. Simply, he didn't produce.
As Antonio Brown began to develop chemistry with Big Ben in Arizona (which is exactly when the duo began to build their current rhythm), the declining "chances" and "numbers" for Ward begin to show themselves.
It was a matter of starting the superior talent in the present. And, isn't that critical to the success of any team?
At the end of the season, the Steelers did Hines another favor, placing a focus on giving No. 86 the critical receptions needed to reach the 1,000 reception plateau before the eyes of the fans that adore him. Unlike so many other footballs he gave to those fans wearing his jersey, this one was a keeper!
Unfortunately, Ward isn't... not anymore. Not unless the circumstances dictate keeping him.
In the present, the Steelers have a much larger focus on far more talented long-term prospects, namely Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
Should Wallace leave town, there is the off chance that Ward would return, but either way, the biggest matter is winning. And, the principles of making the decisions that go into the winning DO NOT include charity, even for loyal veterans that we all love so intensely.
Big Ben just restructured along with a handful of his peers, and the salary cap overage seems to be deflating out of the red a bit more with each passing day. The effort to retain No. 17 is clearly on point.
If they succeed in this goal, they'll retain one of the more dynamic playmakers in the NFL, possibly the most dangerous vertical threat in the AFC.
That's a win for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously. Nobody would argue that.
But, what if it fails? Is losing him an overall loss in the big picture?
Hines Ward, discussed in detail on the last slide, was a third round draft selection.
Mike Wallace is also a third rounder.
John Stallworth was taken in round four.
The point is that it's not impossible to find a replacement, whether now or down the road, if the team is unable to sign Wallace.
Likewise, the franchise does not end up empty-handed. It appears obvious that the team will at least tender an offer to Wallace, which would result in the acquisition of at least one first round selection from any team that signs him.
With so many roster areas that could use improving, the Steelers have the opportunity to put themselves further ahead in either circumstance.
The game-breaking receiver? Or doubling (at least) first round talent in the day of the new rookie salary structure?
Win-win-win. They win, you win, and we all win... whether the Steelers sign Wallace or not.
“You can laugh about the drama and say that this issue has been overblown. What can’t be overstated is Roethlisberger and Haley need to establish a working relationship, and the sooner the better for the Steelers. This isn’t to say that Haley and Roethlisberger need to be buddies and grab lunch at Primanti Brothers each week. But, in order for the Steelers’ offense to click, the quarterback and the offensive coordinator need to be familiar with one another.”
First, one can laugh and say that the issue has been overblown, because it absolutely has been!
Secondly, whether the author would admit this or not, stating that the two don't need to be buddy-buddy is like saying a boss (or supervisor, more accurately) need not delve into close personal relationships with his or her employees. That's obvious.
He's absolutely correct that sooner is better for the two to have made meeting arrangements, but it's February. With the building blocks of an offense still hardening and the actual construction barely underway, the exact time, whether last week or yesterday, is barely relevant, if at all. So long as the two have a solid working relationship when the time comes to put everything together, all is well. That is what matters.
So, can you like one friend and a second? In other words, can Ben support the idea of keeping Arians and still embrace Todd Haley?
In the words of the "great" former Bengal who made a career on never producing against the Steelers, "Child, please!" Of course he can.
See, that's the thing about being a consummate professional. At the very least, you do what is expected of you. Then, you add in the "and then some" part of the equation.
Rest assured, Ben and Todd will work together, figure out each others' idiosyncrasies, and adjust themselves in building a solid working relationship, like all people (at least those who are consummate professionals) do. And, one look at the resume of either man will showcase his value to the team.
As if they were two angry school children avoiding each other over who dropped the football at recess, some in the media would have had you believe they were practically enemies or not on good terms, at the very least in their headlines.
Everybody needs a good story, but some stories have the substance of a sponge. You pour water on it and it grows dramatically.
At best, there was simply too much "water" inflating the "Ben vs. Todd" sponge. And, at worst, people irresponsibly jumped to dramatic conclusions about the relationship of two professionals without any evidence to warrant it.
When I last checked, those formulating these opinions have been largely unprivileged to one word exchanged between the two.
Frankly, they're grown-ups. I'm sure they're just fine.
Suppose you're slated to earn $50,000 annually for the next five years in a hazardous occupation. You work with five peers, each slated to make the same, equaling to $300,000 spent annually by the employer for salary compensation.
One of your friends gets the raw end of the deal (for the sake of the math), and he has to earn an annual raise, thus starting at $30,000 and working up through $70,000 in the fifth year (averaging $50,000 per year).
However, the brass reveals that an error was made as only the hard and fast $300,000 can be spent on salaries each year from the compensation ledger.
In other words, in the final two years, while everyone else is making the same $50,000 as always, your friend will be earning to make up the previous difference, sending the company over the spending limit.
Conveniently, the boss is allowed to front money to employees from a special ledger in this circumstance to even out the expected balance of the regular compensation ledger, capped at $300K.
Instead of earning $50,000 next year, the boss offers to remit to you $30,000 of your money upfront ($10,000 for the fourth year, and $20,000 for the fifth) to account for your peers' increasing salary. It was money you were slated to earn, but now, even with the hazards of your work and the fact that you could be taken down at anytime, you will receive the cash upfront.
Ask yourself: are you really a hero? Or, if offered, are you doing the logical thing that nearly anybody would do?
People have this perception that restructuring involves salary reduction (something some players occasionally commit to doing for the sake of the team) or a personal sacrifice by those making the adjustments.
After hearing peers talking about the sudden selflessness of certain Steelers, I had to set the circumstances straight for them. If it's being interpreted that way where I work, it's a line of thinking that permeates beyond those walls also. So, in case you were mistaken:
Not only did Mr. Roethlisberger earn a huge check, he realizes the importance of re-establishing solvency against the salary cap. It allows the team to bring in critical pieces which will help everyone, including the franchise quarterback.
Improving the offensive line and secondary are both important goals. When soul-searching for reasons that the Steelers have lost, most fans find themselves regularly taking a close look at these two departments. Sometimes, they're correct.
But not always.
Currently, fans are overreacting to the play of the secondary, at least on an individual level, in Denver. Many are not accounting for the defense's lack of push or pressure upfront, despite having eight men frequently in the box. Tim Tebow had six seconds to find an open receiver against man coverage.
No NFL cornerback could consistently sustain sufficient coverage in those circumstances. Or, at least, he shouldn't be expected to.
Let's not forget, even before any improvements in the defensive backfield, the Steelers pass has ranked at or near the top of the league in recent seasons. That said, I feel strongly that Willie Gay is not a starting NFL corner. Nevertheless, replacing him across from Ike Taylor, who IS a strong corner, is not the biggest long-term team priority.
Additionally, while the offensive line begs for a guard, which is a key priority, it is not a top priority. The team has managed to overcome a lackluster o-line for too long, yet they have overcome it.
One thing that the Steelers have not been asked to do without is a dominant nose tackle. Why?
Simple: they can't overcome mediocrity at that position. Their defensive philosophy will not allow it. With Casey Hampton aging, getting beaten physically at the line more often last season, and quite susceptible to injury, it's time for the defensive line to look at the future of its interior.
I strongly advocate that the Steelers draft Dontari Poe in April.
The final misconception stretches beyond the current offseason, a skewed perception shared by many Steelers fans over a long period of time. However, it comes up every year at about this time by those eager to see Tomlin finally make his "mark" by bringing in "his players" as "Cowher's players" leave.
Any Steelers fan has overheard the notion that Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl with Bill Cowher's players.
Sure, some of the players carried over from the Cowher regime. However, the team recently came within one less turnover or six points of a world championship, and it finished 2012 with its fourth playoff appearance in five seasons under Tomlin, albeit with a disappointing finish.
So, what's the point? The point is to look at the roster, bearing in mind that Tomlin cannot help that he had a franchise quarterback and safety to work with upon arrival:
Across the starting roster, only nine of the 22 listed starters on offense and defense last season played under Bill Cowher, and a few of those athletes were playing in limited roles. At times, depending on the starting roster from game to game, that number was lower in 2011.
While that is a large total, it is certainly not a majority, and it's not enough to indict Tomlin for winning with a Bill Cowher roster. If ever it was time to let go of a foolish notion, those fans silly enough to continue advocating this idea should stop now.
Beyond a simple comparison listing overlapping players, one must realize that Tomlin's roster, largely comprised of men brought into the Steelers family during his tenure, had already put one major new thumbprint on the organization, a trademark sadly absent during the Cowher era after being so vividly alive in the Chuck Noll year.
Home. Field. Advantage. Baby.
With a home path to the Super Bowl laid out in both 2008 and 2010, the Steelers defended their house, turning Heinz Field into a catalyst for success while other host teams were shriveling in the moment.
Surrounded by the twists and turns of twirling towels, Tomlin's teams have largely taken advantage of the opportunities presented to them, an identifying characteristic that cannot be understated.
After all, it is a welcome change opposed to losing four of five conference championships at home, including a trio of very winnable contests (1994, 2001, and arguably 1997). Tomlin would have to lose eight AFC Championship Games in the Steel City to match that ratio.
If that isn't enough evidence to showcase Mike Tomlin isn't coaching on the coat tails of his predecessor, perhaps the team should bring in Norv Turner for a go-round!
After a few 8-8 seasons in spite of optimal talent, the Steel City will beg for the return of Tomlin's raw coaching ability, which possibly ranks ahead each of his peers.