There are few organizations as stable in sports as the Pittsburgh Steelers, but stability can only get you so far. In a results-oriented business, the Steelers are not getting it done right now, and it starts at the top with head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert.
The ownership and fans in Pittsburgh expect a winning product, and they are not getting it this season. As a result, Tomlin has been facing a lot of heat on message boards and radio shows and has been placed on the hot seat by some football writers. But is it possible the wrong man is under fire?
Tomlin can only do so much with the talent that he has to work with, and most would agree the Steelers lack talent right now.
Think about it. Did Tomlin and his staff—particularly Dick LeBeau and the rest of the defensive staff—all of a sudden forget how to coach? Or do they have players who simply are not good enough to execute their schemes?
Colbert can take a portion of the blame for the talent deficiency on the squad.
Pittsburgh’s drafts have been poor in recent years, and they have done little in terms of adding quality free agents to their team. Much of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of Colbert.
Even with this in mind, Colbert has proven himself as a quality personnel man and deserves at least one more season with the Steelers.
For the first time since 1998-2000, the Steelers are on the verge of missing the playoffs for two seasons in a row.
Prior to this, the Steelers had 12 wins in three of their previous four seasons before finishing at 8-8 in 2012. That prompted Colbert to promise changes in his end-of-the-year press conference, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"When you're 12-4 and a playoff team, sometimes you get mesmerized by your success and you get a little reluctant to change," Colbert said.
"If we don't change a roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result."
Despite acknowledging Pittsburgh’s problems, Colbert told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine that he did not believe that the Steelers were a team in transition, according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
I’m not quite sure what Colbert defines as “transition,” but with nearly 20 new players on the roster, there were definitely some changes from the 2012 roster.
But his comments aside, Colbert has done more than enough since taking over for Tom Donahoe back in 2000.
The Steelers were coming off of three consecutive missed playoff appearances and needed changes to get them back on the winning track. Along with head coach Bill Cowher, Colbert was able to achieve this through excellent draft picks and key free-agent signings.
Pittsburgh went from a non-contender to a championship team as Colbert slowly added stars through the draft. Players such as Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes were first-round picks who helped create the foundation of the team.
But it went beyond the first-round selections, as Marvel Smith, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, Larry Foote, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Max Starks and Bryant McFadden were some of the other key contributors who helped lead the Steelers to their first Super Bowl championship since the 1970s.
To fill the gaps, Colbert went out and added top players such as Jeff Hartings and James Farrior to take over starting roles while others such as Mike Jones and Terance Mathis were used as stopgap players.
The results were fantastic.
Pittsburgh was the third-most successful team in terms of wins over Colbert’s first 10 seasons with the team. Of course, two Super Bowl championships in three appearances speak for themselves as well.
It may be a "What have you done for me lately?" league, but Colbert has earned an opportunity to bring the team out of this slump.
While the Steelers have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL since Colbert arrived in Pittsburgh, that does not mean he doesn't have his faults.
One of the major issues is his management of the salary cap.
The Steelers seem to have perpetual salary-cap issues, and the major reason isn’t necessarily because they overpay their aging veterans, but their constant restructuring of deals.
Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport put it best when it comes to explaining the problems with restructuring contracts:
The thing is, these restructured deals may afford teams some cap space for now, but they're much less about solving problems than simply delaying them.
Essentially, restructuring a deal involves the conversion of a portion of a player's salary into the form of a signing bonus. The cap hit from that bonus can be amortized over the length of the contract, which in turn lowers this year's cap number.
Cap problems in recent years have meant that the Steelers had to make some tough decisions, including releasing Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, James Harrison and Willie Colon.
Besides releasing players, they were unable to sign their young talent—or any other significant NFL free agent for that matter—including Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.
According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the Steelers have $125 million already committed to their 2014 salary cap. This may prompt some tough decisions they have to make with high-priced veterans Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller.
However, they appear to be making some progress in this area.
Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the Steelers hired salary-cap expert Samir Suleiman to assist director of football administration Omar Khan.
When provided with money to spend, Colbert has proven to be more than competent in his time with the Steelers.
Rarely looking to make a blockbusters signing, Colbert instead has added quality free agents to keep a young player's seat warm until they are ready to start or even command a starting role long term.
When working with Cowher, the Steelers acquired many quality free agents who were key components in the team’s success over the years.
Two of his best free-agent additions were Jeff Hartings and James Farrior.
Hartings was a highly coveted lineman who made the transition from guard to center as he took over for all-time great Dermontti Dawson. He had some tough shoes to fill, but he quickly developed into a Pro Bowl center and was a key component of the Steelers' Super Bowl victory against the Seattle Seahawks.
Arguably the Steelers' best free-agent signing ever, Farrior was a Pro Bowler and one of the best linebackers in the league during his time in Pittsburgh. More importantly, he was a leader on the defense and helped the team to three Super Bowl appearances.
But it wasn’t just the major signings that stood out for Colbert. A guy like Kimo von Oelhoffen was a terrific addition, as were more minor players such as Terance Mathis, Jay Riemersma, Charlie Batch and even Tommy Maddox.
Since Tomlin took over, the signings have not quite measured up, with Ryan Clark being the star of this group. Other players have been disappointments and some of the worst players on the team. Players like Sean Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Jonathan Scott and Guy Whimper are part of the reason why the offensive line has been so bad.
Colbert has also gone back to the future in recent years, signing former players at an astonishing rate. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, William Gay and Matt Spaeth all left the Steelers only to return under Colbert’s watch.
Part of the change in free agency has been due to a shift in coaching philosophy while another part is due to the lack of cap dollars to spend.
It may take another couple of seasons to free up enough cap space to become marginal players in free agency again, but once they do, Colbert has proven to be more than capable of adding the right mix of players.
He has been successful at it in the past, but just lacks the proper financial resources right now, and that needs to change.
The Steelers were once recognized as one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, but that does not seem to be the case anymore.
As easy as it is to blame the lack of success in the draft on Colbert, it is actually a delicate—and slightly complicated—balance between drafting and development.
In recent years, the Steelers have received quite a bit of praise from draft experts.
The high praise hasn’t exactly equated to success.
As I wrote last week, the Steelers have had just three Pro Bowl appearances from their first-round picks since Tomlin was hired. They had 16 appearances from their first-round selections made over Cowher’s final seven years.
Besides the lack of Pro Bowl appearances from their top selections, the Steelers have had problems even keeping their draft picks on the roster.
No draft highlights this issue more than the 2008 draft. On paper, the Steelers looked like they were getting a couple of offensive stars at the top of their draft with Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed. That didn’t quite work out.
There are no players remaining from the 2008 draft, and the 2009 draft is well on its way to extinction, as both Ziggy Hood and David Johnson could be on their way out after the season.
Is this lack of success Colbert’s problem? On the surface it seems so. He is in control of the personnel for the team and therefore in charge of the draft. But that does not mean the coaches are without their say.
While working with Cowher, Colbert was outstanding at the top of the draft, oftentimes selecting star players in the first round and quality players in the second or third rounds as well. That has not been the case under Tomlin.
There has been a clear shift in drafting strategy, particularly when it comes to selecting defensive players. Many of the players that they’ve selected on defense have been better fits for a 4-3 defense.
Lawrence Timmons and Ziggy Hood highlight the defenders drafted who were not great fits for the 3-4. It showed as they slowly developed into starters and had periods of struggle in their careers.
Maybe there isn’t a shared vision between the front office and coaching staff. Based on recent draft results, it appears as though that could be the case.
Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette had some interesting comments on the situation, as he suggested that the draft philosophy needs to be examined and the influence from the coaching staff should be reduced.
With Colbert given more freedom in the drafting process, we may begin to see the success we had become accustomed to earlier in his career.
One More Year
Colbert is a proven commodity in the NFL, and he has earned another season to bring the Steelers out of the mess they are in now.
He has helped assemble a team that made multiple Super Bowl appearances and championships through shrewd free-agent signings, keeping his own stars in town and quality drafts. With his proven track record, Colbert is capable of rebuilding the Steelers if given the opportunity.
However, beyond the 2014 season is up in the air. Tension will build if the losing continues and jobs will come into question. If the Steelers can’t bounce back next season, expect the hot seat to get uncomfortable for either Colbert or Tomlin.
Past success can only get you so far in the NFL, and members of the Steelers brass will be living on borrowed time with a third consecutive poor season.
But that is looking too far ahead. All it may take for the Steelers to compete for the AFC North next year is a breakout player or two, a quality contributor from the draft and a key free-agent signing.
Colbert has built a championship team once and he can do it again, and for this, he will be back for another season as the Steelers general manager.