Steelers Versus the Strength of Schedule

Prior to the 2008 season it was stated that, based on their opponent’s 2007 records (combined 153-103), the Steelers had one of the toughest schedules doled out by the NFL in a month of Superbowl Sundays. It turned out the schedule was tough, but as usual, not for the assumed reasons.

In 2008 the Steelers played the East divisions from both conferences. That means they’d face both Superbowl teams (Giants, Patriots) and the preseason NFC favorite, reality-TV starring Cowboys.

Most Steelers fans anticipated little more than mediocrity in the face of such a daunting list of foes. After all, didn’t they get booted from the playoffs by their new nemesis, the Jax Jags? Those same Jags who were on the schedule yet again? Both East divisions and the Jags? Thank goodness the Titans were in there as well! Plus, they’d get to play rookie Joe Flacco and the Ravens twice! (Talk about a case of “careful what you wish for.”)

But as the football gods would have it, the supposedly tough teams turned into cupcakes (Tom Brady was lost for the season early in his first game, the Jags fell back to earth) while the alleged pushovers offered maximum resistance (the Titans would be undefeated until late in the season, Flacco and the Ravens challenged for the division until the very end).

So, while nothing was as it seemed, the Steelers still managed to improve on their previous effort: they won the AFC North (again) and earned a playoff bye.

And the rest is history. They endured the toughest schedule and at season’s end, battled hardened, claimed their record sixth Superbowl title.

Story book. Done.

Not so fast; time to do it all again. This season the Steelers have one of the easiest schedules, based on their opponent’s 2008 records (combined 110-143). Can Steelers fans expect this to be a break? Will it pave the road to the Superbowl and a chance to defend the title? It doesn’t seem likely. As we have learned, the schedule is but a list of games and those on it are rarely what they appeared to be a season ago. A four-win team suddenly turns it around and takes twelve, while a promising up-and-comer plummets back to earth and harsh reality: they simply weren’t that good (product of an easy schedule!?).

Best to follow Coach Tomlin. “Next week we play team X. I don’t know who we play after that. Can’t remember who we played last week. Next up is team X and they’re a dangerous team because they’re an NFL team. We’re preparing for team X.” If the Steelers can maintain that mentality for seventeen weeks, a focus on what is before them sans the distractions of what’s around the corner, then the strength of schedule won’t matter at all. In the end it’s really just fodder for us fans – inspiration for blog posts and message board arguments.

Onward!

Hines Ward is Anti Plax

Following the 2004 season (prior to Superbowl XL), Plaxico Burress was allowed to seek his fortunes in free agency. Rather than keep the field-stretching/bone-crunching combination of Burress opposite Hines Ward with the multi-tooled Antwaan Randle El in the slot, the Steelers promoted El and signed an inexpensive free agent as the #3 WR.

For Steelers fans, there was more to this situation. After 2004, Burress had completed his rookie contract and Ward’s had one year remaining. The Steelers, ever conservative, had to choose between the workmanlike Ward and the taller, flashier, key-lime-pie-eating Burress.

Ward accepted the largest contract for a Steelers receiver to date. Burress signed a similar deal with the Giants. This was a point of contention for many fans. Some thought Ward was slowing down, that his physical style of play wouldn’t allow him to complete his obligation. These fans preferred the younger and faster Burress. Others supported the front office decision and felt Burress would slack after receiving a fat payday.

The next season Hines Ward was the MVP of Superbowl XL and Steelers would win another (XLIII) three years later. But Burress got his ring, too, as his Giants delivered a shocker in SB XLII (the second of back-to-back MVP Dumbface Bowls).

So perhaps one would say the Steelers couldn’t go wrong, no matter their decision back in 2005. But the story isn’t finished. Burress began whining about his 6 year contract after only the first two seasons. Darn it, he was underpaid! The Giants upped his pay. And then it was one bizarre thing after another, ultimately culminating in Burress accidentally shooting himself in the leg with his own hand gun. The incident led to legal charges, court appearances, missed games and his eventual firing from the Giants roster. His case is still pending in New York. Meanwhile, the Steelers won another Superbowl. And Hines Ward recently had an NFL rule implemented in response to his aggressive play. The Ward Rule will protect linebackers from the likes of Hines.

Given what has transpired since 2005, it’s nearly impossible to argue that the Steelers chose the wrong player. Steelers fans know they kept the right guy after every offensive snap. Just check out the smile. Anti-Plax.

The Need for Sweed

Year two is the time for Limas Sweed to step forward and take the mantle of Pittsburgh Steelers #3 WR. With Nate Washington gone, the spot is his for the taking. Could a little veteran competition be in order? Don’t put it past the front office, they don’t need Randy Moss in the slot but they might sign a player to push for the position.

It wasn’t surprising to see Sweed’s struggles last season. It’s a rare WR who steps into the league and produces from the start. Most often, their heads spin for the first season or two and then they “get it.” But Sweed doesn’t have that luxury. Let’s say the Steelers bring in a vet. Any doubt who Big Ben will throw to if Sweed has another gut-wrenching drop ala the Ravens playoff game last season? Not in my mind, no doubt at all.

Thanks to a tough, franchise QB and a defense for the ages, the Steelers were able to overcome his rookie gaffs last year, but now they need him to be a consistent producer in the offense. Sure, Ben will still be Ben, maybe even improved with another year of experience under his belt and (fingers crossed) an improved OL. But it’s asking a bit much to expect another record-setting season from the defense. Sure, they’ll be top-10 or better again. But they had something special last season which kept them in games they might should have lost.

As the #3 guy Sweed will be a de facto starter and he must make the catch when his number is called. Does Arians’ offense produce so many opportunities that they can be tossed to the ground? Not so much.

Limas, take the next step because the Steelers have a need for Sweed.

What’s a Superbowl Slump?

So, what is this thing, a Superbowl slump? Most would agree that it’s a down year after appearing in the Superbowl. That’s easy. But how down does that year have to be? Is it good enough to miss the playoffs or is a losing record required? Does one need to pick in the top five of the following draft?

After losing Superbowl XLII the New England Patriots failed to qualify for the playoff field with an 11-5 record, minus their all-globe-golden-boy QB, Tom Brady (or if you prefer, Beardy). So, did the Patriots have a slump season? I don’t think so.

The defending champion (XLII) NY Giants won their division and earned a bye but were dismissed at the first opportunity to advance amid the mayhem of the Plaxico Burress debacle. A disappointing end to the season? Yes, but not a slump by any means.

Following their Superbowl XLI victory, the Indianapolis Colts won their division (13-3) and earned a bye, but failed to advance. Clearly not a slump season. But the defeated Chicago Bears returned the following season to finish last in their division with a disappointing 7-9 record. That’s a slump season, folks.

In the 70’s the Pittsburgh Steelers won four titles in six years and never had a slump season. But the franchise suffered a long Superbowl drought until finally returning for Superbowl XXX in ’95. While it was a losing effort, the Steelers returned to the playoffs the following season. They never suffered a slump until their sixth appearance in Superbowl XL. While they won the game, the following season would be slumptastic. It was the final season for head coach Bill Cowher. Their wunderkind QB, Ben Roethlisberger, suffered a near fatal motorcycle accident earlier in the year, then had an emergency appendectomy before the start of the season. They finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs while their losing opponent made the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

What have we learned about slumps? Sometimes slump happens. If one were to closely examine the state of each franchise mentioned above, it’s easy to see why those slumping teams failed to excel the following season. There’s always a reason, some more predictable (Bears) than others (Steelers).

What can we say about the two teams who played in Superbowl XLIII? Are either the Cardinals or the Steelers primed for a slump season? Or, if the Cardinals fail to excel in ’09, would that even be a slump? Maybe it’s the inevitable return to earth after a rocket-ride to the top. They have long been one of the NFL’s whipping-boy franchises, the hopeless, angry little birds. So cute, so futile. Their success could be an aberration, a sort of anti-slump season, any return to the bottom merely restoration of their natural state. One could say they’re slump-proof.

What about the Steelers then?

Are you kidding me?

The Status Quo in Steelerland

Per usual, the Steelers’ off season has barely made a ripple. They resigned backups and extended some starters. Parted ways with an aging Marvel Smith, tagged the younger Max Starks and extended Chris Kemoeatu. They kicked the tires on a few free agent backups at cornerback and wide receiver and found their name associated with veteran center Jeff Saturday who resigned with the Colts.

A version of the offensive line

Fans have little choice but to speculate. Will the offensive line remain unchanged? If so, will the youthful players improve with more time together, growing in consistency while mastering expectations? Or will we see another forty-eleven sacks of the quarterback? (Byron, you weren’t really planning to go elsewhere, were ya?)

Big Snack and Aaron Smith, forever young?

Furthermore, what to do with the aging defensive line, can the Steelers ignore it? Having all starters and backups in one position group over age 30 is asking for trouble. Decline is inevitable with precipitous decline more likely. Any significant falloff in production from the DL would wreck an otherwise young and promising defense. Better to address it before the problem cascades.

And what of the defensive backs? Cornerback Brian McFadden was allowed to leave upon expiration of his rookie contract. And while his replacement, William Gay, saw increased duty as the season progressed, there is no youth behind him. Perhaps another day one cornerback is due in this draft? But what of the OL and DL? Has it come to this? Do the Steelers need pluck a starter from the late rounds?

It’s just business as usual in Steelerland.

In the News, Friday the 13th

Victory Parade Banners Stolen

Eleven Superbowl banners were nicked. Had to be an inside job, right? Wait a few days and check EBay, it’s almost a certainty.

Double Superbowl Winner Andre Frazier Resigned

He was a UDFA signing in 2005 who managed to stick around. Kudos to Frazier, the Steelers need their role players.

Frazier sacks Gradkowski
Frazier sacks Gradkowski

James Harrison Will Seek Free Agency After ’09 Season

He will if he wants. You gonna change his mind? The pending contract extension for Mr. Harrison has generated nervous anticipation among the Steeler faithful. Will he resign? How much will he demand? Will the Steelers let him walk?

James Harrison wants you to shut up
James Harrison wants you to shut up

Three Fifths of Superbowl Winning Offensive Line Extended

Steeler Nation is overjoyed. Two contract extensions and one franchise tag later insure the same five men will return to stand next to each other again. How would you describe it? Oh, I have it … will return to break the sacks allowed record, but in a bad way.

Have a chuckle with Rotoworlds’ Offensive Line Ranking.


2006: 6
2007: 13
2008: 19

Pittsburgh's line gets somewhat unfairly criticized for yielding sacks because no QB hangs in the pocket (often with success) like Ben Roethlisberger. Rashard Mendenhall's addition should make the group look better because he'll likely be a better inside runner than Willie Parker and will pick up the blitz.

James Harrison’s Choice

James Harrison must ruminate his options.

Harrison was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for 2008. Can you name the last time a Steeler was honored so? Neither can I. It’s an achievement punctuated by his play in the Steelers’ Superbowl XLIII victory. His record setting touchdown return will be remembered for decades. His play has far exceeded the value of his contract. Unfortunately, new Steelers’ contracts do not reward a player for past accomplishments, only for potential and the level of play expected going forward.

Silverback

Discounting a holdout, there are two choices. First, stay with the Steelers for a moderate extension at reasonable money. They will surely offer him a better deal than his last contract (four years for $5.5M including a $1.375M signing bonus), but it won’t be in the same area code as Albert Haynesworth’s $100M contract with the Redskins. I’d guess the guaranteed portion of his new offer exceeds the total value of the previous contract but it probably doesn’t double it. And considering his age (30) the offer will likely be in the 5 year range. More than five years at $40M with $9M guaranteed would be surprising.

On the other hand, he could choose to play the final year of his current contract and enter free agency next off season. He’ll be a year older but with the Daniel Snyders of the world, there’s a chance he could get a bank busting $15M guaranteed on a $50M deal. There’s also a chance he blows out an ACL and loses a season. It’s a gamble, the possibilities must be weighed.

I’d love to watch Harrison in black and gold for the next several seasons. One thing is certain: it’s his choice.

In the News …

Steelers Tag Starks Again

For the second year in a row the Steelers slap Max Starks with a tag. Last season it was a transitional tag which required that he be paid the average ($6.9M) of the league top 10 offensive lineman salaries. If he were to sign with another team, the Steelers could match the offer or receive a first rounder (thereabouts) in compensation.

This year Starks was designated the franchise player. As a result he will be paid the average ($8.45M) of the top 5 and the Steelers, should he sign elsewhere, would receive two first rounders.

The line might be looking thin, but I say, sign away, Max!

Bigfoot to the Buccaneers?

Derek Anderson could be shipped to the Buccaneers. The Browns need to move that large contract and Quinn wouldn’t have another QB waiting to trip him as he walks by the stairs.

Cowboys Targeting Charlie?

Announcers on the Dallas ESPN radio affiliate speculated that Charlie Batch would make a nice backup for Tony Romo. Good luck prying him away from the Steelers, Jerry. Sorry, no link but I heard it and you can trust me.

Albert Haynesworth Will Seek Free Agent Offers

More power to him. Here’s to hoping he ends up in the NFC.

Butler Nixes Cards

Keith Butler would rather coach linebackers for the Steelers than coordinate the defense for the Cardinals.

What is a fan to make of this? Is the end of the Dick LeBeau era eminent? Has Coach Tomlin promised LeBeau’s coordinator position to Butler? Or does Butler simply love coaching the Steelers linebackers so well that he would forgo career advancement?

Those are the only things that make sense. You know the Rooney’s won’t money-whip a coach to keep him around, particularly not a position coach. But perhaps Butler is cut from the same cloth as Dick Hoak, the 35+ years running backs coach of the Steelers.