A to Z: keys to the 2001 season.
The draft is done; the June 1 cut-down date has passed without event and it�s a month or so to camp.� There isn�t much concrete to write about now so here are a few premature notes on the season coming up.� Admittedly, this alphabet gambit is a cheap trick but, maybe, something interesting will fall out.� Thanks for your patience.
A is for analysis paralysis:� Last year, the Stillers overachieved to finish 9-7.� It could be said that they were a couple of official screw-ups from a playoff berth; maybe so, the Eagles game was an outright robbery.� On the other hand, the Stillers caught the Jets without a QB and had the benefit of facing the Ravens in Dilfer�s first game.� Some good luck, some bad breaks; the Stillers finished out of the playoff round on merit and the question now really is whether they�ve improved themselves enough to pass the equine Colts and Broncos.� Yes and no.�
B is for the Bus vs. the Bucs.� Tampa Bay�s defense has been ferocious since �95 when the Bucs drafted both Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the 1st round.� Nice picks; since then, this unit has been predicated on speed up-front; their secondary plays a lot of zone waiting on the errors forced by their relentless pass rush.�� IMO, the key to defeating this group is to run right at them.� The Lions had great success doing this last season and Simone Rice (TB�s major D-side acquisition last winter) is no run-stuffer.� The Buc DL can be influenced in the same way that, last year, the Raider DT ran themselves out of plays.� This is a game where Coach Cowher�s run first O-strategy gives the Stillers a decent chance to succeed.
C is for Coach Cowher:� Some love him; some hate him.� I�d prefer Marvin Lewis in 2002.�
D is for the defensive ends.� Next season, the Stillers figure to have KVO, Aaron Smith, Sullivan and Combs at this position.� These men have piled up 13 sacks over their (combined) 15 professional seasons.� Neither Holmes not Jones are sack artists and NT is not a rush position.� Since Seals left town, the Stillers have depended on their twin OLB to pressure the QB.� The results have been mediocre.� Strong rush teams have 3-4 legit threats; the Stillers need to find a third (or fourth) option and this is the spot.�
E is for Troy Edwards.� At present, Edwards is a backup both at flanker and in the slot.� This makes him the 4th receiver.� Toy is in the third year of a deal that includes a $925K/year bonus hit through 2003.� That�s a lot of scratch for a scrub; Edwards is, with Spike, Stew and (maybe) Amoz, one of a very few Stiller O-side players who could ever cause opponents any match-up problems at all.�� This year, the Stillers hopes against the Ravens, and similar power defenses, reside with these men, not with the Bus.
F is for Lee Flowers.� With Kirkland�s departure, Flowers is, with Earl Holmes most likely to emerge as a leader on the D-side.�� That�s not good; I like the effort this man puts forth on the field but, too frequently, he spouts utter nonsense.� Remember last year after the Stillers had won Ravens 2 to go 5-3?� Reportedly, Flowers steamed into the locker room screaming �can we believe; now, can we believe.�� Well, no we really couldn�t; the Stillers had won 5 after dropping 10/11; they were, by no means, established as a powerhouse.� At that point, the season was only half done and, when the Stillers lost their next 3 games, their 2000 playoff hopes were effectively finished.� Next year, the Stillers will need more focus and less bluster from this player.
G is for Wayne Gandy.� In 2000, Gandy was the Stillers best one-armed LOT since Will Wolford.� He did emerge as a leader on that unit and, now that Dawson�s done, the 2001 Stillers will need more of the same.� Gandy had shoulder surgery this winter; I�d guess that this limited his efforts in the Iron House.� He will have his challenges on the field; next year, Gandy will have twin bouts with Kearse, Brackens, McCrary and Bengals� prize rookie Justin Smith.� Sometime in between, he�ll get Simone Rice and Robert Porcher.� Those men are all high-speed, high-priced pass rushers; we�ll see if the surgically repaired Gandy is up to the task.
H is for Casey Hampton.� The Stillers run defense has been suspect since �97, which is the last year that Joel Steed played effectively. �Hampton is a NT in the Steed mode and, while the Stillers are counting on Casey this year, it is worth noting that Joel did little as a rookie.� In �92, Steed sat behind Gerald Williams; in �93, Williams moved to LDE and Steed moved in at NT.� Now, the Stillers are moving KVO outside with the hope that Hampton can contribute immediately; he�d better, Clancy might be a player but he�s in the wrong system here.�
I is for injury:� The Stillers look thin at a lot of positions this year.� IMO, they are (1) injury from disaster at NT, OLB, CB, OT and,maybe RB.�Generally, this lack of depth is a consequence of miserable drafts from �96-�98; for instance, the Stillers had (6) 3rd round picks in those years and netted Ward and Witman.
J is for Joey Porter:� Porter is the best coverage LB on the team because he is the fastest LB on the team.� Joey (not Mike Jones) should be the dime LB; when Bell is ready, the Stillers might consider dumping the dime for a nickel pack.� Last year, Porter was miscast as a faux-DE in the Stillers dime.� Excluding Bengals 1, when Porter abused Rod Jones, most of Joey�s impact plays came when he lined up off the LOS.� The same was true for Greg Lloyd; Lloyd was most dangerous off the LOS, he was just another guy when he lined up within arm�s reach of most LOT.
K is for Kordell:� No surprise here.� The FO has bet the house on this player and, maybe, with a position coach, his time has come.� The Stillers O-side does resemble a sandlot team in that their best athlete is their QB.� On most contending teams that distinction goes to the RB.� There have been some exceptions: Elway pre-Davis and, maybe, Steve Young�s 49ers.� Kordell is entering his 7th season, his 5th as a starter.� The time is now; the alternative is never.
L is for Tim Lewis:� I like Coach Lewis; he seems to be a thoughtful man who prepares assiduously.� That said he generally prepared the 2000 Stillers to play extremely passive schemes.� Last year, the D-side was (almost) unwatchable.� To be fair, Coach Lewis didn�t have much to work with but assuming Hampton and Bell play to their clippings, that�s all over if not now then certainly by 2002.���
M is for Mike Mularkey:� This man has a firm grasp on the obvious; by close observation, he has determined that neither Stew, Toy nor Spike will make their mark as rocket scientists.� These players are gifted, or they better be.� Coach Mularkey has simplified the offense so that talent can make plays.� If the talent is there, then that�s all good.�� Coach Gilbride had a veteran QB throwing to veteran WR in Houston; he had a very bright QB throwing to veteran WR in Jaxville.� That veteran WR presence was missing here; Coach Mularkey may not have a system but he does seem able to assess what is right before his eyes.
N is for Mathias Nkwenti:� I like this man�s potential but, with only (1) college season at OT, it is highly unlikely that he will be active this year.� Nkwenti should stick but this will mean that either he is the 4th OT or the Stillers find a vet for that role and carry (10) OL.�� An alternative may have been to sign on a vet OG/T but both Rod Jones and Ben Coleman are now off the market.
O is for Outside Linebacker.� OLB is the glamour position in the 3-4; last year, Porter and Big Sack had all the numbers.� Those two were healthy in 2000 and, with Five Flat Haggans and a knot of undrafted rookies backing up at this position, the Stillers must be gambling that they�ll stay that way thru-out the coming season.�
P is for Plaxico:� See Edwards above; the numbers are $1.238/year bonus hit through 2004.
Q is for QB coach Tommy Clements.� Maybe he helps Kordell; maybe he helps Tee.� Whatever; while I�m not convinced the Stillers added enough on-field talent, I do think Mularkey, Grimm and Clements will form a superb O-side coaching staff.
R is for the Ravens:� The Stillers have not been able to run the ball against this team since Goose came to Charm City.� At the moment, the Big Man is dragging his 400# self around Canada training high powered weapons on wild beasts that are just a little larger than himself.�� Maybe Siragusa is about done but the Ravens do remain committed to the big DT paradigm.� Last winter, they tied up Lionel Dalton and this spring took talented but troubled DT Adrian Wilson in the 7th.�� In 2001, the Ravens figure to have (4) DT who will play between 310# and, say, 350#; the Stillers figure to have one.� As stated previously, the Stiller prize O-side FA (Bettis and Hartings) will have little impact in these games.�
S is for team speed.� The Stillers have added no quality speed on offense.� On defense, they did add three players who may qualify as speed guys (Logan, Jones and Bell) but two of those (Jones and Bell) play the same position.� I doubt that Jones is significantly faster than Kirkland; the Stiller�s speed on the D-side will go up when, or if, Kendrell Bell moves in.� Even then, this unit still will not have state of the art speed.� Bell, Porter, Logan and (maybe) Scott have good speed for their positions but DW, Flowers, Hitman, and Big Sack can achieve, at best, average velocity.�
T is for Tennessee.� The Titans offense is built on the same line as the Stillers but these teams couldn�t be more different in their emphasis on the D-side.� The Titans spent big to bring in Kevin Carter; with Kearse, Tennessee has the best DE tandem in football.� Samari Rolle is, possibly, the premiere shutdown CB in football today.� These men are difference-makers; what (3) Stiller defenders can match them?�
U is for underdogs.� It is early yet but Web wise guys are projecting the Rams, Bucs, Ravens, Titans and Broncos as the league elite.� The Stillers will play 5 games against that group.� If 10-6 is the playoff minimum then the Stillers will need to roll it up against the Browns and Bengals.
V is for the Vikings.� The Viking O-side was the nazz in �99 but since then has lost (3) Pro Bowl linemen, (1) Pro Bowl RB and (2) QB.� Culpepper has replaced George/Cunningham as effectively as Birk has Christy; Moss/Carter remain on board.� Therefore, the chances are that the 2001 Viking offense will be (typically) high powered.� The chances are equally good that their defense will be, as is usual, stunningly awful.� This is another game that Coach Cowher�s preferred conservative, clock-consuming, power running offense gives the Stillers their best chance to win.
W is for �winning time�:� Magic Johnson used to apply this term to the 4th quarter.� Generally, Magic�s Lakers proved out; in contrast, the Stillers �98-�00 signature has been to keep it close and blow it late; they�ll remain out of the playoffs just as long as that trend continues.�
X is for former XFL ace Tommy Maddox.� A low risk, high reward signing;Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia came from low-level leagues to gain Pro Bowl berths.� The odds are long on Maddox but this signing was a pleasant diversion from the inanity of dealing with zero upside types like Blackwell and Rivers.
Y graphically represents the confluence near the Stillers Relish Bowl.� �The Stillers will get $2.85M/year over the next 20 for their stadium naming rights; in contrast, the Broncos will get $6M/year from Invesco for parallel favors.� The difference ($3.15M) is, under the new CBA, about the cost for (4) 10-year vet backups.� Of course, Invesco could go the way of PSINet.� They�re bankrupt and the Ravens will not be collecting on their 20year/$105M deal.� Heinz is an old-line firm and, probably, will stay the course; however, it does remain highly aggravating that the Stillers sold their naming rights for a per annum roughly equal to the cost of one, one minute Super Bowl commercial.�
Z is for Zereoue.� This man is 25 years old and has 24 career carries; he is said to be a high potential-type player.� Fu is a year younger and has 29 career carries; he is said to be a proven backup for the Bus.� �If one is true, the other is not; both have potential but neither are proven contributors.