Stillers Offseason Outlook -- Feb 27, '01
This annual offseason outlook is a thorough examination of the entire team's operation. It's inherently intended to be thorough, as well as wide in breadth & scope. This isn't a USA Today, 5-sentence-glossover that you often see in various magazines and newspapers. Rather, it's a fairly long read, but I believe it'll be well worth your time.
The cornerstone of this year's Offseason Outlook is actually comprised of two key essentials.
- Organizational change, and
- Capability overmatch
First, organizational change, which has to be the driver of anything positive that could occur this offseason.
I recently read Spencer Johnson's #1 bestseller, "Who Moved My Cheese?", a short but superb book about change in individuals & organizations. Johnson, as you may know, previously wrote "The 1-Minute Manager", and is world renown as "the best there is at taking complex subjects and presenting simple solutions that work". In fact, the book is barely larger than a Cliff's Notes book, and can be read in less than 45 minutes. The book is being used by many large corporations, to include Chase Manhattan, Lucent Technologies, Texaco, Xerox, Pepsi, Morgan Stanley, and Mercedes Benz.
"Who Moved My Cheese?" is a simple parable about 4 characters that live in a "maze" and look for "cheese" to nourish them. "The maze" is where you look for what you want -- the organization you work in, or the family, or the community. "Cheese" is a metaphor for what you want to have in life -- good job, health, money, loving relationship, peace of mind, etc.
In a nutshell, the four characters in the story -- Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw -- are faced with unexpected change. Their cheese actually had been steadily dwindling, and now it's all gone. Each deals with the change differently. The two mice, Sniff & Scurry, do better when faced with change. Sniff smells out the general direction of "new cheese", and Scurry races ahead and tries to locate it. Sometimes they hit some dead ends, but they learned quickly and rapidly moved on to new ventures of cheese-finding. Meanwhile, Hem and Haw, the "little people", got bogged down when faced with unexpected change. Haw was extremely hesitant, and even afraid, of trying anything new when his cheese was all gone, but he finally mustered the gumption to venture out into "the maze" and find new cheese. Hem refused to do anything at all when his cheese supply ran out, instead moping around and furiously asking, "Who moved my cheese?" and griping, "It's not fair!"
Haw learned that sometimes fear can be good. When you are afraid things are going to get worse if you don't do something, it can prompt you into action. But it is not good when you are so afraid that it keeps you from doing anything.
Where does this all lead? Take a look at the Stiller organization. The two biggest management guys are Rooney and Cowher. (Sure, Colbert is the GM, but has about 1/10th the power that Cowhead does.) Now consider the four characters from Johnson's book. Do you see Rooney as a "sniffer", a "scurrier", a "hawer", or a "hemmer". How about Cowher ??
Obviously, both are hemmers, terrified to change anything because they live in mortal fear of anything that is a change in their normal, everyday rut. Both enjoy hiding behind the absurd façade of "this is how we've always done it". Yeah, with that mentality, I'm surprised each doesn't ride a horse-ridden buggy to work and rely on telegrams to communicate with others who are far away.
The Rooney way of dealing with the capanomics of the modern NFL has been downright sickening. Rooney bitched & bellyached about his lack of revenues, so much so, that despite the voters' voting down the proposed stadium tax back in '97, Rooney nevertheless got state money to fund the vast majority of his new stadium. So here's Rooney -- whose team has had a five year (or more) waiting list for season tickets the past 25 years -- getting avalanched with revenues from PSL's and luxury boxes, and still, the past 2 offseasons he's pissed around like the hemming codger that he is.
I don't want to hear any cock & bull about "Rooney has spent the most you can spend with the cap." Please. Don't insult my intelligence. First off, there's signing bonuses, backloaded contracts and "creative financing". Check out Sam Adams' deal with Baltimore, and you'll see what I mean. If the cap is "X", that doesn�t mean that a team can't disburse "X + Y" in a given year. Rooney, ever the hemmer, has staunchly hidden behind the cap ever since it was implemented. In fact, statistics recently released show that the Stillers have spent THE LEAST of ANY team on signing bonuses since the inception of free agency in '93.
Secondly, free agency has grown to be exactly like college recruiting. The free agent often signs with the team that wines & dines him the best. Witness Chad Brown, who was flown to Seattle on a private jet, dined at the finest seafood restaurants in Seattle and signed with the 'Hawks a couple days later. The Stillers, meanwhile, had a GOLDEN opportunity to sign then CFL-QB Jeff Garcia back in January 1999. However, Garcia's flight got snowed in, and Rooney and his codgers were too cheap, and too stupid, to schedule a new trip for Garcia. As you know, Garcia ended up signing with San Fran, and rather than having a cap-friendly QB duo of Stewart & Garcia, the Stillers were left with Stewart/Prozac and then Stewart/Graham. In free agency, the team who expends energy and seizes the initiative, often is the team that lands the free agent. Simply put, the team that sits on its ass and does nothing, gets nothing.
Heck, just look at Bettis. Back in Feb '97, when he was a FA, he was thisclose to signing with the Skins, because the Stillers played fiddle-faddle and expended about 2 ounces of energy to re-sign him. Only Bettis' desperate, last-minute cel-phone call to Cowher allowed the Stillers to re-sign the Bus.
Bottom line: organizational change within the Stiller organization is a must. Doing "business as usual" in the 1991 mode, in 2001, is sheer asininity. Things that need to change:
- the lax, laissez-faire, "wait-and-see" approach to free agency.
- the mulestubborn insistence on running the same tired old schemes on both sides of the ball, regardless of personnel changes.
The wait & see approach, without taking any initiative, is sickening. About a month ago, the media reported Cobert stating that this is the first time the team has ever taken the time & energy to compile a "ratings list" of all the available FAs. Hey, it's 8 years late, but that's a start. The next step is to target the one or two players the team is acutely interested in, and swoop in on them the moment the clock strikes to initiate the start of the FA period. "Wait & See" is ok, when you're looking to find some overlooked players who might be able to contribute to your team. But when "Wait & See" is the only approach your team takes, you're inevitably going to be sitting in the back seat, not the driver's seat. The meek might inherit the earth, but they won't get squat in free agency, unless you desire to sign only stiffs like Travis Davis and Chris Sullivan.
Running the same old schemes, with total & absolute disregard for the personnel on-hand, has been a maddening situation that has lasted over three years, with no end in sight.
On offense, the team has been content to run the WhaleCrap Offense for over 4 years now. You know the deal --- I-formation, with the NFL's slowest RB (Doughboy Bettis); the NFL's slowest FB (Jon Witmann); the NFL's slowest TE (Mark Bruener); and the NFL slowest WR tandem (Hines Ward and PeePee Hawkins). Out of this basic set, the offense has no speed; no ability to run the ball outside the tackles; no acute ability to pass to EITHER running back out of the backfield; and no ability to influence the defense to stop crowding 8 & 9 men at the line of scrimmage. In addition to his cap killing contract and his overt inability to weigh anywhere near 250 pounds, Bettis will hopefully sign elsewhere, so that there might be some ray of hope of scrapping the WhaleCrap Offense and moving out of the Neanderthal Era and into an offense than can strike any place from anywhere, be it first, second, or third down. Keeping Bettis ensures this offense will be exactly like it has been the past 3 seasons --- 2 yards and a cloud of dust, and lots of punting. If Bettis is re-signed, it'll be for a gaudy $5M per season (counting bonus money), and the ever-stingy Rooney will throw his arms up in despair and cry, "I can't sign anybody else." Cowher will kick his heels with delight, because his primary security blanket (Bettis) will be in-place and no significant changes will need (in Cowher's mind) to be made. And Cowher, the despiser of change, loves nothing more than the status quo.
If Bettis actually departed, we'd be able to give Hunt, Fu, Amoz, and a draftee a shot at the starting job at camp. More than likely, some sort of platoon would emerge. For those fretting about a platoon, remember that the last time this team went to the Super Bowl, it did so with two backs -- neither of whom were on the team the previous season � in a platoon role. Their names were Pegram and Morris. And considering the quickness and speed these backs (Hunt, Fu, and Amoz) bring to the table, the Stillers can actually do something they simply cannot do out of the WhaleCrap Formation -- pass with success on first down. Just think of a split backfield of, say, Amoz and Hunt. You now have speed & quickness, and much more elusiveness & RAC capability, than you do out of the I-formation with Bettis and Witmann. Bottom line: The world will not end if Doughboy Bettis departs as a free agent. Some simpletons in the Pittsburgh media have written about a possible "public relations nightmare" if Bettis leaves. This is nothing short of maddening stupidity and piss-poor journalism. This isn�t a Pirates team that pretty much had to sign fan-favorite Jason Kendall to the mammoth contract extension, because the team hadn�t seen the playoffs in 7 years and routinely had far more empty seats than paying customers. This is a Stillers team that has a FIVE year waiting list for season tickets. The Stillers could trot out He Hate Me from the XFL at running back, and every game would still be sold out and the 5-year waiting list would continue its existence. There�s also media concern about "losing 1/3 of the offense" if Bettis leaves. More faulty rationalizing. First off, 1/3 of one of the worst offenses in all of football, isn�t a helluva lot. Secondly, this isn�t a case where, if Bettis leaves, we will gain ZERO rushing yards next year. Someone, either as a sole starter or in platoon role, will tote the ball at least 20 times per game, and we�ll still gain some yardage on the ground. Pegramm, Bam Bam, Foster, Leroy Thomson, Merril Hoge --- all gained solid yardage on the ground long before Doughboy Bettis arrived.
On defense, the team has been content to run the 3-4 defense since Cowhead arrived. This was fine, because the personnel on-hand fit in with the 3-4 defense. Those days are long gone. Little Billy has steadfastly tried pounding the square peg into the round hole, with miserable results. The team has been pitiful in both drafting and developing defensive linemen. The root problem is that no college team plays a 3-4, so the team has to guess as to who can excel in the 3-4. In nearly all cases, their guesses have flat out sucked. Then, because so few NFL teams play the 3-4, the team has to guess who might be a good a fit in free agency, and the results, aside from Kimo, have been piss poor. In fact, most, if not all, worthwhile free agent 4-3 DEs have no interest at all in toiling as a 3-4 DE, which then inherently limits the pool of available FA candidates. So, we're left with a sickening paradox: a total inability to man the DL thru the draft, and an equal inability to man the DL thru free agency. Now, most companies, faced with this kind of lose-lose proposition in recruiting human resources, would scrap their system and adjust to the market. Not the stodgy Stillers. It's head in the sand management, and no one does it better than Rooney and Cowher.
I've begged for a switch to the 4-3 defense for five consecutive years now. I've heard the pooh poohing, most of which revolved around how great and irreplaceable Joel Steed was, and the fact that we simply could never, ever, dream of life without Joel Steed at NT. Well, that fat lardass is gone. Of course, he's been replaced -- at least in the lardass category -- by none other than Fat Levon Kirkland. Kirk used to be a force, but since '98 has been a big ball of blubber who meaningfully impacts a football game about as often as Penguin winger Alexey Morozov does a hockey game. Cowher should take a page from Bucco skipper Lloyd McClendon, and tell Fat Levon to either get down to 265, or look for work elsewhere. And, if no suitors are available, move the fat blubber boy (at a reduced contract, of course) to DT or DE in the 4-3 set, and go with a LB corps of Earl in the middle, flanked by Porter and Haggans. What about Big Jason Gildon?? His value will never be greater. He's middle aged for the NFL, has never been injured, and is coming off a "pro bowl" season. Send him in a trade, which will fetch, at a minimum, a 3rd rounder, or possibly a 2nd. Stiffs like Henry & Sullivan should be told to either re-work their contracts to significantly lower money numbers, or look for work elsewhere. Sullivan especially is a cap killer who gives far too little and chews up far too much cap money. Remember, free agency, and the modern NFL, work both ways. If a Kurt Warner has a killer season after making peanuts, he gets a new contract. But the same holds true for underproductive stiffs that nobody else wants -- re-do the contract and make it friendlier for the cap, or send the man over to the unemployment office. If a stiff like Sullivan walks, replace him with a 6th rounder, and get the same productivity for about 12% of the salary cost.
Bottom line: There's a difference between activity and productivity. We've seen "activity" of both sides of the ball, most of which has been as effective as a screen door on a submarine. On defense, we need to stop pounding square pegs into round holes, and go with the 4-3 defense, so that we can both stuff the run and harass the passer. On offense, we need to scrap the WhaleCrap Offense and install an offense that it capable of striking from anywhere at any given moment in time.
This leads us to the second main thesis: Capability Overmatch.
As I stated in this piece last year, the team needs to strongly look at its schemes and its players, and discover where they can achieve what the US military refers to as a "capability overmatch". Think back in history. Some of the bloodiest wars were the Civil War and WWI, where both sides had essentially the same weapon capabilities and the resulting battles were bloody stalemates. The Steelers suffer the same problems with their personnel -- no overmatch capabilities whatsoever. The military nowadays is striving to field weapons systems that have a "capability overmatch" in which the weapon is clearly superior in firepower, range, accuracy, reliability, and/or mobility. The Steelers need to do likewise. The Steelers, on BOTH sides of the ball, have a severe dearth of ANY capability overmatch. Plex Burress might be that kind of player, but the Stillers thus far have insisted on only using him to run 4-yard buttonhooks, and only rarely threw him the ball downfield or in the end zone. Bettis can sometimes overmatch a defense when his shoulders are squared and he faces only one tackler, but the rest of the offense is so sagging that that this rarely occurs. Stewart can be this kind of player when he�s ALLOWED to venture out of the pocket, but Little Billy has wasted THREE seasons trying to turn the man into a wooden-legged pocket passer. Defensively, we have few players who can consistently overwhelm the player he is guarding or is fending off. This is perhaps the saddest indictment of how poor this team has regressed. In years gone by, we had the Rod Woodsons, Greg Lloyds, and Chad Browns to overmatch an offense. No more. Kirkland used to come close to being able to do this, but his hefty fat prohibits him so badly from helping out in pass defense and moving laterally that he no longer is anywhere close to being an impact player. None of the linemen on defense can overmatch an opponent, nor can a pedestrian OLB like GilDong. Holmes is a fierce competitor and a key contributor, but is not quite big or athletic enough to continually create a capability overmatch, though his intensity and desire does allow him to do this on occasion. Porter shows some promise, but needs to increase his strength and savvy before he can be considered such a player. Somehow, someway, the team has got to address this problem --- thru a paradigm shift --- and get some players who can create this kind of overmatch that ultimately creates big plays and produces wins rather than close defeats. If all you do as a football team is earn a "draw" at every position on the gridiron, the best you can hope for -- other than when playing laughingstocks like the Browns or the Bungals -- is a tie game or a potluck fluke victory. This, then, is in good part what causes a team to finish 7-9 or 8-8 or 9-7. You can't "win" at all eleven positions, but you hope you can at least tie in several of them and overmatch an opponent at a few of 'em.
None of this will happen, because we�re talking about the most mypoic, static, no-risk team in the NFL, but in a nutshell here�s what should occur:
1. Give Bettis a fairly low-ball, take-it-or-leave-it offer. Not many teams are frothing about signing an overweight plowback who has perhaps 2 more good years left. If Bettis departs, give Hunt and Fu the chance to win the RB job, and draft a RB in either round 3, 4, or 5. Remember, Bam was a 3rd rounder and Foster a 5th, and Terrell Davis was a 5th rounder and Mike Anderson a 6th, so don�t fret about the prospects of replacing Doughboy Bettis.
2. Immediately demand that the following players re-structure their contracts, or look for work elsewhere: Bruener, Kirkland, Henry, Sullivan, Graham.
3. Cut Jon Witman. We don�t need 2 veteran FBs, and we don�t need a FB who has a chronic bad back and is coming off a broken leg injury. Not only is Kreider far superior, but he�s cheaper. An undrafted FA can fight for the backup spot, and/or Fu can serve as backup.
4. Trade Gildon for at least a 3rd round pick, which is very do-able. Coming off his "pro bowl" season, and at a fairly young age, Gildon might even fetch a 2nd round pick.
5. Later in the spring/summer, extend Holmes, as well as DeWayne &/or Chad Scott, so that we aren�t faced with a mass defensive exodus following the 2001 season.
6. Send RFA Jeremy Staat packing. Don�t even invite PeePee Hawkins back.
7. Renegotiate a new contract with Dawson that is cap friendly and allows the opportunity for Dawson to work as a coach when he retires.
The Draft: (More will follow on this, in more detail, as the draft gets closer.)
1. In round 1, stop reaching for players to replace recently departed vets. We did this with Bruener, JaLame Stephens, Chad, and Troy. Select the best football player. Not the best athlete, but the best overall football player who is available.
2. Look for impact playmaking in the draft.
3. DL is a huge need in this draft, and plenty of good D-linemen will be available. Center is another need, though reaching must not occur. Linebacker, tight end, DB, RB, and OG could use some help in the draft, either for depth or for future grooming to alleviate against FA departures.
1. Find a stud DE and go after him the moment free agency begins. Aside from Kimo, this DL is as mediocre as mediocre can be. Enough is enough. This (a stud d-lineman) is THE number one FA priority for this team.
2. If Bettis departs, look for a cap friendly veteran back later in the spring/summer. Not a huge need, but a "nice-to-have" if the situation presents itself.
3. Consider finding a veteran backup QB who is a cap casualty, and send Graham packing.
4. Be on the lookout for veteran linebackers (perhaps a cap casualty) who can provide competition for a starting job, or serve as depth.
There's an old adage: "The future does not belong to the strongest or even the most intelligent. Rather, it belongs to those who can best adapt to change." To improve, this team must make changes �. changes in scheme, changes in personnel, and changes in management. It remains to be seen if any of these needed changes will occur.