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January 08, 2010 by Palmer Sucks

The Season of No Reason

�Sucks Says

Random Rants by PalmerSucks

 

So the Stillers will be planted on their couches eating Doritos as they watch the playoffs. That�s disappointing for many reasons, not the least of which being just how mediocre this year�s playoff field is.

You could argue the Stillers are part of that mediocrity, and you�d get little opposition � but that doesn�t change the reality of the situation.

Indianapolis may have won more squeakers than any other number-one seed in NFL history, and from there the list goes downhill faster than a fat chick on a water slide. The Chargers are in, once again pulling their annual get-hot-in-November act, which usually concludes with a deep freeze in January. The Bengals I�ve discussed before, and nothing�s changed: they�ll still try it with Billy Ball, and chances are they�ll learn the hard way how that turns out come playoff time.

Then there�s the Jets, gifted perhaps like no other team in playoff history. What are the odds of getting to play two teams who care nothing about winning the last two weeks? Their appearance is truly a joke.

The Patriots come into the playoffs this year with a worse record than last year, despite having Tom Brady back (what does that say?) Well for one thing, their vaunted defense is long gone. They�re no lock to beat anyone, except maybe for the Ravens, who deserved the playoffs about as much as the Stillers. (Fortunately for the Ravens, they got to face Jamarcus Russell when they played Oakland.)

Not a single dominating defense in the field, which will make this a QB�s playoffs if there ever was one (my condolences, Baltimore). So laugh if you will, but I do believe there�s a lot of relief the Stillers didn�t make the dance � Roethlisberger would�ve feasted on this buffet of bad defenses.

I know a lot of you didn�t want to see the Stillers make it, but I did for one reason: the 2009 Stillers only played badly against bad opponents. In the playoffs there are no Oaklands, KC�s or Clevelands to face (phew!) � just the over-.500 crowd, which would have given the Stillers a fighting chance.

Why be ashamed? The �09 playoffs feature more pretenders than an Elvis impersonator convention, unless you think Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez are Hall of Famers. The Stillers know how to handle the Chargers, and Manning�s QB rating falls no matter which 3-4 defense he faces. Outside of the Jets-Bengals Billy Ball fest, look for some high-flying AFL-type circus games, long on passing and short on defense. Nah, the �09 Stillers wouldn�t fit in there, would they?

Things look just as weak and wide-open in the NFC, where the shine is off the Saints, and both the Packers and Vikings were knocked off by the Stillers. I�d been leaning toward Philly until last week�s debacle; then there�s Dallas and Tony Choke-o (no thanks).

For the Stiller fan outside looking in, that�s real frustration. Worse, there�s no reason for a Super Bowl champ not even to make the playoffs, given the team�s talent level. It�s not like I expect them to win it all every year (once every two is acceptable), but really, at least make some noise befitting a champion on the way out � not end it with a whimper.

It wasn�t like the Stillers had been plucked clean of coaches or players � the roster pretty much remained the same. And maybe that�s the problem: maybe the Stillers benefit from some turnover.

Looking for a reason for those 4th-quarter defensive breakdowns? Start with age: 6 of the Stillers� 11 defensive starters are over 30: James Harrison (31), nose tackle Casey Hampton (32), safety Tyrone Carter (33), cornerback Deshea Townsend (34), and last AND least, inside linebacker James Farrior, who�s unsuccessfully chasing fullbacks at the age of 35.

I warned early this year about James Failure, and he didn�t disappoint. You can trace 3 games maybe won if Failure makes a simple stop or play on running backs. Regardless, there�s a whole lot of other old-timers to deal with.

Unlike the Patriots, who bit the bullet and dumped big-namers like McGinest, Vrabel and Seymour, the Stillers decided to keep the graybeards on the payroll. And now they�re paying: watching Townsend get torched by Todd Heap, the tight end, is a sight I hope not to see repeated ever again. Townsend being in there was at least understandable, given Gay�s poor showing; Failure�s was another story altogether. This was pure front-office incompetence: a goofed big-bucks extension, which practically forced the team to play him rather than try out new blood.

Age really showed in the secondary, where speed killed. With Troy Pola gone, the Stillers featured what has to be the slowest safety tandem in football, evidenced by all the big pass plays given up. The Stillers must be active this year in upgrading their defensive backfield, both in the draft and in free agency.  Some catching ability wouldn�t hurt either � maybe the biggest joke this year was that Ike Taylor was on the �hands team� for onsides kicks.

Bigger, younger, faster � that has to be the goal of the defense. Time to see what Key Fox can do, or else look to the draft � players like Brandon Spikes immediately come to mind. Spikes is everything Failure isn�t anymore: fast, hard-hitting and aggressive. He�s got the speed to play outside, despite great size � and a nasty streak to boot. The �quarterback� of the outstanding Florida defense, Spikes would fit perfectly into the all-important Buck LB spot currently manned by Failure. (He�s every bit worth a trade-up considering the glaring need here.)

As for the coaches, somebody�s got to go, whether that�s LeBeau or Arians. I�ve chronicled Dick�s lack of balls in blitzes this season � and if you�re going to field a slow secondary, rushing three might not be the way to go all the time.

What�s ironic is that Rex Ryan, who admits he�s stolen from LeBeau, now surpasses him in technique. Watch the Jets as they add blitzers corresponding to the number of yards needed in passing situations � wouldn�t you want the QB to have to think about getting rid of the ball even if the blitz doesn�t reach him? Even 3rd-and-25�s are possible if you give the QB four or five seconds to look for a receiver. We�ve seen it happen all too often.

Should the Stillers can a coordinator, I doubt they dare let LeBeau go, which leaves Bruce as the candidate for sacrifice. I�m no fan of Arians, being in the �grab bag play call� camp. I still puzzle over his 42-passes-to-20-runs classic called in the swirling cold winds of Cleveland. I gag over his approach to the red zone.

But blaming Arians for all the Stillers problems is like blaming the Germans for bombing Pearl Harbor. Sure, they may have been connected, but they weren�t directly responsible for the whole mess. Unless of course you think the Stillers offense was somehow more accountable for this season�s flop.

What bothers me about firing Arians is that the team may stop there. �Look everybody, we dumped a big bad coordinator, the guy you all hate! You can all shut up now.� Remember Kevin Gilbride? Like Arians, he was an unpopular offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh who took the fall for a really bad season. Leaving such matters as the horrendous passing of Kordell Stewart unaddressed.

Look at your defense, look at your special teams � anyone not heard yet Bobby April�s on the market? For those of you who don�t recall, the Stillers once had some of the league�s best kick and coverage units when April ran the squad. (The brilliant surprise onsides in Super XXX, mistakenly credited to Billy Cowher, was actually April�s call.)

And by the way, don�t count Arians out, despite all the firing rumors flying around. Anybody�s who liked so much by Ben has a real shot to stick with the team. (Speaking of rumors, word is the leaking of Bruce Arian�s firing was done by� Bruce Arians.)

If there was anything to be pleased with special teams, I�d have to say it was Logan�s progress at the end of the year. Up til a few weeks ago he was looking rather busty, but I hope he�ll get another fair shot in Latrobe this summer. He�s learning.

Anyway, time to face facts: the Stillers can no longer count on 4 automatic wins from Cincy and Cleveland. The Bungals have built a quality young defense, and Cleveland�s finally gotten serious, bringing in a real football guy to run the show. The Ravens are still on par with the Stillers. The North is no longer the cakewalk it used to be, and if the Stillers don�t make aggressive moves to improve, they�ll find themselves battling for third place again.

 

So what is the reason the Stillers defense broke down so much this season, besides the obvious age factor? That�s the question being asked; thing is, the people asking may be doing it a little late.

It�s been documented on this site that the Stillers defense � despite all the number-one-ranking hoopla these last few seasons � has been collapsing during crunch time for at least two years. The fact is, these breakdowns are nothing new � last year�s championship team did the same thing, it�s just that it didn�t get noticed.

The big fact is, if not for a historic Super-Bowl winning drive (which took the heat off the defense by placing the glory on the offense), we�d have been having this same discussion � only the screaming would�ve started last February. Thanks to Ben and Holmes, forgotten was the cushy 20-7 lead blown in the 4th quarter of the Bowl. I was at the game, and I can tell you some Cardinal fans were heading to the exits toward the end: hang on, I told one, the fun is just getting started.

All last season the defense softened at the end, same as this year. So what was the difference between last year�s champ and this year�s chump? Good offense and some plain old good luck.

Take a look at the figures below, featuring three close games from last year, and three close games from this season.

2008

OPP       TIME REMAINING LAST  OFFENSIVE POSSESSION              RESULT

JAX       6:37                                                                                              W 26-21

DAL       5:10                                                                                             W 20-13

BAL       3:36                                                                                             W 13-9

 

2009

OPP       TIME REMAINING LAST  OFFENSIVE POSSESSION              RESULT

CIN        0:14                                                                                             L 20-23

OAK       0:09                                                                                             L  24-27

CHI        0:00   (OT)                                                                                   L 14-17

 

As you can see, Roethlisberger had at least three minutes to work with when he attempted to bring the Stillers from behind in these three close �08 contests. In three key �08 losses, however, the chips didn�t fall the Stillers way: Palmer and Gradkowski threw their winning TD passes with under 15 seconds remaining. Whether or not this was bad luck, or some devilishly clever strategy employed by the opponent, the result was clear: no last-minute magic for the Stillers.

Three key games: reverse them, and you�ve got three more wins � in other words, the same record as last year. Lifting a trophy vs. lifting a nine iron. Funny how that works out huh?

You saw how this played out vs. the Packers, a much better team than either Oakland or Chicago: Ben had time on the clock to work with. Again, it came down to who-has-the-ball-last, which of course takes the blame off the defense. The Stillers offense didn�t get the chances to win at the end as it did in �08, or more accurately, the Stillers defense didn�t get the blame taken off it as it did last season.

Remember, the clock showed 2:37 when Arizona scored its last TD in XLIII. John Madden once said winning is a deodorant, and with that winning Stillers drive was Speed-Sticked away the stink of a defense that loses leads and is sure to give up a TD drive when the opposing offense is pinned inside its own 5 yard line.

They say football is a game of inches, but it�s also a game of seconds. Any doubt the Stillers take it down and score against the Raiders if Ben has another couple minutes left? That�s why to me Tomlin�s on-sides call vs. Green Bay was such the right move, his Belichick moment when he had to admit that his defense just can�t close any longer. I only wish he�d realized it a few weeks earlier; chances are we�d be gearing up for another game this weekend.

 

And so ends the Season of No Reason, one in which the Stillers beat the Chargers, Packers and Vikings but lost to the Raiders, Chiefs and Browns.

No reason to be sitting home when you have a 4,000-yard passer, a couple of 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard back. No reason to be golfing when you�re second in the league in sacks. But again, is there maybe? James Harrison was quoted in the P-G that maybe some guys on the team were worried more about �individual things� than playing as a team.

No reason not to make the playoffs � and all the reasons not to make them, too. Anyway, if you�re like me, you�ll need to get this first non-Stillers round of playoffs out of the way before the letdown eases. Enjoy the games � as much as you can.

Oh and one more thing � the next time you hear some hater whine about how the league �favors� the Stillers, bring up the little decision to move Jets-Bengals from 1 p.m. (when Cincy would�ve had something to play for) to 8 p.m. (when the Bengals had no incentive to win whatsoever). The league essentially bent over backwards to get the Jets into the playoffs, at the expense of the Stillers. So much for the favoritism conspiracy theory, which has been used to explain everything from Super Bowl XL to the last Stillers win. Where are all the hater-conspiracists now to cry about the �injustice� of it all?

P.S. Congratulations to Carson Palmer for his historic 11 pass, 1 interception, 0 yard classic performance Sunday, notching a rating of � yep you heard right � 1.7. Keep on reaching for that rainbow!

(The views of PalmerSucks are not necessarily those of Stillers.com, but should be.)

 

 

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