8.10.2005

One state, two teams, two radically different approaches

I am glad to hear that Barrelhouse blog contributor TMC is a www.profootballcentral.com columnist for his beloved Eagles. I have been a fan of the cross-state Steelers since my family moved to Steubenville, Ohio—a steel town on the Ohio River 40 miles due west of Pittsburgh—way back in 1979 when I was five.

Both the Steelers and the Eagles have experienced success over the past decade and in particular the last five years, yet each team has very different ways of running their franchise. Philly is the epitome of front office savvy and adaptability; Andy Reid and Tom Modrak (a former Steeler personnel man) work their magic so that each year the Eagles seem to have more than $10 million free under the cap. They consistently draft fine young players whom they are not afraid to play right away, and seem to have a preternatural sense of when to let key veterans go, right at the moment their output on the field is displaced by their salary cap space.

The Steelers are the definition of Old School, stubbornly adhering to a book of tradition they have largely written themselves—no overpaying for free agents (even their own—and even despite this they always seem to have cap problems), no negotiating during the season, relying on the draft to replace personnel losses, keeping young players on the bench to “learn the system,” and running the ball down the other team’s throat whenever possible.

This formula has led to success, just as the Eagles’ system has worked. Yet neither team has won the Super Bowl. The Steelers lost a very winnable Super Bowl game in 1995 to a complacent but still dominant Dallas team (coached by Barry Switzer...ugh! The only Coach with a lower IQ than Cowher), and over Coach Bill Cowher’s 12 year tenure they are 1-4 in AFC Championship games, all 4 losses at home. The Eagles lost 3 NFC Championships in a row before getting to the Super Bowl last year. They lost to the dynastic Patriots in a close game, and Donovan McNabb, deservedly or not, was blamed for the loss.

The success both teams experienced last year can be attributed to out-of-character decisions made by each team’s braintrust in 2004. The Eagles engineered a controversial trade for the controversial Terrell Owens, arguably one of the best wide receivers in the game, yet a prima donna of exponential magnitude. They then gave him megabucks to stay. The Steelers drafted a QB in the first round for the first time since the early 80s, and then (only by necessity, when the starting QB got hurt) rode the rookie’s back to a 15-1 season and a loss in the AFC Championship game.

This year, each team is also experiencing great controversy at the wide receiver position. The well-compensated Owens wants his contract renegotiated upwards and has publicly dissed Donovan McNabb. Despite public shows of support, Owens has clearly alienated himself from his teammates. Meanwhile, Steelers WR Hines Ward, a blue-collar wide receiver with impressive stats and a boundless enthusiasm for blocking, is holding out. The Steelers’ front office has refused to renegotiate his contract—even though Ward is the heart and soul of the team; even though, unlike Owens, he has been relatively undercompensated given his performance over that past four years; and even though the Steelers let talented but mecurial Plaxico Burress go in free agency over the offseason, leaving Ward as the only proven commodity at the wide receiver position. Throw in a young QB who could have a sophomore slump without a talented receiver corps and the consensus in Steelerland is to give Ward what he wants. But Dan Rooney, an icon in Pittsburgh and highly respected around the league (mainly because he is old, just like his father used to be) answers to no man.

The Eagles are a team any intelligent person can love; Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson seem to be able to make something out of nothing almost at will. Before Owens, I was mystified at the Eagles' success. They had McNabb, a decent offensive line, and quite literally no on else. On defense, they had talent and quickness but not size. It seemed like you could run on them all day. But Jim Johnson is one of the best blitz schemers there is, and his defenses are always disruptive and uncannily effective at causing turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are the epitome of brawn over brain. The Steelers run game is plodding and effective, while the passing game is unimaginative. The Steelers virtually never throw to their running backs or tight ends, and they are at their best when they can physically dominate you. Run Bettis right, run Bettis left, the defense knows what is coming but can’t stop it, especially in the 4th quarter. Their defense relies on the 3-4 defense and the zone blitz. They get a few sacks and tackles for loss under their belts, and rely on intimidation and fear the rest of the way. But pick up the blitz, and odds are there’ll be a soft zone behind it that can be picked apart.

Steelers fans have a special burden. The Steelers are owned by an Irish family. Which means that their business model closely resembles that of a union. It's not the job you do, it's the time you put in. Seniority matters, never question the boss, and if the boss likes you, you can drive three trucks over a cliff and still keep your job, plus he'll give you medical leave for 2 years. Oh yeah, and always pay your dues. Right now Bill Cowher is top foreman, and while he once may have been good at his job, now he is just going through the motions. What may have worked before just doesn't seem to cut it now, and the Peter Principle may be at work.

Sound outrageous? How come Rooney has been quoted as saying that winning the Super Bowl is not all that good for business? And why did Rooney give Cowher contract extensions after losing seasons (twice!)? This coach has demonstrated an unwillingness to adapt and a timidity in pressure situations, traits he learned from his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer.

His much-discussed cowardice in the 2004 AFC Championship game is a case in point. Trailing by 14 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced 4th and goal from the 2. Cowher elected to kick a field goal instead of going for it. To some, that is sound football, get the points on the board now to close the gap and then hang tight and hope for a break. Except for one thing. By kicking the field goal, the deficit is 11. The Steelers are still down by 2 scores. When you are down by 14, it is clear that two touchdowns and two PATs are necessary to tie the score. When you are down by 11, it is clear that you need a field goal, a touchdown, and a 2 point conversion. A two point conversion, with the ball on the 2 yard line and one play to get the ball in the end zone, is the same exact situation in terms of “down and distance” (and pressure) as a 4th down and goal from the 2 yard line. If Cowher goes for it on 4th down now, all he needs is a touchdown. By kicking the field goal, not only does he have to get a field goal AND a touchdown, but if he does, to tie it he is forced—by necessity—to try to get the ball into the end zone from 2 yards out. The football gods must have been laughing (and wincing) that day.

The Steelers have also been playing with fire in ways that seem out of character. Despite leading the league in both rushing and rushing attempts last year, they let the right side of the offensive line go, practically kicking right guard Keydrick Vincent and right tackle Oliver Ross out the door. Both players are pluggers with limited talent, but at least one of them should have been retained. Vincent was an undrafted free agent rookie who mightily impressed line coach (and Hall of Famer and former Hog) Russ Grimm and earned a starting spot when 1st round pick Kendall Simmons busted his knee. Vincent could play tackle in a pinch and he signed with the Ravens for only $1.25 million, so keeping him wouldn’t have broken the bank. Right now the Steelers are hoping that Simmons is fully recovered (oh, by the way, he also has diabetes) and have handed the starting right tackle job to 2nd year man Max Starks, who played sparingly last year. Behind them are a motley collection of rookies and less talented journeymen who couldn’t beat Vincent or Ross out of their starting jobs when they had the chance.

Well, if you’re still reading this, I have insomnia and can’t sleep. I have to move the day after I go to a wedding in Annapolis, so I am kind of stressed. Plus, I have sciatic pain. So I have nothing better to do right now. In any case, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers and the Eagles can repeat and improve upon their successes last year. On the one hand, the Eagles may have made a deal with the devil to obtain Owens, and it could be that the Devil is coming to collect in 2005. However, the Steelers seem to be tempting fate by being so cavalier with a very crucial player and half their offensive line. Unfortunately, if the Steelers take a dive you can be sure Ben Roethlisberger and his sophomore slump will take the blame, not Cowher and Rooney for their piss-poor personnel decisions and stubborn adherence to rules that seem old-fashioned and quaint but are actually counterproductive to winning championships. But like Rooney has allegedly said, a Super Bowl can cut into your profit margins. Plus, Cowher has 8 years yet before he is eligible to collect on his pension.

(P.S. TMC, please correct any misperceptions or misstatements I made about the Eagles.)

4 comments:

TMC said...

Even before your final parenthetical comment, I felt like I was almost contractually obliged to respond to your post. As Mike can attest, it's impossible for me to turn away from any football discussion. So here are a few random comments on pieces of your entry:

1. Hines Ward is probably my favorite receiver, and one of my favorite players. I like his attitude and his skills. He's not as talented as Owens or Randy Moss, but beyond those, two, I would take him over any receiver, especially cowardly players like Tory Holt and Marvin Harrison. He deserves a raise, and he's right to ask for one, after years of being underpaid, and after, apparently being promised a new deal last year. Owens does not deserve even a response to his request for a raise, since he just signed the damn deal last year.

2. You don't know how bitter I still am at the Steelers for that thumping they put on the Eagles last season. The Eagles traditionally struggle against 3-4 teams, as the Steelers demonstrated. Of course, a bunch of crappy teams have shifted to the 3-4 hoping for a quick fix (like dallas), but they don't have good enough players to get the job done.

3. Don't sleep on Brian Westbrook. He's an unbelievable playmaker. The consensus in Philly (biased by the sudden irrational hatred of TO-- a hatred not shared by me, by the way) is that he's the 2nd most important player on the offense. I'm not sure I agree with that, but it's close. He's explosive.

4. I used be be a big Cowher fan (mostly because he looks like Seargent Slaughter), until he pushed the Kordell Stewart experiment for too long. That guy couldn't play quarterback.

5. A minor note: Modrak has actually left to work in Buffalo, and has been replaced by a young ex-Packers assistant named Tom Heckert.

6. I think if I'm a Steelers fan, I'm worried about the team this season. I don't think Burress is a huge loss, but they're toying with the offensive line and hoping for the entire defense to have another career year. They have the potential to plummet back to earth in a big way.

7. I wish the Eagles would just once draft a guy who isn't undersized on defense. Michael Lewis is an ideal size for a strong safety, but otherwise, everyone is so small. Why create an extra obstacle for yourself?

8. I don't know if this relates to your post at all, but keep an eye on CB Sheldon Brown this year. I'll keep saying it until someone believes me: he's the best defensive back on the team, whether he gets individual honors or no.

9. I like the distinctions you draw between the two team's philosophies. While I'm not sure I agree with everything Rooney does, I like to see someone sticking up for the old school and having ten thousand times more patience than the owners of the Daniel Snyder / Mark Cuban era.

10. Ten seems like a good place to stop. So, here's my final thought: McNabb wins MVP, Owens breaks every receiving record, the defense only allows 3 points all season, and the Eagles go 19-0 this year. Sounds reasonable enough.

Thank god it's football season again. I almost didn't make it.

Kistulentz said...

I'm sick already of the preseason hype machine. Is this the year that Antawn Randel El gets a bigger role in the offense, or an inadvertent hyphen on the back of his jersey. Will Bill Parcells stick with Drew Bledsoe long enough to see Bledsoe fall over light that statue of Saddam, or will Parcells's years of eating at Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn finally catch up with him. And if he does have a coronary on the field, who will tell offensive genius Sean Payton to call 911? (A little inside joke for my NFC East homies).

Let's talk TV for a minute, as well. Cris Collinsworth to NBC. John Madden to NBC. Joe Theismann to Monday Night Football. All next year.

Here's what I say. Ban players from the booth unless they can take the SAT and produce a 650 on the verbal. I'm tempted to go Elvis and shoot the television if I hear Paul Maguire make another joke about being a punter, or talk longingly about how bad it was in the old AFL. Someone should remind Mike Patrick that after his bypass operation, they replaced him for six games with Pat Summerall and no one noticed--right up until Pat Summerall insisted that everyone carrying the football was named Emmitt Smith, beg your pardon.

If we're going to dissect all things Pennsylvanian, let's at least address the fact that the Steelers, with their bizarre slanted numbers on their uniforms, have the least readable font in the National Football League. I'm guessing the Rooneys got a discount.

And don't get me started on the Eagles and their ridiculous black jerseys. Maybe it's not as much of a reach for them to wear a black jersey so that they are down with the kids as it is for those schmucks from Duke University (where I am still waiting for a serious explanation as to why it is pronounced Shu-shef-ski--someone in the family was illiterate? That's what the guard at Ellis Island told them?). But the colors are green and white officially. GREEN. White. no black.

I wish personally that most teams in the league would go back to the solid things they wore in the seventies. The Jets did and improved by 5 wins a year. The Raiders have the best uniform in the NFL. The Bucs might be the exception, but I'd still like to see Mike Alstott try to look tough in that creamsicle orange. Of course the Redskins went retro to try and sell more jerseys. Which is what this is really all about.

I love the fact that you can go on the Redskins web site, and the NFL store, and buy a Sonny Jurgensen jersey that is allegedly retro, yet is a design that Sonny NEVER ACTUALLY WORE.

DC teams have a history of bad uniforms and bad merchandising. Anyone remember the original Capitals unis? Or how about the fact that when they did their big redesign, they changed team colors. And that they adopted a blue away jersey that has not been worn since they were swept by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals.

Of course none of this has stopped me from going out and buying jerseys, which means that as usual, I am part of the problem and not the solution.

aaron said...

TMC, thanks for the update on Modrak, I should have remembered that. Did Sheldon Brown get drafted along with Lito Sheppard and aren't both pretty good? That was a fine piece of drafting so they could let Vincent and Taylor go.

Kistulentz, the Chicago Bears have had the Steelers numbering since the dawn of time, and you're just now complaining?

I think the old Bucs orange/pink uniforms were classy, plus with their logo, a Pirate with a knife in his mouth, you could call them the Gay Blades.

I also really liked the old Capitals jerseys. And the old Capitals: Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller, Dale Hunter, Rod Langway, Calle Johannson, etc., plus all the old playoff series when they would go up 3-1 on the Penguins and then lose 3 straight.

It just wasn't the same when Ted Leonsis took over and Ollie the goalie would go on DC 101 AFTER getting swept by the Pens and say something along the lines of "we beat ourselves."

TMC said...

Aaron,

Sheldon Brown was indeed drafted in the same year as Lito. Pro Bowlers Michael Lewis and Brian Westbrook were also drafted that same day, making that the best Eagles draft of my lifetime.