Like Listing Ship, Steelers Roll On

With teammates pointing fingers, the Steelers appear to be in distress, or at least disarray, at the dawn of the fiscal new year. Is there any hope?

PORT O PITTSBURGH -- Saturday Night Live ran a skit the other night that revolved around two crew members of the fire-stricken Carnival Cruise ship reading news headlines to "cheer up" weary customers.

The news included the Pope resigning, the testing of a nuclear warhead by the North Koreans, and the "uplifting" story of an Olympic hero being charged with murder.

Clearly, none of this worked.

"Well, how about this?" one of the actors asked hopefully. "Four thousand stranded on a cruise – Oh. That's us."

I laughed, but only because I wasn't one of the 4,000.

Kind of the way a Browns fan might be laughing at Steelers news these days.

In case you – Steelers fan – have had the good sense to shut down the in-box on your sports news since the Ravens won the Super Bowl, you've missed some pretty dismal stuff about your team:

1. Marcus Gilbert is going to be the left tackle.

2. A "March Massacre" of Steelers veterans is on its way due to salary cap issues.

3. There've been no talks with James Harrison about finding a way to keep him on the team.

4. Heath Miller will likely miss the first month of the season. So not only are the Steelers looking at the possibility of David Gilreath as their slot receiver and Baron Batch as their tailback, they're looking at David Paulson as their No. 1 tight end.

5. And finally, this weekend, we learned that a teammate anonymously ripped LaMarr Woodley for being overweight last season and "awful."

Hey, isn't the off-season supposed to be a time of hope?

Don't look for me to make it go away, either. Not all of it. But there are some items with which I've come to grips. Like Gilbert playing left tackle.

This is a player I did not like in college at the position, but Gilbert played OK at LT in his first pro preseason before moving to RT and winning the team's Rookie of the Year award. And he looked like a natural right tackle. Bruce Arians even corrected me once when I said that Gilbert looked to be almost as good as Flozell Adams in the run game.

"He's much better than Flo in the run game," Arians said.

OK, so, Gilbert, reportedly, will move to LT to replace Max Starks, whose contract is up and who assuredly will receive a deal commensurate with his abilities in free agency. And the Steelers HAVE to play their young guys, Gilbert and Mike Adams, who succeeded Gilbert as team ROY and who's also working on his inexpensive rookie contract.

Doesn't matter that Adams, in my opinion, is a natural LT, he's supposedly moving to RT to bookend Gilbert. My disagreement with the move is a minor nitpick.

As for the alleged "March Massacre," I don't see it coming. Maybe I'm missing the cruise ship here, or maybe the reporter was only pointing to the many expected departures in free agency.

Because of their cap woes, the Steelers may have to allow starters Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, Keenan Lewis, Starks, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Ramon Foster to leave, along with top backups Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Doug Legursky and Will Allen.

But, really, the only actual paring – as I wrote a month ago today – should be in the form of Harrison, and possibly Willie Colon and Jerricho Cotchery.

By my math – and with the help of the best capologist on the Net, Ian Whetstone – the Steelers could avert the cutting of notables such as Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, and get under the March 12 cap deadline, by cutting Harrison, extending Ben Roethlisberger's contract, and restructuring the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, Antonio Brown and Miller.

They could get another $6 million in relief by restructuring Woodley, but I suggest this only after getting a look at him or talking to him about his conditioning. And that's where the recent story from the anonymous teammate saying "he was awful" last season will, really, only help.

Not that I'm all in on this anonymous quote, nor the public perception that Woodley was overweight. He's always been big, and last training camp I thought he was a wrecking crew. Even Mike Tomlin thought so. He repeatedly used Woodley as fodder to get his points across to tight ends and backs in blocking drills.

But Woodley's hamstring gave out, and then his ankle went. A family member reported seeing a "muscle-bound" Woodley over the holidays and said he was on his way to Arizona to work out.

One would hope Woodley sees the article in between reps in the desert and that he reports not only in shape but without the hamstring issues that have dogged him the last two seasons.

So the Steelers restructure Woodley and buy back, say, Lewis and Foster. And then they draft, say, safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round – as they keep the big picture in mind – and then draft, say, wide receiver Quinton Patton or Markus Wheaton in the second, running back Mike Gillislee or Stepfan Taylor or Ray Graham in the third, and, say, inside linebacker Mike Mauti or Sio Moore in the fourth to bolster immediate needs.

All of that is not only possible, it could keep the product competitive.

And you'll notice there isn't an outside linebacker in that draft scenario, because the Steelers do have Jason Worilds, Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson in reserve.

Are any of those OLB backups better than Carlos Emmons?

He was the reserve to whom the Steelers turned after setting the old and wounded Greg Lloyd free. Emmons was the transitional band-aid to Joey Porter. And, yes, the Steelers suffered through their worst losing spell of the Bill Cowher era during the Emmons years. But those Steelers didn't have Roethlisberger.

So, as you can see, yes, I can rationalize anything away. And doesn't it offer you hope?

Of course not. Anyone can see that too much would have to go right and, after a year in which seemingly everything went wrong, no one's going to buy all of it.

But as I said to my daughter when she asked me how I expect Manti Te'o to handle the media crush this week at the combine, it's best to admit you're at your low point and to dedicate yourself to making improvements every single day from here on out.

After all, isn't that what February football's really about?

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