Let's assume the worst-case scenario: Holmes misses all of the 2006 season. (On the bright side, he repays his debt to society by working as a traffic cop for half the year, and the rest of the time is spent in anger management classes.) Pittsburgh's depth chart at wideout then looks something like this:
1. Hines Ward 2. Cedrick Wilson 3. Nate Washington 4. Quincy Morgan 5. Lee Mays 6. Sean Morey 7. Willie Reid 8. Walter YoungWe know what we're getting with Ward, but after that things get a little muddled. I'm quite comfortable with Wilson as the No. 2 receiver, but it's certainly fair to ask whether his 2006 performance will more closely mirror the 2005 regular season or the 2005 playoffs. If it's the former, then Holmes's absence is magnified; if it's the latter, Holmes – even if he's with the team for the entire year – can be eased into the offense, something I'm sure the coaches would prefer.
Punt returning prowess aside, I think it's safe to say that Antwaan Randle El didn't evolve into the receiving threat the Steelers had hoped. Still, his departure created a domino effect on the depth chart that ultimately led to Pittsburgh drafting Holmes and Reid. By the end of the 2005 season, Pittsburgh used Randle El and Wilson almost interchangeably, but with Holmes's availability in question for 2006, the No. 3 job now falls to second-year undrafted free agent Washington, or Morgan, who's returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of most of the post-season. Washington has one career catch and Morgan has battled inconsistency and underachievement during his five years in the league, so even though both guys could excel in the job, it wouldn't be a surprise if they struggled.
The biggest winners in "Scared Straight: The Santonio Holmes Story" are, without a doubt, Mays and Morey. Mays had a career year in 2004 when he caught a whopping nine passes. Three of those came in the game of his life, the Sunday night contest against the Jaguars, with the 46-yard bomb against the Jets that same season getting a few second-place votes. The most remarkable thing about Mays is that he's shown virtually no improvement since he joined the Steelers in 2001. Yet somehow he's currently the second-longest tenured wideout on the roster after Ward. Amazing. Morey is also listed as a wide receiver, but that's kinda like Steven Seagal telling people he's an actor. Morey makes his living as a special teams demon but plays the role of wideout in emergency situations; Seagal is a bodyguard and martial arts expert who just happens to beat people up while being filmed. In both cases, there's a difference. Because of Morey's versatility his odds of making the team increase if Holmes is out of the picture.
(As an aside, one of my biggest regrets as a Steelers fan is not going to the Redskins game in 2004. My buddy Andy had tickets but let's just say that my wife made it clear that if I chose football over spending time with the in-laws over the Thanksgiving weekend, I could drop off my house keys on the way out the door. I actually reached into my pocket for said keys, but in a rare moment of clarity, I made the right decision … at least according to my wife.
Anyway, it was in this game – a pretty boring 16-7 win for the Steelers – that Morey got his first and only NFL reception. I've been in Heinz Field to see Jerome Bettis rumble for 100 yards and Tommy Maddox throw three picks, but almost everybody who's witnessed a game there can say that. Only a select few have ever seen Morey on the field in a non special teams situation.)
Reid and Young round out the list of guys with a realistic shot to contribute next season, although the Steelers will probably only use Reid on special teams because he's so raw, and Young could conceivably be on the wrong side of the 53-man roster simply due to too much talent and too few roster spots. Like Mays and maybe Morey, Young could earn a reprieve if Holmes goes M.I.A., but any situation that includes Reid or Young seeing a lot of offensive snaps is one the Steelers would probably prefer to avoid.
Holmes's fate is still uncertain, but if he can't go in 2006 because of his off-field antics, the Pittsburgh receivers will have to rely on good luck and execution to get through the season. Lack of depth will necessitate the Steelers being lucky not to lose any starters to injury, and execution will be important since without a big-play threat, the short and intermediate route runners will have to be all the more precise. The good news is that Ward is a perennial All-Pro; Wilson showed marked improvement during the post-season; Morgan, once reunited with receivers coach Bruce Arians, had a very productive 2005; and Washington is chock full of potential. And if all else fails, there's always Heath Miller. Although things would be a lot easier if Holmes could just quit getting arrested.