In the light of day, things never seem as hopeless. Maybe the finality of it all has had time to set in, or maybe I've subconsciously been preparing for this moment since the Jets game. The 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers bolted to a 7-2 start, but faded down the stretch like Casey Hampton during the runs test. They should've beaten the Jaguars on Saturday night, but if we refocus the argument, Jacksonville never should've relinquished an 18-point lead. For as blindingly awful as Ben Roethlisberger's first-half, three-pick performance was, David Garrard's two interceptions might have been worse.
But we know every detail of this story by now: dumb mistakes, injuries, and seemingly insurmountable deficits -- and that third-down quarterback draw -- all conspired to sink the Steelers season. But it's not over. Sure, 2007 is in the books, but the 2008 season started at midnight, January 6. Old faces will go, new faces will replace them; and mental-reppers will graduate to first-teamers. But the Steelers don't need to completely overhaul the roster; we know that. A few tweaks should suffice. Perhaps even some reshuffling, particularly along the offensive line.
I wonder if head coach Mike Tomlin will be haunted by the specter of The Call for the next eight months. I doubt it; he seems the sort to deal quickly with failures and move on to more righteous endeavors. Like fixing the problems that led to the failures in the first place. And that starts with the coaching staff.
Allegedly, Tomlin will meet with his staff on Monday. I have a hunch there won't be wholesale changes, but some turnover is unavoidable. Of course, Dick LeBeau, could finally decide to retire, and maybe that would give Tomlin the opportunity move one step closer to his Tampa-2 roots if he so choose. But in the scheme of things, the defense is in good shape. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, however, is a different story. Should he be fired? Probably. Are the Steelers' Barnum & Bailey special teams act entirely his fault? Nope. But that's the National Football League. Not much about it is fair. And let's be honest: Ligashesky got the job, in part, because nobody else was available. When Tomlin was named the Steelers coach, most teams had their assistants in place, and the pool of applicants basically included the recently fired or retired. That's the perfect population if you're looking for medical test subjects or warm bodies to stand in police lineups. It's the last group you want to fill out an NFL coaching staff. There's a reason they were unemployed. Which is why, a year later, some will be unemployed again.
As bad as the special teams were, the offensive line might have been worse. Again, most of that can be traced back to center Sean Mahan. Signed in the off-season for backup money, Mahan won the starting job in training camp. And then proceeded to spend the next 18 weeks three yards behind the line of scrimmage. I wonder if Chukky Okobi feels vindicated in the same way Wayne Gandy did when the Steelers chose not to re-sign him after the 2002 season. There were other issues as well: Kendall Simmons took three months to find his rhythm, and Marvel Smith struggled with speed rushers and a balky back, two problems that probably aren't unrelated.
Back in late July, during the first week of training camp, I wrote that new offensive line coach, Larry Zierlein, was just what the team needed: a teacher steeped in the fundamentals. Someone to break the o-line of their bad habits. Here's what I wrote:
So the other question -- how does Pittsburgh fix the o-line? -- starts with Zierlein. And I think he's going about rebuilding this unit (or maybe it's more of a tweaking) exactly the right way. If you're still not convinced let me ask you this: Combined, the Colts and Patriots don't have as many first- or second-round picks starting on their respective o-lines as the Steelers, yet they are two of the best units in football. Why is that? The easy answer is that both teams have two of the best offensive line coaches in the league: Dante Scarnecchia and Howard Mudd. And both are big on fundamentals. Huh, must be something to that.
Who knows if Zierlein will have that kind of success, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After last year, I'm willing to try anything.
Well, things didn't quite work out. In fact, they couldn't have gone much worse, I think. To be fair, the line did have good outings this season, but seldom against good teams, or when it counted. The Steelers' final offensive play for 2007 was a microcosm of the last four months. I still think fundamentals are critical -- again, just look to the Patriots and Colts for why -- but just like Ligashesky, Tomlin didn't have a lot to choose from when he hired Zierlein.
One course of action is to draft some o-line help. Most Steelers fans have been beating that drum since the last draft and I can't disagree. But a better option might be to hire the league's best o-line coach, and then use the draft to bolster the unit responsible for protecting the franchise. And guess what? The best o-line coach just happens to be recently unemployed. But unlike most NFL coaches looking for work, Hudson Houck is out of a job for strictly political reasons.
Houck was hired away from the Chargers by Nick Saban after the former LSU coach accepted the Dolphins job in 2005. Bill Parcells, the new Dolphins Overlord canned Houck, along with just about everybody else in the building, because he wants "his people." This also lends credence to the rumors that the Cowboys' offensive line coach, Tony Sparano, has the inside track for the Miami job.
But, hey, Miami's loss should be Pittsburgh's gain. Houck has experience: he was with the Los Angeles Rams for nine seasons (1983-1991), and five Rams offensive linemen combined for 21 Pro Bowl appearances over that time. After a brief stop in Seattle, he spent the next nine seasons in Dallas (1993-2001) presiding over arguably one of the most dominant offensive lines in NFL history. (The best example might be Larry Allen, a raw specimen out of Sonoma State whom Houck molded into the NFL's premier guard.) In 2002, Houck transformed a woeful Chargers unit into a bunch of run-blocking maniacs, although he had less success in Miami. But he explains why:
"I thought (Cameron) was pretty well-prepared. Our meetings were no different than some of the Super Bowl teams I've been on," he said. "The only difference was the type of players we had. The other places I've been, we just had better players."
And Football Outsiders' offensive line stats confirm Houck's successes. In 2000, the Chargers' offensive line ranked 30th in run-blocking and 23rd in pass-blocking. A year later, 20th and sixth. In Houck's three years: 16th and seventh (2002), 16th and eighth (2003), and 16th and fourth (2004). Obviously, the run-blocking is correlated with LaDainian Tomlinson arriving on the scene, but Drew Brees didn't start playing Pro-Bowl level football until 2004. Houck certainly can't take all the responsibility -- as he mentioned, ultimately, you need players -- but when was the last time the Steelers ranked in the top half of the league in any measure of offensive line competence? And they have players. For comparison, look at Zierlein's record before arriving in Pittsburgh.
In my mind, this is the easiest decision Tomlin will ever have to make as an NFL head coach. Assuming Houck's willing, the Steelers should hire him right now. There isn't a better coach out there. Plus, can you think of a better way for the Pittsburgh's first-round pick (it has to be an offensive lineman, right?) to learn the nuances of his new job?
If there's anything Tomlin can learn from Bill Cowher it's that you can never surround yourself with too many great assistants. Which means that as soon as Houck's under contract, Tomlin should try to convince Bobby April to come back to Pittsburgh.
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