By Matthew Marczi
There remains a large portion of not just sports fans, but also sports writers, who questioned the decision of the Pittsburgh Steelers to release Jonathan Dwyer and his $1.323 million contract. Some of those individuals have taken the re-signing of Dwyer yesterday as a mea culpa, or an acknowledgement of guilt or wrongdoing. The reality is that that is far from the case.
The fact of the matter is that the conditions that existed that led to Dwyer’s departure were very much present when the team determined that his value to the team was diminished by his cost. The only thing that has changed is the circumstances in which the Steelers now find themselves after certain events earlier in the week.
Of course, the move to re-sign Dwyer was directly necessitated by the ACL injury suffered by running back LaRod Stephens-Howling. It is important to stress that had that injury not occurred, we would not be discussing this topic right now. LASH’s injury left the Steelers with just three running backs on the roster, all of whom presented the team with one extenuating circumstance or another.
Starting with Isaac Redman, who was given the start, his first showing of the year was undeniably a poor one. Whether or not that could be attributed in part to rust after missing the last three preseason games is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that with him in the game, the Steelers could only generate nine yards on the ground in eight carries.
What is more, he fumbled twice during the game, and head coach Mike Tomlin likes to send a message to his players when they make mistakes by benching them. This may have even contributed to LASH’s injury, as Tomlin asked him to take on greater responsibility than he was expected to as a result of Tomlin sitting Redman for a spell.
Le’Veon Bell, of course, is their rookie second-round draft pick that they ultimately envision to be their everything-back in time. But first, he must recover from a mid-foot sprain that looks to sideline him for at least another week or two. Tomlin also made it clear that he will need to go through a full week of practice before he can play, and even then, there is no guarantee that he will start immediately.
The third back, Felix Jones, was a recent acquisition, and it was clear that Todd Haley was not yet entirely comfortable with his grasp of the offense in the few weeks that he has been a part of the team. He was intended to be in on the play in which Redman and Ben Roethlisberger failed to make a clean exchange on a handoff, which resulted in a fumble that rolled into the end zone, recovered by the Tennessee Titans for a touchback.
After Redman’s second fumble, which he recovered, one would have expected the team to utilize Jones, but instead they turned to LASH until he was injured before finally giving Redman another chance.
Given the circumstances surrounding each player, it is impossible right now to say who will be the starting running back come Week Two between Redman, Jones, and Dwyer, who was the only suitable street candidate to be brought in at this point due to his knowledge of the offense.
Even if he starts and strings together multiple 100-yard games before Bell returns, however, that will not change the past, nor will it mean that the team’s decision to release Dwyer at the time was a mistake. Hindsight, in this respect, is irrelevant.
Dwyer still possesses his history as a yo-yo dieter that extended even into this offseason. It is one thing to ‘impress’ your teammates by dropping a lot of weight, but having an inconsistent professional attitude is part of why he was released.
Of course, his performance in the preseason was also a factor in being released. Beyond simply putting the ball on the ground twice when he knew he was essentially being asked to audition for either the starting running back spot or an exit from the team, he had his issues running the ball and looked lost as a receiver other than his touchdown reception on a broken play.
Whether it was a steep learning curve to adjust to the zone blocking scheme or not, time and again Dwyer looked hesitant and indecisive, doing a poor job of reading his blocks, which in turn led to negative yardage or short gains that should have gone for more yards if not for missing his reads. Even in pass protection, he struggled to live up to his performance in this area from a year ago. This is all on tape and easily reviewable for anybody with a Preseason Live subscription.
The Steelers were not going to release Isaac Redman. Redman has been the leader in the running back room for the past couple of years now, and his minimal preseason work was offset by his past performance history and his showings during practices that saw him promoted to co-starter with Bell. He is also the team’s best pass protector, has better vision as a runner, and has also flashed some pass-catching ability and surprising elusiveness for his size.
When you add all that up to the fact that the Steelers would save hundreds of thousands of dollars by opting to go with Jones, a former first round draft pick that is still relatively young and offers a skill set that is more differentiated from Redman and Bell than is Dwyer’s, it should be relatively easy to understand why the Steelers decided to release Dwyer at the time.
The present circumstances may have changed the game plan, but the sequence of events that led to his dismissal in the first place should not be forgotten, regardless of what takes place from here on out. And with the way the Steelers run blocked in the first game, it truly would not have made a difference who was carrying the ball.