By Michael K Reynolds
The NFL is a copycat league and for good reason.
You start off a season with thirty-two teams full of aspirations and overflowing with world class football talent and you end up with only one gladiator holding the Lombardi Trophy high. There is no better laboratory of gridiron success than the Super Bowl.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t learn from the best of 2013 then they can expect to wallow in mediocrity once again in 2014.
So what truths can the Black and Gold extract from the Seattle Seahawks dominating win at the Super Bowl and the NFL playoffs in general?
Here’s a few of the most essential lessons:
ONE: The Steelers Were What Their Record Showed
With the horse whipping the Seahawks applied to the Denver Broncos they not only entered the ring of NFL champions they also made a huge statement about the NFC. It’s far superior to the AFC. It would be hard to argue the NFC runner-up San Francisco 49ers couldn’t have applied a similar gelding to the AFC’s lead pony. The Steelers would be wise to acknowledge their 8-8 record is a fair representation of their talent and skill level in 2013. If they live in denial as they have the past couple of seasons you can expect them to be couch-bound and chomping on chicken wings during the playoffs once again.
TWO: Talent Rules
It’s true the Super Bowl doesn’t always crown the most talented team in the league. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens stand as a good example of this (and perhaps the 2005 Steelers as well if we’re being honest). But overall, the playoffs and the Super Bowl are typically competed by the most gifted, deepest squads in the league. Seattle affirmed this with an explanation point.
At the beginning of the season most experts agreed Seattle and San Francisco had the most talented squads and four months of coaching, practice and intensive strategy by the other thirty teams did nothing to change this. Why are the New England Patriots perennial contenders? Because they treat every day as a new opportunity to upgrade their roster. Coach Bill Belichick didn’t exactly have a stacked deck this year but he churns the bottom ten of his roster better than anyone else in the league. He is always on the hunt for an upgrade in overall team talent and is a master at finding gems in the trash of others. But he might have some competition in Pete Carroll as it’s clear the ever-hyper coach brought his relentless USC recruiting prowess up to Washington with great results.
Does this constant tweaking of the bottom end of the roster make for an uneasy locker room and destroy the family feel of a franchise? Apparently not. Carroll was recently voted as the coach most NFL players wanted to play for.
The Steelers need to discard their hands-off approach to free agency and to re-think their strategy of pampering veterans at the cost of infusing young, speedy talent.
THREE: There Is No Offseason Anymore
The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has turned the offseason into a health club and spa for the players. The approved practice time is sparse and even when the players do show up they dance around in their shorts.
Most of the Seattle players credited their unusually violent practices during the regular season as the secret to their game day toughness and readiness.
The Steelers started this season soft and unprepared mostly because there were major personnel evaluation mistakes that took several regular season games to sort out and it required nearly half a season for the team to start gelling together. The 2014 version needs to make tough decisions in the spring and come out firing on all cylinders from August onward with the right players and the right attitude in place.
Longtime player development is a thing of the past. Yes…you want to home grow your players, but you need to live in the now as well. Is it really true that the “light suddenly came on” after three and four years for Cameron Heyward, Keenan Lewis and Jason Worilds or did they never really get a chance to demonstrate their talent with entitled veterans in front of them?
FOUR: The Defense of Defense
The Seahawks proved once again that passing thrills but defense kills. If you study the statistics of high-flying offenses it’s undeniable winter always gives them a chill during the championship time of year. When an offense wins they can embarrass their opponents. But when a defense wins they beat up and demoralize their foes. Remember those days Steelers faithful? The only thing frightening about the Steelers defense these past years is the lingering legacy of the uniforms. The offense under the big arm of Ben Roethlisberger is strong enough to compete against the best and for a few years to come. It’s time for the front office to go all in on re-furnacing the Steel Curtain.
FIVE: Character Still Counts
Cornerback Richard Sherman’s mouth withstanding, the Seahawks were a tight team with strong character in their player leadership. Russell Wilson may develop into one of the great quarterback leaders of his generation. Although he took a beating in the big one, Peyton Manning’s impact on the Broncos and their cohesiveness can’t be undervalued in evaluating their road to the Super Bowl. This bodes as good news for the Steelers who though stretched on talent proved thick on character with their strong finish in 2013. Add some key players to the roster who won’t poison the locker room and the Steelers might be the team everybody will be emulating next off-season.