By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Can Sean Spence possibly make a significant contribution to the Steelers this season?
Sean Spence may be the most popular player in team history that has never taken a snap in a regular season game before. It seemed the more the Steelers’ fan base learned about him, the more they embraced him.
That is largely why it was such a gut punch—beyond what it would normally have been for anybody, of course—to see him go down with that gruesome knee injury at the end of his first preseason.
Since that time, everybody, including Spence, has been left to play the waiting game. Not only did he tear multiple ligaments in his knee, the dislocation of his knee cap also resulted in nerve damage that is never guaranteed to heal, let alone fully heal. That is what lead linebackers coach Keith Butler to use the term “miracle” during this past draft when asked what it would take for Spence to play in 2013.
Of course, he didn’t play in 2013, but at least he wasn’t immediately placed on injured reserve. He spent the first six weeks on the physically unable to perform list and then had a window of three weeks to practice.
Unfortunately, he suffered an unrelated setback when he broke a finger, which forced him to miss time and limited what he was able to do in practice, and ultimately helped lead him back to the injured reserve list.
It's been reported that Spence is training in Miami, where he played in college, at Bommarito Performance Systems, which, if nothing else, shows how dedicated Spence himself is in trying to return. He has already lost two seasons of his career, so nobody wants to see him back on the field more than himself.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert also recently said that the organization was encouraged about where Spence is in his rehab. That is, however, considering where he had been, and shouldn’t be taken to mean that he is nearly ‘recovered’. Indeed, he later went on to say that it would be naïve to think he was “over the hump”.
That is certainly quite true, but given the near strictly positive trajectory of his recovery over the past year, and the fact that he was able to practice and train last season without obvious ill effects on his knee, it could be difficult not to get enthusiastic about the prospects of him re-joining the team in a football capacity.
We saw glimpses of his football instincts and athleticism during his rookie preseason. He appears to be a highly intelligent football player with a great understanding of the game, so I do not believe that he should have fallen far behind when it comes to keeping up with the mental aspects of football.
Indeed, I’m sure he’s been buried in the defense, which is why Butler described him the way he did, and talked about why the organization was so ready and willing to do whatever they can and to wait on a player, and a person, like Spence. While it would be foolish to bank on him contributing this season, or even next season, until proven otherwise, the optimist in me can’t help but be a little excited about his chances.