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 pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: What kind of impact can new running backs coach James Saxon have on the offense?
The Steelers have lost several coaches over the past few seasons who have taken positions elsewhere, some of them being lateral moves. Perhaps the most surprising was the departure of running backs coach Kirby Wilson.
Wilson had been one of head coach Mike Tomlin’s original hires in 2007 and spent seven seasons coaching Steelers’ running backs, including Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, while tutoring Le’Veon Bell through his first season.
While Wilson took a lateral position, however, that was not the motivation for the move. He is clearly a coach with ambitions to reach the next level—in his case, offensive coordinator—which is where he would be right now in Pittsburgh had he not suffered life-threatening burns in a house fire a couple years ago.
Todd Haley was hired in the interim, and he seems to have settled down, evidently getting some assurance of job security to warrant Wilson’s interest in leaving. After being turned down for the offensive coordinator position with the Baltimore Ravens, he took the running backs coach job with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings had just gutted their coaching staff, and in that cleanup was running backs coach James Saxon. The Steelers hired Saxon two days after Wilson headed to Minnesota.
While Saxon has an impressive resume, having helped send five different running backs and a fullback to the Pro Bowl during his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, and the Vikings, we have to take into account the talent he was working with, and what he’ll be working with in Pittsburgh.
While in Kansas City, for example, he had at his disposal All-Pro linemen in guards Will Shields and Brian Waters and tackle Willie Roaf. He had one of the best fullbacks in Tony Richardson, and Priest Holmes was already a talented runner before even coming to the Chiefs, with a 1000-yard season under his belt in Baltimore.
In Miami, meanwhile, he had Jake Long as his franchise left tackle from the beginning of his three-year stay there. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, meanwhile, were former first-round picks. In Minnesota, of course, he had the luxury of coaching Adrian Peterson, as well as Steve Hutchinson, John Sullivan, and Matt Kalil along the offensive line at various times during his three years there.
How much of the success of the running games of these teams had to do with Saxon, and how much did it have to do with talented rosters—arguably more talented than what the Steelers can offer him? Sometimes coaches make players, sometimes players make coaches. Pittsburgh doesn’t have the talent to create a reputation for a running backs coach, so they better hope it’s the former in the case of James Saxon.