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 pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Can Sean Spence possibly make a significant contribution to the Steelers this season?
When the Steelers first re-signed Larry Foote after the 2009 season, there was an understanding that he would phase out James Farrior and serve as a bridge to the next generation at the Buck position.
The organization had hoped that that bridge would lead to Sean Spence, the slight but athletic and intelligent inside linebacker out of the Miami Hurricanes program. He showed a fair bit of flash and promise during his time on the field in the 2012 preseason as a rookie, but an ugly knee injury quickly ended that for the year.
As we would eventually learn, the damage was so extensive that it still legitimately jeopardizes his chances of having a successful athletic career. Part of that damage was to the peroneal nerve behind the knee cap, which doesn’t have the greatest success rate in terms of making a full recovery.
While Spence was able to practice some last season during his three-week window on the physically unable to perform list, and he continues to train on his own in Miami, there’s still much that we don’t know about his current condition.
General manager Kevin Colbert recently approached glowing levels of accolades that he attached to a single workout in practice Spence had during that time period, but it’s important to remember what the actual reaction was at that time.
The practice in question came on October 17, the day after he resumed practicing—it was also the day that he broke his hand, which limited him for the rest of his time before being placed on injured reserve. This was Mike Tomlin’s reaction the day after that practice, courtesy of Jim Wexell:
It was just a Wednesday practice. It definitely wasn't NFL football. He did a nice job in practice but I don't want to mislead you. You know how it is: it's a Wednesday practice. Wednesday practices, from an intensity and speed standpoint, are not NFL football. He represented himself well for a Wednesday practice, but that doesn't mean he's ready to go.
Here’s a video showing just what kind of things entail a “Wednesday practice” and what Spence was actually doing.
The reality is that we have yet to see much of anything in terms of Spence’s future availability to actually play in a live action football game. It’s likely that he hasn’t participated in much, if any, live contact in about a year and a half since his injury.
Even if he is eventually receptive to live contact, there’s still no guaranteeing that he will be able to play efficiently, or at a high level. While he hasn’t necessarily been atrophying for the past year and a half, he’s been separated from the game for a long time now, without ever playing against starting-quality talent.
Assuming everything goes as planned, even if he has close to maximum speed and cutting ability despite the nerve damage he suffered, there’s simply no guaranteeing that he can actually come back and be a quality contributor on defense, let alone starting. But one thing is for sure: he’ll get every opportunity to do so.