Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Looking Back Before Moving On

I suppose I should jot down some thoughts from the 2007 season for closure's sake. Montel would want it that way, I think. I'm over the Jaguars loss -- have been since Sunday night -- and now I'm looking forward to three things: 1) the Patriots losing, preferably on Saturday; 2) free agency; and 3) the draft.

I don't expect the Pats to lose this week, but if nothing else, the Jags can at least rough them up on their way out of town. As much as I hated pulling for Philip Rivers against the Titans, I had no choice. No way in hell the Titans go to New England and don't get 60 hung on them. Not so much because of Tennessee's defense, which is very good, but because that offense is so bad.

Whatever, don't have to worry about it now. I fully expect the Jags to go up, probably lose by 20, but play physical. And I actually have a good feeling about the Colts coming to Foxboro. Look, it's not 2003; Manning can win in New England. Plus, as Eric mentioned in a previous thread, how great would it be for Manning go win back-to-back titles as Tommy Terrific looked on with his Brady Face?

But there will be plenty of time for all of that. Here's a random list of things that went well this season. You might say such lists are for losers and I would respond that, yes, yes they are. And given that the Steelers lost last weekend, this seems only fitting.

* Big Ben answered all the questions about any lingering effects of almost dying. I'll admit, there were times during the 2006 season that I thought he might have a few years left in the league -- and not good ones -- before he ended up working at the driving range in Findlay. Glad he didn't turn into Roy McAvoy.

* Santonio Holmes is an injury-free season from having a MONSTER year. Actually, he was pretty damn close in '07 (he finished first in DVOA, I think), but he missed time with various ailments. And I don't care how you label him and Hines Ward, both are critical to the Steelers' offense's success. Yes, Hines ain't beating anybody in a foot race (well, except DeAngelo Hall, the self-proclaimed fastest man in the NFL), but he's one of the league's best route runners, and for a time I was pretty sure he was the team's most consistent blocker.

* Heath Miller continues to get better, and it's not like his first two seasons were spent on the practice squad. And Matt Spaeth, who couldn't block his way out of paper hospital gown during the first part of the season has actually become much better at it the final month or so.

* For all the bellyaching about the offensive line, Willie Colon was a pleasant surprise, Kendall Simmons turned it on the final two months of the season, and Max Starks finally decided that sitting on the bench sucks. I have no sense if Marvel Smith will ever return to form, but if he doesn't, his loss could be lessened if the Steelers can re-sign Starks and Alan Faneca. Improbable maybe, but the chances are better today than they were a few weeks ago, I think.

You've talked me into Hudson Houck, and hoping for the best, next year's front five could look something like this, from left to right: Smith, Simmons, Faneca, Colon, Starks. Faneca says he's amenable to moving to center (or, at least, he's willing to consider it), but it may not make sense to move him while he's still playing well at guard. Of course, that means either drafting a center, or finding one in free agency, two propositions that don't look particularly appealing this off-season. Another option is Simmons, and there has even been talk of Colon making the move. Whatever happens, I know this much; Sean Mahan will not be the guy. And if he is, I'm pulling for the Ravens next year.

* Willie Parker was, ironically, saved from the Curse of 370 by a broken leg. Awesome. I love Willie, but the Steelers do need to think about beefing up the running back by committee. Najeh is expendable (I suppose you could say that about most backs), and if he's not back, I think I'm fine with that. And although I was never one of those "God, WHY isn't Gary Russell active this week? I want to see what he can do!?!" guys (I figure that if Russell was showing anything in practice he'd be dressing ... plus, I was that guy about Willie Reid and look where that got me).

But the last few games Russell showed glimpses that have me intrigued. He made a nice little grab out of the backfield, ran hard, and even made a sweet special teams tackle. He's not Parker's big-back complement, but he could be a change-of-pace/third-down guy.

* Oddly, there isn't as much to be excited about on the defense. Aaron Smith was injured and his backups played like crap in his place. Smith will be back -- that's good -- but that doesn't solve the depth problems. Hampton dominated, and if you love to watch 330-pound nose tackles, there's no one better. Brett Keisel didn't have a great year, but he wasn't bad either. He never quite worked out in the Adalius Thomas role, and he seemed to struggle shedding blockers at times, but I still like him at end.

* Ike Taylor didn't drop 12 picks. I actually thought Ike had his best season, but being able to catch is kind of a big deal if you're a cornerback. That said, I have no qualms with either Taylor's or Townsend's 2007, although I'm still waiting for Bryant McFadden to break out.

* I know Tyrone Carter is taking some heat for his performance against the Jags, but you know what? That's all on Anthony Smith. If he wasn't such a dipshit, Carter wouldn't be in there. Losing Ryan Clark was ginormous, and I hope he makes a full recovery, and not just for selfish reasons.

* Clark Haggans has probably played his last games in Pittsburgh, and we'll see if LaMarr Woodley is ready. The fact that he appears invisible to opposing offensive linemen is a good start. James Harrison could potentially be better in 2008, which makes my head hurt.

* Skippy Reed could've been named the team's MVP and I would've been fine with it. And here's to hoping ROBO-PUNTER finds some consistency this off-season. We never really saw his big leg, and his two late-game line drive punts cost the Steelers against the Jets and Jags.

* Mike Tomlin is 35. He was 10-6 in his rookie season. And we're all disappointed. This is a good thing.