Most of my blog entries come about from debates among fans. One that I commonly hear, season after season, is how Mike Tomlin inherited Bill Cowher's team. I'm sure it's a tagline the head coach largely ignores, but one he can't easily shake. The criticism has been dialed up after two 8-8 seasons, but here's why previous Steeler squads were not Cowher's players, rather Tomlin's, and how the 2014 Steelers' roster will, without a doubt, be Tomlin's team.
Mike Tomlin took over the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007. The team was one year removed from winning a Super Bowl, but had a disappointing follow-up to the 2005 season with an 8-8 record (sound familiar?) In his first season as head coach, Tomlin lead the Steelers to a 10-6 record, but the team exited the playoffs in the Wild Card round. One year later, Tomlin would lead Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
However, the rosters from Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII were very different. Outside of key stalwarts such as Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, and Heath Miller, the Steelers roster is in a constant state of evolution. Below, I will compare several positions from each Super Bowl team, along with a peak into the future, as I compare potential starters for the 2014 season.
Running Backs: Jerome Bettis, a future Hall of Famer, capped off his final NFL season with a Super Bowl victory. Willie Parker, as an undrafted free agent, followed Bettis' act two years later, with (at the time) the longest running touchdown in Super Bowl history. Le'Veon Bell is the heir apparent, drafted last year as a versatile back, who can punish defenders with his size, but also possesses skills as a pass catcher.
Wide Receivers: Bill Cowher employed Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, while Tomlin swapped Randle El with Santonio Holmes. Each player holds a distinction, as Ward won a Super Bowl MVP and holds the franchise record for receptions. Randle El may be best known for a gadget play, and Holmes owns one of the biggest highlight reel catches in the game's history. The 2014 Steelers will field Antonio Brown, who broke out as a Pro Bowl player in 2013 and is the only WR in NFL history to have a catch in every regular season game.
Linebackers: Cowher's Super Bowl team fielded Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Larry Foote and James Farrior. In Tomlin's campaign, the team started LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and then unknown and undrafted James Harrison, who would go on to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award.
The 2014 season features another overhaul, featuring Jason Worilds, and Jarvis Jones, the elder statesman of the group, Lawrence Timmons continues to impress, and rookie Ryan Shazier looks to stand alongside him in the starting lineup.
Secondary: The first Super Bowl team started Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend as the bookends, with Chris Hope at free safety. Darren McFadden, Ike Taylor, and Ryan Clark started for Tomlin's squad. 2014 will feature Taylor, Cortez Allen and free agent pickup Mike Mitchell. The one constant in this group over time: Tory Polamalu.
Coaches: a number of coaches also turned over from the transition to Tomlin. The only constant has been defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, while recent hire Mike Munchak looks to gear up the offensive line for a breakout year.
In all, change is a constant factor in the NFL. While receiving criticism for departing veteran players, it's important to reflect on how other free agent signings and drafted players were able to fill the roles left by their predecessor. The 2014 season, at least on paper, appears to be an exciting time to be a Steelers fan.