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Kipper : Is Kevin Colbert Lost Without Bill Cowher Holding His Hand?

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
I ask this question now, because I couldn't ask it years ago since time was needed and results needed to be seen. Six seasons have passed since Bill Cowher retired, there's now been enough time and evidence to take a look at the job that Kevin Colbert has done and really evaluate him and draw some conclusions.
The biggest conclusion I've come to is that Kevin Colbert isn't just overrated but his job security has been the byproduct of being hired as Bill Cowher's "yes-man" and some interference by Dan Rooney.
Old vs. Youth Preference
This Offseason has literally drove me mad as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. This was the Offseason that the Steelers had a chance to really get younger. They needed to. Kevin Colbert even said "Again, if we don’t change 8-8, and we don’t change the roster that produced 8-8, we’d be silly to expect a better result if we have the same group of guys.” They were over the cap by double digits heading into the Offseason and had a large number of Vet players making more money than their production is going to be worth now and tomorrow. It was a chance for Kevin Colbert to step in, make difficult and unpopular decisions for the future of this Franchise, without losing much in the present.
220px-Keenan_Lewis.JPGThe vibe I've gotten around Twitter, Facebook, here in The Steelers Forum is that the Steelers aren't good enough to compete in 2013. Perhaps the Steelers are good enough to make the playoffs and win the Division because the AFC North is weak (especially after the Raven's fire sale), however the belief is that they aren't good enough to make noise in the Playoffs. That's fine, arguments that are debatable but not at all unrealistic. If this is the general belief and a strong consideration, then start stripping the team of veteran players who have viable replacement options now. I've already written a Blog Post about the Pittsburgh Steelers needing to cut Ike Taylor and resign, Keenan Lewis which obviously didn't happen. Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis were a more than adequate CB tandem heading into the future, but the Steelers chose Age and expense in Ike Taylor over youth and lower cost in Keenan Lewis. I'm an advocate for cutting Brett Kiesel and going with the younger and cheaper Cam Heyward. I'm ecstatic that James Harrison stuck his nose up at the Steelers request to restructure his contract because I wanted him cut to begin with. Not that I believe Jason Worilds is any good but the drop off from 2012 James Harrison to Jason Worilds probably won't be all that noticeable. The Steelers would be saving a lot of money in the process. Happily, Casey Hampton is finally done as a Steeler.
The Steelers need to get younger. They need to get cheaper. When you construct a team, you do it for today and tomorrow. The Steelers aren't in a desperate "Win-Now" scenario where they need to retain their Veterans for that last gasp before they dismantle the team. Sort of like the Denver Broncos are with Peyton Manning. You can get younger, and a lose a little bit of Vet talent and still be Super Bowl contenders as long as you have a franchise QB like Ben Roethlisberger. Ask the New England Patriots who've seen old guys go left and right over the past 6 years, their Defense take a hit, their Wide Receiving corps weakened, their Running Back situation an annual revolving door, yet they are Super Bowl contenders every season. They just offered 31 year old Wes Welker who has been one of the top Wide Receivers in the NFL for the last 5 years an insulting low balled $5 million per year contract. That was a contract offer to tell their fans "they tried" while their intent the entire time was to sign the younger 26 year old Danny Amendola for a tad over $6 million per year on a contract that runs out at the age of 31. It keeps the Patriots, younger, competitive and cost effective. Things you're not seeing the Pittsburgh Steelers do.
Bill Cowher The Team Builder
Kevin Colbert is afraid to replace these veteran players and has been because they've been his job security. All of these veteran players that he's been holding onto way past their primes and too far into their decline years at a high price are guys that were acquired when Bill Cowher was here. Let's look at this list :
James Harrison
Brett Kiesel
Ike Taylor
Ryan Clark
Aaron Smith
Casey Hampton

James Farrior
Larry Foote
Ben Roethlisberger
Plaxico Burress
Antwan Randel El
Heath Miller
Max Starks
Hines Ward
These are all players that were originally acquired through the Draft or Free Agency under Bill Cowher. Not all of these players are "done", but many of these players were retained and obtained beyond usefulness, despite having capable backups or better Free Agency options being available. The fact of the matter is that once these guys are gone, Kevin Colbert needs to rely on his own merits of team construction and it's been no myth that his Drafts since Cowher retired have not been impressive enough at re-tooling the roster.
It's no secret that Bill Cowher loved power. His conflicts with Tom Donahoe are well known. An ultimatum was made and Tom Donahoe was let go and a replacement was brought on board to basically do what Bill Cowher wanted him to do. For all intents and purposes, Bill Cowher was the Steelers GM/Director of Player Personnel, he just needed or wanted someone else to do the paperwork, research and provide a warm body to bounce ideas off of. As the Steelers do, they sought out someone born in Pittsburgh for team loyalty reasons and they found an advanced scout in the Detroit Lions organization and Kevin Colbert was hired. Beyond that, Kevin Colbert has since hired on as college scouting director, the Director of Player Personnel he worked under while in Detroit - Ron Hughes, another Pittsburgh native.
It you aren't ****ing Iron City Beer, you aren't considered for a job with the Steelers. The odds that Mike Tomlin defies gets more amazing each and every day.
From 2000-2006, this team was run the way Bill Cowher wanted it ran. He wanted that power, the Steeelers gave him that power. There's no doubt that Kevin Colbert had helped and assisted Bill Cowher but you can really see the differences then and now to how this team is constructed and run to the point where it's in my opinion undeniable how much weight Bill Cowher pulled then and how much weight Kevin Colbert likely pulls now.
It can be said that Bill Cowher was given a lot of power to construct his teams starting in 1992 to which he gladly took as much of that power as he could. The proof in the pudding there is that when Cowher came in, this team got constructed far differently than they were under Noll. The Defensive side saw almost all new coaches and philosophies, the Offensive side saw the Steelers bring in experienced and successful Offensive Coordinator - Ron Erhart from the New York Giants which operated far differently than the Offenses we had seen under Chuck Noll. Almost from the beginning, Bill Cowher played an instrumental role in the team construction phase of the Pittsburgh Steelers. On one hand it was a bad decision by the Steelers since it took the Steelers 15 years to win a Super Bowl under Bill Cowher but on the other hand, outside of 1998-200 and 2003, the Steelers were a Playoff team that was never in danger of needing to rebuild, they just undervalued the Quarterback position.
Under Bill Cowher, when you approached the age of 30 or hit it, you were on your way out. Bill Cowher wasn't approving personnel decisions that involved contracts to players well into their 30's. If the end of a contract touched the early part of their 30's, that was fine. Don't expect an extension. Cowher understood the need to have younger teams. He understood the importance of transitioning older to younger players and he had a good knack for knowing when players were hitting their decline years. Just take a look at how many vets Bill Cowher let go that didn't do anything but continued their career paths of being washed-up. Sometimes, there were players that continued to have successful careers defying the age logic like Kevin Greene or needed a change of a position like Rod Woodson. For the most part though, Bill Cowher simply didn't take a chance, figuring it was safer to not chance that money and commitment into a player entering their decline years than to go with younger and cheaper alternatives.
Compare that to today, where Kevin Colbert is constantly holding onto old, expensive Veteran players well into their 30's. He gave James Farrior a contract extension at the age of 32. That is something you didn't see happen under Bill Cowher. Cowher would've replaced Harrison, whether it was drafting in advance to replace a guy he knew he didn't want after his contract expired or doing like the Steelers did with regards to James Farrior and found a need in Free Agency. The Steelers weren't afraid under Bill Cowher to go into Free Agency and Trade Market when a position of personal importance needed an upgrade beyond what the Steelers had on the roster. Kevin Greene, James Farrior, Jeff Hartings, Jerome Bettis, and Ryan Clark are a few bigger names that the Steelers under Bill Cowher acquired outside of the draft when they lacked the personnel on the roster to fill the holes. All of those players had no ties to the city of Pittsburgh or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One of the biggest concerns is that over the years, the Steelers haven't made it a philosophical emphasis to replace older players. The philosophy has changed since Cowher retired. Before, the Steelers drafted players to be groomed into replacements for when the Vets started to hit their 30's. If the player you drafted was a dud, you went into Free Agency and found a Jeff Hartings or James Farrior. You didn't make this an annual Endeavour but there was an understanding that this would happen. Today, the Steelers aren't replacing Veteran players unless a gun is aimed at their head. James Harrison would still be here, until he decided to retire if he didn't reject the Steelers restructuring demands. Aaron Smith was held onto for the last 3 seasons of his career as a starter going into each season despite starting in no more than 6 games in any season. He'd probably still be here if his body didn't tell him to retire. Brett Kiesel still has a comfortable roster spot despite Cameron Heyward going into his 3rd season while knocking on his door for a while. Talk about wasting a #1 pick. The only way Heyward is getting into the starting lineup is if Kiesel gets injured and/or retires. The beard gimmick is too strong. Ike Taylor is 33 years old heading into the 2013 season, is extremely expensive, is coming off an injury that is going to cause him to lose at least 1 step when combined with his age and Kevin Colbert was content to let Keenan Lewis walk to keep Ike Taylor here for at least 2 more seasons.
The wrong set of priorities.
Earlier in this Blog Post i touched on Colbert's drafts since Cowher retired. Buckeyehoppy, wrote a fantastic blog Article you can find by clicking HERE looking at the Steelers drafts since 2006 and their results. If you look at the list of players I provided earlier, those are all Bill Cowher guys. Heading into 2013, the Steelers roster 7 seasons later is still carrying a lot of those players but more importantly, the impact players on the Steelers roster drafted and acquired since Cowher retired is small. Lamarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey. That is really it. Ziggy Hood hasn't produced to 1st Round expectations. Others weren't see as being important enough or good enough to keep around like Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace. The rest of the high pick Offensive Line guys haven't had enough time to prove their place in history. 2 First Round picks, a 6th Round pick and a 2nd Round pick. Since 2007, that is what we have on the roster from Kevin Colbert's "Cowher-less" drafts.
The biggest issue facing the Steelers is their future under Kevin Colbert. His drafts since 2006 haven't been spectacular when they need to be if the Steelers are going to continue their team construction philosophy through the Draft.
Paying For Production
It's downright scary to sit back and ponder various scenarios with the Steelers and the biggest one is what happens when Ben Roethlisberger retires? What happens if Ben Roethlisberger gets a career ending injury? The Steelers are dead in the water. Their backup QB option is Bruce Gradkowski. He's basically Kent Graham with a yinzer accent.
The Steelers under Kevin Colbert have radically altered their value system since the Bill Cowher days. Instead of placing a higher value tag on a younger player and their future potential that you can control through their prime years, the Steelers have been placing a higher value tag on older players and choosing to control them through their decline years. It's a backwards philosophy.
156291420.0_standard_352.0.jpgThe Steelers depth at Linebacker is as ugly as it's ever been in Pittsburgh. Jason Worilds is James Harrison's replacement and we look like we will keep on resigning Larry Foote into his mid-30's. Foote will be 33 years old heading into this season and our only legit Inside Linebacker option is Sean Spence who the organization questions whether he'll ever play again. By the time the Pittsburgh Steelers draft an Inside Linebacker, that player will have to sit through that year or 2 of "learning Dick LeBeau's defense" while flinging boogers sitting on the bench, Larry Foote is going to be 34-35 years old. The Steelers didn't want to retain Mike Wallace and that had to do with money, money that they would have if they weren't letting every 30+ geezer past their prime suck it out of their bank account. Is $12 million per year an expensive contract? Yeah. Is it beyond reason for the Steelers to ever spend that type of money? No. James Harrison signed a contract in 2009 at the age of 30 for around $9 million per year. What's an extra 3 million per year (considering the cap ceiling raises just about every season + inflation) to a 27 year old in the prime of his career? Mike Wallace carries a higher value than James Harrison did because of their ages to begin with. Kevin Colbert gave James Harrison a contract based on what was his expected production through his prime when he was entering his decline years and ignored Mike Wallace's demand that would’ve locked him up through his prime years. In a couple years that contract could be seen as a contract in dollar and years amount being a far greater value since the next "best" Wide Receiver in the NFL is going to get a contract higher and the cycle continues.
That's a major issue with the Kevin Colbert Steelers, their desire to overpay guys in the future for what they produced in the past. James Harrison vs. Mike Wallace is one good example. $12 million per year through the ages of 26-31 or $9 million per year through the ages of 31-36. Which player do you think is going to produce more and and get the most out of their contract? Barring injury, the answer is Mike Wallace. Mike Wallace is far more valuable than James Harrison, but the Steelers would rather give the big contracts to players hitting their decline period rather than pay their young players through their prime.
This issue continues onto Ike Taylor vs. Keenan Lewis. I understand at the time that Ike Taylor needed to be signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had at the time nobody proven or even drafted to replace Ike Taylor. However, just because you give someone a sports contract doesn't mean that you have to honor it until it's done. This is Football, contracts are always broken, that's why players request guaranteed money up front. They know that they could get cut. Ike Taylor is going to be 33 years old heading into 2013 coming off of an ankle injury that will no doubt cause him to lose a step and lose effectiveness. There's a history of players that age getting leg/feet injuries and never producing at the same level. Instead of cutting Ike Taylor and taking the cap money and giving it to Keenan Lewis who proved himself to be an up and coming capable CB at the age of 27 heading into 2013 (for almost half of what it costs to keep Ike Taylor), the Steelers allowed Lewis to walk. When Ike Taylor potentially performs like a washed up 33 year old next season that we are chomping at the bit to collectively replace in 2014, just remember that the Steelers had a younger option to replace him right now. Instead Kevin Colbert decided it was better for the Steelers in the present and future to continue holding on to Ike Taylor through his mid 30's until the Steelers draft a replacement and give them that 1-2 year "learn LeBeau's defense" period, that it was to replace Ike Taylor now when they had a player worthy of replacement in Keenan Lewis.
This is flat out Bad Management. I know all about bad management. I'm a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. I watched the Pittsburgh Penguins for years ride the coat tails of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr while they made bad Management decisions and raise pointless banners only the Washington Capitals would be envious of. Craig Patrick was isolated as a Pittsburgh penguins GM for over a decade because he got lucky early on with a big trade and won 2 Stanley Cups. He produced enough winning teams that were annual playoff disappointments to keep his job. Don't be surprised if that becomes Kevin Colbert, except that Colbert hasn't constructed anything on his own, his success has largely come from what him (and largely) Bill Cowher constructed. Kevin Colbert is insulated from this right now because the Steelers haven't technically hit a decline yet, but the writing is on the wall. Sadly, when or if the Pittsburgh Steelers do hit a decline period, Steeler Nation, as every Pittsburgher will do will call for the job of the Head Coach, when the blame really rests at the feet of the General Manager/Direct of Player Personnel.
We discuss often about injuries and in recent years specifically under mike Tomlin, injuries seem to be more common to the point of becoming a disturbing trend. Is it strength and conditioning? Is it running a Cupcake training Camp? Are they all bits and pieces of bad luck? I have my own theory..
Mike Tomlin has had for most of his tenure an older team. That's what Kevin Colbert has given him. With an older team, you can't run Training Camp like you have a bunch of 23-29 year old guys, the Vets would revolt, so what you get overall is a camp that is geared more towards strength, conditioning and drills for guys ages 29-36 than guys ages 23-29. Your Veteran players aren't in as good of physical player condition as they would be if they were the minority being driven through a tougher, faster, higher tempo'd camp geared towards younger guys. Your younger guys aren't in as good of physical condition as they would be if they were taking part in a higher tempo'd and faster camp geared for their age. This is what happens when you allow the roster to be dominated by Veteran players.
Mike Tomlin is a players coach. Dick LeBeau might be biggest players coach out there. These guys are more prone to allowing Veterans to run the show because they "trust" the vets. Bill Cowher was the same way. I'm not suggesting that the Vets advocate laziness or are ruining the locker room, I'm suggesting that they would certainly be opposed to Mike Tomlin revisiting that 2007 Training Camp that saw Casey Hampton in the dog house. The same camp that was blamed for injuries that year because the camp was too radical a departure from the type of physicality they were used to in Cowher camps. There's a balance that needs to be struck, but as long as the camps are dominated by a large number of Veteran players, they are going to move at their speed and their tempo. That's something that is largely uncontrollable. If you don't want your old car to run slower and clunkier, you're not going to drop a new engine in it, you're going to get a new car.
I'm of the mindset that the Steelers injury issues are going to continue until the team's construction becomes more dominated by younger players. The offensive Side of the ball has gotten younger but it's still run by a vet and the Steelers just signed 36 year old Plaxico Burress (because it would've taken a couple extra bucks to sign a 28 year old like Domenik Hixon.). the Defense still has too many older players on it. Until Kevin Colbert's philosophy on team construction changes, don't expect a change on the injury front outside of some good fortune smacking the Steelers.
Needs and Wants
Kevin Colbert on said today the following :
“I don’t like to use the word ‘need,’” said Colbert. “I never did. I never will. It’s going to be ‘wants.
Either Kevin Colbert is trying to fool the public and media into thinking the Steelers aren't in a little bit of a panic mode looking at this roster right now or he really believes what he said. There's far more danger in him believing what he stated than using it as a means to showcase confidence behind a wall or worry. The Steelers have a lot of needs. Every player that is over the age of 30 needs replaced at some point. Some needed replaced yesterday, some need replaced today, some like Ben Roethlisbergher technically still have 6-7 more productive years when you look at the careers of John Elway, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and most modern day elite QB's. They days of "wants" disappeared when Bill Cowher left and stopped calling the shots for the construction of this team. There’s too much age, too much expense wrapped up in that age and the Steelers quite frankly have more holes now than they possibly have had since the 1980's. They also have just as many question marks.
The Steelers were linked to be interested in Tackle, Jake Long in Free Agency. This is a good example of the philosophical thinking of Kevin Colbert and his "wants" vs. "needs". The Steelers have 2 young tackles that were drafted in each of the past 2 Drafts in the 2nd Round - Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. Neither have done a bad job, both are young and both were thrown in as a starters early in their development process due to injuries. Both ended up getting injured themselves. Supposedly the word coming out of the Steelers camps is that they aren't "sold" on one of their Tackles. and that was why they showed good interest in Jake Long (likely before they found out the reality of his salary demands). This, I would classifiy as a "want" over a "need". We have 2 young, higher round draft picks at the Tackle position that just need more time and experience, while we have Aging Defensemen killing the salary cap and no Front Office desire to do replace them. If there was, they'd have offered Keenan Lewis a contract, cut Brett Kiesel and Ike Taylor and been looking for a replacement for the 33 year old Larry Foote, not resigning him.
This philosophy of "want" over "need" needs to change because sooner or later all of the Steelers "wants" are going to be "need" necessitated by their own ignorance
Where The Steelers Are Heading
There's practically no way of discussing this without some sense of "doom and gloom" coming out. The Steelers Front Office right now lacks leadership. Art Rooney isn't a leader. Dan Rooney is too old to lead and Kevin Colbert was never hired to be a leader, he was hired to be Bill Cowher's Front Office Assistant. When the Steelers had leadership an identity was formed. That's what Bill Cowher brought forth. That is what Dan Rooney brought when he created those 1970's teams and lost it when he surrendered too much power to Chuck Noll and his coaching staff (Gabe Rivera over Dan Marino for an example).
The Steelers managed under Bill Cowher to have a few seasons where they didn't have winning records and failed to make the Playoffs (1998,1999,2000,2003,2006) but they were never seasons that required rebuilding. Some of those seasons required "re-thinking" of the philosophy of the team as was the case heading into 2004 and getting back to a ball controlled, running offense. 2006 was an injury plagued season and 1998-2000 was due to Quarterback issues. none of them required rebuilds, because none of those teams were old and held onto way past their usefulness. The Steelers weren't letting better talent walk outside of Mike Vrable like they are today with Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis. The 2003 Steelers were #1 pick - Ben Roethlisberger from turning around. The Steelers right now aren't in as good of a position as any of those teams and ironically rather than resembling any of those teams, the Steelers right now resemble the early 1980's Pittsburgh Steelers.
The early 80's Steelers teams were old. The drafts to replace those older players didn't pan out, the older players were retained beyond their usefulness. The Steelers weren't the best team in the NFL anymore, they weren't even the best team in their division any longer. Once all of those aged Vets from those 1970's teams retired or left, the Steelers were left with players made up from failed drafts, a lack of impact talent and absolutely no identity whatsoever.
Terry Bradshaw retired after 1984 at the age of 35
Joe Greene retired after 1981 at the age of 35
Jack Ham retired after 1982 at the age of 34
John Stallworth retired after 1987 at the age of 35
Franco Harris stayed with the team until 1984 at the age of 33
Mel Blount retired after 1983 at the age of 35
L.C. Greenwood retired after 1981 at the age of 35
MarkMalone.jpgThe Steelers held onto a lot of players after their 1979 Superbowl win that were in their 30's due to the hopes winning more Superbowls. Thsi makes sense. The Steelers of today did the same thing after the 2008 season and 2010 season. At some point, those guys are going to either retire, get injured or decline production wise. The Steelers saw a lot of guys retired after the 1981 season and sadly they didn't have one worth a crap to replace them. Their thinking back then was that these guys could play forever and they would replace them when the time came. The time came and the Steelers were stuck with guys that were much better than "backups" talent wise. they ignored the future based on small hope of the present.
Fast-forward to today and this looks like the Steelers. A different era and time, there are some differences as there always will be in generational comparisons of 30 years, but the Steelers are treating the Franchise today the same as it did then. Ben Roethlisberger is a little bit younger than Terry Bradshaw but he's also been beaten up more than Bradshaw. What happens when Ben Roethlisberger's career is up and the Steelers continue on this trajected path of poor drafts, polluting the roster with aged players in their decline years, letting better younger and cheaper players leave.. What happens? You end up with the 1985-1992 Pittsburgh Steelers. A team that was stuck in an identity crisis. The positive is that this Steelers team isn't afraid of modernization as they were under Chuck Noll back in the 1980's. Back then Chuck Noll resisted the fact that the NFL was turning into a passing league and avoided shot gun formations like they were laced with herpes and aids. They didn't draft QB's good enough to throw the ball or draft RB's good enough to run the ball.
Kevin Colbert is at the stage where he's holding onto the past that was along for the ride of when it was created. He's afraid of the future because he wasn't as instrumental in creating the past as many fans and the media believed. Honestly, it's questionable whether Kevin Colbert can do the job well enough in the near future to keep the Steelers at an elite level of competitiveness as they had been since the early 1990's. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, the Rooney's don't fire Management guys. They will treat Kevin Colbert as an untouchable through a long decline period if need be and allow the media to pounce on Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff and wrap Kevin Colbert in bubblewrap.
The ultimate question is...
If Kevin Colbert isn't the man for the job then who is?
Bill Cowher
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