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Labriola on OTAs, oddsmakers, Minkah

Ready or not, here it comes:

Once upon a time, OTAs were no big deal.

Which shouldn't be taken to mean OTAs were a useless waste of time, because that's not the case. But OTAs weren't viewed with the same reverence, with the same manufactured importance by the media chronicling them coupled with a fan base that eats up those contrived insights with a rusty spoon.

Back when OTAs first became a regular part of the offseason calendar, Bill Cowher sometimes would watch his team put through its paces by his staff while he took a spot on the balcony overlooking the field behind the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Cowher wasn't shirking his duties, but he also wasn't blowing everything out of proportion, either.

When OTAs were relatively new also coincided with the era of the Troy Polamalu dilemma.

The Troy Polamalu dilemma had to do with the emergence of Polamalu as critical to the success of the Steelers defense juxtaposed with a few years when injuries prevented him from being able to play a whole regular season.

In the seven seasons from 2006-12, Polamalu missed 30 regular season games, and it came to be seen as no coincidence that the years in which he missed the most games – 11 in 2009 and nine in 2012 – were the ones that followed offseasons in which he was in Pittsburgh to participate in OTAs instead of staying in California, or wherever it was that he did his offseason training, and working on preparing his body for the season.

First Bill Cowher and then Mike Tomlin found themselves having to walk the fine line between publicly maintaining the value of OTAs while also realizing that things turned out for the best if Polamalu skipped the sessions and did his own conditioning routine instead.

And that's really how OTAs should be viewed. Necessary and worthwhile for many, but meaningless and possibly detrimental for others.

The explosion of legal gambling has brought a lot of this into the light, and as they used to say about such things, it's for entertainment purposes only. But too many, both fans and media, are reacting to it as if it actually has some meaning.

The most recent example is the immediate aftermath of the trade of Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans. After a move such as this, many of the gambling sites and oddsmakers will issue new numbers, about the Titans' chances to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, about the Titans chances to win the Super Bowl, maybe even numbers related to things such as Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill's candidacy for NFL Player of the Year.

What should be understood about these numbers is that they're designed to entice bettors while simultaneously attempting to balance the wagering so that the house doesn't lose.

Sticking with the Julio-to-Tennessee example, what the numbers are not is a real reflection of how the trade actually impacts the Titans' standing among their competition, nor are those numbers a football-based reflection on how acquiring a receiver will impact the team's chances to advance to the Super Bowl and/or win the Super Bowl.

Yet in the media, these numbers are being presented as pseudo-news to fans who then treat it as if it had real meaning. As if there is something at work besides numbers chosen to guarantee the house wins. There was no research done to gauge how adding a once-elite-but-now-aging-receiver to a team that wasn't good enough in its most recent season because of a sub-par defense. There was no insight into how adding Jones' salary could impact the team's cap situation.

Maybe the acquisition of Julio Jones shakes up the pecking order and propels the Titans to a Super Bowl victory. Maybe it doesn't. The oddsmakers don't care one way or the other as long as their numbers balanced the books.

It often was said about Chuck Noll that he "threw compliments around like manhole covers," with the point being if Noll saw fit to deliver praise he did it because he meant it. In that one respect Nick Saban has something in common with Noll.

Around the Alabama football program during his three seasons in Tuscaloosa, Minkah Fitzpatrick was known by his teammates as "Coach Saban's son" because of his unique ability to make the otherwise stone-faced head coach crack a smile. Regular viewers of SEC football on Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. could make the case that might be Fitzpatrick's most unique skill after watching Saban spit fire at anyone and everyone along the Alabama sideline.

"You always see an upbeat, positive, pleasant guy to be around," Saban told about Fitzpatrick. "When you're in a room with him, you feel upbeat, positive, pleasant. He has a wonderful personality. He's kind of a unique guy. A lot of times talented guys don't have overachieving personality types. He wants to be the best and goes out and works hard every day."

Based on those last couple of sentences, it becomes clear that Fitzpatrick isn't necessarily a football version of Chris Rock that made Saban smile as much as a highly-skilled player who also had the work ethic to become great and a knack for leadership that permeated the rest of the group.

"He's the exact model you love to have as a coach," said Saban. "The guy is very talented. He's smart, bright, can learn. He really competed to be the absolute best at what he does. I don't even know if I can describe him well enough."

The Steelers already have exercised the fifth-year option on Fitzpatrick's rookie contract, and signing him to a long-term extension is right up there on the to-do list alongside getting a long-term deal done with T.J. Watt. But because this is Fitzpatrick's first year with the Steelers in which he has been able to participate in a complete offseason program, and Fitzpatrick has taken full advantage of that, there could be some special things from him on the horizon.

"I do think that Minkah has a lot of the qualities that I've always tried to put in place for myself to have the best opportunity to be successful as a coach, as a person," said Saban. "And I see a lot of those qualities in him. He's very conscientious, pays attention to detail, very disciplined, understands the importance of preparation. He's not one of these guys who just thinks, 'I can go out there and make plays without doing things the right way.'"

And this looks to be the season when the Steelers will need Fitzpatrick to be what Saban is certain he is, because 2020 starters Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton are gone and the depth in the secondary has been weakened by Cam Sutton moving into the starting lineup to replace Nelson. Bud Dupree and the 19.5 sacks he posted in 2019-20 left via free agency and the depth at outside linebacker might be down to journeyman Cassius Marsh and rookie sixth-round pick Quincy Roche.

"No matter who's out there, as long as we execute and play at a high level, we'll be good," said Fitzpatrick during a Zoom appearance earlier this week. "If it's a young guy, if it's an old guy, if it's a new guy, as long as we're on the same page it's hard to beat us. We're all athletes, we can all cover, we can all jump, we can all catch. The only way teams beat themselves in the league is if they don't execute."

Because of his growing experience, both with the Steelers and with the NFL at large, Fitzpatrick seems poised to assume an increased role with the team, poised to be here what he had been in college.

"I tell you what, he's a great, great person," said Saban. "I mean he's got a great personality, he's got great enthusiasm in terms of what he does. I don't think there ever has been a player who is a great player with all the ability who works harder, tries to do more, cares about the team more, all the intangible things that you look for. You get that sometimes with the guys who aren't as good (athletically), but he's a great athlete who has all the intangibles."

In 2021, the Steelers will need every bit of what Fitzpatrick has to offer, both on the field in terms of being a better version of the player who has nine interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and three touchdowns in 30 games with the team, and with respect to being the kind of teammate and leader he was for Saban at Alabama.

During that same Zoom call after one of the OTAs, Fitzpatrick was asked about his personal improvement. "We're a younger team. We're a newer team, so I'll say stepping up in leadership, be more vocal, making guys do extra, whether it be film or staying after practice. Just doing extra, going that extra mile. For me personally, just master the mental aspect of this game. What makes great players great and elite players elite is (mastering) the fundamentals of this game.

"I was talking to Coach (Mike Tomlin) today, and he said, 'Look, the things that made you a great college player are the same things that make you a great NFL player. But guys stop doing it because they get complacent, they get tired, they don't want to do this anymore because they think they're too good of a player (already).' That's what separates the greats from the elites, so I want to continue working on the fundamentals."

And undoubtedly make Mike Tomlin smile, too.

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