Labriola On

Labriola on Randy, Ryan, HOF announcements

Ready or not, here it comes:

• "I think that any offensive coordinator in the league who winds up with three different starting quarterbacks over the course of the season is going to tell you that it's going to be a challenge. It is difficult to evaluate. I mean, look, I'm sure that Randy, like everybody else, would say there are things that we want to improve on, there are things that we can do better, there are things we learned from this season, and hopefully all those things can help us prepare better for next season."

• Those words came from Steelers President Art Rooney II, and they were in response to a question asking him to evaluate the job done by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner in 2019. And while Rooney acknowledged what should have been obvious, that being the impact Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending injury had on every aspect of the offense last season, there was one aspect he didn't mention.

• It was an aspect the Steelers began to address with the hiring of Matt Canada as quarterbacks coach.

• In 2019, not only was the offense without Roethlisberger on the field for all but six quarters of the regular season, but Fichtner was without a couple of guys he had come to depend upon when it came time to plot schemes and devise game plans. Mike Munchak left the Steelers to take a job with the Denver Broncos to be closer to his two daughters – one of whom lives in Denver with her husband and their young daughter, and the other who lives not all that far away in Los Angeles. The other blow came when Darryl Drake died on Aug. 11, with the Steelers in training camp at Saint Vincent College.

• Sean Sarrett was promoted to replace Munchak, and Ray Sherman, who was visiting training camp at the time of Drake's passing, came out of retirement and served as the interim wide receivers coach.

• At this early stage of his career, Sarrett is a guy who concentrates more on working with his guys on technique, their assignments, on winning their battles against the upcoming opponent. He has yet to develop the kind of big-picture understanding that Munchak, who was an NFL head coach for three seasons, was able to bring to game-planning sessions.

• Sherman originally retired after the 2015 season, and while he has decades of coaching experience, he had little-to-no knowledge of the Steelers' personnel when he arrived in Latrobe to observe and help with the wide receivers where he could. He had to start at ground zero and try to build relationships with the individuals he was going to be charged to coach, and rightly so, that was his priority, whereas Drake already had established himself as a mentor and even a spiritual advisor to more than just the receivers on the roster.

• The hiring of Canada as the quarterbacks coach is a step toward helping the offense in two areas. Four of the five quarterbacks currently under contract to the Steelers – Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, and J.T. Barrett – are young, inexperienced, and in need of tutelage in the fundamentals of their position. And Canada's time spent as an offensive coordinator at eight different college programs, including Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Pitt, LSU, and Maryland should make him an asset to Fichtner with some of the big-picture issues.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR SHAZIER
• Since Ryan Shazier sustained that spinal injury in Cincinnati on Dec. 4, 2017, the Steelers have kept him under contract as a player while he continues his rehabilitation. His most recent one-year contract is set to expire in March, and President Art Rooney II said the only certainty at this point is the Steelers want Shazier to remain with the franchise in some capacity.

• "We have to sit down with Ryan and look through what the next step will be," said Rooney. "We haven't quite done that yet. Definitely more to come in terms of sitting down with Ryan and deciding what the next steps will be. We'd love to have Ryan back in some capacity. I don't want to get ahead of Ryan. I don't want to say that he's given up the idea of being a player. He's here every day working out. I saw him downstairs working out before I came up here (for this interview session). He's a remarkable young man, determined young man, and so I don't want to speak for him in terms of where he wants to go from here."

IT'S REALLY HENRY VS. MAHOMES
• One of the obvious storylines for Sunday's AFC Championship Game matching Tennessee and Kansas City will be how the Chiefs defense will be able to deal with Titans running back Derrick Henry. The Chiefs finished the regular season ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (128.2), and 29th in average gain per rush (4.9). In the last three games – a must-win regular season finale vs. Houston to get into the playoffs, in New England in the Wild Card Round and in Baltimore in the Divisional Round – Henry has rushed for 598 yards on 96 carries (6.23 average) and scored four touchdowns.

• But it's likely the player in a Chiefs uniform who can have the most significant impact on limiting Henry is quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While Henry has been battering Titans opponents into submission, Mahomes carved up the Texans defense like a Thanksgiving turkey in the Divisional Round. Staring at a 24-0 deficit in the first half, Mahomes went on to complete 23-of-35 (65.7 percent) for 321 yards, with five touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 134.6. He also scrambled seven times for another 53 yards in what ended up being a 51-31 victory.

• Here's how Mahomes can shut down Henry: If he is able to start out the game against the Titans the way he played the final three quarters against the Texans, Derrick Henry will be a non-factor by the second half because Tennessee will be too far behind to be able to use its running game, i.e., Henry, as a weapon because they'll have to be in full catch-up mode.

• Mahomes won't have to tackle Henry, but his play can render him a non-factor. This is just another example of how a franchise quarterback can impact all aspects of his team's play, even those he watches from the sideline.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
• It's been a heady calendar week for Steelers fans, what with Bill Cowher being paid a visit on the CBS set by Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker to be told he had been elected to the Hall's Class of 2020, and then with Donnie Shell getting a phone call from Baker on Wednesday morning to be given the exact same good news. As Steelers President Art Rooney II said on Wednesday, "We've kind of been on Cloud 9 around here the last few days."

• But this time, we also got to see the flip side of the feel-good.

• While Cowher and Shell and Jimmy Johnson, and certainly the others who got the good news from Baker, were left to fight a losing battle with tears of joy, other shed tears of frustration, disappointment, and maybe even a little embarrassment mixed in for good measure.

• Take former Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson, who now is the only player named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s not to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In anticipation of Wednesday's announcement of the rest of the Hall of Fame's Centennial Class of 2020, Pearson was at his home surrounded by family and friends while watching the drama play out live on NFL Network. After being passed over, Pearson was visibly distraught, got up and left for a different room in the house where he then closed the door.

• "It'll stick with me until later today and after all these texts and internet stuff stops coming through, and I'll move on," Pearson said after being passed over. "This is the story of my life. Nothing has ever come easy. I came in here as undrafted free agent. I had a bone disease as a kid, went to Tulsa, had three losing seasons in four years, three head coaches in four years, on probation three years, not getting drafted, signing for $150, making the team, overcoming the odds with 100 rookies in camp. Then turning that opportunity after making it. I made All-Pro my second year, had over 1,000 yards my second year. It's like that Robert Frost poem. I've taken the road less traveled. My career was always about the road less traveled."

• A similar story played out for former Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar. For him, the disappointment came in a more private way, with only his wife by his side as they watched NFL Network.

• "To be honest," confided Gradishar, "we were both visibly upset. There were tears coming down. Tears from being discouraged and frustrated, just the natural human emotion of being disappointed, from being a modern-day finalist two different times and not hearing your name, from now being a senior candidate and not knowing if your name will be called, or if you will be left in the dark."

• So, as you look back as Steelers fans, or just football fans, on the feel-good that came from watching Cowher and Johnson moved to tears by maybe the best news of their football lives, it's also OK to have some empathy for the Pearsons and Gradishars who went through the same process and were moved to tears as well.

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