Ready or not, here it comes:
• Three down. Seven to go.
• It’s that time of the NFL year again. OTAs for the Steelers began on Tuesday, and by the time you read this, the team will have had three of the allowable 10 on-field sessions under its belt, with the “highlight” of the first day being that Ben Roethlisberger talked publicly for the first time since the end of the 2018 regular season, also for the first time since a bunch of empty barrels made a whole lot of offseason noise leveling criticism at him that was either unfair, untrue, or both.
• Of course, the media session with Roethlisberger was a sideshow to the actual purpose of having 90 players and the complete coaching staff on the grass field at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex, but guaranteed it will turn out to be the most well-attended day of what’s left of the offseason program, because as much and as often as the media decries “drama,” it never will miss an opportunity to make it the day’s big story.
• In the business, such a story is referred to as “a layup.”
• But with Roethlisberger having talked and that whole affair looking as though it has been wrung of its last irrelevant syllable, what’s left to “cover” is the football. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to OTAs, what’s happening with the football aspect of the exercise just isn’t all that significant.
• Maybe the NFL hype machine would like to convince you that it is, and maybe some fans have been sufficiently brainwashed to believe it is, but it’s really not. It’s a part of the process, yes, a building block for what’s to come once training camps open, but there is only one kind of thing that can happen during OTAs that would have an actual tangible impact on a team’s ability to contend for a championship.
• And that would be something like what happened to Redskins linebacker Reuben Foster.
• With the exception of a season-ending injury to a significant player, what could happen during OTAs that would be of significance to a team’s fortunes during the upcoming regular season? Let’s take some issues relating to this Steelers team and use them as examples.
• Who will emerge as the starting wide receiver opposite JuJu Smith Schuster now that Antonio Brown plays for the Oakland Raiders?
During free agency, the Steelers signed veteran Donte Moncrief, who has some size, speed, and a decent resume during his previous NFL seasons when he was fortunate enough to be playing with a competent and healthy quarterback. Also, much is expected from James Washington, a second-year player who entered the NFL as the Steelers’ No. 2 pick in 2018. And then there’s rookie Diontae Johnson, who is interesting primarily because he was the Steelers’ first pick of the third round in this most recent draft.
• But does any reasonable person believe this job is going to be won, or lost, by what happens during OTAs? Sure, there very likely will be some worthwhile getting-to-know-you going on between the start of OTAs and the end of the offseason program in mid-June, but football in shorts played when receivers know there is no chance they’re going to be hit or otherwise physically impeded by defensive backs and/or linebackers cannot provide coaches with the pertinent information they’re going to need to make an informed judgment.
• In this specific example, what OTAs can provide is that getting-to-know-you between the entire corps of receivers and the quarterbacks, plus provide to the candidates the basic understanding of the offense that will be the foundation, again, for what happens once the team reconvenes at Saint Vincent College in late July.
• Will Devin Bush be a starter when the season opens on Sept. 8 in New England, or at least a significant component of the sub-package defenses?
The Steelers made a dramatic move on the first day of the draft to get themselves into a spot where they were able to draft the player they believed was the top inside linebacker available in this class. Bush checked all of the boxes for the Steelers in their evaluation of him, from his physical skill-set, to his football IQ, to his accelerated understanding of the ways of professional football that came from being the son of a former NFL player, to the way he has been able to emerge as an on-field leader at every level.
• People were on high alert the first time the Steelers had an 11-man defense on the field during these OTAs to see whether Bush would be among the “starters,” but whether he was or wasn’t in no way reflected a current evaluation of him, nor will it have any impact on his eventual status for the Steelers opening defensive series inside Gillette Stadium.
• In no particular order, some of the other oft-mentioned issues for this Steelers team have to do with whether the defense will find a way to improve on its total of eight interceptions and 15 total takeaways from 2018, and to what degree will unrestricted free agent signee Steven Nelson – expected to start at cornerback opposite Joe Haden – positively impact those totals; whether Chris Boswell will revert to his 2017 form; who will be the starting right tackle; and how the workload will be divided among the running backs.
• None of that is going to be determined during OTAs, because as Coach Mike Tomlin reminds the players on a regular basis, football is a game played in pads, and until hitting is introduced to the proceedings, there’s no way of really determining whether what you’re seeing is real or just a mirage.
• The most important factor for a team during OTAs is health, and that goes beyond incidents like the Reuben Foster torn ACL. For new players and for young players, the most important thing is to be able to stay healthy enough to remain on the field to participate in as many of the 10 OTAs and three days of minicamp as the body will permit, because standing on the sideline and taking “mental reps” is simply not a substitute for creating the muscle memory that only happens by actual physical repetition.
• OTAs are a part of the process, and the actual value of what’s happening during this portion of the NFL calendar cannot be discerned by the naked eye. This is a learning experience, and the learning taking place is different depending upon the individual player and his level of experience with the Steelers and with the NFL.
• So, my advice is to sit back and enjoy the return of football, even if this version is but a facsimile of the one that eventually will crown a champion on the first Sunday of February 2020. Just understand what it is. And what it’s not.