The expectation is that the most significant improvement is seen in NFL players between their first and second seasons. So, too, it can be for offensive coordinators as well.
Todd Haley is in his second season as the Steelers offensive coordinator, and his performance in 2012 was 8-8 just like the rest of the football team. Mediocre. Not good enough.
Adding statistics to the adjectives shows that the Steelers offense ranked 22nd in the NFL in scoring and 26th in turnovers and 14th in red zone efficiency and 26th in rushing and tied for 21st in sacks allowed. But those statistical inadequacies are not as damning as the memory of the times the unit failed to take advantage of opportunities or situations during the times in games where the outcome is determined.
The Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl and won it when their offense had trouble running the ball and wasn't efficient in the red zone and allowed too many sacks. In 2008, they were 20th in the NFL in scoring and 23rd in rushing and 15th in red zone efficiency and 29th in sacks allowed, but those cumulative statistical issues were negated by some wonderfully efficient performances in enough situations that there ended up being a parade through the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh celebrating the sixth Lombardi in franchise history.
In 2012 though, the Steelers didn't come through in enough of the outcome-determining situations to go along with some bottom-of-the-league statistical rankings, and the sum total of it all was an offense that wasn't good enough. Certainly, being statistically dominant in the important categories is a recipe for winning, but being statistically deficient can be overcome with clutch performances at critical times.
The goal of every offensive coordinator, of every head coach, is to be statistically dominant, but that's quite the chore in a sport where injuries continually must be overcome in a league built to perpetuate parity. It's much more realistic to shoot for doing some of the basic things well and finding ways to come through in the situations that determine the outcome of games.
Todd Haley doesn't refer to what the Steelers are attempting to implement on offense as a system. He sees it as being far less rigid than that word implies. He sees it more as a week-to-week plan catered to a particular opponent within the framework of a general philosophy, never losing sight of what the players on the roster can execute efficiently enough to win that particular week.
Where OTAs and minicamp fit into this process is for laying the mental foundation that ultimately will allow players to handle their assignments without having to think, to execute within the flow and pace of a regular season game. That's what began last Tuesday with the first set of OTAs, and what resumes today at the Steelers' South Side practice facility.
"Ideally, you want to give a base foundation for what you potentially could do throughout the year," said Haley. "Really, it's from a language standpoint, because we have words to do pretty much anything we want to do. You try to indoctrinate as many of these guys to as many of these words as you can to get it locked in and roll from there. Then you're assuming that when you get to training camp you're not learning it again. That's the biggest thing overall: teaching everybody the words and what it means to each one of them."
The teaching of the words is the basis for the level of communication now necessary for successful offense in the NFL, and Haley admits the Steelers were lacking in that area one year ago.
"One of our main focuses for the offseason from a coaching staff standpoint was to get better at communicating," said Haley. "As you go through a year, it goes so fast that it's only when you look back that you realize some communication misses may have occurred, for whatever reason. So we made that a focus. As a staff we watched every one of our 16 regular season games, which we said at times was like a trip to the dentist, and not one of those easy trips just for a teeth-cleaning. We watched every game, and Coach (Mike) Tomlin was in there for most of it. It was a great exercise for our staff, because the communication flowed and we really learned how to interact better than we had to that point.
"I've said a number of times that how I feel today, after one week of OTAs this year as compared to how I felt after one week of OTAs last year is night and day on so many levels. And I have to believe that same feeling runs across the gamut of players and coaches alike who have been here. It's better, because you know each other better. And you know how to work together better."
THE NEW GUY, NO LONGER
Already during these OTAs, Ben Roethlisberger and Emmanuel Sanders have talked to the media about changes that have been made to the offense, and they spoke positively about them. To Roethlisberger and Sanders, to the other members of the offense, they look like changes. But to Haley it's more a natural progression of events that becomes possible when the getting-to-know-you phase is out of the way.
"I think it's an evolution," said Haley. "There are some changes, but it's an evolution that I think would happen whenever you're in a situation where you're in year two and already have a year under your belt. You naturally know your players better. It's a natural progression/evolution."
The mental foundation of which is being laid through the end of this offseason program. The schedule calls for seven more OTAs – Tuesday through Thursday of this week, and then June 3-6 – with the final exercise being a three-day mandatory minicamp on June 11-13. Then the team will re-convene in late July at Saint Vincent College.
"The guys who have been here are night-and-day away from where we all were last year at this time, myself included," said Haley. "It's great for me having a year under the belt. I was talking to Antonio Brown, and just telling him that you know so much more about each player who has been around for a year, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and how you try to play to those as best you can."
"As a team," said Haley, "our expectation is to get to that confetti game, as Coach Tomlin likes to call it."
That has no chance of happening without some marked improvement in 2013 from the Steelers offense. The statistical evidence points to some of the culpable areas, and there's enough anecdotal evidence to cover the rest. There are, however, a couple of specific areas where Haley expects improvements.
"As the offensive coordinator, after the season is over we can't look back on it and say, 'Halfway through the year we had the second-fewest turnovers in the league and by the end of the year we were toward the back of the pack,'" said Haley. "That can't happen. That plus-minus has to be up in the plus-range. That's proven."
Nine games into their 2012 schedule, the Steelers were 6-3 and had turned the ball over nine times. In their next six games, which was the span when the team went from having one of the top records in the AFC to being home for the playoffs, they turned it over 21 times and were 1-5.
"Also," continued Haley, "we have to be able to run the ball much more efficiently. We can't be banging our heads against the wall for 2 yards, because I really do believe that you throw the ball to score points and you run the ball to win. You need both in different situations. Ultimately so many of these games at the NFL level are decided by seven points or less, and so those little things are going to be what win and lose for you."
Mike Wallace is gone. Rashard Mendenhall is gone. Max Starks and Willie Colon are gone. The starting offensive line will consist of four players who were either No. 1 or No. 2 picks in the three drafts held between 2010-12. Rookies Le'Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton will have to be contributors at running back and wide receiver, respectively, this season. Second-year tight end David Paulson cannot allow any absence by Heath Miller to be debilitating. And having a healthy Ben Roethlisberger goes without saying.
"I'm excited. I think everybody is excited," said Haley. "We're going to have some young guys who will have to come in and perform, but the thing that came out of last year was we got a lot of young people some playing time, specifically on the offensive line, which is invaluable. The Kelvin Beachums and the Mike Adamses, and even David DeCastro, who wasn't 100 percent but still got some real-time snaps – that should help them a bunch. I would expect great development up front, and I think our quarterback is as good as anybody's. We just need to do a better job of protecting him and him of protecting himself. And we need to run the ball more efficiently, because I think we'll be able to throw it with anybody."