Kovacevic: Clear now 2012 Steelers were fat cats
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
The rolling hills wrapping St. Vincent are suddenly alive with the sound of Steelers professing their commitment to conditioning.
Which is, of course, awesome.
I mean, who wouldn't applaud Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman for dropping roughly 20 pounds each to compete for a running back spot neither of them claimed last season?
Or LaMarr Woodley for dropping roughly 20 from his playing weight of the past two seasons?
Or Troy Polamalu for showing up hale, healthy and more active in drills than anyone's seen from him since INACTIVE dominated his ledger?
There are other examples, and they even include poor Marcus Gilbert. You've no doubt heard how he cramped up on the opening run test and had to be carted off but, in reality, has received sterling reviews for his shape.
It's all wonderful. Really is.
Just one problem: Put all these various warm-and-fuzzy pieces together, and it exposes, now more than ever, that the sore-thumb shortcoming of those 8-8 Steelers from last season was — and I'll say it because Mike Tomlin won't — being overweight and out of shape.
Think that's oversimplifying?
Think again: Those Steelers lost five games by three or fewer points. And in at least three of those — Titans, Bengals, Raiders — all they needed was one play in the waning minutes to flip the outcome.
And if anyone can't see how running an extra lap, taking one more turn at the weights might have made up the difference, I'll assure there are plenty — in this camp, no less — who can.
“I don't think there's any question,” guard Ramon Foster said before practice Saturday. “We're in better shape as a team, and we've got a better mindset.”
Why now, not then?
“Hey, 8-8 will do that. You look back at last season and all the things that got us down to that .500 level … that's not us. When we're out there one game beating the team that won the Super Bowl but losing other games we could have had … that lets us know it was there for the taking. Guys came in here wired this time.”
Ike Taylor, who just might be the conditioning king in this camp and every camp, has seen the same thing: “Guys came back in shape,” he said. “That's a good thing. No looking back. It's a good thing now.”
See, it's not that hard. Just spit it out: Those Steelers were slow and sluggish, always seemingly a step behind on offense and defense. They saw it. I saw it. You saw it.
Be sure Tomlin saw it, too.
No, he isn't openly acknowledging it. To do that would reflect terribly not only on him but also the coaching, conditioning and athletic training staff, none of which changed much since then. And I guess that can be understood, to an extent. The players need to look up to these people. That's the football culture.
Besides, it's the athletes who need to hear about it way more than any of us. And they most certainly are.
“Every day,” Taylor said. “Morning, noon and night. More than ever.”
That much you can hear from Tomlin. He's been admonishing players — with gusto — on the fields, beginning with the unusually spirited offseason training activities. Better yet, there's been action: Practices have been a half-hour longer. There's more tackling than walkthroughs for the first time anyone can recall. Tomlin even stopped having carts available to shuttle the players around campus after practices. Now, they hoof it like everyone else.
But I'll ask again: Why now, not then?
Did everyone associated with the Steelers, from the head coach on down, get too comfortable, too complacent?
Did the locker room leadership falter without James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward around?
If Tomlin won't acknowledge that conditioning has extra emphasis now, he certainly won't address why it didn't then. Closest he's come all year — and it wasn't much — was the opening day of camp: “Guys came ready in good shape and are ready and excited to move forward. That is really how I look at it. I don't look at it in comparison to anything else. I'm more singly focused on the opportunity and challenge that is in front of us.”
But I did get answers from Keith Butler, the always candid linebackers coach, who remains the only one inside the organization to publicly call out Woodley.
Yes, including Woodley.
“Our guys look good right now, and I think maybe it's because we need to have a little chip on our shoulder,” Butler said. “I've got a chip on my shoulder. I'm ticked off about what happened last year. None of us likes to be 8-8. The guys who have been here, they've won a couple Super Bowls. What we did with this group … wasn't good enough.”
Not when one more play was so often all that was needed?
“Exactly. You know what I tell all my guys? When you're done with your career, no matter how it turns out, don't have regrets. Prepare yourself. Do everything you can. And they have now. I think there's more of a sense of urgency this year.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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