Harris: Steelers' window of opportunity closing
By John Harris
Published: Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 11:47 p.m.
The Steelers couldn't stay healthy in 2012, and team president Art Rooney II wasn't pleased.
Football is a brutal sport that exacts a physical and mental toll from its players, but the high volume of injuries and some of their potential origins may be pushing Rooney to the breaking point.
Rooney's frustration led him to acknowledge last week that while the players participate in individual training programs when not at the team's facility, “it's more on them to make sure they are performing and doing their offseason conditioning.”
Rooney's concern is well-taken. He wants to ensure players are safeguarding against injuries.
Some injuries can't be prevented. Tight end Heath Miller suffered a torn ACL and MCL after taking a hit on his knee. Cornerback Ike Taylor led active NFL players by playing in 135 consecutive games before missing the final four games with a hairline fracture in his ankle. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined three games with rib and shoulder injuries.
However, some of the usual suspects on the roster suffered injuries that caused them to again miss games or significant playing time. It shouldn't be overlooked that Rooney told reporters that Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison didn't spend much time on the field together because of injuries. Or that they take up a significant percentage of the team's salary cap.
The offensive line was decimated by injuries, with Willie Colon's the most troubling. He finished the season on injured reserve for the third consecutive season and may not return to the Steelers, despite the salary-cap hit his early departure would create.
No sooner had wide receiver Antonio Brown signed a $42.5 million contract extension, Brown missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. The highest-paid member of the “Young Money Crew” set a bad example for fellow receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, who also missed playing time with injuries
The Steelers can't go through this again in 2013, not with Baltimore playing in its second consecutive AFC Championship Game and Cincinnati beating the Steelers in a winner-take-all game for a playoff berth.
That's because this team, as currently constructed, doesn't have many quality years left together.
Injuries are an integral part of the NFL, but the Steelers' attitude toward injuries has to change. If players were taking care of business, Rooney wouldn't have felt it necessary to challenge what they are doing in the offseason, or how they are doing it.
“You need guys that understand the importance of doing what you're supposed to do,'' strength and conditioning coach Tom Shaw said. “This is your career; this is your livelihood.
“The whole purpose of offseason training is you don't want to drop off and have to work to get back to where you were during the season instead of using that time to work on getting better.”
One of only a few professional trainers to possess a master's degree and Ph.D in exercise science, Shaw trains 40-50 NFL players and approximately 30 college players every offseason at Disney's Wide World of Sports.
Shaw's longest-tenured clients include Taylor and former Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who both played multiple seasons without missing a game because of injury. Former Steelers cornerback William Gay, who leads active NFL cornerbacks in consecutive games played with the Arizona Cardinals, is another Shaw client.
Shaw, who has enlisted the help of Taylor for recruiting purposes, said he thinks he can remedy Woodley's hamstring problems.
Woodley — who signed a $61.5 million contract in 2011 — hasn't registered double-digit sacks and has missed nine games with injuries since securing his new deal.
“There are three ways to pull a hamstring — overuse, overstriding and dehydration,” Shaw said. “A linebacker who makes 80 percent of his plays within 10 yards is playing within a box. He shouldn't hit his (full) stride length. I want Woodley to come down here. He's a hard worker, but we teach the proper way to run.”
An offseason to remember would be a good starting point for the Steelers heading into 2013 but — as Rooney noted last week — the players' motivation must come from within.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.
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