View Full Version : Steelers stable while Lions founder

10-11-2009, 09:17 AM
Steelers stable while Lions founder
NFL Week 5: Lions starting over again
Sunday, October 11, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the Steelers return to Ford Field in Detroit today for the first time since they beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, wide receiver Hines Ward might be inclined to walk to the spot and touch the ground where he caught a 43-yard touchdown from Antwaan Randle El that cemented the 21-10 victory and earned him the game's MVP award.

Willie Parker and maybe Max Starks, the only starting offensive lineman who played in that game, might even go to the area near the 25-yard line where Parker took a handoff on a play called Counter 34 Pike, cut behind a block by Starks on linebacker Lofa Tatupu and ran 75 yards for a touchdown, the longest scoring run in Super Bowl history.

But it might be Charlie Batch, who did not even play in the game, who will remember a moment of personal satisfaction the most.

When the Steelers (2-2) face his former team, the Detroit Lions (1-3), at 1 p.m., Batch will recall the afterglow of that Super Bowl victory, just as he did that night in February, 2006 when he basked in a moment that only five of his other Steelers teammates -- center Jeff Hartings, defensive end Travis Kirschke, tackle Barrett Brooks, linebacker Clint Kriewaldt and cornerback Chidi Iwuoma -- could appreciate. Ironically enough, they got to do so in the very town where each had known mostly misery.

"We had been through a lot," said Batch, a backup quarterback who grew up in Homestead and attended Steel Valley High School.

Like Batch, Hartings, Kirschke, Brooks, Kriewaldt and Iwuoma had all spent parts of their National Football League careers in Detroit, playing for a franchise that was crumpling faster than the town's auto industry.

They each were part of an organization that went through head coaches the way ants go through picnic food, hiring and/or firing seven since 2000.

They each were part of a franchise that struck out more often than Ryan Howard on No. 1 draft choices, even though they never drafted lower than No. 10 in seven of the past nine years. And they watched it disintegrate under TV analyst-turned-team president Matt Millen, whose poor coaching hires and constant reshuffling of philosophy eventually produced an 0-16 season in 2008, the first winless season in the NFL since the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

So, several months after they beat the Seahawks, during the ceremony in which the players received their Super Bowl rings, Batch and the other five ex-Lions got together and posed for a picture that hailed triumph, signified freedom and, perhaps most importantly, exulted escape.

"A big thank you, let's put it that way," Batch said.

The Kodak moment did not include Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations.

But it could have.

Somehow, it seems odd that one of the NFL's least successful programs has contributed to the success of one of the league's best franchises.

Colbert, a graduate of North Catholic High School and Robert Morris University, was the director of pro scouting in Detroit when he decided to leave the Lions to return to his hometown in February 2000. At the time, he worked in Detroit under Ron Hughes, who was the Lions' director of player personnel. His decision to join the Steelers as the replacement for Tom Donahoe, who was fired, came 11 months before the Lions turned the entire football operation over to Millen.

Three years later, Colbert hired Hughes to be the Steelers' college scouting coordinator. They employed the same philosophy, remained committed to the same beliefs, with the Steelers that they had in Detroit. But the results were drastically different.

"It was the same philosophy we were using in Detroit when we were like 7-9, 8-8, and they just couldn't get us over the hump," said Batch, who was drafted by the Lions in 1998 and spent four seasons in Detroit. "But, you look at the flip side, the Steelers were like 7-9 and 8-8 then, too, and Kevin took his philosophy and beliefs and brought them here and ultimately got them over the hump."

Indeed, the Steelers were 6-10 in 1999, the year before Colbert was hired, and 9-7 in 2000. After that, the Steelers made the playoffs six of the next eight seasons and won two Super Bowls.

The Lions, conversely, have not had a winning season -- or even a .500 season -- since 2001. But that is not the only drastic difference with the Steelers.


• The Steelers have employed just three coaches since 1969 and built the core of their Super Bowl teams with No. 1 draft choices.

• The Lions have employed five head coaches since Colbert departed -- the latest is Jim Schwartz, the former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator -- and have made mostly disastrous decisions with their No. 1 picks (see chart).

Coaching instability, especially to the degree the Lions have endured, often can lead to failed development in young players.

"It's huge," Colbert said, referring to coaching stability in general and not the Lions in particular. "If you draft players to fit into a specific scheme, they're brought along and they're learning one system over a period of two, three, sometimes four years before they're asked to contribute. Whereas, if you draft a player thinking he's going to play in a certain scheme and you change that scheme, now that player may not be able to adapt, and you're that much further behind."

Even when the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher after the 2006 season, they did not change any of their offensive and defensive philosophy. Instead, they retained their respective coordinators -- Bruce Arians on offense and Dick LeBeau on defense -- to ensure stability.

"It means a lot," said inside linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior, who might be Colbert's best free-agent signing since he arrived. "We have the same coach who knows what you are going to do and what they expect out of you. With a new guy coming in all the time, it's a new slate. Everyone has got to start over again."

The Lions are trying to start over with Schwartz, and they're trying to do it with their No. 1 draft choices such as quarterback Matthew Stafford (2009), tight end Brandon Pettigrew (2009), right tackle Gosder Cherilus (2008), wide receiver Calvin Johnson (2007) and linebacker Ernie Sims (2006), all of whom have been starters since their rookie years.

They are hoping they make up for such disastrous picks as quarterback Joey Harrington (2002), wide receiver Charles Rogers (2003) and wide receiver Mike Williams (2005), each of whom were drafted among the top 10 overall picks..

Curiously, only one Lions player remains from when Colbert was there -- kicker Jason Hanson, who is in his 18th season. Meantime, the Steelers have continued to employ players who once played for the Lions, including tight end Sean McHugh, who is on injured reserve, and No. 4 receiver Shaun McDonald.

Yet, they keep winning. And the Lions, well, they keep losing.

"That was Matt's biggest thing when he first came in," Batch said. "When he put blame on somebody, he said they missed on their No. 1 draft picks. But, all of a sudden, he was drafting and put his guys in there and he missed on them, too. And he never really accepted blame. He would never admit it."

Batch and the others were glad to escape.

Lion's No. 1 Draft Picks Since 2001
Year Player (Overall pick)

2009 QB Matthew Stafford (1) Detroit’s first rookie QB to start opener since 1968
2009 TE Brandon Pettigrew (20) One of four rookie starters for Lions
2008 T Gosder Cherilus (17) Has started 17 consecutive games
2007 WR Calvin Johnson (2) Already one of the league’s top receivers
2006 LB Ernie Sims (9) Started all 48 games in three seasons
2005 WR Mike Williams (10) Played two seasons before being released
2004 WR Roy Williams (7) Traded after averaging 61 catches, 913 yards in four seasons
2004 RB Kevin Jones (30) 1,133 yards as a rookie, released after injury-plagued four seasons
2003 WR Charles Rogers (2) Released after three seasons of injuries and off-field issues
2002 QB Joey Harrington (3) Traded after throwing 62 interceptions, 60 TDs in four years
2001 T Jeff Backus (18) Mainstay who has started every game for Lions (131 in a row)

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