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Savran: Colbert has kept Steelers above water

Sunday, December 17, 2000

Depth. In the NFL, there is no guarantee that you'll win if you have it. However, you can rest assured you won't if you don't. Injuries are as much a constant as officials huddling for 10 minutes to discuss a 5-yard penalty. The question is not if players will get hurt, but rather who, how many, and who will replace them. Attrition, not just excellence, often determines the champion.

That Steelers' noses were still pressed up against the playoff picture window in the 16th week of the NFL season was a surprise to most. One of the reasons they were still shopping for a postseason berth and not Christmas presents was their depth.

The one man most responsible has barely been mentioned or credited with compiling said depth.

He'll have to wait only a few paragraphs longer.

Consider:

The most improved unit on this team is the offensive line. Rich Tylski has been a significant upgrade at right guard. When Marvel Smith, and Shar Pourdanesh were injured, Larry Tharpe, who's inclusion on the final roster was a bit of a surprise, was summoned.

Here's a guy whose football experience last year was conducted in a La-Z-Boy. Yet, Tharpe came in and played well by anyone's standards, not just those ascribed to a third string, missed-block-away-from-getting-cut tackle.

Then, the rookie Smith returned from his injury, and has played very well in the past month, significantly better than early in the season, when he was a free pass to becoming AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

His recent play has gone a long way toward substantiating his pick in the second round.

The Steelers' secondary was a sieve until Brent Alexander replaced Scott Shields. Since that time, and I doubt it's coincidental, the secondary is right behind the offensive line in the "most improved unit" category.

I vote for Kimo von Oelhoffen as co-winner (with Alexander) for having the most dramatic impact of any newcomer. While the Steelers' defensive line needs a significant upgrade on the flanks, Kimo's presence has made it much more active.

Even the addition of Chris Sullivan has helped with depth. The fact that he was slated to be a starter tells you about the overall talent level of the front three. Having Sullivan as a backup, a role he is more suited for, strengthens the unit as a whole.

And how about the work of Dan Kreider? The coaches rave about his performance since taking over for Jon Witman. What the Steelers have uncovered here is a football player-- the kind with the toughness not only needed to play that position, but also the kind of toughness so constantly associated with playing for this franchise for so many years.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that had any of these newcomers not been here, or not performed, then the Steelers' season and their rebuilding program would be in a more rapid stage of decay. What is the common denominator in the presence of Alexander, Tylski, von Oelhoffen, Smith, Kreider, Sullivan and Tharpe?

The name not mentioned. Kevin Colbert.

The Steelers' de facto general manager isn't solely responsible for all successful draftees or free-agent signings. Nor is he singularly accountable for all failings. All in that corner of the organization must share equally in personnel bouquets and brickbats.

But someone is charged with the responsibility of heading up the department, and that would be Colbert.

Based on the key contributions of so many first-year Steelers -- most of them low-profile free-agent signings, which shows considerably more acumen than going after the no-brainer, high salaried types -- the spotlight must splash on Colbert, who has provided the depth so critically necessary.

I don't know the particulars of his relationship with Bill Cowher. It appears, we can assume, that it hasn't deteriorated to the open hostility displayed one year ago with Colbert's predecessor.

You seldom see Colbert in the hallways, let alone doing television or print interviews. Apparently, he's not inclined to wage public opinion campaigns. He just goes quietly about the business of mining ballplayers whenever and wherever needed.

Despite the job this coaching staff has done getting the best from what it had, this team is still on talent life support.

There is still much work to be done in the coming off-season.

But the most important acquisition the Steelers made this past off-season may well have been Kevin Colbert.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.

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