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Savran: Draft decisions raise concerns

Saturday, April 28, 2001

I'm watching, or attempting to, the overtime period from the worst seat in the house ... the runway to the Penguins' locker room. From there, Martin Straka's series-winning goal is still just a rumor. I mention this as a prelude to what is often and always on the minds of Pittsburgh sports fans. During the anxiety laden intermission between regulation and the extra period, a fan leans over the railing of Section A-20 and asks, "Hey, what'd you think of the Steelers' draft?" I gave him the I-guess-it-was-OK shoulder shrug. As in any draft, the Steelers addressed their needs. Whether they filled them or not is another story.

The Steelers' needs were evident, and neither Kevin Colbert nor Bill Cowher attempted to apply an unnecessary spin of intrigue. Although, to their credit, they said they wouldn't reach to fill a position, as I believe they did two years ago.

Until proven otherwise, Casey Hampton figures to improve a run defense that has gone soft, although an even bigger problem -- the lack of a consistent pass rush -- remains an issue. What raised both of my eyebrows has nothing to do with Hampton, but rather the apparent philosophical inconsistencies in making this, and other, decisions.

When it became painfully obvious that Joel Steed's deteriorating knees would no longer allow him to play at his customary high level, the Steelers were faced with the incontrovertible truth that a talented replacement had to be found.

Immediately.

If a team uses the 3-4 defense, there is absolutely no position more critical than nose tackle. The defense cannot be played successfully unless you have a dominant player forcing double-teams and insulating your linebackers from those annoying blockers.

So, Kimo von Oelhoffen was signed, and a good signing it was. The Steelers then used a valuable third-round draft pick to select Kendrick Clancy as a backup and potential starter. However, von Oelhoffen and Clancy play the position in an entirely different fashion than did Steed.

Steed was an anvil. Moving him was like trying to shoulder a boulder. His replacements, von Oelhoffen and Clancy, were stinging jabs to Steed's straight right hand. They got the job done with quickness, slashing through holes, being disruptive by getting penetration into the backfield to short-circuit plays before they had a chance to succeed.

Fine.

There's more than one way to skin an offense. But this is where the philosophical inconsistency arises.

What does drafting Hampton say about the draft choice expended on Clancy? Or the way the Steelers expect the position to be played? And if the Steelers prefer the bull nose tackle to the matador type, why did they draft Clancy in the first place? Did they use a third-round pick for a backup?

Not that you don't need depth. But no team, neither Super Bowl contenders nor pretenders, can afford to use that high of a pick on a reserve.

I don't know if Clancy figured prominently in the Steelers' plans for the future before this draft. But unless there's a position switch in the offing, he certainly doesn't figure in them now.

Signing von Oelhoffen was understandable. He was an immediate fix, even if his style differed from what the Steelers wanted. And he can play defensive end, which he no doubt will this season. But why use, or was it waste, a third-round pick on Clancy if you use the next year's top choice on the same position? A team can't afford to waste third-round choices.

Jason Gildon and Hines Ward were taken in the third round. So was Steed. But so were Paul Wiggins, Chris Conrad and Steven Conley.

A year ago, the Miami Dolphins were panting like dogs in heat to get their fins on running back Richard Huntley. The Steelers were reluctant to let him go. Now, they've done just that and will get nothing but a strained salary cap in return.

What changed?

Not Huntley. Entertaining the notion for even one minute that he could become an every down back was a miscalculation of the highest order. This guy will never run tough enough to play every down.

Nothing they did last year would lead anyone to believe Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala or Amos Zereoue had moved ahead of Huntley on the depth chart. Fuamatu-Ma'afala was hurt, and Zereoue didn't play enough to get hurt. So what changed in a year's time, other than the team's opinion of Huntley? Now he and the $1 million signing bonus they gave him are gone, as is the chance to get something in return. Philosophical inconsistencies.

Hampton might become a Pro-Bowl player. Clancy might someday join him. And mistakes such as Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat and Jamain Stephens are going to happen, although they hopefully will be kept to a minimum with the change in personnel regimes. But this isn't about players. It's about staying the course. Certainly coaches and organizations must be willing to adapt and adjust. Just not every year on every player.


Stan Savran hosts a weeknight radio talk show, 8-9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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