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The Steelers' stability under Rooney is lesson for NFL teams


FIRST ... 

There are many lessons those running NFL teams can learn from Dan Rooney, the revered longtime owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who died last week. The greatest of all might be his patience.

The NFL is a win-now enterprise in which nearly one-quarter of the head coaches are fired annually. This was actually a relatively tame firing-and-hiring cycle, with six changes since the end of the 2016 regular season. But the San Francisco 49ers made Kyle Shanahan their fourth head coach in four years. They dismissed their previous two coaches, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, after one season each following the exit of Jim Harbaugh.

The Steelers don't participate in such madness. Since 1969, they have had exactly three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. They have produced six Super Bowl triumphs, four by Noll and one apiece by Cowher and Tomlin.

It is easier to be patient, of course, when there is success. But the success didn't always come immediately.

The Steelers went 1-13 in 1969 in Noll's first season. Noll didn't have a winning season in Pittsburgh until Year 4. Cowher went a combined 13-22 in his seventh and eighth seasons and didn't win his Super Bowl until his 14th. Tomlin won a Super Bowl in his second season and has reached the playoffs seven times in 10 seasons, yet still was derided last season by former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Yet the Rooney and his family never paid attention when anyone on the outside thought a coaching change might be in order. They stuck to the plan. They stuck with their guy.

The franchise remains in good hands, with control of the team's day-to-day operations turned over to Rooney's son, Art Rooney II, years ago. The Steelers reached the AFC championship game last season before losing at New England and have since kept their offensive nucleus intact by franchise-tagging running back Le'Veon Bell and giving a new deal to wide receiver Antonio Brown. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has put aside thoughts of retirement for at least another season.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier has said that the team will dedicate its 2017 season to Rooney. Winning the franchise's seventh Super Bowl title would thus be appropriate. But if it doesn't happen, there is little doubt that Art Rooney will avoid overreacting and keep the team well positioned for future success.

It is the Rooney way, after all.

. . . AND TEN

1. Rooney Rule . . . Dan Rooney's most important and most lasting legacy very well could be the minority interviewing rule named for him. The so-called Rooney Rule, thus designated because of his work on the league's workplace diversity committee, requires each team with a vacancy at a key position such as head coach or general manager to interview at least one minority candidate.

The NFL pledged to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the league on its hiring practices, that teams would follow the rule on an informal basis (without penalties for noncompliance) for some coordinator openings beginning this offseason.

It became somewhat fashionable in recent years to criticize the Rooney Rule, to say that it had outlived its usefulness or to contend that it promotes token interviews and does not result in enough hirings.

But mostly, those who have criticized the rule don't fully understand it. It's never has been about hiring quotas. The leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance always have said that the rule is about opportunity, about ensuring that qualified minority candidates get the chance to make their cases.

There is no disputing that the situation is better now for minority coaches than it was when the rule was enacted. Perhaps the rule is not perfect. Few rules are. But it has done plenty of good for the NFL and for minority coaches.

2. Wooten, Carson on Rooney . . . The Fritz Pollard Alliance paid tribute to Rooney though a statement issued by John Wooten, the group's chairman, and Harry Carson, its executive director.

3. Blandino's exit . . . Usually when it is announced that a key employee is leaving to pursue other opportunities, there is room to wonder if the employee actually is being forced out. That does not seem to be the case, however, with Dean Blandino's exit from the NFL.

Teams were informed Friday by the league that Blandino, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, is leaving for other opportunities. He reportedly is expected to land with a television network as a rules analyst.

Yes, the NFL has experienced issues with officiating in recent years, to the point that Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed to do everything in his power to improve the consistency. But no, it does not appear that Blandino is being blamed and nudged aside.

Blandino seemed to be respected and well-liked by coaches and executives. Several said they always found Blandino to be open and honest. He was knowledgeable, forthright and willing to admit, they said, when a mistake had been made.

Blandino's departure comes at an awkward time; the owners had recently entrusted him with more responsibility via last month's vote for centralized replay. At the annual league meeting in Phoenix, owners ratified a proposal by the competition committee by which instant replay rulings will be made by members of the league's officiating department stationed in New York. The on-field referee is to view replays via a tablet brought to the field and consult on the rulings, with the final call made by Blandino and his staff.

Would the proposal have been approved by the owners if they'd known that Blandino was about to leave? Perhaps. Goodell wanted the measure as part of his push to quicken the pace of games, and the competition committee thought it was a good idea. The other purpose is to make replay rulings more consistent, the league hopes.

But there might have been more debate about it among the owners if Blandino's pending departure was known at the time. This was a vote of confidence in Blandino. It will be worth watching to see whether his successor can make the new system work.

4. Riveron next? The most logical successor to Blandino probably would be Al Riveron, the league's senior director of officiating.

He was Blandino's top lieutenant, set to be by his side in the new centralized replay arrangement. He is a former on-field official. There is little doubt that he could handle the mechanics of the job.

But Blandino's job is as much about politics and public relations as it is about officiating. It requires dealing behind the scenes with coaches irate over possibly erroneous calls that may have just cost them a game and eroded their job security. In Blandino's case, it entailed jumping very publicly on Twitter or appearing on the league-owned NFL Network to attempt to calm things down whenever there was a major officiating controversy.

The league will have to decide whether it believes Riveron is ready for that. The NFL informed teams Friday that the search already is underway and that Blandino is to remain in place at least through the end of May.

5. NFL vs. NBA refereeing . . . Any time you think the NFL has a major officiating problem, by the way, the solution probably is to watch a few NBA games. Then the NFL's problem doesn't seem quite so significant.

6. Colts and Hankins . . . For the most part, free agency in the NFL is over roughly two to three days after it begins. But there are exceptions, and the Indianapolis Colts made a significant addition last week when they signed defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, formerly of the New York Giants, to a three-year, $30 million deal. The move upgrades the Indianapolis defense in a major way. If the Houston Texans don't do something about their quarterback situation, it's possible that the Colts and not the Texans could enter the season as the team to beat in the AFC South.

7. Garoppolo decision . . . The Patriots have held on to backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rather than trading him to Cleveland, San Francisco or elsewhere. But the Browns' last, best trade offer for Garoppolo presumably is yet to come. They possess the first and 12th overall picks in next week's draft. The consensus around the league is that the Browns will not part with the top overall selection for Garoppolo but it likely would take a package with more than the 12th choice to land him. The Patriots have sent every signal that they intend to keep Garoppolo. But can the Browns really afford to not get him?

8. Browns' options? What is the Plan B for Cleveland at quarterback if the Browns don't land Garoppolo? Is there one?

Colin Kaepernick and Jay Cutler remain available as free agents. Is either suited for a major rebuilding project by a team coming off a one-win season? Can the Browns pry Kirk Cousins from the Washington Redskins? That seems unlikely.

They could draft Mitchell Trubisky, DeShaun Watson, DeShone Kizer or Patrick Mahomes. Are any of them the answer?

And whatever the Browns do, is there any reason to be confident it will work out?

9. First-round QBs . . . With the draft nearing, the whispers already have begun that none of the available quarterbacks deserves to be taken in the first round. Don't listen. Merit doesn't matter all that much when it comes to quarterbacks and the NFL draft.

Teams near the top of the draft need quarterbacks. Teams that need quarterbacks and don't take them very early have chances to trade back up into the lower half of the opening round and get them.

It would be shocking if at least one or two aren't taken in the top half of the first round and if another one or two don't come off the board later in Round 1. That's simply how the NFL works.

10. Lynch and the Raiders . . . There were conflicting reports late last week as to whether retired running back Marshawn Lynch and the Oakland Raiders have a contract agreement in place. Whatever the case, keep in mind that it is a two-step process. The Raiders must strike a deal with Lynch for a new contract more friendly than Lynch's current pact with the Seattle Seahawks. Then they must agree to a trade with the Seahawks, to whom Lynch remains contractually tied, or wait for Seattle to release him. A person close to the situation said it remains likely that Lynch will end up with the Raiders, adding that the Seahawks are expected to be accommodating when it comes to a trade.


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