Did the Steelers really collapse this year? Were they really the disappointment everyone suddenly assumes they have been?
As far as the experts are concerned - the Steelers were variously chosen to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth in the preseason polls - few expected them to win any championships. That they managed to keep as many games as close as they did creates the suspicion that the year may not have been a lost one by any means.
You just don't win in the National Football League without a first-rate defensive backfield. And it is in this department that the Steelers did not measure up to NFL standards.
Still, this is not necessarily because of any shortage of personnel. Outstanding defensive backfield require more, much more, than naked talent and skill. Basically, it requires "togetherness." This, more than talent, is what the Steelers have not had.
None of the Steeler backs ever played with each other before. In a unit that depends for its success on the sub-conscious, instantaneous reactions of each of its components, the Steelers have been total strangers.
Only Dean Derby of the four starters was with the Steelers a year ago. The others - Fred Williamson, Dick Moegle and a succession of players at the right wingback berth are newcomers to the team.
There is no doubt now that Coach Buddy Parker did not come up with replacements for two of his key backs, Jack Butler and Dick Alban. These two -fast, smart, experienced ballhawks who knew instinctively how to react to developing situations turned out to be irreplaceable. Parker anticipated the troubles that struck long before the season opened.
It was at New Orleans, La., last August that the Steeler coach first indicated that all was not well in the secondary "We're in trouble," he said at the time and was duly quoted. "We can't stop anybody."
Returning from Cleveland where the Steelers had lost, 28-20, to the Browns, Parker's apprehension surfaced again. "If we had two of those backs we had at Detroit - Jim David or Yale Lary," he surmised, "they'd never get us out. This is one of the best offensive teams I've ever had, but we don't have anybody to get the ball for it."
Is there a solution to this problem? Can the Steelers recover in time for 1961? Parker feels there's a chance - if he can get one or two wingbacks.
"Derby and Moegle are safety men," he said. "That's where they belong. Williamson can develop as a wingback."
Williamson, a rookie, has been improving. But whether he can become another Alban - a process which required four years - in two seasons is another question. On the other side of the line, there appears to be little hope unless Parker can come up with a trade or two during the off-season.
If past performances are any criterion, Parker is likely to get what he needs. He did it with the offensive platoon, rebuilding the whole unit in four years. He doesn't have nearly as far to go with his secondary, although the cost, for what he needs, is likely to be great.
There's one thing you can say for the Steeler coach, though. He never let cost stand in his way when he went after what he needed.
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