Gene Collier: Measure camp only in retrospect

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Time again for the Steelers to throw the X-boxes into the Escalades and roll west on Route 30, signifying another August end to their long association with Saint Vincent College.

Typically and traditionally where Benedictine Monasticism meets brain-bending violence, Saint Vincent was a different place this year due to NFL mandate. It was more like where Benedictine Monasticism met walk-throughs and seminars.

This was the summer when Saint Vincent was very close to what it really is -- a place to study, and, as the case may be, to pray that you've studied enough.

"We did a lot more classroom work than we usually do," veteran linebacker James Farrior said a little distastefully after lunch. "We had walk-throughs in the morning. Meetings in the morning."

All part of a league-wide shift away from mayhem in the morning, mayhem in the evening, mayhem at suppertime.

When the 2011 Steelers break camp today, they will, at least, have achieved the training camp minimum in that they will have tuned up their head coach to the standard level of high anxiety.

"I usually measure camp on the season's success," Mike Tomlin blurted at his camp-closing presser. "Ultimately, you have to look at camp in hindsight and base your evaluation on what we were able to get done [in the season]."

Whatever that is, he is not comfortable with it, which is, again, strictly the standard.

When Chuck Noll rode home from here in August 1988, he was uncomfortably embarking on a 5-11 train wreck. When Bill Cowher hit the highway in August 2004, he was uncomfortably steering a dazzling 15-1 vehicle that would be powered by a rookie named Big Ben. When Tomlin left Latrobe three years ago, he was uncomfortably at the controls of a Super Bowl champion.

"I said from the outset that comfort is gonna be a difficult goal," he said. "Coaches are always uncomfortable."

By far the most discomfiting aspect of this camp has been the staff's inability to incorporate all of the annual augmentations it implements at the direction of Tomlin and coordinators Dick LeBeau and Bruce Arians.

Every team will have something new to try as a new season dawns, most of it stolen from someone else's video, but some of it inspired by its own assumed genius. Such brainstorms are generally triggered and delivered in the spring during OTAs, mini-camp, etc. Whatever the Steelers planned to unveil early in 2011 likely isn't close to being ready, or even close to its mid-August developmental targets.

"No, we weren't able to get done what we normally get done," Tomlin said when I inquired as to the status of new wrinkles. "Not to my comfort level."

There's that word again, but innovation hasn't been totally absent from Saint Vincent.

"We're doin' some new stuff," said Farrior, whom LeBeau always has used as a kind of litmus test for what is doable and what isn't when it comes to fresh tactics. "Guys have done a pretty good job of picking things up on the fly, especially the younger guys. They seem to have a pretty good grasp, a pretty good grasp of the concepts at least."

It is hard to get far past the concept stage in what amounts essentially to 13 full days of work between July 30 and Aug. 16, especially when you have an abundance of rookies and free agents still mentally trying to put one foot in front of the other.

Beyond the constraints imposed by a 135-day lockout and a re-emphasis on player safety, it was a fairly typical camp. Baron Batch emerged as a potential candidate to make the team and work his way into the backfield, but ripped up his knee and was lost until 2012. Jerricho Cotchery, late of the New York Jets, joined the Steelers as a bigger, younger Antwaan Randle El. Tony Hills, having demonstrated little ability at tackles over the course of three years, parlayed one decent second half against Washington's exhibition roster into a shot at the starting right guard slot.

"I think it's refreshing," Tomlin said of the wide open competition there.

Uh-huh. Know what else was really refreshing at starting guard? Alan Faneca.

So no, the Steelers aren't close to where they need to be, which is surely the case in the minds of at least 31 other head coaches. But Tomlin doesn't have time to figure out how constrictive this camp actually has been.

"I haven't done the math," he said. "I haven't compared it to other years because there's no need to. The league has set the guidelines. Years ago camp was six weeks long, which has relevance to us."

The relevance, the fan base worries, is whether all this will make the Steelers somehow unSteelerslike, particularly in their trademark physicality, if you must.

Tomlin smiled wryly at that notion.

"I don't think that's gonna be the case."

You'll have to look back at Saint Vincent in January or February to know that.


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