I'm not the kind of guy who usually begins fretting over his NFL team's next season just after the end of the most recent one, but fretting I am. Why? Because next season the Steelers will take the field without Heath Miller. He unexpectedly announced his retirement last week. Well, actually the Steelers announced it.
In typical Miller low-key fashion, he privately told the Steelers front office of his decision to retire, leaving it to the team to break the news to the rest of us. There was no press conference, no scrum of microphones in front of him, no bursts of light from camera flashes, no shouted questions from a gaggle of stunned sports media. None of that. He simply walked out of the locker room at the end of the playoff game against the Denver Broncos, never to return.
At risk of over romanticizing this – it is just football after all – it made me think of General Douglas Macarther's final speech to a joint session of Congress when he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
At 33, Miller probably had another two or three really good years left in him. So, “old” doesn't necessarily apply, even though NFL years are something akin to dog or cat years. But he certainly was a warrior and I doubt there is a Steelers player who wouldn't willingly share a foxhole with him. I'd storm a fortified beach with him in a rubber raft.
In this age of real tools populating the rosters of the NFL – Richie Incognito, Ndamukong Suh, Johnny Manziel and Vontaze Burfict spring immediately to mind, but 50 other names could be inserted here – Miller was one of those players who let the quality of his work define him. He never ran his mouth. In fact, you have to search for quotes from him. He behaved himself on and off the field. He never embarrassed himself nor his team. If it's possible for an NFL player to be beloved, he was. With every reception, and there were lots of them, Steelers fans would rise up as one chanting, “Heath, Heath, Heath....”
Had he continued playing, there is no predicting where he would have wound up in the pantheon of NFL tight ends. He was closing in on some records and another season or two could have seen him topping many of the stats.
With 11 seasons and 168 regular-season starts under Miller's belt, here is what the Steelers and the NFL lost with his decision not to return for season 2016:
Total receptions: 592
Total yards: 6,569
Total touchdowns: 45
Total first downs: 346
These were all franchise records for a tight end.
In those 592 receptions, he fumbled the ball just seven times and lost it only five of those seven. He was a machine. But his value wasn't only in his reliability as a receiver, but also in his prowess as a blocker. He was fierce, competent and dependable protecting Big Ben and clearing a lane for the running backs.
As much as we, his fans, will miss him, no doubt Big Ben will miss him more. He was Big Ben's target of choice for converting third downs into first downs. Stone-cold reliable, he could be counted on to make the play.
Arguably NFL's best tight end over the past two or three seasons, Heath Miller will be a tough, if not impossible, act to follow.