Watch Tower: Analyzing Press Coverage of the Steelers 2013 Draft

The 2013 NFL Draft is in the history books. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Draft Class has been revealed, and Shamarko Thomas is the first to be signed.

The NFL Draft is a veritable media bonanza, and 2013 was no exception, give the Watch Tower plenty of materials to shine its light on. Let’s take it from the top.

Steelers Draft Board vs. Steelers Needs

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 with a draft needs matrix that was wide and deep. Factor in the egg that the franchise laid with their 2008 Draft class, plus the need to re-arm while Ben Roethlisberger still has prime years of play, and health, remaining and getting the 2013 Draft right was imperative for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

  • How did such imperatives impact the Steelers as the draft unfolded?

Well, it depends on which journalist’s rendition you’re reading.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, concluded that the Steelers managed to walk the tightrope arguing:

The Steelers have long maintained they stick to their draft board, taking the player with the highest grade and not reaching to fill any position. And general manager Kevin Colbert reaffirmed that stance Saturday when the three-day NFL draft came to a close. 

But, after drafting nine players and addressing each of their biggest needs in the first four rounds, the Steelers did a deft job of sticking to the board and filling positions with players who have a chance to help make up for some of their significant losses. Whether luck or coincidence, it seemed to work. [Emphasis in the original]

That’s a reasonable conclusion, but hardly a universal one among the Pittsburgh Pro Football Writers chapter.

Allan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review took the opposite tack, observing:

This is the draft in which the oh-so-traditional, oh-so-reliable Steelers Way wasn’t the Steelers’ way at all.

The Steelers insisted they stuck with the tried and true and drafted the best available player with their nine picks in seven rounds. But it appears to be anything but coincidental that in a draft in which their needs for an outside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and safety were as glaring as fuschia lipstick, the first four players they drafted were an outside linebacker (Jarvis Jones), running back (Le’Veon Bell), wide receiver (Markus Wheaton) and safety (Shamarko Thomas).

Who is right? Perhaps both and perhaps neither.

The fact is that the Steelers needs were so diverse, that they could have remained faithful to their draft board and filled their needs.

Revving Up the Steelers Running Game

The Steelers once-vaunted running game hasn’t been the same since Willie Parker’s injury in the 2008 season. The issue has gotten the attention of everyone in the franchise from Art Rooney II on down so it was no surpise when the Steelers drafted running back Le’von Bell in the second round.

The move, did however, prompt an interesting comment from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who contended that:

The Steelers wanted to improve their running game in 2012, then they did a strange thing: They did absolutely nothing to help the rushing attack and, in fact, reduced their chances of running the ball better heading into last season. [Emphasis added.]

Regular readers know that the Watch Tower’s purpose isn’t to slam writers who voice dissenting opinions (although that does happen, at times) but the Watch Tower does hold writers accountable to the facts.

On a simplistic level, Bouchette is right. The Steelers did neither used a premium pick to draft a running back in the 2012 NFL Draft nor did they sign one in free agency.

  • But does that mean “They did absolutely nothing” to boost the fortunes of the running game?

No, not by a long shot.

In fact, the Steelers made several moves that aimed at least in part at beefing up their running game:

Granted, of the four moves, only moving Colon to guard yielded any benefit in 2012 and then only for a short time. But two major draft picks, one minor pick, and one position change is far cry from “absolutely nothing.”

Beating a Dead Silverback

The ghost of James Harrison loomed large over the Steelers draft, in the eyes of the Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook who argued that the Steelers “dug themselves into a hole” prior to the draft.

It all goes back to the botched negotiations with linebacker James Harrison. Both sides allowed personal feelings to get in the way of a business deal that would have benefited each party.

When the Steelers parted ways with James Harrison, Cook made a strong plea that James Harrison is still enough of a game-changer that you keep on your team no matter what. That’s an excellent argument.

But to say that the Steelers “botched” the negotiations stretches credibility. If anything, the Steelers were willing to offer too much money. To say that pride prevented Pittsburgh from taking Harrison back, belies the calculated low-cost moves the Steelers made with money they saved from Harrison.

The “Source” and Sean Spence’s Injury

One of the Watch Tower’s chief mission’s is to get at the nut’s and bolts of how stories about the Steelers come to live, and the situation of Sean Spence provided an excellent opportunity.

The biggest potential scoop on draft day came not from the Post-Gazette, Tribune Review, or even ESPN, but from Behind the Steel Curtain’s editor Neal Coolong, who dropped this bomb:

The Steelers have been oddly quiet about Spence’s status heading into the 2013 season.
As it turns out, there’s a specific reason for that.

A source close to the team is saying the Steelers are optimistic Spence can play in 2013, but not enough to publicly discuss it. They are targeting Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti – a player who’s coming off a knee injury of his own.

When all was said and done, the Steelers passed on Michael Mauti and Steelers Linebackers coach Kevin Butler said it would be “miraculous” if Spence made full recovery.

  • Both developments it would seem, would amount to a big black eye for BTSC, right? 

Not so fast.

Only a few days after Butler’s pronouncement, Mike Tomlin offered a very different take on the prognosis for the linebacker the Steelers took in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, topping off his retort with a classic Tomlinism:

All the rehab is going to according to plan. No news there. I did hear the opinion regarding Spence. My opinion differs. I think he’ll have a full recovery. But now you have two opinions, neither of which are expert medical opinions, so do with it what you will

Kevin Colbert also spoke on the Spence’s health, seemingly taking a middle position telling a conference call of Steelers season ticket holders:

When you have as serious a knee injury as he unfortunately had, it sometimes is a very long process. Sometimes it takes over a year to fully rehabilitate. But the good thing is we are seeing signs of progress, albeit small steps. But it is progress.

Clearly, there is a legitimate diversity of opinion on the South Side with respect to the Sean Spence’s prospects for a recovery and clearly that diversity lends some legitimacy to BTSC’s reporting.

(Full disclosure: I also write for BTSC and correspond frequently with the editor but I neither have access to nor knowledge of the source in question.)

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Would a Steelers off season be complete without stories on Max Starks contract or lack thereof situation? Stories on Max Starks contract situation have provided bloggers and professional press pundits with legitimate copy every spring since 2008 and 2013 is no exception, except that it might be the last time this is true.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of course signed free agent Guy Whimper, a veteran offensive tackle who brings a decidedly mediocre track record to Pittsburgh. The move was significant because the Steelers lack depth on the line, and as Ed Bouchette explained:

By signing Whimper, the Steelers likely are indicating that they are moving on without Max Starks, an unrestricted free agent who has yet to sign with any team. 

Concluding that Guy Whimper’s arrival spells Max Starks exist are a logical conclusion on Bouchette’s part. But the problem was that it was only part of the story.

Mark Kalboy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review took the extra, but hardly extraordinary, step of calling Max Starks and getting him on the record to confirm that his days in Pittsburgh were likely done:

Let me say this, (Starks and the Steelers) had a conversation prior (to the Whimper signing), and that decision (to sign Whimper) was made after our conversation.
Now it wasn’t said directly to me, but you kind of take that as an indication of what they are thinking. It is not so much on my part as more of them wanting to move on.

Kaloby went on to explain that Starks neither seems himself as a back nor as someone who should play for backup money.

Put bluntly, Bouchette got badly out hustled on this story by Kalboy.

Bouchette Delivers on Greene Retirement

After throwing Bouchette under a bus not once but twice, it is only appropriate that he get his just due on the Joe Greene story.

Bouchette’s coverage of Joe Greene’s retirement was overall very good, both in the regular PG and PG Plus (no, PG Plus has not decided to take my money, I got a free view there). He managed to cover something that other missed:

Noll hired him to coach his defensive line in 1987 and, after five years of doing so, Greene was a finalist to succeed Noll after the coach’s retirement following the 1991 season. But when the job went to Bill Cowher, and the new coach did not keep Greene on his staff.

“When Chuck retired and I basically got fired, that was definitely emotional,” Greene recalled.

Many forget that Greene was a strong candidate to replace Chuck Noll, and his non-selection drew very little coverage at the time, and was seldom discussed after his return to the team during the Cowher-Colbert era.

Kudos to Bouchette for getting Greene on the record on one of the under reported stories in Steelers history.

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower.

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