The rookie Steelers linebacker offered incredible promise. He arrived at St. Vincents a first round pick having been taken 15th overall. Distinct from his outspoken peers, this young man remained set on speaking with his actions instead of his words.
Playing not one, but two positions, defensive end and inside linebacker, in his preseason debut, his stat line screamed:
- He sacked the hottest young quarterback in the game
- He pressured the passer on two other occasions
- He forced one fumble and recorded another tackle
And when it was over, “I still have a long way to go” remained the rookie’s only words.
In terms of both form and demeanor, it was a preseason debut that even a noted stoic head coach like Chuck Noll could have scripted better. Unfortunately, it was also the preseason debut of Huey Richardson, the most notorious first round bust in modern Steelers history.
The date was August 17th 1991 and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. And, to be 100% accurate, Richardson had seen spot duty in Pittsburgh’s previous preseason game. But his lesson remains relevant today: Preseason reveals a lot, but sometimes it can be deceiving.
- With their 31-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2018 Steelers opened preseason with a splash.
Several Steelers rookies stated their claim to permanent spots on Pittsburgh’s roster in the process. Receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson made electrifying catches. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi came up with a strip-sack. Chukwuma Okorafor showed that he could perhaps serve as a legit swing tackle this season. Mason Rudolph looked poised and delivered the ball on target.
- Such fast starts from rookies are you want to see this early in the summer.
- But while starting strong is nice, sustaining a strong start remains essential.
As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminded, Terrell Watson, Doran Grant, Jordan Zumwalt and Derek Moye all authored outstanding single game preseason performances in recent years, yet none of that translated into anything of note when the games counted.
- So how is an educated fan to know the difference between a preseason flash in the pan and the beginnings of something bigger?
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Stefan Logan and Isaac Redman earned a lot more with their rookie preseason than James Harrison did, but Harrison had the far better career.
- Perhaps Huey Richardson’s experience can serve as a guide.
When the Steelers drafted Huey Richardson in the 1991 NFL Draft, the move drew praise. I remember a friend who wasn’t a Steelers fan and who knew far more about football than I did calling me telling me what a great pick he was.
Yet red flags arrived early and often with Richardson. He refused to talk with the press. The quote above which Ed Bouchette secured perhaps contains all only words Richardson ever uttered to the Pittsburgh press corps.
On the fields of St. Vincents things didn’t get much better. As Bouchette later recapped in Dawn of a New Steel Age, “Players made fun of the way he back-pedaled on pass coverage and how he ran stiffly.” In practice Richardson botched play after play.
- Huey Richardson had even managed open training camp by breaking his nose in non-contact drills.
All of that, however, came before Richardson’s “breakout” preseason performance. But afterwards “It seemed like he was a force every once and a while” was the only praise that Ed Bouchette could muster out Dave Brazil, Richardson’s defensive coordinator.
The lesson it seems is that fans should first watch and then read between the lines when assessing a rookie’s preseason performances.