Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

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Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

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Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene Brought “Blitzgurgh” to Pittsburgh

If you’re a Steelers fan and familiar with Pittsburgh’s  usual participation in the annual free agent frenzy that began in 1992, you’ve probably long-since resigned yourself to not expecting much in the way of splash-signings.

  • But, believe it or not, one of the Steelers first free agent signings was of the high-profile variety.

It came about following a high-profile defection, when Jerrol Williams, a fourth round pick out of Purdue in the 1989 NFL Draft who had just supplanted veteran Bryan Hinkle as the starter at left outside linebacker in 1992, signed a restricted free agent deal with the Chargers.

How would the Steelers, who were coming off one of their best seasons in years under first-year head coach Bill Cowher, respond and reload for the 1993 campaign?

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Green, Blitzburgh, Steelers, Steelers 1990s, Greg Lloyd

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene brought Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh; Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

  • By courting and then signing 31-year old veteran Kevin Greene, who racked up 72.5 career sacks in eight seasons with the Rams.

To say Kevin Greene, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend and has made it known his favorite years were spent in Pittsburgh, and that he wants to have his official ring ceremony take place at Heinz Field in 2016, was an upgrade over the younger Williams is an understatement.

Kevin Greene Brings Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh

In ’93, Greene led the Steelers with 12.5 sacks and doubled the total of defensive end Donald Evans, who finished second with 6.5.

Perhaps more importantly, Greene made right legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd even more dangerous by creating a “pick your poison” scenario for opposing offenses. While Greg Lloyd recorded “only” six sacks in ’93, he had 111 tackles and five forced fumbles. Following such a great all-around season of devastation, Lloyd, who had already played in two Pro Bowls by that point, was named a First-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.

Two more All-Pro seasons followed for Greg Lloyd in subsequent years, and he was named the team MVP and UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.

All the while, Greene was doing what he did best: Sack the quarterback. While Greg Lloyd had arguably his best season in ’94, totaling 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, Greene posted an incredible 14 sacks, a record that would stand until James Harrison broke it in 2008 (despite defenders holding Silverback on nearly EVERY play.)

That kind of production from your outside linebackers in a 3-4, zone-blitz scheme is a dream-come-true. And, in Pittsburgh, with creative Steelers fans in abundance, this is going to lead to a nickname–or two.

  • Quiver and Quake was a sign often seen hanging at old Three Rivers Stadium–Lloyd was the Quiver to Greene’s Quake.

Another nickname that became popular during the ’94 campaign was “Blitzburgh,” coined by Myron Cope after the defense recorded 55 sacks.

Blitzburgh may not be as enduring as “The Steel Curtain,” the nickname given to the legendary ’70s Steelers defenses, but when you hear it, it certainly reminds you of players like Greene and Lloyd, and the havoc they wreaked on opposing offenses in the mid-’90s.

Greene left as a free agent after the 1995 season, following the loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think he considered his short three year stay in Pittsburgh to be that special.

But when you think about it, Greene got to play for an enthusiastic players’ coach in Cowher; the universally loved Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach and then the defensive coordinator during Greene’s stay in Pittsburgh; he played in-front of maybe the most passionate fans in all of sports and in one of the loudest places in Three Rivers Stadium; and he also made his only trip to the Super Bowl.

Kevin Greene Best Steelers Free Agent Signing Ever?

As fans, we sometimes reduce everything down to championships. The linebacker combo of Greene and Lloyd wasn’t as impressive as the duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who teamed up for a combined 72 sacks from 2008-2010 and helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi.

  • But those years in the mid-’90s, when Lloyd and Greene combined for 58 sacks and five Pro Bowls (Greene was also named a First-team All-Pro in ’94) weren’t so bad, either.

As far as free agents in Steelers history, other than James Farrior and Jeff Hartings, it’s hard to name a better one than Greene, who totaled 35.5 sacks during his three years in Pittsburgh.

The Rooneys sure got their money’s worth during Kevin Greene’s three years in Pittsburgh. Not only was he very productive, but the team was exciting, the fans were passionate, and it was fun to root for the Pittsburgh Steelers again.

Kevin Greene had a big role in making it fun to be a Pittsburgh Steeler again. It was also a time Kevin Greene has certainly never forgotten. Neither will Steelers Nation.

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Gary Anderson’s Overtime Field Goal in 1989 @ Astrodome Still a Touchstone in Tough Times

In the movie Invincible, Vince Papale‘s dad, who, like his son, was going through some tough times in his life, mentioned the 1948 NFL Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals. Running back Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to clinch a 7-0 victory for Philadelphia. Vince’s father, a long-time blue-collar worker, said that touchdown served as a touchstone that got him through 30 years at the local factory.

  • After six Super Bowl titles and countless other postseason victories over the past 44 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers fans have given their own nation-wide legion of fans their own touchstones.

For some Steelers fans of course, winning the Super Bowl this year and bringing home the seventh Lombardi is the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that mattered last year, the year before that, and every other year since the franchise became the standard-bearer for championship success back in the 1970s. Playoff victories, let along mere playoff appearances, simply don’t cut it.

As a life-long Steelers fan, I’m here to tell you that, for me, personally, you can get a ton of traction out of your favorite football team simply making the playoffs. Take last year, for example. After a Week 16 loss to the lowly Ravens, Pittsburgh was on the outside, looking in at January football. The Jets controlled their own playoff destiny, while the Steelers had to not only take care of business in Cleveland, but rely on a Bills‘ team whose offseason destination included golf courses and resorts having enough motivation to knock off a division rival.

  • Lo and behold, while the Steelers were dispatching of the Browns, Rex Ryan’s charges knocked off his old team, and Pittsburgh’s postseason ticket was punched.

I called at least two family members to celebrate because it truly felt like the Steelers accomplished something special.

Twenty years ago this past January, the Steelers fell to the heavily-favored Cowboys, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX. Going into the game as a two-touchdown underdog, one would think Steelers fans might feel pride in the team’s effort. However, after falling behind 13-0 in the first half, Pittsburgh dominated the action the rest of the way and had America’s Team on the ropes. Only problem was, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell forever cemented his legacy as one of the biggest goats in Pittsburgh sports history by throwing two second half interceptions that led directly  to 14 points for Dallas.

  • To this day, when you mention the O’Donnell interceptions Steelers, fans bemoan the outcome and what could have been.

However, for me, I’ll always have fond memories of the Steelers run to the Super Bowl, after starting out the 1995 campaign 3-4 and looking totally outclassed at home by both the Vikings and Bengals in two of those four losses. That Bill Cowher inspired rebound gave me a quartet of “Steelers never forget” moments:

  • the 49-31 triumph in Cincinnati after the team fell behind 31-13 in the second half.
  • Neil O’Donnell hitting Ernie Mills for 37 yards down the right sideline to the one-yard line in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium causing  my two uncles embrace in our living room.
  • Colts’ quarterback Jim Harbaugh‘s Hail Mary pass falling to the turf in the end zone as time ran out
  • the euphoria that Sunday night when it finally sunk in that my Steelers, the team I had been watching for 15 years, was actually going to the Super Bowl.

I’ll never forget the celebratory feeling I had over the course of the next two weeks, as I took in everything about Super Bowl XXX and all things Pittsburgh and Dallas.

Was Super Bowl XXX’s ending sour? Yes. But sometimes, as Chuck Noll would likely remind us, it’s about the journey and not just the destination.

  • As a kid in the 1980s, I had very little memory of the 1970s. Therefore, those four Super Bowls and the heroes that brought them to Pittsburgh seemed almost mythical to me.
  • Thanks to NFL Films, I received a nice little education on the previous decade, and all those legends who dominated the football landscape every Sunday afternoon. But the reality for me in the ’80s was mediocre talent and mediocre records.
  • So, when I look back on Super Bowl XXX, I don’t get depressed or feel like ‘O Donnell cheated me out of a title. I cherish that time, because I never thought I’d actually witness my favorite football team play on the game’s biggest stage in-front of a world-wide audience.

And that brings me to the magical playoff-run of 1989 Steelers, when they rebounded from starts of 0-2 and 4-6 start to finish at 9-7 and make the postseason as a wildcard team. A lot of dominoes fell in Pittsburgh’s favor on Christmas Eve in Week 16, as several teams lost, while Pittsburgh defeated the lowly Buccaneers.

  • But there was one final domino that needed to fall on Christmas night: The Vikings had to knock off the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

After falling behind 19-0,  the Bengals, the defending AFC champions, had crawled back to within 22-21 and looked poised to indirectly ruin Pittsburgh’s holiday. But believe it or not, some guy named Brent Novoselsky eased  everyone’s fears when he pulled in a one-yard touchdown pass from Wade Wilson in the closing moments to make it 29-21 and clinch a postseason berth for not only the Vikings, but the Steelers, as well.

I can still see Dwayne Woodruff, Pittsburgh’s veteran cornerback, who the ABC network had been corresponding with throughout the game from a remote location, throwing his hands up in victory, after Novoselsky’s score. Speaking of hands, I can still feel the nervous tingle in mine as I watched the end of that Vikings/Bengals match-up that night.

  • Unfortunately, my Steelers playoff-clinching celebration took a bit of a backseat to family unrest during the remainder of my high school Christmas break.

For a 17-year old with no where to escape the drama, my only release was dreaming about Pittsburgh’s wildcard match-up with the hated Oilers in the Astrodome on December 31, 1989.

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Gary Anderson splitting the uprights @ the Houston Astrodome; Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

You can read the specifics of the Steelers upset victory at the Astrodome here, but after legendary kicker Gary Anderson nailed a 50-yard field goal in overtime to give the Steelers a 26-23 victory, all the tension and drama I had been feeling that week was suddenly washed away.

  • As I walked around my neighborhood that night, thoughts of family strife were non-existent.

Here we are, some 27 years later, and I still have fond memories of that season and that single moment when I jumped out of my living room chair after Gary Anderson‘s over time field goal sailed through the uprights.

Gary Anderson’s overtime game winner in 1989 at the Astrodome didn’t secure a championship for the Steelers, but it instantly turned a bad time in my life into one that I still cherish to this day.

 

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Why Rod Woodon’s Rugby Tackle Crusade is a Wise One

The Pittsburgh Steelers have sent three cornerbacks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. While all three earned a ticket to Canton by dominating opposing receivers and quarterbacks, Mel Blount and Jack Butler have also left their mark off the field.

Blount so thoroughly dominated opposing receivers that he forced an NFL rule changed that opened up the passing game. Jack Butler, as head of the BLESTO scouting combine, had a role, albeit an indirect one, in constructing the Super Steelers.

  • Now Rod Woodson has a chance to make an even bigger mark.

As Yahoo sports writer Eric Edholm details, Rod Woodson is stepping out to work with middle school and high school players in an attempt to make the game safer. Rod Woodson, currently the Oakland Raiders secondary coach, will be working at the Pro Fooball Hall of Fame’s academy to encourage and teach young players to tackle Rugby style.

  • Edholm praises Rod Woodon’s rugby tackle crusade suggesting it might help save the game of football.

Edholm probably takes things too far. Nonetheless, no one can question the wisdom of Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle initiative.

Applying the Rugby Tackle to Football

The idea of importing players or principles from Rugby into football is hardly new. Like Brad Wing before him, Steelers punter Jordan Berry has experience as a Rugby player. On a number of occasions, this site’s Spanish language writer Gustavo Vallegos aka “El Dr. de Acero” has suggested that the NFL could improve its tackling technique by studying the way Rugby players do it:

El Dr. de Acero’s 2014 missive, “Mirando Los Steelers, Me Hace Preguntar ¿Tacklear o Golpear?” (Watching the Steelers Forces Me to Ask, “Tackle, or Hit?” speaks directly to the points that Rod Woodson is trying to address – NFL players too often try to hit first and tackle second.

  • Tackling in today’s NFL is more about mustering force and hitting than it is about using technique to bring the person down.

It wasn’t always this way.

Although memory flaws may betray some of the details, I can remember Terry Bradshaw discussing this while doing a Steelers game in the early 1990’s, contrasting the shoulder pads used in the 1970’s with the ones used in the 1990’s. Bradshaw used visuals to depict how “improved” shoulder pad technology allowed players like Delton Hall to use their shoulders like projectiles, barely needing to wrap a ball carrier.

  • Similar improvements in helmet technology, have, ironically facilitated the use of the head in tackling.

Woodson relates as to why this is a problem:

When your head is in front of the ball, a lot of time what happens is that his head and your head collide. When [the students] see the rugby players tackle – and do so without helmets, without pads, and not get nearly the number of concussions that NFL players get, I think it will be beneficial.

This brief tutorial on rugby tackling helps bring the issue into perspective:

Absent pads and helmets, the importance of protecting the head becomes an issue not only for the tackled but the tackler as well. And, as the video makes clear, while force is necessary, the rugby tackle makes it clear that proper technique goes a long way.

Lest anyone fear that using rugby style tackles will soften the game, this video should dispel those worries:

Can Safer Tackling Save Football?

Steelers Nation reacted with outrage in 2010 when Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson scapegoated James Harrison in their attempt to reduce helmet-to-helmet hits. When Steelers fans fans complained that Goodell and Anderson were attempting to sissify the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette cautioned that Pittsburgh legends such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell managed to combined hard hitting with textbook tackling.

  • At the time, it seemed like Bouchette might be offering a simple solution to the emerging CTE crisis.

After all, the first known victims of CTE, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters had all played in the 80’s when players got seemingly exponentially bigger, faster and at the exact time when hitting was eclipsing technique in NFL tackling.

  • Alas, we now know things aren’t so simple.

With CTE diagnosis coming following the deaths of older players like Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, and younger players like Adrian Robinson, we now know that the problem’s roots run far deeper. And it should be noted the specter of CTE is causing its own complications for sport of rugby.

IF Football is to answer the threat that CTE poses to its very existence, then an effective response will likely come in the form of some sort of impact absorbing helmet technology, drugs that neutralize the TAU protein that causes CTE and safer tackling. If that day arrives, as anyone reading this surely hopes it does, then Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle crusade will have helped preserve the game we love.

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A Lifelong Steelers Fan Watches Concussion

Concussion: The story of Dr. Bennett Omalu. The tragedy of Mike Webster. The discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or “CTE.” The crisis that threatens the existence of the sport we love.

When someone pens the definitive history of the NFL and its CTE-fueled head trauma crisis, Pittsburgh will occupy ground zero. Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster will play the role of patient zero. Dr. Bennet Omalu will act as the canary that sounded an alarm from deep inside the diamond mine.

For a lifelong Steelers fan watching Concussion was going to be difficult. Not because of what I might learn, but because of what I already knew:

  • The hits that Mike Webster took in football that caused the CTE that took his life are in no way an aberration.

Difficulties aside, Concussion tells a story that any conscientious football fan must hear. Steelers fans know it all too well. Mike Webster died at age 49, penniless and robbed of his wits thanks to the tau proteins that accumulated in his brain. CTE took Justin Strzelczyk two years later, at age 36 in a fiery wreck. Yet another year later, Terry Long ended his own life by drinking antifreeze while suffering from CTE. Less than one year ago, Adrian Robinson was posthumously diagnosed with CTE after committing suicide the age of 25.

Concussion recounts the story of a young Nigerian doctor, who saw 2 + 2 not equaling four and insisted, at his own risk, on doing something about it.

A Steelers Fan Watches Concussion

From an artistic stand point, Concussion represents a work of excellence. Its imagery and acting in many ways capture the essence of Pittsburgh. Will Smith provides an Oscar-worthy performance. David Morse became Mike Webster. While there’s an undeniable “David and Goliath” air to Concussion, the producers do tell a balanced story.

  • They pull no punches when it comes to depicting the horrors of CTE and the resistance the NFL marshaled when Dr. Omalu refused to keep quiet.

Yet, Concussion also conveys to the viewer the power and pull of football. Interspersed with live game footage showing Mike Webster taking hits to the head throwing blocks for Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier shots of Terry Bradshaw rocketing off bombs to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann epitomizing just how graceful a sport defined by brute force can be.

  • The director takes some artistic liberties – depicting a meeting between Strzelczyk and Webster that almost certainly never happened.

Another apocryphal meeting between Dave Duerson and Andre Waters one between serves the same purpose: To clarify football stands at the very crux of the tragic deaths suffered by these players.

In Concussion, the NFL establishment plays the part of the antagonist. Yet Steelers Nation will likely see the portrayal of their Pittsburgh representatives, in shades of grey and rightly so.

Concussion casts Dr. Joseph Marron the same Steelers doctor who once earned the wrath of this site, as one of the ultimate NFL skeptics and someone vehemently hostile to Dr. Omalu. But according to Julian Bailes, the movie casts Marron in an unfair an inaccurate light.

  • But one thing Dr. Marron’s character claims in the movie is undoubtedly accurate:

Football forms a fundamental part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s identity and the Rooney family has been pillars of the community. In an earlier scene, Danny Sullivan, a fellow doctor who plays Bennett Omalu’s antagonist in the coroner’s office pleads with Omalu not to press forward with a deeper investigation of Webster arguing that it was players like Webster who gave the city hope when J&L and the rest of the steel industry collapsing.

WDVE’s Scott Paulsen spoke to that reality in his seminal essay “Steeler Nation” that provides a touchstone for both the city, the products of the Pittsburgh diaspora and the Steelers nationwide legion of fans. Before the 70’s, Pittsburgh was known for its steel. Since then it’s known more for the Steelres.

  • No one can dispute that.

But based on what we now know, Webster’s may have suffered from the first diagnosed case of CTE, but he certainly was not the first to suffer from that affliction. As former ABC Radio journalist Mike Silverstein observed in a related story on Going Deep with the Steelers, that as long as 20 years ago “…there were stories of ‘punch drunk’ ex-football players living in abject poverty, without medical care or insurance.”

Still, several times during Concussion Mike Webster repeats, “If we finish the game, we win.” The movie’s none too subtle message is that perhaps the key to winning at football is not to play at all….

  • And it’s getting more difficult to dispute that.

Fear not loyal readers, Concussion does not represent a “Come to Jesus” moment for this site on CTE any more than Adrian Robinson’s CTE diagnosis.

Perhaps new helmet technology can dissipate impact to prevent the brain from sloshing against the cranium. Pittsburgh Post Gazette writer Ed Bouchette has commented that he’s seen hundreds of former football players grow into their golden years with sharp minds but with painfully broken bodies. Maybe some study will pinpoint the independent variable that correlates to the excellent mental health of those players. Perhaps an enzyme will be discovered that neutralizes the tau protein.

  • Yeah, that’s the emotional side of my brain talking more than the intellectual side, for sure.

Still, on January 29th 1974 – the famous 1974 NFL Draft where the Pittsburgh Steelers took a chance on an undersized center from Wisconsin named Mike Webster, the idea that someone with prosthetic legs could run marathons pure science fiction. So was the idea that you could communicate globally with a hand-held communicator. Now, both are realities.

Conclusion on Concussion, the Steelers and CTE

Early in the movie my wife asked me why so many ex-Steelers had CTE. I told her, “It was really just a conscience.” Later, I asked myself, “Was it because Chuck Noll was such hard driving coach?” After all, the Steelers were one of the last teams to stop live tackling in practice and Webster, Long, and Strzelczyk all played for The Emperor.

  • If Concussion makes one thing clear, it is that neither of those explanations are valid.

CTE was not discovered in Pittsburgh because of football’s fundamental role to the city. CTE was discovered in Pittsburgh because fate intervened allowing Webster, Strzelczyk and Long to find their end in a place where Dr. Omalu was practicing medicine and because Dr. Omalu refused to accept the simple answer and insisted on searching for the truth, even if it meant opposing some very powerful interests.

Are you a former NFL player who needs help? Perhaps you know one who needs help. Help is available. Get it now:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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Sending a Message: Tony Dungy Names Donnie Shell Hall of Famer Presenter

Make no mistake about it Steelers Nation: Tony Dungy is making a statement by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Dungy, Donnie Shell, Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Steelers, Training camp 1982

Tony Dungy coaches his former mentor Donnie Shell at St. Vincents in July 1982; Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest individual honor a football player can attain. To date, only 303 players, coaches, or builders have secured induction into Canton. The site Pro Football Reference lists 3,860 defensive backs alone, highlighting just how elite the men wearing the gold blazers are.

  • Hall of Famers, in turn, have the chance to bestow their own honor by choosing their presenter.

The choice of a Hall of Famer presenter is a highly personal one. Hall of Famers sometimes disappoint when they fail to choose a teammate or coach and instead tap a family member, college or high school coach or even a life-long friend. But this choice belongs to the Hall of Famer, and he has the right to ask whomever he wishes.

  • But Hall of Famer’s choice sends a strong signal about who that Hall of Famer is and what he stands for.

Dan Rooney asked Joe Greene to present him to confirm unequivocally that Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh shifted the Steelers fortunes. In contrast, Steelers Nation took Terry Bradshaw’s choice of Verne Lunquist as his presenter as a slap in the face and a snub of Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney and the rest the Super Steelers.

John Stallworth chose his son, which must rank as one of the all-time father and son honors. Mike Webster gave Terry Bradshaw his final chance to put his hand under his butt. Franco Harris chose Lynn Swann to boost his Hall of Fame chances, and Lynn Swann returned the favor for Stallworth.

And so it is with Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell.

Tony Dungy’s Special Relationship with Donnie Shell

Tony Dungy’s play for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back and later contributions as defensive coordinator did not earn him his spot in Canton. He’s getting elected for his accomplishments as Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach and for being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

  • It says here that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

But Dungy’s decision to name Donnie Shell as his Hall of Famer presenter represents an implicit acknowledgement of his roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell forged their relationship on the fields of St. Vincents Latrobe.

  • Like Donnie Shell, Tony Dungy came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent.
tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

Dungy made the Steelers final roster as a after his rookie training camp, and recorded 3 interceptions and even pulled double duty as an emergency quarterback in a road game against the Houston Oilers. According to Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp during his sophomore season because of mononucleosis and feared he’d get cut because of it. Shell, his roommate and mentor challenged him to put his faith ahead of football.

  • Dungy did so and led the Steelers in interceptions that Super Bowl season.

Donnie Shell, along with Greene, Franco Harris traveled to Tampa to comfort Dungy when his 18 year old son James tragically took his own life in 2005. As Pomerantz notes, Shell felt like he and Dungy were still teammates.

And now Dungy is doing his part to boost the Hall of Fame chances of his teammate.

Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Shell

Of all of the greats from the Steel Curtain defense, Donnie Shell might be the most overlooked and most forgotten. He shouldn’t be.

Shell joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in summer of 1974 along with the Steelers legendary 1974 Draft Class. Shell found himself behind Pro Bowler Glen Edwards, but the Steelers traded Edwards, in part, to get Shell into the line up.

Stats compiled by the Dallas Morning News’s  Rick Gosselin show how wise of a decision that was. Between 1974 and 1987, Donnie Shell played in 201 games and started 162. During those games Shell:

  • Intercepted 51 passes
  • Recovered 19 fumbles
  • Earned 4 Super Bowl rings
  • Made 5 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to 3 All Pro teams
  • Won Steelers MVP honors in 1980 on a team with 8 Hall of Famers starting

Shell’s 51 interceptions tie him for 32nd on the all time interceptions list, and if that sounds pedestrian, over a dozen Hall of Famer’s on Pro Football Reference’s list of interception leaders have less (although to be fair, not all of those are defensive backs.) As Dungy himself told Gosselin:

Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.

Yes, Donnie Shell could do it all that’s a Troy Polamaluesque resume. Make no mistake about it, by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Dungy is giving his former teammate and lifelong friend a platform that highlight’s Shell’s own Hall of Fame credentials.

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Former Steelers Kevin Green and Tony Dungy Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame, Alan Faneca Must Wait

While it might not evoke cheers of “Here We Go Steelers Here We Go!” the way it did for Jerome Bettis last summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2016 class has been announced and this year’s class as a Black and Gold tinge.

  • Former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene was elected along side former Steelers defensive back and defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy.

Kevin Greene Shined in Black and Gold

In the spring of 1993 NFL teams literally tripped over themselves to land free agents such as Reggie White. Ticker tape parades were thrown, keys to cities were bestowed, and there was much pomp and circumstance. The Steelers took a low key approach, and one of the signings they made was that of Kevin Greene.

By the time the Steelers signed Greene, he was over 30 years old and had amassed 72.5 sacks. Yet he was little known outside of the NFC West, where he’d played for 8 years for the Los Angeles Rams. That changed in a hurry, as Bill Cowher pared him with Greg Lloyd, and together the tandem terrorized opposing quarterbacks for the next three seasons.

  • Greene played for the Steelers from 1993 to 1995, with his last game being Super Bowl XXX.

During that time Kevin Greene amassed 35.5 sacks, but the Steelers opted to let him depart via free agency, thinking his best days were behind him. That conclusion was very, very wrong, as Greene would go on to play for 4 more years and register another 52 sacks in the process.

As it was, Greg Lloyd’s next two season would be shortened by injury, the Steelers would lose Chad Brown in another year, Jason Gildon would show he was good but not great, and Carlos Emmons provided average play until the Steelers could draft and develop Joey Porter.

Dungy’s Roots Trace Back to Pittsburgh

The Steelers drafted Tony Dungy in 1977, and he played as a back up defensive back. His most notable feats were subbing as emergency quarterback as a rookie in 1977 when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek both got hurt. Dungy’s performance was a disaster, but he did complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Dungy also become one of the few modern era players to both record and throw and interception in the same game.

[Editors note, the orginal version of this article had an error, which has been redacted and corrected below.]

  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced a fumble after the Dallas Cowboy’s final on-sides kick which Rocky Bleier recovered.
  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced Randy White fumble which Dennis Winston recovered. One play later, Bradshaw hooked up with Swann in the end zone

Despite that, the Steelers traded Dungy after the 1978 season, and he played another year in San Francisco.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

George Gojkovich, Getty Images – In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator

Dungy spent 1980 coaching defensive backs for the University of Minnesota, but a year later Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh, first as a defensive assistant, then as a defensive backs coach. In 1984, Noll promoted Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator at age 29, making him one of the first, if not the first, African American defensive coordinators.

Dungy’s first two years as defensive coordinator were so successful that he was touted as possibly being the NFL’s first African American head coach. The Steelers defense declined in 1986 and 1987, as the full impact of the Steelers mediocre drafting of the early and mid 1980’s was felt. Nonetheless, in 1987 the Steelers defensive touchodowns, and were 5th in take aways.

  • The Steelers defense fell on hard times in 1988, finishing dead last.

Indeed, the 1988 Steelers finished 5-11, but saw 4th quarter leads evaporate in at least 3 games. Dan Rooney decided to order changes, and in the ensuring scuffle, Tony Dungy opted to resign rather than accept demotion.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Dungy with Kanas City’s Rod Rust, while Dungy took a position under new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher’s staff….

Dungy of course, never did succeed Chuck Noll as many once expected him to, but he did go on to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he hired and mentored Mike Tomlin has his defensive backs coach.

Tony Dungy rightly wins Hall of Fame induction for his work as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and for becoming the first African American to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he made important contributions while a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in many ways, his influence lives on in the organization.

Faneca Must Wait

The Hall of Fame candidate with the strongest ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization will have to wait another year. Former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca was a candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame, but did not receive the necessary votes.

  • This was Faneca’s first year of eligibility, and it is not unusual for offensive lineman, who lack statistics and other high-profile measures of success, to wait several years to get induction.

Joining Greene on the Hall of Fame dias are Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.

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Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee has announced the 25 finalists for the 2016 Hall of Fame class. In his first year of eligibility former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca has made it to the semifinalist round, and is joined by other recent retirees, Brett Favre and Terrell Owens.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, emergency quarterback, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy has again made it to the semifinal round, as has former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1998 draft offers a model example of how long it can truly take to evaluate in NFL draft class. When Dan Rooney chose Bill Cowher over Tom Donahoe in January 2000, the Steelers 1998 draft was better known for busts like defensive tackle Jeremy Staat and failed offensive tackle Chris Conrad.

  • Yet, during the 1998 draft the Steelers also picked Deshea Townsend, Hines Ward and Alan Faenca, who was easily Tom Donahoe’s best first round pick.

Unlike defensive players, and offensive “skill” players, there are no statistics to measure the work of offensive lineman. Yet it is there toiling in the trenches that allows the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers to amass the video game like statistics that keep Fantasy Football owners happy. Alan Faneca was one of the better offensive lineman, and arguably the best guard in Steelers history.

Lacking any stats to back up his claim, let’s just show you a piece of his finest handiwork (YouTube video available as of 11/25/15):

Everyone remembers Willie Parker’s 75 yard scamper to the end zone on Super Bowl XL. But what’s less memorable, but no less important, is that Alan Faneca made that play possible by pulling, and totally eliminating the Seattle Seahawks defender from the play, creating a giant hole for Fast Willie to run through.

  • It is difficult to assess how good Alan Faneca’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame are.

The current group of 25 finalists will be narrowed further to a group of finalists, who will be debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee and announced prior to the Super Bowl. In recent years former Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered from the “Already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame” bias, which likely delayed the entry of Jerome Bettis and Dermontti Dawson into the Hall of Fame.

Offensive lineman, lacking quantitative measures, also often have to wait.

Time will tell.

Dungy, Greene, Knocking on Canton’s Door. Again.

Both Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene have been NFL Hall of Fame Semifinalists and finalists several times before, but have failed to make the cut as finalists. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Tony Dungy as an unrestricted rookie free agent out of Minnesota in 1977.

Dungy, who’d played quarterback in college, spent a week working with the Steelers as a wide receiver before Chuck Noll decided to shift him to safety. Dungy remained at safety for two years with the Steelers, aside from a one game stint as Steelers emergency quarterback in which he managed to complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

The Steelers traded Dungy to the San Francisco 49ers after Super Bowl XIII (after Dungy had made the game-saving on-sides kick recovery).In 1981 Chuck Noll hired Tony Dungy as a defensive backs coach, and promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1984 making him both the youngest coordinator in the league at that time, and the first African American coordinator.

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kevin Greene as an unrestricted free agent from the Los Angeles Rams in the spring of 1993. In Pittsburgh, Greene made the switch from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he started 48 games and 35.5 sacks.

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When Will Antonio Brown Peak? What Steelers Wide Receiver History Reveals

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an unqualified star in Antonio Brown. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin saw enough of him to smash Steelers precedent and offer Brown a second contract after just two seasons.

Antonio Brown is out performing his contract. Brown easily makes the NFL’s top five wide receiver list. Saying he belongs in the top 3 requires no stretch. Neither does it represent a stretch to assert that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver.

Yet, Brown’s compensation ranks 14th compared to his peers. His agent Drew Rosenhaus knows this and wants a new contract. Brown has 3 years remaining on the six year contract he signed in 2011. Kevin Colbert has clarified the Steelers will not renegotiate Brown’s contract. And, in terms of understanding this porblem, this is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider that Brown’s performance may have already peaked….

At What Age Do NFL Wide Receivers Peak?

Steel Curtain Rising has suggested a middle ground, that the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Brown’s contract. That’s a solid suggestion, but only a palliative step, as an article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo brings into focus:

Several studies over the years, including one this year by numberfire.com, indicate that receivers reach their peak at 26. Brown turned 27 last month.

That does not mean Brown’s numbers will decline anytime soon. Those same studies show that receivers don’t severely decline until age 32. After age 32, most receivers can’t match the production they enjoyed in their prime years.

The most important number is Brown’s age when his current contract runs out. He will turn 30 in 2018….

Looked at in that light, Drew Rosenhaus defiance appears all the more understandable and the numberfire.com article reveals why. Joseph Juan analyzed the performance of 27 elite wide receivers over the last 15 years and charted their production against their NFL experience and their age. While is Juan’s analysis is detailed and intricate, his conclusions are simple:

  • Most NFL wide receivers peak after 3 seasons and at age 26.

For as encompassing as Juan’s research may be, it included no Pittsburgh Steelers, which is strange because Hines Ward would seem to fit his criteria of having a career that spanned at least six seasons since 2000 and who made at least one Pro Bowl.

So the question is, how closely does the peak performance of Louis Lipps, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Hines Ward, in a word Pittsburgh’s wide receivers conform to Juan’s findings? Let’s take a look.

Louis Lipps Peak Performance

steelers, louis lipps, statistics, career, peak, performance

Louis Lipps peaked early, but rebounded on a high plateau

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Louis Lipps with their first round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft making him the last great player picked by Art Rooney Jr.’s scouting department. By today’s standards Louis Lipps, whose career receptions topped out at 59, would not be considered an “elite” wide receiver. But when the Steelers drafted him, the 100 yard catch barrier had only been broken twice.

However, perhaps it’s fair to say that even taking into account the era he played in Louis Lipps was a good but not great receiver, but make no mistake:

  • Louis Lipps could and did do damage as a Steelers wide out.

Before Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace arrived, Lipps and Bubby Brister owned the Steelers long passing record book with Lipps hauling in over 5 passes of over 75 yards.

In terms of Juan’s research, Lipps actually peeked in 1985 his second NFL season, at age 23. Injuries plagued him for the next two years, but in 1988, as if almost on cue, at age 26, Louis Lipps peaked again and continued to perform on a high plateau until turning 29 in 1991. (The Steelers cut Lipps in 1992 during a contract hold out. Lipps played in New Orleans and made 2 catches. The Steelers resigned him in 1993, but Lipps got cut in training camp.)

Lynn Swann’s Peak Performance

steelers, lynn swann, hall of fame, statistics, peak performance

Lynn Swann’s career statistics don’t do justice to his greatness

NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann needs no introduction to Steelers Nation. Lynn Swann played as a living legend. Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X lead even the most skeptical among us to question whether Swann was an angle instead of a mere mortal.

Indeed, generations after his retirement, you still see folks who weren’t even born when Swann was playing observe a difficult reception and remark, “That was a Lynn Swann catch.”

While concussion concerns cut Swann’s career short, his body of work still lends itself to Juan’s analysis.

  • Again, almost as if on cue, we see that Swann’s best year came in 1978 at age 26.

Unlike the receivers studied by Juan, Swann’s performance dropped off, although his yards-per-catch average other statistics show that Swann remained a downfield threat when healthy.

John Stallworth’s Peak Performance

steelers, john stallworth, statistics, career, hall of fame, peak

John Stallworth’s late career rebound cemented his Hall of Fame status

The Steelers drafted Lynn Swann and John Stallworth together and it was their turnkey talent that allowed Chuck Noll to unleash Terry Bradshaw after the NFL shackled the Steelers defense with the Mel Blount rule.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed in it’s in-depth profile of John Stallworth (click here to read), Swann was often known as the “big play” receiver while Stallworth was a “possession receiver.” In truth, Stallworth was just as much of a big play receiver as Swann.

  • And, in the context of this article, he proves to be very much the exception to Juan’s research.

While Stallworth did post the highest yards-per-catch average at age 26, his best season didn’t come until 1984. Then, at age 32 Stallworth exploded for 80 catches and over 1300 yards, despite that fact that it was David Woodley and Mark Malone who were throwing to him.

Hines Ward’s Peak Performance

steelers, hines ward, statistics, peak, hall of fame

Hines Ward peaked at age 26, but performed at a high level well into his 30’s

Hines Ward universally known and loved in Steelers Nation, and while he’s often described as “a linebacker in a wide receiver’s body” Ward built a Hall of Fame worthy resume out of the brute force generated by his desire and determination.

  • And it was almost as if on cue that Ward peaked in 2002 when at age 26 he caught 112 passes for over 1300 yards

Ward’s performance following was more uneven than Juan’s research would suggest, but one must also factor in the fact that the transition from Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger conincided with Bill Cowher’s desire to “reestablish the run.” Ward’s performance did perk back up in 2008 and 2009 and didn’t really begin to decline until 2010, although Steel Curtain Rising would argue that even then Ward still continued to make critical catches in ways that numbers don’t measure.

When Will Antonio Brown Peak?

steelers, antonio brown, statistics, peak, contract, joseph juan

If numberfire.com’s Joseph Juan is right, Antonio Brown has already peaked….

Where does all of this leave Antonio Brown? First, with just four other Steelers wide receivers, this sample is far from statically valid. But they played in three very distinct NFL eras, and for wide spectrum of quarterbacks, from Hall of Famers to outright busts to others straddling the average to good continuum.

  • First, the evidence suggests that Antonio Brown has already hit his performance peak.

Past performance does not indicate future result, but Joseph Juan’s data says so, and so does the career trajectory of Swann, Lipps, and Ward, with Stallworth as an outlier. But the data also suggests that the Steelers can expect elite performance from Brown for several more years, and a post-30 resurgence isn’t out of the question.

  • But there’s also a downside: 2 of the 4 Steelers wide outs surveyed (Swann, Lipps) saw their career end abruptly.

Stallworth and Ward continued to play productively well into their 30’s however. But that dichotomy depicts the coin-flip nature of destiny in the NFL – careers can always end on one play.

Steel Curtain Rising has argued that the Steelers should not alter their contract renegotiation stance for Antonio Brown and that position stands. But based on the data, we’ll also say, one more time, the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Antonio Brown’s contract.

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How Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Career Bridges Steelers Super Bowl Eras

Jerome Bettis enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is special in so many ways. It is an honor that Bettis fought hard to earn, and one that he accepts as the face of the Steelers franchise. Jerome Bettis richly deserves this individual honor.

  • But it’s also special for Steelers Nation, because Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame career also unites the two Super Bowl eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers vs. Redskins

Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris embrace following final game @ Three Rivers Stadium; Photo Credit: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

That might sound strange, given that Bettis enters Canton with only one Super Bowl ring, whereas Joe Greene wears six, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert (to name a few) wear four Super Bowl rings. Troy Polamalu and, if there’s any justice in the NFL Hines Ward, will enter with two. Ben Roethlisberger, God willing, will enter with more than two.

To understand how, its useful to borrow a concept from East African philosophy which divides humans into three categories, the living, the sasha and the zamani. Those recently passed away are the sasha, considered as living dead, because their memories live on in those who knew them. They only become truly dead, zamani, when the last person who knew them passes away.

If you apply that concept to pro football, a player will not be truly “retired” until the last person who played with him leaves the locker room. And if you apply the concept a little further, its easy to see how Bettis served as a bridge between the Steelers two Super Bowl eras.

Jerome Bettis of course never suited up for Chuck Noll, nor did he ever run through a hole opened by Mike Webster, nor did he ever throw a block for John Stallworth.

But these players were “sasha,” if we can continue to borrow these Kiswahili terms, because Bettis did play with Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson, who both manned the trenches alongside Webster as rookies. Bettis never shared a locker room with Dwayne Woodruff, but he did play with Rod Woodson, who used to room with Woodruff on the road and covered Stallworth in practice as a rookie.

Those legends imparted their wisdom, if only by example if not through direct lessons, to the holdovers from the Noll era who were still playing for Bill Cowher when Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh. Jerome Bettis absorbed those lessons, and The Bus in turn passed that wisdom on to the players of the Steelers second Super Bowl era.

  • The process also continues with the players who have succeeded Bettis.

Willie Parker, Health Miller, and James Harrison couldn’t help but learn from the example Bettis set in practice, on the playing field, in the locker room, and outside in the community. And these mean have in turn passed on that wisdom to today’s leaders, such as Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown, and hopefully the players like David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell.

The Bus arrived in Pittsburgh on April 20, 1996. You generally measure progress of a vehicle in terms of distance. And measured by that metric Jerome Bettis 10,571 yards rushing in Pittsburgh was nothing short of incredible.

  • In the entire history of the NFL only 29 running backs have broken the 10,000 yard threshold.

Clearly, The Bus traveled far. But what’s perhaps more impressive, is The Bus’ travel through time, which allowed him to link Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV with Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and, who knows, perhaps Super Bowl 50 or above….

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