Dan Rooney’s Legacy: Matching Excellence with Humility

As the city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation lay Dan Rooney to rest perhaps the most fitting way to put Dan Rooney’s legacy into perspective is to recall the wisdom of my late father-in-law, Ruben Jorge Sosa, who often remarked:

Si quieres conocer la alma de verdad de un hombre, darle dinero y poder y ven como se trata la gente.”

The rough English translation of Rubencito’s Argentine dictum would be, “If you want to get to know the true soul of a man, give him money and give him power and see how he treats people.”

Dan Rooney was born as the first son of Pittsburgh’s first family and grew to lead one of the world’s most successful sports franchises inside the uber-competitive crucible of the NFL. He had more money, and more power than anyone whose eyes have browsed this blog, yet Dan Rooney always maintained his humility, and he always kept his focus firmly on the people.

Joe Greene, Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Legacy

Joe Greene embraces Dan Rooney at his number retirement ceremony. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Steel Curtain Rising is hardly the only site to make this observation. The tributes to Dan Rooney that have rolled in since his death seemingly provide an inexhaustible source of stories about Dan Rooney’s sense of decency, justice and humility.

But it is also appropriate to consider just how remarkable an accomplishment Dan Rooney’s life represents when you take into account the environment in which he thrived.

Dan Rooney in the Competitive Crucible of the NFL

Have you ever stopped to consider which environment is more competitive, the NFL on the field or the NFL off of the field?

On the field, football provides as competitive and as brutal a contest as you can find. Long before Mike Webster’s death introduced the world to the ravages of CTE, the gridiron had a well-earned reputation for giving US pop culture its modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum.

  • Careers can and do end in a second and a lifetime debilitating injury is a possibility on every play.

Off the field things don’t get any easier. If you think the NFL is anything but a bottom line business, then I invite you to talk with San Diego Chargers or Oakland Raiders fans. Or St. Louis Rams fans. Or Houston Oilers fans. Or Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts fans.

Baltimore Colts move

Photo via Baltimore CBS Local

NFL owners understand the nature of the game. They know that careers are short and championship windows can take a generation to pry open, only to slam shut before many even realize their opportunity is at hand. The vast majority of owners grasp this reality and model their businesses with the requisite ruthlessness.

  • Dan Rooney stood in stark contrast to them all.

As he recounted in his self-titled autobiography, during the 1987 players strike, Dan Rooney once observed the Cowboy’s Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay’s Hugh Culverhouse comparing NFL players to cattle and the owners to ranchers. When the NFLPA’s executive director Gene Updshaw looked at Rooney in disbelief, Rooney simply shook his head, making it known he preferred to negotiate with the union in good faith.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Super Bowl X Trophy presentation, Pete Rozelle, Dan Rooney Legacy

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Lest you think this anecdote is merely a byproduct uttered in the heat of acrimonious labor negotiations, rest assured more mundane examples abound. Think Daniel Snyder firing dozens of front office staff – many secretaries and other low wage administrative staff – when he took control of the Redskins, simply to show everyone a new Sherriff was in town.

It takes a tough individual to build a successful business when your “partners” hold such attitudes.

  • But did Rooney did it, and he did it by being tougher than the rest.

When Pete Rozelle first proposed a unified television contract with equally shared revenues, the big market owners, George Halas, George Preseton Marshall, Wellington Mara and Dan Reeves of Los Angeles resisted, balked at the idea and insisted instead that larger markets get a bigger share of the pie.

Dan Rooney informed them that if they failed to compromise, then he would refuse to broadcast games to the visiting cities whenever their teams came to Pittsburgh.

The other owners relented, and revenue sharing was born.

  • Reeves later told the other owners, “That Rooney kid the toughest guy I’ve ever met.”

But Rooney pulled off the feat of being tough, of maintaining a profitable bottom line while continuing to make people the focus of his efforts as a single, simple tweet illustrates:

For those of you who’ve already forgotten who he is, the Tweet is from Josh Harris, whose NFL career amounted to 9 regular season and 9 post-season carries in 2014. Josh Harris was a roster-bubble baby if there ever was one, yet Dan Rooney knew his name before the two men had ever said hello.

  • Imagine yourself reaching your 80’s and running the Pittsburgh Steelers – would you have been able to do that?

I know I wouldn’t, and I’m 40 years younger than Dan Rooney.

But that was Dan Rooney. He was the NFL owner who once had Mike Wagner come in and sign a contract after he announced his retirement, simply so he could pay him a farewell signing bonus. That’s the same Dan Rooney who insisted on waiting in line in his own lunch room, and paid to send his cafeteria workers to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Dan Rooney drove himself around in a Pontiac, and carried his own suitcase when he served as ambassador to Ireland.

  • As Ryan Clark once observed, “He must not know he’s rich.”

But Dan Rooney most certainly did know he was rich, but he understood that his true wealth came from his ability to connect with people. He always remembered that.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Steelers practice, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney leaving the practice field before the 2006 NFL Championship game. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Commentators often grouse about the “socialist” nature of the NFL’s business model which is built on revenue sharing. That’s AM Radio inspired nonsense. The NFL is the ultimate capitalist cartel. The result of this arrangement is that the NFL’s competitive landscape rewards pure excellence.

  • The result is that teams from markets like Green Bay and Pittsburgh can end up facing off in the Super Bowl.

Good decision making, on the field and off the field, determine who the winners are in the NFL, and with six Super Bowl Trophies to their credit, no team has been more successful than Dan Rooney’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

He did it by identifying and hiring three fantastic coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, standing behind them through thick and thin, giving them players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Yet through it all Dan Rooney always remembered where he came from.

Dan Rooney’s life was guided by faith, family and football and those values guided him and kept him at the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Dan Rooney’s legacy is his humility in the face of such awesome excellence.

Thank you, Dan Rooney, on behalf of Pittsburgh and on behalf of Steelers Nation.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney obituary, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi trophies

Dan Rooney, sitting in front of the Steelers 1st five Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steeles.com

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr.

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Steelers 1992 draft room

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

The Rothlisbergers and the Rooney’s stand outside the US ambassador’s residence in Ireland. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Dies

The news is hitting Steelers Nation like a shock wave:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney has passed away at the age of 84.

No cause of death has been reported and the news comes as a shock as there have been no reports of Rooney battling health problems. Nonetheless, it caught this blogger’s attention that Dan Rooney appeared to be absent in the photo that the Steelers published following the 2016 NFL Draft.

"Dan

Dan Rooney was born in 1932, one year before his father Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, then known as the Pirates. Although he was the owner’s son, Dan Rooney literally pulled the pro football equivalent of working his way up from the shop floor onward, first working as a ball boy, then working in various aspects of the Steelers management.

  • During this time the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst franchise in the NFL.

Those lessons were not lost on Dan Rooney, however. Quite the contrary, Rooney learned from his father’s mistakes, and by the time Art Rooney Sr. turned over control of the franchise to him in the 1960’s, Rooney was already laying the blueprints for the foundation that would support the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

It was at Dan Rooney’s behest that the Steelers parted with Buddy Parker, who insisted trading away draft picks in favor of washed up veterans. It was Dan Rooney who convince the Pittsburgh Courier’s Bill Nunn Jr. to begin scouting for the Steelers. Bill Nunn’s connections of led the Steelers to draft such veterans as Mel Blount, John Stallworth and L.C. Greenwood.

  • His most important decision of course came in 1969 when Rooney hired Chuck Noll.

Chuck Noll would go one to be the first NFL coach to win 4 Super Bowls, and the only man to win 4 championships in 6 years. Dan Rooney did it again in 1992 when he hired Bill Cowher and, while the decision to hire Mike Tomlin is reported to have been Art Rooney II’s, Dan fully signed off on that move as well.

It should also be noted that, during the 2004 NFL Draft, while the Steelers were on the clock it was Dan Rooney who spoke up and suggested Ben Roethlisberger‘s name when Cowher and Kevin Colbert appeared ready to draft an offensive line man.

Aside from giving the franchise a legacy of stability in the “Not for Long” league, Rooney’s wise management decisions directly resulted in the Steelers winning 6 Super Bowls, or more than any other franchise.

Editors Note: Steel Curtain Rising will have further coverage on Dan Rooney’s life and legacy. Check back soon.

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to concede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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4 Survival Tips for Steelers Nation for the Start of Free Agency

In just a few hours the NFL’s 2017 free agency period will start. We’ve seen this movie before of course, but commentators still insist on trying to spice things up with a dose of extra drama.

  • Steelers Nation is not exempt.

In the course the course of just a handful of days, we’re told that Ross Cockrell, Lawrence Timmons and most likely Markus Wheaton are on the verge of selling their homes in Pittsburgh, while the Steelres signing Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall and Dre Kirkpatrick is merely a formality.

  • Or something like that.

Its inevitable I guess, but at this time of year a certain segment of Steelers Nation seems to forget all history since 1993. So what is a good blogger to do? Offer Steelers Nation advice on surviving free agency.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2017 free agency

Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert during Steelers 2015 off season. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

1. Any Steelers Free Agent Splash Likely Involves a Name You’re Not Hearing

You don’t need a long memory for this one folks. Think back to the week before free agency started in 2014. Steelers Nation was abuzz with anticipation of the Mike Mitchell signing. Behind the Steel Curtain had a full 7 or 8 articles analyzing how Mitichell’s arrival would impact Shamarko Thomas’ development, Troy Polamalu’s retirement and the Steelers salary cap….

…Except it didn’t.

If memory serves, there was little – if any – connection made between Mike Mitchell and the Steelers until the Steelers surprised everyone by signing Mike Mitchell. Ditto last year’s signing of Ladarius Green.

Unlike other teams, the Steelers aren’t concerned about winning the off season Lombardi, they’re focused on winning a real Lombardi. They’ve never telegraphed their moves before. No one in Steelers Nation should expect them to start now.

2. Watch Confluence of Steelers Words & Actions

Might the Steelers lose Lawrence Timmons? You bet. Kevin Colbert has said a number of times that he thinks Lawrence Timmons might test the free agent market. The Steelers anticipated this over a year ago when they resigned Vince Williams.

  • The Steelers want Lawrence Timmons back, but Omar Khan isn’t cutting him a blank check.

Ditto Ross Cockrell. This site perhaps underestimated the Steelers desire to bring Cockrell back in our free agent profile of the restricted free agent corner. But the low tender, combined with Jim Wexell’s reporting that the Steelers are going target cornerback in free agency shows that their some fire behind that smoke.

The door swings both ways, as the case of Antonio Brown illustrates. The Steelers just resigned Antoino Brown agreeing to pay him an average of 17 million for the next five years. Do you relly think they’re going to plunk down 12 million a year for Terrelle Pryor?

If you do, you don’t understand how the Pittsburgh Steelers work.

3. Don’t Panic. The Brain Trust in Pittsburgh Won’t

This isn’t the first rodeo for Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, nor is it for 3 or 4 score of other people employed at the South Side. As an organization, the Steelers have the institutional wisdom to both know to expect the unexpected and that smart decisions in free agency are never made out of panic.

  • A little thought exercise brings this to light.

Who is the Steelers best free agent signing ever? The answer can only be Kevin Greene. No offense to Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark or James Farrior, but Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer. But the Steelers didn’t enter the 1993 off season targeting Kevin Greene.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought the Steelers outside linebacking tandem was set with Greg Lloyd and Jerrol Williams.

Then San Diego came along and made Jerrol Williams a 1.7 million one year contract offer, in what was then an exorbitant amount for any player, let alone a 1 year contract. The Steelers really wanted to keep Williams in Pittsburgh, but there was no way they were going to pay that money.

  • So they went out and signed a future Hall of Famer instead.

During the 1997 off season, the Steelers saw their top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures all walk in free agency. When dust settled, two Kordell Stewart interceptions at the goal line in the AFC Championship where essentially all that separated the Steelers from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It doesn’t always work out so neatly, of course. After the 1997 trip to the AFC Championship, the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans grossly overpaid for the services of John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen. If the Pittsburgh was right to stick to its bottom lines, the Steelers most certainly suffered as the team struggled to find replacements for both players.

The Steelers understand that winning free agent bidding wars won’t doesn’t win Super Bowls.

4. Relax and Remember: Reality Unfolds at its Own Pace

Reading all of this “do or die” talk about free agents either coming or going reminds me of a conversation I had while in college the night before free agency began for the first time in 1993.

A friend of mine, I diehard Washington Redskins fan, called me and told me:

“Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am Reggie White’s agent is going to get a call with a big, fat contract from Redskins Park, and I predict by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be a Washington Redskin.”

To hear my friend tell it, Lombardi number 4 should already have been pressed, minted and shipped to Asburn, Virginia. To be fair, Reggie White hadn’t been happy in Philadelphia, and his name had been frequently tied to the Redskins. And Jake Kent Cooke and spent lavishly on players in the days before free agency.

  • But of course Reggie White never made it to Washington.

He got ticker tape parades and city keys at just about every team he visited. In the end the team that deliberately took a minimalist, football centric approach, the Green Bay Packers, landed Reggie White.

Could this afternoon bring news that the Steelers have made another day-one free agent signing? Yes it might? Could we see Lawrence Timmons announce his reunion with Dick LeBeau or Bruce Arians. Perhaps. Both are plausible possibilities.

Its also just as possible that Timmons shops his services around, makes a couple of visits, and decides to stay in Pittsburgh, just as Ryan Clark did in 2010. The Steelers could make a splash, but the could also let the initial frenzy pass, and then do that they’ve traditionally done best – bargain hunt.

At the end of the day, “Reality unfolds at its own pace,” if we’re allowed recycle a 40 year old quote from Jerry Brown.

And perhaps free agency is the best time to keep that in mind.

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs. Patriots, DeAngelo Williams touchdown AFC Championship, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

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

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www.yourpaf.com

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Colbert vs Donahoe – Why Do We Never Ask “Can Kevin Colbert win without Tom Donahoe’s players?”

The Super Bowl has arrived and, just as they have since 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers are spectating with the NFL’s 30 also-ran teams. For a franchise that measures successful seasons in Lombardis and fan base with a “What have you done for me lately” mentality, 6 years without a trip to the Big Dance is a long drought.

And the lapse has gone on long enough, that even the most serious Steelers homer must acknowledge the elephant in the room, and the question we’ve strived to ignore has some legitimacy:

  • Will Kevin Colbert ever prove he can win a Super Bowl without Tom Donahoe’s players?
Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher

Kevin Colbert sits along side Bill Cowher during the press conference announcing his hiring. Photo Credit: Toledo Blade

What’s that? Have you gone crazy? Isn’t that the wrong question to ask (it is)? Doesn’t everyone know that Mike Tomlin is the man with the proverbial monkey on his back? Musn’t Mike Tomlin STILL need to prove he can win the big one without Bill Cowher’s players?

Well, yes, there still are large segments fans in Steelers Nation along with a cohort of the press (see Colin Cowherd, Jason Witlock and sadly Terry Bradshaw) that insist that Tomlin’s inability to win without Cowher’s players this remains Dan and Art Rooney II’s fatal blind spot.

  • This site has debunked those arguments before, and will do so again as needed.

But really, if you buy into the Tomlin only won on Cowher’s coattails nonsense, then your intellectual honesty demands you apply the same standard to Kevin Colbert with respect to his predecessor, Tom Donahoe. Let’s see what happens when you do just that….

Tom Donahoe’s Overlooked Role in Architecting Super Bowls XL and XLIII

Tom Donahoe was of course the man Dan Rooney tapped in 1992 to be the Pittsburgh Steelers first ever Director of Football Operations following Chuck Noll’s retirement and Dick Haley’s departure for the Jets. For much of the 90’s, Donahoe was the most powerful person in the Steelers organization not named Rooney, until the Rooneys sided with Cowher in a power struggle, and sent Donahoe packing.

Tom Donahoe, Kevin Colbert vs. Tom Donahoe

Tom Donahoe, Steelers Director of Football Operations, 1992-99. Photo Credit. Stillcurtain.com

  • Donahoe had full control of the Buffalo Bills from 2001 until 2005, but was unsuccessful. He now advises the Philadelphia Eagles.

While Tom Donahoe made his mistakes, particularly as friction between him and Cowher got worse, if you really want to see his impact on the Steelers, look no further than the Steelers Super Bowl XL roster. Take a good look and ask yourself, could the Steelers have won Super Bowl XL if they had:

Hum… Take away Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Deshea Townsend, and Alan Faneca – all Donahoe draftees, and Jerome Bettis whom Donahoe acquired via trade and it’s a lot harder to imagine “One for the Thumb” arriving in 2005, even if this alternate timeline still saw the Steelers drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

By the time Super Bowl XLIII rolled around, the Bus had been parked, Alan Faneca had moved on to New York and Joey Porter was in Miami. But I defy anyone subtract the contributions of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and Deshea Townsend and map out a route for the 2008 Steelers that ends in a 6th Lombardi Trophy.

And if you really want to get picky about it, had the Steelers pulled out a win in Super Bowl XLV, Hines Ward would have likely won his second Super Bowl MVP award. But that, as well as the rest of this, misses the point.

Time to Retire a Tired Argument Used on Mike Tomlin

The argument that Kevin Colbert’s achievements are somehow diminished by the fact that Tom Donahoe acquired several critical contributors to both of Colbert’s Super Bowl teams is idiotic. Part of being a good leader is being smart enough and secure enough NOT to clean house for the sake of cleaning house.

  • So why conduct this exercise?

There are two reasons:

First, to highlight the fact that while people always put Tomlin in Cowher’s shadow, no one ever follow suit with Kevin Colbert and his predecessor. Why shouldn’t the same standard apply to both men? The answer is that it shouldn’t apply to either man, which was the second and most important objective of this exercise.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher, Tomlin wins with Cowher's players

Rare photo of Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher together, taken in 2010. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

The fact that Mike Tomlin enjoyed his greatest success (thus far) with a large number of men who’d previously played for Bill Cowher doesn’t taint his accomplishments in the slightest. And the pundits in the press as well as critics within Steelers Nation need to stop making that suggestion.

As Kevin Colbert himself observed after Super Bowl XLIII, the Six Lombardi equaled 6 Super Bowls for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a franchise, instead of four Chuck Noll and one for Bill Cowher.

  • So please, let’s bury the “Tomlin only won with Cowher’s players” argument for good.

Although, if at this point, you remain unconvinced, then by all means please hold Kevin Colbert to the same standard and do it with equal enthusiasm and frequency.

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The Truth Hurts: King Tom Brady Reigns over Pittsburgh in Steelers Patriots Rivalry

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest edition of the Steelers Patriots rivalry (or simply tried to block it out of your mind), the Steelers are home for the rest of the postseason, after suffering a humiliating 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium this past Sunday night.

  • If the words “humbling” and “embarrassing” sound familiar to you with regards to Pittsburgh’s run-ins with the Patriots over the years, that’s because they’re pretty accurate and descriptive.

After Sunday’s loss, the Steelers are now 2-10 against New England in games in the Tom Brady era. Furthermore, after accruing another  three touchdown passes in the title game, Brady now has 22 to zero interceptions when facing the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, which started in 2007.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Sammie Coates, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Rob Ninkovich, Steelers vs Patriots

Sammie Coates doesn’t stand a chance as 4 Patriots gang-tackle him in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And if you want to really be sick to your stomach, you may need a bucket after learning that the Steelers’  had zero passes defensed against Tom Brady on Sunday, this despite him dropping back to pass 42 times.

  • If there ever was a team that had another’s number, it’s the Patriots over the Steelers.

Obviously, if you are a die-hard Steelers fan, you were hoping against hope that they’d be able to exorcise the New England demons and walk out of Gillette Stadium with a postseason victory and a trip to Super Bowl LI.

  • Unfortunately, if you  really are a die-hard fan of the Black-and-Gold, you now realize the Patriots are clearly the superior franchise and have been for the past 15 years.

I mean, did Sunday’s loss look any different to you than the debacles that took place at Heinz Field in both January of 2002 and January of 2005, when Pittsburgh fell victim to the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line?

Going into the game, this one had the feel that it might be different. After all, there were a lot of Steelers-Patriots playoff firsts in this one:

At the end of the day, it might has well have been Kordell Stewart under center handing off to Amos Zereoue and trying to hit Bobby Shaw in the slot, with Lee Flowers and Dewayne Washington tackling receivers as Brady picked apart the Steelers zones.

They seemed all-too familiar, and now, after clinching their seventh trip to the Super Bowl since 2001, it’s clear the Patriots, and not the Steelers, are the standard of this excellents modern era.

Steelers Patriots Rivalry Decidedly One-Sided

Oh sure, the Steelers, with 10 playoff appearances, eight division titles, six AFC title game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two Lombardi Trophies since 2001, have been one of the stars of the NFL in the 21st century. But the Patriots, with 14 AFC East titles, seven trips to the Super Bowl and four Lombardi Trophies over that same time-frame, are rightfully the measuring stick for all NFL franchises.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. While Pittsburgh, with its four Super Bowl victories in six seasons, was the dynasty of dynasties of the 1970s, the Cowboys and Raiders, with their star-studded rosters and combined three Super Bowl titles, certainly carved their own places in NFL lore.

  • The only problem is, it appears that the Patriots’ dynasty, one that seemed destined to end years ago, will continue on for seasons to come.

Bill Belichick, for all his faults with regards to Spygate, is one whale of a head coach. Belichick took over as New England’s coach in 2000, stumbled upon  the greatness of Tom Brady due to injury and soon found a formula for success, one where he has discovered a knack for going after a specific type of player at a specific type of position (can you tell where Wes Welker began and where Julian Edelman ends?) and plugging that player into his system and having success.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Ryan Clark, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Ryan Clark tackles Wes Welker in the Steelers 2008 win over the Bradyless Patriots. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, AP via Post-Gazette

Sure, it helps to have Tom Brady at quarterback, but the scary thing about him is, at age 39, he shows no signs of slowing down. I mean, we’re not talking about Peyton Manning, who threw nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions in his last season in 2015; Brady threw 32 touchdowns to only two interceptions in 2016, while only being sacked 15 times in 432 passing attempts.

  • In other words, Brady looks like he can play another five years, and if you’re a Steelers fan who watched him carve their defense up in the AFC Championship game, that has to be kind of chilling.

In-addition to Belichick, Brady, the system the Patriots employ and their franchise-wide commitment to winning, New England has and apparently will continue to benefit from an overall weak AFC East Division.

Comparing Steelers Patriots Rivalry to Steelers Rivalries of Old

If you are old enough to remember the ’70s, you know that while the Steelers dominated the old AFC Central to the tune of seven division titles, they still had to stave off the Browns, Bengals and Oilers, who were determined to build their franchises up in-order to compete. Houston came close, challenging the Steelers two years in a row in the AFC Championship game, while the Bengals swept Pittsburgh in both 1980 and 1981 and actually advanced to Super Bowl XVI, following the ’81 season.

Joe Greene, Dan Pastorini, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers AFC Championship, 1978 AFC Championship

Joe Greene closes in on Dan Pastorini in the 1978 AFC title game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Besides the Patriots, only two teams have won the AFC East since 2001–the Jets in ’02 and the Dolphins in ’08. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since before New England’s run started (1999), the Jets’ last postseason appearance was 2010, while Miami just made it back this year after an eight season absence.

With Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and a great defense, it looked as if the Jets would become a worth challenger to New England, and they were…for two seasons, before imploding into just another doormat in the division.

  • In other words, nobody in the Patriots’ division appears to be even close to challenging them now or over the next few years.

Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, but they’ve gone about trying to challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North–particularly Baltimore, who has simply built its franchise to beat the Steelers over the years and with great success.

If you’re New England, and you know you’re all but guaranteed five or six wins within your own division every year, you just have to win another six or seven against the rest of the league in-order to capture no worse than a number two seed and a bye into the second round of the postseason.

  • If you do that every year–New England hasn’t had to play in the Wildcard round since 2009–the odds of getting to the Super Bowl increase that much more.
  • To summarize, the Steelers have been a major player in this era, but the Patriots are clearly the standard for success.

And it doesn’t look like New England’s dominant run either over the NFL or in the Steelers Patriots rivalry will end any time soon.

 

 

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