Watch Tower: Ken Beatrice Obituary – Steelers Nation Expats in Washingtion Metro Area Lose a Friend

Steelers Nation expats in the Washington DC Metro area lost a great friend when long-time WMAL and WTEM sportscaster Ken Beatrice passed away last week.

Although he’d stepped away from his microphone over 15 years ago (can it really be that long…?), Ken Beatrice offered Steelers fans in suburban Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia a vital lifeline to information about their beloved Black and Gold during the pre-internet years.

This Ken Beatrice obituary not only remembers and praises him for keeping Steelers fans informed, but also memorializes and salutes him for simply being the person he was.

ken beatrice obituary, steelers fans in washington DC, wmal, wtem

Former WMAL, WTEM sportscaster Ken Beatrice provide Steelers fans in the DC area with a vital lifeline in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Photo Credit: James M. Thresher/The Washington Post

Before It Had Google, Washington Had Ken Beatrice

If you’re under say, 35, it is probably hard to remember or even imagine the type of sports media landscape in which Ken Beatrice’s signature show “Sports Call” thrived.

Today, living 6,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, if thanks to Direct TV’s live pausing, I happen to be watching a Steelers game 2-3 minutes behind real time I’ll know if the Steelers score a touchdown because my upstairs neighbor bangs on the floor….

…During much of Beatrice’s tenure, a Steelers fan who wasn’t watching another game on Sunday and who missed the evening news would likely need to wait until the Washington Post got delivered to find out how Chuck Noll’s ’84 Steelers fared against Bill Walsh’s 49ers. And if you weren’t sure who your favorite team’s third string running back was, you didn’t have Google so you called Ken Beatrice.

WMAL was the Redskins flagship station during most of Beatrice’s time there, and the station made no bones about giving priority coverage to the Redskins and other area teams.

  • But DC is a city of transplants, and as a sportscaster, Beatrice was perfect for the town because Beatrice possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of well, sports.

On any given night, for every 3 or 4 fans that called with questions about the Terrapins, Bullets, Capitals or Orioles (sorry Malcolm) or other DC-area teams, Ken would take 1-2 calls from fans wanting to know about the Chicago Cubs, the Seattle Supersonics, Houston Oilers, Hartford Whalers or Duke Blue Devils.

  • As one of his retirement profiles pointed out back in 2000, sometimes Ken was “a little too accurate.”

More recently Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post recounted how a fellow journalist called in and asked about non-existent Penn State Linebacker’s draft prospects only to have Ken adlib his answer, down to given heights and weights of a player who didn’t exist….

But if Ken did fudge it at times and apparently outright fake it at others, he should rightly be remembered for the depth and breadth of his knowledge rather than the gaps in it.

Ken Beatrice Sports Call – the Antithesis of Shock Jock Sport’s Talk

Ken Beatrice’s ability to act as a human sports database was remarkable enough. But that’s not what truly endeared him to his loyal listeners.

Ken Beatrice, Ken Beatrice obituary, Steelers fans Washington, sports call

Ken Beatrice around 1977 (Credit: Harry Naltchayhan/The Washington Post)

Ken Beatrice’s Sports Call was about the callers. Or put more precisely his “guests,” which is how he treated his audience. He never had silly contests. Beatrice never delved into gimmickry prize give-aways to attract attention, and he gave each caller a good 5 or 6 minutes. He even gave out is office number.

Ken Beatrice would have a hard time succeeding in today’s sports talk radio because Ken was everything today’s “Shock Jocks” are not: Polite to a fault, respectful of disagreement, and patient with callers of all stripes.

  • Whereas today’s sports talk DJ’s seek to enrage and insult callers, Ken’s M.O. was to engage and inform.

Yes, he could get overbearing with his opinions, but he welcomed reasoned and vigorous discussion with callers who thought differently than he did. He didn’t cut callers off or hang up on them.

  • And, not surprisingly, because Ken Beatrice treated his listeners with respect, they reciprocated.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we have a sample of Beatrice at his best (available as of 12/12/15):

Keep in mind, this call would have had to have been made during the 1993 off season. He was sitting in Washington DC, on the opposite end of the country from Phoenix, Arizona and he had neither a tablet, nor a laptop to get his information. (Note his glowing evaluation of former Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Tyronne Stowe.)

Night after night, year after year Ken answered call after call like the one you can listen to above. He claimed his mission was to help people enjoy sports more, and that was certainly the case with me, because in a pre-dot.com world he was one of the only places to turn for information about the Steelers.

Ken Beatrice on the Steelers

I have my own experience with Ken Beatrice fudging it when it came to the Steelers. To win a bet with a roommate I once called him to clarify which play was the “Immaculate Reception” and which was “The Catch.”

But that was a momentary lapse, as both before and after that I heard him correctly debate whether the ball had touched Frenchy before Franco Harris caught it. And I learned a lot about the Steelers in the years before I could get it from the internet.

For example, in the late 80’s, Beatrice informed that the Steelers wanted to move Gerald Williams from nose tackle to defense end, a switch that didn’t happen until Joel Steed broke the starting lineup in 1993. During the 1994 season, he also correctly predicted that 1994 would be Eric Green and Barry Foster’s final seasons in Pittsburgh.

  • In that same call, he also said the Steelers would target tight end in the 1995 draft, and of course they drafted Mark Bruener several months later.

He was also adamant that Joe Greene would be an exception to the “rule” that naturally talented players would make poor head coaches. Now Greene’s tenure as a Steelers assistant coach seems to suggest otherwise, but Ken made a sound argument.

During Bill Cowher’s rookie training camp, Ken also gave a clue that Huey Richardson could be in trouble, when he told me that should either David Little or Hardy Nickerson get injured, the Steelers should turn to rookie Levon Kirkland and not Richardson.

Ken had his quirky opinions with regard to the Steelers. He regularly insisted that both cornerbacks Delton Hall and Chad Scott should have been safeties, although the later opinion was validated (indirectly) years later by Bob Labriola who shared that many Steelers coaches felt the same about Scott.

While Beatrice was generally a fan of Tom Donahoe’s scouting and drafting ability, he quickly labeled their decision to pick Scott Shields in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft as “Inexplicable,” and again Ken was right on the money:  Scott Shields was a bust.

These Steelers tidbits from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s might sound trivial by today’s standards, but the fact is that Steelers fans in the DC had no other way to get information on their team.

Ken Beatrice filled that void, not only for Steelers fans, but for fans of out of town teams of every sport and every stripe every night of the week.

Ken Beatrice, Retirement and Passing

A few days after the 2000 NFL Draft news rocked the Washington DC sports landscape – Ken Beatrice was calling it quits.

 

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Steelers fans in the DC Metro Area lost a friend when Ken Beatrice passed away

I learned of the news in a monologue from Tony Kornheiser who, although he’d been a long time Beatrice nemesis, praised Beatrice for being one of Washington’s sports radio pioneers. Kornheiser argued that it was the consistent ratings drawn by Ken Beatrice’s Sports Call that led to the establishment of WTEM, DC’s first All-Sports station.

No reason was given for the retirement at age 56. Some reports suggestd that it may have been health related. In a comments discussion on BTSC, a former employee of ABC News once suggested that Beatrice was forced out. Who knows what his reasons were. At the time, Beatrice told Scott Harris of the Montgomery Gazette that he simply wished to spend more time with his family.

Beatrice lived out his retirement in Annapolis and then Northern  Virginia and he would surface in the DC area sports media landscape from time to time and also worked as a lector at St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, Virginia. Beatrice continued to support charities, such as the Juvenile Diabetes foundation. He also did part-time post-Redskins game analysis for WBIG in the early 00’s.

  • Ken Beatrice passed away at age 72 in a hospice center in Aldie, Virginia and is survived by his wife, son, daughter two grandchildren.

Although he hadn’t been on the air for a decade and a half, there isn’t one of his former listeners who will fail to miss him.

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Watch Tower: Gerry Dulac on Dri Archer, Lolley on Shamarko Thomas, Coolong Returns to Steelers Wire & More

It has been a long time since the Watch Tower has shown its lights, but that is because of lack of time and certainly not a lack of material. Today’s edition focuses on some odds and sods from previous months, as well as more recent developments and changes from the Steelers press box.

Gerry Dulac (Almost) Right on Dri

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended the Dri Archer experiment two weeks ago when they cut their 2014 3rd round pick in favor of Jacoby Jones. The move was anticipated, at least in part, by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, who indicated that the Steelers were trying to trade Dri Archer in order to create space for Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers of course didn’t trade Dri Archer, but the fact that they cut him almost as soon as the trading deadline passed lends a lot credibility to Dulac’s report.

Lolley Gets the Scoop on Shamarko Plus Odds and Sods

One of the biggest disappointments of the Steelers 2015 season is the failure of Shamarko Thomas to emerge into anything but a solid special teams player. While it was clear that he was struggling in preseason, he still remained the starter. That changed once the Steelers began preparing for the Patriots, when they decided to bench Shamarko Thomas, and Dale Lolley beat the rest of his colleagues to the story.

  • The Watch Tower will also take this opportunity to recognize several other writers who beat their competition to the punch.

Ed Bouchette was the first writer, to suggest that the Steelers had prior knowledge of Martavis Bryant’s drug issues. That has since been confirmed, but Bouchette broke it so he gets Watch Tower kudos. The Watch Tower likewise gives a nod to Bouchette for being one of the first journalists to suggest that Steelers Nation would see more of Landry Jones in action shortly after Ben Roethlisberger went down, but before Michael Vick’s struggles became apparent under center.

Likewise, Neal Coolong, then writing for DKPittsburghSports, also had the first full-length feature story on the Steelers signing Michael Vick, although ESPN’s Adam Schefter Tweet came out moments before it was published (link unavailable.)

Coolong Leaves DKonPIttsburghSports, Kudos to Kovacevic for Transparency

Another major change in the Steelers press box occurred when Neal Coolong left DKPittsburghSports to expand his role at USA Today’s Steelers Wire. (Full disclosure, Coolong has asked yours truly to be an occasional contributed to Steelers Wire.)

The move comes as somewhat of a surprise considering Coolong only joined Dejan Kovacevic’s staff a few months ago prior to Steelers training camp. Kovacevic announced the move, expressed well-wishes for Coolong but did discuss it in greater detail. For his part, Coolong simply confirmed to the Watch Tower that his move is part of a plan by the Steelers Wire to aggressively expand the scope of the site.

  • What’s notable, and commendable, about the move is that Kovacevic announced it in the first place.

Kovacevic’s transparent attitude stands in stark contrast to the almost Stalinist-like disappearances of Alan Robinson from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Scott Brown from ESPN.com; in both instances, the writer’s byline simply disappeared from their respective sites without any explanation to readers.

Whether Kovacevic had these Steelers-specific examples in mind is unclear, but he did not that “Most media companies don’t share that much information about internal moves….” In contrast, Kovacevic chose to treat his readers as adults and update them on a change and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Lolley Takes From the NFL Sidelines to Observer-Reporter Site

[Note, an earlier version of this article reported that Lolley’s blog had been put behind a paywall, but that was incorrect. The Watch Tower apologizes for the mistake and thanks Mr. Lolley himself for pointing out the error.]

The Steelers on-line community saw another change in early October when veteran journalist Dale Lolley announced that the Observer-Reporter was moving his “NFL from the Sidelines” on to the paper’s site, and behind its pay wall.

While the move hardly comes as a surprise – paywalls are becoming the norm as newspapers struggle to survive as advertisers migrate to digital, pay-per-click properties – it is nonetheless a disappointment.

What made Lolley’s site distinct was its no-frills approach.

  • it used a basic blogger template, provided no images,
  • had no overt attempt at SEO or backlinking to previous articles,
  • had no advertising
  • he rarely even linked to his features published on the Observer-Reporter’s site.

But what Lolley lacked in frills, he made up with succinct but highly informative summaries of Steelers related news.

Indeed, a reader on the go who lacked time to browse through major sites could simply turn to Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines, and get readily updated whatever important was going on with the Steelers. The other nice thing about NFL from the Sidelines is that it has a chronological index, making it very easy to research past stories.

In announcing the move, Lolley also shed light on one issue that has long perplexed the Watch Tower, namely why was a print publication that had its own website hosting a blog outside its platform.

  • Lolley confirmed in a comment that the Observer-Reporter lacked the capacity to handle the traffic.

He also made the shocking revelation that NFL from the Sidelines had over a million hits per year, and astonishing number consider its lack of an apparent SEO strategy (for example, the words “Shamarko Thomas” didn’t even appear in the title, let alone the URL of the story on his benching.)

Click here to visit the new home of Dale Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines.

A Word about Paywalls

While Dale Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines blog is not currently behind a paywall nor do page views counts appear to be monitored/limited the way they are on the rest of the site, had his publication decided to put the blog behind the paywall it hardly would have been a surprise. As implied above, the Watch Tower, which very much wishes to see the newspaper industry survive in some form or fashion, respects that paywalls are a fact of life.

Nonetheless, they do complicate the Watch Tower’s ability to do meaningful media analysis of Steelers press coverage. For one thing, paywalls, or even limits on free views, make it hard to verify and fact check stories. It also makes it harder to read and compare nuances behind different versions of the same story.

The Watch Tower is all about attempting to understand what makes the press that cover the Steelers tick, and Kovacevic’s story was perfect, and perhaps could have been the subject of an entire Watch Tower article.

Alas, the Watch Tower had no time to write about it when it was published, and since then Kovacevic has tightened his paywall and no longer allows any free views. Its probably a wise business decision on Kovacevic’s part, but its an example of how paywalls make it difficult for the Watch Tower to do its job.

Nonetheless, the Watch Tower plans to continue offer its analysis as best it can.

Click here to read more analysis of Steelers press coverage.

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Watch Tower: Is Steelers Cornerback Crisis Symptom of Scouting-Coaching Rift?

The Watch Tower’s lights haven’t shined in a while, and that’s not for lack of major Steelers news, but rather because there’s been too many Steelers stories to stop and cover. Rather than play catch up, today’s Watch Tower focuses solely on press coverage of the Steelers cornerback crisis.

Ray Fitapano Strikes a Cord on Steelers Cornerback Crisis

Cut down day at the South Side got interesting. As expected, after cutting down the Steelers roster Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin went shopping, picking up Jordan Todman and Cashaud Lyonsin the process.

Steelers Nation reacted as if Rod Woodson had just been cut. Grant and Chickhillo returned via the practice squad, ending “the crisis.”

  • But cutting 4th round draft picks isn’t standard Steelers operating procedure and the move signaled a deeper story which Ray Fittipaldo pounced upon.

The Watch Tower has harped on the need for the press to provide greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation and selection process, and Fittipaldo’s article on the Steelers cornerback crisis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s blog illustrates why.

  • Fittipaldo suggests that the root of the Steelers cornerback crisis involves a breakdown between the coaches and the front office.

This is ironic, because as Fittipaldo reminds readers, in Pittsburgh coaches have a significant voice in the draft evaluation and selection process. But that hasn’t stopped the Steelers from cutting rookie cornerbacks they’ve drafted for three straight years.

Fittipaldo drives home the point with the decision to trade for Brandon Boykin and the signing of Ross Cockrell. Cockrell was the Bills 2014 4th round pick who was cut, whom the Steelers had never coached, but someone in the organization rates more highly than of Grant, while the Steelers traded away a 4th or 5th round pick only to keep Boykin off the field vs. the Patriots.

  • Like all good scribes Fittipaldo saves his knockout punch for the end:

It’s enough to make one wonder if there is disconnect between the front office and the coaching staff, and it’s just not public knowledge.

Fittipaldo’s final statement suggests that he is speculating here and not basing his story on inside information from a source. More than a few fans not constrained to the need to verify stories with sources have jumped to the conclusion that the Steelers did not play Brandon Boykin to lower his potential trade cost.

The rumors got loud enough that one beat writer, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, reported on it and informed that “a team source scoffed at the idea that Mike Tomlin would think about next year’s draft with a game on the line.”

  • But regardless of whether Fittipaldo’s musing or acting on a leak, he marshals strong circumstantial evidence.

And breakdowns between coaches and the front office over personnel evaluation are hardly unprecedented in the Tomlin era.

Steelers Coaches, Front Office Were Once Unaligned on Offensive Line

Several times during on-line chats from 2008 to 2011, Ed Bouchette alluded to a breakdown between the Steelers coaches and the front office over offensive line personnel, with Max Starks severed as a poster boy for his story.

Steelers coaches benched Starks in 2007 only to see the front office name Max Starks the transition player in 2008. The move did not sway the Steelers coaches, who opened the season with Max Starks on the bench, momentarily making him a 7 million dollar 4th string tackle (yes, we’ll repeat it again, Trai Essex went in at Jacksonville when Marvel Smith got injured.)

Bouchette never gave the story the feature level treatment it deserved, but years later, with the Steelers en route to 2013’s 0-4 start, Jim Wexell appeared to at least indirectly validate Bouchette’s hypothesis arguing:

Nor will I blast the organization for making the necessary change away from Bruce Arians a few years ago. He wasn’t interested in rebuilding the crumbling foundations that are the offensive line, the running game and in general the protection of the major investment.

While Wexell’s comments are unrelated to the Steelers cornerback crisis, they indicate that Bruce Arians had a lot of influence over the Steelers offensive selections. Recent comments on Steelers.com by Steelers Digest editor Bob Labrolia indicate that Dick LeBeau held similar sway over the Steelers defensive selections.

If that’s the case, then it doesn’t seem like the transition from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler has done more to get the Steelers front office and coaches in sync when it comes to the Steelers secondary.

The Watch Tower will keep tabs to see if more hard information makes its way into the Steelers press coverage to strengthen this story, but for the moment it will simply tip its cap to Ray Fittipaldo for putting this story on the radar.

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Watch Tower: Is Mike Tomlin’s Personnel Decision Making Authority Less than Thought?

Just how much authority does Mike Tomlin have on Pittsburgh Steelers personnel decisions?

  • Fans debate this question tooth and nail, but the irony is that, most in Steelers Nation lack any insight whatsoever into how much sway Tomlin holds in personnel decisions.

The Colbert-Tomlin drafts clearly have a different character than the Colbert-Cowher drafts. Mike Tomlin’s thumbprints were all over the arrivals of Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum in 2007 and Mewelde Moore in 2008. But beyond that, the public knows little of how big of a seat Tomlin holds in Pittsburgh’s personnel pow-wows.

Until now.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Dani Bostic recently caught up with Isaac Redman, he of “Redzone Redman” fame and stumbled across a potentially earth shaking insight into Tomlin’s authority over personnel matters.

After detailing the nature of Redman’s injury, and the team’s seeming unwillingness to take it seriously, Redman dropped the following bombshell on Bostic:

Mike Tomlin caught up to him as the star running back was leaving for his appointment. “We’re going to release you. I tried fighting for you,” Tomlin said. Redman was stunned, even more so when he realized they were releasing him healthy instead of putting him on the injured reserve where he could have continued to receive a paycheck. [Emphasis added]

There are two ways to take Tomlin’s admission that he tried in vain to fight for Redman:

It it could be simple coach speak, and an attempt to soften the impact of bearing bad news by implying that responsibility lie elsewhere. That’s certainly plausible.

But it is equally possible that Tomlin really did wish to retain Redman, but got overruled. And there is precedent here. Shortly before the 2013 season the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly lobbed this grenade regarding Jonathan Dwyer’s getting cut:

Regardless, between Kaboly’s Tweet and Dani Bostic’s story on Redman, we now have two documented cases of players being released over the objections of coaches in 2013.

We also know that this is a sharp contrast from the days when Bill Cowher wore the headset. Shortly after Jerome Bettis published The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola quickly debunked one of Bettis chief revelations – namely that Jon Witman had edged out Tim Lester at fullback because like Witman, Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak had gone to Penn State.

Bettis was wrong, as Labriola insisted, because Bill Cowher had say over those types of personnel matters and wasn’t shy about reminding people.

  • At the very least, it would seem that Mike Tomlin does not wield that kind of clout.

None of this suggests that Mike Tomlin is either a pushover or is powerless when it comes to personnel decisions. In fact, it is well documented that when the Patriots offered Emmanuel Sanders a restricted free agent tender, the front office was content to take the 3rd round draft pick and let Sanders walk, but the coaches pushed back and won the day.

  • But it underlines the reality that the dynamics behind the Steelers personnel decisions remain a mystery.

As the Watch Tower commends Dani Bostic on her scoop, it again encourages the credentialed members of the Steelers press corps to lift the lid on how Steelers personnel decisions are made.

Coolong Joins Kovacevic @ DK on Pittsburgh Sports

As the Steelers roster goes, so goes the press room? It certainly seems that way. The Steelers have experienced tremendous roster turnover over the past few seasons, and the press room appears to be catching up.

As the Watch Tower has noted, first Alan Robinson and then Scott Brown disappeared from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and ESPN.com beats. Moreover, both men’s disappearance was Stalin-like in passing, as no announcement was ever made – both men simply stopped contributing.

  • However, their seats will not get cold anytime soon.

Neal Coolong, formerly of Behind the Steel Curtain, and more recently USA Today’s Steelers Wire, has joined Dejan Kovacevic at DK on Pittsburgh Sports. This is Coolong’s second move in only the space of a few months, but this is a definite step up the professional ladder, as Coolong finally has credentials, and will cover the Steelers on a daily basis (full disclosure, yours truly is a friend of Coolong’s and who has been a strong supporter of Steel Curtain Rising in general and the Watch Tower specifically.)

On his website Dejan Kovacevic explained the decision to add Coolong to his team:

He’s a gifted, prolific and richly communicative writer, very much in the spirit we’re trying to establish at our site. And he’s got all the news sense and aggressiveness any reader would want in a beat writer.

The Watch Tower agrees and offers its congratulations to its friend Coolong and wishes him the best.

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Watch Tower: Kovacevic ‘s Insight on Shamarko Thomas, Steelers Rozelle Award Irony and More

Steelers OTA’s are over. Minicamp has opened and closed. As Steelers Nation endures the only “true” NFL off season, the Watch Tower focuses its lights on Steelers press coverage of spring practices, the mystery that is Shamarko Thomas, Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley’s relationship, and the comings and goings of Charlie Batch.

Pete Rozelle Award for Steelers PR Staff Highlights Coverage Questions

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly reports that the Pittsburgh Steelers PR staff has received the 2015 Rozelle Award which is presented “to the NFL club public relations staff that consistently strives for excellence in its dealings and relationships with the media.”

The Steelers, according to Kaboly, last won the award in 1991, and this year’s announcement brings into focus a question the Watch Tower has been seeking to answer for quite some time, namely:

  • How much are Steelers beat writers allowed to report on what they see in practice?

The Steelers Media Guide lays out strict instructions on where reporters can watch in practice, where and when they can approach players, and where and when video and still photos can be taken. Sometimes information slips out – such as Limas Sweed’s chronic drops in practice – but most of the time reporters remain tight lipped.

This followed Steelers 2014 OTA’s, where any Steelers fan who registered a pulse knew that Ryan Shazier was starting and Mark Kaboly even published video of Sean Spence hitting the tackling dummy. The Steelers PR staff was loosening practice reporting restrictions, or so it seemed.

  • Which makes what happened during Steelers 2015 OTA’s all the more surprising.

When Steelers OTA’s opened, Steel Curtain Rising asked a Steelers beat writer via Twitter whether Shamarko Thomas was running with the Steelers first team defense, and that reporter explained – in private – that he could not share that information publicly….

…So reporters cannot comment on whether Shamarko Thomas is starting – during OTA’s – but the Steelers PR staff wins awards for excellence in dealing with the press. Somehow 1+1 isn’t equaling 2 for the Watch Tower here.

Dejan Kovacevic Does Offer Interesting, If Disturbing Insight on Shamarko

The biggest forward looking story line of the Steelers 2015 offseason has been the development of Shamarko Thomas. (Dick LeBeau’s ”resignation” and Troy Polamalu’s retirement were bigger but backward looking stories.)

  • With two full seasons under his belt, Shamarko Thomas remains a mystery.

In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers did the unheard of – they traded a 2014 pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas in the 4th. The Pittsburgh Steelers simply don’t trade future draft picks – it is akin to the American Cancer Society’s president lighting a cigarette while sitting in a hospital waiting room.

Yet the Steelers did it to get Shamarko Thomas. True to their actions, the Steelers played Shamarko Thomas early in 2013. His injury led to Will Allen’s return, but Shamarko still saw sometime time in the secondary until the disastrous loss vs. the Patriots.

Since then, Shamarko Thomas has excelled on special teams, but has been unable to get snaps with the defense. Yes, Shamarko’s injuries haven’t helped, but even after he returned to full health and Troy Polamalu was held out of the final games of 2014, Shamarko still couldn’t get snaps with the secondary.

  • And no one knows why.

However, independent Pittsburgh journalist Dejan Kovacevic offers some interesting insights on why. Steel Curtain Rising’s editorial policy is not to steal the thunder of another writer in these circumstances, but we strongly encourage you to review Kovacevic’s story on Shamarko.

He doesn’t cite any sources either on the record nor does Kovacevic make references to “Steelers personnel” or “league sources.” He might have talked to someone on background or he might simply be following his journalistic intuition.

Either way, Kovacevic’s explanation of why the Steelers haven’t played Shamarko Thomas is as reasonable as one can find. And for that Kovacevic wins Watch Tower kudos.

Haley’s Influence on Ben Roethlisberger

How times change. Just two years ago, the Watch Tower was praising Steelers Digest Bob Labriola for “outing” the tense relationship between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley. This wasn’t “news” of course, as it had been covered extensively and denied just as vehemently by both Haley and Roethlisberger.

  • But Labriola, as an employee of the Pittsburgh Steelers, made it official as only he could.

Since then there have been attempts to report flair ups, but those stories never really found their legs. And in the process, the Steelers offense has gotten really, really efficient.

  • Yet little has been written about how Roethlisberger and Haley have “gotten on” as the British say.

That changed thanks to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Joe Starkey. While Starkey doesn’t get Ben on the record talking about Haley (Roethlisberger only credited Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner) he does chart Roethlisberger’s transformation from “a quarterback who has morphed from freelance gunslinger to pocket marksman” and in the process perhaps penned one of the better stories written about the Steelers this off season.

Bostic on Batch on BTSC

The Watch Tower devoted extensive coverage to Neal Coolong’s departure from Behind the Steel Curtain to USA Today’s The Steelers Wire earlier this spring, and it is only fair that it shift some attention back to BTSC (full disclosure, yours truly was (is?) a part time, non-paid, contributor to BTSC.)

Coolong’s departure lead to Jeff Hartman’s promotion to BTSC’s editor, and in the process, Hartman has added several new writers. Among them is Dani Bostic, who treated Steelers Nation to an excellent series of stories on the life and times of former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch.

In three part series, Bostic chronicled Charlie Batch’s NFL career, his transition to post-NFL life, and perhaps most importantly, his work and tireless dedication helping underserved populations in his hometown neighborhood of Homestead. Bostic wins Watch Tower kudos for both writing an excellent series of stories, but also for reaching out and getting interviews with Batch.

For more of The Watch Tower’s analysis of Pittsburgh Steelers press coverage, click here.

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Watch Tower: Kudos for Wexell on Polamalu Retirement Coverage, Steelers Wire on Robinson Suicide

Steelers OTA’s may be in full swing, but this edition of the Watch Tower focuses its lights on Troy Polamalu retirement coverage, Adrian Robinson’s death, the Steelers safety position, and the disappearance of another Steelers scribe.

Jim Wexell Score Major Scoop with Polamalu Retirement

As a rule, major Steelers news only breaks when I am traveling and unable to write, and this off season was no exception, with Steelers legend Troy Polamalu retiring and Ike Taylor hanging it up while I was on the road. As such, the Watch Tower did not have time to give Jim Wexell his due.

  • Google’s “Define” functionality tells us that a scoop is “A piece of news published by a newspaper or broadcast by a television or radio station in advance of its rivals.”

Before the internet, a “scoop” was a true prize, as it generally gave the reporting outlet a monopoly on the, albeit a short one, on an exclusive story. The advent of the digital age diminishes scoop’s value is somewhat, but the prestige in landing an exclusive story is inversely greater.

On April 10th 2015, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell phone rang with a reporter’s dream come true. Troy Polamalu had retired, and he chose Wexell as his sole confideant in the press. Yes, Polamalu had informed Dan Rooney, but after that Jim Wexell was the only person he spoke with.

  • Troy Polamalu has often been described as one of the toughest interviews in the business.

That’s not because Polamalu assumed an adversarial role with the press, the way say, Greg Lloyd did, but rather because Polamalu disdained tooting his own horn (see his suggestion when he was injured in in 2009 that the Steelers defense would improve with Tyrone Carter instead of him.)

Jim Wexell is a tenured veteran of the Steelers press corps. but one of the very few credentialed journalists not affiliated with a major print or broadcast organization. And if Wexell lacks the notoriety of an Ed Bouchette or Gerry Dulac, he makes up for it by going the extra mile. Wexell is known for digging deep into the Steelers locker room to deliver readers stories that others miss.

  • The fact that Polamalu singled out Wexell to break his story is a testament to the time and effort Wexell invested in building relationships with the men he covers.

Wexell’s story on Polamalu’s retirement also broke some new ground, confirming that Polamalu was not particularly happy with the way his exit unfolded, and citing some of Polamalu’s concerns about the direction of the Steelers locker room culture. Previously, the blog Steel City Blitz had run a story to this effect adding that Polamalu was unhappy with Dick LeBeau’s exit, but that story was based on anonymous sources, whereas Wexell’s came directly from Polamalu.

Wexell went into further detail when he covered Polamalu’s appearance in Thomas Tull’s press box at PNC Park. As that article was behind Steel City Insider’s pay wall, the Watch Tower will not steal Wexell’s thunder, but will say that Wexell revealed that tensions between Polamalu and the organization pre-date Polamalu and Dick LeBeau’s exit.

(In doing research on Troy Polamalu retirement coverage, the Watch Tower also uncovered an article by Wexell on Troy Polamalu’s first days as a Steeler that is well worth the read.)

Steelers Wire on Adrian Robinson’s Untimely Passing

Former Steelers linebacker Adrian Robinson tragically took his own life a few weeks ago. Both the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune Review dutifully covered his death, as did other major outlets.

The stories were by in-large of the boiler plate variety, providing readers with details of his death, quoting Mike Tomlin and/or other Steelers and leaving it at that.

With no disrespect to the departed Robinson, it’s a fair guess that most Steelers fans saw the headline “Former Steelers Linebacker Adrian Robinson dies” and first thought “Who?” and then vaguely recalled Robinson’s role with the Steelers.

  • Neal Coolong put Robinson’s story with the Steelers in a human context.

Coolong reminded his readers of who Robinson was, and what he meant, at least potentially, to the team at one point. While it’s possible to suggest that my friend and fellow Steelers scribe exaggerated when he asserted that “Robinson looked like the future hero. The next in line to ascend a throne of dominant edge pass rushers that went well-beyond Harrison and Woodley” it is undeniable that there was a buzz surrounding Robinson during Steelers 2012 training camp.

And in that light, Coolong wins Watch Tower kudos for not only recalling how much of a human tragedy Robinson’s death represents, but also bringing to life just how transient of an existence the NFL is for so many young men.

While Robinson might not have achieved cult hero status the way Isaac Redman did in Redzone Redman heyday, Robinson was seen both coaches and fans as another undrafted rookie free agent who had limitless “upside” coming out of his first training camp, only to find himself as trade fodder for Felix Jones in his second.

These kudos for Coolong do come with extra “style points” because, unlike a beat writer, Coolong put this story together without access to the Steelers locker room.

Seeing the Swearinger “Story” Before Everyone Else

Steelers Wire also wins kudos for seeing being way, way ahead of the competition in spotting the Steelers interest in former Houston Texan’s safety D.J. Swearinger. Prior to the draft, word leaked that the Houston Texans were interested in dealing Swearinger.

Neal Coolong immediately wrote a story suggesting the Steelers might be interested in Swearinger, and cited Mike Tomlin’s lavish praise of the Swearinger before the Steelers mid-season matchup with the Texans. When the Texans cut Swearinger the Steelers Wire also struck again, informing readers that the Steelers had put in a wavier wire claim on Swearinger. Later Steelers Wire treated readers to a third story on the implications behind the Steelers wavier wire claim on Swearinger.

  • From a press traditionalist view point this might seem excessive.

And, if story space stuff suffered the limitations imposed by available column inches and advertiser sponsorship, the Steelers wavier wire claim on Swearinger wouldn’t have warranted more than 2-3 inches – and that assumes a fairly slow day for sports news.

But such limits are obsolete in the digital age, and such an approach has allowed Steelers Wire to achieve 4th ranking for the Google query “D.J. Swearinger Steelers” which is not bad for a website that’s less than 3 months old.

Also of interest to the Watch Tower: ESPN is the only “traditional” news outlet showing up in the first page of SERPs for the query “D.J. Swearinger Steelers,” which shows just how far behind traditional mainstays like the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Tribune Review are in competition for unconventional stories.

As Goes Robinson, So Goes Brown?

An earlier edition of the Watch Tower noted Alan Robinson sudden but unexplained disappearance from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review back in November. Not it seems that Scott Brown is following suit.

Scott Brown left the Tribune Review in to cover the Steelers beat for ESPN covered did without missing a beat until April 27th, the Monday before the 2015 NFL Draft. There is contributions suddenly stopped, with AFC West/Raiders beat writer Bill Williamson handling Steelers coverage initially, until the job fell to Jeremy Fowler, who up until now has been covering Cleveland.

  • Likewise, Brown’s Twitter feed went dark after April 27th, save for one retweet in early May

The Watch Tower has no knowledge of why this occurred or under what conditions, but rumor has it that Brown has indeed departed from ESPN. Which is an unfortunate loss for Steelers Nation.

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Watch Tower: Your Team Cheats Debunked on Behalf of Steelers Nation

Deflatgate is spurred the New England Patriots and their fans to fight back. Unable claim innocence, wish to claim “Everyone else does it” and thereby bring the rest of the NFL down into the muck with them.

Your Team Cheats” provides an example. Your Team Cheats attempts to rank instances of cheating across the league. Steelers Nation will not like their conclusions. Your Team Cheats charges that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s 2nd worst cheats, after the Denver Broncos.

Your Team Cheats charges the Steelers with ten individual instances of cheating and includes the Steelers in four more league wide cheating allegations.

How well do their claims hold up? The Watch Tower takes a look.

Steelers vs Patriots, Your team cheats debunked, Your team cheats steelers debunked, mike tomlin, Bill Belichick

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with Bill Belichick shake hands after Steelers 2013 loss @ New England

Your Team Cheats Strongest Arguments Against Steelers

Your Team Cheats’ best argument against the Steelers comes in the case of Dr. Richard Rydze who was charged with distributing steroids, human growth hormone and other illegal substances. Dr. Richard Rydze was a Steelers team doctor from 1985 to 2007.

The blunt truth is that this story has been underreported both in Pittsburgh and nationally, something which was to be (and might still become) the focus of a Watch Tower column

  • Having a doctor on staff for over 20 years who gets busted for steroid distribution looks very bad and his exact role with the Steelers deserves greater investigation.

Yet, Your Team Cheats fails to break ground here and provides no evidence whatsoever that Dr. Rydze was involved in distributing steroids to members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead the site simply links to other pages on the site.

One of those does site Paul Wiggins and Joel Steed’s substance abuse violations, but fails to mention that Steed was using an over-the-counter supplement which happened to contain banned ingredients.

Your Team Cheats brings “Shoulderpadgate” or the Steelers illegal off season use of shoulder pads in 1978, a violation for which the Steelers were docked a third round pick. Really, there’s little to dispute here.

  • The Steelers broke the rules, got caught and were punished.

However, the one can question the tone of Your Team Cheats conclusions as current ESPN reporter John Clayton broke the story, and while the Steelers weren’t happy about it, Art Rooney Sr. later complemented him on it, and Clayton built a strong relationship with Noll afterwards (and Noll was not known for his warm media relations.)

  • The Watch Tower takes no issue with Your Team Cheats assessment of Emmanuel Sanders getting fined for faking cramps.

Likewise, one cannot quibble about Your Team Cheats on Mike Tomlin’s sideline stutter step vs. Baltimore in 2013. Intentionally or unintentionally, Mike Tomlin clearly broke the rules. But, to be blunt, had Your Team Cheats done more thorough research, the site could have made a stronger case.

That’s the downside of doing selective or at least incomplete research, which as the Watch Tower will make clear, seems to be the MO of Your Team Cheats.

Your Team Cheats Empty Arguments Against the Steelers

Your Team Cheats makes a number of bogus claims against the Steelers when it comes to cheating.

First, Your Team Cheats levies 5 cheating points against the Steelers for incidents of illegal hits. The idea of including illegal hits into an analysis of cheating is inane, because there’s a big difference between making a hit in a heat of a game that happens to be illegal and premeditated deliberate rule breaking.

Your Team Cheats summary of the Steelers cheating includes entries for Tampergate, Headsetgate, Spygate, and Scrapsgate. Note, the site doesn’t add “cheat points” to the Steelers score for these instances and adds no evidence whatsoever that the Steelers participated in any of these, aside from Bill Cowher’s statement that the Steelers would try to decode opposing team’s signals (without the use of illegal video.)

Your Team Cheats could, for example, cite a single case where the Steelers signed a recently cut or a practice squad player of an upcoming opponent, but fails to do so (in part, because the Steelers don’t do that.)

But that’s what Your Team Cheats would do if the site were a legitimate investigation into NFL rules infractions. But not the objective, instead the site’s objective is to suggest guilt by association.

Your Team Cheats on Steroids and the Steelers of the 70’s

Your Team Cheats makes a big deal about steroid use by the Steelers of the 70’s. Let’s be clear on something:

  • Members of the Super Steelers used steroids.

No one can dispute that. A handful of players have admitted to it. Steve Courson suggested before his death that there were many more members who needed to fess up.

To bolster its case, Your Team Cheats recycles comments by Jim Hasslett and Fran Tarkenton. He even recycles Hasllets hackneyed charge that the Steelers of the 70’s were “the ones who kind of started” use of steroids in the NFL.

  • That’s a damming quote.

It’s also inaccurate. The use of steroids in pro football dates back to at least 1963, when Sid Gillman’s strength coach Alvin Roy actively encouraged his players to use Dianabol and went as far as put them on the team’s training table in cereal bowls.

  • Use of steroids in pro football began long before Chuck Noll ever drafted his first player for the Steelers.

Your Team Cheats directly suggests that steroid use taints the Steelers 4 Super Bowl victories. Were the Steelers the only NFL team using steroids in the 1970’s? Your Team Cheats doesn’t say that, but the use of the Hasslett quote implies that the Steelers were somehow responsible for league-wide steroid use in the 70’s.

Both Jim Hasslett and Randy White (the later quoted in Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work) claim how their assumptions that the Steelers of the 70’s were using steroids prompted them to begin using…
…So if a high school guy starts drinking underage after getting dumped a girl who is also an underage drinker is the ex-girlfriend then to blame?

I daresay not, and steroid use in the NFL cannot be pinned on the Super Steelers.

  • Your Team Cheats gives the Steelers 7.0 “cheat points” for the use of steroids in the 70’s.

There’s a problem with that. Steroids were not banned by the NFL nor were they even illegal until the 1980’s.

  • Use of steroids is wrong on so many levels. Both the members of the Super Steelers as well as their opponents were wrong to use steroids in the 70’s.

But that doesn’t change the fact that if steroids weren’t illegal, then using them cannot be considered cheating.

Your Team Cheats on the Steelers and the 1975 AFC Championship Game

Were Al Davis still alive, it would be possible, and perhaps even plausible to suggest that he was Your Team Cheats source here. This story is part of Steeler-Raiders lore. The tarp covering the field at Three Rivers Stadium the night before the 1975 AFC Championship game tore, causing parts of the field to be icy.

The winter winds in Pittsburgh get pretty wicked. Tarps do tear, and water does freeze when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Al Davis argument is that the tear was intentional, that the Steelers iced down the sidelines to weaken the Raiders deep passing game.

  • This debate is ancient history, and only gets rehashed by Raider apologists

Your team cheats justification for toeing the Al Davis line boils down to “A groundskeeper who’s nickname is “Dirt” is always on top of his field conditions.” Ergo Steelers grounds keeper Dirt Dinardo did it. With an airtight case like that, is it any wonder this didn’t make it to the Supreme Court? One might suppose that, given the uncanny accuracy of his weather reports, longtime WTAE weatherman Joe DeNardo is also responsible for the wind, rain and cold in Pittsburgh that night.

  • The entire logic behind Al Davis’excuse making is fundamentally flawed.

Changes to field conditions impacted the Steelers as much as the Raiders. The Steelers could not hurt the Raiders deep passing game without hurting their own. In 1975 Lynn Swann averaged 15.9 yards per catch, Frank Lewis 18.1 yards per catch, and John Stallworth 21.2 yards per catch…

Yeah, the Steelers strategy was to keep Terry Bradshaw from going deep.

Your Team Cheats on the Steelers and Salarycapgate

Perhaps Your Team Cheats most egregious entry on the Steelers involves “Salarcapgate” which relates to an incident in 1998 that ultimately led the Steelers to lose their 3rd round draft pick in 2001.

  • The facts here are well known, and that’s why Your Team Cheats sleight of hand is so apparent here.

Although he never made a Pro Bowl, for nearly 10 years John Jackson protected Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart’s blindsides. When he became a free agent in 1998, the San Diego Chargers made Jackson the highest paid offensive lineman in the league at the time.

  • The Steelers opted not to over pay.

Near the end of preseason it was clear the Steelers had no one to play right tackle, so Bill Cowher moved Justin Strzelczyk to the right side and moved guard Will Wolford to left tackle. Wolford’s original contract had called for him to be paid an additional $400,000 should he play tackle instead guard. Unfortunately page of the contract containing that clause got left off and was never filed with the league.

Will Wolford’s agent remembered brought it to Dan Rooney’s attention who also remembered the original agreement, and the Steelers honored their word and paid Wolford. Knowing that this money needed to be accounted for, the Steelers turned themselves in to the league office. The league investigated, and took away the Steelers 2001 third round draft pick.

  • This isn’t want you’ll read on Your Team Cheats, however.

Your Team Cheats cites an article from the New York Times and the Bangor Daily News (that lifeblood of NFL information) and tells readers:

The league determined that the Steelers made an undisclosed commitment to pay Wolford $400,000 that violated the league’s rules governing the size of team payrolls. The Steelers were ordered to pay Wolford the $400,000 and another $150,000 to the league as a penalty.

  • How sinister of the Steelers! They both made an “undisclosed commitment to pay Wolford $400,000” AND were “ordered”” to pay the $400,000 to Wolford.

Through all of this, Your Team Cheats neglects to tell readers that, far from trying to hide something, the Steelers turned themselves in to the NFL! Nor does he tell readers that the Steelers also took a $400,000 salary cap hit, while the 49ers avoided taking a similar salary cap hit for a more extensive case of salary cap cheating just 8 months later.

In all fairness, there’s a lot of information on the Steelers salary cap incident with Will Wolford which doesn’t instantly pop up when you Google it. But that’s no excuse, as a little extra digging did produce the links referenced above.

Your Team Cheats Debunked by Shoddy Research and Selective Use of Facts

When held up to the Watch Tower’s light, most of Your Team Cheat charges against the Steelers fail to stick. What could have been an honest assessment of rules infractions in the NFL instead turns into a gigantic attempt at guilt by association.

  • While Your Team Cheats uses links and discusses methodology in an attempt to add an air of objectivity to its findings, its research and application of the facts is selective at worst and incomplete at best.

For example, the New York Giants were founded in 1925 and the Baltimore Ravens were established in 1996. Yet they both have cheating scores of 35. That math simply doesn’t add up. Likewise, Your Team Cheats analysis of the Washington Redskins fails to take into account something which was once a stable of franchise policy which could be considered “cheating” at least by the site’s overly broad standards.

For the record, with Your Team Cheats debunked by the Watch Tower on behalf of Steelers Nation, the author of the site doesn’t seem to have any particular axe to grind against the Steelers. Rather Your Team Cheats is simply another site engaging in the 19th “art” of muckraking.

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Watch Tower: Insight into Steelers Scouting Needed, 2015 Draft & More

The Steelers 2015 Draft is in the books so the Watch Tower turns its lights to the press coverage of the Steelers draft and all the associated efforts the go with it.

Colbert, Tomlin & the Art of the Informationless Press Conference

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette once lamented that Mike Tomlin had “mastered the art of the informationless press conference.” Bill Cowher was no better, with John Steigerwald admitting that he stopped asking questions at press conferences five or six years before Cowher departed.

  • To a lay person’s view these complaints are a little surprising.

Unlike other NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers severely limit media access to their head coach and general manger. Kevin Colbert doesn’t do interviews during the regular season. Mike Tomlin’s offseason media availability is so limited that Pittsburgh reporters actually have to travel to the NFL owners meetings to get on the record time with Tomlin.

  • So you’d think that reporters would welcome whatever on the record interaction with Colbert and Tomlin that they can get.

And they probably do, but pay close enough attention, and you’ll the media’s collective appetite for more is apparent. And prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, independent Pittsburgh sports reporting czar Dejan Kovacevic, offered some insight into why.

In his pre-draft article, Kovacevic argued that cornerback was the Steelers top draft need bar none, and attempted to get Kevin Colbert and/or Mike Tomlin on the record confirming his view point. He then warned his readers “Which, of course, led me to waste everyone’s time by asking this question at the session today:”

Kovacevic didn’t get the answer he wanted, and Colbert’s simile seems to indicate that the General Manager is fully aware of that fact. Kovacevic’s a savvy enough that Colbert’s answer didn’t come as a surprise.

But listening to Colbert and Tomlin’s generic, boiler plate on steroids response has got to be frustrating, especially for a reporter who has probably heard both men give far more informative and perhaps colorful answers in off-the-record settings.

Indeed, it would be refreshing for all, if Colbert had said something like this:

I understand where you’re coming from, but ultimately history has taught us not to lock in on any one player or one position. Think back to the 2012 draft, when many thought cornerback a priority need for us, and  it probably was. But look what happened. David DeCastro, a guy who most experts had going in the top ten, fell right into our laps. Now guard wasn’t as urgent of a need as corner and some other positions at the time, but we thought that DeCastro had the type of talent that you simply cannot pass on. So we drafted David DeCastro and he’s growing into the stud we thought he would right before our eyes. So to answer your question, yes, corner’s on our want list going into this draft, but we’re simply not going to commit to addressing it in any particular round.

OK, perhaps Colbert wouldn’t have been quite so explicit, but this was an accurate description of what happened in 2012, and such an answer would have set the stage for what happened in the 2015 draft.

Needed More Press Coverage on Steelers Scouting Operations

Kovacevic’s (and other reporters) frustration with the dearth of hard information coming out of the Steelers pre-draft press conferences represents a symptom of a deeper problem:

  • The workings of the Steelers scouting and evaluation process are almost a complete mystery.

OK, neither the Steelers nor is any other NFL teams going to publish their equivalent of trade secrets to the public at large. Nor should they. But much the same can be said for game planning and offensive and defensive strategies, and yet the press does provide the public with valuable insights on those fronts. Without doing any exhaustive research, here are a few morsels freely available for public consumption:

  • At first, Mike Tomlin granted his coordinators far greater autonomy than Bill Cowher did
  • Pre Bruce Arians comments, Tomlin took some of that autonomy away on the offensive side
  • Word is Tomlin will play a greater role in defensive game planning, implying LeBeau’s autonomy remained intact

Peek back into further history and you’ll discover other examples:

  • It was Chan Gailey and not Ron Erhardt who fathered the 5 wide out spread during the run to Super Bowl XXX
  • Jed Hughes went over Tony Dungy’s head to push Aaron Jones ill-fated move from defensive end to outside linebacker

Contrast that with what we know about the Steelers scouting processes, player evaluation, and decision making processes. Very little is known indeed. The Watch Tower commended Ed Bouchette for getting Bill Cowher on the record, describing Dan Rooney’s process for achieving pre-draft consensus between his head coach and Directors of Football Operations.

  • That was an incredible piece of insight on its own merits that whose value was enhanced by its rarity.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Steelers Draft War Room Circa 1974: Bill Nunn Jr, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and Art Rooney Jr.

The historic Steelers draft hauls of the 1970’s spawned plenty of stories from inside the Steelers draft rooms that gave us Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, Franco Harris and other legends. But since then the landscape has been pretty barren. Yes, we know that Myron Cope convinced coaches to pick Carlton Haselrig in the 12th round of the Steelers 1989 Draft. If memory serves, word filtered out that Dan Rooney Jr. found both Anthony Wright and Willie Parker.

More recently, we know that Maurkice Pouncey knocked the socks off of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. But there’s far more that Steelers Nation doesn’t know about the Steelers scouting operation that it does know.

Some of this is logical. While the Steelers may restrict official press access to their position coaches, beat writers see them on a daily basis, and undoubtedly engage in all sorts of off-the-record chats at water coolers, in elevators, and heck probably while in the john. In contrast, scouts are out in the field… scouting.

Nonetheless, the Watch Tower calls on the credentialed scribes in Steelers Nation to provide the fan base with deeper insight into this critical facet of the Pittsburgh Steelers operation.

Steelers 2015 Draft Day Bragging Rights for Kovacevic, Kaboly, Lolley & Wexell

Mock drafts and draft predictions seem to have grown to the point where they’re an industry all of their own (just Google 2016 Mock draft and you’ll see) and the scribes of Steelers Nation are no exception.

Unlike 2015, when Jim Wexell nailed the Steelers pick of Ryan Shazier, no one had Pittsburgh picking Bud Dupree. That’s because everyone projected Dupree as a top 10 pick. Nonetheless, Dejan Kovacevic correctly read the Kevin Colbert tea leaves, and sensed that the Steelers were leaning towards pass rush.

So kudos to Kovacevic for being the one to say “pass rusher” when everyone else was still saying corner (for the record Kovacevic took stark exception to the Bud Dupree pick, and gives the Colbert/Tomlin first round picks a collective D+ grade.)

Kudos are also in order for The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly who had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson (albeit a round later) and Jesse James in the 5th round. Dale Lolloy also had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson, although he projected Golson as a 4th rounder, so Lolloy also gets some bragging rights.

Bragging rights are also in order for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who not only projected the Steelers picking Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round, he also correctly slotted Chickillo as a compensatory pick.

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Watch Tower: Coolong Leaves BTSC for USA Today Steelers Wire, Plus Insight on Jarvis Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers have weathered two full weeks of free agency, but the biggest event from a Steelers media analysis involves one Steelers Nation scribe who doesn’t even have press credentials (yet.) The Watch Tower takes a look at that, plus an interesting nuggets on James Harrison and Jarvis Jones.

Neal Coolong Bolts BTSC for USA Today Steelers Wire

Brice McCain’s defection to the Dolphins might be the Steelers biggest on the field free agency loss this off season, but perhaps the biggest off season “free agency” move for Steelers Nation in general involves a Steelers scribe.

Two weeks ago Neal Coolong announced that he was leaving Behind the Steel Curtain after nearly 6 and a half years with the publication, with close to the last three as the site’s editor.

  • Just how big is the move? In a word it is major.

Before proceeding some important disclosures are in order. Yours truly is an occasional, non-paid contributor to BTSC. More over, I both know Coolong well and consider him to be a friend. In fact, it was a Watch Tower column analyzing Stanley Druckenmiller’s media savvy (when Druckenmiller was trying to buy the Steelers) which put Steel Curtain Rising on the map for Coolong.

Behind the Steel Curtain is a venture sponsored by SB Nation, which in turn is owned by VOX Media, an emerging media company. Michael Bean was BTSC’s founding editor, and even before Coolong joined in 2008, BTSC had already established itself as the top Steelers fan site on the net.

Coolong has a background in journalism, having worked for the Minnestota Star, having cut his teeth on tasks such as covering “track meets in the freezing April temperatures of the upper Midwest.” Coolong left the Star to work in the corporate sector, but still found himself longing to write which drew him to Steelers Fever.

Steelers Fever provided what the Star lacked – immediacy. But Coolong’s ambitions quickly outgrew his role at Steelers Fever – publishing just once a day wasn’t enough. Happenstance brought him in touch with the owner of Die Hard Steel and in Coolong’s words:

That’s when I got the immediacy I wanted. And no editorial oversight. It was awesome.
Suddenly, I found myself wanting to get up early so I could write before I went to work. I’d pound a few cups of coffee, write out a few stories and I’d keep my eyes glued on the site’s traffic numbers.

Unfortunately for Coolong, the Die Hard Steel network suddenly shut down in 2007 without even an explanation, let alone a final pay check, to Coolong. Undaunted, Coolong moved on to Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider and Real Football 365.

  • He also started his own short-lived site On the Black Side blog which featured excellent work during its short lifespan.

But On The Black Side neither gave Coolong the exposure he sought, nor did it give him the exposure he deserved.

That wouldn’t come until Coolong saw Michael Bean put out a call for writers at the end of October 2008. Coolong’s contributions began with his “Pregame Zone Blitz” and quickly morphed into multiple entries per day.

Regular BTSC writers won’t bat an eye when learning of what Coolong considers his greatest accomplishment on the site:

…is the amount of people who appear convinced I’m a beat writer. That I’m at the South Side facility, firing questions at Mike Tomlin, every day. I tell them I’m not a beat reporter, and that I have a full time job outside the site. The question is always the same: “How do you write that much?”

Indeed, anyone who has ever tried to blog, if only for a few weeks, asks the same question. Coolong’s production at BTSC was both legendary, sometimes writing as many as 9 articles per day. While Coolong’s features can stand with the best and most experienced pro football writers (see his commentary on the day the Steelers cut James Harrison), he’s become a true master at the art of “Content aggregation.”

“Content aggregation,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is the process of taking a news story published elsewhere, summarizing it and, when done right, adding your own spin, interpretation, or additional value-added observation. Content aggregation is a staple of any fan-based sports blog and this site is no exception.

  • But Coolong has learned to do it better than just about anyone else. And at BTSC he did it. Everyday for over 3 years.

Coolong explained the process of taking a 140 character tweet and “Learning to recognize the bigger story in the small details, then figuring out how to get it written (heds, lede, copy and teasers) in five or six minutes along with keeping an eye on regular work takes a slight amount of work.” Coolong learned his craft well and to his credit, and unlike some other “big name” Steelers fan sites, he did it ethically, always crediting the original source and always providing a back link.

With Coolong gone BTSC remains in good hands with new editor Jeff Hartman, someone who is already showing his own knack for content aggregation, and someone whose capble of writing strong features as well.

Preview of USA Today’s Steelers Wire

In his new venture, Coolong is going to be editor of USA Today’s Steelers Wire, a stand alone site dedicated to the Steelers. It is believed that USA Today will be creating similar stand alone sties for all 32 NFL teams.

  • At Steelers Wire, Coolong’s task will be similar to what it was at BTSC, but it will be more visually focused, relying more heavily on USA Today’s impressive photo and video archive.

In addition to his BTSC experience, Coolong will bring the same passion to “Prove it again” that has driven him out of bed at 4:15 every morning for over 3 years. The Watch Tower wishes him the best of luck.

Potential Problem for SB Nation’s Model

The motto of SB Nation is “Fans passion, professional” and during the tenures of both Michael Bean and Neal Coolong the Watch Tower repeatedly praised BTSC for producing features that offered depth and insight that the professional press rarely provides.

  • But Coolong’s departure also hints at a weakness of that model.

SB Nation editors are paid for their work, and while it’s unknown how much, most of those editors have primary jobs elsewhere. The sites also pay minimal stipends to some of their regular writers.

  • But beyond that, the site’s model is based on semi-professional, quasi-volunteer contributors.

Coolong’s has now just parlayed his work a bigger opportunity with a “mainstream” outlet, and he is not the first editor of an NFL SB Nation site to do so. What makes this so interesting from a business perspective, is that USA Today’s Steelers Wire isn’t the only mainstream media outfit that’s gearing up to greatly expand its Steelers coverage.

  • This would not be happening if the NFL wasn’t a hot commodity, and there wasn’t money to be made in generating page views covering the NFL.

It will be interesting to see who sites with models similar to SB Nation adapt to the new competition.

Interesting Insight on Jarvis Jones from Wexell and Lolley

There’s also been new news regarding Jarvis Jones that carries a journalistic twist. Jarvis Jones of course has been the subject of intense discussion this off season, which is logical because when free agency began he was the only outside linebacker under contract AND because after two year’s he still represents a big ? on the Steelers depth chart.

One of the biggest arguments in favor of bringing James Harrison back both in 2014 and for 2015 was because Harrison could serve as a role model or mentor for younger players, including Jarvis Jones.

  • In early March, Steel City Insider threw a monkey wrench into that story where Jim Wexell explained to his readers that Harrison indicated Jones had never approached him about being mentored.

That’s news which warrants legitimate worry, but because it came in a subscription-only article it wasn’t wide spread.

But knowledge of it made reading a Dale Lolley piece all the more interesting. Just days before the Steelers resigned James Harrison, Lolley wrote that he expected Harrison back, and shared a picture of Vince Williams, Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, and James Harrison and Ryan Shazier training together in Arizona.

James Harrison, training, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier

James Harrison mentoring Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, Vince Williams, and Ryan Shazier

This photo certainly doesn’t contradict Wexell’s story, and one might even wonder if Wexell’s work in “outing” Jones somehow prompted the young player to seek out the veteran.

Regardless, the whole sequence of events shows how subscribing to a paid service can and does enhance the value a reader gets from information gleamed from free news sources.

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Watch Tower: Jason Worilds Predictions, Roethlisberger Extension & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers are two months into their off season and things have been busy and are about to get busier as free agency looms. A lot is going on in Steelers Nation and everyone has an opionon on what should and will happen next. The Watch Tower takes a look.

Predicting Jason Worild’s Future

While the Steelers face a number of big decisions with respect to free agency none figures to have a larger impact on the Steelers 2015 season than the answer to the question posed here, “What in the World to do about Jason Worilds?

Think about it, decisions on fates of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor will generate headlines and be HUGE stories in Steelers Nation.

But the choices made by Jason Worilds and the Steelers will have far deeper repercussions on 2015 and beyond. What makes it interesting, is that there is ZERO consensus on what will happen.

Dale Lolley opened February by laying 50-50 odds that Worilds would remain. As February ended, he seemed lean more towards Worilds staying offering:

I think he wants to return to Pittsburgh and they want him to return. And I believe even if he does become a free agent in a couple of weeks, there’s still a good shot he’ll return to Pittsburgh.

Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain, offered this about Worilds in the context of the Steelers recent contract restructurings “While we still think a deal with Jason Worilds will get done, even if the outside linebacker will be left to explore free agency, the Steelers still have other moves to make.”

Unlike most other bloggers, Coolong has sources on the South Side, although his article doesn’t indicate whether any of these sources influenced Coolong’s conclusion.

  • Not that those who have access to sources agree.

ESPN’s Scott Brown reported that a “league source” (“league source” usually translates to “player’s agent”) informed him that the Steelers will allow Worilds to become a free agent. This is hardly a surprise, but the fact that someone who is likely an agent is pushing this line with reporters suggests that the Worilds is intent on aggressively auctioning his services.

  • While Brown offers no specific predictions as to where Worilds will land, the tone of his article suggests it won’t be in Pittsburgh.

Later, in his Steelers Mail column, Brown went a step with reference to free agent signings “It has to be an outside linebacker since Jason Worilds has almost certainly played his last down for the Steelers and the uncertainty at the position in general.”

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette treated his readers to some additional perspective on the Steelers situation with Worilds. He cited an interview with Worilds from December 2013 where Worilds clearly vented his frustrations over having to wait behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley while Jarvis Jones got fast tracked on to the field.

Bouchette closed his article with an interesting conclusion:

If a player feels mistreated by an organization at any point during his career it’s hard for that damage to be repaired. Sure, a $10 million contract helps ease the pain, but I knew then Worilds wanted to see what he was worth on the open market.

That’s the kind of perspective you’d expect to get from a man who has covered the Steelers since the days when blast furnaces stood where the Steelers headquarters now sits. (And unlike Alan Robinson, Bouchette linked to his original article.)

No matter how it unfolds, the Worilds situation promises to be interesting. The Steelers want him back, but at their price.

About that Roethlisberger Resigning…

The other big story, one which is drawing surprisingly little reporting, is Ben Roethlisberger’s contract extension. It’s not news that Ben wants to stay in Pittsburgh (Ian Rapport not withstanding) and that the Steelers want him back. The only variables are when the deal is done, for how long and for how much.

It was surprising then when Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review lashed out at Kevin Colbert because he “essentially gave away the negotiations before they began.” Gorman take issue with Colbert’s statement at the NFL Scouting Combine that “’Ben is going to be a better quarterback down the road than he is at this point’” as well as saying last spring that he could not foresee Roethlisberger finishing his career outside of Pittsburgh.

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Colbert comparisons of Roethlisberger to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady also roused Gorman’s ire.

The sin behind all of this for Gorman? Let’s let his own words talk for him:

Imagine being Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner, at the negotiating table.

Gentlemen, now that you have publicly established that Ben is a franchise quarterback whose best is yet to come, that you can’t imagine him not finishing his career in Pittsburgh and that he compares favorably with a pair of all-time greats, let’s talk money! [Emphasis in the original.]

Between these statements and the Steelers decision not to sign Roethlisberger after twin 8-8 campaigns the Steelers have no choice but to pay Roethlisberger top dollar.

The purpose of the Watch Tower is not to dispute dissenting opinions of Pittsburgh’s journalists, but rather to understand how the press that covers the Steelers works.

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In that vein, Gorman’s motive boils down to one of two possibilities: 1. Gorman’s trying to generate page views by taking a controversial line or 2. Gorman really thinks it would be wise for the Steelers to attempt to nickel and dime Roethlisberger.

  • Possibility number 1 is understandable, even if it isn’t entirely excusable
  • Possibility number 2 is simply inane

Seriously. Terry Bradshaw threw his last pass for the Steelers at Shea Stadium vs. the Jets in December 1983. Ben Roethlisberger threw his first pass for the Steelers in Baltimore in September 2004.

In between Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Scott Campbell, Steve Bono, Bubby Brister, Todd Blackledge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox all got their 15 minutes of fame.

Ben Roethlisberger is one of 3 active quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings. If anything, he’s underrated outside of Pittsburgh. If Gorman wants to stoke some flames by suggesting the Steelers play hard ball, so be it.

But if he should be ashamed of himself if he seriously suggests that Pittsburgh should be petty with the one player who gives them their single best shot at Lombardi number 7.

Wexell Responds on LeBeau’s Departure

The last edition of the Watch Tower focused on deconstructing the press coverage of Dick LeBeau’s departure. After reviewing reporting from several journalists in Pittsburgh, the Watch Tower closed its review by suggesting that Dale Lolley had perhaps gotten closest to the truth.

Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, who has offered praise of the Watch Tower in the past, responded to a Tweet promoting the article, and in doing so brought new facts to light on the story:

This is of course entirely consistent with Wexell’s reporting on the story both on his site and via Twitter. Nonetheless, it is surprising Wexell would reveal such a vivid inside story on Twitter.

Wexell of course could not, would not, and should not reveal his source, but clearly he’s gotten this from someone very close to the story, if not directly from LeBeau himself (or perhaps even Mike Tomlin.)

While Wexell’s tweet doesn’t necessarily negate Lolley’s interpretation of events, it does throw a lot of cold water on the NFL Network’s attempt to spin the story that LeBeau’s “resignation” “surprised the Steelers.”

The Watch Tower thanks Mr. Wexell for such an insightful response – who said Twitter’s 140 characters limited real communication?

Ryan Clark’s Retirement Unearths Interesting Factoid

Social Media has certainly eliminated many of the traditional barriers that have traditionally governed coverage of NFL teams. But there’s still a lot that goes on that remains out of sight to the average fan.

In referring to Ryan Clark’s hotheaded streak, Brown recalled the time in 2009 that Ryan Clark call the media “turds” and revealed “Two seasons later, a Steelers media relations staffer had to separate Clark and another reporter after they nearly came to blows at training camp.”

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The Watch Tower has no memory of “turds” remark, but a Google search confirms that the comment was picked up by mainstream media outlets at the time he made it. But the news about Ryan Clark almost fighting Joe Bendel got far less coverage.

In fact, the only professional sites which show up in Google searches for “Ryan Clark Joe Bendel Training camp” is Mike Florio’s Pro Football Talk and his article references an account of the altercation published by Brown while still at the Tribune Review.

The fact that a story like this had such short legs is surprising, and likely speaks to the prowess power of the Steelers PR staff in keeping something like this from gaining momentum in the media.

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