Watch Tower: Predicting Steelers Pick of Artie Burns, Almost Picking Jevon Kearse and More

A lot has happened since the Watch Tower last shined its lights at the end of March and today its focus is on the Steelers Draft, free agency’s finish, other Steelers-related comings and goings along with another round of “Taking Our Own Medicine.”

artie burns, steelers, steelers draft 2016, art rooney ii

Artie Burns addresses the press as Art Rooney II looks on; Photo credit: steelers.com

Paulk Wins Steelers Draft Prediction Prize

Who will we draft? Answering that question was once a simple water cooler conversation fueled the previous night’s banter AM sports-talk radio station. Now it’s a cottage industry. Mocking the next year’s draft begins before this year’s is complete with some pundits going as far as grading teams’ performance in mock drafts (seriously).

Grading mock draft IS excessive, but mock drafting is fun and arouses imaginations of pros and armatures alike, but the Steelers 2016 Draft Class shows just how much of a minefield it can be. Everyone knew that the Steelers would look to cornerback early in the 2016 NFL Draft, but the question of which corner the Steelers would take a hot potato.

  • Steelers Nation’s true winners in its 2016 mock draft sweepstakes is Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, who correctly tagged Artie Burns as the Steelers first round pick.

Other national writers made similar predictions, but Paulk was almost only Pittsburgh writer the Watch Tower is aware of that accurately predicted Burns going to the Steelers.

The “almost” qualifier might seem odd, but Jim Wexell also picked Burns going to the Steelers in the Steelers Digest pre-draft edition, but Wexell’s “official” pick 36 hours prior to the draft was cornerback James Bradberry from Stanford. (Alas, the Zino iPad App that I read Steelers Digest on has no linking functionality….)

Shift in Steelers Drafting Philosophy?

In an age where post-draft analysis/post draft grades is as instantaneous as it is meaningless, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review distinguished himself by providing his readers with some meaningful insight the morning after that draft.

The Steelers 2016 draft class, in Kaboly’s estimation, confirms that the “Steelers have changed their drafting philosophy.” The change, in Kaboly’s view, comes down shifting form an emphasis on projection to one on production, particularly on the defensive side. As Kaboly expands:

The organizational shift away from deferring to what a player may be able do to what a player has already done continued for the Steelers for the second consecutive draft over the weekend.

One could certainly quibble with Kaboly’s conclusion, as both Artie Burns and Bud Dupree have been panned more as “Projects” as opposed to finished products, but Kaboly backs up his claim with Mike Tomlin’s “Speed without production is less attractive…” quote, and in pointing out that Pittsburgh have gone a dozen years since a Steelers cornerback has made 4 interceptions in a season and contrasted that with the 21 interceptions that Burns, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant recorded in their collegiate careers.

  • But even if he’s ultimately wrong on the project vs. production question, Kaboly wins Watch Tower Kudos for attempting to provide substantive post-draft day analysis.

So Steelers Almost Drafted Jevon Kearse….?

The Steelers decision to pick Artie Burns drew a lot of criticism from both the press and from Steelers Nation at large all of which prompted Jim Wexell to mount a vigorous defense of the pick. The logic of Wexell’s defense can perhaps be read here (the article sits behind his pay wall,) but it also included an eye-opening Steelers draft history nugget:

…But, still, the anger rolled in. One reader even called Burns “Troy Edwards,” in honor of the reach Tom Donahoe made in 1999 when — and I learned this a few days ago — they had the great Jevon Kearse ON THE PHONE AT THE TIME.

While it’s a little late to award a “scoop” on the Steelers 1999 draft, Wexell’s Jevon Kearse story qualifies as a major bombshell both in terms of reporting and in terms of what it potentially unveils about the depths of dysfunction that existed between Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher at the time.

  • On the site’s message board conversation yours truly suggested the nugget could be grown into a full-length story and the Watch Tower reaffirms that here.

A year ago the Watch Tower observed that stories abounded to explain how players like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and the other Super Steelers arrived in Pittsburgh. In contrast, since then, stories from inside the Steelers draft war room have grown more and more scarce.

  • In just 46 words, Jim Wexell has taken a small step towards rectifying that, and the Watch Tower offers him thanks on behalf of Steelers Nation citizens who crave enlightenment.

Thank you Mr. Wexell.

An Overlooked Artie Burns-Jarvis Jones Link?

Finally, the Watch Tower’s analysis of Steelers draft coverage ends with a look at a long-form piece by Coolong on USA Today’s Steelers Wire.

  • Count Coolong squarely in the camp of the Artie Burns skeptics.

In his article, Coolong bases his skepticism on solid footing, and in doing so he draws out an interesting parallel to one of the questions Kevin Colbert was asked, about whether the rain influenced Burn’s workout times, as they apparently did during the workout of Jarvis Jones.

  • While that’s not an earth shaking connection, it is an interesting one tying together two picks who critics label as “reaches”

Beyond that, Coolong manages to make his case on Artie Burns in an article that weaves together treads concerning Bruce Arians’ firing and Todd Haley’s accomplishments. That’s no easy feat, but he pulls it off, leaving the Watch Tower to hope aloud that Coolong will manage to find more time to write similar pieces now that he’s been kicked upstairs to the position of Senior Editor of NFL Sites USA TODAY Sports Media Group.

Scoops on Jarvis Jones and Senquez Golson

As everyone in Steelers Nation now knows, the Steelers declined to offer a 5th year tender to Jarvis Jones, but Jason Mackey of DK on Pittsburgh Sports knew it before anyone else and beat the rest of his competition to the punch. Mackey was of course the first Steelers reporter to break the Martavis Bryant suspension story, so it would seem that he has a knack for finding news.

We now know that Senquez Golson’s MRI was not related to his shoulder injury, but is due to another “soft tissue injury.” Fair enough. And missing OTA’s in May for an MRI is hardly a reason to hit the panic button.

But the Steelers have a lot riding on Senquez Golson’s development – perhaps too much – and any news of an injury which might impede his development merits attention, so Lolley wins Watch Tower kudos for breaking it.

Watch Tower Takes Its Own Medicine

Watch Tower’s role to document and analyze press coverage of the Steelers with an eye toward understanding what makes it tick, offering positive or negative criticism when warranted. But if the Watch Tower is going to take reporters to task from time-to-time, then it this site’s own errors must receive the same critical eye.

  • And I’ve made a bunch of goofs of late.

Some have been trivial, such as forgetting to include cornerback in our Steelers pre-draft needs poll (something easily remedied). Others have resulted from legitimate confusion, such as mentioning that Dale Lolley’s blog was going behind a paywall (its hasn’t) or misstating that Jim Wexell is a self-identified alcoholic (he is not.)

Corrections have been made and apologies to Lolley and Wexell issued.

…Then there was the blog post that had Will Johnson following Steve McLendon to the New York Jets. Ah, yeah, Will Johnson went to New York alright, but as a Giant not as a Jet! Thankfully a reader on Twitter alerted me to the error and the post had a half-life of about 20 minutes.

  • Sure, the post came after a hectic workday and just before a 2 week long international trip.

Those were contributing factors, but the real culprit was getting so caught up in a sexy “Pittsburgh on Hudson” storyline that I missed the most fundamental of facts. Such lapses are inexcusable and to you my readers, I offer a heartfelt apology.

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Watch Tower: Steelers Press Coverage of Martavis Bryant Suspension, Free Agency & Salary Cap

Easter Sunday 2016 finds the Watch Tower shining its lights on the press coverage of the Steelers two top off season stories thus far Martavis Bryant’s suspension and the Steelers salary cap situation.

DK on Pittsburgh Sports Breaks Bryant Suspension

As noted by the Watch Tower a little more than a year ago, a “scoop” might not mean as much in journalist terms – as rival publications and post their own stories rehashing the same information in minutes rather than days or hours that it took in yesteryear.

  • Yet, a reporter who can go out and get the news before his peers is doing good work.

In that case, Watch Tower kudos go to Jason Mackey and Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports for breaking the story. This was huge news that will have a tremendous impact on the Steelers 2016 offense, and the duo out hustled the competition in getting the story.

As mentioned above, in the digital world the benefits of breaking a story are short lived. Jim Wexell had the exclusive on Troy Polamalu’s retirement, yet his story only ranks 6th on a desktop Google search for the keyword “Troy Polamalu retires” despite being the first and still only reporter to speak to Poalmalu about his retirement.

  • Case in point, the desktop Google query “Martavis Bryant suspension” does not return any first page results for DK on Pittsburgh Sports.

Nonetheless, Mackey and Kovacevic have well-earned bragging rights for getting their first.

Steelers Nation Scribes React to Bryant Suspension

Bryant’s suspension drew a mix of scorn and concern from Steelers Nation, and produced more than a few interesting reflective pieces. Among the best was penned by Jon Ledyard on USA Today’s The Steelers Wire. You can read Ledyard’s work for yourself, but his piece helps readers answer the “How can he throw all this away?” question by offering first-hand insight gleamed from helping similar people fight battles with substance abuse.

[Editors note: the original version of this article referred to Jim Wexell as a recovering alcoholic. Mr. Wexell has started on Twitter that was not the case. We apologize for the mistake and are happy to correct.]

Interestingly enough, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has publicly abstained from alcohol for the last 18 years, opened his piece by confiding that while he was glad he was spared from having to rip a local high school team for a lackluster effort in a championship loss, he wasn’t so lucky when it came to the Steelers admitting, “I really don’t know the man [Bryant] well enough to do what I think I have to do, which is rip him.”

While Wexell’s disappointment in Bryant the person is clear, his complex piece does show an appreciation for Bryant’s struggle. But where Wexell really earns his Watch Tower kudos is in taking the football loss of Bryant head-on. A Super Bowl window’s opening is tenuous at best and Bryant’s suspension could be what kicks it shut for the Steelers, argues Wexell.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Joe Starkey admonished readers to not to demonize Bryant, and asked a question that should be asked in connection with these types of off the field incidents more often:

  • Has CTE or some other head trauma an issue contributed to Bryant’s behavior?

Everything we’re learning about CTE suggests that the brain disorder is afflicting football players far earlier in their careers than was at first thought, and questions such as Starkey’s are going to be asked more frequently moving forward.

Kudos to Starkey for being ahead of the curve.

Kaboly Calls It on Kelvin Beachum

Here in 2016 free agency predictions are a dime a dozen. But as Gerry Dulac pointed out in an on-line chat a long time ago, a good journalist doesn’t predict on what will happen, he or she reports on what will transpire.

  • To that end, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review earns Watch Tower Kudos for his reporting on Kelvin Beachum.

It was Kaboly who got Beachum on the record indicating he would not move to guard, as the Steelers had wanted him to, and he correctly predicted that this meant Beachum would not return to the team. The Steelers did of course attempt to bring Beachum back on a shorter, “prove it” contact to play tackle, but at the end of the day, Beachum departed….

Steelers Salary Cap Situation Clarifies….

How much salary cap space did the Pittsburgh Steelers have going into free agency? Depending on who was talking the number was 3, 6-7, or even 10 million dollars. As noted in the last edition of the Watch Tower, most fan sites pegged the number at a higher total, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette begged to differ.

  • Bouchette cited sources that indicated that the Steelers salary cap number would be lower due to the need to pay backs from earlier seasons shortly after the CBA was approved.

Bouchette doubled down shortly before free agency, writing yet another report arguing that the Steelers had about 3.2 million in salary cap space – far less than popularly thought.

Given that the Steelers have resigned five of their own players and three from other teams, it would seem like the larger amounts cited the likes of Ian Whetstone of Steel City Insider as well as many others, were closer to being correct.

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Watch Tower: Steelers 2016 Salary Cap, Will Allen Retirement, Mike Florio Hypocrisy and More

As the Steelers 2016 off season picks up steam, the Watch Tower focuses its lights on coverage of the Steelers 2016 salary cap situation, potential retirements, the Steelers kicking conundrum and more.

Confusion Reigns on Steelers 2016 Salary Cap Situation

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the off season began with Kevin Greene’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame because much of Steelers Nation feels that the Steelers must have a Kevin Greene like signing in the secondary to climb the Stairway to Seven.

  • Indeed, many saw Art Rooney II intimating that in his post-season press conferences.

But free agent signings require salary cap space so just how much salary cap space to the Pittsburgh Steelers have as the 2016 off season looms? It depends on who you ask, but until late last week there seemed to be consensus.

  • Over the Cap pegged the Steelers top 51 at about 1,490,000 giving them a 5-6 million cushion
  • On Steel City Insider, Ian Whetstone concluded the Steelers were “…at least $4 million under a $156 million team cap, without any veteran cuts or restructures.”
  • Simon Chester of USA Today’s The Steelers Wire calculations left “…the Steelers with a practical amount of $5,106,016.”

On the 10th of February a source no less authoritative than Ed Bouchette himself pronounced, “With a projected salary cap for each team at $155 million and change, the Steelers are under it at this point in the year for the first time in awhile.” Yippe Steelers Nation! Let’s open Art Rooney II’s check book!

Not so fast.

A day after publishing his comments on the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Steelers blog, Ed Bouchette startled Steelers Nation with some sobering salary cap news, sharing:

The Steelers are $2.5 million over their projected salary cap, a league source with intimate knowledge of the cap told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That is in stark contrast with various public Internet sites that track each NFL team’s salaries.

The Watch Tower credits Simon Chester for refusing to accept this at face value. Chester reached out via Twitter to several journalist who cover the Steelers salary cap to gauge reaction to Bouchette’s bombshell. While no one disputed Bouchette’s report, several suggested that perhaps the source is counting all of the Steelers contracts as opposed to the top 51.

You can read the all of the responses here, but the Watch Tower suspects that Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell’s appears to be on to something:

While there’s a lot of documented about the the NFL salary cap its true workings remain somewhat of a mystery. And the league appears to like it this way. Shortly after the new CBA was adopted in 2011 word was that the salary cap would be relatively flat for a few years but then increase when the new TV contracts kicked in.

However, in 2012 the word was that the NFL was in the “Flat cap era.” John Clayton reported that despite a spike in revenues in 2014, the salary cap would go up little if at all in coming seasons. Kevin Seifert called Clayton’s report one of the most important of the 2012 off season and reminded readers that the NFL salary cap for 2015 was being projected at $122 million.

  • The NFL’s base salary cap for 2015 was 143,280,000…

There are two explanations for this discrepancy: Either NFL revenues grossly overshot estimates or false information leaked and no one in the league cared enough to correct it.

The Steelers themselves have played this game regarding their own cap situation. In 2013 Kevin Colbert went on the record saying the Steelers would need to wait until June 1st to sign most of their draft picks, and then the team proceeded to sign most of the 2013 Draft class before the end of May.

Ed Bouchette is the anti-Ian Rapport (Rapport of the Ben Roethlisberger trade demand); he would never base a story like this on spurious sources.

  • But that’s also reason to pay heed to Jim Wexell’s interpretation.

The Steelers do try to shape the coverage the team receives, as Wexell pointed out during the playoffs, when the Steelers PR office made players available to the press the Sunday after the Bengals game to ensure that the rest of the week’s stories would focus on the Broncos game.

Could the Steelers be leaking something to Bouchette for similar reason? Steelers Nation will know in a few weeks….

[Shortly after the original version of this article ran, Kevin Colbert provided an update on the Steelers 2016 salary cap situation.]

Later comments by Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert would add further credence to Jim Wexell’s interpretation of the story, as Colbert conceeded that the Steelers 2016 salary cap situation was “‘pretty good’ compared to other years.”

Interestingly enough, while the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac did mention Colbert’s update, he did so in a story about James Harrison’s possible return, as opposed to in a new story on the Steelers salary cap. To his credit, Dulac did mention the juxtaposition between Colbert’s comments and Ed Bouchette’s earlier story.

Lolley Scores Minor Scoop on Will Allen

Steelers safety Will Allen has to be one of the team’s most underrated and underappreciated free agent signings in history. What’s Allen done? Well he’s simply boosted the Steelers secondary by stepping off the bench 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, providing an upgrade when Ryan Mundy, Shamarko Thomas, and/or Troy Polamalu were either unable or not healthy enough to deliver on the field.

  • That almost didn’t happen in 2015.

And Steelers Nation knows that thanks to Observer-Reporter’s Dale Lolley who reported that “The Steelers had to talk Allen out of retiring after 2014….”

That’s an interesting comment. The Steelers resigned Will Allen the day after Polamalu retired, implying that he was their second choice, which could have led to some interesting conversations. Beyond that, this is the first time that the Watch Tower is aware of anyone reporting Will Allen considered beginning his “Life’s work” following 2014, and hence it awards Watch Tower Kudos to Dale Lolley for the scoop.

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Steelers Kickers

After a nightmare experience that saw the Steelers lose three kickers to injury, Chris Boswell’s arrival in Pittsburgh finally gave the Steelers some relief. Boswell not only put up a nice kicking percentage, he also showed several times that he could kick under pressure and in the elements. Boswell’s outstanding performance has led to speculation that Shaun Suisham’s job could be in jeopardy.

  • One of the pro’s in Boswell’s favor (aside from salary) is his stronger leg.

Boswell might have a stronger leg that Suisham but if he does, it is not backed up by the stats. As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review has pointed out, Boswell’s touchback percentage of 35.13% is near the bottom of the league, and just a hair worse that Suisham’s 2014 touchback percentage. Adamski also points out that Boswell’s 29 of 32 on field goal attempts was identical to Suisham’s performance in 2014.

While Adamski isn’t breaking any “news” here, he is making a valuable contribution by being the first to connect some dots, and he earns Watch Tower kudos accordingly.

Carter Stands Up for Steelers Nation on BTSC

The brouhaha that was the Steelers Bengals Wild Card playoff game drew national attention an numerous fines and suspensions. Most of the attention focused on Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pac Man” Jones illegal conduct with regard to Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but Jason Whitlock used the occasion to take aim at Mike Tomlin, esseintally asserting that Tomlin deserved a much greater share of the blame.

  • Whitlock’s comments did not sit well with Behind the Steel Curtain’s Chris Carter.

As well they shouldn’t. Many, if not most, of Whitlock’s criticisms of Mike Tomlin were off base, and simply not supported by the facts. Chris Carter did Steelers Nation a HUGE favor and wrote a detailed, 5,003 word point-by-point refutation of Whitlock, supporting his point with both photo and video evidence.

  • Simply stated, Chris Carter proved that Jason Whitlock’s assault of Mike Tomlin is completely baseless.

Anyone can take to Twitter and say, “So-and-so is full of _hit” but unlike Whitlock, Carter chose to counter opinion with cold, hard facts, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos. His article is must read. (As is his piece on Chuck Noll’s being named as coach to the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team.) Kudos to you Chris!

Mike Florio Highlights His Own Hypocrisy

Peyton Manning’s name is in the news again because of an alleged incident dating back to 1996. While there are a lot of interesting elements to this story from a media analysis perspective, the Watch Tower only focues on Steelers coverage, so we’ll leave others to discuss those elsewhere.

  • However, the Watch Tower cannot let a comment by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio go by unanswered.

Mike Florio took aim at the New York Daily News’ Shaun King, asserting:

Shaun King presented a one-sided summary of a 74-page document filed by Jamie Naughright’s lawyers in the case against Manning, with no balance or objectivity or apparent effort to contact Peyton Manning or Archie Manning for a response.

Among other things, Florio is criticizing Shaun King for reporting allegations without an attempt to verify their validity. That’s a legitimate criticism for Florio to make, but it was only in 2012 that the Watch Tower took Florio to task for lambasting Mike Tomlin for comments he made in jest while receiving an honor from his alma mater, William and Mary.

At the time, it appeared that Mike Florio simply took press accounts of Tomlin’s remarks, didn’t bother to gather context, and called the Steelers standard bear’s character into question.

In other words, Florio was guilty then of what he is criticizing Shaun King for now. And for the record, at the Watch Tower attempted to contact Florio offer him a chance to explain his words, but email messages from the Watch Tower to Florio remained unanswered.

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Watch Tower: Steelers Sports Writers Get “Two for Flinching,” Shazier the Signal Caller & More

As the Pittsburgh Steelers look to their Wild Card game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, the Watch Tower looks back at their last game in the Queen City and the “they fined me, they fined me not” controversy over Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier’s emergence as signal caller, plus odds and sods on ex-Steelers and the Steelers evaluation processes.

Perhaps Two for Flinching for Steelers Sports Writers?

Back in junior high, if you flinched when someone pretend to hit, they got to claim “Two for flinching” and then hit you (sort of) for real twice. Perhaps something similar is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered Vontaze Burfict’s fine or seeming lack thereof.

  • As Steelers Nation knows, Vontaze Burfict made a blatantly illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger that the officials chose not to flag.

The early word was that Roger Goodell’s suits at the NFL’s corporate office also declined to fine Vontaze Burfict for his dirty play.

The news that the NFL was turning its head the other way on yet another illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger came with a peculiar twist – the story broke on Wednesday. That’s odd, because NFL fans are used to hearing how “FedEx envelops carrying fines arrive on Thursday.” But on Wednesday Vontaze Burfict’s agent Audie Attar told told the rest of the world that his client faced no fine.

  • The blogesphere erupted, and credentialed Steelers writers followed suit.

In an article published that morning, Mark Kaboly, Ralph N. Paulk and Chris Adamski of the Tribune Review opined: “the NFL fined a player as the result of an incident during Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals game. It wasn’t whom the Steelers might have hoped, though.” They then discussed the Steelers who were fined, and communicated that Vontaze Burfict wasn’t.

Later that day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo simply stated “The NFL has decided against fining Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict…” and then reported various player comments about the issue. A day later, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler restated that “Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was not fined for a helmet shot to Ben Roethlisberger’s ankles.”

Then a funny thing happened.

  • Vontaze Burfict got a FedEx package from Roger Goodell with a fine in it.

The Steelers sports writers quickly issued updated stories informing that Burfict had been fined, along with Michael Mitchell, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Brandon Boykin, William Gay and Marcus Gilbert.

  • But almost no one stopped to do any self-examination as to why the word of an agent was taken as Gospel.

Seriously. Agents plant stories about their clients all of the time. Sometimes there is even some truth to them. Other times? Not so much. Agents don’t exactly carry the same credibility as Pope Francis.

It would seem like the following is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered the Vontaze Burfict saga:

Or is it?

Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo raised some very relevant points. After indicating that fine amounts would be known on Friday of that week, Fittipaldo vented to his readers:

So we’ll get this all cleared up about 48 hours after the first report that Burfict would not be fined. There has to be a better way for the NFL to handle its business.

Surely someone from the NFL office monitors what people like Adam Schefter of ESPN and Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network report from agents. The NFL sends players fines via Fed Ex by Wednesday so the NFL surely knew the reports were false.

Why not get the word out sooner to avoid a whole lot of confusion and bad publicity for the league?

The smartalec in the Watch Tower wants to say, “Sure Ray, you could have called the league office to confirm.” But in all fairness to Fittipaldo, maybe he did try to confirm the report and got stonewalled and hence he’s frustrated.

But his larger point is quite relevant. The uneven and arbitrary enforcement of justice in Roger Goodell’s NFL is well documented, and the Vontaze Burfict “they fined me, they fined me not” fiasco underlines that yet again.

Ryan Shazier the Signal Caller

Comparing the first and second half performance of the Steelers defense in the Broncos game is like comparing the last place 1988 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers Super Bowl defense.

When asked about that, Mike Tomlin simply said there had been communication issues. Miscommunication forms a part of every football game, but the public only finds out about them when the consequences are evident on the field.

  • Thanks to Jim Wexell, Steelers Nation has a potential explanation for the root cause of some of the Steelers defensive miscommunications.

During much, if not all of 2015, Ryan Shazier and not Lawrence Timmons has worn the “helmet with the green dot,” or in other words, its Shazier and not Timmons who has the microphone in his helmet and makes the calls on the field.

Wexell first broke the news on a message board chat on December 11th on his Steel City Insider site, and then expanded on the Shazier signal caller story after the Denver game. To the best of the Watch Tower’s knowledge, no other reporter has brought this information to the public. (If they have, their work isn’t indexed very well by Google.)

While this factoid is hardly ground shaking, but Jim Wexell’s ability to uncover nuggets like this come from the time and energy he’s invested in building relationships in the locker room. Once again, Wexell wins Watch Tower Kudos.

SteelersWire on former Steeler Jon Witman

When fans think of great Pittsburgh Steelers running backs, the name Jon Witman usually does not jump to mind. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe picked Jon Witman out of Penn State in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and by 1999 Witman was the starting fullback, leading the way for Jerome Bettis.

  • Like too many, life has not gone well for Witman.

Neal Coolong of the SteelersWire brought that information to the attention of his readers, as Witman served as an example of someone whom the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust was able to help, as Witman battled addiction, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

While Jon Witman’s story is hardly encouraging, sturggles of post-NFL life, either with or without CTE, need to be told, and SteelersWire was the only Steelers site or Pittsburgh publication to pickup the story. Watch Tower Kudos are in order for Coolong.

Insight into Steelers Talent Evaluation Methods

Shortly after the 2015 NFL Draft, the Watch Tower lamented the lack of visibility into the Steelers scouting and talent evaluation methodologies. Now Steelers Nation knows a little more, thanks to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

In a blurb on who the NFL’s best athlete might be, Fowler offered this about Martavis Bryant:

But what makes him the Steelers’ best athlete is his quick-burst ability. The Steelers track short-burst speed through GPS monitors, and I’m told Bryant often has the fastest times, despite his lanky frame.

That’s an interesting piece of information to have about both Bryant and the Steelers.

Like any NFL team, the Steelers collect reams and reams of information on players prior to the draft, but little is known about if or how those evaluations continue once they reach the South Side.

Thanks to Fowler, now Steelers Nation knows a little more.

Interesting Tidbit on Tony Dungy’s Quarterbacking Stint

Injuries to quarterbacks have been big news in the NFL this year, and with both Mike Vick and Landry Jones getting starts for the Steelers, Pittsburgh is no exception. Studious Steelers fans know Tony Dungy, a former college cornerback who played defensive back for the Steelers, threw 8 passes for Pittsburgh in 1977. But the story of why is not well known.

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert changed that with a story on Tony Dungy’s fourth quarter quarterbacking career effort vs. the Houston Oilers after Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek left the game injured.

  • Dungy’s performance was dismal.

But he did do complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth while earning himself the distinction of being the only modern-era player to both throw and make an interception in a single game.

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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 in early December 2015.

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 might need to wait until the Washington Post got delivered the following morning 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, Ken Beatrice 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. A year later, Ken Beatrice 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 living in the Washington DC area in the pre-internet world 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.

 

Ken Beatrice, WMAL, WTEM, Steelers Nation, Steelers Fans in Washington, Sports Call

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 confidant 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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