Agree or Disagree, the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton is No Surprise

After a one season hiatus, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense will again feature two Cams, as the team came to terms with cornerback Cam Sutton on a one year deal. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

He missed the first 12 games of his rookie year with a hamstring injury, but saw his first action on the road against Cincinnati on the same night of Ryan Shazier’s injury. Over the next six years Sutton would appear in 84 games and make 39 starts.

Sutton’s career arch serves as a caution against giving in to knee-jerk reactions to label a player “a bust” if he doesn’t produce immediately.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

Sutton largely flew under the radar in 2018 and 2019 working in mostly in the slot and on special teams while the Steelers experienced difficulty in staffing the cornerback slot opposite of Joe Haden (yes, you’d forgotten about the Coty Sensabaugh experiment, hadn’t you?)

Yet, when the Steelers were facing Salary Cap Armageddon in the spring of 2021 thanks to COVID, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin opted to cut Steven Nelson and extend Cam Sutton. Sutton started 31 games over the next 2 seasons, hauling in 5 interceptions and batting away 21 passes.

Alas, to get Sutton signed under such trying circumstances, the Steelers added a voidable year to his contract, making him a free agent in the spring of 2023. Resigning Sutton seemed like a no-brainer, for the Steelers, but Omar Kahn let him walk, and Sutton departed for Detroit.

AT the time it was thought that, while the Steelers wanted to keep him, Detroit offered beyond their number. And that is probably the case. Detroit did over pay, giving Sutton CB Number 1 money. But last October, Dejan Kovacevic added this piece of insight to the story:

I’m told that Sutton’s primary motivation was that his girlfriend had moved there, along with his two very young daughters, Luna and Eye’Lah. He’d spoken with pride in the past of being a “girl dad” of his love for those two. Family came first.

Talk about an ironic factoid.

The Steelers were able to sign Sutton because the Detroit Lions cut him after he was arrested on a warrant for domestic violence. The fact that he’s been welcomed back to Pittsburgh has ignited a furious debate among the faithful in Steelers Nation.

“…But that’s NOT the Steelers Way.” Or Is It?

For many, the Steelers decision to resign a player who has just been arrested for domestic violence offers yet more evidence that “The Steelers Way” as we know it is no more.

That sentiment is understandable. To a point. the Steelers have shown less tolerance than some other teams for players with off the field issues.

  • But like it or not, the reality is that welcoming back Cam Sutton into the fold isn’t that much out of character.

As this site pointed out when Michael Vick arrived in 2015, the Steelers not only kept James Harrison despite his own domestic violence incident, they offered him one of the largest contracts in team history a little over a year afterwards.

Steelers vs Ravens, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, James Harrison, #Shalieve50

Cam Heyward and James Harrison enter Heinz Field carrying Ryan Shazier’s Jersey. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

While Ben Roethlisberger was never arrested or criminally charged, the Steelers also gave him a second chance despite the allegations against him from his conduct in Midgeville.

And look further back to the 1970’s and you’ll find the story of Ernie Holmes going on a rampage on the Ohio Turnpike that include him shooting out of a car and aiming a gun and pulling the trigger at a police officer only to have it mercifully misfire. Holmes went on to win two Super Bowls playing next to Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.

One can agree or disagree with Art Rooney II’s decision here, but both his father Dan Rooney and his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. made similar choices to give second chances to players who’d broken the law.

Football Impact of Sutton’s Return

The Steelers have been aggressive this off season in remaking their team. But Jim Wexell’s count they’ve turned over 15 of the top 30 slots on a roster that made the playoffs but wasn’t good enough to win.

  • Yet the third or slot cornerback along with wide receiver has been a glaring need.

Before making this move the Steelers had Joey Porter Jr., Donte Jackson, several question marks and Patrick Peterson’s number on speed dial at cornerback. With Cam Sutton signed, the Steelers now have three legit cornerbacks and can develop depth behind them without needing to force someone into the line up.

Final Analysis

Let’s repeat something stated here when the Steelers opted to keep James Harrison after cutting Cedrick Wilson back in 2008:

  • There is no excuse for domestic violence.
  • Domestic violence is wrong. Period.
  • Those who are convicted of domestic violence must be punished.

Cam Sutton was initially charged with an ugly felony and evaded the law for several days. Since then he has turned himself in, entered a pre-trial derivation program and, after reviewing the evidence, prosecutors have reduced the charges against him. That neither absolves nor excuses Sutton, but suggests whatever transpired may not have been as severe as first suggested.

In addition to working through his current legal situation, Sutton will likely face a suspension from the league. This isn’t the first time the Steelers have had to make a difficult decision in a case like this. In the Tomlin era alone the Steelers opted to give James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger second chances, while opting to part ways with Wilson and Chris Rainey almost immediately.

The record, both on and off the field, shows that the Steelers made the right decision in all four cases. Let’s hope their choice on Sutton proves to be a fifth.

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The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Kenny Pickett’s Lasting Lesson to the Steelers? If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Fast and Fail Big

In case you’ve been under a rock, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles in a move that no one saw coming mere days before it happened.

  • In a blink of an eye, Omar Khan has ended the Kenny Pickett era of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s amazing when you consider that just over one year ago hardened, serious X’s and O’s types over at the Steel City Insider were declaring that “The Super Bowl window is open” largely thanks to Kenny Pickett’s improvement at the tail end of 2022.

Russell Wilson signed with the Steelers on the same day Pickett got traded, so perhaps someday we’ll look back and say that Wilson’s arrival in Pittsburgh marked the moment the Super Bowl re-opened.

  • But if that’s the case, Pickett will be watching from the opposite side of the turnpike.

Kenny Pickett played in 25 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, threw 713 passes, completing 13 of those for touchdowns while throwing another 13 for interceptions. Pickett leaves Pittsburgh without having any real signature moment (my God, doesn’t feel like “Kenny Fucking Pickett!” happened 100 years ago?)

  • But there is lesson to be drawn from the Kenny Pickett era: If you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail big.

And ironically the Steelers lived the best example that lesson immediately after Pickett made his final play as a Steeler.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The first half against the Cardinals was ending. On third down at the goal line, Kenny Pickett, after being unable to find an open receiver, tried to run it in himself. He failed and got injured in the process. Mike Tomlin could have gone for three, gotten points on the board and lived to fight another day. Instead he went for it on 4th with Najee Harris who came up short.

A similar situation played out a week later against New England after a Mykal Walker Red Zone interception yielded three fruitless attempts and another 4th down attempt when kicking a field goal would have been the wise mathematical decision.

And be crystal clear on one thing: When a team moves on from a first round draft pick after just 25 games, you’ve failed big.

Richardson was Chuck Noll’s last first round draft pick. Noll picked him during the 1991 NFL Draft in a panic move when none of the players he’d targeted remained on the board. Richardson only saw spot duty in 5 games as a rookie (although he did have an impressive preseason debut). He struggled so badly during his sophomore summer at St. Vincents that Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson to Washington for a 7th round pick.

The Steelers sent Pickett to Philadelphia and a 4th for a third and two 7ths – what has been described as the NFL equivalent of some couch change.

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all expressed confidence in Pickett. While there were rumblings that at least one of the brain trust was having second thoughts, all reports indicate the Steelers had every intention of a QB depth chart topped by Wilson and Pickett – otherwise they would have made at least a token effort to resign Mason Rudolph.

But the Steelers didn’t lift a finger to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh, and now he’s a Tennessee Titan.

But apparently the move was spawned by Pickett’s reaction to the Steelers decision to sign Russell Wilson. That calls to mind Tommy Maddox’s outburst after the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger. When he confronted Bill Cowher, Cowher’s retort was that Maddox’s reaction validated the Steelers decision to draft Roethlisberger.

Yet, Pickett faced a far different choice. He’s not a veteran facing the prospect of having to share a quarterback room with his successor. He could have embraced the opportunity of challenging a Super Bowl veteran for a starting role or alternatively being mentored by one.

  • Instead he viewed Wilson’s arrival as a threat.

Pickett didn’t want to fight for his job. One can only surmise that Wilson’s arrival provoked a total meltdown. So as a consequence he now finds himself on the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, waiting on either 2 years or a serious injury to Jalen Hurts for his next chance to start.

I hope he’s happy with his choice.

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Let the Competition Begin! Steelers to Sign Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both ESPN and the NFL Network are reporting this, while Wilson himself indicated this in a tweet.

Russell Wilson, Devin Bush Jr., Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Seahawks

Russell Wilson at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Dawgs by Nature

The conventional wisdom as recently as the NFL Combine was that the Steelers were not interested in bringing any of the big name quarterbacks available to Pittsburgh to provide competition for Kenny Pickett. However, late last week Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Russell Wilson was visiting with the Steelers and that the interest was mutual.

Unlike the various social media “experts” who claimed that Kirk Cousins or Justin Fields to the Steelers was “a done deal” no one rushed to debunk this rumor. Wilson showed up in Pittsburgh as advertised, had a long meeting but left without signing. Even then, other commentators (including this one) floated the possibility that Omar Khan was entertaining Wilson in Pittsburgh to pressure Mason Rudolph into signing.

Then on Sunday night Russell Wilson issued this tweet:

Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl Championship in 2013 in just his second season in the league. Seattle returned the following year, but lost in part due to a goal line interception that Wilson threw scuttling a comeback effort.

Since then Wilson had been a consistent winner in Seattle, but as the 2000 teens came to an end, there were rumblings that he was not happy. Wilson and the team said all of the right things and Wilson had a reasonably strong season in 2021, but the Seahawks traded him to the Broncos.

  • This first season in Denver was a disaster, leading to the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Under Sean Peyton Wilson’s play improved, but he did play a few very bad games. Peyton benched him late in the the season opening speculation that Wilson would leave by trade or release. The Broncos plan to release Wilson when the league year begins on Wednesday March 11th. The Broncos are on the hook for 38 million to Wilson this season, so conceivably the Steelers could sign him for as little as 1.2 million.

No Risk? + No Rudolph?

On one level this deal is a no brainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed their confidence in Kenny Pickett, each man has also said the Steelers would bring him competition.

December and January of last season revealed two things about the Steelers:

1. This team is still a ways away with playing on the level of any of the teams in the conference championships
2. However, competent quarterback play brings them is much closer than anyone would have thought possible on say, December 20th 2023.

So, if the Steelers can land a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the veteran minimum that would almost be a no-brainer. Almost. At age 36 Russell Wilson may “still have something left in the tank,” but he also doesn’t have much “upside.”

That means if neither Pickett nor Wilson pans out in 2024 then the frachise will be starting from zero at quarterback in 2024 because the Steelers signing Wilson almost certainly ends Mason Rudolph’s time in Pittsburgh.

Even before Wilson’s arrival it was clear that Rudolph would return as QB No. 2 with nothing more than a promise that he’d have a shot at moving up the depth chart. Given limitations on training camp practices and the current 3 schedule of 3 preseason games holding a 3-way competition for the starting quarterback slot simply isn’t realistic.

While bringing Wilson to Pittsburgh carries little “risk” conventional risk for the Steelers, the opportunity this presents could also be smaller than meets the eye.

Mike Tomlin’s flirtation with aging athletes in the twilight of their careers – think Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway and perhaps even Patrick Peterson hasn’t yielded much fruit. And if Tommy Maddox did deliver one year of “Tommy Gun” in 2002, previous franchise quarterback reclamation projects with David Woodley, Todd Blackledge and Kent Graham failed.

  • But none of those men wore Super Bowl rings.

Russell Wilson does. Welcome Steelers Nation.

 

 

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Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

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Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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Dyslexic Reversals: Why I’m Still Have Hope for Kenny Pickett

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived! And the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t playing in Super Bowl LVIII as has been the case since they losing to the Packers in in Super Bowl XLV.

  • While this isn’t surprising for most Steelers fans, it does reveal how quickly perceptions change.
Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers vs Raiders, Immaculate Reception 50th anniversary

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens after the Go Ahead Touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Just one year ago today, several commenters on the Steel City Insider message board agreed that Kenny Picket’s arrival had opened the Super Bowl window for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mind you, these commenters are students in the game who are well-versed in the X’s and O’s. And while they’re devoted Steelers fans, none can be written off as a “homer” or a “fanboy.”

  • Today putting “Kenny Pickett” and “Super Bowl” into the same sentence almost seems laughable.

The Steelers 2023 season was the year to expect the unexpected. And one of the unexpected disappointments was that Kenny Pickett failed to make the proverbial “Second Year Leap.”

His performance was so uninspiring that many commentators both inside and outside Pittsburgh think that the franchise would be wise to cut their losses and move on.

They may be right.

But I’m still holding out hope for Kenny Pickett for some very personal reasons.

Pickett’s Disappointing Development

If you look you’ll find no shortage of statistics that paint a rather anemic picture of Kenny Pickett’s work as a passer. Instead of recounting them here, I’ll offer one of my own:

  • Through 12 games in 2023, Kenny Pickett threw a mere 6 touchdown passes.
  • In just 8 games in 2019, Devlin Hodges threw 5 touchdown passes
Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

That’s a sobering stat if there ever was one. Comb through Pickett’s numbers and you’ll be hard pressed to find any sort of silver lining….

…Except for when it comes to the fourth quarter.

And it is that part of Kenny Pickett that reminds me of my own. In many ways my own story of growing up with dyslexia reminds me what we’ve seen on Kenny Pickett’s NFL journey thus far.

Before diving in, in the (extremely) unlikely event this post goes viral, let me make an important clarification:

  • I don’t know whether Kenny Pickett has dyslexia or another learning disability
  • There’s nothing to suggest that his struggles are a symptom of dyslexia
  • And if he is dyslexic, I’m not suggesting it explains anything about his NFL career so far

But my own story makes it easier to understand what I’ve seen.

Why Kenny Pickett’s Career Arc Resonates with Me

As the middle class child of two college educated parents, one of whom was a teacher, I started with a lot of advantages. I also in a school system that had sterling, national reputation. Even before I started school I was impressing neighbors as a bright child.

Harmony Hills Elementary

Harmony Hills Elementary school at some point before 1998.

In the first grade Mrs. Gable gave me a book to take home and read. It was the kind of “Jack saw Mary and said, ‘Hi!’ Mary said, ‘Good morning Jack!’”

Every night I sat there at the dinner table with mom or dad every night trying to read it. I got the book in early October and was supposed to finish it in a week.

I finished it in May.

But then a funny thing happened. Mrs. Gable gave me another book to take home and bring back in a week. I finished it in two days. And I closed May by banging out several other books with just one or two night’s work.

  • The pattern continued throughout Elementary School and Junior High School

I’d start the year slowly. Although I was always raising my hand and answering questions, I never got considered for “Gifted and Talent” programs because I “took too long to finish” my work. Indeed, by the third grade spending 3-4 hours after school doing homework was quite common.

The first report card in seventh grade was pockmarked with several C’s, a B or two and one A (its completely possible that some of those C’s would have been D’s had my mom not been friends with several of my teachers.) On my last report card in 7th grade I got 5 A’s, 1 B and a C.

That prompted an observation from my dad who said, “You know, you’re like a runner, you start the school your slowly, but by the end of the year you’re running at full speed. We need to figure out a way to keep you going through the summer.”

  • The prospect of summer homework did not appeal to me. But dad was on to something.

Fortunately “summer homework” never materialized during July or August of 1985, but that fall I was diagnosed with dyslexia. And it was then that Dr. Levinson explained to my parents that slow starts followed by fast finishes were common for bright kids with dyslexia because it took us time to develop accommodation strategies.

Which brings me back to Kenny Pickett.

Kenny Pickett’s Splits Suggest More than “Clutch Gene”

Kenny Pickett’s been called “Mr. 4th quarter.” It’s been said that he has the “clutch gene.” With 7 4th quarter comebacks in just 24 starts, that’s understandable. But it oversimplifies things.

A quick look at Kenny Pickett’s 2nd year splits reveals why:

Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett 2023 splits

Kenny Pickett’s 2023 Splits, via Pro Football Reference

As you can see, Kenny Pickett’s 4th quarter comebacks don’t come out of thin air. Kenny Pickett improves during the course of games. This is true across nearly every key metric, save for completion percentage with dips in the 2nd quarter, but rebounds after half time.

  • This makes Kenny Pickett unique.

Yes, you read that right. You’d think this tendency might be common among great comeback quarterbacks, particularly early in their careers. But it is not. In fact, the opposite is true.

Tom Brady is the leader in 4th quarter comebacks. Yet his Split numbers show a slightly worse passer rating in the 4th quarter but that difference is due to chance. This is true for both his entire career and his second year as a starter.

Ben Roethlisberger’s career 4th quarter passer rating is slightly better than other quarters, but again, its likely due to chance. In his second year his 4th quarter performance was markedly worse than other quarters. Peyton Manning sees quite a drop off in the 4th quarter career wise and a much stronger one in his second season.

A full accounting of all legendary comeback artists isn’t possible here. But you can see the same tendency in place for stalwarts like Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler and John Elway.

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Kenny Pickett drops back to pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Yet here is Kenny Pickett steadily improving as the game progresses. How do we explain this? Well, there are three possibilities:

1. This is an aberration that will normalize over time.
2. Pickett’s playing from behind and has more freedom thanks to the hurry up offense
3. Kenny Pickett improves because during games he’s reading coverages better and throwing more accurately

Let’s concede that number 1 is a real possibly. Kenny Pickett’s 12 games from 2023 provide a small sample which is further skewed by him leaving 3 games due to injury. And this narrative falls apart if you look at his career splits, although those include his first few games, which included a lot of late interceptions which disappeared from his game afterwards.

Number 2 is basically a variant of “blame Matt Canada,” but if it is true, it speaks well of Pickett’s football IQ.

  • But for me? I’m holding out hope that the third explanation is the right one.

As someone who started out school years with great difficulty, absorbed tons of criticism about being “too slow” or “taking too long to finish your work” yet who always finished with a bang, my money’s on Kenny Pickett improving in real time as a game progresses.

Time (or injury) may prove me wrong, but count me as one Steelers fan who is glad that Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin are committed to giving Kenny Pickett a chance to prove me right.

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Hidden Risk? Do Art Rooney’s “Time to Get Some Playoff Wins” Comments Set the Bar Too Low?

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gave his annual end-of-the year press conference this and there was one quote that landed as music in the ears of many citizens of Steelers Nation.

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Art Rooney II & James Harrison shake after the Steelers 2017 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When asked about the Steelers historic playoff drought, Rooney bluntly declared:

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency. I think everybody, myself, Mike, guys that have been on the team for a while, T.J., Cam, everybody, we’ve had enough of this. It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.

Art Rooney II seldom speaks to the press. When he does he says very little. But those words carry a tremendous impact – after all, after the 2004 season ended in another AFC Championship loss it was Rooney who declared it was time for a Super Bowl. And the 2005 Steelers brought the Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.

The response on social media was swift and decisive. Here’s one example:

And this is understandable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since Chris Boswell kicked them out of Kansas City and into the AFC Championship in January 2017. That’s a long time. To put that in context, even after the Super Steelers faded, Chuck Noll never went more than four years without a playoff win during the 1980s.

  • Yet here’s Mike Tomlin looking at 7 years and counting since his last playoff win.

So while it is good that the Steelers brass embraces the elephant in the room, there is a flaw in Rooney’s response. Notice that Rooney simply said, “It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.”

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

In 1992 when Bill Cowher returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Steelers, he offered a change of pace and he did so immediately by declaring that his goal for his rookie season was to win the Super Bowl.

Chuck Noll had started the 1990 and 1991 seasons saying similar things, talking about having “Championship caliber talent” with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Merril Hoge in mind. But Cowher delivered his remarks with a difference – he really believed it.

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

Yet Cowher’s 1992 Steelers took the league by storm and entered the playoffs as the AFC’s first seed. Those Steelers of course didn’t win the Super Bowl, and Bill Cowher faced a long road litter with AFC Championship losses to get to Super Bowl XL.

  • But his goal remained constant.

And setting winning the Super Bowl as the standard for success paid dividends in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger arrived. Injuries to Tommy Maddox forced Ben Roethlisberger into the line up in week 2 and the franchise never looked back.

  • When the playoffs arrived, the Super Bowl was the goal and the expectation.

That left no room for a “We’re just glad to have won 14 straight games with a rookie quarterback and be in the AFC Championship” mentality. Winning a Super Bowl was the only success metric.

I’m sure if you asked Rooney a follow up question, he’d affirm that winning the Super Bowl is his goal and he was simply acknowledging that wining playoff games is a perquisite to a Lombardi.

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

But Rooney and everyone else must be mindful that comments like “its time get some [playoff] wins” can carry unintended consequences.

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Pat Rooney, Former Steelers Minority Owner, Passes Away at Age 84

Patrick J. Rooney, Pat Rooney, Pat Rooney brother of Dan, Pat Rooney obituary

Pat Rooney stands in front of a portrait of his father Art Rooney, Sr. Photo Credit: Richard Garulich, The Palm Beach Post

Patrick J. Rooney, former minority owner and son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. has passed away at the age of 84. Of all of the Rooney brothers, Pat Rooney kept the lowest profile when it came to his association with the Steelers.

Dan Rooney of course ran the team for over 50 years, guiding it from NFL laughing stock to one of the most successful pro sports franchises in history. Dan’s decisions continue to shape the Steelers today. Art Rooney, Jr. ran the scouting department and, along with Bill Nunn and Dick Haley, oversaw some of the greatest drafts in league history.

Tim Rooney never held a formal role with the franchise, yet he was the one who penned the letter to “The Chief” imploring him to force head coach Walt Kiesling to keep Johnny Unitas. (The Chief balled the letter up and threw it in the trash, explaining to his sons, “There can only be one boss.”) John Rooney, Pat’s twin, never held a role with the team either, but he helped keep the Steelers in Rooney hands when Stanley Druckenmiller tried to buy the team in 2008.

But, as Pat Rooney explained to Jim O’Brien in his 2002 book The Chief, maintained few ties to the Steelers:

The last connection I had with the Steelers’ front office, aside from my brother Dan, was Mary Regan, who had been my dad’s secretary all those years. When they left Three Rivers Stadium for the new set-up on the South Side, Mary Regan retired. When I went in there before Mary Regan was the only one who knew me. I don’t know who to see now. That’s the way it is.

That may have been the way it was, but that was a pretty remarkable comment from a man who owned a 16% stake in the team and sat on its Board of Directors.

Pat Rooney ran the Palm Beach Kennel Club when the family bought it in 1970 and he moved to Florida to run it full time in 1984.

Although he was the first brother move as far away as Florida, Pat Rooney always remained true to his roots, recounting to O’Brien how he and his brothers would give out season ticket flyers outside the steel mills during shift changes, back when season tickets cost $25 or $30 dollars.

And Rooney remained close to his brothers, as he explained to O’Brien, “I talk to John every day. I talk to Tim about three or four times a week. I talk to Art several times a week. I talk to Dan now and then. John talks to Dan almost every day, and he tells me what Dan said. I talk to Art II.”

Like Dan Rooney, Pat was involved in the America Ireland Fund and even maintained a home in County Clare for a decade, where he’d spend approximately 2 months a year.

One of Pat Rooney’s chief initiatives was to bring slot machines to the family’s race tracks. That brought the family into conflict with the NFL’s gambling regulations (oh, how times have changed), which forced the Rooney brothers to divest their interests in the race tracks.

Pat Rooney along with his brother Tim wanted to accept Stanley Druckenmiller’s offer, however his other brother’s wishes prevailed. Although Pat didn’t quite get his way, events ultimately validated his wisdom.

In Ed Bouchette’s iconic 1992 volume Dawn of a New Steel Age, when talking about the possibility of keeping the Steelers within the family, Pat Rooney predicted, “Realistically Art’s going to have to buy out the partners.”

Dan and Art Rooney II kept control of the team, with Tim and Pat completely divesting their shares as part of their estate planning, while Art Jr. and John maintained small stakes.

Patrick was predeceased by his brothers Dan and John and is survived by wife Sandra Sully Rooney and their seven children, several grandchildren and one great grandchild. Steel Curtain Rising offers them our thoughts and our prayers.

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Le’Veon Bell Should Apologize to the Man in the Mirror. Not to Steelers Fans

Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.

The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”

  • Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.

Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.

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Le’Veon Bell departing the gridiron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Why Bell Owes No Apology to Steelers Fans

Full disclosure. When the Steelers slapped the 2nd franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, I said it wasn’t what either side wanted, but probably what both needed. I was wrong.

And when Bell failed to show up on the first day of practice before the opener, I like many other was upset. Later, as the deadline to report loomed, I opined that Mike Tomlin should call Bell and convince him to report.

The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?

Perhaps.

But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.

That’s simply not Bell’s fault.

Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”

NFL players have a code.

Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.

  • And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.

Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.

The Man in the Mirror

When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.

But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.

  • In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.

The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.

The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.

And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.

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