Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships

People forget but controversy shrouded Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Kevin Colbert in February 2000.

The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.

As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)

But defying the conventional wisdom turned out to be the wise move, as it was with some many of the key decisions Dan Rooney made while running the Steelers.

  • Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”

The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.

Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.

Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.

  • While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.

This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.

  • And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.

That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.

Why where the Steelers of the ‘90’s contenders while the Steelers of the 00’s were Champions in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII?

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.

  • Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.

He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.

  • Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.

But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.
Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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More Bad News for Steelers: Anthony Chickillo Arrested for Simple Assault

The 2019 season has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who can’t even seem to cut a break during their bye week. According to news reports, backup linebacker Anthony Chickillo was arrested over the weekend for an incident that took place in Wharton Township, Franklin County.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

WTAE’s Jim Madalinsky reports that the incident involves Anthony Chickillo’s girlfriend and that it took place at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a luxury complex situated in southwestern Pennsylvania. Steelers PR director Burt Lauten told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “We are aware of an incident involving Anthony Chickillo last night and are still gathering information. Until we have further details we will not provide any further comments.”

  • That’s pretty much a standard boiler plate statement for the Steelers in situations like these.

How the Steelers, and the NFL handle this will bears watching. The NFL has been under fire for its horrendously inconsistent treatment of players involved in or accused of being involved in domestic violence incidents. The Steelers have had their own issues in this regard, going back to 2008 when both Cedric Wilson and James Harrison were involved in domestic violence.

The Steelers cut Cedric Wilson yet gave James Harrison a considerable bit more slack, as Deebo finished the season as NFL Defensive Player of the year (the charges against Harrison were eventually dropped.)

The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Entering his fifth season, Anthony Chickillo serves as the primary backup to T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, and has started 9 games in his NFL career. Last spring the Steelers resigned Anthony Chickillo to a 2 year, 8 million dollar contract in free agency. The move came as a bit of a surprise, but word was that the New England Patriots had made a similar and slightly higher offer.

Beyond Anthony Chickillo the Steelers also have Ola Adeniyi as a reserve outside linebacker.

When the bye week arrives, Mike Tomlin reputedly tells his players, “Don’t get yourselves in the news.” Chickillo it seems, wasn’t apparently listening.

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Would the Rooney Rule Keep the Steelers from Firing Mike Tomlin? Don’t be Absurd

Last Monday, I was doing my podcast for Behind The Steel Curtain, when some joker came into the live chat and wrote something along the lines of: “The Steelers can’t fire Tomlin because of a race quota.”
  • Then, he went on to say a bunch of racist things before being kicked out of the conversation.
Friday night, I was out at a local establishment, waiting for a personal pizza I just ordered and having a drink while I watched the University of Pittsburgh defeat Syracuse. As I was getting annoyed with Pitt’s ongoing habit of almost blowing substantial leads, I overheard a conversation between the bartender and a couple of gents from the Washington D.C. area. They were discussing Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and the rumors surrounding the interest Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder may have in him as his next full-time head coach. The gents from D.C., not fans of Snyder at all considering the number of four-letter words they used to describe what he’s done to the once great Redskins franchise, were amazed and excited about these rumors they hadn’t actually heard up until then.
Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Would the Rooney Rule keep Art Rooney II from firing Mike Tomlin? Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

When they asked the bartender about his thoughts on Mike Tomlin, he wasn’t over the top critical, but he did suggest that the coach’s time and message may have expired in Pittsburgh. But he also said — and this is what inspired me to write this here article — “You see, the Steelers really can’t fire Tomlin because of the Rooney Rule, but if they trade him, it really won’t look so bad.” I was going to pipe up and tell him how foolish that thought-process was, but I didn’t want harm to come to my late-night dinner.
  • Besides, what good would it have done?
I’ve sat and listened to many people say the same thing over the years about how Art Rooney II, the team president and majority owner, is constrained by the Rooney Rule, a policy championed in the early-2000s by his legendary father and former team owner, the late Dan Rooney, requiring all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for vacant coaching jobs.
  • The sentiment held by many is that if the Steelers fire Tomlin, they would look like hypocrites…or worse.
First of all, this ignores the indisputable fact that Tomlin, who was named the Steelers new head coach in 2007 following the resignation of Bill Cowher, wasn’t a Rooney Rule hire. How do I know this? The late Mr. Rooney said so many times.
Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Yet, people continue to gloss over that very important nugget for some reason. That’s right, Dan Rooney, one of the most influential owners in NFL history, a man who was universally respected among his peers for helping turn the league into the billion-dollar business it is today, made sound decisions on just about everything….except that time he hired the black coach.
  • That was only done for reasons to do with race.
  • And, again, that’s why, according to so many, Tomlin could never, ever be fired. It would just look so darn bad.
Please. So, the Steelers, one of the most successful and popular sports franchises on the planet — an organization that became such a marquee name because of getting it right on so many pivotal decisions — is now reduced to saving face for the sake of a rule that is named after Dan Rooney?
  • That’s just silly and a bit disrespectful to Dan, his son, everyone involved with the Steelers.
Think about it. If the Steelers really were that concerned about the Rooney Rule and their public image, why wouldn’t they just go out and hire another African American to be their next head coach? After all, as this rule has helped to reveal over the past 15 years or so, there are certainly many qualified minority candidates, people who are now frequently hired as head coaches and coordinators based on merit.
  • They’re also frequently fired based on merit.
Race isn’t so much an issue anymore when it comes to head coaches in the National Football League. That is what Dan Rooney wanted when he championed this interview policy in the first place. To be clear, the rule doesn’t mandate that minorities be hired for vacant coaching positions. It mandates that they be given an opportunity to be interviewed. The Steelers are in the business of winning football games and championships. They’re not in the business of saving face due to things like the Rooney Rule. If and when it becomes obvious that Mike Tomlin shouldn’t remain as head coach, the Steelers will do what they’ve always done.
  • And that’s what’s best for business.
To think anything else is just absurd.

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Steelers Trading Mike Tomlin to the Redskins is Crazy. Or Is It….?

If there’s one thing Pittsburgh Steelers fans hate more than a 1-4 start, it’s head coach Mike Tomlin.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, fans want to blame him for the team’s failures. That is certainly understandable right now, and those #FireTomlin hashtags have no doubt multiplied in numbers over the past few weeks, thanks to a horrible start to the 2019 season that has been aided greatly by the year-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Without No. 7 around to pick up so much of the slack, every coaching decision is magnified (see the intercepted Wildcat pass from the 12 yard line.)

And when you’re only winning 20 percent of your games, the people aren’t going to like what they see when they look under the microscope.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Redskins, FedEx Field 2016

Might Mike Tomlin don the sidelines at FedEx Field on a regular basis? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

This is going to be the greatest coaching challenge of Tomlin’s career, and trust me, few fans are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is (Devlin Hodges will start in place of the concussed Mason Rudolph as the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers on Sunday Night Football). It doesn’t matter how badly injuries have compromised his roster. If the 2019 regular season continues on its current downward trajectory, Steelers fans will put 100 percent of the blame on Tomlin’s shoulders and will want him gone.

  • Might Steelers fans get their wish this time? 

The Redskins, off to an 0-5 start, fired Jay Gruden last Monday, and almost immediately, rumors began to surface that Daniel Snyder, the team’s “Boy Billionaire” owner who Myron Cope once suggested should go stick his head in a can of paint, was extremely interested in Mike Tomlin as his team’s next full-time head coach.

That wouldn’t happen in the immediate future, of course, not unless the Steelers fire Tomlin mid-season, which would be extremely out of character for them. And with the way the Rooney family has treated its head coaches over the past 50 years, it’s unlikely that the likely first losing season of Tomlin’s tenure would lead Art II to consider a change at head coach.

  • But maybe Art Rooney II doesn’t have to fire Mike Tomlin.

Maybe they don’t have to deal with the ugliness of terminating a man who has won more consistently than any Steelers coach ever has over his first 12 seasons.

Mike Tomlin signed a one-year extension with the Steelers this past summer, which was a departure from the past, when the team would always give its head coaches two-year extensions. This quickly led to speculation that the organization wasn’t too pleased with Tomlin’s performance in recent years.

It’s certainly no secret that some minority Steelers owners aren’t the biggest Tomlin supporters, and when you couple that with the one-year deal, maybe the Rooneys are starting to consider another direction for the franchise.

But replacing a head coach is a messy process, especially for a team like the Steelers that hasn’t actually had to do it for over five decades — Chuck Noll retired in 1992; and Bill Cowher resigned in 2007.

And both of those were voluntary changes. The last time the Steelers fired a head coach was when Dan Rooney let Bill Austin go in late 1968, before man had even walked on the moon. 

However, if the Steelers can trade Tomlin’s rights to the Redskins for, say, a premium draft choice, that might be a different story. It’s no secret that Snyder isn’t afraid to over-spend for players and coaches, and while it seems ludicrous that he would part with a 2020 first-round pick that will surely be in the top five, you just never know with that boy billionaire owner.

It’s hard to say where these rumors started, but even though Tomlin dismissed them at his weekly press conference last Tuesday, they will likely persist until the Redskins hire a new head coach (veteran Bill Callahan was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season).

  • As for Steelers fans, these rumors are the kind of red meat they need right now.

1-4 starts are no fun for anyone, especially fans who love their football team as much as Steelers fans do. Steelers faithful need a distraction. They need something else to focus on besides the failures of the football team.

For some, the dismissal of Mike Tomlin as head coach has been something of a crusade since shortly after Super Bowl XLIII, when he supposedly won a championship with Bill Cowher’s players. (Why don’t we ever ask why Kevin Colbert only wins Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s players…? Just Say’in.)

When it comes to Mike Tomlin, one has to wonder where his mind is at right now. Despite his rough exterior and macho persona, the man is a human being. Fact is, he’s never been fully embraced by a large segment of the Steelers fan base. You can draw your own conclusions as to why, but that is a fact.

  • Does he want to stay in a city that has so much disdain for him?

Do you think he’s sick of hearing that he won a Super Bowl with another coach’s players? Do you think he’d relish the kind of autonomy he’d likely have in Washington, which would be a departure from the democracy that the Steelers organization has always been (even under The Emperor Noll)?

  • Do you think he’d feel flattered by the kind of money Daniel Snyder would no doubt throw at him?

Daniel Snyder isn’t an easy man to work for, and the Redskins, a once-proud franchise, have been an ongoing joke for a very long time. But money talks. Also, Mike Tomlin, like most head coaches, has a huge ego. You don’t think he’d like the challenge of turning the Redskins around? He wouldn’t have to deal with the criticisms of those who think he only benefited from the furniture that the last tenant left behind.

It would be his show. It would be his vision.

  • And for many Steelers fans, it would be a new era in Pittsburgh, one that they’ve been calling for for many years.

“It all starts with the coaches,” many fans are fond of saying. And, for so many, it begins and ends with the head coach. It’s never the players fault. The other team gets no credit.

If you have the right man in place, you’ll win. (Never mind that, when asked about the Steelers remarkable run of success since 1969, Dan Rooney always insisted that it started with the players.) 

According to many Tomlin critics, he’s never been the right man for the Steelers head coaching job.

  • Maybe the Rooneys are starting to feel the same way. Maybe Tomlin is, too.

Right now the tea leaf reading from several of the team’s most trusted beat writers, you know, guys who actually know and talk to the people whose opinions count on a regular if not daily basis, are telling us that the rumors are ridiculous. 

But come early January, Steelers Nation will find out if those rumors about Mike Tomlin to the Washington Redskins aren’t so crazy, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Controversy on Kevin Colbert’s Non-Contract Extension? NOT!

Art Rooney II used the opening of training camp to dispense with any potential distraction about Mike Tomlin’s future in Pittsburgh with a contract extension. However, the absence an extension for Kevin Colbert remained a bit of a mystery.

The mystery lasted little more than 24 hours, when Art Rooney II told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  “At this stage of the game, he’s really not looking to do any long-term planning. We talked and we agreed he’d rather wait till after the season to talk about the contract.”

  • This of course led to speculation about Kevin Colbert’s standing in the organization.

Colbert however quickly clarified the situation, going on Steelers.com to confirm that he has no plans to leave the organization nor is he angling towards transitioning out of his current role. At age 62, however, he’s simply not making long-term plans.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The fact that Kevin Colbert’s status with the team could become a situation he evaluates yearly has been reported throughout the 2019 off season by reporters such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Jim Wexell, among others.

Sometimes When You Smell Smoke, There Really Is Fire – But Not Now

While the internet and social media have loosened things up to a point, the NFL remains a tightly managed product. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors that even the most engaged fan is unaware of.

  • When unwanted stories bubble to the surface, teams still have tremendous power to tone them down, if not quiet them outright.

The Steelers are no exception. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t get along. All sides involved bent over backwards to tell everyone that the Ben Roethlisberger-Todd Haley relationship was fine. Yet, we know now that it wasn’t.

Shortly after the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown Who began, through surrogates in the press. Yet, the public was told that nothing was wrong. We know now that things were different.

Looking further back into Steelers history, rumblings of a breakdown between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began not too long after Super Bowl XXX. Over the next four seasons, the attentive fan could catch glimpses that contrasted with assurances that all was fine between the two. Of course, it wasn’t. By 1999 Cowher and Donahoe were barely speaking, forcing Dan Rooney to choose.

  • All of this is to say that often times skepticism in the face of the party line can be a healthy thing.

But this isn’t one of them. If Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert say that everything is fine, then Steelers Nation should take them at their word.

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Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract by One Year. Tenure Now Tied to Roethlisberger’s Reign?

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by one year, binding him to Pittsburgh through “at least” the 2021 season. The move came as the Steelers opened training camp at St. Vincents, as Art Rooney II moved quickly to remove any distractions about the job security of his head coach.

Since Bill Cowher’s tenure, the Steelers have traditionally extended their head coach when he has had two years remaining on his contract.

The extension is, however, for one year, with an option which is a bit of a break from tradition, and no one really seems to know why. There are several possibilities:

  • The two sides couldn’t agree on money, so this was a quick, clean compromise
  • Art Rooney II wants to hold Mike Tomlin’s feet to the fire
  • One or both parties wanted Tomlin’s contract to overlap with Ben Roethlisberger‘s
  • Mike Tomlin only wanted a 1 year extension

While all four possibilities are viable, some are more likely than others.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

One would like to think that after sticking together through 12 years of ups and downs, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers wouldn’t clash over contract terms. But as Bruce Springsteen wrote, “Sooner or later it all comes down to money honey/Waist deep in a big muddy….”

The idea that Art Rooney II is only offering a one year extension might sit well with fans, and hasn’t been discounted by journalists such as the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac. However, NFL coach’s contracts are guaranteed. Adding an extra year to Mike Tomlin’s contract likely means committing to between 7 and 10 million more dollars.

  • Would you really commit that kind of money to someone you think you might be firing?

The fact that Mike Tomlin’s contract is now aligned with Ben Roethlisberger is lost on no one. Roethlisberger clearly likes playing for Mike Tomlin, and Mike Tomlin likes Roethlisberger. Their fortunes are tied together figuratively, perhaps they’re tied together literally.

  • The next possibility is one that isn’t being discussed, and that’s that Mike Tomlin doesn’t want a longer deal.

Mike Tomlin has two kids, Dino Tomlin and Mason Tomlin, in college and while his boys were in high school he has discussed how difficult be for him to miss seeing them play. Depending on how their eligibility is used, if Tomlin walked away at the end of his current deal, he could conceivably see both boys finish their collegiate playing days.

Regardless of motive, today’s announcement all but ensures that Mike Tomlin will be on hand next summer at St. Vincents.

Hilton Signs, Watt on PUP

A smidge of other major news to come out of Steelers training camp today. Cornerback Mike Hilton signed his Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender which was his only choice. And in a precautionary move, the Steelers put T.J. Watt on the PUP list due to a tight hamstring.

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Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019 – Exploring the Pros & Cons

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare start St. Vincents this week in Latrobe all eyes are on Art Rooney II and his pending decision to extend or not extend Mike Tomlin’s contract.

The Steelers longstanding policy has been to extend the contract of their head coach 2 years prior to the expiration of his current deal. Dan Rooney began the practice with Bill Cowher in the 1990’s and Art Rooney II continued it in 2017 just months after his father passed away.

  • However, both seasons have ended in disappointment since Mike Tomlin’s last contract extension, leading to speculation that change may be in the air.

Here we take a look at the Pros and Cons of extending Mike Tomlin’s contact in 2019.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II has a decision to make on Mike Tomlin’s contract. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

The Cons of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

For many, there is no debate. Much of Steelers Nation, perhaps even a majority, has wanted Mike Tomlin gone and wants no part of seeing him stay around. This site isn’t inclined to join that chorus but the arguments against extending Mike Tomlin are legitimate.

Two years ago, when the Steelers last extended Mike Tomlin’s contract, the team had indeed suffered a brutal AFC Championship loss to New England, but it looked like it was on the verge of completing an end-to-end rebuild around Ben Roethlisberger without dipping below .500.

  • Anyone who thinks that it is “easy” to rebuild a team around a young franchise quarterback should look at Don Shula and Dan Marino’s experience in the 80’s and ‘90’s.

Yet, the Steelers have taken steps backwards in each of the following two seasons, and they’ve done it against a background filled with a lot of distractions. Are those distractions Mike Tomlin’s fault? Well, in many cases, the truth probably is “No.”

Mike Tomlin didn’t make the decision to franchise Le’Veon Bell on his own. Its entirely possible that Mike Tomlin wanted to cut James Harrison in the summer of 2017 but wasn’t not allowed to. (The fact that James Harrison was a candidate to be cut is a matter of record, the rest is my speculation.)

While Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism for enabling Antonio Brown, it isn’t much of a stretch to argue that Tomlin kept Brown’s Diva tendencies in check far better than Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin did with their Diva wide outs. The bottom line is, Brown was a distraction early last season, then his issues were largely forgotten and only resurfaced at the end.

  • Regardless, deciding to extend Mike Tomlin could be seen as sending a signal that the team’s current direction is acceptable.

Does anyone think the trend lines this team has established over the last two seasons are acceptable?

The Pros of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

There are also strong arguments in favor of extending Mike Tomlin’s contract. For whatever his faults are as a head coach, and Tomlin has faults just as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did, Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

There is only one other NFL head coach whose record is head and shoulders above Mike Tomlin’s. Contemporaries with similar records, such as John Harbaugh, Sean Peyton and Pete Carroll have arguably struggled more than Tomlin has to rebuild around a franchise QB.

Results don’t lie. After knocking on heaven’s door in 2016 the Steelers have taken steps backward.

  • But will refusing to extend Mike Tomlin right this trend?
  • Sure, it could send a message that everyone needs to shape up. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Opting not to extend Mike Tomlin’s contract now would instantly create another distraction. That subplot would play out on social media and the “content aggregation sites” starting with the first training camp scuffle and lasting all the way until the final decision to go for it on fourth or not in the last meaningful game of the season.

In contrast, and to the extent that locker room and off the field distractions have impacted results on the field, extending Mike Tomlin’s contract could be a remedy.

Extending Mike Tomlin’s contract now would send a clear signal to everyone on the roster, “Mike Tomlin is our coach. He’s staying put. Listen to him if you want to do the same.”

Awaiting Art Rooney’s Decision

Art Rooney II has a decision to make. This past off season he’s shown an ability to pivot the Steelers standard operating procedure. The Steelers were ready to use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell by all accounts, yet had a change of heart. And at each opportunity they doubled down in their quest to improve weaknesses at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

  • Will he also make a similar pivot with regard to his head coach’s job security?

For my money, I don’t think he should. The list of NFL owners who’ve tried and failed to fire their way to a Lombardi is long. That’s because good NFL coaches are hard to find. Mike Tomlin’s record shows he’s one of them.

Ultimately Art Rooney’s decision doesn’t come down so much as to whether he thinks Mike Tomlin contributed to the problems of the last two season, but whether he’s confident that Mike Tomlin can be part of the solution.

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