10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

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

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

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

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

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

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

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

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

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

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

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

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

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

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

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

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

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

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

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

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

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

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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

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Steelers Ownership Reshuffled Dan and Art Rooney II to Maintain Control

Since Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933, the names “Rooney” and “Steelers” have been synonymous, save for a brief period in the 40’s when Art Rooney sold the team to Bert Bell.

That began changing in 2008 as the Steelers restructured their ownership group on the heels of an order from Roger Goodell to divest gambling interest while Stanley Druckenmiller attempted a hostile takeover.

Dan and Art II prevailed in part because Art Rooney Jr. and John Rooney were not ready to sell out and also in part because Roger Goodell made no bones about the fact that the NFL would do all it could to block any sale of majority interest to Stanley Drukenmiller.

Yet if Dan and Art II still controlled the team, precious little information was available to the public about the structure of the Steelers ownership.

That is changing however, thanks to a report from Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Steelers Ownership Reshuffled Again, Dan and Art II Stay on Top

Super Bowl XLIII represented a peak for the franchise, but the moment was bitter sweet for the Rooney family as it marked the last time the five brothers would control the franchise their father founded. As Ed Bouchette noted at the time, it was a bittersweet moment for the Rooney brothers, as none of were smiling in the photo taken after the game.

Pat Rooney, John Rooney, Tim Rooney, Art Rooney Jr., Rooney Brothers, Super Bowl XLIII

Pat, John Tim and Art Rooney Jr. @ Super Bowl XLIII, Photo by Kay Rooney

When the initial Steelers ownership restructuring was announced, it was known that Tim and Pat Rooney would essentially divest their shares of the Steelers, while Art Rooney Jr. and John Rooney would give up about half of their 16% stakes.

  • At the time reports indicated that they might be giving up more at a later time.

Per Ed Bouchette’s report, that time has come.

The 2009 agreement includes options for minority partners to buy out the other Rooney brothers , and John Rooney apparently sold his shares at the end of 2015. Art Rooney Jr. could follow, and the 2.5% stake that Pat Rooney still holds could also be sold.

While no public information who owned what percentage of the Steelers ever saw the light of day in 2009, the general outlines of the Steelers ownership structure were fairly clear. NFL rules mandate that one partner control at least 30%, although the rule was bent to allow Art and Dan to satisfy that requirement together.

With John and Art Jr. holding 16% together, that gave the Rooney family around 46%. Combine that with the McGinley’s close to 20% and the Rooneys and McGinleys must have controlled over 50%.

  • Ed Bouchette’s report indicates that is changing.

John Rooney is out or almost out, and the other shareholders retain the right to buy out all or part of Art Jr.’s and the McGinley’s shares.

But Bouchette’s article goes at great pains to assure fans that Art Rooney II and Dan Rooney are not going anywhere.

Bouchette reveals that Art Rooney II had a 20% stake in 2009 and has since increased his percentage. While Bouchette did not provide any details on how or when this occurred, Jimmy Haslam sold his stake in the Steelers when he bought the Browns, and Rita McGinley’s death could have potentially provided Art II with another chance to increase his stake.

Ed Bouchette also got Jack McGinley and Thomas Tull, who could probably be the next largest share holder, on the record supporting Art Rooney II’s continued control of the team.

Bouchette’s report also implies that even after the Steelers ownership reshuffling, the Rooneys will remain, at the very least, the largest minority.

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Celebrating the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays

Super Bowl 50 is almost here. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing Super Bowl 50, but as the great game reaches the half-century mark, Steelers Nation can take pride that regardless of whether Carolina or Denver triumphs, the Black and Gold own more Lombardi Trophies than any other franchise.

With that in mind, Steel Curtain Rising gives you the 8 Greatest Steelers Super Bowl Plays.

Lynn Swann, Mark Washington, Super Bowl X, 8 greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays

Lynn Swann makes and belief-defying catch in Super Bowl X over Dalllas’ Mark Washington. Photo Credit: AP, via NY Daily New

Super Bowl IX – Dwight White Spearheads Defensive Dominance

Sometimes plays symbolize an era, other times it is a player. When the two converge , something special happens. It is fitting then that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would author the first score in their first Super Bowl.

  • That only tells half the story.

Steel Curtain lineman Dwight White got pneumonia the week before Super Bowl IX. He’d lost 18 pounds in the hospital. Chuck Noll and George Perless told Steve Furness to get ready to play. The morning of the Super Bowl, White called Ralph Berlin, the Steelers head trainer, and begged him to pick him up, as White was determined to be introduced.

After talking with Steelers Dr. John Best, they relented, and when they saw White struggling to even put on his jersey, they figured he’d pass out in warm ups and let him play.

White started, and the Minnesota Vikings attacked him immediately. They handed off to Dave Osborn on three straight plays, and Osborn ran directly to White. The results:

  • A loss, no gain, and a one-yard gain.

The game remained scoreless in the second quarter when the Vikings found themselves backed up against their own end zone. A bad snap left Fran Tarkenton scrambling for the ball. It rolled in the end zone. Tarkenton fell on it. Dwight White landed on him.

A safety might only be 2 points, but scoring one sends a message that a defense is imposing its will. The message of Dwight White’s safety in Super Bowl IX was loud and clear: The Steel Curtain had risen.

Super Bowl X – Lynn Swann Shines

Super Bowl X provides the perfect example of how numbers might not lie, but they often fail to paint an accurate picture. Compared to some of the receiving feats of the 1980’s, let alone to the numbers NFL wide receivers put up today, Lynn Swann’s receiving numbers appear rather pedestrian.

  • Lynn Swann never caught more than 60 passes in a season and retired with 336 catches to his name

For years, naysayers like Peter King used those statics to block his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Super Bowl X reveals why the likes of King were so sorely mistaken. Lynn Swann’s stat line from Super Bowl X reads 4-161 and one TD. Not bad, but it suggests nothing spectacular. (Tweet w/ embedded video available as of 2/6/16):

But it was the quality of the catches that Swann made that earned him the Super Bowl MVP Award. His acrobatic catches were works of sheer beauty and displayed such grace that decades after he retired fans who weren’t even born when Swann was playing were still saying, “That was a Lynn Swann Catch.”

Super Bowl XIII – Rocky Bleier Overcomes the Odds

Wounded while serving his country, in Vietnam Rocky Bleier wasn’t even supposed to walk again, let alone play football. Yet Bleier defied the odds, not only making the game, but earning a starting spot.
Even then, Rocky was low man on the totem pole of a Super Bowl offense that featured no fewer than 5 Hall of Famers.

26 seconds remained in the first half with the score tied at 14. Franco Harris had given the Steelers a 3rd and 1 at the Dallas Cowboys 7. Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass and this is what happened (available as of 2/5/16 – watch it now before Roger Goodell’s YouTube police have it taken down):

Rocky Bleier would not be denied the touchdown, and added 7 points to the Steelers tally in a game they would ultimately win by 4….

Super Bowl XIV – Bradshaw, Stallworth & 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go

History tends to paint the Super Steelers as an unstoppable juggernaut that authored an unbroken string of super-human plays en route to four Super Bowls in six years. The Steelers of the 70’s were good, but what made them great wasn’t their ability to blow everyone out of the water, but rather their ability to make plays when the game was on the line.

  • No Super Bowl showcases that ability better than Super Bowl XIV vs. the LA Rams

The 4th quarter had begun, and the Steelers trailed the Los Angeles Rams 19-17. Lynn Swann was out of the game, as was Theo Bell, the Steelers 3rd receiver. Everyone on the Rams staff, most of all former Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson, knew Terry Bradshaw would try to get the ball to John Stallworth. And on third and 8 at the Pittsburgh 27, Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to do that.

The play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go” and the Steelers had failed miserably executing the play in practice, and neither Bradshaw nor Stallworth thought the play would work. Chuck Noll knew better. (Available as of 2/4/16):

As Art Rooney Jr. observed in his book Ruanadh, this is the result when you when you pair a Hall of Fame quarterback, with a Hall of Fame Wide Receiver and a Hall of Fame Coach.

Super Bowl XXX – Steelers Surprise Onsides Kick

The Steelers opened the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXX down 7-10. Nine plays into the game’s final period, a Norm Johnson field goal narrowed the Steelers deficit to 10. On the side lines, special teams coach Bobby April came up to Bill Cowher, next NFL Films captured Bill Cowher into his head set, “Chan? Chan, I’m going with the surprise on sides. I’m not leaving anything in the bag.”

  • Norm Johnson executed the surprise on-sides kick perfectly, and Deon Figures recovered.

Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field, and a Bam Morris touchdown made it 17-20 with the momentum decidedly in the Steelers favor… Of course, Steelers Nation would like to forget what happened after the Steelers defense forced a punt, but alas that too is part of history.

But so is Bill Cowher’s decision to call the surprise on sides. In terms of X’s and O’s, it may not have been the best play call in Steelers Super Bowl history, but it was certainly the boldest.

Super Bowl XL – Ike Taylor’s Interception

If Steelers Nation rightly remembers Bill Cowher’s first Super Bowl for its missed opportunities, it also must honor his final Super Bowl as the occasion where Cowher’s Steelers seized their own opportunities. The two scoring plays – Willie Parker’s 75 yard run and Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward stand out.

  • But those touchdowns bookended an even bigger play that ensured their relevance.

The Steelers were leading 14-3 in the middle of the third quarter when a Ben Roethlisberger interception gave the Seattle Seahawks new life. The Seahawks scored a touchdown. Seattle began the fourth quarter by marching down to the Steelers 19 where they threatened to take the lead. On 3rd and 18 Matt Hasselbeck got greedy and tried to hit Darrell Jackson deep.

The knock on Ike Taylor was that he couldn’t hold on to the interceptions. In his entire career, he picked off NFL quarterbacks 17 times. But three of those came in the post season, and none was more important than his interception of Matt Hasselbeck.

The play grounded the Seahawks rally, and set up the Steelers insurance touchdown that secured One for the Thumb with the Steelers win in Super Bowl XL.

Super Bowl XLIII – James Harrison’s Pick Six

Super Bowl XLIII will forever be remember for Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, the drive that preceded it, and Larry Fitzgerald’s touchdown that made such heroics necessary. Fair enough. Both Fitzgerald and Holmes touchdowns could easily make “Top 10 Super Bowl Touchdown lists.”

But it says here that James Harrison authored an even bigger touchdown (available as of 2/4/16):

Why does Steel Curtain Rising rank James Harrison’s touchdown higher than Holmes?

  • Simply math settles the question.

Aside from James Harrison running the length of the field, the Cardinals were at least going to score 3 points on that drive. Looked at in that light, Harrison’s touchdown amounted to a 10 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game the Steelers won by four.

The play also revealed Silverback’s incredible discipline, instincts and sheer will power.

Super Bowl XLV – Alejandra’s Return to Health

Steel Curtain Rising missed Super Bowl XLV because it wasn’t shown in Porto Galinhas, Brazil. But by game time that was a secondary consideration. You can read the full story of the tremendous generosity of the staff at the Tabapitanga here, but in a nutshell, my wife suffered a herniated disc, experienced intense pain, and could barely walk. The trip back to Buenos Aires was a harrowing affair, and was followed by three trips to the ER and two hospitalizations.

  • Fortunately, Alejandra made a complete recovery – or at least as close to a complete recovery as one can make from back injuries, and is doing extremely well.

I even forgot to record the game, and never saw Super Bowl XLV. Some things are not meant to be.

Sure, the Steelers loss disappointed, but my wife’s injury and recovery serves as a reminder that the outcome of a football game pales in comparison to what is really important in life, which is why it makes this list of the greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays.

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A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 Goal Line Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terance Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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Is Cause of Steelers Secondary Slump Simple Bad Luck?

Yesterday’s Watch Tower edition reviewed Ray Fittipaldo’s suggestion in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the Steelers current inability to find competent cornerback is rooted a failure by the front office and coaching staff to get on the same page.

  • It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.

Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:

Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:

  • Bad luck

Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.

Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought

The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.

By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.

  • You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.

But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:

  • Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.

That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.

The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.

The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.

In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.

The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.

Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck

What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

Dan Rooney realized that things weren’t working and removed his brother as head of the Steelers scouting department in October 1986. Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts.

Noll’s next four drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, John Jackson, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster. In a word, communication between scouting and coaching improved enough for Noll to draft the players who would fuel the Steelers early 1990’s resurgence under the Cowher Power banner.

  • But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.

  • The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.

The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.

But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.

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When Will Antonio Brown Peak? What Steelers Wide Receiver History Reveals

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an unqualified star in Antonio Brown. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin saw enough of him to smash Steelers precedent and offer Brown a second contract after just two seasons.

Antonio Brown is out performing his contract. Brown easily makes the NFL’s top five wide receiver list. Saying he belongs in the top 3 requires no stretch. Neither does it represent a stretch to assert that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver.

Yet, Brown’s compensation ranks 14th compared to his peers. His agent Drew Rosenhaus knows this and wants a new contract. Brown has 3 years remaining on the six year contract he signed in 2011. Kevin Colbert has clarified the Steelers will not renegotiate Brown’s contract. And, in terms of understanding this porblem, this is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider that Brown’s performance may have already peaked….

At What Age Do NFL Wide Receivers Peak?

Steel Curtain Rising has suggested a middle ground, that the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Brown’s contract. That’s a solid suggestion, but only a palliative step, as an article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo brings into focus:

Several studies over the years, including one this year by numberfire.com, indicate that receivers reach their peak at 26. Brown turned 27 last month.

That does not mean Brown’s numbers will decline anytime soon. Those same studies show that receivers don’t severely decline until age 32. After age 32, most receivers can’t match the production they enjoyed in their prime years.

The most important number is Brown’s age when his current contract runs out. He will turn 30 in 2018….

Looked at in that light, Drew Rosenhaus defiance appears all the more understandable and the numberfire.com article reveals why. Joseph Juan analyzed the performance of 27 elite wide receivers over the last 15 years and charted their production against their NFL experience and their age. While is Juan’s analysis is detailed and intricate, his conclusions are simple:

  • Most NFL wide receivers peak after 3 seasons and at age 26.

For as encompassing as Juan’s research may be, it included no Pittsburgh Steelers, which is strange because Hines Ward would seem to fit his criteria of having a career that spanned at least six seasons since 2000 and who made at least one Pro Bowl.

So the question is, how closely does the peak performance of Louis Lipps, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Hines Ward, in a word Pittsburgh’s wide receivers conform to Juan’s findings? Let’s take a look.

Louis Lipps Peak Performance

steelers, louis lipps, statistics, career, peak, performance

Louis Lipps peaked early, but rebounded on a high plateau

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Louis Lipps with their first round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft making him the last great player picked by Art Rooney Jr.’s scouting department. By today’s standards Louis Lipps, whose career receptions topped out at 59, would not be considered an “elite” wide receiver. But when the Steelers drafted him, the 100 yard catch barrier had only been broken twice.

However, perhaps it’s fair to say that even taking into account the era he played in Louis Lipps was a good but not great receiver, but make no mistake:

  • Louis Lipps could and did do damage as a Steelers wide out.

Before Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace arrived, Lipps and Bubby Brister owned the Steelers long passing record book with Lipps hauling in over 5 passes of over 75 yards.

In terms of Juan’s research, Lipps actually peeked in 1985 his second NFL season, at age 23. Injuries plagued him for the next two years, but in 1988, as if almost on cue, at age 26, Louis Lipps peaked again and continued to perform on a high plateau until turning 29 in 1991. (The Steelers cut Lipps in 1992 during a contract hold out. Lipps played in New Orleans and made 2 catches. The Steelers resigned him in 1993, but Lipps got cut in training camp.)

Lynn Swann’s Peak Performance

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Lynn Swann’s career statistics don’t do justice to his greatness

NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann needs no introduction to Steelers Nation. Lynn Swann played as a living legend. Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X lead even the most skeptical among us to question whether Swann was an angle instead of a mere mortal.

Indeed, generations after his retirement, you still see folks who weren’t even born when Swann was playing observe a difficult reception and remark, “That was a Lynn Swann catch.”

While concussion concerns cut Swann’s career short, his body of work still lends itself to Juan’s analysis.

  • Again, almost as if on cue, we see that Swann’s best year came in 1978 at age 26.

Unlike the receivers studied by Juan, Swann’s performance dropped off, although his yards-per-catch average other statistics show that Swann remained a downfield threat when healthy.

John Stallworth’s Peak Performance

steelers, john stallworth, statistics, career, hall of fame, peak

John Stallworth’s late career rebound cemented his Hall of Fame status

The Steelers drafted Lynn Swann and John Stallworth together and it was their turnkey talent that allowed Chuck Noll to unleash Terry Bradshaw after the NFL shackled the Steelers defense with the Mel Blount rule.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed in it’s in-depth profile of John Stallworth (click here to read), Swann was often known as the “big play” receiver while Stallworth was a “possession receiver.” In truth, Stallworth was just as much of a big play receiver as Swann.

  • And, in the context of this article, he proves to be very much the exception to Juan’s research.

While Stallworth did post the highest yards-per-catch average at age 26, his best season didn’t come until 1984. Then, at age 32 Stallworth exploded for 80 catches and over 1300 yards, despite that fact that it was David Woodley and Mark Malone who were throwing to him.

Hines Ward’s Peak Performance

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Hines Ward peaked at age 26, but performed at a high level well into his 30’s

Hines Ward universally known and loved in Steelers Nation, and while he’s often described as “a linebacker in a wide receiver’s body” Ward built a Hall of Fame worthy resume out of the brute force generated by his desire and determination.

  • And it was almost as if on cue that Ward peaked in 2002 when at age 26 he caught 112 passes for over 1300 yards

Ward’s performance following was more uneven than Juan’s research would suggest, but one must also factor in the fact that the transition from Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger conincided with Bill Cowher’s desire to “reestablish the run.” Ward’s performance did perk back up in 2008 and 2009 and didn’t really begin to decline until 2010, although Steel Curtain Rising would argue that even then Ward still continued to make critical catches in ways that numbers don’t measure.

When Will Antonio Brown Peak?

steelers, antonio brown, statistics, peak, contract, joseph juan

If numberfire.com’s Joseph Juan is right, Antonio Brown has already peaked….

Where does all of this leave Antonio Brown? First, with just four other Steelers wide receivers, this sample is far from statically valid. But they played in three very distinct NFL eras, and for wide spectrum of quarterbacks, from Hall of Famers to outright busts to others straddling the average to good continuum.

  • First, the evidence suggests that Antonio Brown has already hit his performance peak.

Past performance does not indicate future result, but Joseph Juan’s data says so, and so does the career trajectory of Swann, Lipps, and Ward, with Stallworth as an outlier. But the data also suggests that the Steelers can expect elite performance from Brown for several more years, and a post-30 resurgence isn’t out of the question.

  • But there’s also a downside: 2 of the 4 Steelers wide outs surveyed (Swann, Lipps) saw their career end abruptly.

Stallworth and Ward continued to play productively well into their 30’s however. But that dichotomy depicts the coin-flip nature of destiny in the NFL – careers can always end on one play.

Steel Curtain Rising has argued that the Steelers should not alter their contract renegotiation stance for Antonio Brown and that position stands. But based on the data, we’ll also say, one more time, the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Antonio Brown’s contract.

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

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

Colbert, Tomlin & the Art of the Informationless Press Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needed More Press Coverage on Steelers Scouting Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

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