Review of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel – Jack Lambert Liked It and So Will Serious Steelers Fans

Who are former Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Dudley, Elbie Nickel, John Reger and Myron Pottios and what they mean to the franchise’s legacy? Unless you’re in your mid-60’s or older, you’ve probably never heard of them, let alone considered their importance.

After you read Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel, an 187 page volume published in 2006 and reissued in 2011, you’ll know more about 36 men who wore the Black and Gold before during and after the Super Bowl era and what’s more, Wexell’s work will make you care about their contribution to the Steelers legacy.

  • At first glance, Jim Wexell’s lean, simple structure to Men of Steel might appear to be a drawback, but in truth it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Each of the 36 Steelers Wexell profiles gets between four and five pages to tell their story, including first hand interviews, highlights from the player’s career and an update on each player’s “Life’s Work.”

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger on the cover of the 2011 edition of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel

Wexell effectively employs this spare approach to lend a rich relevance to the stories of familiar players to players from yesterday that even the most diehard Steelers fans will struggle to recognize.

The average “educated Steelers fan” might be vaguely familiar with the Steelers role in effectively ending the career of Y.A. Title, but most probably don’t know that the man who sacked Tuttle on that fateful play was John Baker, a man who went on to serve as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina for the better part of two decades.

Devoting so much space to pre-Noll era Steelers might seem counter-intuitive from a commercial stand point, but Wexell explains, “I wanted to get the same amount of Steelers from each era, with the stipulation that I have to talk to them.”

Expanding on this goal, Wexell details, “I heard that Steelers fans wanted more of the stars, but I just assumed they had access to the internet. I’ve always wanted to know about some of the older players.” Wexell learned and shared stories.

And on that front, Wexell delivers, benefitting on guidance from the Steelers legendary PR man Joe Gordon, who for example, pointed him in the direction of Johnny Lattner, the only Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the Steelers.

Jim Wexell weaves each tale by starting with a key fact or action taken by the player, establishing its significance to the narrative and then providing the reader with a firsthand account from the player. After that, Wexell navigates seamlessly through the player’s college, pro and post-football careers.

  • Each chapter ends with the player moving on just as the reader turns the page to begin the next in medias res narrative a new player.

A book browser who might pick up Men of Steel, scan its table of contents, and see that Wexell takes 16 chapters to get to the beginning of the Super Steelers era could easily put the book down thinking there’s nothing interesting in there for fans focused on rooting for Mike Tomlin to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

Wexell combines crisp, succinct sentences with detailed, game-specific research to deliver compelling stories about men who blazed the trails that opened the way for the NFL and the Steelers to become the icons we adore today.

Wexell matches his economy of words with copious research, as he relates, “There’s really my art. I love research. I love sitting in libraries and poring through microfiche.”

Men of Steel Narrative Galvanized by Super Bowl Era and 80’s Stories

The majority of Wexell’s Men of Steel is devoted to telling the stories of the Steelers from the Chuck Noll era onward. Steelers fans will see names that they know, starting with Joe Greene and ending with stories on Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger.

Wexell secured an exclusive interview with the Steelers signal caller prior to Super Bowl XLV and also documents a pre-draft nugget linking Roethlisberger to Steelers scout Mark Gorscak (the need for greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation process has long been a pet cause of this site.)

Along the way, Wexell scores a rare interview with Jack Lambert. When prodded about how he got the reclusive Steelers legend to speak, Wexell shares that he’d tried, and failed to get an interview for his first book, Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain and for Men of Steel:

[For] , Men of Steel, I made the cursory call. He didn’t answer. I left a message, again, figuring he wouldn’t call back. But he did. “I don’t usually return calls to people like you,” he said with a pause. “But I thought your first book was the best Steelers book ever written. How can I help you?”

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

Lambert not only answered Wexell’s questions, but was surprised that the author only wanted to speak with him for 45 minutes and confesses, “To this day I’m kicking myself for not having more philosophical questions for a guy who obviously wanted to talk about pure football.”

Still, Wexell got enough to impress one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time, as after sending him a copy, Jack Lambert wrote Wexell back:

It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting down in the basement with my friends, a Michelob bottle and a pack of Tareytons. A long overdue thank you for sending me “Men of Steel.” … I just finished it and enjoyed catching up on some of my old teammates.

Aside from Lambert, Wexell also had the foresight to include stories on then yet-to-be Hall of Famers Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene.

But that’s essentially a function of the fact that we already know so much about those men. You’re not surprised when you enjoy reading Merril Hoge’s reflections on how special the 1989 Steelers playoff run is the way you unexpectedly crave more after learning of John Reger’s role in the 1955 MNF season opening win over the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field.

  • And, to be clear, Wexell succeeds in providing fresh insights on modern-era Steelers.

For transparency’s sake, its important to note that Men of Steel is not a perfect work and does contain a few factual errors. But just as a quarterback can throw an interception but still play a great game, these mistakes don’t keep Men of Steel from being a great book.

When asked what Steelers fans in 2018 can expect to gain by reading Men of Steel, Wexell concedes that he hasn’t given the question much thought, but then offers, “I love writing biographies because that’s where I learn the most.”

This reviewer concurs. Jim Wexell’s love for his subject matter is apparent on every page of the book, and so are the lessons he’s learned from those Men of Steel.

As of this posting, limited copies of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel remain available on Amazon.com.

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Back to Basics: Keith Butler’s Promise for Steelers to Practice Tackling is Music to the Ears

“Back to Basics.” Chuck Noll would be smiling broadly if he’d heard Keith Butler‘s promise that the Steelers would be practicing tackling at St. Vincents during summer of 2018. If Michael MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work is any guide, Chuck Noll uttered “Back to Basics” as much if not more than Mike Tomlin trots out “The Standard is the Standard.”

Sean Davis after missing a tackle on Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via USA Today For the Win.

Chuck Noll was complex person – how many other NFL coaches killed time before playoff games by reading books on celestial maritime navigation – but his coaching philosophies were simple. Noll understood that you win championships by excelling at doing ordinary things – blocking, tackling, taking the right angles, etc…

And that’s why Noll would instruct Andy Russell, the only legitimate Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin, how many inches his feet should be apart, and how to hold his hands prior to the snap. Thus, Andy Russell grew from a good player to a great player.

Seriously, if the Steelers fail to bag Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 do you REALLY think its because Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed a couple of days of OTAs? Troy Polamalu routinely missed OTAs and he seemed to do just fine.

But Steelers OTAs and minicamps sometimes yield useful news nuggets, and hopefully defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s comments about the pitiful state of tackling in Pittsburgh will prove to be one of them. Per the Tribune-Review’s Joe Rutter’s report, Butler isn’t pulling any punches in his self-assessment: “It’s as simple as you can get. Look at the whole last year and we missed a ton of tackles.”

  • Fortunately, Butler plans to do something about it.

According to Butler, the Steelers plan to focus on tackling during training camp, offering that the art of tackling isn’t even something that’s taught much at the college level anymore:

When we get them, we can’t think they know the fundamentals of playing football, we have to teach them the fundamentals of playing football, and it’s our job to do that.

Those are refreshing words from a defensive coordinator of a team that gave up three rushing touchdowns to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a single quarter during the AFC Divisional playoff game. For years, fans have complained about how missed tackles have plagued the Steelers, peppering beat reporters like Ed Bouchette with questions about why things never improve.

  • Bouchette would remind readers that live tackling in practice was a relic, of well, Chuck Noll’s time.

It should be noted, at St. Vincents in Steelers 2013 Mike Tomlin departed from the script and ordered live tackling during training camp. Tomlin hadn’t even told Kevin Colbert he was going to do this, who apparently went apoplectic when he saw it. Tomlin’s goal was to form a “battle hardened unit.”

That didn’t quite work, as the Steelers lost 4 starters to injury on opening day and went 0-4 and then 2-6. And no one rushed to apologize, “But they’re the best tackling 0-4 team we’ve ever seen….”

  • But there’s a difference between simply having live tackling in practice and actually teaching tackling.

Butler’s comments suggest that Steelers coaches are going to focus on the latter. No ever one solved a problem they failed to acknowledge. Butler clearly recognizes the Steelers problem with missed tackles, and he plans to address it, by going back to basics. Chuck Noll would concur.

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Dwight Stone’s Steelers Career Deserves to be Remembered for More than Just “Hands of Stone”

My first memory of the Steelers Dwight Stone came late in the 1987 season–his rookie year.

The Steelers had just secured a hard-fought 13-9 victory over a very tough Seattle Seahawks‘ team at old Three Rivers Stadium, and Dwight Stone, an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, clasped hands with rookie running back Merril Hoge, a 10th-round pick out of Idaho State, as the two celebrated a win that kept their team’s playoff hopes alive.

I remember thinking that that scene of two youngsters and draft long-shots enjoying a victory was very endearing (although, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know the word endearing even existed as a 15-year old).

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Today, it’s pretty common to read about draft prospects with 4.2 speed, but back when Dwight Stone made his professional football debut as a running back, that kind of 40-yard burst was not nearly as common.

In fact, as per Dwight Stone’s official Wikipedia page, the late, great head coach Chuck Noll said Stone was “the fastest player I’ve ever coached over 40 years. He has BEEP BEEP speed.”

Chuck Noll was referring to the cartoon character, the Road Runner.

  • Unfortunately for the real life Dwight Stone, his first two years as an NFL running back didn’t produce much running, as he totaled a combined 262 rushing yards on 57 carries.

However, Dwight Stone did get a lot of work as a kick-returner during his first two seasons. In fact, in a memorable 37-34 last-second Monday Night Football victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston–a win that came at the tail-end of a very difficult 5-11 ’88 campaign–Stone returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.

In 1989, perhaps due to a crowded backfield that included Tim Worley, the Steelers first pick in 1989 NFL Draft, Warren Williams the 1988 Steelers rookie of the year and Merril Hoge, who posted 705 on the ground in ’88 earlier, Dwight Stone and his world-class speed switched positions, as he tried his hand (and feet) at wide receiver.

Despite his tantalizing speed, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career as a field stretching Mike Wallace type of wide out never really materialized.

And it wasn’t just because he wasn’t lucky enough to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball — On one infamous play in Denver in 1990, Dwight Stone stepped out of bounds during a 90-yard reception that actually would have gone for a score had he been able to keep track of the sideline.

ESPN’s Chris Berman, who loved to create nicknames for players, frequently referred to Stone as “Dwight and the Family Stone,” but in my house, he was often called Dwight “Hands of” Stone thanks to his habit of dropping passes.

Which isn’t to say that Stone didn’t make his share of impact plays. He did, including:

Dwight Stone’s best seasons as a Steeler came during a three-year stretch between 1991-1993, when he caught a combined 107 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns, to go along with a combined 241 yards on the ground.

Following the Steelers 1993 season, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe determined that neither Jeff Graham nor Dwight Stone were Super Bowl caliber wide receivers. Jeff Graham was allowed to leave as a free agent. The Steelers kept Stone on the roster with the hope of using him as a utility back, similar to roles that Eric Metcalf and Dave Meggett played in Cleveland and New York.

  • Unfortunately, for Stone, that role never emerged as the Steelers only threw 10 passes his way and limited his carries to two.

However, Dwight Stone will always hold the distinction the distinction of scoring the last touchdown of Chuck Noll’s coaching career, when he caught a pass from quarterback Bubby Brister and raced 56 yards–a score that would earn The Emperor his final victory, a win over Bill Belichick no less, in his final game after 23 seasons.

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

Following the 1994 campaign, the Steelers  left Dwight Stone unprotected in the 1995 expansion draft, and the Carolina Panthers took him (along with Gerald Williams and Tim McKyer, for those of you taking notes).

  • Stone would finish out the final six years of his career as mostly a special teams contributor for both the Panthers and Jets.

According to a story published on the Panthers official team website in January of 2017, following his retirement from football after the 2000 season, Stone embarked on a career in law enforcement and spent 13 years as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” said Stone courtesy of Panthers.com. “I always wanted to go into law enforcement or the military before I even considered football. It just happened that a country boy from Florala, Alabama, was able to move and accomplish things that God knows I never thought I would see in my life.”

  • Perhaps in today’s day and age, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career might have been more prolific in a league that employs more players with his kind of skill-set.

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course, but not many undrafted free agents out of schools like Middle Tennessee State last 14 years in the NFL. For that and for what he accomplished after his playing days, Dwight Stone should feel very proud.

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Back in Block! 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey is Perfect if Bittersweet Choice for Generation X

The 2018 Steelers throwback jersey choice to revive the 1978-1978 jersey with block numbers has electrified Steelers Nation. After all, who could argue?

Those two championships don’t simply mark milestones in franchise accomplishment, they represent milestones in football excellence.

2018 steelers throwback jerseys, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Franco Harris, John Banazack

JuJu Smith-Schuster donning Steelers throwback jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The 1978 Steelers win over the Dallas Cowboys made Pittsburgh the first team to win three Super Bowls, and gave the Black and Gold its SECOND win over a fellow multiple Super Bowl winner. Victory in Super Bowl XIV over the Los Angeles Rams made the Steelers the first team to win four Super Bowls and the only team to win four Championships in six years.

  • It took ten years for another franchise to tie the Steelers 4 Super Bowl mark, and no one, not even the Patriots have matched Pittsburgh’s record of winning four Super Bowls in 6 years.

The Steelers changed the block numbering after the 1996 season much to the chagrin of some fans. Honestly, I’m old enough to remember Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart modeling the rounded number jerseys and thinking, “That just doesn’t look right.” Some fans still argue that the franchise has never been the same since.

Still, conjuring images of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward decked out in block letters just as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert did before them is the perfect recipe for raising the hair on the back of your neck just a little.

And yet, the Steelers 2018 throwback jersey choice efficiently serves another, if less pleasant, purpose….

Why 2018 Steelers Throwback Jersey Choice is Bittersweet for Generation X

…The Steelers 2018 throwback uniforms are also the perfect remedy for making us Generation Xer’s feel old. Yep. If you’re a Fortysomething Steelers fan admit it, when you saw the announcement about going back to block letters, you probably thought, “Gee, that’s not much of a throwback.”

  • Well, yeah, it’s been 20 years since the Steelers last wore the block jerseys.

IT can really be that long can it, you demand? Yes, it can. The last time Pittsburgh wore the block jerseys was Fog Bowl II, the 1996 playoff loss to the Patriots, which was Rod Woodson’s final game as a Steeler.

Fans from Generation X have earned a special niche in Steelers history.

Lynn Swann, Mark Washington, Super Bowl X, 8 greatest Steelers Super Bowl plays, Super Bowl 10, Lynn Swann Super Bowl X, Lynn Swann Super Bowl 10

Lynn Swann Super Bowl X catch. Credit: AP, via NY Daily News

Our first memories of the Black and Gold are wrapped in Super Bowl glory. The Immaculate Reception was  established history by the time we were able to fully grasp its spectacular nature. Those of us growing up outside of Pittsburgh enjoyed our grandparents sending down Steelers t-shirts, jackets, hats and gloves which drew envy from everyone else on the playground, because we were the champions!

  • Be honest fellow fortysomething fans. Raise your hand if as a kid you really thought that the Steelers had inspired Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Our parents had to explain to us, and it took a long time for us believe them, that the Steelers had been terrible when they were our age. Then, just as we were taking the Steelers excellence for granted, the 1980’s arrived, and with it came mediocrity.

Yet we remained faithful. Always feeling, often times feelings fueled by little more than naiveté, that Chuck Noll’s really wasn’t that far from making the Steel Curtain Rise again. The 1987 tease at a playoff run and late season surges in 1986 and even in 1988 seem to legitimatize our optimism.

  • And of course the 1989 Steelers improbable playoff run steeled our passion for the Black and Gold in a way that fans from both earlier and later generations struggle to understand.

Of course the 9-7 and 7-9 finishes of the 1990 and 1991 Steelers amounted bit of a buzz kill, yet Bill Cowher’s 1992 return to Pittsburgh awoke the sleeping giant we now call Steelers Nation. Steelers fans from Generation X had expected One for the Thumb to come before we got out of elementary school. Now Cowher Power promised to deliver in the 1990’s. Yet, after teasing in Super Bowl XXX (thanks Neil), it came up short.

  • Instead, we had to wait until our 30’s for Lombardi’s 5 and 6 to arrive in Pittsburgh.

And now, with the window closing on bringing home Lombardi Number Seven during the Roethlisberger era, we now hope that a return, albeit for one game, to the block letters, will be the talisman the turns the trick.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Recent Steelers Third String Quarterback History Shows Mason Rudolph CAN Help Pittsburgh in 2018

Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph have put the Steelers signal caller firmly into the news. Given where we are in the off season, its all that anyone in Steelers Nation is talking about.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick, Steelers third string quarterbacks

Think Mason Rudolph can’t help the Steelers in 2018? Guess again. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steel Curtain Rising has already taken Ben Roethlisberger to task for his implicit attitude behind his statements on Rudolph. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. But there’s another bone to pick with Big Ben’s comments, a bone that’s completely objective in it comes from one of the few seemingly uncontroversial things he said:

Nothing against Mason. I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. [Emphasis added]

OF all of Roethlisberger’s remarks on Rudolph, his assertion in bold is likeliest to elicit a “Well, he’s got a point there” nod from even his harshest critics. Because on the surface it’s hard to dispute his logic. After all, third string quarterbacks don’t do much, even in practice, right?

Third string quarterbacks rarely earn even footnotes in football history. For most of their history, the Steelers offer no exception. When was the last time you saw a parent-child combo strutting around Heinz Field sporting Rick Strom and Brian St. Pierre jerseys on throwback weekend?

  • But in this case, experience trumps logic, and Ben’s own history with the Steelers shows his claim about Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks is wrong.

Think back to the Steelers 2005 season that culminated with victory in Super Bowl XL. That Super Bowl season saw the Steelers start their third string quarterback twice, as Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch started four games that season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger after Jacksonville loss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • Its almost certainly as coincidental as it is ironic but Steelers third string quarterbacks have enjoyed their moment in the sun during the Roethlisberger era.

We covered much of this ground on the eve of the 2015 season when justifying Landry Jones roster spot in the face of fans who felt he should have been cast aside in favor of Mike Vick. Let’s spell it out in Black and Gold again:

  • In 2005, Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox both saw starts after holding the QB number 3 designation
  • In 2006, third string quarterback Dennis Dixon started against the Ravens
  • In 2010, Charlie Batch started games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore as the third stringer
  • In 2012, a Byron Leftwich injury again thrust Charlie Batch from 3rd to first as Batch started two games
  • In 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness of Mike Vick elevated Landry Jones from 3rd stringer to starter

Just looking at the math, during the Roethlisberger era about every third season has seen a Steelers third string quarterbacks suit up as a starter….

…And two full seasons have elapsed since that last occurred.

Past performance may not predict future results, but it would behoove Ben Roethlisberger to do what he can to get Mason Rudolph ready to play sooner rather than later.

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“Choto” Ben Roethlisberger’s Remarks on Mason Rudolph Summed Up in Porteño Spanish

An advantage of living long abroad enough to truly understand its language and culture is that you discover some languages are better equipped to express concepts than others.

For example English has “the wind chill factor” and “the heat index” whereas Spanish has la sensacion termica which communicates both concepts with better economy and accuracy. It is certainly a two way street, as Spanish has no equivalent for “parallel park.”

  • This ties into Steelers football because a recent WhatsApp chat in the Steelers Argentina group concluded that Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph were “Choto.”

Attentive readers will remember “Choto” appeared on this site last September when staff writer Gustavo Vallegos aka El Dr. de Acero used it to describe the bubble screens Todd Haley seemed so intent on throwing to Martavis Bryant.

Yannick Ngakoue, Ben Roethlisberger, Ngakoue Roethlisberger sack, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Yannick Ngakoue sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

At the time we presented it as an example of how Argentine football fans were taking ownership of their corner of the sport by applying the local slang.

  • Today we use it because the example really brings the idiomatic meaning of “choto” to life.

“Choto” is of course an artifact of Argentine lunfardo or slang an refers literally to, ah, um… how you would describe a certain part of the male anatomy that is either too small or comes up short at inopportune times. Harsh though it may be, it accurately describes Ben Roethlisberger’s reaction to Steelers drafting of Mason Rudolph.

Before delving into why, let’s give Ben the benefit of the doubt.

Giving Ben the Benefit of the Doubt. For the Moment

Roethlisberger doesn’t enjoy the threat of being made redundant his job, and in that respect he is no different than you and I. Take things a step further. An NFL quarterback is ultimate alpha male in pro sports.

  • Alpha males, by instinct, do not share.

Moreover, in football, it is impossible for quarterbacks to “share.” There’s no way Mike Tomlin can platoon two quarterbacks the way Bill Cowher paired Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Nor can Randy Fichtner develop an no equivalent to the Ray MansfieldMike Webster rotation that Chuck Noll employed.

  • So, to a certain degree, a franchise quarterback welcoming his would-be successor with less than open arms is actually a healthy sign.

A quarterback with a chip on his shoulder is a quarterback who has the competitive fire burning that’s needed to rally his team late in the 4th quarter. In Spanish they refer to quarterbacks as “mariscal de campo” which translates literally to “Field Marshal.” If that doesn’t quite make sense, think back to Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII and you’ll understand why the term is so fitting.

That’s the Big Ben that captured Steelers Nations hearts and imaginations, and that’s the Big Ben that’s going to bring home Lombardi Number 7.

Even Still Ben Roethlisberger’s Remarks Are “Choto”

Even still, that doesn’t let Ben Roethlisberger off the hook.

If you’re reading this, you’ve read or heard Ben Roethlisberger’s words several times on several sites already. No need to rehash them here. But, in keeping with the linguistic theme of this piece, let’s do a little translation exercise with Roethlisberger’s remarks:

Ben’s “surprised” the Steelers drafted Rudolph
Translation: “Surprised” = ticked off

Ben wonders if the Steelers brain trust “believed” him when he told him he’d play 3 to 5 years.
Translation: Careful for what you wish for. Ben discussed retirement privately during several off seasons before doing so publically a year ago.

Ben wonders how a player who is going to be way down on the QB depth chart can help win a Super Bowl.
Translation: Ben, like a good alpha male is marking his territory.

Fourth, Ben might “point him to the playbook” if Mason ask for help.
Translation: This 36 year old signal caller is worried Father Time might be darkening his door.

As mentioned above, Ben Roethlisberger’s attitude is partially justified. But if you look closely at Mason Rudolph’s post draft comments, it’s clear that the rookie understands his place in the pecking order and is bending over backwards to make that clear.

That Ben Roethlisberger seems intent on taking the opposite interpretation, almost seems to reveal a little latent insecurity, insecurity unbecoming to a future Hall of Famer who professes a desire to play another 3 to 5 years.

And that’s what’s disappointing about his comments. Or, as Argentines would say, “Choto.”

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Steelers 2018 Draft Class Proves that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin Don’t Live in their Fears

The Steelers 2018 draft class is complete. Suffice to say, things didn’t play out as outsiders expected.

By consensus, the Steelers biggest need in the 2018 NFL Draft was at inside linebacker. Drafting Le’Veon Bell’s replacement would have been wise. And the conventional wisdom dictated by the manhandling suffered at the hands of Jacksonville that the Steelers hit defense early and often.

  • So how did Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin conduct this draft?
Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin shake hands with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

The duo refused to live in their fears, ignored the critics and marched to their own tune during the draft. Now that the dust has settled, the Steelers have concluded the 2018 NFL Draft and they:

  • Didn’t pick up an inside linebacker
  • Drafted a safety which few “experts” felt was first round worthy
  • Invested only 1 of 4 premium picks on defense and 4 of Pittsburgh’s overall 7 picks were on offense
  • Made zero attempt to replace Le’Veon Bell

That surprised many in Steelers Nation, yours truly included. But it shouldn’t have. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert don’t make personnel decision out of fear. And while need has influenced their picks in the past, it is pretty clear that the Steelers stuck to their draft board.

Here’s the Steelers 2018 Draft Class at a Glance:

1st round, Terrell Edmunds, Safety, Virginia Tech
2nd round, James Washington, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
3rd round A, Mason Rudolph, Quarterback, Oklahoma State
3rd round B, Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle, West Michigan
5th round A, Marcus Allen, Safety, Penn State
5th round, Jaylen Samuels, Running Back, North Carolina State
7th round, Joshua Frazier, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin got everyone talking by picking Terrell Edmunds. Mel Kipper Jr. had him rated as the draft’s 8th best safety. Some sites had him rated as the 20th best safety in the draft. Better safeties, in the eyes of many, remained on the board.

  • What to make of this?

As a draft ignoramus, I won’t hazard an argument. The experts, with a few exceptions, didn’t like it. There are only two or three decision makers in the Steelers draft room vs. an infinite number of pundits racing to offer instant evaluations.

Listening to the cascade of criticism generated by Terrell Edmunds pick reminded me of reaction to the New York Jet’s decision to draft Jeff Lageman in the 1989 NFL Draft. The legendary Pete Axthelm went so far as to joke that the Exxon Valdez hadn’t been piloted by scouts for the Jets. Lageman ended up making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and had a solid career, if one that fell below his status of the 14th pick.

In contrast, Mel Kipper Jr. praised the Steelers 1985 Draft Class, which turned out to be one of the worst in modern era and had to have contributed to Dan Rooney’s decision to fire Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.

And as everyone in Steelers Nation knows, the legendary Vic Stiletto panned the Steelers 1974 Draft Class after day one for not having improved themselves at punter. The 1974 haul brought Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster to Pittsburgh, all four of whom current have busts honoring them in Canton.

  • Will something similar happen to Terrell Edmunds? Will he become this generation’s Troy Polamalu? Will Mason Rudolph prove to be Ben Roethlisberger’s Aaron Rogers?

Time will tell. In the short-term the perception of the success or failure of this draft is going to hinge on whether Terrell Edmunds matches Tomlin and Colbert’s expectations or those of the pundits. But Mason Rudolph offers an “X” factor. The Steelers apparently had a 1st round grade on him, and if he proves to be a worthy success to Big Ben then this draft will be a success even if Edmunds is as base as the Mel Kipper Jr.’s of the world assure us he is.

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Steelers Draft Mason Rudolph in 3rd Round. Has Pittsburgh Picked Roethlisberger’s Replacement?

At the end of the day, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was both right and wrong. In his predraft run up, Wexell devoted a full article which justified the possibility of the Steelers selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

So Wexell was right there but he was still wrong. In the week before the draft, Wexell wrote that the Steelers should only draft Rudolph if they felt he was deserving of a 1st round pick. Well, they did not, and drafted him in the third round.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick

Steelers 3rd round pick Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steelers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner things that Mason Rudolph could have been a first round pick, explaining:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you know that some systems might fit better for certain people. I’ve liked him since the beginning, since we started evaluating him. I think that maybe if there’s any negative to his game, it might must be the ability to except and extend, but boy, you sure do see him do it a lot…. The ability to stand in the pock and make big plays on third down, be effective in situational football, the way he’s been, is very exciting.

The Steelers of course picked Rudolph one round after picking his favorite target, James Washington, in the second round. Rudolph discussed going to “the next chapter with one of your brothers, with your best receiver that you’ve spent your whole college days with, who you can potentially spend another 15 years with, that’s going to be one heck of a ride and I can’t wait to get it going.”

The story and idea of keeping a college QB-WR combo together makes for compelling copy, but there’s no assurance that the same magic can transfer from college to the pros. The Steelers made Charles Johnson, wide receiver out of Colorado their first round pick in 1994 and drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 draft.

Charles Johnson wasn’t a bust, what was more of a Ziggy Hood type first round pick. The ups and downs that defined Kordell Stewart’s stint in Pittsburgh are well documented, but Yancey Thigpen and not Johnson was his top target.

Video Highlights of Mason Rudolph

The Steelers have invested heavily in scouting Mason Rudolph, with Kevin Colbert in attendance at Oklahoma State’s 59-21 win over Pitt last season, which saw Rudolph lead his team to 49-7 half time lead while throwing 5 touchdown passes.

Here’s a longer look at his highlight reel:

Mason Rudolph certainly can plan at the college level.

The question at this point isn’t whether he can play in the NFL, but whether he’s the successor to Ben Roethlisberger or not. When the Steelers drafted Landry Jones in 2013, they bent over backwards to assure the world that Landry Jones was coming to Pittsburgh to replace Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, not Ben Roethlisberger. A year ago, similar assurances were given regarding Joshua Dobbs.

  • But the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph with a third round pick and even traded up a few slots to get him.

You generally don’t project third round draft picks as franchise quarterbacks, but third rounders are premium picks whom you do expect to develop into starters. And the Steelers have a history of turning third round picks into starting quarterbacks, as evidenced by the careers of Buddy Brister and Neil O’Donnell.

  • Neither man brought home One for the Thumb.

But Brister flashed potential in leading the 1989 Steelers to their near miracle turn around season, and Neil O’Donnell rallied a struggling 1995 Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX (where he promptly threw two boneheaded interceptions.)

The 1979 NFL Draft could perhaps offer some hope. The Steelers were picking last in each round, fresh off of their third championship from Super Bowl XIII, but they lacked a 3rd round pick thanks to John Clayton outing Chuck Noll for holding padded practices in the off season.

One slot before the Steelers would have made their third round pick Bill Walsh took a young quarterback who’d grown up in Western Pennsylvania. His name is Joe Montana and he ended up tying Terry Bradshaw‘s then record 4 Super Bowl rings.

Not too many 3rd round quarterbacks have succeeded in following that template since then, but Joe Montana’s story shows that Mason Rudolph can do what’s being asked of him.

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