Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

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

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

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

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

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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Steelers Report Card for Win at Cincinnati – How Did the Quarterbacks Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who, if nothing else, is happy to see one half of his class picking up the slack when the other half stumbles, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
On the first two drives preceding his interception, Mason Rudolph looked OK. After the interception, Rudolph was tentative and played poorly. Devlin Hodges stepped in and connected on his first 2 throws, the 2nd of which went for a touchdown. Which means he was 3 of 9 on the rest of the day….. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers effectively deployed 4 running backs to rush for a combined total of 160 yards, a season high for the team. Kerrith Whyte ripped off a few impressive runs, as did Trey Edwards. Jaylen Samuels had 2 carries and 3 catches. Overall, a solid game by the Steelers running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For unknown reasons, it is pretty clear that the Steelers tight ends won’t play much of a role in the 2019 passing game, as Vance McDonald had 1 yard on 1 catch for 1 target. Nick Vanett did not get targeted. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
While he’s a long way from being a superstar, with each week James Washington seems to inch up his game a notch and every week he makes an important contribution. Diontae Johnson had 3 catches on 6 targets but all went for short gains. Deon Cain’s 1 catch for 35 yards set up the Steelers first field goal. Tevin Jones had 1 catch for 9 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the plus side, after giving up 2 holding penalties and 1 false start against the Browns, the Steelers offensive line didn’t get flagged for either penalty. And when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line delivered the run blocking that was needed. Cincinnati knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. On the negative side, the Bengals had 6 tackles for losses, registered 3 sacks and laid on 7 more QB hits. More quality and more consistency is needed. Now. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward is a monster. Heled the team in tackles, registered a sack, had a hand in two tackles for losses and hit Ryan Finley 4 more times. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. Outside of a few runs late in the game, Joe Mixon wasn’t a factor in the game, and that starts with the line. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and remained in the game following a bone bruise. Bud Dupree was quiet for much of the game, until he ended it with a strip sack of his own. Mark Barron had an almost safety. Devin Bush authored the biggest play for the linebackers when he forced a fumble by Tyler Boyd and Pittsburgh’s 8, changing the game for good. Grade: A

Secondary
And who just happened to scoop up the fumble Devin Bush caused? Minkah Fitzpatrick who had concentration needed to stay in bounds and return it 36 yards. Joe Haden defended 3 passes, including two of which came during the game’s final moments. Mike Hilton also got a hand on three passes of his own. Steven Nelson tipped away another pass. Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden gave away successive big pass plays which led to an easy score, which brings this group’s grade down. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Diontae Johnson returned 4 punts for 5.3 yards, while the Steelers punt coverage was sound. Kerrith Whyte didn’t do much on his first kick return, and the Steelers gave up an average of 23.5 yards on kick returns. Until the Steelers can managed to get that average down, teams are going to continue returning kicks instead of taking the touchback.

Jordan Berry boomed off 7 punts that averaged 45.1 yards and, more importantly, nailed 3 inside the 20. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals, including a 47 yarder. Grade: B+

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Coaching
The Steelers were playing one of the worst offenses in the NFL that, on top of that was, missing its best receiver. While Keith Butler’s boys didn’t quite pitch a perfect game, they did allow one touchdown that looked all too easy, they limited Cincinnati to 10 points. The Bengals went 2-12 on third downs, punted 9 times and suffered seven 3 and outs.

  • Most importantly, when Cincinnati threatened to get back in the game, the Steelers defense delivered a turnover.

It is easy to criticize Randy Fichtner and his “one touchdown a game” offense. And to be certain, Fichtner has his faults. It’s also true that he was playing 6 players who’d been cut previously this season. It was not pretty, but the Steelers offense came from behind once, reestablished the lead another time, and then added insurance points.

  • While ever popular with fans, benching a quarterback is fraught with risk.

Yes, it can give an offense and even an entire season a spark. See Tommy Maddox in 2002. Or it can blow up in a coach’s face (see Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak in the rain at Tampa in 1998).
Or the replacement quarterback can do just well enough to get by.

That’s what happened on Sunday afternoon. Devlin Hodges provided the Steelers with just enough spark to push the Steelers on to victory. However, Hodges hardly has a “hot hand.” Mike Tomlin will need to manage this with care moving forward, but on Sunday switching quarterbacks was the right decision. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell rushes in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
It was the Steelers best rushing effort of the season and their best rusher of the game brought his best when the game was on the line. He might have been held under 100 yards, clocking in at 98 yards on 21 carries, but 63 of those yards came on nine 4th quarter carries. The Steelers needed that type of effort to close with the win, and Benny Snell Jr. delivered it and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Cincinnati.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Might Steelers fans get their wish this time? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Boswell’s Bonus

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

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

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

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

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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Mason Rudolph vs Joshua Dobbs and vs a Bit of Steelers History…

The early word out of Latrobe is that 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph looks good. Rudolph spent the 2019 off season working with Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics and footwork.

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, Mason Rudolph is throwing the ball with greater velocity, carrying himself with greater confidence, and showing more poise in the pocket. That’s good news for Mason Rudolph who enters his second summer at St. Vincents fighting Joshua Dobbs for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

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

It is also interesting because Mason Rudolph is just fighting Joshua Dobbs, he’s also fighting a bit of Steelers history:

  • Pittsburgh just doesn’t have a good record of “developing quarterbacks.”

No, we’re not talking about the likes of Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Len Dawson, and Bill Nelsen whom the Steelers pushed away only to see them return to punish Pittsburgh. Those were personnel mistakes. But the Steelers simply lack a strong record for grooming quarterbacks from the bullpen.

Before the salary cap, NFL coaches nurtured quarterbacks like fine wine. Often times they’d draft quarterbacks with an eye towards developing them for a few years rather than start them as rookies.

Super Bowl winners Roger Staubach, Joe Theismann, Jeff Hostetler, and Mark Rypien all did lengthy apprenticeships on the bench before earning status as full time starters.

  • Together, Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger have more Super Bowl rings than the aforementioned quartet combined, but both men started as rookies.

Ben Roethlisberger got a baptism by fire as a rookie, and led the Steelers to Super Bowl XL a year later. Bradshaw’s ascension to Super Bowl caliber quarterback started with the first game of his rookie year. The process resembled a traumatic midwifing rather than methodical maturation.

  • When the Steelers have tried to go the draft and develop route, things haven’t panned out as planned.

The Steelers picked Mark Malone with the 1st pick in the 1980 draft, and Malone had 3 years to learn at the feet of Terry Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt. Mark Malone led the 1984 Steelers to the AFC Championship in his first year as a starter, but it was all downhill after that.

During the 1987 season, when Mark Malone was in route to posting a 46.4 passer rating (no, that’s not a typo that’s forty six point four), Chuck Noll defended his decision to keep Bubby Brister on the bench explaining, “He needs to develop.”

Bubby Brister posted a 65.3 passer rating when he became the starter in 1988 and a year later he helped the 1989 Steelers “Shock the World!” by winning a playoff game after losing their first two games by a score of 92-10.

  • But alas, Bubby Brister never matured into anything other than a serviceable starter.

(And this is from someone who told a taunt that the Cowboys were going to “Win the Aikman Derby” on a Boy Scout camping trip in late 1988, “We don’t need Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister.”)

Neil O’Donnell spent his rookie year behind Bubby Brister and Rick Strom. As Bob Labriola observed in his early 1991 off season roster analysis in the Steelers Digest, “If all goes well a year from now O’Donnell will have done nothing more than watched and learned while holding a clipboard.”

Of course an injury to Brister in a week 7 game against the Giants trust O’Donnell into the starting lineup where he stayed, save for two games at the end of the ’91 season, until Super Bowl XXX.

By that time Kordell Stewart had gotten himself into the mix as “Slash” and remained there until late 1996 when Bill Cowher formally elevated him to backup status. That didn’t last long as Stewart was the full time starter by opening day 1997.

In between O’Donnell and Stewart, there was Jim Miller, another quarterback the Steelers had drafted to develop. Jim Miller got 1994 and 1995 to mature, but his stint as a starter lasted all of one game.

Word to the Wise on Mason Rudolph – Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Does this history somehow spell doom for Mason Rudolph? No, not at all. As Mike Tomlin would remind us, “Mason Rudolph is writing his own story.” But history offers an important lesson nontheless.

Just as it was for O’Donnell in 1991, the plan in 2004 was for Ben Roethlisberger to watch and learn behind Tommy Maddox. At 12:11 in the 3rd quarter of a week two contest against the Baltimore Ravens, Gary Baxter changed everything by knocking Maddox out of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the field, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since.

God willing, several years lie between Mason Rudoph and his first meaningful NFL snap. But its good to know he is making strides towards being ready just in case.

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

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

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

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

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

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

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

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

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

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

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

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

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

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

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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