Ignore the Media – JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Community Activity Is Great for Pittsburgh, Steelers

If you ever wanted to know why so many athletes and coaches have such disdain for the media, they’ve given you two really good examples in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article for Behind The Steel Curtain urging everyone — including the media and fans — to stop taking positive quotes from Steelers players and trying to twist them into negative narratives.

  • Why did I have to write such an article?

Because of the reactions to quotes from both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that couldn’t have been any more positive and of the “taking the high road” variety.

Yet, instead of believing Ben Roethlisberger when he apologized to Brown during his interview with KDKA’s Bob Pompeani that he was sorry for his part in the deterioration of his relationship with former receiver Antonio Brown, you had people calling him a phony and a liar. You even had people such as former Steelers outside linebacker and assistant coach Joey Porter, who appeared on The NFL Network, saying Roethlisberger’s apology was too little, too late.

Then there were those who tried to read things into the positive comments JuJu Smith-Schuster made to the media two weeks ago — to paraphrase, he said he would put team success above individual numbers, and that he’d have no media restrictions in 2019 — as slights at Antonio Brown, who has gone out of his way to attack Smith-Schuster on social media this off-season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster water ballon fight

JuJu Smith-Schuster at his first annual water ballon fight. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Speaking of JuJu Smith-Schuster, as you well know, he’s been an omnipresent social media character since the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Everywhere you turn, there’s JuJu Smith-Schuster doing things like dancing with elderly folks at a retirement home, having water balloon fights with little kids at the park and dancing with teenagers at their prom.

Yes, the prom.

Last weekend, Smith-Schuster attended the Chartiers Valley High School prom as the “date” of a male student whose actual date broke up with him right before the event. The kid sent JuJu Smith-Schuster a direct message on Twitter asking him to go with him, and the receiver obliged — the two showed up with matching tuxes and everything.

You might think this would be received as what it was: one of the most unique and refreshing Steelers personalities to come along in quite some time doing something really cool for a high school student who no doubt had his heart broken right before one of the biggest events of his life.

  • Instead of it being a truly depressing time for him, this kid probably had the night of his life and will now forever remember his prom as well as his “date.”

Smith-Schuster attending a kid’s prom is nothing unique in the celebrity world. They do it all the time in cases such as this, when a young fan approaches them — usually on social media — and asks them to be their date.

This isn’t usually perceived as perverted or just a phony publicity stunt aimed at furthering the celebrity’s brand. But if you have listened to some folks in the Pittsburgh sports media this week, “sick” and “phony” are just some of words used to describe JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives.

Ron Cook, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and co-host of the Cook and Joe Show on 93.7 The Fan, said JuJu Smith-Schuster, 22, was “sick” for attending a prom full of teenagers. He said if JuJu Smith-Schuster had attended the same prom as his daughter, he would have had a huge, huge problem with it.

Mark Madden, the controversial sports shock jock host on 105.9 The X and long-time critic of Smith-Schuster (like Hines Ward before him), has continued to pile on the young receiver this week for his ongoing community presence. And while he said JuJu Smith-Schuster attending the prom wasn’t a problem in and of itself, when you combine it with everything else, it’s clearly obvious he’s simply trying to build his brand.

“Why is there always a camera present,” scolds Mark Madden every time Smith-Schuster is in the news for some community involvement that often shows him having fun and including everyone around him.

  • Again, you wonder why so many people associated with professional sports have a problem with the media.

In this mostly cynical age we now live in, even the fans have started to pile on JuJu Smith-Schuster: “For once, I’d like to see him do something nice in the community without a camera being there to document everything!”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Here’s a third-year player, who appears to have the ability to be one of the best receivers in the NFL sooner rather than later, doing nothing but positive things for a Steelers organization that, believe it or not, needs an image overhaul, yet, instead of applauding JuJu Smith-Schuster for his “breath of fresh air” approach to life as an NFL player, we’re questioning his motives? Instead of acknowledging the fact that he made a high school kid’s day by attending his prom, we call it inappropriate?

  • Forget JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives, I’m beginning to question the motives of the media, of certain fans.

As far as the average fan that is concerned with JuJu Smith-Schuster documenting his community involvement for the purposes of posting it on social media, you’ve got some nerve. Yeah, I’m taking to you, person who likes to show me what you just had for dinner, where you had it and who you had it with.

  • Don’t we all do that kind of stuff on social media?

If we go to “karaoke night” and post a video of our horrible singing on our Facebook page, do people accuse us of trying to further our brand? No, they usually just “like” it and tell us how much fun we are.

As for the recent push back by the media who is seemingly trying to turn Smith-Schuster from a good guy into a villain, I’m guessing that has a lot to do with him not being as accommodating as some local reporters would like.

There are rumblings — rumblings hinted at by Mark Madden himself on an almost daily basis — that JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be the friendliest guy when the cameras are off. Or, let me put it this way: he may not be the friendliest guy to the MEDIA when the cameras aren’t rolling. “That kid is about a year away from being an a-hole,” Mark Madden quoted WDVE’s Mike Prisuta, a Steelers reporter and insider, as saying one afternoon during Smith-Schuster’s rookie season.

And there’s the rub. JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be fully on board with the local media, and that’s why some are starting to turn on him and question the motives for his ongoing community involvement.

  • With all due respect to the media, I don’t really care if he likes you guys or not.

I think fans have been conditioned to believe someone is a bad person if he or she doesn’t necessarily like reporters. But if you take a step back and examine things a little closer, that’s usually not the case.

  • For example, it’s quite obvious Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t like reporters, yet, nobody thinks he’s a bad person.
  • Chuck Noll didn’t think much of the media, but nobody ever questioned his character.
  • Bill Cowher had a contentious relationship with the press, but that antagonism remained in the background, at least while the Steelers were winning.

Let’s face it, it’s a weird dynamic, the one that exists between professional sports and the media. Coaches and athletes have to work closely with the media on a daily basis, this despite the media often being critical of them.

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

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

I don’t blame the media for being critical when a performance dictates such an opinion, but you can certainly see where the person being criticized may not want to be very chummy afterwards.

Again, JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 22 years old. And while he’s clearly a master of the social media game, he may have some work to do in-order to improve his relationship with the sports media–the one that really can shape public perception.

  • As for the sports media, it may do you some good to stop looking for trouble when it’s not present.
  • What exactly are JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives with regards to his continuous community and social media presence?

Who cares? Everyone is having fun. Nobody is being harmed.

The media comes to play every day, and will certainly be there to make the tackle if and when Smith-Schuster does screw up.

As for now, stop trying to draw him off-sides with your false steps.

 

 

 

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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs: Time for Pittsburgh to Stand Pat?

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers have their franchise quarterback. Yet, they looked to quarterback when the picked Joshua Dobbs in the 2017 NFL Draft and Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Could or should the Steelers look to draft another quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger will be 37 on opening day 2019 and has been the Steelers signal caller since the 2nd game of the 2004 season. While it took him a long time to get the respect he deserves, Ben Roethlisberger is finally seen as one of the NFL’s best.

  • However, Father Time is undefeated in his races with even gifted athletes.

The question of a player losing a step to the Old Man is one of “when” and not “if.” Is Ben Roethlisberger losing a step? The record is mixed. Ben Roethlisberger had an awful start to the 2017 and while the lull wasn’t as pronounced in 2018, he still started slow.

  • It is also tempting to look at his 16 interceptions and claim that as evidence the Big Ben is nearing his 11th hour.

But such claims are exaggerated. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger’s slow starts are a concern, but his 2018 interception percentage was actually lower than the year before and below his career average. He also threw 458 passes, far more than he’d ever thrown before.

He took a few more sacks but he’s not absorbing anywhere near the punishment he was absorbing earlier in his career. More importantly, he seems to be playing with much more harmony under Randy Fichtner than he did under Todd Haley.

  • The Steelers Red Zone percentage in 2018 soared to 73% well above the middling 53% mark they attained in 2017.

Could Ben Roethlisberger be one of those players who “gets old fast” the way say, Hines Ward did? It is a possibility, but also one that is impossible to anticipate, and the Steelers shouldn’t “Live in their fears” as far as that is concerned in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The BackUps

2018 marked a radical change in the Steelers bullpen philosophy. Dating back to the 1989 season when Chuck Noll had Todd Blackledge and Rick Strom backing up Bubby Brister, the Steelers practice has been to staff an experienced veteran behind their starter, followed by a young player who offer some sort of “upside” if not more.

  • The practice continued under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

That changed the moment the Steelers cut Landry Jones and decided go with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph behind Ben Roethlisberger. For the first time in over a generation, the Steelers had two men backing up their starting NFL quarterback who had never thrown and NFL pass.

  • Joshua Dobbs won the backup job with a stellar preseason underpinned by an unwavering work ethic.

He was called into action twice in the 2018 season, first against the Ravens where Dobbs audibled out of a running play and completed a critical 3rd and long while planting in the Steelers end zone. The poise and decisiveness of Dobbs’ execution was breathtaking.

  • The second time came in the 2nd half at Oakland. The truth is that Joshua Dobbs was far more tentative that day and looked out of rhythm with his receivers.

Mason Rudolph is an unknown at this point. If reports are to be believed, at least one of the key members of the Steelers brain trust had a 1st round grade on him going into the 2018 NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted him with their extra third round pick, giving up a 7th rounder to move ahead of the Bengals who were said to be targeting Rudolph.

  • By all accounts Mason Rudolph looked solid in preseason, but he wasn’t strong enough to beat out Dobbs.

That shouldn’t be to big of a knock of Mason Rudolph. Suffice to say, many NFL teams would love to have had a 3rd string quarterback of his pedigree.

The Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftThe idea of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft is almost an academic question. Clearly, with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph the Steelers don’t need to add quarterback depth in the draft.

  • What about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement in the 2019 NFL Draft?

All pre-draft projections indicate that the franchise-capable quarterbacks will be long gone by the time the Steelers pick at 20th. Even if they’re not, the possibility of a strike or lockout in 2021 is very, very real.

That being the case, the Steelers really need to focus their draft capital on trying to win a Super Bowl before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work.”

Of course, if the Steelers found themselves in the same situation the Packers were in in the 2005 NFL Draft when Aaron Rodgers dropped in their laps the should consider pulling the trigger, but the chances of that happening are remote.

The Steelers quarterback needs in at quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Low.

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Steelers Response to Negative News Should Echo Chuck Noll’s Actions from 30 Years Ago

The Pittsburgh Steelers have weathered an onslaught of negative news from the national press. Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and even Josh Harris (who?) have made the rounds taking their pot shots at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger.

Referring to Maurkice Pouncey’s spirited defense of Ben Roethlisberger, Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review postulated:

Frankly, I think it’s high time for more Steelers to start going this route. I also think it’s time for the organization and Roethlisberger to defend themselves with some sort of media availability of their own.

Tim Benz’s sentiment is understandable, but he’s wrong.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

If the Steelers as an organization are looking for precedent in how to handle such a situation, then they should look back 30 years and follow the example that Chuck Noll set in his darkest hour as head coach.

The 1989 Steelers opened the season with a 51-0 loss at Three Rivers Stadium to the Cleveland Browns. They followed with a 41-10 loss to the Bengals in Riverfront Stadium a week later. The combined 92-10 opening losses sent vulchers circling Three Rivers Stadium.

As one writer reflected two seasons later after Chuck Noll retired, “The once unthinkable question was on everyone’s mind, and it wasn’t ‘Will Dan Rooney fire Chuck Noll?’ but “…How long will he wait?’” ESPN’s Pete Axthelm to Pittsburgh who asked Chuck Noll point blank, “Has the game passed you by?”

  • When pressed to answer his critics, Chuck Noll was pitch perfect: “Winning. The only way to respond is by winning.”

That specific clip hasn’t survived or at least surfaced here in the digital age, but here is a similar interview:

The 1989 Steelers rallied around The Emperor. They upset the then Super Bowl favorite Minnesota Vikings the next weekend and shut down Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions the week after that.

  • Although they would endure two more shutouts that season, at 4-6 Noll boldly declared the playoffs were in the Steelers sights.

Critics scoffed, but the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, upset Jerry Glanville’s Oilers, and were a bad Chuck Lanza to Bubby Brister snap (ah Dermontti Dawson, why did you have to get cramps) and a dropped Mark Stock pass away from reaching the AFC Championship game.

  • Unfortunately, the 2019 Steelers have to wait 5 months before they can start winning again.
  • And that forces Mike Tomlin and company to speak with words instead of actions.

When asked by The Athletic at the NFL owners meeting to address Antonio Brown’s charges against Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin replied, “(Brown) is no longer a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so I don’t feel it necessary to comment on his comments regarding things that are in-house.”

Given the context, Mike Tomlin’s response is just as pitch perfect as his predecessor Chuck Noll’s was 30 years ago.

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Mike Tomlin Reaches a Turning Point in His Tenure as Steelers Coach

Mike Tomlin has reached a turning point in his tenure as Steelers head coach. Ironically, to meet this challenge he might need to look to a lesson offered by his biggest nemesis.

  • As I conceded on Super Bowl Sunday, feeling good about the Pittsburgh Steelers is hard right now.

The story on the 2019 Steelers revolves around Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell leaving town. Oh, and so does Morgan Burnett, in case you’re taking notes.

Sure, 2018 was the year Pittsburgh FINALLY won a December show down with the Patriots, but since then, the Steelers have produced a steady stream of bad news. While he isn’t 100% responsible for the Steelers slide, Mike Tomlin must be the man to stop it.

And a big part of that solution just might come in the form of a lesson that Bill Belichick learned a long time ago.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

What to Blame, and Not Blame Tomlin For

Coaches, like quarterbacks often get blamed for things beyond their control, while successes get ignored. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey column on why he shifted his stance from a Tomlin defender to a Tomlin critic illustrates this:

1. The Jacksonville playoff debacle.
2. The worst late-season collapse in recent Steelers history.
3. The Oakland debacle.
4. The AB saga.

Let’s deconstruct Starkey’s argument, point-by-point. The Jacksonville playoff debacle WAS bad. I don’t absolve Tomlin entirely of this, but what was the ugliest element of the loss? How about Pittsburgh’s piss-poor tackling?  The Steelers defense made strides in 2018, and improved tackling was one of them.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

The Steelers 2019 late-season collapse was hard to stomach. But, as cataloged in our Steelers 2018 season review, so much of that meltdown came down to untimely passes picked off, fumbles at critical moments, dropped interceptions and a smattering horrendously bad calls.

  • Were I doing a podcast with Starkey, I’d challenge him to answer: “What could Tomlin have done differently to avoid that?”
  • Joe Starkey is dead right on Oakland debacle.

As I observed at that time, Mike Tomlin erred badly by keeping Joshua Dobbs in after Ben Roethlisberger was cleared to play. The mistake cost the Steelers the playoffs and perhaps their last, best shot at Lombardi Number Seven in the Roethlisberger era.

  • But how fair is it to blame Mike Tomlin for the Antonio Brown soap opera?

That’s a complex question that Mike Tomlin, fairly or unfairly needs to find an answer for. And to find it, Mike Tomlin might be wise to look to Bill Belichick’s past.

Lesson Bill Belichick Left from Cleveland

Victors write history. That reality makes it easy to understand when everyone forgets one fundamental fact:

  • Bill Belichick was an unmitigated disaster as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

He was so bad that I once wrote a long-form article on Behind the Steel Curtain detailing how the Steelers once actually OWNED Bill Belichick. Alas, instead of sparking conversation into what fueled Belichick’s transformation, the post article conversation article devolved into a Spygate debate.

  • There is only one insight I’ve gleamed into Cleveland-New England metamorphosis.

And came from a network commentator who said that Bill Belichick felt his mistake in Cleveland was to hold different players to different standards, an error he vowed not to repeat in New England.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

And as he reaches the turning point in his tenure with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin might be wise to take that lesson to heart. It says here that Mike Tomlin takes ZERO responsibility for Antonio Brown:

  • Throwing furniture off of a 14th floor balcony
  • Driving at 140 miles per hour in McKnight Road
  • Cursing out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette
  • Physically threatening an ESPN reporter
  • Getting his name into the news over a an alleged domestic dispute

But as Jeremy Fowler depicted, Mike Tomlin let Antonio Brown both bend and break a lot rules. Some of this might have been necessary.

Mike Tomlin’s been managing Antonio Brown’s diva tendencies since Day One. Remember Brown’s first NFL play, the touchdown on a kick return vs. Tennessee? Brown sat on the bench next week, as Tomlin talked of “Two dogs and one bone.” Tomlin benched Brown after Brown quit after an interception late in the 2013 loss to the Patriots. Yet Tomlin massaged Brown ego by allowing him to keep his receiving streak alive against Jacksonville a few years back.

  • But the problem is that Antonio Brown hasn’t been the only locker room disruption.

Le’Veon Bell reported refused to answer Tomlin’s phone calls, and James Harrison protested his lack of playing time in 2017 by mailing it in. There’s a pattern developing in Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin must break it.

Pittsburgh Coaches’ Turning Points Past

It would be poetic to say that “All NFL coaches reach turning points.” Untrue. Most NFL coaches simply get fired. But both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher had their turning points.

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Chuck Noll faced two. First came when the NFL moved the draft to after the Super Bowl to late spring. Although no one saw it at the time, as Ed Bouchette documented in a Dawn of a New Steel Age, the move allowed Noll micromanage the scouting process, to the detriment of the Steelers drafts.

  • The second came during the Steelers 5-11 1988 season, when Dan Rooney forced him to fire coaches.

Chuck Noll resisted but relented, and while he never returned to a Super Bowl, the 1989 Steelers did give the Emperor one last Hurrah.

  • Bill Cowher’s came in 1999. For the second straight season the Steelers melted down in the 2nd half of the season.

Without naming names, Lee Flowers called out teammates for quitting, and the 1999 season ended in a sloppy loss to the Tennessee Titans that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman t-shirt after a garbage time touchdown, and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return.

  • But Bill Cowher prevailed in his feud with Tom Donahoe and reasserted his control over the locker room in the process.

Mike Tomlin isn’t feuding with Kevin Colbert, but he must establish firm control of the locker room in 2019. Tomlin is reputed to say he treats everyone fairly, but not equally. Tomlin, it would seem, needs to tweak that.

  • Has Mike Tomlin already begun reasserting control?

When he showed up for the Bengals game, Antonio Brown issued a clear challenge to Tomlin’s authority, daring his coach bench him with the playoffs on the line.

Tomlin didn’t blink, which if nothing else could mark Tomlin’s pivot in Pittsburgh.

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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Celebrating the Immaculate Reception – Franco Harris and the “Big Bang” that Created Steelers Nation

Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.

  • That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.

Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

The Post Immaculate Reception Steelers

While the 1972 Steelers lost in the following week to Don Shula’s perfect 1972 Dolphins team, the Immaculate Reception ushered in an unheralded era of pro football prosperity. Since that fateful the Pittsburgh Steelers have:

  • Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
  • Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
  • Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
  • Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
  • Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
  • Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say

These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.

Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.

No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.

The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers

The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.

  • That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.

The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.

In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.

An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.

steelers fans, maryland, dinos, aspen hill

But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.

“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.

The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:

  • A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
  • A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
  • Not even allowing Johnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
  • Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
  • Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
  • Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
  • Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s

The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.

Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.

Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)

The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.

The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change

The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.

Dan Rooney began to take over control of the Steelers in the 1960’s while Art Rooney Jr. began building the scouting department. Rooney in fact influenced his father’s decision to fire the mercurial Buddy Parker, yet could not persuade The Chief to ignore Vince Lombardi’s advice to hire Bill Austin.

Austin failed after just two seasons, and Art Rooney Sr. finally relented in allowing Dan to conduct a thorough coaching search. Then, things began to change for the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll, the first and as yet only NFL coach to win four Super Bowls
  • The city of Pittsburgh agreed to build Three Rivers Stadium, giving the Steelers a modern home
  • Noll selected future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene with his first pick in 1969 NFL Draft
  • Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
  • Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft

Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.

  • Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.

Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.

Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:

  • “Dick, don’t over coach him.”

At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.

According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”

  • That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.

The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.

John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.

  • Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.

The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.

Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.

As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.

And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):

Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.

Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.

  • But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.

Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.

  • As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”

The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation

Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.

  • That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
  • And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.

Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.

Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.

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Should the Steelers Trade Le’Veon Bell? Pittsburgh Faces Gut Check with Talented, Troublesome Running Back

Should the Steelers trade Le’Veon Bell?

Fans have debated the question for weeks, but word from Le’Veon Bell is he’ll return to the Steelers during the bye week changes everything. IF, and that is a big “if,” Bell shows up, he will give Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin one of their biggest gut checks of their time together.

  • The Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera has featured more twists and turns than Glass Run Road.

There’s no need to summarize them here. The only piece of this backstory that potentially impacts Steelers 2018 on-the-field fortunes is the Steelers trading Le’Veon Bell. I’ve avoided writing about a potential Le’Veon Bell trade because it has been an academic question.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble, Steelers vs Titans

Le’Veon Bell in 2017 vs. the Titans. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Adam Schefter’s “League Source” could very well be Adisa Bakari simply making mischief while keeping his client in the news. And nothing would change if the Steelers have leaked the trade rumors because Pittsburgh can’t trade Le’Veon Bell unless he signs his franchise tender.

But if Le’Veon Bell is serious about signing his franchise tender at the bye week, the Steelers will have time to trade him before the NFL’s October 30th trade deadline.

  • The Steelers would still need to find a general manager willing to give up a 3rd round pick or better, and that’s a bit of a stretch.

But it is possible. Who thought the Steelers could get a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant?

One month ago if you’d told me the Steelers could trade Le’Veon Bell and get anything more than a 3rd round pick, I’d have said “Make the deal.” Despite his “I want to retire as a Steeler” claims, Le’Veon Bell’s actions tell us that staying in Pittsburgh isn’t his priority. Therefore, Steelers best course of action was to take what they could get and move on.

  • Ah, but what a difference getting out scored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters can make.

The jury is still out on James Conners, but he looks like he might be a good NFL running back. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell’s resume says he is a great NFL running back (cue previous reminders about Bell breaking Steelers records that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis touched. Also see Tony Defeo’s piece on Bell’s uncanny ball security.)

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense isn’t the same without Le’Veon Bell. A big part of that lies in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown‘s inability to get in synch (or even talk to each other, apparently.)

But in the past, the Steelers have leaned on Le’Veon Bell when the passing game faltered (see the Cleveland road game in 2016 and the Buffalo game in 2016.)

  • When Ben Roethlisberger is playing his A game the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers can hang with anyone.

Yes, I went there. But thus far, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been a 60 minute man in 2018. If he had, the Steelers would be 3-1 now. But instead, they’re 1-2-1 and tied for last in the AFC North.

  • This is why a potential Le’Veon Bell trade equals gut check time for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers goal is to win the Super Bowl. Their chances of winning the Super Bowl this season improve with Le’Veon Bell playing in Pittsburgh. So Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must take long look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really think the Steelers have a shot at Lombardi Number Seven this season.

  • If they do, then keeping Le’Veon Bell is the only option.
  • If not, and they can find a taker, then the Steelers must make the trade.

The Steelers have never been a franchise to play for draft position; see Bill Austin costing the Steelers at shot at O.J. Simpson, which “forced” Chuck Noll to draft Joe Greene instead – and we know how that turned out.

Some might suggest that trading Le’Veon Bell would be abandoning that philosophy. It might. But a Bell trade could bring Pittsburgh another pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and preserve salary cap space.

Everyone expected the Steelers to go heavy on defense in the 2018 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the opposite and displayed incredible self-confidence in their roster in the process.

  • The NFL trading deadline is October 30th.

Regardless of whether Pittsburgh’s record is 1-5-1, 2-4-1, or 4-2-1 at that point, the Steelers decision on trading Le’Veon Bell will reveal how much of that confidence remains.

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Steelers Tarping Practice Field? Why Not Follow Chuck Noll’s Lead and Practice without Numbers?

Change happens fast. Only two weeks ago the Steelers decision to erect a tarp to block the view from the Southern End of their practice field was the “big news” out of Pittsburgh.

Now everyone is focusing Joshua Dobbs’ promotion to QB Number 2 at Landry Jones expense, Terrell Edmunds possibly starting for Morgan Burnett and, in case you missed it, Le’Veon Bell holding out.

  • Excellent. Football news should focus on what happens between the lines, not around them.

But this is a new and a strange development as Mike Tomlin explains:

You know how it is. This is an interesting time, drones and so forth, you know? We’ll do what we have to do to prepare and be ready to play. Play on a level of fair competitive playing field

Fair enough. But if Mike Tomlin is worried about the Bill Belichick’s of the NFL spying on him, wouldn’t he be wiser to combat today’s technological threat by snatching a page from Steelers history?

Chuck Noll (may have) had the same concerns. No, he did have to worry about drones, but given his love of both flying and cameras, he almost certainly could have predicted the problem. Regardless, The Emperor had a solution:

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Your eyes tell no lie. Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers practiced with no numbers.

I first learned of this in the 80’s when a TV news story on cheating in pro sports, concluded with shot from Steelers practice and a reporter observing “…Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, still practice with no numbers.”

The offense wore Gold and the defense work Black, and that was that. Chuck Noll’s motives were less clear. On a summer trip to Pittsburgh in the late 80’s or early 1990’s I remember reading in the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette that Noll practiced with no numbers because he wanted coaches to treat all players equally.

If a cornerback was out of position, he wanted to coaches to correct him, whether he was Rod Woodson as a rookie or a veteran like Dwayne Woodruff. If an undrafted rookie free agent like Dwight Stone made a head turning play he wanted him to earn the same praise that Louis Lipps or John Stallworth would.

  • That is highly plausible, given Chuck Noll’s focus on teaching.

Stories of Noll of spending valuable practice time correcting a rookie’s mistake, only to cut him days later, are legendary. Likewise, Noll never hesitated to correct a veteran, as he did with Andy Russell, the only Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette believes that Noll’s goal was to confuse any unwanted on-lookers.

And Noll’s gambit worked.

In the ‘80s the Steelers and Redskins held annual training camp scrimmages which Washington’s WTTG Channel 5 broadcast. Years later, on WCXR’sHarris in the MorningSteve Buckhantz recounted how one summer Chuck Noll decided that the Steelers would scrimmage without numbers.

Buckhantz explained to Paul Harris and “Dave the Predictor” that “I had Franco Harris running for touchdowns, yet didn’t know it was him” as Steelers PR staffer would sit behind him in the broadcast booth try to determine who the player was based on his body type.

At the end of the day, its doubtful that Mike Tomlin would follow Chuck Noll’s example, although numberless jersey’s would  be cheaper than tarping off the south end of the practice field, and wouldn’t practicing without numbers eliminate the problem of drones flying directly above the field instead of just close to it?

Just say’n….

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How Mike Tomlin Strengthens His Locker Room Credibility by Keeping Joshua Dobbs Over Landry Jones

With the dust settling on the Steelers 2018 roster it has become apparent Pittsburgh has permanently parted ways with Landry Jones.

But now that Joshua Dobbs is officially the Steelers new QB Number 2 behind Ben Roethlisberger that doesn’t seem likely to happen. As someone who both advocated for keeping Joshua Dobbs AND who’s a little nervous about the Steelers cutting Landry Jones, one thing is immediately clear about this choice:

  • Mike Tomlin has strengthened his locker room credibility in with his decision.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“The best 22 players will start. The best 53 men will earn roster spots. The next best 10 will join the practice squad. Everyone else had best prepare for ‘Life’s Work.'” All NFL coaches say it, all of the time. And most of them really do want to mean it.

  • But the realities of the modern NFL often make it hard for coaches to truly put their money where their mouths are.

Sometimes salary cap realities dictate that a player who otherwise might be cut stay on the roster. The reverse is also true, hence the term “salary cap casualty.” Other times it is draft status. The last time the Steelers cut a rookie 4th round draft pick, Bill Clinton was President (no, sorry Doran Grant in 2015 doesn’t count.)

A coach can preach his “Keep the best 53” sermon without losing credibility because NFL players understand all of the above.

  • Sometimes NFL coaches keep a player because cutting him falls a little too far outside his comfort zone.

Those are the choices that lead to coaches causing trouble for themselves. Most outsiders thought that Chuck Noll was as unsentimental as Bill Belichick when it came to parting ways with old players. He wasn’t.

Keeping an aging Dwight White over Dwaine Board serves as the best example, but if you sat down with someone like Dick Hoak, Dick Haley or even Art Rooney Jr. they’d probably supply a good half dozen similar examples without breaking a sweat. Moving to more modern times, Bill Cowher’s decision to keep Duce Staley on the 2006 roster provides another example.

  • And that brings us to Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones.

During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have made personnel mistakes (see Shamarko Thomas), but they’ve rarely been guilty of hanging on to a player who is ready for “Life’s Work.” Perhaps keeping Aaron Smith into 2011 serves as one example, and certainly there are others but not many.

Nonetheless, the Steelers 2018 roster certainly has taken the franchise out of its comfort zone.

Tomlin Takes Steelers Out of Their Quarterback Depth Chart Comfort Zone

The last time the Steelers started a season without a veteran back up quarterback on its depth chart was in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger and Brian St. Pierre backed up Tommy Maddox.

  • And that situation only arose because Charlie Batch got injured in training camp.

To find a time when the Steelers voluntarily opted not to staff a veteran back up quarterback must go back to 1990 when Rick Strom and rookie Neil O’Donnell backed up Bubby Brister (although the picky purists in Pittsburgh will point out that Strom had thrown one incompletion in 1989 – keep that fact handy should you ever reach the Who Wants to be a Millionaire finals.)

In the Steelers preseason win over the Panthers, Joshua Dobbs didn’t simply “lean into the tape.” His play was exceptional enough to convince Mike Tomlin to disregard 28 years of franchise Quarterback depth chart policy.

So next time a player hears Mike Tomlin insist that “The best 53 will make it,” they’ll know he means it.

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