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

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

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

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

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

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Fortunately, Butler plans to do something about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Ben the Benefit of the Doubt. For the Moment

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

  • Alpha males, by instinct, do not share.

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

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

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

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

Even Still Ben Roethlisberger’s Remarks Are “Choto”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Draft Terrell Edmunds in First Round of 2018 Draft. Did They Repeat Historical Mistake?

In what amounts to a mild surprise, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds a safety out of Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained the reasons for picking Edmunds along the following lines:

Within (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster’s scheme you saw him play free, you saw him play strong, you saw him play deep middle, you saw him play sub-package linebacker in there alongside his brother. That versatility was exciting.

Terrell Edmunds,

Steelers 2018 first round draft pick Terrell Edmunds at Virginia Tech. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine, USA Today via ESPN.com

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the Steelers at first attempted to trade down to pick Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, but were blocked.  Wexell didn’t lay down any odds on the Steelers taking Edmunds, by he did lay down 4-1 odds that the Steelers would draft Justin Reid, a safety from Stanford, who Pittsburgh left on the board.

  • Many analysts had not graded Edmunds as a 1st round pick, yet the Steelers were willing to look past his 2017 tape due to a shoulder injury that Edmunds had suffered and focus more on his accomplishments in 2016.

As Kevin Colbert explained, “The previous year head had four interceptions and then last year he had two in 10 games. But last year he was, again, minus the shoulder. He was a really important part of a really good defense.” With that said, Edmunds himself was surprised by the pick admitting: “Honestly, I was surprised,” to be taken in the first round, Edmunds explained “I’m just ready, though. I’m telling you. I’m ready. I was praying and hoping. Now, it’s time to work.”

If nothing else, Edmunds candor is refreshing.

Terrell Edmunds Video Highlights

The Harris Highlights video clip touted him as “The Nation’s Most Underrated Safety.” Of course Harris was hired to promote Terrell Edmunds Draft fortunes so you’d expect them to say that. Take a look for yourself:

Terrell Edmunds certainly makes some impressive plays for Virginia Tech on that highlight reel, although some of those passes he is picking off are not going to be thrown by NFL caliber quarterbacks.

A sampling of NFL Draft analysts finds a lot of skepticism being leveled at the Steelers for the pick. Mel Kipper Jr. had Edwards rated as the 8th best safety in the draft. Todd McShay of ESPN thought that Edmunds went too early, and Luke Easterling of the DraftWire labeled the pick as a “head scratcher.”

  • Clearly the thinking inside the South Side differs from the outside.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are wise to keep their own council. While it seems like “only yesterday” 18 years ago a good majority of the talking heads felt that the Steelers HAD to draft Chad Pennington to replace Kordell Stewart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin took Plaxico Burress instead. Both men had respectable careers, but it was Burress who made game-changing plays in the Super Bowl, albeit not for Pittsburgh.

Are Steelers Repeating Historical Mistake with Edmunds Pick?

Still, even from the perspective of self-professed draft ignoramus, there one aspect of the decision to pick Terrell Edmunds appears to be worrisome, and that’s the historical precedent.

In the early 1970’s Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, and Dick Haley established the NFL’s diamond standard for drafting excellence. Yes, they hit a grand-slam with the Steelers famous 1974 Draft Class that brought in Hall of Famer’s Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. But even before the 1974 NFL Draft, the quart had already drafted four Hall of Famers in the form of Joe Greene in 1969, Terry Bradshaw in 1970, Jack Ham in 1971 and Franco Harris in 1972. After 1975 or 1976, the quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive.

However, one of those reasons, as explained by Art Rooney Jr. in Ruanaidh, was that the Steelers ended up outsmarting themselves, but trying to find players who might have fallen for some reason. And Kevin Colbert’s explanation sounds an awful lot like a similar justification.

  • Hopefully, Terrell Edmunds will prove that those are unfounded fears.

He’ll get a shot to start doing that this summer as he competes with newly J.J. Wilcox and Morgan Burnett for playing time while at St. Vincents. Welcome to Steelers Nation Terrell Edmunds.

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Watch Tower: Analyzing Coverage of Unrest in Steelers Ownership Ranks, Coaching Shake Ups, Le’Veon’s Lateness

The Steelers 2017 abrupt playoff exit has drawn the season’s backstory out of the woodwork, giving the Watch Tower plenty of material to shine its lights on. So now we focus on unrest in the Steelers ownership ranks, Todd Haley’s departure, Le’Veon Bell’s lateness to practice, and much more.

Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley

Mike Tomlin yells, while Todd Haley scows. Photo Credit: Steelers 24/7

Unrest Among the Steelers Minority Owners…?

Two days after the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported “…some of the team’s limited partners intend to lobby owner Art Rooney to fire of Tomlin and to hire a new coach.”

By any measure, this qualifies as news.

While the Steelers 2008 ownership restructuring was big story, the minority partners have remained out of sight since then. In January 2010 rumors held some of them wanted Bruce Arians’ head, but if that’s true, they didn’t get it.

  • Outside of that, it’s safe to say that 99% of Steelers Nation hasn’t given the minority owners a 2nd thought until Florio’s report hit the web.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette added to the story immediately. While his reporting neither confirmed nor denied Florio’s report, Bouchette brought a bevy of factoids to the story that must be considered scoops.

Bouchette’s opinion piece put the Steelers supposed lack of discipline into perspective by offering:

[Bill Cowher] allowed his players in 1994 to hold a Super Bowl video rehearsal in the team meeting room before the AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

The saga of the 1994 Steelers, the Super Bowl Rap video and the Chargers AFC Championship upset are well known, but this is the first time that the Watch Tower is aware of a suggestion that The Chin knew and approved of the escapade in advance.

At the time, word was that Bill Cowher hadn’t known, and when he learned he exploded at his team. Bouchette was only getting warmed up however, as he quickly dropped another bombshell:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

There’s never been any question as to whether the Rooneys and/or the Rooney and the McGinley families maintained majority control of the Steelers, but this is the first time the Watch Tower is aware that any enlightened observer has put a number on the stake controlled by the minority partners.

The Steelers hold the details of their ownership structure tightly to the vest. For example, Dan Rooney Jr. has been a partner, yet that only became public after his father’s death. While Bouchette leaves himself wiggle room with the language he chooses, it’s highly unlikely that Dean of the Steelers press corps would write what he did absent confirmation.

Finally, Ed Bouchette got Thomas Tull and Larry Paul on the record in favor of Art Rooney II’s stewardship, which is important because getting seldom-heard from minority owners on the record trumps anonymous sources by any journalistic measure.

This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.

Shakeups on the Steelers Coaching Staff

If social media has given Steelers fans a platform to let the world know what they think about which assistant coaches should go, it still falls to credentialed media to inform us of who will actually go.

In doing so Bouchette linked Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk of a year ago to a harsh interaction with Haley following the AFC Championship game (although Bouchette’s language does leave wiggle room; nonetheless, he would have had to confirm this fact before reporting it.) Fellow Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac broke the news that Tomlin was not going to make changes on his defensive staff, albeit with the caveat that Bruce Arians has been told the same thing.

And of course Carnell Lake has resigned and John Mitchell is moving into a new position, paving the way for Tom Bradley and Karl Dunbar to assume new positions.

This site’s assumption, although with several others, was that Lake was being politely shown the door. Not so fast reports Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who in responding to a reader’s question (full disclosure, yours truly posed the question) informs:

OK, Lake’s departure was not forced. He has been missing his family for a couple of years now and had the chance (put to me that way) to get back for his son’s final year of high school and jumped at it.

Wexell also informs that John Mitchell’s new job as full time assistant head coach isn’t a ceremonial or figurehead type position, but a serious gig that will include “bringing ‘tough love’ to Tomlin when he sees the need….”

Given the number of paywalls that protect Steelers-related stories these days, the Watch Tower can’t verify Wexell’s the only person reporting these details, but he did make them available through a free article on his sight, and it’s good to see these stories enriched in such public fashion.

Some Context for Le’Veon’s Lateness, Please?

The Steelers discipline, or lack thereof has been a focus all season long, both of the fans and within the credentialed press. Perhaps there has been no bigger magnet Le’Veon Bell. It once again fell to Ed Bouchette to break what has been the hottest news of the off season thus far with his fateful paragraph:

Not only did Bell arrive much later than that for the playoff game against Jacksonville (as well as one coach), he missed practically the entire Saturday walk-through the day before, showing up about five minutes before practice ended.

The ripple effect created by Bouchette’s 38 words could spawn an entire series of Watch Tower-type columns. We will make no attempt to do so here. However, one source consulted by the Watch Tower as soon as the news broke cautioned about the story’s lack of context, suggesting that perhaps Bell’s absence was excused.

To be clear, the tone of Bouchette’s report, including the headline “Le’Veon Bell blew off the Steelers’ last walk-through” doesn’t suggest that Bell had permission to be late, although this was the explanation that Bell provided when prompted by reporters.

While the Watch Tower takes no issue with Bouchette writing a story whose tone is in tune with what his sources are telling him, but rather with other reporters who could have done more to confirm the story in the five days that elapsed between Bouchette’s report and Bell’s rebuttal.

This would have been all the more useful, given that Le’Veon Bell has a history of denying reports that later turn out to be true.

Wolfley Howls on SCI, and ESPN Gets a Clue (for now)

Veteran Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley ears poised to step up his profile on Steel City Insider this off season and if his recent two part Q&A series is any indication, readers are in for a treat.

Wolfley answered well over a dozen questions and pulled no punches, offering frank commentary on everything from Mike Mitchell‘s play, to stories from the Chuck Noll era which make 2017’s supposed “lack of discipline” look tame by comparison, to tackling complex X’s & O’s questions.

  • Along the way, Steel City Insider Jim Wexell has reported a previously undisclosed Bud Dupree injury, which might not qualm fans criticism of the Steelers 2015 1st round pick, but is a nonetheless useful factoid.

Finally, the end of the 2017 playoffs has brought a welcome change to those who access to ESPN’s NFL site via Latin America (or at least Argentina.)

As the Watch Tower reported earlier, at the beginning of the 2017 season visitors who tried to access ESPN’s NFL site in English were automatically forced to the Spanish page, with no option to navigate back to English. Fortunately, during the week of the conference championships, visitors were once again free to browse the English language site.

While the Watch Tower expects to encounter the same problem next September, the change for the off season is appreciated.

 

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In Defense of “The Steelers Way”

The Steelers Way” is under attack, and it is time to defend it. No defense should be necessary. But if social media offers any guide, it is. Site scribe Tony Defeo has already offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin, but the implicit criticism the Steelers are weathering from a good portion of their fan base goes beyond Tomlin.

Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the issue perfectly. In responding to a fan asking about why some regard Mike Tomlin as irreplaceable, Zeise remarks:

Tomlin supporters demand to know who the Steelers could get that is better, and I always say, “How about the next Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher?” In other words, when those two coaches were hired, nobody really knew who they were. And both won a Super Bowl. The Rams hired an excellent young coach who was an unknown. There are a lot of great coaches out there. You could end up worse off, but you could also be Tampa, Baltimore or Denver who all replaced highly successful coaches with coaches who took the team to Super Bowl titles. There is no law that reads “The next coach will be worse” than the successful coach you fire.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Denver and Tampa were on the precipice of a Super Bowl and coaching changes yielded instant Lombardi Trophies. To listen to Zeise , its almost as easy as snapping your fingers, isn’t it?

Except it’s not.

And rather than bemoan Art Rooney II’s steady hand, Steelers fans should give thanks for the fact that Art Rooney II, like his father before him, is guided by the Rooney rule. No, we’re not talking about the NFL’s Rooney Rule, but rather the one that has guided the franchise since 1969 and his best enunciated by Mike Silverstein, aka “Homer J” from Going Deep with the Steelers:

  • You find the best guy you can to coach the team, and you stick with him as long as you can.

Since the wanning days of the Lyndon Johnson administration, just 3 men, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have carried the title of “Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers.” That’s a record of not even remotely matched not only in the NFL, but in all of North American major league sports.

  • It’s also not a coincidence that the Pittsburgh Steelers are also the only team to own 6 Lombardi Trophies.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Coaching a team to a Super Bowl victory is not easy. Doug Peterson deserves every bit of credit heaped upon him for leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but no one should be fooled into thinking that finding the next Doug Peterson should be easy.

Consider this, from Chuck Noll’s first post-Super Bowl era losing season in 1985 to his retirement, precisely one Super Bowl was one by a coach who was hired during that time span. And that was George Siefert, who inherited a Super Bowl champion (to be fair, Jimmy Johnson got hired in 1989 and won a Super Bowl in 1992, a year after Noll’s retirement.) There wasn’t as much coaching turnover in the 80’s as there was today, but the number of new coaches hired during that 7 year period could easily approach 2 dozen.

From Bill Cowher’s first losing season in 1998 until his victory in Super Bowl XL only two NFL head coaches were hired who won Super Bowls during that time span, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden.

  • Is there an up and coming coach out there who could come into Pittsburgh and do a better job than Mike Tomlin?

Yes, possibly there is, just as it’s possible that Bill Cowher could have been replaced by someone better after the dark days of the ’98 and ’99 seasons. But the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t operate that way. They don’t abandon a coach who is a proven winner in favor of a quest for perfect coach.

The Steelers worst finish since 1970 came in 1988 when the team went 5-11; no other NFL franchise has avoided dipping below 5 wins during that time span.

  • That fallout from 1988 campaign illustrates how the Steelers Way works.

Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t the only legendary franchise to suffer hard times in 1988. Tom Landry and the Cowboys finished 3-13 (in fact, one of Noll’s wins came and Landry’s expense). Bum Bright responded by selling the team to Jerry Jones, who hired Jimmy Johnson as coach even before he had the decency to fire Tom Landry.

Dan Rooney responded differently. He pressured Noll to make changes, Noll resisted and almost resigned. But Noll returned, had another blaze of glory with the 1989 Steelers and retired two years later.

  • That gives you a good contrast between “The Steelers Way” and the rest of the NFL’s way.

And let’s be clear about something: since that fateful juncture, the Dallas Cowboys actually have won 3 Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2, including a win over Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX.

But the Steelers have also made it to the Big Dance 4 times, have been to more conference championships, had more playoff wins, have only suffered 4 losing seasons, and have overall been a more consistent winner.

That’s “Steelers Way,” in action and I’ll take that over any other NFL team’s operating philosophies.

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New Steelers Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar Returns to Pittsburgh with Big Shoes to Fill

In tandem with the announcement that Tom Bradley was joining the Steelers coaching staff as defensive backs coach, the team also announced that Karl Dunbar will return to Pittsburgh to assume the role of defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, who has held the title of Steelers defensive line coach since 1994, will move into a full time roll as assistant head coach. And in doing so, Mitchell leaves Karl Dunbar with incredibly large shoes to fill.

Karl Dunbar

Karl Dunbar, Steelers new defensive line coach. Photo Credit: Mark Rebilas, USA Today, via SCI

Steel Curtain Rising will have a longer look at John Mitchell’s tenure as defensive line coach in the future, but “distinguished” would be the first word the comes to mind. It’s often said that “NFL” means “Not for Long” and assistant coaches are hired to be fired.

  • By surviving two head coaches and 6 defensive coordinators alone Mitchell has beaten the system.

Not bad for a man who arrived in Pittsburgh and was tasked with succeeding Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness.

Karl Dunbar is no stranger to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chuck Noll took him as a defensive lineman in the 8th round the 1990 NFL Draft, although Dunbar did not make the team. Dunbar did get NFL experience playing for the New Orleans Saints in 1993 and the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and 1995.

Dunbar coached for the Chicago Bears in 2004, and then moved on to Minnesota in 2006, where he worked for Mike Tomlin. Dunbar stayed in Minnesota until 2011, and then coached defensive line for the New York Jets from 2012 to 2014 and then with the Buffalo Bills in 2015.

  • Karl Dunbar has worked on Nick Saben’s staff at Alabama during 2016 and 2017.

If John Mitchell, who knows Dunbar from their days at LSU, leaves a big shoes to fill, he’s also giving his successor an awesome set of tools to work with. Cam Heyward is arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and if Stephon Tuitt can manage to stay healthy, he could give Heyward a run for his money.

Javon Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year and continues to offer plenty of “upside” while Tyson Alualu has proven to be an invaluable 4th lineman. L.T. Walton certainly struggled in relief of Hargrave in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he offers valuable depth.

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Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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Why Mike Tomlin Is Still the Right Head Coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers

You know what they say: “Don’t make a decision about something when you’re emotional.”

As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was pretty emotional after their quick ousting from the 2017/18 NFL playoffs at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 14 at Heinz Field.

  • “Why weren’t they prepared?” like many other fans, I asked rather angrily. Furthermore, we had a right to be angry.

And, of course, the wave of negative news that quickly surfaced in the days after the Steelers season came to a crashing halt, such as star running back Le’Veon Bell arriving with about five minutes (or perhaps more, depending on who you believe) left in the walk-through practice the Saturday before the playoff loss, just seemed like one straw too many.

  • Yes, for a brief moment, I thought about the possibility of the Steelers moving on from long-time head coach Mike Tomlin and taking things in a whole new direction.
Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, at a December 2017 press conference. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

But while I thought about it, I never actually allowed those words to leave me lips. For one thing, it’s just ludicrous, right? Why part ways with a head coach who has accomplished as much as Mike Tomlin has during his 11-year tenure with the Steelers organization?

  • We’re talking about a man with a 116-60 career record, eight playoff appearances, six division titles, two trips to the Super Bowl and one Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl XLIII.
  • That’s only one win less than Don Shula in the same time span, the winningest coach in NFL history.

Anyway, here we are three weeks later, and after taking some time to reflect–and discovering that perhaps, as he told reporters recently, Bell had a personal reason for missing that final practice and was given permission by his head coach–I realize that maybe things aren’t always as they appear–or as they’re reported.

  • Obviously, someone had an ax to grind with Mike Tomlin–perhaps now ex-offensive coordinator Todd Haley–and wanted to make him look bad.

But that’s neither here nor there, because, even without the leaked story about Bell missing practice, there are those who will never give Mike Tomlin his due and will continue to scream for his dismissal as head man on the Steelers sidelines.

Part of me can’t figure out why, but then, Mike Tomlin is the first Steelers coach of the social media era. And, as you probably know, there is rarely anything logical or rational about most takes on Facebook or Twitter.

Yes, whereas in the late-90’s, when only a select few fans could call into sports talk radio every night and tell the hosts what they thought of Bill Cowher‘s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), today, every Tom, Dick and Harriet from all over the globe can take to the world wide web and use all capital letters to tell you how much they hate Tomlin’s clock-management skills.

And they’re not all irrational either. There are some logical fans, albeit fans with an agenda against Mike Tomlin, who can come up with some darn good reasons why the Steelers should find a new head coach.

But the good news is, regardless of the illogical or even sane negative takes on Mike Tomlin, Mr. Obvious obviously being obvious, the Steelers won’t be in the market for a new head coach anytime soon.

For starters, it just goes against reason and logic to suggest the Steelers, a team that has played exactly one game under Mike Tomlin where it was already out of playoff contention at kickoff, are in total disarray, as has been suggested time and time again, by both the media and fans, alike.

In a classic case of giving the players all the credit and the coach none, Mike Tomlin’s critics state–and with a straight  face, mind you–that Pittsburgh has only been as successful as it has over the years because it boasts a superbly-talented roster that includes a franchise quarterback in one Ben Roethlisberger and numerous All-Pros.

Conveniently, this ignores the fact that NFL history is littered with countless superbly-talented rosters that never came close to achieving what the Steelers have under Tomlin, and that’s because those teams lacked a leader the equal of a Tomlin.

Secondly, the Rooneys have never had a fast-trigger with getting rid of coaches–at least not over the past 49 years, when they’ve employed just three of them.

And there’s a simple reason for that: you don’t get rid of a head coach when he wins, which the Steelers coaches have done, since Chuck Noll gave the organization the blueprint for success back in 1969.

  • Why? Because even good ones are just oh so hard to find.

Maybe I’m more exhausted from arguing with other fans about the Steelers head coach than a supporter of another team would be from arguing about their team’s coach, because it’s so uncommon for any team to employ a coach as long as Pittsburgh has employed Tomlin.

But if you look around the league, you’ll see that the most stable franchises–even the ones that don’t win Super Bowls every season–have long-tenured head coaches.

Take a look at the Packers, and their head coach Mike McCarthy; he’s been with Green Bay since 2006, and has a track-record pretty much on-par with Tomlin.

  • Like Pittsburgh, the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since they defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. And, like Steelers fans, Green Bay faithful have high expectations of their team.
  • You don’t think Packers fans have been quite vocal on social media about McCarthy’s underachieving teams the past seven seasons?

Like Steelers fans, do you think Packers Cheeseheads are betting the farm McCarthy will be an abject failure once his franchise quarterback–Aaron Rodgers–hangs up his cleats?

A good guess is that they are–again, fans are usually more apt to give credit to the player than to the coach.

However, I’ll just wager a bet that the Packers’ front-office won’t be looking for a new head coach in the near future, not unless McCarthy drifts far from the consistency he’s provided the organization the past 12 years.

Yes, consistency, something that your garden variety entitled fan rarely puts much stock in–until it’s gone.

As a fan of the University of Pittsburgh Men’s basketball team, I can tell you I was pretty darn frustrated year after year, as I watched head coach Jamie Dixon achieve great success in the regular season, only to underachieve in the postseason.

  • Many other Pitt fans–including some highly-influential alums–felt the same way.
  • Long story short, Dixon was effectively forced out two years ago–even if he officially left to coach his alma mater, TCU.

In the wake of Dixon’s departure, the Panthers hired Kevin Stallings, a coach that was far down the list of desired successors, and, today, the program finds itself back at rock-bottom, complete with an 0-11 record in the ACC.

Right about now, those yearly appearances in the Big Dance–even if  they often stalled out in the Sweet 16–don’t look so bad.

If insiders such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Bob Labriola are to be believed–and there’s nothing to suggest they aren’t–the Steelers goal every year is to compete and have a chance to win a championship.

With the exception of maybe a half a dozen years, the Steelers have been a legit championship contender every season, dating back to 1992, when Cowher took over for the legendary Noll.

Far few teams can make that kind of claim, and there’s something to be said for that.

Right now, the New England Patriots are in the throes of one of the greatest championship runs in professional sports history. Despite their 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII on Sunday night, the Patriots have now made it to eight Super Bowls since 2001, winning five of them.  But when the run is over, and Tom Brady finally does retire, will head coach Bill Belichick stick around and try to rebuild?

  • And when Belichick does finally part ways with the Patriots, will they be able to maintain the current winning culture over the next 20 or 30 years?

Finally, while you might consider Tomlin’s years to be a waste–only a truly entitled fan would think that way–fact is, he truly is at an elite level in his profession.

So, while you and I might continue to battle back and forth on social media over Tomlin’s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), he’ll continue to man the Steelers sidelines.

Good head coaches are hard to find, and Mike Tomlin has proven to be a great one.

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