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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Word to the Wise: Huey Richardson Proves Even Busts Can Debut Preseason with a Bang

The rookie Steelers linebacker offered incredible promise. He arrived at St. Vincents a first round pick having been taken 15th overall. Distinct from his outspoken peers, this young man remained set on speaking with his actions instead of his words.

Playing not one, but two positions, defensive end and inside linebacker, in his preseason debut, his stat line screamed:

  • He sacked  the hottest young quarterback in the game
  • He pressured the passer on two other occasions
  • He forced one fumble and recorded another tackle

And when it was over, “I still have a long way to go” remained the rookie’s only words.

In terms of both form and demeanor, it was a preseason debut that even a noted stoic head coach like Chuck Noll could have scripted better. Unfortunately, it was also the preseason debut of Huey Richardson, the most notorious first round bust in modern Steelers history.

The date was August 17th 1991 and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. And, to be 100% accurate, Richardson had seen spot duty in Pittsburgh’s previous preseason game. But his lesson remains relevant today: Preseason reveals a lot, but sometimes it can be deceiving.

Ola Adeniyi, Olasunkanmi, Adeniyi, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Ola Adeniyi Steelers preseason debut. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Several Steelers rookies stated their claim to permanent spots on Pittsburgh’s roster in the process. Receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson made electrifying catches. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi came up with a strip-sack. Chukwuma Okorafor showed that he could perhaps serve as a legit swing tackle this season. Mason Rudolph looked poised and delivered the ball on target.

  • Such fast starts from rookies are you want to see this early in the summer.
  • But while starting strong is nice, sustaining a strong start remains essential.

As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminded, Terrell Watson, Doran Grant, Jordan Zumwalt and Derek Moye all authored outstanding single game preseason performances in recent years, yet none of that translated into anything of note when the games counted.

  • So how is an educated fan to know the difference between a preseason flash in the pan and the beginnings of something bigger?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Stefan Logan and Isaac Redman earned a lot more with their rookie preseason than James Harrison did, but Harrison had the far better career.

  • Perhaps Huey Richardson’s experience can serve as a guide.

When the Steelers drafted Huey Richardson in the 1991 NFL Draft, the move drew praise. I remember a friend who wasn’t a Steelers fan and who knew far more about football than I did calling me telling me what a great pick he was.

Yet red flags arrived early and often with Richardson. He refused to talk with the press. The quote above which Ed Bouchette secured perhaps contains all only words Richardson ever uttered to the Pittsburgh press corps.

On the fields of St. Vincents things didn’t get much better. As Bouchette later recapped in Dawn of a New Steel Age, “Players made fun of the way he back-pedaled on pass coverage and how he ran stiffly.” In practice Richardson botched play after play.

  • Huey Richardson had even managed open training camp by breaking his nose in non-contact drills.

All of that, however, came before Richardson’s “breakout” preseason performance. But afterwards “It seemed like he was a force every once and a while” was the only praise that Ed Bouchette could muster out Dave Brazil, Richardson’s defensive coordinator.

The lesson it seems is that fans should first watch and then read between the lines when assessing a rookie’s preseason performances.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Ed Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, an Iconic Tale of the Birth of Cowher Power

What is it like to witness the end of one era and the beginning of another? Every journalist  dreams of the opportunity.  Fate afforded the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette the chance to do just that in 1992 when Pittsburgh Steelers transitioned from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher.

  • Except there was a “catch.”

The devastating 1992 pressman and drivers’ strike that shut down the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette left Ed Bouchette without a paper to print his stories. Fortunately, the Post-Gazette kept Ed Bouchette employed as part of their skeleton staff, and Sagamore Publishing approached him about chronicling both the end of Chuck Noll’s tenure and the beginning of Bill Cowher’s.

  • The result was Dawn of a New Steel Age, a 214 page volume published in 1993.
Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

In a market awash with books on the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll find some that are excellent (think Their Life’s Work and/or His Life’s Work), some that are good (think The Ones that Hit the Hardest), others that are average (think the Greatest 50 Plays in Pittsburgh Steelers Football History) and some that are downright awful (think Jack Lambert: Tough As Steel.)

  • Then there are the iconic books, ones that serve as a touchstone for their respective generations.

Think Roy Blount’s Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Truthfully, people don’t discuss Dawn of a New Steel Age in such reverential tones as they do with Three Bricks.  Perhaps they should, because Bouchette’s book really is that good.

Dawn Deftly Weaves Steelers Present with Steelers Past

I remember reading Steelers Digest’s profile of Dawn in 1993, but in those pre-Amazon days getting a copy outside of Pittsburgh was hard. However, I spied a copy at Station Square just before the Steeler ’96 home game against the Bengals, and it has served as a reference book ever since.

Bouchette divides his book neatly into 20 chapters, seamlessly weaving a tale where each chapter tells an independent story that contributes its unique elements to a unified narrative.

One critique of journalistic prose is that it too often sacrifices historical context for immediacy In contrast, too many history books offer dry recitations of fact that fail to convey a sense of present, or the flavor of the moments they’re recounting.

  • Bouchette’s Dawn of a New Steel  Age does the opposite.

A reader who picks up the book today can follow the progression of the 1992 Steelers and gain what it was like to experience the birth of Cowher Power as it happened, while understanding just how those moments fit into the context of Steelers history.

Bill Cowher, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher in 1992. Photo Credit: thisisopus.com

That’s a more difficult feat that it may seem. Jim O’Brien’s books on the Steelers deliver excellent insights, yet they often read like collections of individual stories that don’t from a central narrative.

  • Read today, Bouchette’s approach provides a refreshing contrast to our Twitterized communication landscape.

Another writer charged with telling the same tale could have easy fallen back on “The game passed Noll by and Bill Cowher offered a breath of fresh air.” But Bouchette doesn’t do that, and because of that the Dawn of a New Steel Age succeeds in making  unique contributions to Steelers history.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Why DID the Steelers slip into mediocrity in the 1980s? Poor drafting is the answer, but Dawn of a New Steel Age delivers insights into WHY the Steelers drafting slipped so badly. Art Rooney Jr. touched on this a bit in his book Ruanaidh, as did Michael MacCambridge and Gary Pomerantz.

  • Bouchette arrived sooner, however, and in many ways still tells a more complete story than those who follow.

For his own part, Bouchette isn’t ready to describe that part of the book as “ground breaking,” but upon re-reading this chapter he asserts, “I will say that maybe some of Noll’s best coaching jobs were during the strike of 1987 and the 1989 season.”

While a Dawn of a New Steel Age offers the appropriate deference to what Noll accomplished with limited talent in the 1980’s, one thing stands out: the implicit criticisms made of Noll that many of Bouchette’s subjects offer.

And that’s another strength of the book. The breadth and depth Bouchette’s interviews are unparalleled.  Bouchette managed to talk to  the ball boys to lesser known Rooney brothers and everyone in between.

When asked if he would get similar access should he try to write a similar book today, Bouchette explains explaining, ‘No, I would not get nearly the access. We all had open access to all the assistant coaches and could sit down with them in their offices and chat. Same with guys like Tom Donahoe. Dan Rooney always was great.”

Bouchette continues, “Today, I might be limited to the players and a few interviews with Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin, perhaps Kevin Colbert.”

Bill Cowher Arrives in Pittsburgh

As the title suggests, Dawn of a New Steel Age doesn’t focus on the 80’s, but rather on the birth of the Cowher-era. And the insights Bouchette delivers on the 1992 Steelers are just as rich as his reflections on the 80’s. To that end, Bouchette devotes full chapters to the 1992’s key actors:  Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Neil O’Donnell, and Barry Foster.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, 1992 Steelers

Bill Cowher & Dan Rooney, January 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Bouchette also offers one of the first profiles of Art Rooney II.

Art Rooney II is now of course the face of the Rooney family, a role he’s occupied since Dan Rooney left to serve as ambassador to Ireland in 2009. But in 1992 Art Rooney II had only recently assumed the title of Vice President of the Steelers and still maintained an active law practice.

Bouchette also had the presence of mind to foreshadow the 2008 Steelers ownership restructuring. As he explains, “I also wanted to look into the crystal ball to see what might become of the Steelers franchise because Dan Rooney and I had talked about it previously.”

Even in the early 1990’s, the Rooney brothers “… did not want to see ownership splinter among all their kids and grandkids.” To that end, Bouchette got Pat Rooney on the record predicting, “’Art’s going to have to buy out the partners,’ and I wrote that sources said Dan is preparing to do just that. So, I would say I came damn close to predicting what would happen 15 years later.”

Bill Cowher, Perhaps as Steelers Nation has Never Seen Him

Bill Cowher is of course the protagonist in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. And Cowher’s presence and influence on the momentous events of the Steelers 1992 season are evident on every page of Bouchette’s book.

  • Bouchette quotes Cowher liberally, and fans who remember the rest of the 90’s or the 00’s will find a more affable Cowher in the pages of Dawn.
Bill Cowher, Three Rivers Stadium

Bill Cowher at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: NFL via WTAE.com

When asked if 1992 represented a sort of honeymoon between the press and Bill Cowher, Bouchette agrees, detailing, “… The newspaper strike helped, as Cowher so often points out. We had our moments, especially in 1993. Bill was an interesting coach to cover. He had a range of emotions and did not hide them.”

In his autobiography Dan Rooney observed hiring a new coach almost forces a franchise to start from zero.  He would know. Dan Rooney watched in agony has as Art Rooney Sr. cycled through 11 head coaches while failing to win a playoff game in 4 decades.

  • Dan followed by winning 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches in 4 decades.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers surprised the NFL. Many pre-season publications ranked them in the mid-20’s in an era when the league only had 28 teams. Bouchette was surprised however, submitting that “The Steelers of 1990 and 1991 were not terrible and I believe we all recognized the disconnect between the coaching staff and players during that period.”

  • Bill Cowher may not have reset the franchise to zero, but he did author a new era for Steelers football.

A Dawn of a New Steel Age captures that process in real time. Bill Cowher’s arrival spurred changes from top to bottom in the Steelers organization, including their approach to the draft, the way they practiced, even how players conditioned. Bouchette documents it all.

When asked what a Steelers fan can gain by reading Dawn of a New Steel Age in 2018, Bouchette suggests “A perspective because it is now a history book. I thought I detailed pretty well the end of Noll’s coaching career and why it came to an end, the start of Cowher’s career as a head coach, the culture of the Steelers and how they were to survive into the future.”

  • That’s an accurate self-assessment, but perhaps one that does not go quite far enough.

After the 1992 Steelers upset road win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola declared, “Something special is happening to this team and this city.” He was right. 1992 was a special time to be a Steelers fan.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is a special book because its pages capture and preserve the energy that awoke Steelers Nation in 1992 for all who read it.

Editor’s note, as of this posting, copies of Dawn of a New Steel Age appear to be available on Amazon.

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Do Eric Green’s NFL Stats Suggest an Underachiever or a Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era?

When the Steelers selected Liberty tight end Eric Green with the 21st pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, I was a little underwhelmed, but that was nothing new.

After years of watching Pittsburgh select players like John Rienstra instead Keith Byars (1986) or Aaron Jones instead of anyone else on the planet (1988), I was used to my draft day fantasies being dashed by the Emperor Chuck Noll, a four-time Super Bowl-winning coach who certainly knew a little more about football than I did.

The Steelers did trade four spots down with the Cowboys, who used the 17th pick to select Florida running back Emmitt Smith, a man who would go on to capture the NFL’s all-time rushing record. But being angry over that now would be revisionist history, especially when you consider Pittsburgh used the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft to to select Tim Worley, a running back Chuck Noll said reminded him of former all-time rushing leader Jim Brown.

  • Anyway, as far as 1990 tight end prospects were concerned, Eric Green was believed to be the cream of the crop, so there was that.

On the face of it, the Steelers picking a tight end with their first round draft pick seemed rather odd, given that even the most hardcore Steelers fans old enough to remember the era would be challenged to remember a tight end other than Bennie Cunningham.

OK, Mike Mularkey had come to Pittsburgh via Plan B Free Agency, and had been a key role player in the 1989 Steelers playoff season, but the fact that he only needed 22 catches to be an “impact tight end” should tell you what you need to know about tight ends in the Steeler offenses of the 80’s.

But Chuck Noll had just hired Joe Walton as his new offensive coordinator, and Joe Walton’s offensive philosophy was very tight end-centric.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Therefore, looking at things from a pragmatic standpoint–and not through the eyes of an 18-year old Steelers fan who was looking for that draft day splash–the selection of Eric Green actually made sense.

What didn’t seem to make sense about a player selected in the second half of the first round–and from tiny Liberty University — was his willingness to holdout all of training camp, preseason and Week 1 of the regular season. Chuck Noll went as far as to say that Green would have to be a genius to contribute after missing so much time.

When Eric Green did finally sign, he was of no use through the first month of the season, neither was Joe Walton’s tight end-centric offense, one seemingly a little too complex to grasp for the likes of quarterback Bubby Brister, a player who certainly fit the mold of someone who had charmed cheerleaders into doing his term papers for him while he attended Louisiana Tech.

Under Joe Walton’s complex scheme, the 1990 Steelers infamously didn’t score an offensive touchdown during the first four games (note the Steelers Media Guide consistently gets this wrong) and were only saved from an 0-4 start thanks to a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by D.J. Johnson and a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rod Woodson in a 20-9 Week 2 victory over the Oilers.

The Steelers did finally break through offensively in a 36-14 Week 5 victory over the Chargers, which just so happened to be Eric Green’s coming out party. Against San Diego, Green, who at 6-5 and 280 pounds and blessed with speed and athleticism that defied that kind of size (at least in those days), was a bit of a catalyst, catching three passes for 22 yards and two touchdowns.

After Green’s breakout debut, Noll conceded, “He’s a genius.”

  • But it was the following week, in a 34-17, come-from-behind victory over the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, where Eirc Green really burst onto the scene.
  • Like the week before, Eric Green’s catches and yards were humble (just four for 28), but he caught three touchdowns.

For the season, Eric Green would go on to catch 36 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as a legitimate weapon for a Steelers offense that sorely needed as many as it could find. In 1991, Green continued to establish himself as one of the best young tight ends in the NFL, catching 41 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns.

1993 would be Green’s best year as a Steeler–and as a pro–as he caught 63 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns, earning himself his first of two-straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

  • Unfortunately for Eric Green, his 1994 season would be his list in Pittsburgh.

Eric Green’s legacy in Pittsburgh was tainted by a six-game drug suspension in 1992 and yet another hold out prior to the ’94 regular season. After the ’94 season, Eric Green left as a free agent and finished out the remainder of his 10-year NFL career with the Dolphins, Ravens and Jets

For his career, Eric Green caught 362 passes for 4,360 yards and 36 touchdowns–including 217 catches for 2,681 yards and 24 touchdowns as a member of the Steelers.

Eric Green the Right Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era

The conventional wisdom among Steelers fans is that Eric Green never lived up to his potential.

But Eric Green’s size, speed and overall athleticism defined a player who was clearly ahead of his time. Had he come along maybe 20 years later, there’s no doubt Eric Green would be up there with the likes of Rob Gronkowski as not only one of the best tight ends of his time, but one of the best offensive weapons in the game of football.

At the end of the day, Eric Green will never be known as an all-time Steelers great. But, had he played in another era, he may have been one of the greatest tight ends who ever played in the NFL.

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The Steelers, Le’Veon Bell Reach the Beginning of the End

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have reached the beginning of the end. As expected, the 4:00 pm July 16th deadline for Steelers to reach a new contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell came and went without a deal. Now Le’Veon Bell is bound by the franchise tag.

  • As this site observed during the spring, perhaps a 2nd franchise tag isn’t what sides need but not what either wants.

It didn’t have to be this way. The contract offer the Steelers made and agreed to with Bell’s agent last year would have befitted everyone. Bell would have had more money in his pocket than he does now, the Steelers would have more cap space, and have locked in Bell’s services for the duration of his prime.

"Le'Veon

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bell a 5 year 70 million dollar deal, with 30 million coming in the first two years. Word on how much of that was to be guaranteed has not yet leaked. But if the total is much higher than what the Steelers had on the table last year, Bell might have done the Steelers a favor.

And I write that as someone who likes Le’Veon Bell, thinks he’s got championship caliber talent, and knows he can’t be replaced by a squad of Stevan Ridley clones.

But as DeMarco Murray’s retirement poignantly reinforces the reality that the shelf-life of an NFL feature back is ever so short. In 2014 Murray led the NFL in rushing. Dallas didn’t lift a finger to resign him. Murray floundered in Philly in 2015, bounced back nicely for the Titans in 2016, but struggled in 2017. He’s now called it quits after 7 years in the NFL.

Last year’s deal made sense for the Steelers and for Bell. But Bell is a year older with another 400 plus carries on his body. Art Rooney II has seen enough running backs hand their shoes in Pittsburgh to know which ones are keepers, and he stuck his neck a bit in his bid to keep Bell, but didn’t stick it out too far.

Steelers Fans Might Get Their Running Back by Committee Wish

The next move is up to Le’Veon Bell.

Rumor is that Bell is considering holding out for all or part of the season, although he’s assured Steelers fans this will be the best season yet. Bell will lose just over $900,000 dollars a game for each game he sits out.

  • Yet Le’Veon Bell is weighing that against the toll that another 400 touches will take on his body.

Fans won’t like it, but in pure business sense, Bell might be making the right decision, however disloyal it will feel. On the flip side, those fans who’ve been clamoring for a running back by committee should be careful for what they wish for, because they may be about to get it.

Running back by committee is in vogue in the NFL, and a large contingent of Steelers fans would prefer to see Pittsburgh go that route, most of whom presumably are not old enough to remember the days when Chuck Noll and Tom Moore split carries between Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, and Frank Pollard.

In limited action in 2017, Ridley showed he could be a competent backup, Conner ran well when given the opportunity, but then got hurt and Fitzgerald Toussaint isn’t a bad number 3 back, but I’d trade him for a 1995 version Fred McAfee any day of the week.

Its possible that running back by committee can give Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the ground game they need to do their thing, but something tells me fans who don’t think they’ll miss Bell today, may feel differently come mid September.

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