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

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

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

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

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

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

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

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

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

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

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

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

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

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How I Learned of Rocky Bleier’s Incredible Comeback Story

Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.

The Super Steelers were a national phenomenon. Growing up as the child of “Pittsburgh Expats” in the Washington DC suburbs, names like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris (although I thought his name was Frank O’Harris) and Jack Lambert were well known to me before Super Bowl XIII, which is the first Super Bowl I’m old enough to remember.

Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier comeback

Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:

Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”

  • That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.

But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.

My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):

“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.

In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.

  • After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.

My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.

While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)

  • I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.

I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.

Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.

  • Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.

Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”

When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.

In 1976, Rocky Bleier ran for 1030 yards, during a 14 game season, which complemented Franco Harris’ 1128 yards, making the duo only 1 of six tandems to pull off twin 1000 yard rushing efforts in a single season.

Rocky Bleier, ESPN "The Return"

Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.

  • Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.

No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.

But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.

 

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

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

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

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

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

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

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

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

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019 – Exploring the Pros & Cons

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare start St. Vincents this week in Latrobe all eyes are on Art Rooney II and his pending decision to extend or not extend Mike Tomlin’s contract.

The Steelers longstanding policy has been to extend the contract of their head coach 2 years prior to the expiration of his current deal. Dan Rooney began the practice with Bill Cowher in the 1990’s and Art Rooney II continued it in 2017 just months after his father passed away.

  • However, both seasons have ended in disappointment since Mike Tomlin’s last contract extension, leading to speculation that change may be in the air.

Here we take a look at the Pros and Cons of extending Mike Tomlin’s contact in 2019.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II has a decision to make on Mike Tomlin’s contract. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

The Cons of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

For many, there is no debate. Much of Steelers Nation, perhaps even a majority, has wanted Mike Tomlin gone and wants no part of seeing him stay around. This site isn’t inclined to join that chorus but the arguments against extending Mike Tomlin are legitimate.

Two years ago, when the Steelers last extended Mike Tomlin’s contract, the team had indeed suffered a brutal AFC Championship loss to New England, but it looked like it was on the verge of completing an end-to-end rebuild around Ben Roethlisberger without dipping below .500.

  • Anyone who thinks that it is “easy” to rebuild a team around a young franchise quarterback should look at Don Shula and Dan Marino’s experience in the 80’s and ‘90’s.

Yet, the Steelers have taken steps backwards in each of the following two seasons, and they’ve done it against a background filled with a lot of distractions. Are those distractions Mike Tomlin’s fault? Well, in many cases, the truth probably is “No.”

Mike Tomlin didn’t make the decision to franchise Le’Veon Bell on his own. Its entirely possible that Mike Tomlin wanted to cut James Harrison in the summer of 2017 but wasn’t not allowed to. (The fact that James Harrison was a candidate to be cut is a matter of record, the rest is my speculation.)

While Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism for enabling Antonio Brown, it isn’t much of a stretch to argue that Tomlin kept Brown’s Diva tendencies in check far better than Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin did with their Diva wide outs. The bottom line is, Brown was a distraction early last season, then his issues were largely forgotten and only resurfaced at the end.

  • Regardless, deciding to extend Mike Tomlin could be seen as sending a signal that the team’s current direction is acceptable.

Does anyone think the trend lines this team has established over the last two seasons are acceptable?

The Pros of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

There are also strong arguments in favor of extending Mike Tomlin’s contract. For whatever his faults are as a head coach, and Tomlin has faults just as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did, Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

There is only one other NFL head coach whose record is head and shoulders above Mike Tomlin’s. Contemporaries with similar records, such as John Harbaugh, Sean Peyton and Pete Carroll have arguably struggled more than Tomlin has to rebuild around a franchise QB.

Results don’t lie. After knocking on heaven’s door in 2016 the Steelers have taken steps backward.

  • But will refusing to extend Mike Tomlin right this trend?
  • Sure, it could send a message that everyone needs to shape up. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Opting not to extend Mike Tomlin’s contract now would instantly create another distraction. That subplot would play out on social media and the “content aggregation sites” starting with the first training camp scuffle and lasting all the way until the final decision to go for it on fourth or not in the last meaningful game of the season.

In contrast, and to the extent that locker room and off the field distractions have impacted results on the field, extending Mike Tomlin’s contract could be a remedy.

Extending Mike Tomlin’s contract now would send a clear signal to everyone on the roster, “Mike Tomlin is our coach. He’s staying put. Listen to him if you want to do the same.”

Awaiting Art Rooney’s Decision

Art Rooney II has a decision to make. This past off season he’s shown an ability to pivot the Steelers standard operating procedure. The Steelers were ready to use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell by all accounts, yet had a change of heart. And at each opportunity they doubled down in their quest to improve weaknesses at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

  • Will he also make a similar pivot with regard to his head coach’s job security?

For my money, I don’t think he should. The list of NFL owners who’ve tried and failed to fire their way to a Lombardi is long. That’s because good NFL coaches are hard to find. Mike Tomlin’s record shows he’s one of them.

Ultimately Art Rooney’s decision doesn’t come down so much as to whether he thinks Mike Tomlin contributed to the problems of the last two season, but whether he’s confident that Mike Tomlin can be part of the solution.

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

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

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

  • Why did I have to write such an article?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, the prom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The practice continued under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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