15 Memories that Unite Generation X Steelers Fans

Staff writer Tony Defeo recently published an article waxing on what it’s like to be a Steelers fan reaching 50. With a nod to Jimmy Buffett, its titled “A Steelers Fan Looks at 50.”

While I’m still a few months (ok, weeks) from passing the half century mark myself, it got me thinking about some of the unique touchstones that mark me and my fellow Generation Xers as Steelers fans.

Here is my list:

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

1. You had this photo on your wall.

In 1980, you could get a copy of this photo of Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw through a promo run by either the Pittsburgh Press or Giant Eagle. My aunt and God Mother who lived in Monroeville called down to Maryland asking if my brother and I wanted copies. Of course we did! They hung on our bedroom walls just as they hung on yours for years to come.

2. You remember when Pittsburgh really was the Steel City.

Arriving in Pittsburgh from Maryland usually meant taking the Parkway into downtown from the Turnpike. So my first views of Pittsburgh were of J&L’s blast furnaces. They were truly awesome. (Don’t try Googling the terms, just trust memory here.) They were just as awesome as the gastly smells you’d have to endure as we took Carson Street to Becks Run Road en route to Brentwood-Carrick.

The mills are long gone, but seeing them, even in their twilight, was special.

3. You thought Queen wrote “We Are the Champions” for the Steelers.

My older sister and brother told me that Queen had written “We are the Champions” for the Steelers. As a naïve first grader I believed them. But why shouldn’t I have? The Steelers were the champions. At 6 years old that felt like a permanent condition.

4. You parents had to convince you that the Steelers were terrible once.

My parents are Pittsburghers to their cores, but neither is a football fan. When I asked them what it was like rooting for the Steelers when they were kids, my mom would explain “You have to understand. The Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were kids.” History proves them right, especially for the Steelers. But I sure was one skeptical seven year old.

Steelers Jacket 70's

I got one of these from my older cousin David. I couldn’t WAIT to grow into it! Photo Courtesy of @Vintage Steelers

5. Kids made fun of you as you kept wearing Steelers stuff into the 80’s.

My inventory of Steelers stuff remained well stocked through elementary school thanks to hand-me downs from my older brother and my cousin. What didn’t stay well stocked was the Steelers inventory of wins. And kids, as they are wont to do, made fun of me for  wearing Steelers stuff to school.

I wore my gear anyway, because Steelers fans are loyal.

6. Hearing the words “Immaculate Reception” caused you to run to the TV.

Today you can watch the “Immaculate Reception” at the touch of a button while say, slogging through Buenos Aires down Aveneda Directorio on Bus 126 from Flores to Puerto Madero if you so choose.

But I remember as a kid my older brother made a point of showing me the “Immaculate Reception” while watching NFL Films. And for the next several decades, I made it a point to watch the play every chance I got. Kids today are spoiled indeed.

7. You often learned of the results from Sunday’s games on Monday morning.

This is unique to children of the Pittsburgh diaspora, but before the age of the internet, or even cable TV there were plenty of times when I’d have to wait until Monday morning to learn the results of Sunday’s Steelers game. And in the ‘80s, that could lead to a lot of downers at the breakfast table. Although there were pleasant surprises….

8. The 1989 Steelers will always carry a special place in your heart.

The Boomers before us and the Millennials came after us who were reared on Super Bowls don’t understand. But we do. Starting in 1987 we saw flashes of greatness. We even convinced ourselves we could glimpse positives in the 3-1 close to the dismal 5-11 1988 campaign.

The 1989 Steelers story book season validated our faith and we felt like we’d closed the door on the 80’s by opening the door to a second Super Bowl era. That didn’t happen, but boy, it sure felt good to believe.

9. When fans attack the offensive coordinator your reflex is: “Yeah. …But Joe Walton was worse.”

Offensive coordinators are the favorite whipping boys of Steelers fans, whether you’re talking about Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley. But Generation X Steelers fans know that none of them was worse than Joe Walton, even if in middle age we’ve grown to appreciate Walton as an outstanding person who did a lot of Western Pennsylvania football at Robert Morris.

10 a. The split back or “Pro” style offense looks normal.

Thanks to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, and Merril Hoge and Tim Worley, the sight of two running backs lined up behind the quarterback will always be “normal.”

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

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

10 b. You still scream for the fullback to get carries.

Your mind understands how and why the game has changed, but every time “they” talk about cutting Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell’s or Najee Harris’ workload your heart screams “Why can’t they just let the fullback run the ball?”

11. Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka is the only Steelers fight song.

OK. Let’s concede that James Psihoulis’ aka Jimmy Pol’s fight song is the property of our parent’s and our grandparent’s generation. But I first heard the song during the ’93 season on my first trip to a Steelers bar (Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon no less).

It was the sound of heaven. Listen for yourself:

I mean no disrespect to “Here We Go,” “Black and Yellow,” “Climbing the Stairway to Seven,” or any of the other fight songs. But the “Western Pennsylvania Polka,” from Jimmy Pol’s thick Pittsburgh accent, to the passion in which he implores “…Let’s go and score, and never ever yield!” while invoking Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s “hunky friends,” Franco’s Army and Gerela’s Gorillas perfectly preserves the Super Steelers and Pittsburgh’s essence.

12. You once thought Dan Rooney was “Cheap” or you defended him.

In the 1990’s, spring free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh were the norm. In the days before Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t have the revenue to compete. Fans didn’t want to hear it and wrote Dan Rooney off as “cheap,” while others, like me, defended him. These arguments were staples of our 20-something bar room banter.

13. When there’s a special teams coaching vacancy, you scream “Bobby April!”

Atrocious special teams plagued Bill Cowher’s 1993 Steelers. He responded by hiring Bobby April who rejuvenated the unit and cemented his cult-hero status with the successful surprise on-sides kick in Super Bowl XXX.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

14.  Number 95 is sacrosanct.

Whether “Just Plain Nasty,” or “I wasn’t hired for my disposition” lights your fire, you loved your “Avoid Lloyd” shirt and you instinctively know that no other Pittsburgh Steeler else can ever live up to the standard that Greg Lloyd set when he donned number 95.

15. You try, and fail, to explain Myron Cope to a new generation.

In 1992, Sports Illustrated described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were right.  Yet Myron was someone to be experienced in real time, and attempts to explain him ultimately fall short. But it is your duty to try.

There you go in Steelers Nation. Those are my top 15 (ok, 16) memories or touchstones that unique to Generation X Steelers fans.

  • Is this a definitive list? I certainly hope not!

While we all share a love for the Black and Gold, each of us has your unique way of finding it. Take a moment to leave a comment and share your additions to the list. (Comments are moderate to keep out the spammers and tolls, but if you write something it will get published.)

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Look Far, Stay Close: Steelers Hire Omar Kahn to Replace Kevin Colbert

After interviewing 16 candidates from around the NFL to find Kevin Colbert’s replacement, Steelers President Art Rooney II settled on one who has been in his own back yard since 2001, naming Omar Khan as the next General Manager.

Omar Khan, Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert

Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Omar Khan joined the Steelers in 2001, one year after Kevin Colbert arrived, serving as football operations coordinator and was named as Vice President of Football and Business Administration in 2011, one year after Kevin Colbert officially got the title of general manager.

In a statement released by the team, Khan commented:

I am extremely excited for this opportunity to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I would like to thank Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert for their support throughout this process. I am ready for this challenge and grateful to continue the success we have had on the field during my first 21 years. I look forward to completing our football operations staff and working tirelessly to build another championship football team for Steelers Nation and our community.

The choice of Khan does represent a bit of a departure for the Steelers in that his background is on the business side of the operations, as opposed to scouting. (Although Khan did gain scouting experience while working with the New Orleans Saints.

Andy Weidl of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was also a finalist to replace Colbert, will reportedly join the team as Assistant General Manager, although the hire has not yet been announced.

There’s been no word on what role if any Brandon Hunt, the Steelers current Pro Scouting Coordinator will play with the organization. Hunt interviewed and was a finalist for the job.

Steelers MO: Look Far for Coaches, Stay Close for Front Office

In another sense the Steelers decision to promote Khan from within is in keeping with their MO for hiring a front office head. For all intents and purposes, Art Rooney Jr. was the first head of the Steelers scouting department.

And when Chuck Noll retired and Haley left the Steelers, Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations. When the breach between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe became unbridgeable, Dan Rooney again interviewed candidates from across the league, only to settle on Kevin Colbert, who was not only a Pittsburgh native, but an alumni of North Catholic, the same high school that Rooney and Donahoe had attended.

  • That stands in contrast to their MO for hiring coaches.

Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll from outside the organization (OK, it’s not like Bill Austin’s staff was stocked with up and comers). When Noll stepped down, the smart money was on Joe Greene as his replacement.

But an exhaustive search lead them to Bill Cowher. When Bill Cowher hung it up, the front runners to replace him were Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. Both men were serious contenders and Grimm was one of the finalists, but the job ultimately went to Mike Tomlin, who was with the Minnesota Vikings.

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A 4 Point Roadmap Steelers Should Follow to Return to The Super Bowl

Super Bowl LVI is today. And again, the Pittsburgh Steelers will watch from home. Worse, the franchise hasn’t been farther away from a Super Bowl since their God-awful 1999 season.

  • This reality is generating untold angst within Steelers Nation.

Social media is full of solutions for returning the Steelers the Big Dance. First, there are the “Make Buddy Parker Proud” plans that involve trading a pirate’s ransom of draft picks to get Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.

On the flip side, there are demands to trade T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward because, “We’re never going to contend during their careers, so why not?” In between, you see calls for sticking with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins — but not to explore their potential — but because they’re Pittsburgh’s best shot at a top 5 draft pick.

No, nothing is easy, is it? Now you understand why Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin agreed to take a final, longest of long shots with Ben Roethlisberger.

If the Steelers road to Lombardi Number 7 certainly isn’t easy, the map they need to follow isn’t complicated because it involves focusing on the fundamentals that got the franchise their first 6 Super Bowls. Here is a four point roadmap.

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

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

1. Embrace the Suck

Jim Wexell quoted Tammy Duckworth’s “Embrace the suck” mantra following Martavis Bryant’s second substance abuse suspension. Duckworth of course lost both her legs in Iraq rebounded to become a US Senator.

In this context, the Steelers “Embracing the suck” means accepting that they are neither a quarterback nor a handful of key players away from contending again. A big part of this site’s Steelers 2021 season review hinged on who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft and who actually made (or stayed) on the field in the early fall.

  • That perspective was useful for reviewing 2021, but is irrelevant for 2022.

Take Tyson Alualu. The Steelers run defense certainly would have been better with Alualu. Alualu can probably help in 2022. But Alualu will be 35 and has only played in 17 of a potential 33 games over the last two seasons. He’s not a long-term answer. The Steelers need long term answers.

Fans can fantasize all they want, but it is important that Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert and his successor are honest with each other and with the men in the mirror about where this team stands.

2. Prioritize Winning Big Over Winning Fast

After Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in 1969, Chuck Noll told him that he could win quickly by beefing up the roster with a few trades. But Noll and Rooney agreed on winning big instead of winning fast.

  • In this light, the idea of trading away 3 or 4 premium draft picks for a blue chip quarterback is pure folly.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, the Steelers are in a much better place today than in 1969. In Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Dan Moore and a few others the Steelers have foundational players.

  • But they need to find more foundational pieces, and they need to take them where they can find them.

Outside of perhaps safety and running back, there’s not a spot on the Steelers depth chart that should be off of the board on Days 1 and 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has argued repeatedly, good things happen when your best player is your hardest worker (and if possible) is the biggest guy in your locker room.

If ever there was a year for the Steelers to deprioritize need in favor of talent in the draft, it is 2022. That could leave some painful holes in the 2022 roster but will deliver long-term dividends.

3. Don’t Try to Force Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Finding a franchise quarterback requires 3 things:

1. Luck
2. Patience
3. Instincts

The importance of luck should be obvious, but it’s not. To understand luck’s role, think of how the Steelers found their first franchise quarterback. Despite drafting Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 NFL Draft, Chuck Noll went 1-13 that season.

The Steelers tied the Bears for the worst record, and they tossed a coin for the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.

  • Pittsburgh won the toss and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The rest is history.

Patience is just as critical as luck. The Steelers whiffed in 1983, drafting Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino. Fans and press pundits panned the team for trying to get by with Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister – didn’t Rooney and Noll know how important the quarterback position was?

They did.

And they also knew that franchise quarterbacks few and far between. Outside of Steve Young in the 1984 Supplemental draft and Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL Draft the Steelers didn’t have a shot at a true franchise quarterback until they passed on Drew Brees in 2001. (Ok, they should have taken Tom Brady instead of Tee Martin in 2000. 29 other NFL teams should have too.)

Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert

Bill Cowher sits beside Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: The Toledo Blade

Reaching for a quarterback and missing is more costly than it is at any other position. Just ask the people who picked Andre Ware, Cabe McNown and JaMarcus Russell. That’s why Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were wise to resist any temptation to draft Chad Pennington in 2000.

  • The Steelers must exercise the same prudence today.

And that’s where instincts come in. Dan Rooney lived through the mistake of passing on Marino and ensured that history didn’t repeat. So if and when the Steelers brain trust really does think they’ve found a franchise quarterback, they must take him.

4. Strive to Be Great, But Build to Win with Good

I took a lot of grief in high school, college and later sports bars defending Bubby, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. After all, the Steelers continued to make playoff runs while teams like the Bengals wasted first round picks on busts like David Klingler and Akili Smith.

  • And besides, you didn’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, you only needed a good one.

Then I saw Ben Roethlisberger go 9 of 12 while throwing laser like touchdown strikes to Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller to open the 2005 AFC Divisional win over the Colts. That’s when I understood why teams threw first round picks at quarterbacks. Neither Bubby, nor Neil nor Kordell could have done what Roethlisberger did that day.

  • The game has changed a lot since 2005 and much more since the 1990s.

Today conventional wisdom holds: You can’t win with a “Good” quarterback anymore, you can only win with a Great one. If you look at the names of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the 21st century, it is hard to argue against that.

Hard, but not impossible.

There’s no doubt that without a franchise quarterback, a team must be virtually error-free in the draft, have depth everywhere, and reach the playoffs in excellent health. But non-franchise quarterback do lead their teams to Super Bowls.

Nick Foles did it in 2017. In 2015 the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with excellent defense, a strong running game and a Peyton Manning who was a glorified game manager at that point in his career. Many would put the Joe Flacco-led Ravens Super Bowl in 2012 into that same boat.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

The Steelers of course tried to win a Super Bowl with a good quarterback in the 1990’s and the early ‘00’s, only to come up short with losses in Super Bowl XXX and 3 AFC Championship games.

But because they were built to win with good while seeking to be great, when luck, patience and instinct combined to start the Ben Roethlisberger Era in 2004 the Steelers as an organization were ready. And 3 Super Bowl appearances and victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII followed in the next 7 years.

Today, Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin must follow the same formula.

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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Watt’s a One Man Defense? As Steelers Defeat Seahawks in Overtime 23-30

Moments after the Steelers 23-20 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s head coach Mike Tomlin drew this conclusion:

We’ve got a lot of improvements to make, obviously, but boy, it’s good to win a game like that, to get to know yourselves individually and collectively when faced with dire circumstances at times, and seemingly when it’s not going your way.

Tomlin is right. Games like this do reveal a lot about a team. The 2021 Steelers certainly learned a lot about themselves Sunday night? But did we learn anything about them?

The answer is we learned a lot, some of which offers hope for the future, some of which signals caution.

T.J. Watt, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahwaks

T.J. Watt strip sacks Geno Smith. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Evolution vs Reaching a Plateau?

Coming out of training camp, Ben Roethlisberger was the first person to remind everyone that the Steelers offense would be a work in progress. The first month of the season proved that the Steelers quarterback should have been taken at his word.

  • The win over the Seahawks revealed a lot about that evolution, both positive and negative.

The Steelers spent the first quarter trading punts with the Seahawks, reverting the slow starts that plagued them in September. But if Matt Canada panicked, it wasn’t evident in his play calling as the second quarter saw the Steelers stich together two clock consuming drives that ended in Najee Harris and Eric Ebron touchdown runs.

On the plus side, this happened despite Najee Harris rushing for partly 28 yards on 13 carries. On the minus side, the Steelers got the ball back at their own 41 with 36 seconds left yet only managed 3 yards and had to punt it back.

  • Those might sound like odd threads to use to weave an “unfortunately/fortunately” narrative, but they’re apt.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Seahawks

Najee Harris catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Najee Harris finished the game with 81 yards, which means he averaged close to 5 yards a carry in the second half. Getting the ball at their own 26 yard line with the game tied and 5 minutes remaining, the Steelers fed the ball to Harris 5 times.

Last year or even last month, such a slow start to the running game would have resulted in Ben Roethlisberger tossing 50 times. That didn’t happen, which shows the Steelers offense is taking a step in the right direction.

And it is a step the Steelers need it to take, because the Seahawks game confirms that Big Ben can no longer carry this team. For all of the sound and fury generated by clock management, one of the trade marks of the later part of the Tomlin era is to use the final minute of the first half to tack on a field goal. The Steelers tried, but didn’t sniff field goal distance, which foreshadowed things much of the 2nd half.

With 9 minutes left in the 4th, the Steelers got the ball at their own 20. With the game tied, a score was necessary. The Seahawks stuffed Harris on first, Roethlisberger overthrew Diontae Johnson on 2nd and underthrew Chase Claypool on third and the Steelers had to punt.

The game didn’t turn on that play or that series, but those weren’t isolated examples of throws that Roethlisberger would have made prior to his injury.

Watt’s a One Man Offense?

Dealing with the loss of a playmaker is never easy. When the Steelers hit the dark days of 1998 and 1999 Dan Rooney explained that his team needed playmakers, offering Rod Woodson as an example.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger’s days as a playmaker are fading, then T.J. Watt’s star gets more brilliant with each passing week.

To be fair to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers second half struggles are hardly all on him. Both Johnson and Claypool left critical catches on the field. And, not to put too fine point on things, the defense “forgot” how to tackle for much of the second half.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Seahawks

T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward pile on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With no disrespect to Alex Highsmith and Tre Norwood – who’d stepped up with some critical third down plays — one can be forgiven for thinking the Steelers defense needs no one other than T.J. Watt.

Let the record reflect that during regulation, T.J. Watt failed to record a sack. In the elder days of ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime one can imagine Chris Berman and Tom Jackson extolling “Hats off Seattle offense. You can’t hope to stop T.J. Watt, you can only hope to contain him, and contain him they did.”

  • So what did “containing” T.J. Watt in regulation look like?

How about 3 defensed passes and two tackles for losses, both of which came in the 4th quarter, stoning Alex Collins after he’d steamrolled the Steelers offense. All four of those possessions on which Watt made those plays resulted in punts.

  • And he was only getting warmed up.

Seattle won the toss in OT, and T.J. Watt droped Collins for a loss on first down. Cam Heyward made another tackle for a loss, but that was sandwiched by 21 and 10 yard passes to Tyler Lockett and D.J. Dallas.

It was 3rd and 4 at the Steelers 45. A conversion and Seattle can start thinking about kicking a field goal. Instead, T.J. Watt dropped Geno Smith for a 14 yard loss. The Steelers got the ball at their 20 and could only get 9 yards when they needed 10.

Fortunately, Presley Harvin answered the call by booming a 56 yard punt out of bounds.

Pete Carroll had learned his lesson. On first down he put 3 defenders on T.J. Watt. It didn’t matter:

Devin Bush avoided his “running the wrong way” highlight reel and two plays later, Chris Boswell was splitting the uprights to pull the Steelers back to .500.

Steelers Reach Equilibrium @ Bye Week

As Mike Tomlin admitted, the Steelers still have a lot to improve upon. The defense must find a way to play more consistently and the offense must find a way to balance Najee Harris’ evolution against Ben Roethlisberger’s declining skill set.

But thanks to T.J. Watt’s heroics, the Steelers can at least do that from a .500 perch, which is as close to a clean slate as team that suffers a 3 game September losing streak is going to get.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.
Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

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

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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Steelers Fans Should Always Embrace History, Not Just When Players Make it to Canton

t was a magical weekend in Steeler Nation, as five former members of the Steelers organization–including players Donnie Shell, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, as well as head coach Bill Cowher and legendary scout, the late, great Bill Nunn–were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That’s right, in a rare instance of the COVID-19 virus bringing about something cool, Shell, Polamalu and Cowher–members of the 2020 class who had to wait a year because of the worldwide pandemic–joined Faneca–who, along with the deceased Nunn, was inducted in 2021–for a tremendous weekend of fun and celebration.

Memories were shared. Speeches were given. Tears were shed. Lots of tears were shed by Steelers fans, in fact, as they honored their heroes from the past and endlessly thanked them for serving their favorite football team well.

It was nice to see Steelers fans honor the past. It was cool to see them pay homage to people who created so many awesome moments in their lives.

  • In my opinion, fans just don’t do much of that, these days.

I’m not sure if they ever did, but they certainly don’t seem to appreciate the history of the NFL in 2021, not when the acquisition of a fourth-string tight end garners way more “clicks” and discussion than the passing of a legendary head coach, such as Don Shula, who died in 2020 at the age of 90. Few seemed to notice or take the time to honor a career that included two Super Bowls, an undefeated season and the most wins by a head coach in NFL history (347.)

Truthfully, it may be unfair to expect Steelers fans, especially those under the age of 40, to even know who Shula is, let alone honor his passing. Also, Shula coached the Colts and Dolphins, not the Steelers. Duh! I get that, but I have always had great respect for the history of the NFL, a history that includes more than just the black and gold, btw.

I grew up on NFL Films. I gained so much knowledge about the players, the rules, the history of the game, etc. Heck, just hearing John Facenda, the voice of so many NFL Films features before his sudden passing in 1984, still gives me chills. Same for the awesome NFL Films scores, such as The Autumn Wind. That score and accompanying Facenda narration honors the Raiders, an old rival of the Steelers. So, again, why should I expect the black-and-gold faithful to care about that? Fine, I’ll give you that.

However, fans should appreciate the past just a little more. And if they don’t want to appreciate and honor it, they should at least know it. I’ve often joked that newer Steelers fans sometimes refer to Chuck Noll, the team’s legendary former head coach who helped to transform the franchise into the NFL juggernaut it is today, as “Knoll” or even “Knox.”

  • Unfortunately, I’m not stretching the truth much when I make that joke.

I think it’s important to know the NFL’s/Steelers’ past. No, you don’t have to appreciate, respect or honor it — as an 11-year old, I certainly didn’t shed a tear when George Halas passed away in 1983.

But knowing the Steelers’ past allows you to gain a better perspective on things that are happening today. The world, the NFL and the Steelers existed before “now,” before social media. For example, did you know that Jack Lambert was the first training camp holdout in franchise history? That happened in 1977, the same year that Mel Blount also held out of camp and even threatened to sue Noll over Noll’s testimony in the “criminal element” lawsuit filed by Raiders’ defensive back, George Atkinson.

Steelers players got arrested in the past. They had pastimes outside of football. Terry Bradshaw recorded country albums and starred in movies. He even flirted with leaving football full time to focus on music (can you imagine a story like that in the age of social media?) Frenchy Fuqua used to show up to the stadium wearing funky and fly outfits, complete with shoes that had goldfish floating in the heels.

Mean Joe Greene once threatened to quit the Steelers over a perceived lack of commitment by the organization to win a championship.

Fans spent the vast majority of Bill Cowher’s career thinking he was merely an okay head coach that didn’t have what it took to win a title. The Chin would never “Win the Big One” fans insisted. 

Chuck Noll once walked out of a press conference when reporters asked him if he would ever consider stepping down as head coach of the Steelers.

Dan Rooney, the transformative team president, had to fire his brother, Art Jr., the chief scout and one of the architects of those legendary 1970s Super Bowl teams.

Oh well, that’s my lecture for the day. As the Steelers continue to prepare for their 2021 campaign, remember that they will face challenges during the season, but these challenges likely won’t be unique or original.

  • Knowing Steelers’ history doesn’t make you a better fan.

It does however make you a fan who’s perhaps capable of taking more things in stride.

 

 

 

 

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Steelers Nation Matured with Bill Cowher as He Validated Mom’s Wisdom

Today, Bill Cowher enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame 29 years after becoming Steelers coach in January 1992.

“Passionate” “Inspiring” “Intense” “Daring” “Emotional” “Intimidating” “Fiery” “Boisterous” “Balanced” are all excellent words that describe Bill Cowher. Yet most Steelers fans could have applied these adjectives to The Chin before he’d even coached a half season’s worth of games.

Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 16 years. As we observed in the intro to “The Cowher Years” the series, the world changed tremendously during his time. And it is through change that we learn the most.

To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them and to re-experience all of the change wrought by them.

  • So what did Steelers Nation learn and what did it gain from Bill Cowher’s time in Pittsburgh?

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via Daily Record

Vindicating Faith

Generation X occupies a curious spot within Steelers Nation. Unlike the our Depression Era grandparents and our War Baby/Boomer parents, we never experienced the perpetual losing SOS (Same Old Steelers.)

  • But unlike the millennials, we did live through the 80’s, when the Steelers muddled through mediocrity.

Yet, as children of the ’70’s we had been young enough to actually believe that “We Are the Champions” really was written for Steelers. And this instilled in us an unshakable faith that someday, I daresay, the Steel Curtain would Rise Again.

Chalk some of that up to naiveté of youth, says the writer who scoffed at winning “The Aikman Derby” because, “The Steelers don’t need to draft Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister!

But the 1989 Steelers breathed new life into those hopes. And if 1990 disappointed, the logic behind Bob Labriola’s favorable position-by-position post-season comparison between the Steelers and the surprise Super Bowl Champion Giants was sound.

The Steelers had the pieces needed to be champions. Chuck Noll felt so himself, but admitted to his wife during the 1991 season that he couldn’t coach them up to that level.

And in writing about the early Cowher years, it occurred to me that during the early 1990’s, Steelers Nation experienced what it was like in the 70’s when the team was on the rise. Winning was novel. Winning was fun. And it was pure.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

I’ll never forget answering the door 2 days after Christmas at my grandma’s house in Baldwin, moments after the 1992 Steelers closed with a win over the Browns. I greeted a teenage paper boy sporting a Steelers hat, Steelers jacket and Steelers T-shirt and huge simile tattooed across his face. I’d been to Pittsburgh scores of times through the 80’s, but I hadn’t seen that enthusiasm since the late 70’s.

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

Not only were the Steelers finally playing the Championship Caliber football that they could have and should have been playing before, but they were playing the Championship Caliber football that we fans felt we deserved to see them play.

That feeling reached its peak when Yancey Thigpen took out his Terrible Towel in the end zone 1994 AFC playoff win the Browns.

A generation of Steelers fans felt like we were were finally claiming our birthright!

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

As we know too well, a week later Alfred Pupunu broke the magic spell that Thigpen’s Terrible Towel twirl had cast. That loss, ugly as it was, fostered a transition in how Steelers Nation perceived its beloved team.

The Steelers of the 70’s might not have been the Greek gods that NFL Films portrays them as, but they were modern day Epic heroes, Goliaths, if you will. In contrast, the Steelers of the 1990’s, ever struggling against the salary cap, played the role of Davids.

  • And that perception was grounded in a bit of reality.

The Steelers Digest once ran covers of Rod Woodson dressed as Superman and another of Greg Lloyd posing with a Darth Vader helmet. Both motifs were appropriate.

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

But I’ll simply observe, with my heart full of love for Number 26 and Number 95, that Jack Lambert never needed costume department props to stage his iconic photo.

  • The “David” role suited the Steelers and Steelers Nation well.

But it also confronted some hard realities. In Super Bowl XXX team “David” came far closer to slaying team “Goliath” than anyone expected. But when David’s sling is quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Goliath has Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman as his sword, Goliath is going to win most of time, especially if David’s sling fires at the wrong team, twice.

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

Let’s be honest. The “David” complex led to a bit of self-righteousness on the part of Steelers Nation. Who didn’t snicker when Tom Donahoe waived off Eric Green and Woodson’s requests to return with his “Salvation Army” comment? I know I did.

Well, they defied gravity until they couldn’t. The Cowher-Donahoe dispute proved that, even if the Steelers do run one of the better, more people-friendly organizations in the NFL, they are not immune from the poisons of petty personnel disputes and ego clashes.

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

The fact that the Steelers were able to return to contender status so fast after the dark days of 1998 and 1999, attests to how well the organization was run. Yet, before the 21st century was even a half decade old, the Steelers had played two more AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh and lost both of them.

Players who could have, and should have helped bring One for the Thumb back to Pittsburgh, guys like Mark Bruener, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake gave way to players like Heath Miller, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, and yet the Super Bowl remained distant. To repeat:

  • To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them.

With passing article in the Cowher Years series, the feelings generated by those inopportune interceptions, blocked kicks, free agent departures, blown calls and those lost AFC Championships grew more acute.

And it reminded me of something my mother told me in 1980 when I was a 3rd grader complaining that the Steelers weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Here is her response:

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Ben Roethlisberger and Bill Cowher in the final moments of Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey, AP via The Athletic.

“If the Steelers won the Super Bowl every year, it wouldn’t be special.”

Mom was right, as she (almost) always is. By the mid 00s, instead of expecting a Super Bowl, many Steelers fans feared they’d never see one. Of course Dan Rooney steered Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And while Big Ben didn’t deliver in his first season, he did in his second.

Bill Cowher could finally make good on his promise to Dan Rooney. He brought home the 5th Lombardi.

And when it finally happened, one Steelers scribe had the maturity to appreciate just how special it was.

Thank you Bill. May your bust in Canton shine forever!

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy

We can be a better football team, I can be a better quarterback and not win 15 games…. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 games.” – Ben Roethlisberger August 2005

We would have no way of knowing it at the time, but Ben Roethlisberger was wise beyond his years. You could describe the Steelers 2004 season in many ways, but “Unplanned” might be the most accurate. After a 6-10, 2003 campaign, nothing was expected of the 2004 Steelers. And that was before they lost their starting quarterback.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 15 straight wins, until finally falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. To Bill Cowher the challenge was to keep maintain “that same look in our eye” now that expectations were high.

Expectations were high. In July none other than Art Rooney II declared “I think for the people who have been around for a while now, I think we all feel like it’s time. We’ve been close and we have to take that last step.”
In other words, “Win the Super Bowl” was the Steelers plan. Ironically, their ability to do that would hinge on their ability to improvise when things did not go as planned.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Retooled for a Run

By summer of 2005 the annual exoduses of free agents from Pittsburgh were fading from memory.

Sure the Steelers had lost free agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent, but Max Starks and Kendall Simmons were essentially upgrades. Chad Scott had gone too, but Ike Taylor was more than ready.

No one was sure, but Randle El was a proven player.

The Steelers also welcomed tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Most importantly, Jerome Bettis decided to return for one final shot at Super Bowl instead of retiring

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

When the Steelers arrived at St. Vincents Jerome Bettis passed out “Super Bowl XL Detroit: The Bus Stops” T-shirts. But all eyes were on Hines Ward’s hold out. Ward had a year on his contract. Dan Rooney did not negotiate with hold outs. He hadn’t made an exception for Franco Harris. Ward would be no different.

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward in the playoff win against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tony Tribble, AP via Al.com

But Dan Rooney felt this team had “…the closeness that brings championships” and didn’t want a money squabble poisoning camaraderie. With Jerome Bettis’s help, Rooney talked Hines Ward into reporting and delivered on his promise to treat him fairly.

Ward’s return was welcome in football terms too, because yellow flags flashed around both the Steelers running game and passing game during the 2005 preseason. The plan had been for Duce Staley to serve as the bell cow with Jerome Bettis as his backup.

  • But both Staley and Bettis had health issues during training camp. So Bill Cowher turned to Willie Parker, 2004’s preseason wonder.

Ben Roethlisberger had surprisingly struggled during the 2005 preseason, posting a 32.8 passer rating prompting Bill Cowher to confesses “I like this group of guys, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Was Willie Parker a legit starting running back? Would Roethlisberger prove to be a one-year-wonder? The Steelers were about to find out.

Season Opens as Planned, But NFL = “Not For Long….”

The 2005 Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to open the season. Willie Parker ran for 160 yards and 111 yards respectively, while Ben Roethlisberger had an average passer rating of 149.05. The Steelers would be alright with Ben and Willie.

The New England Patriots returned to Pittsburgh on week 3 left as victors yet again, after a 23-21 contest. Next the Steelers traveled to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, but it took a last second Jeff Reed field goal to get them there.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee during the game.

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

Outsiders have long questions the Steelers practice of keeping 3 quarterbacks but October 2005 would vindicate the franchise’s philosophy.

The Steelers would lose their next game as Tommy Maddox struggled all day, until finally throwing a pick six to Rashean Mathis in overtime.

Big Ben returned, and Pittsburgh rebounded for 2 more wins, but in the 2nd victory over the Ravens, but hetweaked his knee again. Worse yet, both Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis were down with injuries.

And the Steelers were traveling to Lambeau Field, one of the NFL’s most difficult venues to play in.

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

Troy Polamalu strip sacks Brett Favre. Photo Credit: John Biever, SI.com

Fortunately, Bill Cowher had flexibility at backup quarterback and started Charlie Batch started instead. He also had Duce Staley in his bullpen at running back.

  • Neither Duce nor Batch made any fantasy football owners happy that day.
  • Pittsburgh’s best“offensive” play was Troy Polamalu’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But that play, combined with just enough plays by Batch and Staley, put the Steelers over the top.

A week later, Charlie Batch did make a lot of plays in quarterbacking the Steelers to a 17-7 halftime lead, but unfortunately going into halftime he broke his finger during a QB sneak for a touchdown. Tommy Maddox struggled again, but midway through the 3rd quarter Ken Whisenhunt improvised by going to his bag of tricks, as Antwaan Randle El tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fake reverse to Hines Ward that all but iced the game.

Unfortunately, no such magic was on tap a week later as Maddox continued to struggle costing the Steelers an overtime loss, this time to the Ravens.

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

Ben Roethlisberger returned for a key Monday Night Football matchup against the 2005 undefeated Indianapolis Colts. While the Steelers kept it closer than the score indicates, the Colts won, 26-7.

That was perhaps to be expected. Ben Roethlisberger has typically struggled his first game back after an injury, and this was one of the games that set this trend. But the following week the Steelers came up short 38-31 to the Bengals, leaving Pittsburgh at 7-5 with a three-game distant second in the AFC North.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Bengals

  • A Post-Gazette photo caption went so far as to suggest that Jerome Bettis questioned his decision to return.

With his back to the wall, Bill Cowher called full pads for practice, something that was unheard of in mid-December. He did something equally meaningful in the meeting room. Cowher had always kept a white board filled with stats, facts and figures that he’d chart progress by updating throughout the season.

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

I had been there for 10 years and it’s something he did for a long time. It was always there. We come into the team meeting room and he erased all of it. We’re like, ‘Whoa, the season’s not over. We have four games left.’ And all he said was ‘Chicago. This is it. We’re not looking at all of it, just one game: Chicago.’

With 4 games left in the regular season, Bill Cowher had installed a playoff mindset in his team.
Cowher’s gambit worked.

The next week a 9-4 Chicago Bears team came to Heinz Field, and with Jerome Bettis leading the way in the snow, the Steelers dispatched the Bears 18-6. Next, the Steelers knocked off the Vikings on the road, then clobbered the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

Even though the Steelers still needed to win – and needed help going into the final game of the season, Bob Labriola concluded, “The playoffs are coming, and so are the Steelers.”

So there was no panic on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the Lions went up 14-7 in the final week of the season. The Steelers responded with 3 Jerome Bettis touchdowns and stopped a Lion’s comeback attempt with another touchdown to win 35-21.

The Steelers got the help they needed and were in the playoffs, but as the last seed in the AFC. No last seeded team had ever won a Super Bowl.

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

This suited Bill Cowher perfectly. Bill Cowher was a motivator, yet his repertoire of stories was limited. Veterans could often finish his speeches for him. .

When the playoffs arrived , Bill Cowher shocked his veterans by reminding them that people had told Christopher Columbus that he would sail off of the edge of the earth. Columbus persisted, discovering the New World.

As Bettis recounted to Ed Bouchette, “’My point is, don’t let history dictate your future, let your future make history.’”

  • History remembers the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals as a 31-17 blowout.

What it forgets is that, even after Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently knocked Carson Plamer from the game, Cincinnati managed to build up a 17-7 2nd quarter lead. The Steelers made it 17-14 before half time, but in the third quarter the Bengals marched directly toto the Steelers 15.

There punter Kyle Larson tried to run bumbled field goal attempt, fumbled and lost 20 yards in the process. As Mike Pruista of the Tribune-Review observed, at this point Cincinnati’s playoff inexperience grabbed them by the throat and never let go.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting with Cedrick Wilson on a flea flicker to go up 28-17, the Pittsburgh was playing with Cincinnati.

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

The only thing missing from the legend of Steelers-Colts 2005 AFC Divisional is narration by the late John Facenda.

The 2005 Colts had been perfect, only losing because they rested starters. The tragic suicide of Tony Dungy’s son had the rest of the league pulling for them. The 2005 Steelers, in contrast, had been anything but perfect.

  • Yet, for the first 3 quarters the Steelers had been absolutely perfect in this game.

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Colts, 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs

Troy Polamalu’s should have been interception. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Tory Polamalu had a game-sealing interception overturned, which to Colts used to narrow the score to 21-18. Two series later, Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Peyton Manning on 4th and 6, giving the Steelers the ball on the Colt’s 2. Gary Brackett ended Jerome Bettis’ touchdown attempt with a fumble, and only Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle saved the day.

  • What everyone remembers after that was Mike Vanderjet’s missed 46-yard field goal.

But Steelers rookie Bryant McFadden authored the critical play on that series. Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone and delivered the ball perfectly. McFadden squared his shoulders, and deflected the pass in what was the best play of his 7 year NFL career.

Perfection fought with imperfection in Indianapolis, and it was an unheralded rookie who swing the balance to the Steelers, sending them to the AFC Championship.

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

By the time he traveled to Denver on January 22nd 2006, Bill Cowher had coached in 5 AFC Championships with Jerome Bettis playing in three of those. All of those had been at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Cowher had lost 5 of 6 and Bettis all three.

  • If playing at home wasn’t the problem, perhaps getting away from Pittsburgh was part of the solution.

Jerome Bettis grew up in Detroit and he’d never won a championship. The night before the game, he implored his teammates: “Take me home! Take me home.”
The Broncos never had a chance.

Sure, rookie wide receiver Nate Washington turned into a defensive back to make a heads up play to stop a would have been game-changing interception. But that’s precisely the point. Championship teams find ways to make those plays.

When all was said and done, Joey Porter logged a sack, backup lineman Brett Keisel made 2, Larry Foote had an interception, and the Steelers completely neutered the Broncos “Zone Rushing” attack.

On offense, Cedric Wilson, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis all found the end zone, while Jeff Reed kicked 2 field goals. By the time Ben Roethlisberger rushed for the final score, it really was an insurance touchdown.

  • But the most telling moment of the game came on the sideline.

As Bill Cowher faced Dan and Art Rooney II, shaking hands, his left-hand index finger was raised to form the numeral 1 and he was clearly mouthing, “We’ve still got 1 more game to play!”

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

You can win Super Bowls several ways. You can dominate out of the gate as the Steelers did to the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Two fantastic franchises can go toe-to-toe with the best one eking out a win as the Steelers and the Cowboys did in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. You can make up for inferior talent by outfoxing your opened with better coaching as the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.

Every coach plans to dominate, probably expects to go toe-to-toe and likely falls back on outfoxing his opponent. But of none of those work one other option remains:

  • Create your own opportunities.

And that’s the route the Steelers took in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XL, but their offense was stuck in 2nd gear for most of the first half. In fact, Seattle held a 3-0 lead for most of the first 30 minutes.

So the Steelers did what they’d done so well all year long – improvise.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger was nervous and not playing well. After trying, and failing to connect with Hines Ward through the air, Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him in a reverse. Ward picked up 18 yards. The Steelers didn’t score on that drive, but on the next one they darted around the backfield buying time as Ward made a 37 yard catch that brought the Steelers to the Seahawks 3.

  • When two Jerome Betis runs didn’t get it done, Roethlisberger ran it in himself.

Save the whining Seahawks fans. Sure, the replay is hardly “indisputable,” but the referee who was standing right there had a far better view than the camera angle and he called it a touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt I
If the Steelers offense had been stalled in the first half, their play calling had forced the Seahawks to adjust their formations, just as Pittsburgh’s coaches expected, as recounted by Alan Faneca in Jim Wexell’s:

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

That wasn’t “just” a 75 yard run for a touchdown, it was an remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

Ike Taylor
Ben Roethlsiberger would turn over the ball on the Steelers next possession with Kelly Herndon returning it 76 yards. The Seahawks took 4 plays to score. Four series later, Seattle was at it again, driving to Pittsburgh’s 27 yard line, threating to score.

Ike Taylor was a great cornerback who couldn’t hold on to the ball. He had 17 interceptions, regular season and playoffs combined, in his entire 12-year career. Dwayne Woodruff also played 12 years and had 37 in the regular season alone.

  • Matt Hasselbeck thought he had Darrell Jackson open at the five.

Ike Taylor thought better of it, intercepted the ball and returned it 24 yards. Ike didn’t pick off too many passes in his career. But he sure made this one count.

Ken Whisenhunt II
The Steelers got the ball at midfield. A mix and match of runs and short passes earned a first down. Then Ken Whisenhunt went for the knockout punch. Ben Roethlisberger handed to Willie Parker. Parker tossed it to Antwaan Randle El. Randle El kept running his reverse. Ben Roethlisberger threw a block. Hines Ward got open. Randle El released.

The Steelers went up 21-10

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

Dicky LeBeau
Seattle still had time. They got the ball back. They advanced to midfield. The Steelers held them, forcing a third down with 8 yards to go. Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass. Deshea Townsend came out of nowhere sacking Hasselbeck and forcing a punt.

  • Dick LeBeau’s blitz was a new one, one he’d improvised and installed the night before.

The Steelers fed the ball to Jerome Bettis 7 times on their next 8 plays. Seattle got the ball back but it was too little too late – they turned over on downs.

  • With 3 seconds separating the Steelers from One for the Thumb, Ben Roethlisberger took a final knee.

Minutes later Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher took tie dais together. Bettis declared “The Bus stops here.”

Bill Cowher finally did what he returned to Pittsburgh to do: He handed Dan Rooney his 5th Lombardi Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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