Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

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.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships

People forget but controversy shrouded Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Kevin Colbert in February 2000.

The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.

As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)

But defying the conventional wisdom turned out to be the wise move, as it was with some many of the key decisions Dan Rooney made while running the Steelers.

  • Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”

The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.

Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.

Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.

  • While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.

This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.

  • And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.

That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.

Why where the Steelers of the ‘90’s contenders while the Steelers of the 00’s were Champions in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII?

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.

  • Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.

He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.

  • Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.

But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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Would the Rooney Rule Keep the Steelers from Firing Mike Tomlin? Don’t be Absurd

Last Monday, I was doing my podcast for Behind The Steel Curtain, when some joker came into the live chat and wrote something along the lines of: “The Steelers can’t fire Tomlin because of a race quota.”
  • Then, he went on to say a bunch of racist things before being kicked out of the conversation.
Friday night, I was out at a local establishment, waiting for a personal pizza I just ordered and having a drink while I watched the University of Pittsburgh defeat Syracuse. As I was getting annoyed with Pitt’s ongoing habit of almost blowing substantial leads, I overheard a conversation between the bartender and a couple of gents from the Washington D.C. area. They were discussing Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and the rumors surrounding the interest Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder may have in him as his next full-time head coach. The gents from D.C., not fans of Snyder at all considering the number of four-letter words they used to describe what he’s done to the once great Redskins franchise, were amazed and excited about these rumors they hadn’t actually heard up until then.
Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Would the Rooney Rule keep Art Rooney II from firing Mike Tomlin? Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

When they asked the bartender about his thoughts on Mike Tomlin, he wasn’t over the top critical, but he did suggest that the coach’s time and message may have expired in Pittsburgh. But he also said — and this is what inspired me to write this here article — “You see, the Steelers really can’t fire Tomlin because of the Rooney Rule, but if they trade him, it really won’t look so bad.” I was going to pipe up and tell him how foolish that thought-process was, but I didn’t want harm to come to my late-night dinner.
  • Besides, what good would it have done?
I’ve sat and listened to many people say the same thing over the years about how Art Rooney II, the team president and majority owner, is constrained by the Rooney Rule, a policy championed in the early-2000s by his legendary father and former team owner, the late Dan Rooney, requiring all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for vacant coaching jobs.
  • The sentiment held by many is that if the Steelers fire Tomlin, they would look like hypocrites…or worse.
First of all, this ignores the indisputable fact that Tomlin, who was named the Steelers new head coach in 2007 following the resignation of Bill Cowher, wasn’t a Rooney Rule hire. How do I know this? The late Mr. Rooney said so many times.
Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

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

Yet, people continue to gloss over that very important nugget for some reason. That’s right, Dan Rooney, one of the most influential owners in NFL history, a man who was universally respected among his peers for helping turn the league into the billion-dollar business it is today, made sound decisions on just about everything….except that time he hired the black coach.
  • That was only done for reasons to do with race.
  • And, again, that’s why, according to so many, Tomlin could never, ever be fired. It would just look so darn bad.
Please. So, the Steelers, one of the most successful and popular sports franchises on the planet — an organization that became such a marquee name because of getting it right on so many pivotal decisions — is now reduced to saving face for the sake of a rule that is named after Dan Rooney?
  • That’s just silly and a bit disrespectful to Dan, his son, everyone involved with the Steelers.
Think about it. If the Steelers really were that concerned about the Rooney Rule and their public image, why wouldn’t they just go out and hire another African American to be their next head coach? After all, as this rule has helped to reveal over the past 15 years or so, there are certainly many qualified minority candidates, people who are now frequently hired as head coaches and coordinators based on merit.
  • They’re also frequently fired based on merit.
Race isn’t so much an issue anymore when it comes to head coaches in the National Football League. That is what Dan Rooney wanted when he championed this interview policy in the first place. To be clear, the rule doesn’t mandate that minorities be hired for vacant coaching positions. It mandates that they be given an opportunity to be interviewed. The Steelers are in the business of winning football games and championships. They’re not in the business of saving face due to things like the Rooney Rule. If and when it becomes obvious that Mike Tomlin shouldn’t remain as head coach, the Steelers will do what they’ve always done.
  • And that’s what’s best for business.
To think anything else is just absurd.

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Steelers Trading Mike Tomlin to the Redskins is Crazy. Or Is It….?

If there’s one thing Pittsburgh Steelers fans hate more than a 1-4 start, it’s head coach Mike Tomlin.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, fans want to blame him for the team’s failures. That is certainly understandable right now, and those #FireTomlin hashtags have no doubt multiplied in numbers over the past few weeks, thanks to a horrible start to the 2019 season that has been aided greatly by the year-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Without No. 7 around to pick up so much of the slack, every coaching decision is magnified (see the intercepted Wildcat pass from the 12 yard line.)

And when you’re only winning 20 percent of your games, the people aren’t going to like what they see when they look under the microscope.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Redskins, FedEx Field 2016

Might Mike Tomlin don the sidelines at FedEx Field on a regular basis? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

This is going to be the greatest coaching challenge of Tomlin’s career, and trust me, few fans are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is (Devlin Hodges will start in place of the concussed Mason Rudolph as the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers on Sunday Night Football). It doesn’t matter how badly injuries have compromised his roster. If the 2019 regular season continues on its current downward trajectory, Steelers fans will put 100 percent of the blame on Tomlin’s shoulders and will want him gone.

  • Might Steelers fans get their wish this time? 

The Redskins, off to an 0-5 start, fired Jay Gruden last Monday, and almost immediately, rumors began to surface that Daniel Snyder, the team’s “Boy Billionaire” owner who Myron Cope once suggested should go stick his head in a can of paint, was extremely interested in Mike Tomlin as his team’s next full-time head coach.

That wouldn’t happen in the immediate future, of course, not unless the Steelers fire Tomlin mid-season, which would be extremely out of character for them. And with the way the Rooney family has treated its head coaches over the past 50 years, it’s unlikely that the likely first losing season of Tomlin’s tenure would lead Art II to consider a change at head coach.

  • But maybe Art Rooney II doesn’t have to fire Mike Tomlin.

Maybe they don’t have to deal with the ugliness of terminating a man who has won more consistently than any Steelers coach ever has over his first 12 seasons.

Mike Tomlin signed a one-year extension with the Steelers this past summer, which was a departure from the past, when the team would always give its head coaches two-year extensions. This quickly led to speculation that the organization wasn’t too pleased with Tomlin’s performance in recent years.

It’s certainly no secret that some minority Steelers owners aren’t the biggest Tomlin supporters, and when you couple that with the one-year deal, maybe the Rooneys are starting to consider another direction for the franchise.

But replacing a head coach is a messy process, especially for a team like the Steelers that hasn’t actually had to do it for over five decades — Chuck Noll retired in 1992; and Bill Cowher resigned in 2007.

And both of those were voluntary changes. The last time the Steelers fired a head coach was when Dan Rooney let Bill Austin go in late 1968, before man had even walked on the moon. 

However, if the Steelers can trade Tomlin’s rights to the Redskins for, say, a premium draft choice, that might be a different story. It’s no secret that Snyder isn’t afraid to over-spend for players and coaches, and while it seems ludicrous that he would part with a 2020 first-round pick that will surely be in the top five, you just never know with that boy billionaire owner.

It’s hard to say where these rumors started, but even though Tomlin dismissed them at his weekly press conference last Tuesday, they will likely persist until the Redskins hire a new head coach (veteran Bill Callahan was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season).

  • As for Steelers fans, these rumors are the kind of red meat they need right now.

1-4 starts are no fun for anyone, especially fans who love their football team as much as Steelers fans do. Steelers faithful need a distraction. They need something else to focus on besides the failures of the football team.

For some, the dismissal of Mike Tomlin as head coach has been something of a crusade since shortly after Super Bowl XLIII, when he supposedly won a championship with Bill Cowher’s players. (Why don’t we ever ask why Kevin Colbert only wins Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s players…? Just Say’in.)

When it comes to Mike Tomlin, one has to wonder where his mind is at right now. Despite his rough exterior and macho persona, the man is a human being. Fact is, he’s never been fully embraced by a large segment of the Steelers fan base. You can draw your own conclusions as to why, but that is a fact.

  • Does he want to stay in a city that has so much disdain for him?

Do you think he’s sick of hearing that he won a Super Bowl with another coach’s players? Do you think he’d relish the kind of autonomy he’d likely have in Washington, which would be a departure from the democracy that the Steelers organization has always been (even under The Emperor Noll)?

  • Do you think he’d feel flattered by the kind of money Daniel Snyder would no doubt throw at him?

Daniel Snyder isn’t an easy man to work for, and the Redskins, a once-proud franchise, have been an ongoing joke for a very long time. But money talks. Also, Mike Tomlin, like most head coaches, has a huge ego. You don’t think he’d like the challenge of turning the Redskins around? He wouldn’t have to deal with the criticisms of those who think he only benefited from the furniture that the last tenant left behind.

It would be his show. It would be his vision.

  • And for many Steelers fans, it would be a new era in Pittsburgh, one that they’ve been calling for for many years.

“It all starts with the coaches,” many fans are fond of saying. And, for so many, it begins and ends with the head coach. It’s never the players fault. The other team gets no credit.

If you have the right man in place, you’ll win. (Never mind that, when asked about the Steelers remarkable run of success since 1969, Dan Rooney always insisted that it started with the players.) 

According to many Tomlin critics, he’s never been the right man for the Steelers head coaching job.

  • Maybe the Rooneys are starting to feel the same way. Maybe Tomlin is, too.

Right now the tea leaf reading from several of the team’s most trusted beat writers, you know, guys who actually know and talk to the people whose opinions count on a regular if not daily basis, are telling us that the rumors are ridiculous. 

But come early January, Steelers Nation will find out if those rumors about Mike Tomlin to the Washington Redskins aren’t so crazy, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

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

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

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

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

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

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Blame, and Not Blame Tomlin For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson Bill Belichick Left from Cleveland

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Coaches’ Turning Points Past

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

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Has Mike Tomlin already begun reasserting control?

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

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

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Post Immaculate Reception Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers

The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.

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

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

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

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

steelers fans, maryland, dinos, aspen hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “Dick, don’t over coach him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation

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

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

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

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

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