Steelers Summer Reading Poll: Michael MacCambridge Finds Lots of Love; Jim O’Brien? Not So Much

As the Steelers approach the mid-point in their 2017 preseason campaign, its time to check in on the results of our Steelers Summer Reading Poll.

We launched the poll back in June, with the aim of serving a precursor to a series of full-length book reviews a good chunk of the books mentioned in the poll. The idea was to fill the Dead Zone in Steelers coverage with in depth discussion of some of the better books written about the franchise we all love.

Alas, the individual book reviews never came, but you can read capsule profiles of most of the books listed in our poll.

Chucky Noll biography, Art Rooney Sr. Biography, Steelers books, Steelers summer reading

Biographies of Chucky Noll and Art Rooney Sr. bookend our Steelers Summe Reading Poll

A quick look at the results thus far reveals two observations – There’s a lot of love for Michael MacCambridge’s authorized biography of Chuck Noll; not so much for the work of Jim O’Brien.

Since first posting the poll, yours truly has had a chance to read MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work cover-to-cover, and this is one book that has truly earned every word of praise that has been heaped upon it. Was there ever a football coach less interested in promoting himself than Chuck Noll? Probably not. That didn’t make MacCambridge easy, but he tackled it with the effectiveness of Joe Greene participating in his first training camp Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincent’s.

While we’re at it, let’s add in a good word for Jim O’Brien. It’s true that his books aren’t as well known, and perhaps come across as collections of individual essays or profiles, but O’Brien clearly understand the Pittsburgh Steelers organization and culture, and he conveys that in his writing. And his books contain valuable insights into Rod Woodson’s departure from the team, Dan Rooney’s relationship with Al Davis, and much, much more.

Their Life’s Work, Gary Pomerantz is also finding a lot of love, not unsurprisingly, as are the books authored by Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Jr., as is Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which was a write in entry.

After that, it is a mixed bag, as you can see for yourself (scroll down, and click on view results):

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 05-28-2017 01:04:27
end_date 09-05-2017 09:22:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers book(s) do you recommend for 2017 summer reading (multiple votes encouraged)

Myron Cope’s Double Yoi, Jim Wexell’s Steeler Nation, and Steelers Take Aways, another write in, are showing respectably, but after that pickings get pretty slim.

To that end, we’ll had add a quick clarification. Our recap of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel read like this:

Men of Steel by Jim Wexell contains capsule profiles of Pittsburgh Steelers from the Mike Tomlin era all the way back to portraits of men who played for the likes of Jock Sutherland and Walt Kiesling. While the book’s overall quality does take a hit due to some surprising factual errors, its individual portraits form veritable mosaic that depicts franchise as a whole.

Men of Steel by Jim WexellWhen Jim Wexell read this, he inquired as to what the errors were, which led to some back and forth with the author. While I’ll stand by my initial assessment of the book, I will also emphasize that the book’s strength’s certainly outweigh any weaknesses, as any book that pieces together a cohesive narrative encompassing the likes of Lynn Chandnois, Jack Butler, Dick Hoak, Jack Lambert (yes, Wexell scored a rare interview with Lambert), Dwayne Woodruff, Bubby Brister, Kevin Greene, Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger (among others) would.

Which isn’t to say that these are the only books worth investing the time to read. From Dawn of a New Steel Age, to the Ones that Hit the Hardest, to the other books mention, there’s something their for Steelers fans of any era to enjoy.

So take time out and vote for your favorites and do it quickly as we’ll be closing the poll before the sun sets on the summer, hopefully making way for a fall and winter that sees the Steel Curtain Rise once again!

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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles

The lackluster loss to the Lions started the Steelers 2016 preseason campaign. Steelers Nation is already weighing poor performances from the likes of Alejandro Villanueva and Sammie Coates along with the poor tackling against solid play by the likes of Daryl Richardson, Landry Jones and Doran Grant.

  • Both sides of the discussion will punctuate their arguments with “Its only preseason.”

And rightly so. Steelers preseason results seldom indicate much about the coming regular season, and that’s even when stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are in the game.

But Steelers history also shows us that exceptions do exist. Click below for 5 times when preseason troubles signaled regular season Steelers stumbles.

Pittsburgh Steelers, steelers vs. lions preseason, Shamarko Thomas

Shamarko Thomas drops a should be interception in Steelers preseason loss to Lions; Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1. 1990 – Steelers Tread Treacherous Terrain of Walton’s Mountain

One surprise following the 1989 Steelers story book season was Chuck Noll’s decision, under pressure from the front office, to dismiss Tom Moore and hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator. On paper, the move looked smart. Walton’s offensive mind was well-regarded throughout the league.

  • The reality was something different.

In an August preseason game vs. the Washington Redskins, (yours truly’s first pro football game) the Steelers offense played dazed and confused, as Bubby Brister, Rick Strom and Randy Wright combined for 148 yards, most of which was gained during the game’s final two minutes. Afterwards, Chuck Noll opined that the only place the Steelers offense had to was up….

The 1990 Steelers opened the season without scoring an offensive touchdown during September.
Although the offense did find some rhythm in the middle of 1990, missed opportunities, misused personnel and miscommunication ultimately characterized Joe Walton’s tenure as Steelers offensive coordinator.

2. 1995 Bam is No Barry

Injuries, attitude and declining production prompted Pittsburgh to part ways with one-time franchise running back Barry Foster in the 1995 off season. The emergence of Bam Morris in 1994 made the Steelers decision much easier.

  • Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak raved about Morris during training camp.

But the truth is, Bam Morris’ preseason performances were forgettable.

Statistics are not easily available from those preseason contests. The record shows that Bam Morris did run well vs. the Bills in the Steelers first outing, going 4 for 24, but he went 7 of 16 in the next.

The latter performance telegraphed Bam Morris’ lack luster start to the 1995 season, where he just barely averaged over 3 yards a carry during the seasons first seven games, before Bill Cowher benched him in favor of Erric Pegram, who was an unsung hero of the 1995 AFC Championship season.

3. 1996 3 Headed Quarterback Derby Spins Its Wheels

When Neil O’Donnell departed after Super Bowl XXX the Steelers opted to promote from within as Bill Cowher held a three way quarterback competition in training camp between Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart.

Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers quarterbacks 1990's, steelers preseason quarterbacks, bill cowher quarterback competition

Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart quarterbacked the Steelers in the mid-late 1990’s. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

  • The Steelers meticulously split time between the three quarterbacks, down to ensure equal practice snaps.

Bill Cowher hopped that one man would establish himself.

Unfortunately none did. Bill Cowher declared Jim Miller the starter just before the regular season, but clarified he was making a gut decision. Cowher didn’t trust his gut that much, as Jim Miller’s time as the Steelers starting quarterback lasted all of one half, as Cowher benched him in favor of Mike Tomczak.

While Tomczak led the 1996 Steelers to a 10-6 record and an AFC Central Championship, by the time December arrived it was clear that Tomczak wasn’t going to take the Steelers on a deep playoff run as Bill Cowher began to give Kordell Stewart time, who also wasn’t ready to be a signal caller.

4. 1998 Steelers Lost without John Jackson

John Jackson got blown away in the final preseason game of the 1988 season, infuriating Chuck Noll so much that the Emperor had to be talked out of cutting him. Fortunately Noll listened to his assistants, as John Jackson would be a mainstay at left tackle for the Steelers for the next decade.

But when John Jackson reached free agency at age 32 in 1997 and the San Diego Chargers offered to make Jackson the highest paid offensive lineman in the league, the Steelers said so long.

  • It was a wise move, and the Steelers had invested heavily in drafting offensive lineman to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of them were up to the task. Bill Cowher tried various combinations at both tackle positions throughout the preseason as Jerome Bettis struggled to finding holes. Finally, Cowher moved Will Wolford to left tackle, slide Justin Strzelczyk to right tackle, and the offensive line was OK, until Strzelczyk got injured in a Monday night contest vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

Jamain Stephens, 1996’s first round draft pick, finally got his chance to start, but the image of Bettis lighting into Stephens for not blocking well enough is the enduring memory of his tenure at right tackle.

It wouldn’t be until 2000 that the Steelers restored stability to left tackle, and their entire offensive line, but the troubles the Steelers experienced during their 1998 preseason campaign foreshadowed it all.

5. 2013 0-4 Preseason Foreshadows 0-4 Steelers Start

Look at the Steelers preseason results from 2007 to 2012 and there’s one constant X-1. The Steelers never lost more than a single game in preseason, irrespective if they finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs or playing in the Super Bowl.

  • Then came the Steelers 2013 preseason campaign.

For the first time in the Mike Tomlin era and the first time since Bill Cowher’s final season, the Steelers laid a goose egg in preseason. Commentator’s cautioned “Its only preseason” and Mike Tomlin explained the losses away, indicating that the men largely responsible for those losing efforts would find themselves on the waiver wire.

  • And they did. But those preseason losses also revealed the limits of the Steelers depth.

Depth that injuries to the starting running back, the two chief backup running backs, two starting tight ends, starting center, starting cornerback, and starting inside linebacker would test to the limit. The end result was the Steelers 0-4 start after an embarrassing loss in London to the Vikings.

In 2014 and 2015 the Steelers went 1-3 and 1-4 in the preseason, yet finished in the playoffs both times, so the “its only preseason” credo held true then. But 2013 was one year when piss-poor preseason performance signaled real trouble, at least at the start of the season.

 

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Steelers Validate Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s Commitment to Fairness with Brandon Johnson Signing

Mike Tomlin has vowed numerous times to “Leave no loose stone unturned” in his effort to improve whatever ails the Pittsburgh Steelers. The aftermath of Steelers decision to cut Shuan Suisham’s illustrates just how serious Tomlin takes his own words.

  • To fill Shaun Suisham’s spot, the Steelers signed Penn State’s Brandon Johnson, he of 4 carries to his NCAA rushing resume.
steelers, rookie, 90th roster spot, brandon johnson, penn state, running backs, undrafted rookie free agents

One of Brandon Johnson’s four carries while @ Penn State; Photo Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

One benefit to such late roster moves is Steelers Nation REALLY knows who is the 90th man on the roster. The Steelers invited Brandon Johnson to their rookie tryout camp, and while the Steelers cut Rajion Neal and Christian Powell, they replaced them with Cameron Stingily and Brandon Brown-Dukes leaving Brandon Johnson on the outside looking in.

  • Now Brandon Johnson has a shot at his NFL dream, however slim it might be.

When one things of unheralded, rookie free agent running backs names like Willie Parker or Gary Russell come to mind (even if Russell didn’t come to the Steelers as a true UDFA.) When Willie Parker proved he belong in the NFL, fans wondered why he didn’t play more for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But Parker logged 285 carries at Chapel Hill. Gary Russell only played two years in college, but the Minnesota Gophers trusted him enough to put the ball in his hands 210 times.

  • In contrast, Brandon Johnson got carries in two games, and turned his 4 carries into 23 yards.

The website Go PSU Sports further informs us that the former walk-on Brandon Johnson appeared 19 games total, almost all on special teams. Jacob Klinger of Penn Live reports that his measurable from Penn State’s Pro Day were 4.43 40-yard dash and vertical jumped 39 inches.

  • No matter how you look at it, Brandon Johnson’s pedigree is thin.

The fact that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin filled an unexpected roster vacancy with a running back is no confidence, given the Steelers lack at running back behind Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

But the Steelers Brandon Johnson signing really does represent a “loose stone turn over signing” much like Donald Washington’s does. (The Steelers signed “veteran cornerback Donald Washington, who has been out of the NFL since 2011 and only played a handful of snaps in the CFL since then.)

Past Steelers Running Backs from Penn State

It says here if Brandon Johnson gets a couple of carries late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers first preseason game, he will have beaten the odds. Still the fact that he has a pre-training camp roster spot means that Bradon Johnson has a chance of being the first Nittany Lion running back to play for the Steelers since fullback Jon Witman made the team in 1996.

Witman was preceded by Leroy Thompson, who was drafted by Chuck Noll in 1991. And of course Thompson followed in the footsteps of two other Penn State greats, Franco Harris and Dick Hoak.

  • Judged by yards gained, the fortunes of Penn State running backs with the Steelers are on a downward trend…

Don’t expect Brandon Johnson to break the trend, but Todd Haley and James Saxon will give this latest loose stone a fair shot at trying.

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DeAngelo Williams Needs More Carries – For the Sake of Le’Veon Bell’s Durability

In his weekly press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley confirmed that he wants to get DeAngelo Williams the ball more. That is a refreshing sign because DeAngelo Williams needs more carries.

  • That might seem odd given that Le’Veon Bell has close to 300 yards from scrimmage in just two games.

But in this case counter intuition wins the day. DeAngelo Williams needs more carries precisely because Le’Veon Bell is such a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers need to keep him that way. Le’Veon Bell is entering his third year as a starter. While that doesn’t sound like much, the truth is that he he’s already reaching the point where most NFL running backs are done.

Depending on whether you believe the NFLPA or the NFL owners, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years or about 6 years. But the average running back only plays for 3.1 years, by far the shortest in of any NFL position group.

nfl running backs, average career length, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams

The average career of an NFL running back is 3.11 years. Le’Veon Bell is already in his third year….

Those statistics are not encouraging.

The Myth of the Durable Steelers Running Back

While the short self-life of NFL running backs is nothing new, the rise of saber metrics and fantasy football has brought the issue into much closer focus. Art Rooney II once declared that running the football was “the foundation of the franchise.” No team has rushed for more yards since the NFL-AFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • At first glance, it might seem that Pittsburgh bucks the tradition and durable Steelers running backs are the norm.

After all, Hall of Famers Franco Harris played for 12 years and Jerome Bettis played for 10 years in Pittsburgh. Rocky Bleier played for 11 years, Dick Hoak played for 10 years, Frank Pollard played for 9 years and Merril Hoge played for 7 years.

  • Alas, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs are no more durable than the rest of the NFL’s.

In 1992 when Cowher Power was taking the NFL by storm on the back of Barry Foster’s franchise record breaking season, Bill Cowher once joked that they’d run Foster until “parts of his body came falling off.” That’s pretty close to what happened. After rushing for over 2000 yards from scrimmage in 1992, Foster’s productivity dramatically dropped off in 1993 and by 1994 he was done.

  • Willie Parker was a little more durable, rushing for 3 straight 1000 yard seasons before injuries began to take their toll.

One of the differences between the other running backs mentioned here and Willie Parker, is that Harris, Bleier, Hoak, Pollard, Hoge and, to some extent, Bettis, all had strong number two backs to help them split the load.

The Case for Giving DeAngelo Williams 5 Carries a game

The nature of the running back position in the NFL has twisted in turned since the NFL merger. Most people fail to realize that Franco Harris was listed as a fullback on Chuck Noll’s depth chart. The position hardly exists today, but it thrived in Harris day in part because most NFL teams field twin backfield sets where both backs got carries.

  • The trend continued in one form or another during the 80’s, but began to change in the 1990’s.

While this dates me, during the 1990’s it became common to look at the Monday morning box scores and see a single running back getting the lion’s share if not all of a team’s carries. Running back by committee seems to be more in vogue these days as the concept of a “franchise running back” is all but extinct.

  • A player of Le’Veon Bell’s caliber could change that, however.

But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.)

  • The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

This of course sounds nice in theory, but it can be difficult to implement in practice. Last year against the Titans, Bell showed he was capable of taking over a game, and you don’t sit a running back when he’s in the zone.

And there’s no assurance it will work even if the Steelers can find a way to get Williams on the field. Mike Tomlin used Isaac Redman to spell Rashard Mendenhall in 2010 and 2011, but Mendenhall was essentially done after 2012. But the Steelers were right to try then, and they’d be right to ensure DeAngelo gets his carries in 2015.

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Watch Tower: Is Mike Tomlin’s Personnel Decision Making Authority Less than Thought?

Just how much authority does Mike Tomlin have on Pittsburgh Steelers personnel decisions?

  • Fans debate this question tooth and nail, but the irony is that, most in Steelers Nation lack any insight whatsoever into how much sway Tomlin holds in personnel decisions.

The Colbert-Tomlin drafts clearly have a different character than the Colbert-Cowher drafts. Mike Tomlin’s thumbprints were all over the arrivals of Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum in 2007 and Mewelde Moore in 2008. But beyond that, the public knows little of how big of a seat Tomlin holds in Pittsburgh’s personnel pow-wows.

Until now.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Dani Bostic recently caught up with Isaac Redman, he of “Redzone Redman” fame and stumbled across a potentially earth shaking insight into Tomlin’s authority over personnel matters.

After detailing the nature of Redman’s injury, and the team’s seeming unwillingness to take it seriously, Redman dropped the following bombshell on Bostic:

Mike Tomlin caught up to him as the star running back was leaving for his appointment. “We’re going to release you. I tried fighting for you,” Tomlin said. Redman was stunned, even more so when he realized they were releasing him healthy instead of putting him on the injured reserve where he could have continued to receive a paycheck. [Emphasis added]

There are two ways to take Tomlin’s admission that he tried in vain to fight for Redman:

It it could be simple coach speak, and an attempt to soften the impact of bearing bad news by implying that responsibility lie elsewhere. That’s certainly plausible.

But it is equally possible that Tomlin really did wish to retain Redman, but got overruled. And there is precedent here. Shortly before the 2013 season the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly lobbed this grenade regarding Jonathan Dwyer’s getting cut:

Regardless, between Kaboly’s Tweet and Dani Bostic’s story on Redman, we now have two documented cases of players being released over the objections of coaches in 2013.

We also know that this is a sharp contrast from the days when Bill Cowher wore the headset. Shortly after Jerome Bettis published The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola quickly debunked one of Bettis chief revelations – namely that Jon Witman had edged out Tim Lester at fullback because like Witman, Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak had gone to Penn State.

Bettis was wrong, as Labriola insisted, because Bill Cowher had say over those types of personnel matters and wasn’t shy about reminding people.

  • At the very least, it would seem that Mike Tomlin does not wield that kind of clout.

None of this suggests that Mike Tomlin is either a pushover or is powerless when it comes to personnel decisions. In fact, it is well documented that when the Patriots offered Emmanuel Sanders a restricted free agent tender, the front office was content to take the 3rd round draft pick and let Sanders walk, but the coaches pushed back and won the day.

  • But it underlines the reality that the dynamics behind the Steelers personnel decisions remain a mystery.

As the Watch Tower commends Dani Bostic on her scoop, it again encourages the credentialed members of the Steelers press corps to lift the lid on how Steelers personnel decisions are made.

Coolong Joins Kovacevic @ DK on Pittsburgh Sports

As the Steelers roster goes, so goes the press room? It certainly seems that way. The Steelers have experienced tremendous roster turnover over the past few seasons, and the press room appears to be catching up.

As the Watch Tower has noted, first Alan Robinson and then Scott Brown disappeared from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and ESPN.com beats. Moreover, both men’s disappearance was Stalin-like in passing, as no announcement was ever made – both men simply stopped contributing.

  • However, their seats will not get cold anytime soon.

Neal Coolong, formerly of Behind the Steel Curtain, and more recently USA Today’s Steelers Wire, has joined Dejan Kovacevic at DK on Pittsburgh Sports. This is Coolong’s second move in only the space of a few months, but this is a definite step up the professional ladder, as Coolong finally has credentials, and will cover the Steelers on a daily basis (full disclosure, yours truly is a friend of Coolong’s and who has been a strong supporter of Steel Curtain Rising in general and the Watch Tower specifically.)

On his website Dejan Kovacevic explained the decision to add Coolong to his team:

He’s a gifted, prolific and richly communicative writer, very much in the spirit we’re trying to establish at our site. And he’s got all the news sense and aggressiveness any reader would want in a beat writer.

The Watch Tower agrees and offers its congratulations to its friend Coolong and wishes him the best.

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14 Reasons to Put Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame in 2014

It is time to induct Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

By all rights, Bettis should have been a first ballot Hall of Fame selection.

Yet he undoubtedly suffered from the fact that fellow Pittsburgh Steeler Rod Woodson was selected the year before and at a time when Dermontti Dawson’s candidacy was gaining momentum.

  • They can deny it all they want, but a “We already have too many Steelers” mentality dominates the much NFL Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

Case in point, Steve Tasker, who was a special teams demon and little more gets serious consideration, yet L.C. Greenwood who had more sacks than Joe Greene remains ignored.

Fortunately the selection committee isn’t ignoring Bettis, nor should they, they just haven’t selected him. That needs to change, and it must change now.

14 Reasons to Induct Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame in 2014

1 – No other NFL player carried the moniker “The Bus.” While he was nibble on his feet, Bettis was a bruiser, one rare running who dragged defenders with him.
2 – In two seasons following his 30th birthday, Bettis led the Steelers in rushing as a non-starter.
3 – His 3.9 yards per carry average supposedly works against him. 41 yards would bring Bettis average up to 4.0. What about all those 1 yard touchdown runs or 3rd and inches conversions? You want those or 41 more garbage yards?
4 – Bettis made four Pro Bowl appearances as a Steeler.
5 – QB’s started for the Steelers during his tenure. Of those he essentially carried, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Kent Graham and helped nursemaid Ben Roethlisberger
6 – Only six rushers are above him on the NFL’s all time list.
7Franco Harris, who is already in the Hall of Fame sits right below Bettis’ spot on the All Time list at number 7. How can you out gain the author of the Immaculate Reception and not be in the Hall of Fame?
8 – The Bus posted 8 1000 yard plus season in his career, and was only a hair short in two others.
9 – There are NINE rushers who have fewer yards than Jerome Bettis who are already in the Hall of Fame – explain that one.
10 – Bettis played 15 or 16 games in 10 separate seasons. Durability is a hallmark of the great ones.
11

Jerome Bettis should be in the Hall of Fame this year. Let’s do it Bus.
— Mike Tomlin (@CoachTomlin) January 30, 2014

Need anyone say more?
12 – Bettis made appearances in a 12 playoff games before the Steelers “Took him home” to Super Bowl XL. All told Bettis playoff totals look like this: 205 carries, 675 yards and 9 touchdowns, the latter number tying Bettis for 5th.
13 – The average NFL running back’s career is 2.57 years. Jerome Bettis played for 13 years, and in 11 or 12 of them he probably could have beaten out all but perhaps a half dozen of the running backs in the league for a starting job. Longevity is a hallmark of the greatest.
14 – Fourteen other players have all rushed for 12,000 plus yards and are enshrined in Canton. Bettis is the lone exception. That must change.

Steelers Circle the Wagons

The Pittsburgh Steelers are somewhat of a “conservative organization” when it comes to promoting their own players. (Contrast that with the feel-good stories Dallas’ PR team pushes on Tony Romo.)

Yet the Steelers organization has gotten behind the ball and is mounting a campaign to get Jerome Bettis over the top. Bill Cowher has spoken out. Dick Hoak has as well. So as Mike Tomlin and even Tom Donahoe has offered his two cents.

But Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II said it the best: “He needs to be in there…. Its time.”

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Bill Austin, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach, 1928-2013

Bill Cowher once remarked that he didn’t know who had coached the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to Chuck Noll.

Well they did play professional football in Pittsburgh before The Emperor’s arrival, and the man who preceded him was Bill Austin who passed away Thursday evening at his home in Las Vegas, reports Allan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

From Nixon to Austin

History will note that Bill Austin was the last Pittsburgh Steelers head coach hired by franchise founder Art Rooney Sr. And even in that respect, Austin represented something of a transition.

“The Chief” Art Sr., was first an exceptional human being, second an outstanding citizen and ambassador for the city of Pittsburgh, third a phenomenal athlete, and fourth a ace horse race odds maker.

  • He was not, however, a good football man.

The Steelers did nothing but lose during the 35 years that Art Sr. ran the franchise. Despite suggestions of his later life moniker “The Chief” Rooney was not one to meddle or micro manage the decisions of his coaches. “There can only be one boss” Rooeny explained to his five son’s as they vigorously protested Walter Kiesling’s decision to cut Johnny Unitas – without so much as allowing him to throw a pass in practice.

  • In short, Rooney believed in hiring someone to do a job and then standing behind them – the only problem was “The Chief” never hired the right people.

But by the early 1960’s Dan Rooney began to assume more and more control of the Steelers operations. When Dan tired of Buddy Parker’s alcohol induced shenanigans he convinced his father to take Parker up on often repeated threats to resign.

Two weeks prior to the Steelers 1965 season Parker informed Dan he was trading defensive end Ben McGee (who went on to be a Pro Bowler). Dan told him they’d discuss it in the morning. Parker balked, insisting he was the coach. Dan put his foot down. Parker offered to resign.

  • Dan called his bluff.

That left the Steelers without a head coach two weeks prior to the regular season. Dan and Art Sr. turned to Mike Nixon, but they knew he was not the man for the job. Art. Rooney even advised Nixon to turn down the offer.

  • They were right. Nixon won two games and was gone.

Finally, Dan Rooney had the chance been waiting for, the opportunity to put his own stamp on the selection of the Steelers head coach.

In his self titled autobiography Dan Rooney explained that he began an exhaustive search, that included Bill Austin, then a coach for the Los Angles Rams. Austin interviewed well, Rooney admits.

But then Art Sr. called Vince Lombardi, who had mentored Austin, and Lombardi give Austin a glowing recommendation.

That was enough for The Chief. Dan protested, insisting that the selection process must move forward, but The Chief had spoken, and Austin took the reigns of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Austin in Pittsburgh

In his book From Black to Gold author Tim Gleason rated Pittsburgh Steelers head coaches not named “Noll,” “Cowher,” or “Tomlin.”

Austin came in at #6 – out of seven by Gleason’s rendering. As Gleason explains “Bill Austin was Walt Kiesling reincarnated, without Kiesling’s good qualities.

Bill Austin you see, was a true disciple of Vince Lombardi. In fact, he did all he could to emulate Lombardi. But, as Gleason quote Steelers legend Dick Hoak, “’His problem was that he tried to be someone that he wasn’t.’”

Dan Rooney recounts how Andy Russell told him that former Packers on Austin’s Steeler squads remember Austin quoting Lombardi speeches verbatim. Alas, channeling his inner Lombardi didn’t work for Austin.

  • It also had disastrous effects on the Steelers.

Austin did walk Lombardi’s walk in one aspect – he was demanding of his players. In fact, he ran them into the ground, once demanding that his players practice at game speed resulting in:

  • Linebacker Bill Saul suffering a career-ending knee injury
  • Defensive end Ken Koratus spraining an ankle that slowed him for the entire season
  • Running back Jim Butler injuring a knee that cost him most of a season
  • Defensive back Paul Martha cracking his helmet in two and getting a concussion in the process

Worse yet, all of this happened on the fields of St. Vincents, sabotaging the Steelers season before it began.

The One Thing Austin Did Right….

Bill Austin started out the 1968 0-6. Then he did something that many at the time would categorize as a mistake.

  • He coached the Steelers to two victories and forced a tie in the third.

After that he went back to his losing ways, finish 2-11-1. But Austin’s mid-season “sin” cursed the Steelers with the fourth pick in the 1969 draft, robbing Pittsburgh of the chance to draft the consensus number one overall pick USC star running back O.J. Simpson.

  • Yes, it was Austin cost the Steelers a shot at O.J. Simpson. Bill Austin, it seems, wasn’t even smart enough to play for draft position….

….And Steelers Nation has thanked him since, as Chuck Noll used that self same pick to draft Joe Greene.

The rest is history.

Thanks Bill. May you rest in peace.

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Steelers Nation: “Generation Immaculate Reception” Celebrates 40 Years

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

  • The play happened precisely a week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.

Comprehending 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.

The Post Immaculate Reception Steelers
The Pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers
The Immaculate Reception – A Franchises’s Fortunes Change

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 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, more than any other team
  • Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying the mark for championship appearances
  • Achieved a winning record in 32 of those 40 years, again, more than anyone else
  • Posted an overall winning percentage that is better than any other NFL team
  • Sent 64 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams, more than any other franchise
  • Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say

These stats come 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 (full disclosure – I also writer for BTSC.)

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 most recent 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 is 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.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney hires chuck noll

Steelers fortunes shifted with Dan Rooney’s hire of Chuck Noll in 1969. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

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:

  • 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? 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.”

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.

  • 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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