Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

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

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Pittsburghers Support Penguins in Stanley Cup, but Predators Evoke ’95 Steelers Run

As weird as it is to say, when you’re a fan of a very successful sports franchise, it comes with a bit of a burden.

Now, when I say “burden,” I don’t mean it’s a bad thing to watch your favorite team enjoy continued success and be judged by the number of championships it displays in its trophy case. It’s just that, well, your favorite team is judged by the number of titles it wins, which means, as a fan, you expect nothing less than achieving the ultimate victory.

As a Steelers fan, I can attest to this quite well, considering anything less than a championship became unacceptable the moment Chuck Noll led his team to a fourth Lombardi trophy in six years in January of 1980, capping off a decade of dominance in the 1970’s that is perhaps unmatched in professional sports history.

The 21 playoff appearances, 15 division titles, four Super Bowl trips and two Lombardi trophies the organization has achieved since have only reinforced the belief among Steelers fans that, again, anything less than ultimate victory is totally unacceptable.

Penguins vs Predators Stanley Cup

Photo credit: Stamford Advocate

With their team going for its second-straight Stanley Cup, and fifth since 1991, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have certainly taken up residence in the same arena of high expectations as those who root for the Steelers. With their team employing some of the best hockey players on the planet–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–nothing but a Stanley Cup parade is acceptable around  these parts (Mike Sullivan is the team’s fourth head coach since Crosby went to his first Stanley Cup Final back in 2008).

Yes, despite their team playing in its fourth Final in nine years and achieving the ultimate success just one year ago, the fans won’t be feeling anything but sorrow unless the Penguins (currently tied 2-2) win the Cup once again.

But you know whose fan base won’t be feeling anything but joy, regardless of how the Final turns out?

  • The one that belongs to Pittsburgh’s opponents, the Nashville Predators. 

An expansion team who came into the NHL in 1998, the Predators had never won a division title nor advanced past the second round of the playoffs, before entering the 2016/2017 postseason as the last seed in the Western Conference (and, based on overall record, the last seed in the entire NHL playoffs).

When you think of great hockey towns, Nashville certainly never comes to mind. However, after almost doing so last year, the Predators sold out all of their home games at Bridgestone Arena for the 2016/2017 regular season.

Maybe that’s why the Predators, despite their nondescript history, rolled right through the Western Conference playoffs and advanced to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

  • When hockey season is in full-swing, Nashville is unofficially dubbed “Smashville,” and it appears the Predators southern fans have embraced the image.

I know one thing for sure, the city is absolutely drunk off of hockey, as the fans are experiencing this kind of run for the very first time.

In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, played at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on May 29, a Predators fan made news by throwing a catfish on the ice (a tradition at Predators home games) and was removed from the arena, before being arrested and charged with several crimes (all the charges have since been dropped).

Jake Guentzel, Penguins vs Predators, 2017 Stanley Cup

Jake Guentzel celebrates goal by Evgeni Malkin. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar

Coming into the playoffs with the second most points in the NHL and having to outlast the teams who were first and third in points just to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Penguins are certainly in no mood for shenanigans. Neither are their fans, who are now mocking the love-fest Predators fans are enjoying with their team.

  • Ah, but to be that innocent of a fan once more and enjoy something for the very first time.

That kind of feeling usually only happens once.

It  did for me 22 years ago, when the Steelers defeated the underdog Colts in the AFC Championship Game and advanced to Super Bowl XXX to take on the heavily-favored Dallas Cowboys, winners of two of the previous three Super Bowls.

As a youngster in the 1980’s, the Steelers dominance of the previous decade seemed almost mythical after the legends began to retire one-by-one and were replaced by a far-less talented group of players.

However, as Noll gave way to Bill Cowher, and he rejuvenated the team and brought the magic back to the fan base, you could sense the passion and the hunger once more.

  • I know I was super-hungry for some form of championship-success. And when it finally happened after many years of depressing seasons and excruciating playoff exits, I was simply euphoric.
Neil O'Donnell, Super Bowl XXX

Neil O’Donnell in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: McMillian & Wife

Again, Pittsburgh was a huge underdog, but I didn’t care. I soaked in every minute of the two-week build-up to the Super Bowl. I read every article I could get my hands on. I watched every news report and special dedicated to the Black and Gold.

  • Even though the Steelers infamously came up just short against Dallas thanks to too many Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown connections, I had the time of my life.

In-fact, other than the euphoria that followed Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to their the Super Bowl XL victory in Detroit (the franchise’s first title in 26 years), the Steelers trip to Super Bowl XXX may have been my happiest time as a sports fan.

Sadly, unless the Pirates actually make a World Series appearance before I die (it hasn’t happened since I was seven), I may never get to experience that kind of feeling again.

I gotta tell ya, I’m not sure which fan base I envy more:

  • The one with the previous success and high expectations or the one that is enjoying everything for the very first time.

I do know one thing: While Penguins fans won’t truly enjoy themselves unless their team wins another Cup, Predators fans are already at the party and having a grand old time.

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Steelers Release Greg Warren, Highlighting Difference Between 2 Super Bowl Eras

And then there were two. “Real” football news can be quite rare in late May of any year, but the number of Super Bowl veterans on the South Side dwindled to two as the Steelers released Greg Warren, who handled the long snapping duties for the team since 2005, earning him rings in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Steelers kicked off their 2017 season by signing Greg Warren to their customary 1 year deal in February, Warren’s release is hardly a shock. The Steelers turned heads in the 2017 NFL Draft when they used their sixth round pick to draft long snapper Colin Holba of Louisville.

Greg Warren, Steelers Greg Warren Super Bowl Eras

Greg Warren tackles Solomon Patton early in the first quarter of the Steelers 2014 loss to Tampa @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

The move was instantly panned by both professional journalists as well as bloggers (this site included), but Jim Wexell and other reporters informed that the Steelers had legitimate concerns about Greg Warrens durability. It would seem like those concerns were well founded, as Greg Warren himself related:

I would first like to thank the Steelers organization, coaches and training staff for their help and advice over the last few weeks. I had full intentions of playing this upcoming season, but in light of new information I’ve recently received from my doctors relating to a past injury, it has been determined that trying to compete in the 2017 season may be a risk to my long-term health. After discussing this with the Steelers, we have decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to release me at this point.

Signed in 2005, Greg Warren played in 181 regular season games, more than any other Steeler at that time, for coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. With Warren’s release, only Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison remain as veterans from the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII championship squads.

Greg Warren’s Release Highlights Differences Between Steelers 2 Super Bowl Eras

Let’s admit it, when you think of “Steelers Super Bowl Eras” the name of Greg Warren doesn’t jump out at you. If you’ve got a long view of things, the names Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert spring to mind.

And you probably associate the Steelers second Super Bowl era with players like Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and perhaps Willie Parker. But Greg Warren has provided vital stability during his era, and highlights how different the Steelers second Super Bowl Era has been from the first.

  • Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl teams were drafted together, matured together, won Super Bowls together, and then got old together.

Unfortunately, for reasons that go well beyond the scope of this blog post, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn struggled to restock the Steelers roster, even after mediocre records improved their drafting position.

Steel Curtain, 1974 AFC Championship, Steelers vs Raiders, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, LC Greenwood

Dwight White, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: SI

This second era has been different, largely thanks to Dan Rooney’s wisdom, the Steelers were able to draft a franchise quarterback and add him to a team that was already Super Bowl ready.

Although only two seasons separated the Steelers last two Lombardi Trophy presentations, Mike Tomlin’s ’08 squad featured a number of new faces in important places compared to Bill Cowher’s ’05 squad. Thanks to Heath Miller’s retirement and Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins, William Gay is the only other veteran from Super Bowl XLIII.

  • On a more personal level, Greg Warren’s retirement also underscores just how much perception of time evolves with age.

Born mere months before the Immaculate Reception provided the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation, I have no memories of Super Bowls IX or X. I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII but recall few details beyond my older sister asking “Who is that guy in the hat they keep showing” every time the camera focused on Tom Landry. I remember Super Bowl XIV better, and particularly John Stallworth’s game changing 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go touchdown.

After that with my age not yet breaking double digits, I had difficulty understanding why the Steelers struggled in the early 1980’s, not wanting to accept my older brother’s explanation that “All the Steelers have are old guys and rookies.”

It was difficult to follow the Steelers growing up in suburban DC in the pre-internet age. And by the time I started following the Steelers seriously again during the 1987 season I was in high school, and I was shocked to see that Super Bowl veterans such as Stallworth, Mike Webster and Donnie Shell were still playing.

  • At time it seemed like several generations of football has passed since the last Super Bowl, when in fact less time separated the Steelers from their last Lombardi than does now.

Time most certainly does move faster as you age.

Bit contributor or not, Steel Curtain Rising Thanks Greg Warren for helping bring home One for The Thumb and then completing the Super Bowl Six Pack, and wishes him the best as he begins his “Life’s Work.”

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ESPN Lays off Jerome Bettis. Why Not Park The Bus in Pittsburgh with the Steelers Radio Network?

Thanks to legions of millennia cord cutters, ESPN is laying off people by the droves. And unfortunately, Steelers Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis is the latest victim.

That’s sad but not surprising news for Jerome Bettis, who landed a job with NBC following his retirement after Super Bowl XL. Bettis provided commentary on NBC from 2006 until 2009 but the network did not renew his contract.

Jerome Bettis, Dan Kreider, Super Bowl XL, Jerome Bettis Super Bowl XL

Jerome Bettis at Super Bowl XL. Now that ESPN has laid him off, why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh? Photo Credit: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press

From their Bettis did a stint on NFL Network, before landing at ESPN in 2013. It is quite common for retired athletes to get into broadcasting, former Steelers Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone have made careers out of it, but those men are the exception, not the rule.

  • Joe Montana only lasted a year at NBC Sports following his retirement. Hines Ward worked for NBC for a year.

Its been speculated that Jerome Bettis will return to the NFL Network and while, that might be a good place for him, dare we ask – Why not park the Bus in Pittsburgh again? Seriously.

Bettis is probably too big of a talent for WTAE, WPXI or even KDKA, but why not add Jerome Bettis to the Steelers broadcast team? Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove do a fine job on their own (although let’s face it, it’s not the same without Myron, but no one could replace Myron Cope.) Bettis would provide a new element to the broadcast.

Bettis would also be the first African American to commentate for the Steelers Radio Network, and the added diversity could only widen the commercial appeal of the broadcast team.

  • Bettis could also join Ilkin and Craig Wolfley on doing video breakdowns for Steelers.com.

Jerome Bettis is one of the most popular Steelers in over a generation. Indeed, when he entered the Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis had the distinction of having been the face of the franchise. Yet, the ten years have elapsed since Bettis began his “Life’s Work” and the only players who remain from his day are Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Greg Warren. And of course Bill Cowher followed Bettis’ lead a year later.

In other words, while popular and a fan favorite Jerome Bettis can still be counted on to provide objective commentary in the booth. So why not park The Bus in Pittsburgh?

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Dan Rooney’s Legacy: Matching Excellence with Humility

As the city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation lay Dan Rooney to rest perhaps the most fitting way to put Dan Rooney’s legacy into perspective is to recall the wisdom of my late father-in-law, Ruben Jorge Sosa, who often remarked:

Si quieres conocer la alma de verdad de un hombre, darle dinero y poder y ven como se trata la gente.”

The rough English translation of Rubencito’s Argentine dictum would be, “If you want to get to know the true soul of a man, give him money and give him power and see how he treats people.”

Dan Rooney was born as the first son of Pittsburgh’s first family and grew to lead one of the world’s most successful sports franchises inside the uber-competitive crucible of the NFL. He had more money, and more power than anyone whose eyes have browsed this blog, yet Dan Rooney always maintained his humility, and he always kept his focus firmly on the people.

Joe Greene, Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Legacy

Joe Greene embraces Dan Rooney at his number retirement ceremony. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Steel Curtain Rising is hardly the only site to make this observation. The tributes to Dan Rooney that have rolled in since his death seemingly provide an inexhaustible source of stories about Dan Rooney’s sense of decency, justice and humility.

But it is also appropriate to consider just how remarkable an accomplishment Dan Rooney’s life represents when you take into account the environment in which he thrived.

Dan Rooney in the Competitive Crucible of the NFL

Have you ever stopped to consider which environment is more competitive, the NFL on the field or the NFL off of the field?

On the field, football provides as competitive and as brutal a contest as you can find. Long before Mike Webster’s death introduced the world to the ravages of CTE, the gridiron had a well-earned reputation for giving US pop culture its modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum.

  • Careers can and do end in a second and a lifetime debilitating injury is a possibility on every play.

Off the field things don’t get any easier. If you think the NFL is anything but a bottom line business, then I invite you to talk with San Diego Chargers or Oakland Raiders fans. Or St. Louis Rams fans. Or Houston Oilers fans. Or Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts fans.

Baltimore Colts move

Photo via Baltimore CBS Local

NFL owners understand the nature of the game. They know that careers are short and championship windows can take a generation to pry open, only to slam shut before many even realize their opportunity is at hand. The vast majority of owners grasp this reality and model their businesses with the requisite ruthlessness.

  • Dan Rooney stood in stark contrast to them all.

As he recounted in his self-titled autobiography, during the 1987 players strike, Dan Rooney once observed the Cowboy’s Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay’s Hugh Culverhouse comparing NFL players to cattle and the owners to ranchers. When the NFLPA’s executive director Gene Updshaw looked at Rooney in disbelief, Rooney simply shook his head, making it known he preferred to negotiate with the union in good faith.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Super Bowl X Trophy presentation, Pete Rozelle, Dan Rooney Legacy

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Lest you think this anecdote is merely a byproduct uttered in the heat of acrimonious labor negotiations, rest assured more mundane examples abound. Think Daniel Snyder firing dozens of front office staff – many secretaries and other low wage administrative staff – when he took control of the Redskins, simply to show everyone a new Sherriff was in town.

It takes a tough individual to build a successful business when your “partners” hold such attitudes.

  • But did Rooney did it, and he did it by being tougher than the rest.

When Pete Rozelle first proposed a unified television contract with equally shared revenues, the big market owners, George Halas, George Preseton Marshall, Wellington Mara and Dan Reeves of Los Angeles resisted, balked at the idea and insisted instead that larger markets get a bigger share of the pie.

Dan Rooney informed them that if they failed to compromise, then he would refuse to broadcast games to the visiting cities whenever their teams came to Pittsburgh.

The other owners relented, and revenue sharing was born.

  • Reeves later told the other owners, “That Rooney kid the toughest guy I’ve ever met.”

But Rooney pulled off the feat of being tough, of maintaining a profitable bottom line while continuing to make people the focus of his efforts as a single, simple tweet illustrates:

For those of you who’ve already forgotten who he is, the Tweet is from Josh Harris, whose NFL career amounted to 9 regular season and 9 post-season carries in 2014. Josh Harris was a roster-bubble baby if there ever was one, yet Dan Rooney knew his name before the two men had ever said hello.

  • Imagine yourself reaching your 80’s and running the Pittsburgh Steelers – would you have been able to do that?

I know I wouldn’t, and I’m 40 years younger than Dan Rooney.

But that was Dan Rooney. He was the NFL owner who once had Mike Wagner come in and sign a contract after he announced his retirement, simply so he could pay him a farewell signing bonus. That’s the same Dan Rooney who insisted on waiting in line in his own lunch room, and paid to send his cafeteria workers to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Dan Rooney drove himself around in a Pontiac, and carried his own suitcase when he served as ambassador to Ireland.

  • As Ryan Clark once observed, “He must not know he’s rich.”

But Dan Rooney most certainly did know he was rich, but he understood that his true wealth came from his ability to connect with people. He always remembered that.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Steelers practice, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney leaving the practice field before the 2006 NFL Championship game. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Commentators often grouse about the “socialist” nature of the NFL’s business model which is built on revenue sharing. That’s AM Radio inspired nonsense. The NFL is the ultimate capitalist cartel. The result of this arrangement is that the NFL’s competitive landscape rewards pure excellence.

  • The result is that teams from markets like Green Bay and Pittsburgh can end up facing off in the Super Bowl.

Good decision making, on the field and off the field, determine who the winners are in the NFL, and with six Super Bowl Trophies to their credit, no team has been more successful than Dan Rooney’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

He did it by identifying and hiring three fantastic coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, standing behind them through thick and thin, giving them players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Yet through it all Dan Rooney always remembered where he came from.

Dan Rooney’s life was guided by faith, family and football and those values guided him and kept him at the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Dan Rooney’s legacy is his humility in the face of such awesome excellence.

Thank you, Dan Rooney, on behalf of Pittsburgh and on behalf of Steelers Nation.

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Steelers Wise to Let Markus Wheaton Walk in Free Agency. (Yes, You Read that Right)

While the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2017 free agency period by resigning two of their own, David Johnson and Landry Jones, before the sun set on the first day Pittsburgh lost one of their own when wide receiver Markus Wheaton came to terms with the Chicago Bears.

  • It says here the Steelers were wise to let Markus Wheaton walk.

Woah! Wait a minute! Run that by me again….

Yes, you read that correctly. And yes I don’t blame those of you who are sitting there saying “Hypocrite!” or Spanish speakers who’re crying ¡Double discurso!

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton contract, Martavis Bryant

Markus Wheaton’s defection to the Chicago Bears highlights Steelers need for Martavis Bryant. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Just a week or so ago, yours truly did author an article headline “Why the Steelers would be wise to resign Markus Wheaton.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But, if you’ll allow me a little attitude, I was sincere then just as I’m sincere now.

The argument that the Steelers should consider breaking franchise prescient and resign Markus Wheaton to a second contract was predicated on Steelers ability either to come to terms with Wheaton at a very low rate one year “Prove it” contract, or a longer medium tier contract. As free agency approached, rumblings got louder that this wasn’t terribly likely.

Which is fine, because it’s an agent’s job to make both the press and personnel offices think that all 31 teams are absolutely dying to sign their client.

  • Sometimes that interest is real, sometimes it’s nothing more than hot air. This time it was real.

Terms of Markus Wheaton’s deal with the Bears aren’t public yet, but the biggest money typically gets thrown around on day one of free agency. Which is to say that if the Bears were offering enough to get Wheaton, who was also being courted by at least the Eagles, locked down on day one, they well into territory that the Steelers had no desire to enter.

So be it. The Steelers don’t overpay in free agency, and they especially don’t over pay for wide receivers. Hines Ward and Antonio Brown will remain the only two wide outs to get offered second contracts after their rookie deals were complete.

Losing Markus Wheaton Still Impacts Steelers

Losing Markus Wheaton to the Bears does come with its consequences, even if the Steelers made the right move. The absence of someone to take consistent heat off of Antonio Brown hurt the Steelers last season. During much of the Steelers 9 game winning streak the Steelers compensated by force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers have quantity at the number two WR spot – Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton, but Wheaton had shown far more consistency as a number two target for Ben Roethlisberger than any of these men.

Now the Steelers will have to replace that consistency either in house, free agency or in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

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Steelers Resign Antonio Brown, Place Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell

Rest easy Steelers Nation, the Steelers Killer Bees will not be straying from the Hive. The start of NFL free agency is a little more than a week away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken care of their top two priorities in a hurry.

In a flurry of moves on the South Side, the Pittsburgh Steelers resigned Antonio Brown to a 5-year contract worth $72.71 million dollars. On the same day, the Steelers announced that they were placing the Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell.

The contract includes money from Brown’s previous contract, which he signed in 2011 and is essentially a four year $68 million dollar extension complete with 19 million dollars in guaranteed money.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers Colts Thanksgiving, Antonio Brown contract, Le'Veon Bell franchise tag

Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown celebrate during the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Antonio Brown was not set to become a free agent until 2018, and still had one year remaining on the 6 year contract which he signed after just two years in the NFL.

However, Brown had greatly out performed that contract, which didn’t remotely reflect his status as one of the NFL’s top three wide receivers. The current deal makes Antonio Brown the highest paid NFL wide receiver.

  • Antonio Brown will be 29 on opening day 2017 and this current deal will carry him through his 32 birthday.

While Antonio Brown’s third contract with the Steelers doesn’t ensure that he’ll be a Steeler for Life, as he tweet suggests, it does bring that reality within reach.

And, assuming Antonio Brown neither suffers a serious injury nor a drop off in play, the deal all but ensures that Antonio Brown will break all of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward‘s receiving records.

Steelers Use Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell

One player who was set to hit free agency this week was Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell who had played through the rookie contract that he signed with the Steelers after they drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

  • While Bell’s development has zig-zagged more than Browns, he too is the best at what he does.

The Steelers have said all along that they want to reach a long-term deal with their star running back, and by using the exclusive franchise tag with Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is proving they mean it. Because Le’Veon Bell now carries the exclusive franchise tag, no other team can negotiate with him.

  • That means the Steelers will be forced to pay Bell more, but prevents teams like the Cleveland Browns, who have salary cap space and first round draft picks galore from making a run at Bell.

While NFL running backs have a shorter-shelf life than NFL wide receivers, Le’Veon Bell has already broke the Steelers regular season and post season single game rushing records. While it is still way, way too early to project this far into the future, a long-term deal would at least open the door to the possibility that Le’Veon Bell might threaten other Steelers rushing records owned by Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis

  • While Ben Roethlisberger has yet to confirm that he will return for 2017, he is expected to do just that.

With two of the three Steelers Killer Bees locked up a week before training camp, the Steelers can now focus their attention on reaching new contracts with Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent 2017 Fan Poll – Who Stays? Who Goes? You Decide Steelers Nation

You’ve got to love technology. The original plan was to include this poll in yesterday’s Steelers 2017 free agent tracker post and begin with our Steelers 2017 free agent profiles today. It worked perfectly, except the short code for the poll wouldn’t embed to the right, making for a LONG post with a lot of scrolling.

Le'Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Steelers 2017 free agents

Landry Jones hands off to Le’Veon Bell. Both Steelers are free agents. (Photo Credit: Shelley Lipton, UPI via UPI top news)

So we go to Plan B and include the poll in a separate post, which you can vote on below:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 02-06-2017 11:04:27
end_date 04-11-2017 11:30:59
Poll Results:
Which 2017 free agents should the Steelers resign/should have resigned? (Multiple votes allowed)

Please note that we’ve left the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agents off of the poll because those guys aren’t going anywhere and it would make the poll too long. Also note that you can vote for as many players as you like.

The Steelers are expected to tender restricted free agents Ross Cockrell and Chris Hubbard with the possibility that they’ll seek a long term deal with Cockrell – here’s your chance to sound off.

Conventional wisdom also indicates that the Steelers biggest three unrestricted free agents are Le’Veon Bell, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. Management wants all three back, all three men want to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Perhaps you’re a contrarian and have a different idea, well now is the time to make your voice heard.

Both Landry Jones lovers and haters can express their view of Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. Conventional wisdom has both Jarvis Jones and DeAngelo Williams headed out of Pittsburgh on a fast boat down the Ohio. Maybe you think there’s a way either man still fits in. Excellent, then cast your vote accordingly.

Then there are the guys on the margins, the ones that no one ever talks about, you don’t see articles written about, and depending on when things happen, the newspapers might not write about if they leave Pittsburgh (think Mewelde Moore in 2012 and Doug Legursky in 2013).

This year Cody Wallace, Shamarko Thomas, David Johnson and Ricardo Mathews are four lower profile free agents that no one seems to care about, except for perhaps you. So if you think they belong in Pittsburgh or think its time for them to move on, vote accordingly.

There’s also Markus Wheaton. The Steelers don’t normally give wide receivers not named Antonio Brown or Hines Ward second contracts, but some people think he deserves to be an exception particularly if he’s affordable. Again, your opinion is what counts here.

Finally, we’ve included long snapper Greg Warren and linebacker/special teamer Steven Johnson in our poll. The Steelers have already resigned both men, but you can endorse that wisdom or express your outrage as you see fit.

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

Sammie Coates, Sammie Coates drop, steelers trade antonio brown

Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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