Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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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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Steelers Name James Saxon as Running Backs Coach

Trades in the NFL normally involve draft picks, or at times players. But the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings appear to be trading coaches.

  • The operative word above is “appear.”

Kirby Wilson of course departed from Pittsburgh for Minnesota to take their running backs coaching job. James Saxon held that role until Leslie Frazier was dismissed and with him his entire staff. Mike Tomlin has moved quickly to anoint Saxon as his running backs coach.

With his latest coaching hire Tomlin has again opted in favor of experience over potential. Saxon has 23 years of NFL experience divided between the coaching and players ranks. Saxon broke into coaching in 2000 with the Buffalo Bills, then moved on to coach running backs for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001 to 2007. After that, he coached for the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2010.

Saxon also played as a full back and running back for 8 years, breaking into the league in 1988 as a sixth round pick with the Chiefs, where he played for four season. After that he played under Don Shula for 3 more in Miami, until finishing in Philadelphia with the Eagles.

Overseeing the continued development of Le’Veon Bell will be among Saxon’s first tasks in Pittsburgh. Saxon of course has a pedigree with power house running backs, having worked with Adrian Peterson. However, Saxon will also likely have input on whether the Steelers make a play for Jonathan Dwyer or Felix Jones who are set to become free agents this March.

Coaching Swaps Rare, But Not Unprecedented in Steelers History

Such coaching swaps are rare in Steelers history, but similar moves have occurred in the past. Tony Dungy won fame as the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator in the 1980’s, until he resigned rather than accept demotion in 1988.

The man Chuck Noll tapped to replace him was Kansas City’s deposed defensive coordinator, Rod Rust. When Dungy became available Marty Schottenhiemer wasted little time in bringing him along to Kansas City.

But he didn’t bring him to KC as a defensive coordinator, only as a defensive backs coach. The coordinator’s seat of course went a budding young assistant from his staff on the Cleveland Browns – Bill Cowher.

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