Sorry about that, but whenever I write articles that have to do with Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene or that time I went to that Steelers game in 1988, you just don’t seem to care all that much.
Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review
And, by the way, writing an article with a headline such as: “Why it Makes Sense for the Steelers to Bring back Antonio Brown” is not click-bait — not if the article actually covers why the author thinks it would make sense for Pittsburgh to re-sign Antonio Brown.
Attention-bait? Anger-bait? Traffic-bait? Perhaps. However, if you want actual click-bait, go click on one of those links at the bottom of most websites that like to draw you in with headlines such as: “She was Enjoying Her Birthday Cake but had No Idea What was Lurking Behind Her.”
What was lurking behind her? You usually never get to find out, thanks to having to click through 28 pages of ad-infested gibberish — that, my friend, is click-bait.
As for those reaction-baiting articles about Antonio Brown or the Steelers possibly signing Jameis Winston?
Those are usually money. Why? Because you like, no, love them. Oh, you say you don’t love them. You say you’d rather read about Ramon Foster’s retirement and/or the merits of his possible replacements — Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran free-agent signing, or Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft — but you really don’t.
At least not according to the numbers.
You say you don’t want to read yet another article about the controversial Rooney Rule, but traffic for such articles is through the roof. As for the comments sections? They’re fire, my friend.
Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com
You want an article about Shaun Sarrett, who became the Steelers offensive line coach after the legendary Mike Munchak moved on to coach the Broncos’ hogs following the 2018 season? Fine. Crickets.
And that’s why there were 45,000 articles written about James Harrison, last week, and the controversial envelope head coach Mike Tomlin may or may not have given him way back in 2010. James Harrison appeared on a podcast with former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon and was very revealing about countless subjects.
However, the sexiest subject Harrison touched on regarding his time with the Steelers centered around Pittsburgh possibly covering one of the several fines he received a decade earlier, thanks to the NFL’s sudden desire to legislate head shots out of the game.
You want more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational? Read more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational.
Do you know who Don Shula is? He’s the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL. Did you know the guy who coached the Colts in Super Bowl III — the team that lost to Broadway Joe Namath and his guarantee — passed away on May 4 at the age of 90? Did you know that upset victory by the Jets may have been the most significant in the history of the NFL and paved the way for all that came after that? Did you know Shula went on to coach the Dolphins and guided them to the only undefeated season in modern NFL history in 1972?
If you learn about Noll, and all that he accomplished in his 23 years as the Steelers head coach, maybe you’d agree that it’s ridiculous that so many people have misspelled his name over the years.
Sorry for the rant, but it was necessary, at least in a sense. If you’re on this site and have read this far, you’re probably prioritize substance over style. While some Steelers sites like Steel City Blitz and Steelers Takeaways, or Twitter feeds like @VintageSteelers and @SteelCityStar do a fantastic job in fostering a great respect and reverence for Steelers history, many do not.
Most can’t afford to.
Maybe they would if readers started showing a little more respect and reverence for Steelers and NFL history.
Triggered. These days, that’s a pretty common thing to call someone who is suddenly and visibly angered by something someone just said–usually online.
I’m often prone to being triggered. Such was the case last week while reading some comments section of some article about the Pittsburgh Steelers. A person in said comments section — supposedly, a huge Steelers fan –referenced legendary coach Chuck Noll and the four Super Bowl titles he won back in the 1970s.
Only, instead of “Noll,” this person called him Knoll.
And the triggering commenced from yours truly. I didn’t say anything in that moment, but I wanted to. I wanted to ask this person how he or she could be such a huge Steelers fan, someone so into them, they visit team pages and comment on team articles, yet not know how to spell the last name of perhaps the most important figure in the history of the organization?
Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated
But I didn’t. What would it have mattered? I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I’ve asked that question before, with the typical response being something along the lines of: “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I had to know that in-order to be a huge fan.”
Fair point? I suppose. But it sure is lazy. It’s like how people from outside of Pittsburgh, my hometown, often spell the city’s name without the “h.” I guess that’s an understandable mistake — most “burgs” don’t include the “h”–but gosh golly, Pittsburgh isn’t just any other “burg,” it’s like the most famous one — at least in America.
And Chuck Noll, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 82, wasn’t just any other coach. He was perhaps the greatest in the history of the National Football League. Noll took over a franchise that had literally done nothing for the first 36 years of its existence, and within a decade, had transformed it into the standard-bearer for championship success.
As Dan Rooney, the late, great chairman of the Steelers franchise once said of Noll, “He taught us how to win.”
That’s right, Noll didn’t just march into town and bring the Steelers four Lombardi trophies and then leave. He laid the foundation for continued success after he was gone; he gave the franchise a blueprint, one that it still uses to this day.
Maybe you fell in love with the Steelers in the 1990s, an era where Crafton native Bill Cowher first began his reign as the new head coach. But without the foundation that Noll helped build in the 1970s, the Rooney family, one that habitually hired and fired coaches over its first four decades of existence, may not have known what to look for in a new head coach.
Maybe you became a fan in the late-2000s, and the only head man you’ve ever seen roam the Steelers sidelines is Mike Tomlin. If so, see above.
Again, it all started with Chuck Noll 51 years ago this past January.
Maybe it’s petty to bring attention to the many people that constantly spell Noll’s last name with a “K.” But what do you call these supposedly big Steelers fans who always do this?
It was always amazing to me that people would confuse Chuck Noll with another football coach named Chuck (Chuck Knox of the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Rams), and that they would spell Chuck Noll’s surname with a K. Maybe it was because he didn’t cater to the media. He was respectful, and that’s what he always told us, that the media had a job to do even though it was different than our job, and that we should respect them. He had an appreciation for the media, but he never played up to them, and maybe that’s why he’s underappreciated.
Steelers fans always like to play the “what if?” game.
For example, what if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier weren’t injured for the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders in 1976? What if the Steelers had actually drafted Dan Marinoback in 1983? What if Pittsburgh’s coaches had recognized the talent they had in this Johnny Unitasfella, a ninth-round pick out of Louisville in 1955, instead of cutting him in training camp without letting him take a snap that summer?
The reason I put Unitas last in those aforementioned examples is because I want to prove a point.
Sure, the ending may have been different for those ’76 Steelers had Franco and Rocky been healthy for that conference title game against those hated Raiders. And, obviously, had Pittsburgh selected Marino in ’83, how could that have possibly been a bad thing for a franchise whose 1970s Super Bowl dynasty was running on fumes and about to come to a complete stop?
Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.
As for keeping Johnny Unitas around, on the other hand? Sure, it may have led to championship success much sooner than anyone would have imagined. But would it have led to Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, those four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the franchise’s rise to one of the marquee teams in all of professional sports?
It just doesn’t seem possible that all those dots would have still connected the exact same way and led us to where we are today with regards to the Steelers iconic status.
And that brings me to the 1990 NFL Draft, and the Steelers decision to trade their first-round pick to the Cowboys (17th, overall) and move back four slots.
Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC
With the pick the Cowboys secured from Pittsburgh, they selected running back Emmitt Smithfrom Florida. And with the 21st pick the Steelers acquired from Dallas, they drafted tight end Eric Greenfrom Liberty University.
Even if you’re a casual fan of the NFL and its history, you no doubt know that the Cowboys won that deal with a bullet.
Yes, Eric Green stormed onto the scene and was a bit ahead of his time for the position with his size, speed and athleticism. After a lengthy holdout, Eric Green went on to have a fairly sensational rookie campaign that included seven touchdown catches.
In the end, Eric Green wasn’t the one that got away. After signing a huge free agent contract with the Dolphins, Green bounced around the NFL through the 1999 season before calling it a career.
Overall, Eric Green’s 10-year career, it was merely okay. It was one of unfulfilled potential, due mainly to his weight issues, drug problems and a lack of a great work ethic.
As for Emmitt Smith, he couldn’t have fulfilled his potential any better if he were a fictional running back created by some Hollywood writer.
Not only did Emmitt Smith quickly become one of the cornerstones of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, when he finally hung up his cleats following the 2004 season, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 18,355 yards, a record that still stands today.
And that’s why you’ll often see those “What if?” articles pop up around draft time regarding that 1990 trade with Dallas, and how the Steelers really screwed up.
They obviously did, but that’s still revisionist history.
Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo
If you look at that 1990 draft in context, there was no way the Steelers were going to select Smith or any other running back, not after spending the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on Tim Worley, running back, Georgia.
Besides, while the Steelers didn’t find their franchise back in Worley, they thought they’d discovered one in Barry Foster in 1992, when he set a single-season team record for rushing yards with 1,690. And while Foster didn’t have the hunger to be a workhorse running back over the long haul (he left football after the 1994 campaign), the Steelers long search for a long-term franchise running back ended during the 1996 NFL Draft, when they traded a second-round pick to the Rams for the services of Jerome Bettis.
Need I say more?
With his size, willingness to punish tacklers and desire to be the workhorse, was there a more perfect running back for the Steelers and the City of Pittsburgh than Jerome Bettis, the man the late, great Myron Cope quickly dubbed The Bus?
In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards. By the time Bettis retired after the 2005 season, not only was he fifth all-time in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, he left Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown, with the Steelers’ fifth Lombardi trophy in hand, following a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Think about the kind of career Jerome Bettis had in Pittsburgh, and how it never would have happened if the selection of Worley in 1989 hadn’t prevented the Steelers from drafting Smith one year later.
Would you trade the actual story of Jerome Bettis as a Steeler for a hypothetical one involving Emmitt Smith?
If you’re all about the numbers and Super Bowl titles, maybe you would. But there’s no predicting how Smith would have fit in with Pittsburgh, a team that was suffering from a great malaise in 1990 and about to go through a massive transition at head coach, from the legendary Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher in 1992.
And there certainly is no way to predict with any certainty that Emmitt Smith would have been able to lead the likes of Neil O’Donnell(Larry Brown’s best friend, no, not that Larry Brown) to even one Super Bowl title, let alone three.
Nope, I can’t imagine a Steelers history without a chapter that includes Jerome Bettis.
Like Bill Cowher told him on the sidelines at old Three Rivers Stadium back in ’96:
“This is your bleepin city. And you’re my bleepin guy.”
A lot can change in 2 and a half weeks in Steelers Nation. The Steelers ugly season opening loss to the Patriots came ahead of a business trip that would keep me off line and unable to write for 2 weeks. As on cue, all hell broke lose (more on that at the end.)
But, as I pointed out after James Harrison got cut during my first Christmas in the US in 17 years, sometimes not being able to blog is a blessing.
I drank the Kool Aid. On paper, the Steelers 2019 squad was better than the 2018 squad that defeated the Patriots last December. And those Patriots had the look of a ’79 Steelers type squad to me – a dynasty enjoying its last roar before falling and fading. Plus the Steelers looked really good in preseason.
I don’t know that I expected a win, but I did expect the Steelers to fight tooth and nail and for the game to go down to the wire.
Instead, the Steelers looked like they hadn’t so much as done a walk through in training camp.
They really came out flat in all three phases.
But it was only week one, we were told….
Steelers Trade Dobbs
I’m a sucker for underdogs like Joshua Dobbs. I was rooting for him since the day the Steelers drafted him. Yet, based on everything I read and what little I saw, he seemed to hit a plateau during the 2019 preseason campaign, and there was no question that Mason Rudolph should back up Ben Roethlisberger.
So the Steelers trading him for a 5th round pick seemed to be a smart move, even if it did depart from the Franchise’s core philosophy of always keeping 3 quarterbacks.
Besides, an extra 5th round pick would bolster their depleted capital going into the 2020 NFL Draft….
Ben Roethlisberger Injures His Elbow
So there I was, handing out tickets to the San Francisco Giants game, blissfully unaware of anything happening as the Steelers were playing the Seahawks, on the other side of the country.
At about the 6th inning I made it up to the luxury box my company had rented. I sit down, crack open a drink, scan the TV showing NFL scores, and I see Mason Rudolph’s passing numbers!
It didn’t take too long to find out that Ben Roethlisberger had left the game injured and that the Steelers had suffered yet another loss.
Well, we always knew that Ben Roethlisberger could suffer a season-ending injury, and now it has happened.
Steelers Trade 1st Round Pick for Minkah Fitizpatrick
I’m sitting there at a trade show, and I see a tweet from the Mexican Steelers WhatsApp group saying the Steelers have traded their 2020 1st round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.
This has to be wrong, because the Pittsburgh Steelers NEVER trade their first round draft pick. Right?
Well, it wasn’t wrong, it was right.
This one leaves me with mixed feelings. The Steelers philosophy of building through the draft is one that has served the franchise well. Just look at those 6 Lombardi’s and its overall outstanding record since 1969. Sure, Bobby Beathard built two and a half Super Bowl championship teams by trading draft picks for proven players.
But that’s not the Steelers Way.
Seeing the Steelers trade away a 1st round draft pick at the beginning of week three is kind of like trying to pen a love letter to your wife with your left hand. It just feels WRONG.
But this isn’t a one-sided story.
No disrespect to Joe Haden, but Minkah Fitzpatrick already looks like he could be the secondary’s most dynamic playmaker, and the secondary has not had a dynamic playmaker since Troy Polamalu in 2013.
Sean Davis’ injury is also a factor. With Sean Davis out, the Steelers were looking at the prospect of Kameron Kelly starting the rest of the year at free safety. Even if the rest of the Steelers defense starts living up to its pedigree, that could be enough to sink the unit by itself.
Steelers history junkies can look at how the Steelers defense cratered in 1988 when Cornell Gowdy manned the strong safety spot between Donnie Shell’s retirement and Carnell Lake’s arrival via the 1989 draft.
The Steelers do not play for draft position, and that philosophy has served them well. Bill Austin supposedly screwed the team by not losing enough in 1968 therefore depriving Pittsburgh of a shot at drafting O.J. Simpson. Chuck Noll had to settle for Joe Greene instead.
How did that turn out?
Beyond affirming the franchise’s commitment to winning, the Steelers also get Minkah Fitzpatrick at a very salary cap friendly contract for 2 years plus the 5th year option.
Steelers Trade for Nick Vannett
Just to keep things interesting, the Steelers then went and traded away one of those 5th round picks for tight end Nick Vannett.
Sometimes living in your hopes can animate your worst fears.
The Steelers gambled going into 2019 that 1. Vance McDonald’s relative health in 2018 would continue. 2. That Xavier Grimble was ready to be a true number 2 tight end.
We’re only 3 weeks into the season, and Vance McDonald has already missed action in multiple games. Xavier Grimble is probably a serviceable number 3 tight end, but he looked in over his head as a legit number 2, and certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a number 1. Besides, he’s hurt.
Really, the situation was no different than it was at safety with Sean Davis injured.
The Steelers made a move they had to make, but it came at the expense of yet another draft pick.
One Constant Remains
A lot can change in two weeks in Steelers Nation, but one constant remains: When I am unable to write, big things happen. Here’s a quick summary:
The Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head in 2000 on my first trip to Argentina. Dan Rooney sided with The Chin
As the Rooneys themselves, agonized between Russ Grimm and Mike Tomlin, I was on vacation in Chile
Super Bowl week in 2009 found me in Tandil deep in the province of Buenos Aires
Super Bowl week in 2011 found me in Brazil where I missed Super Bowl XLV
When Bruce Arians got the ax in 2012 I was in New York City on vacation (Rumor has it I tried to write something only to get “caught” by my wife….)
When the Steelers decided to resign Antonio Brown in 2011 I was off on a weekend get away in Colonia Uruguay
Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.
Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:
Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”
That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.
But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.
“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.
My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):
“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.
In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.
After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.
My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.
While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)
I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.
I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.
Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.
Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.
Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”
When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.
Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports
Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.
Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.
No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.
But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.
Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.
It says here that is a wise move.
As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”
Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB
And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.
But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.
The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.
But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.
The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.
They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.
Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?
How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro to get to the latter?
Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.
There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.
It takes time to accurately evaluate an NFL Draft class, all of the instant draft grades notwithstanding. But the Steelers 2019 Draft class can already be described with one word: Bold.
To say that the Steelers are conservative when it comes to the NFL Draft is an understatement.
On Steelers.com Bob Labriola annually reminds readers that the Steelers objective is not to “win” the NFL Draft anymore than they attempt to “win” free agency.
The success of the Steelers 2019 Draft Class will be measured by whether they help add a 7th Lombardi. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
And yet here was Kevin Colbert trading away the Steelers 2nd round pick from 2019 and its third round pick from 2020 to move up into the top ten. The Steelers haven’t sniffed the top ten since 2000, when they got Plaxico Burress.
Kevin Colbert consummated the trade, and a few moments later no less than Joe Greene was at the podium announcing that the Steelers had drafted Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Suddenly, motives behind events of the last few weeks and months now come into focus.
The Steelers were unusually aggressive in free agency.
They followed with the biggest draft day trade in franchise history.
The motive is simple. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that Ben Roethlisberger’s time is limited. At age 37, he’s show few, if any, signs of losing the footrace with Father Time. But lose he will. The potential for a strike or lockout after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021 adds additional urgency.
That urgency translated directly to the way the Steelers put together their 2019 draft class
This year the Steelers stuck to the script, using each of their premium picks to double down on roster moves they’d made in free agency.
When asked if he felt the Steelers had accomplished their objectives in the 2019 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin deadpanned, “Yes, but we always do” accompanied by a mischievous grin.
Kevin Colbert said with Mike Tomlin had implied when asked if he was satisfied by picking Devin Bush, “Only time will tell. As I said the other day, if he helps us win a Super Bowl then it was a good pick.”
Whether or not a Steelers draft class can help bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh has been the key evaluation criteria for the past several years.
The Standard remains the Standard with the Steelers 2019 draft class.
Only this time it carries greater urgency, because Big Ben really has reached the 11th hour of his career.
To milk the metaphor a bit more, Brown and Bell seem intent on keeping the story alive by stinging their former team via social media.
But none of the barbs that Brown and Bell are throwing Ben Roethlisberger’s way change the fact that these two Killer Bees left town without fulfilling their purpose – bringing Lombardi Number Seven back to Pittsburgh.
Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, given the trio’s nickname.
Sports nicknames entrench themselves with fans when they’re both fun and accurate.
The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com
Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine really did churn out division titles, pennants, and championships in machine like fashion. Washington’s “Hogs” really did dominate the line of scrimmage. The Redskin’s “Fun Bunch” was fun.
And so it was with the Steelers Killer Bees, whose nickname was both fun and accurate.
The “killer bees” or Africanized bees were brought to the Americas in the late 1950’s in an attempt to breed bees that produced more honey. They were originally contained in a secure apiary near Rio Claro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the escaped and headed north!
An urban legend was born.
The phenomenon reached critical mass in popular culture the 1970’s. Although their stings weren’t worse than normal bees, “killer bees” were more aggressive, and more likely to swarm. It was too much for Hollywood to resist.
Several (bad) killer bees movies were shot. If memory serves, a Super Friends episode plot line revolved around the “killer bees.” And I even had to read a story about the coming threat of the “Killer Bees” in one of my elementary school reading books.
When the killer bees arrived in the United States in the 1980’s, their buzz was much worse than their bite.
Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.
Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide
Shortly after the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, a fellow Steelers blogger, who is no homer, sent me a sort of “chin up” email, assuring me that by mid-October the Steelers offense would be “Blowing other teams out of the water.”
As others, such as the Post-Gazette’sJoe Starkey have pointed out, injuries and suspensions are the main culprit behind Steelers Killers failure meet expectations. Ben, Bell, Brown and Byrant only played together for a handful of quarters in 2015. Le’Veon Bell missed games to suspension in 2015 and 2016 and Martavis Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension.
The Steelers should have had the 3 Killer Bees on the field together for 6 playoff games.
Instead, Ben, Bell and Brown only managed 3 complete games and the first quarter of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots together. They won 2 of those three, and only won 1 of the other 3 contests.
Injury was the ultimate insect repellent even when all 3 Killer Bees remained healthy.
The 2017 Steelers defense was flashing signs of being good, if not very good before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. But of course we know what happened to the defense without Shazier. For whatever else you want to say about the Jacksonville disaster, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell (and Martavis Bryant) did their part.
Its been pointed out that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before Bell and Brown even arrived on the scene. Perhaps he can do it again.
Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.
Sort of, but not really.
It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).
Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt
Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.
Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.
They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.
The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.
OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?
I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.
In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.
In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.
While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.
The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.
A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.
To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.
You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.
Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.
You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.
After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.
Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.
It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.
Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.
That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.
Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.
Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP
Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say
These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.
Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.
No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.
The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers
The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.
That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.
The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.
In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.
An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.
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 allowingJohnny 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.
Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft
Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.
Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.
Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.
Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:
“Dick, don’t over coach him.”
At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.
According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”
That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.
The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.
John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.
The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.
Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.
As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.
And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):
Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.
Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.
But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.
Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.
As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”
The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation
Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.
That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.
Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.
Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.