Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.
- But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.
Ray Sherman returns….? https://t.co/3m2FGUddcG
— Steel Curtain Rising (@SteelCurtainRis) August 13, 2019
Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.
With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.
Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators
Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.
Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.
- Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.
In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”
- Yet, a year later Bill Cowher was handing the Lombardi to Dan Rooney in Detroit on the dais at Super Bowl XL.
The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.
- And so it was after the 1997 AFC Championship loss.
The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.
More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….
Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh
Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.
In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.
- Fast forward to 1998, when Jerry Jones hired Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey to coach the Cowbosy on the day before Valentine’s Day.
The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.
Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.
- Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?
Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.
He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.
- But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.
Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.
When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.
- But if fans at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon could guess the play call, opposing defensive staffs certainly could too.
Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.
The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem
The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.
Neither turned out to be true.
- But does that mean Ray Sherman is a bad choice to mentor JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief?
Quite to the contrary.
Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.