How Carlos Emmons’ Story Offers Hope for Steelers 2017 7th Round Draftee Keion Adams

he end of the 2017 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh saw the Steelers draft Keion Adams, outside linebacker from Western Michigan in a pick that saw immediate comparisons to Arthur Moats.

For the record, the Steelers 2017 7th round pick stands at 6’2” and weighs in at 245 and led the MAC conference with 17 tackles for a loss and posted 13 sacks over two seasons as a starter.

Keion Adams, Steelers 2017 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick Keion Adams closes in on Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Photo Credit: Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette

If you were to play a quick game of word association with a citizen of Steelers Nation and said “Keion Adams” the likely response would be “practice squad.” And landing on the Steelers practice squad wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a 7th round pick.

  • But Steelers history suggests that Keion Adams quest to make the final 53 man roster is far from hopeless.

Oh, to be certain, the odds are long. He’s looking at a Steelers outside linebacker depth chart that lists Bud Dupree and James Harrison as starters, with Moates and Anthony Chickillo as backups along with 2017’s 1st round draft pick T.J. Watt ahead of him.

  • Suffice to say, Keion Adams certainly shouldn’t commit himself to a long-term lease anywhere in greater Pittsburgh.

And like seemingly every NFL draft hopful, Keion Adams has a YouTube highlight clip:

Ok… That highlight clip doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Lambert and Lloyd. Fair enough. But Carlos Emmons was in Keion Adam’s shoes once before, and his story gives the Steelers 2017 7th round pick every reason to chin up.

Carlos Emmons and the Steelers 1996 Draft Class

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene departed Pittsburgh following the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XXX. But one of the reasons why the Steelers were ready to let Greene go was because Jason Gildon was ready to start.

  • 20/20 hindsight tells us that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe made a mistake in letting the great Greene go in favor of the merely good Gildon.

But that fact wasn’t apparent on the fields of St. Vincents in the summer of 1996 and even if it had been, it would have meant nothing to Carlos Emmons, the outside linebacker that the Steelers had drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers 7th round picks,

Steelers 1996 7th Round Pick Carlos Emmons’s story offers 2017 7th rounder hope Keion Adams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Rantsports.com

Mind you, as Super Bowl losers the Steelers were drafting 2nd to last in each round. That made Carlos Emmons the 242nd player drafted out of 254 names called during the 1996 NFL Draft. As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, in addition to Gildon, the Steelers had just resigned Greg Lloyd and had drafted Steve Conley in the third round.

They also had Eric Ravotti who could play on both the inside and outside and, while Chad Brown was a fixture at inside linebacker, the team knew he should shift to the outside should the need arise (as it did, when injuries felled Greg Lloyd in the season opener.)

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Steelers also had Jerry Olsavsky, Donta Jones and Earl Holmes behind Levon Kirkland and Brown on the inside.

  • Clearly, 1996 did not figure to be a good year to be a linebacker drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round.

As you’d expect, Carlos Emmons wasn’t a player most fans were eager to get a look at once preseason started. But during the Steelers America Bowl game in Tokyo, Emmons made the most of his time and recorded a sack late in the 4th quarter.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers Carlos Emmons,

Carlos Emmons tackles a Kansas City Chief. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette, Peter Diana

Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher continued to give Emmons opportunities in preseason and, if memory serves, he led the team in sacks during that five exhibition game series. When cut down day came the Steelers had a quandary. Their linebackers all looked good.

  • So the Steelers did the unconventional thing, and kept 10 linebackers on their 1996 opening day active roster.

Seven of those linebacker dressed for the Steelers 1996 home opener at Jacksonville, and by the end of the game only 4 of them were in uniform. Greg Lloyd tore his patella tendon, Jason Gildon suffered a knee injury, and so did Steven Conley.

Things looked so bad that Dick LeBeau openly discussed moving to a 4-3, but that wasn’t necessary as Gildon was back in the lineup sooner than expected.

Carlos Emmons had been in street clothes for the season opener, but he played in all 15 of the Steelers other games, and by the end of 1997 he was starting in after Greg Lloyd’s season ended injury. Emmons would go on to start during 1998 and 1999 before leaving for Philadelphia as a free agent, where he played for four years and then went on to play 3 more in for the Giants.

To be clear, when you talk about the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker you typically start by rattling off the name of Jack Ham, and perhaps you throw in Bryan Hinkle before getting to Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

  • You never stop to mention the name “Carlos Emmons.”

But that’s beside the point. In the spring and summer of 1996, Carlos Emmons looked like a throwaway pick 7th round picks, just as many pundits have already written Keion Adams as a throwaway 7th round picks.

But Emmons never looked at himself that way, nor did the Steelers. He never blossomed into a star, but had a decent run in Pittsburgh, and overall had a decent NFL career. Fortunately for Kion Adams, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have him a chance to do the same.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney obituary, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi trophies

Dan Rooney, sitting in front of the Steelers 1st five Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steeles.com

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr.

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Steelers 1992 draft room

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

The Rothlisbergers and the Rooney’s stand outside the US ambassador’s residence in Ireland. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to concede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

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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4 Survival Tips for Steelers Nation for the Start of Free Agency

In just a few hours the NFL’s 2017 free agency period will start. We’ve seen this movie before of course, but commentators still insist on trying to spice things up with a dose of extra drama.

  • Steelers Nation is not exempt.

In the course the course of just a handful of days, we’re told that Ross Cockrell, Lawrence Timmons and most likely Markus Wheaton are on the verge of selling their homes in Pittsburgh, while the Steelres signing Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall and Dre Kirkpatrick is merely a formality.

  • Or something like that.

Its inevitable I guess, but at this time of year a certain segment of Steelers Nation seems to forget all history since 1993. So what is a good blogger to do? Offer Steelers Nation advice on surviving free agency.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2017 free agency

Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert during Steelers 2015 off season. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

1. Any Steelers Free Agent Splash Likely Involves a Name You’re Not Hearing

You don’t need a long memory for this one folks. Think back to the week before free agency started in 2014. Steelers Nation was abuzz with anticipation of the Mike Mitchell signing. Behind the Steel Curtain had a full 7 or 8 articles analyzing how Mitichell’s arrival would impact Shamarko Thomas’ development, Troy Polamalu’s retirement and the Steelers salary cap….

…Except it didn’t.

If memory serves, there was little – if any – connection made between Mike Mitchell and the Steelers until the Steelers surprised everyone by signing Mike Mitchell. Ditto last year’s signing of Ladarius Green.

Unlike other teams, the Steelers aren’t concerned about winning the off season Lombardi, they’re focused on winning a real Lombardi. They’ve never telegraphed their moves before. No one in Steelers Nation should expect them to start now.

2. Watch Confluence of Steelers Words & Actions

Might the Steelers lose Lawrence Timmons? You bet. Kevin Colbert has said a number of times that he thinks Lawrence Timmons might test the free agent market. The Steelers anticipated this over a year ago when they resigned Vince Williams.

  • The Steelers want Lawrence Timmons back, but Omar Khan isn’t cutting him a blank check.

Ditto Ross Cockrell. This site perhaps underestimated the Steelers desire to bring Cockrell back in our free agent profile of the restricted free agent corner. But the low tender, combined with Jim Wexell’s reporting that the Steelers are going target cornerback in free agency shows that their some fire behind that smoke.

The door swings both ways, as the case of Antonio Brown illustrates. The Steelers just resigned Antoino Brown agreeing to pay him an average of 17 million for the next five years. Do you relly think they’re going to plunk down 12 million a year for Terrelle Pryor?

If you do, you don’t understand how the Pittsburgh Steelers work.

3. Don’t Panic. The Brain Trust in Pittsburgh Won’t

This isn’t the first rodeo for Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, nor is it for 3 or 4 score of other people employed at the South Side. As an organization, the Steelers have the institutional wisdom to both know to expect the unexpected and that smart decisions in free agency are never made out of panic.

  • A little thought exercise brings this to light.

Who is the Steelers best free agent signing ever? The answer can only be Kevin Greene. No offense to Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark or James Farrior, but Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer. But the Steelers didn’t enter the 1993 off season targeting Kevin Greene.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought the Steelers outside linebacking tandem was set with Greg Lloyd and Jerrol Williams.

Then San Diego came along and made Jerrol Williams a 1.7 million one year contract offer, in what was then an exorbitant amount for any player, let alone a 1 year contract. The Steelers really wanted to keep Williams in Pittsburgh, but there was no way they were going to pay that money.

  • So they went out and signed a future Hall of Famer instead.

During the 1997 off season, the Steelers saw their top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures all walk in free agency. When dust settled, two Kordell Stewart interceptions at the goal line in the AFC Championship where essentially all that separated the Steelers from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It doesn’t always work out so neatly, of course. After the 1997 trip to the AFC Championship, the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans grossly overpaid for the services of John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen. If the Pittsburgh was right to stick to its bottom lines, the Steelers most certainly suffered as the team struggled to find replacements for both players.

The Steelers understand that winning free agent bidding wars won’t doesn’t win Super Bowls.

4. Relax and Remember: Reality Unfolds at its Own Pace

Reading all of this “do or die” talk about free agents either coming or going reminds me of a conversation I had while in college the night before free agency began for the first time in 1993.

A friend of mine, I diehard Washington Redskins fan, called me and told me:

“Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am Reggie White’s agent is going to get a call with a big, fat contract from Redskins Park, and I predict by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be a Washington Redskin.”

To hear my friend tell it, Lombardi number 4 should already have been pressed, minted and shipped to Asburn, Virginia. To be fair, Reggie White hadn’t been happy in Philadelphia, and his name had been frequently tied to the Redskins. And Jake Kent Cooke and spent lavishly on players in the days before free agency.

  • But of course Reggie White never made it to Washington.

He got ticker tape parades and city keys at just about every team he visited. In the end the team that deliberately took a minimalist, football centric approach, the Green Bay Packers, landed Reggie White.

Could this afternoon bring news that the Steelers have made another day-one free agent signing? Yes it might? Could we see Lawrence Timmons announce his reunion with Dick LeBeau or Bruce Arians. Perhaps. Both are plausible possibilities.

Its also just as possible that Timmons shops his services around, makes a couple of visits, and decides to stay in Pittsburgh, just as Ryan Clark did in 2010. The Steelers could make a splash, but the could also let the initial frenzy pass, and then do that they’ve traditionally done best – bargain hunt.

At the end of the day, “Reality unfolds at its own pace,” if we’re allowed recycle a 40 year old quote from Jerry Brown.

And perhaps free agency is the best time to keep that in mind.

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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

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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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5 Key Decisions that Fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 Wins as Steelers Head Coach

Ask Mike Tomlin about his 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and he’ll tersely explain “It means I’ve been here for a while.” Fair enough, but Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins didn’t come overnight, and certainly didn’t occur because he was in the right place at the right time.

  • No, Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins come because he’s one of the best head coaches in the NFL.

Any head coach’s record is a byproduct of a lot of hours of film study, staffing and personnel choices, strategy adoption and game-day decision making. It is hard for an outsider to pinpoint key moments that directly resulted in a coach’s success.

But we’re going to try. Here are 5 key decisions that fueled Mike Tomiln’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach.

mike tomlin, mike tomlin's 100 wins steelers head coach,

Quality coaching decisions fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. (Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post Gazette)

1. Adopting while reshaping Bill Cowher’s legacy

Can we please dispense with the “Mike Tomlin has only won with Bill Cowher’s players” nonsense?

Yes, Tomlin did inherit Ben Roethlisberger and a host of Super Bowl XL veterans, but if you think that getting handed the keys to a team that is a year or two removed from a Lombardi Trophy is an automatic key to success, please consult the coaching records of Richie Petitbon, Ray Handley or Phil Bengtson.

  • Mike Tomlin had a real challenge facing him when he took over in 2007.

Most if not all of his locker room expected and wanted either Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt to get the job. Alan Faneca wasn’t happy with his contract. Neither was Joey Porter.

Tomlin was not only smart enough to retain Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, but wise enough to sit back and learn from Coach Dad. He also retained several members of Bill Cowher’s staff, while integrating it with new faces he’d brought in with him.

  • Mike Tomlin didn’t shy away from tough choices. With his approval, the Steelers parted ways with Joey Porter.

Part of his motivation no doubt lay in the conclusion that James Harrison needed to start, a move The Chin never made. Tomlin also smoothed over the Alan Faneca situation. Faneca wasn’t happy, but he never caused a disruption because of his contract.

It’s true that Dick LeBeau came “highly recommended” by the Rooneys, but Tomlin could have just as easily kept him and made wholesale changes with the rest of his for the sake of making a statement. Instead, Tomlin pulled off the delicate balance of embracing the legacy that Bill Cowher left him while making the team his own.

2. Going hard on defense in the 2007 NFL Draft

While Mike Tomlin shares drafting authority with Kevin Colbert, the duo didn’t hesitate to break rules by drafting two outside linebackers with their first two picks in the 2007 NFL Draft.

  • No, that’s not a misprint.

The Steelers drafted Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker, and he was listed behind James Harrison in the Steelers 2007 Media Guide’s training camp depth chart. After that they picked LaMarr Woodley. They of course moved Lawrence Timmons to the inside. He took a while to develop, but since 2010, he’s been the mainstay of the Steelers defense.

But as Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, LaMarr Woodley registered 44 sacks in 55 games, a pace that not even Hall of Famers like Joe Greene and Kevin Greene or legends such as L.C. Greenwood and Greg Lloyd could match. And of course, LaMarr Woodley’s strip sack of Kurt Warner sealed victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Tomlin and Colbert also picked William Gay during the 2007 NFL Draft.

The Steelers 2007 draft class was was far from perfect. Matt Spaeth was hardly a bust but never lived up to his 3rd round status. Neither did Daniel Sepulveda. And who can remember the other players the Steelers drafted then?

But 100 wins later, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s first draft picks are still paying dividends on the field.

3. Standing Up for Bruce Arians in 2009

Mike Tomlin’s first real adversity came during the Steelers 2009 five-game losing streak in a year where the franchise clearly seemed to suffer from a Super Bowl hangover. Fans, bloggers and the professional press were all calling for Bruce Arians’ head.

  • So were some people on the South Side whose opinion actually counts.

As Ed Bouchette reported at the time, “Tomlin is under pressure from the ‘front office’” over Arians. While Arians did do some boneheaded things in 2009 (see the pass happy, empty sets on third and short on a freezing night in Cleveland), the truth is he got unfairly scapegoated a lot too.

  • But Mike Tomlin believed in his offensive coordinator, and he fought for him.

Don’t think for a moment that players, coaches and other members of the Steelers organization weren’t watching Tomlin closely to see whether he would fold.

4. Hiring Todd Haley as his offensive coordinator

Wait a minute! How’s this? How can you pat Mike Tomlin on the back for sticking up for Arians, then in the next breath praise him for a hire that he had to make because Art Rooney II pulled rank on him by forcing Bruce Arians out?

  • Yes, I admit, it does seem like a bit of a contradiction. But it is not.

We know that Mike Tomlin wanted Bruce Arians back and that he was unable (or perhaps less than 100% willing) to convince Art Rooney II to agree. So be it. The ultimate success or failure of the move would lie in how the Steelers offense performed post-Arians.

  • That meant Mike Tomlin had to hire the right replacement.

Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley, a move that generated its share of controversy. Steelers author Tim Gleason praised the move, while Steelers writer Neal Coolong spoke out harshly against it as soon as Haley’s name surfaced. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t exactly hit it off either.

But before working with Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger was seen as a fine physical talent who excelled at school-yard football. Ben Roethlisberger has grown under Todd Haley. It’s true that Ben Roethlisberger’s road record under Haley remains a concern, but under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is both playing better football and taking far fewer sacks.

Todd Haley was able to accomplish what Bruce Arians was unwilling even to attempt: find a way to get Ben to release the ball sooner, without taking away what makes Ben, Ben.

5. Pulling out of 2013’s 2-6 Spiral

OK, number 5 doesn’t exactly count as a “decision.” But the turn around of the 2013 Steelers turn around certainly could not have happened without a lot of good decision making.

A lot of NFL teams that start 0-4 probably continue on to 2-6. Your “average 2-6 team” will finish 4-12 with your “above average 2-6 teams” ending somewhere in realm of 5-11 or 6-10. But it is fairly safe to say that a 2-5 team that finds its way to a 2-6 record thanks to a 55-33 loss generally projects to a 2-14 or 3-14 finish.

  • Yet, that is exactly how the first 8 games of the Steelers 2013 season unfolded.

Things looked bleak after the Steelers London loss dropped them to 0-4. Mike Tomlin made changes, and suddenly 0-4 turned to 2-4. Then came disastrous trips to Oakland’s Black Hole and a trip to Gillette Stadium. But the 2013 Steelers fought on, and not only returned to respectability with an 8-8 finish, but they came one blown call away from a trip to the playoffs.

  • Only well-coached teams execute turn arounds like that.

Quitting on a coach is somewhat of an art form in the NFL. The 2013 Steelers always gave Mike Tomlin their best all season long. By the end of the season, their best delivered results.

  • Out of Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins, those 8 from 2013 might have been the hardest fought.

Mike Tomlin coaxed everything he could out of the talent on the 2013 Steelers who lacked depth at several key positions.

Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins are undoubtedly build on dozens of other decisions that the public doesn’t know about, but until those come to light, these are our 5 top choices.

 

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How Kirk Cousins “How Do You Like Me Now?” Callout Vindicates Dan Rooney’s Contract Negotiation Stance

One of the peculiarities of being a Steelers fan first and a football fan second is that it becomes easy to forget just how differently the rest of the NFL operates sometimes. In fact, when I read that a team has extended a contract during the season, my first reaction is often “…But wait a minute, players don’t get signed during the season.

  • But of course they do – It just doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Reading Andrew Brandt’s column in MMQB on the Kirk Cousin’sHow do you like me now?”call out to Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, brought home just how wise Dan Rooney was to install the Steelers regular season contract negotiation blackout policy in 1993.

  • Can you imagine something like the Kirk Cousin’s incident happening in Pittsburgh?

No, neither can I. That’s not to say that the Steelers are immune to contract malaise. Alan Faneca was not happy about not getting his extension in 2007, and he grumbled about it loudly in the off season, but that ended when the games started.

Dan Rooney, Steelers contrat negotiation policy

Dan Rooney following the 2010 AFC Championship victory. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images via BTSC

Jeff Reed likewise was unhappy that the Steelers didn’t extend his contract in 2010, and that unhappiness perhaps contributed to Mike Tomlin’s decision to cut him.

  • But by and large, you don’t see these types of contract-based stories popping up in Pittsburgh during the regular season.

Reporters certainly ask players in their contract years if they want to come back, as they did with Lawrence Timmons after the Steelers win over the Giants, but answers usually run along the lines of “I’d like to stay, but we’ll see what happens in March.”

It wasn’t always that way, however….

Free Agency Comes to Pittsburgh….

1993 was the first season that the NFL experienced free agency, thanks to the Freeman-McNeil verdict. The new era saw the Steelers say good by to long-time stalwarts like Tunch Ilkin, but allowed them to bring in veterans like Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

  • At the time, most fans thought that Dan Rooney was cheap, but the Steelers also pioneered success in the salary cap era by resigning their own players.

During that 1993 off season, the Steelers came to terms with Neil O’Donnell, Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson a year before their contracts expired (O’Donnell had been a RFA). They also wanted to reach similar deals with Rod Woodson and Barry Foster, but couldn’t get them done in the summer. So negotiations continued, as the 1993 Steelers got off to a 0-2 start.

Patricia Rooney is the only one who knows if her husband Dan watched ESPN PrimeTime that night, but Chris Berman’s lead on the Steelers game talked about the Woodson and Foster contracts, and showed in image of a guy handing out money….

…If Dan Rooney did see that ESPN, he could not have been pleased.

1993 the Year of the Locker Room Lawyer

While the Steelers had locked up their best defensive player and, at the time, best offensive player the rest of the locker room was not happy, particuarly because after inking Woodson and Foster, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe decided to cut off further negotiations until season’s end.

Tight end Adrian Cooper went as far as to tell Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If everyone’s contract would be done, I think we’d be 4-0 instead of 2-2. It has something to do with it. We’re unbeaten since they signed the two big guys.”

Big things had been expected of Adrian Cooper, so much that the Steelers openly discussed trading Eric Green. Cooper’s breakout season failed to materialized, and after the season he explained to reporters, “I feel neglected. As a result, my performance was a reflection of how they treated me.”

  • As soon as Tom Donahoe heard that, Cooper was on the next bus out of town, heading to Minnesota via trade.

But even Merril Hoge, a man whose ethics are beyond question, confided, “When we went 0-2, I think they thought players were more concerned about their contracts. That may have been true.”

After the season Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe all agreed that contract issues had been a distraction for the Steelers in 1993. Their solution was to use the regular season to focus on winning, not negotiating.

The results speak for themselves. Although he may have wanted his contract extension sooner than he got it, Ben Roethlisberger certainly never considered walking off of Heinz Field and screaming “How do you like me now?” at Kevin Colbert, because the focus in Pittsburgh during the season stays where it should, on winning.

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Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene Brought “Blitzgurgh” to Pittsburgh

If you’re a Steelers fan and familiar with Pittsburgh’s  usual participation in the annual free agent frenzy that began in 1992, you’ve probably long-since resigned yourself to not expecting much in the way of splash-signings.

  • But, believe it or not, one of the Steelers first free agent signings was of the high-profile variety.

It came about following a high-profile defection, when Jerrol Williams, a fourth round pick out of Purdue in the 1989 NFL Draft who had just supplanted veteran Bryan Hinkle as the starter at left outside linebacker in 1992, signed a restricted free agent deal with the Chargers.

How would the Steelers, who were coming off one of their best seasons in years under first-year head coach Bill Cowher, respond and reload for the 1993 campaign?

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Green, Blitzburgh, Steelers, Steelers 1990s, Greg Lloyd

Steelers Hall of Famer Kevin Greene brought Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh; Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

  • By courting and then signing 31-year old veteran Kevin Greene, who racked up 72.5 career sacks in eight seasons with the Rams.

To say Kevin Greene, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend and has made it known his favorite years were spent in Pittsburgh, and that he wants to have his official ring ceremony take place at Heinz Field in 2016, was an upgrade over the younger Williams is an understatement.

Kevin Greene Brings Blitzburgh to Pittsburgh

In ’93, Greene led the Steelers with 12.5 sacks and doubled the total of defensive end Donald Evans, who finished second with 6.5.

Perhaps more importantly, Greene made right legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd even more dangerous by creating a “pick your poison” scenario for opposing offenses. While Greg Lloyd recorded “only” six sacks in ’93, he had 111 tackles and five forced fumbles. Following such a great all-around season of devastation, Lloyd, who had already played in two Pro Bowls by that point, was named a First-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.

Two more All-Pro seasons followed for Greg Lloyd in subsequent years, and he was named the team MVP and UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.

All the while, Greene was doing what he did best: Sack the quarterback. While Greg Lloyd had arguably his best season in ’94, totaling 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, Greene posted an incredible 14 sacks, a record that would stand until James Harrison broke it in 2008 (despite defenders holding Silverback on nearly EVERY play.)

That kind of production from your outside linebackers in a 3-4, zone-blitz scheme is a dream-come-true. And, in Pittsburgh, with creative Steelers fans in abundance, this is going to lead to a nickname–or two.

  • Quiver and Quake was a sign often seen hanging at old Three Rivers Stadium–Lloyd was the Quiver to Greene’s Quake.

Another nickname that became popular during the ’94 campaign was “Blitzburgh,” coined by Myron Cope after the defense recorded 55 sacks.

Blitzburgh may not be as enduring as “The Steel Curtain,” the nickname given to the legendary ’70s Steelers defenses, but when you hear it, it certainly reminds you of players like Greene and Lloyd, and the havoc they wreaked on opposing offenses in the mid-’90s.

Greene left as a free agent after the 1995 season, following the loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think he considered his short three year stay in Pittsburgh to be that special.

But when you think about it, Greene got to play for an enthusiastic players’ coach in Cowher; the universally loved Dick LeBeau was the secondary coach and then the defensive coordinator during Greene’s stay in Pittsburgh; he played in-front of maybe the most passionate fans in all of sports and in one of the loudest places in Three Rivers Stadium; and he also made his only trip to the Super Bowl.

Kevin Greene Best Steelers Free Agent Signing Ever?

As fans, we sometimes reduce everything down to championships. The linebacker combo of Greene and Lloyd wasn’t as impressive as the duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who teamed up for a combined 72 sacks from 2008-2010 and helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi.

  • But those years in the mid-’90s, when Lloyd and Greene combined for 58 sacks and five Pro Bowls (Greene was also named a First-team All-Pro in ’94) weren’t so bad, either.

As far as free agents in Steelers history, other than James Farrior and Jeff Hartings, it’s hard to name a better one than Greene, who totaled 35.5 sacks during his three years in Pittsburgh.

The Rooneys sure got their money’s worth during Kevin Greene’s three years in Pittsburgh. Not only was he very productive, but the team was exciting, the fans were passionate, and it was fun to root for the Pittsburgh Steelers again.

Kevin Greene had a big role in making it fun to be a Pittsburgh Steeler again. It was also a time Kevin Greene has certainly never forgotten. Neither will Steelers Nation.

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