“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”
- But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.
Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.
1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process
The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.
And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.
- In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.
On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.
As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.
2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health
You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.
Yeah, bad idea.
Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.
3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton
The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.
- And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.
After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.
At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.
Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”
Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.
4. Letting Kevin Greene Go
This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)
But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.
In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.
5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh
Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.
- The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.
The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.
After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.
By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.
6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk
Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.
- The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.
Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.
But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.
7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan
People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones‘ injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.
- When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.
- Both Jim Wexell and Dale Lolley reported that Harrison could be a cap causality.
That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.
It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.
8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner
My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.
- But consider the context.
After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.
And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.
9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022
Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.
So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.
During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.
During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.
Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.
(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris
This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.
In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.