In the End, Pennsylvania Delivers. Eagles Super Bowl Win Preserves Steelers “Sixburgh” Status

The message of Super Bowl LII, for Pittsburgh at least? In the end, count on Pennsylvania to deliver. The Philadelphia Eagles brought the first ever Lombardi Trophy back to the City of Brotherly love with a thrilling 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots that went all the way to the wire.

  • Nick Foles, Jeffery Lurie and all of the Philadelphia fans fully deserve all of the celebration and accolades that come with this win.

The Eagles earned it, they overcame adversity and they never lost faith in themselves even when they were playing their backup quarterback. They humbled the mighty Tom Brady and while they didn’t stop, they contained Gronk. Good for them.

They also did the franchise that sits down on the opposite end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike a bit of a favor by preventing New England from netting its 6 Lombardi and preserving the Steelers status as the only football team to win six Super Bowls.

  • So, for another year at least, Pittsburgh is “Sixburgh” and the Steelers Nation can proudly tease the rest of the NFL, “Got Six?”

That doesn’t make up for the disappointment that was the 2017 season. But its nice to see some of the Steelers records intact, even another franchise has to do the dirty work.

Tom Brady, Brandon Graham, Super Bowl LII

Tom Brady following Brandon Graham’s strip sack in Super Bowl LII. Photo Credit: Matt Stone, Boston Herald

In 2014, the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell going into the playoffs and the team was not ready. As a result, New England tied Chuck Noll’s record. In 2015, the Steelers reached the divisional round without DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and with a less than 100% Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos stopped the Patriots anyway, but one has to wonder if Pittsburgh would have been up to the task.

Last year the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl run petered out in the AFC Championship, as Steelers again lost Bell early on, while Martavis Bryant was out suspended and JuJu Smith-Schuster was yet to be drafted.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course the first team to win 3, 4 and 6 Super Bowls.

The franchise was good at setting those records, but not so good at defending them. Even with Hall of Famers  like Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson, the likes of Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps and Merril Hoge weren’t going to stop the 49ers from getting to 4 in the 80’s.

And of course the 1994 Steelers blew their chance to face off against the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and a year later in Super Bowl XXX Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown paved the way for Dallas, not Pittsburgh to reach 5 Super Bowls first.

So be it. You always prefer to count on yourselves and never on another team to defend franchise honor. The Seahawks came up short, and the Falcons folded in the 4th last year. But our fellow Pennsylvanians the Philadelphia Eagles delivered. Thank You Philly.

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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.

This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com

Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?

By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.

  • So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?

Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.

  • Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.

While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.

  • Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.

Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.

  • If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.

Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.

  • For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.

Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.

  • Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.

  • First, football is a results driven business.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?

  • The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.

Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.

  • If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
  • Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.

Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would  tip the scales. Time will tell.

But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.

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Steelers Report Card for Bears Loss: Piss Poor Grades for a Piss Poor Performance

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who what he thought was an Advanced Placement class that nonetheless seems to be regressing towards the mediocre mean here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Steelers report card bears, Steelers vs bears, Antonio Brown, Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper swats away the ball from Antonio Brown in the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Are the arms on Big Ben’s clock ticking towards “Life’s Work” faster than anticipated? Ben Roethlisberger’s stat sheet doesn’t quite seem to indicate that as 22 of 39 for one touchdown and no interceptions is respectable, if hardly spectacular. But Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sharp all season, and he hasn’t been able to establish a rapport with any wide out not named Antonio Brown and even then, Brown is making Ben a better quarterback on some of those throws. Big Ben is far from the only thing that ails the Steelers offense, but he need to improve. Grade: C-

Running Backs
This was to be the week that Le’Veon Bell got back on track, wasn’t it? Truth be told, his rushing average was up, but Bell is still very, very far away from the type of dominating performances that were a Sunday afternoon staples for the 2016 Steelers offense. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two of the four passes thrown his way and had to leave the field with an injury. James was the only tight end targeted this this game. While the type of film analysis needed to offer a definitive critique of the Steelers run blocking woes goes far beyond the scope of this column. So while it might not be fair to label the tight ends a problem area, they clearly haven’t shown they can be part of the solution. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Martavis Bryant dropped a bomb on the game’s opening play that he should have caught, and could have been a difference maker. As it was it set the tone for the day, as both he and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a combined 14 targets for 4 catches. Again, some of those passes would have required herculean efforts to catch, but it takes two to tango. Antonio Brown, in contrast, had 10 catches for 110 yards on 11 targets, which brings the group grade up. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit 5 times. On the surface that doesn’t seem like too bad of a day for the Steelers pass blocking, but the first sack resulted in a turnover, the second forced a punt and the third came against a 3 man rush at the end of regulation. And for the third straight week, the road grading effort from the Steelers offensive line was missing. Grade: D

Defensive Line
For the season’s first two weeks, the Steelers defensive line could do no wrong. And to be sure, Javon Hargrave came up with a sack at just the opportune time. But with that said, the Bears averaged over 6 yards a carry rushing. All of that success certainly didn’t come at the expense of Cameron Heyward’s crew, but responsibility for stopping the run starts with them. Grade: F

Linebackers
Anthony Chickillo added another sack, and seemingly reminded everyone of why he was keeping James Harrison on the bench…. Until the Bears moved 74 yards on the ground for a touchdown in 4 plays during overtime. That’s not all Chickillo’s fault, as both Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams missed tackles with alarming regularity during the game, as did Bud Dupree. When the Bear’s “Yards After Contact” numbers are calculated they’ll put the Steelers to shame. What’s worse is that a good chunk of those came on 3rd or 4th efforts. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble & recover y raises this unit’s grade. Grade: D

Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers Report Card Bears loss, Ryan Shazier, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Howard

Ryan Shazier forces then recovers a fumble during the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
The Steelers secondary came up with an interception, limited the Bears wide receivers to one reception and kept them to 4-12 on third downs, or worse than the Steelers. So clearly the Steelers defensive backs were doing a lot of things right against the Bears. But that doesn’t mean that Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden get off scott free. It’s not the fault of the Secondary that the Bears running backs broke out to the second half, but it is their job to stop them when they do. The Steelers secondary didn’t, especially when the game was on the line. Grade: D

Special Teams
After the Steelers defense forced a 3 and out, Eli Rogers muffed punt gave the Bears the ball on Pittsburgh’s 29 and set Chicago up for their first touchdown. For an encore, prior to the second half, the Steelers field goal unit allowed a Chris Boswell attempt to be blocked that set off a chaotic chain of events concluded with a 6 point swing in Chicago’s favor.

The Steelers kick coverage was strong, and Rogers actually had a nice 12 yard return, but those hardly make up for the first half special teams disasters. Grade: F

Coaching
It’s hard to finger coaches for poor execution at times, but when things go wrong on so many levels as they did against the Bears, the coaches bear the ultimate responsibility.

  • Chicago ran the ball well in the first half, making their first rushing touchdown look frighteningly easy.

Credit Keith Butler for making some adjustments, adjustments which held until the overtime disaster. A week ago outsiders were speculating as to whether the Steelers had the makings of a number one defense. The Bears show that Butler’s boys are very, very far from earning that status.

  • Todd Haley has been a lighting rod for fan criticism since he arrived in Pittsburgh, and most of that (save for early 2014) has been unjustified.

The same cannot be said 3 games into 2017. On paper, the Steelers have the potential to have one of the most lethal offenses in recent NFL memory. This was the team that was supposed to put up 30 points without breaking a sweat. Instead, they’re struggling to break the 20 point mark without Chris Boswell’s help.

It is hard to identify any one or two critical breakdowns on Steelers offense because three games into the season, the only thing that is working is Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. (The awful Steelers offenses of the late 80’s could at least rely on Merril Hoge in the days when Bubby Brister to Louis Lipps set the tempo.)

  • Todd Haley’s job is to find a way to make it work, and he’s failing mightily in that respect.

And that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Steel Curtain Rising has never jumped on the “Fire Tomlin” bandwagon before and won’t now.

  • But that doesn’t mean the Steelers head coach doesn’t deserve some harsh criticism, because he most certainly does.

Trap games have always been tricky for Tomlin teams, dating back to his rookie season as head coach. And whether you want to focus on his 5-9 “early season road games” since 2014 or his 5-13 road record against losing teams, this has become a chronic weakness of Tomlin teams.

Last season, either after the losses to Philadelphia or Miami, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola assured a fan that neither the Steelers nor Tomlin had eased up on their preparation in the weeks prior to those ugly losses. The Steelers and Tomlin haven’t changed a thing, Labriola assured.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, because the impact of the Steelers September stumbles have echoed on well into December and January during the past three seasons. This cannot continue. Grade: F

Vance McDonald, Marcus Cooper, Vance McDonald forced fumble, Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers report card bears loss

Vance McDonald strips the ball from Marcus Cooper after the Bears block a Chris Boswell field goal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Unsung Hero Award
Finding an Unsung Hero after a game where nearly every area on the Steelers depth chart can be either be fingered for a critical failure or otherwise remained mired in mediocrity is a challenge.

As the Steelers stood poised to bring the score within 4 to close the first half disaster struck in the form of a blocked field goal. Not only did the Bears deny the Steelers 3 points, but the ball bounced right into the hands of Marcus Cooper who looked to transform the disaster into a 10 point swing for Chicago.

But Cooper got a little too cocky on the way, and that allowed Vance McDonald, who hustled the entire play to force a fumble and prevent a touchdown and for that Vance McDonald wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Bears.

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Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Moderate High

My quickly things change. A year ago, even when taking Maratvis Bryant’s latest suspension into account, the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart looked to be flush at wide receiver.

As fate would have it, Ben Roethlisberger spent the majority of the season having his number 5 and number 6 wide receivers playing for his number 2 and number 3 receivers. While the Steelers have made some free agent moves to shore up their wide receiving corps those having done much to impact the priority status of wide receiver in the impending 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2017 draft needs wide receiver, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant high five in 2015. Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP Photo via New Pittsburgh Courier

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

The subheading you see is no misprint, because as it stands the Steelers only have one proven starter at wide receiver and his name is Antonio Brown.

  • Next time someone tries to tell you a six round pick is a wasted pick, remind them of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers of course took Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft and haven’t looked back. Brown was proverbial one of two dogs fighting for the same bone as a rookie, but he came down with the biggest catch in the Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens and again a week later in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

  • Since then Antonio Brown has established himself as nothing less than the best wide receiver in the NFL.

You can look up all sorts of numbers to justify this claim, but Antonio Brown’s game winner against Baltimore on Christmas Day reveals his greatness in ways numbers could never do justice to.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

The problem is that the Steelers entered the 2016 playoffs without a viable number 2 wide receiver alongside Brown. Sammie Coates was supposed to occupy that role and looked he might, but then he got hurt. So did Markus Wheaton, who is now in Chicago. Darrius Heyward-Bey got promoted to starter at midseason, and then he got hurt.

All three men played well at critical stretches during the regular season, and they also had their moments in the post season, but ultimately they weren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the AFC Championship matchup against New England.

  • During the off season the Steelers signed Justin Hunter a journeyman wide receiver who has had a solid career, but has never lived up to his status as a 34 overall pick.

The Steelers also have the lingering question about Martavis Bryant. Bryant has served his suspension and applied for reinstatement, but the NFL has not yet cleared him to play for 2017.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Wide Receiver

If the Steelers knew that Martavis Bryant would be back AND would keep himself clean and if they Steelers were comfortable that Sammie Coates struggles were solely due to injury, then the priority status of wide receiver for 2017 would probably fall into the category of a luxury pick.Steelers 2016 Draft Needs wide receiver

  • But the Steelers can’t be sure of either of those two things.

And while Eli Rogers made impressive strides, he is still considered more of a slot receiver. The Darrius Heyward-Bey career revival story is a heartening one, but he has yet to produce consistently as a first-line wide receiver.

It is true that Steelers wide receivers, outside of Louis Lipps, Santonio Holmes and Troy Edwards, don’t typically produce much as rookies, but the Steelers need to think beyond the short term and therefore the Steelers 2017 draft need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-High.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

Long time Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney passed away in April 2017, leaving a unprecedented legacy of matching excellence with humility.

As part of our on-going tribute to the man who transformed the Steelers into champions, 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.

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Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1965: Accepting Buddy 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.

Buddy Parker, Steelers head coach Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney decisions

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

  • 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.

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).

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

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.

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 decisions, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires brother

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 decisions, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney 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 decisions, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney hires Bill Cowher

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.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

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.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Decisions, Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Rooney decisons

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.

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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Did the 30-23 1985 Steelers Redskins Loss “Officially” Begin 80’s Mediocrity?

[Editors Note:  Tony Defeo expands on Steelers history vs Washington Redskins ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2016 opener on Monday Night Football @ FedEx Field]

Redskins 30, Steelers 23, November 24, 1985, Three Rivers Stadium 

After reaching the AFC Championship game a year earlier, the Steelers were limping along over the first half of the 1985 season, with a 3-5 record.Quarterback Mark Malone literally was limping, after injuring his foot in a loss to the Bengals in Week 8 and would be out of action an indefinite amount of time.

However, Pittsburgh responded behind veteran David Woodley and rattled off three-straight victories to improve to 6-5. Much like a year earlier, when the Steelers won the old AFC Central with a 9-7 record, it wasn’t going to take a double-digit win total to repeat as division champions. Unfortunately, Woodley came down with a stomach virus prior to the Week 12 match-up with the Redskins at Three Rivers Stadium, and third-stringer Scott Campbell was thrust into the spotlight.

 

Mark Malone, David Woodley, Scott Campbell, 1985 Steelers quarterbacks

NFL.com rated the ’85 Steelers quarterbacks as 5th worst trio ever. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Things didn’t start off well, as Ken Jenkins returned the opening kickoff 95 yards down to the Pittsburgh three-yard line. Running back George Rogers finished things off by plunging in from the one-yard line to make it 7-0, Redskins before most in attendance had even found their seats.

After a 22-yard Gary Anderson field goal cut Washington’s deficit to four, the special teams onslaught continued for the visitors, when Otis Wonsley blocked a Harry Newsome punt, and the Redskins took over at the Pittsburgh 19. Moments later, Jay Schroeder, like Campbell, making his first career start, found tight end Clint Didier for an 18-yard touchdown pass to extend Washington’s lead to 14-3.

Pittsburgh trailed 17-3 in the second quarter, when Campbell threw two quick touchdown passes–one to receiver Louis Lipps for five yards, and one to running back Rich Erenberg for nine-yards–to tie the score at 17.

However, an interception by Campbell in the final moments of the first half along with a personal foul on defensive lineman Keith Willis paved the way for a 39-yard field goal for Mosley, and the Redskins led by three at the break.

Running back John Riggins scored on a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the Redskins a 10-point lead. Pittsburgh’s offense could only muster a couple of Anderson field goals in the second half, as Campbell threw two more picks, and Washington held on for a 30-23 victory.

For the day, Campbell completed 15 of 25 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. “Its a tough situation to be thrown in there like that, but you’ve got to be ready to play,” said Campbell of his first career start on very short notice. 

  • The loss dropped the Steelers to 6-6, and they never recovered, finishing out of the playoffs with a 7-9 record (their first losing season in 14 years).

Whenever I think back on the early-to-mid ’80s Steelers who were still trudging along after their Super Bowl years, the 1985 Steelers Redskins loss seems signal the turning-point of the 1980’s Steelers from still competitive team to a team that flirted with being downright abysmal….

…Over the next three seasons, the Steelers team would finish with records of 6-10, 6-6 and 5-11 in non-strike games over the next three seasons. The slide into mediocrity really did start with the 1985 Steelers Redskins loss.

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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Mark Malone’s 5 Touchdown Game vs. the Colts in 1985

Three Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks have thrown for at least five touchdowns in a game. Terry Bradshaw is obviously one of them. Ben Roethlisberger is another (Big Ben in fact has done it four times). But who was the third?

Surely someone like the legendary Bobby Layne, right? And if it wasn’t him, certainly it was Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart or maybe even a gunslinger like Tommy Maddox, right? Nope.

Try Mark Malone.

mark malone, steelers, 5 touchdowns, former steelers quarterbacks

Former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone in 1986; Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

  • Yes, you read correctly, Mark Malone once threw 5 touchdown passes in game.

Mark Malone, who played for the Steelers for eight years in the 1980s and was the team’s primary starting quarterback from  mid-way through the ’84 campaign until the Steelers traded Malone to the Chargers (for an 8th round pick) following the ’87 season, was never a fan-favorite based the fact that he had to replace a future Hall of Famer and, obviously, his poor career stats.

Malone Not Alone in  Succeeding the Blond Bomber…

Malone was the Steelers first round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, just months after they won Super Bowl XIV, their 4th championship in six years behind the legendary Terry Bradshaw.  Was Malone, a magnificent athlete who passed for 3,388 yards and rushed for another 1,344 during his three years at Arizona State,  going to be groomed as the heir apparent to the Blond Bomber?

  • It didn’t necessarily seem so at the time.

As Malone explained to New York Times in January of 1985 as he prepared to face Miami in the 1984 AFC Championship game, how could he ever replace Bradshaw, who was just 31 years old when the youngster was drafted?

When I was drafted by the Steelers, friends back home in San Diego asked, ‘How will you ever get a chance to play with Bradshaw there?

But, again, Malone was so physically gifted that when Lynn Swann was injured heading into a Week 10 match-up in Seattle during the ’81 season, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll asked him to play wide-receiver. While Malone only caught one pass, it went for a 90-yard touchdown (a franchise record that stood for years).

  • Unfortunately for Malone, he injured his knee in the game against the Seahawks that would require surgery in the offseason and force him to miss all of 1982.

Even after Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season and Cliff Stoudt departed for the USFL, the Steelers acquired David Woodley from the Dolphins prior to the 1984 campaign, and he ultimately beat-out Malone for the starting job.

But, David Woodley wasn’t up to the job, and Malone became the permanent starter in the second half of the season, as he led the ’84 Steelers to five victories, a 9-7 record and Chuck Noll’s last AFC Central Division title.

Among  those victories was an upset over the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in Week 7 (San Francisco’s only loss in ’84 and the 1st of two Noll/Malone wins over Walsh/Montana) and a 52-24 thrashing of the Chargers in Week 13 at old Three Rivers Stadium; in the blow-out win, Malone passed for 253 yards and four touchdowns and, according to his Wikipedia page, became the first quarterback in team history to complete over 80 percent of his passes in a game (18 of 22).

  • Other notable performances during the ’84 campaign occurred in the postseason.

Mark Malone helped the Steelers become the first road team to win a playoff game in Denver, after a 24-17 victory over the Broncos in the divisional round.  One week later, he threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, as Pittsburgh fell to the Dolphins, 45-28, in the AFC Championship game in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

1985 Steelers Appeared Poised for Greatness

While Mark Malone didn’t make anyone forget about Terry Bradshaw during the second half of the ’84 season, he certainly did enough to earn the starting nod moving forward, providing the perfect backdrop for Mark Malone’s shining moment.

  • To understand this, you’ve got to understand the context in which the Steelers started the 1985 season.

The 85 Steelers were a new team with a mostly revamped roster that included an exciting, young receiver named Louis Lipps, 1984’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.  And this retooled roster had renewed Pittsburgh’s enthusiasm with three-straight playoff-appearances and provided objective evidence that the Steel Curtain was poised to rise again.

  • Pittsburgh opened the ’85 campaign at home against the Colts on September 8.

Malone, coming off several impressive performances the year before, had the game of his life in-front of a sell-out crowd, completing 21 of 30 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns, as he tied Bradshaw’s single-game record just one year after he retired.

To add to Malone’s career-day, he also scored on a one-yard touchdown run giving him a hand in 6 touchdowns in a 45-3 blow-out victory.

  • According to the young quarterback, whom the Colts defenders failed to sack all day, it was a total team effort.

As Malone clarified to the UPI after the game:

I thought I had a good game. But as I’ve said in the past–and I think it’s extremely important–when two receivers run good routes and those guys in front are giving you time and you’re running the ball, well, you’re going to have good days.

Those two receivers Malone was referring to were Lipps, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and  three touchdowns, and the legendary John Stallworth, who also tallied a score. Chuck Noll’s Steelers had struggled in the early 80’s, but Malone’s 5 touchdown game on opening day vs. the Colts, Pittsburgh appeared poised to dominate the second half of the decade.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers finished 7-9 and suffered their first losing season since 1971; as for Malone, he only played in 10 games in ’85 due to an injury.

Malone started a combined 26 games over the next two seasons, but the playoff-less trend continued, as Pittsburgh failed to quality in 1986 and again in 1987. Whatever scorn the fans initially felt for the embattled quarterback intensified during these years, as he threw  just 21 touchdown passes to a whopping 37 interceptions.

Those fans, and many reporters, who hardly criticized Mark Malone during his time in Pittsburgh certainly had Just Cause. In eight seasons with the Steelers, Malone had 60 touchdown passes to 81 interceptions and a passer-rating of 50.2.

  • In fact, in his final season as a starter, Malone had 46.4 passer rating (yes, that forty six point four)

Malone, who has had long-lasting success as a sportscaster and sports personality after retiring, never had a career even approaching that of a decent NFL quarterback.

But on opening day of the 1985 regular season Mark Malone authored in one of the most underrated quarterback performances in Pittsburgh Steelers history. For that he should be proud.

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Where to Rank Antwaan Randle El Among Steelers Wide Receivers?

Asked and Answered” is one of Steelers.com’s most popular features which sees Bob Labriola answer questions from Steelers Nation. The feature is the successor to “Overview” page of Steelers Digest, where Labriola would answer questions with equal parts wisdom and sarcasm.

Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth topped the list – no brainers there, followed by Antonio Brown and Hines Ward. Again, two more no brainers, even if it’s a little wired to have an active player on such a list. Then he offered a surprise “…and for the last spot I’m going to go with Louis Lipps over Santonio Holmes and/or Antwaan Randle El.”

Antwaan Randle El, steelers, falcons, steelers wide receiver rankings

Antwaan Randle El stretches for yard in Steelers 2010 season opener vs. Falcons; Photo credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

The choice of Louis Lipps earns the full-throated support of this site. Louis Lipps statistics might be pedestrian by 2016’s standards, but Lipps was an All-Pro Caliber receiver playing in a run-oriented offense and forced to catch most of his balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley as opposed to benefitting from having a Terry Bradshaw or a Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way.

  • Louis Lipps is also the Steelers 4th leading wide out in terms of yards and catches.

Throwing Santonio Holmes name into the conversation for the 5th slot makes sense, not on overall career production as a Steeler, but because he was the Steelers MVP in the 2008 playoffs, and well…

….even if he’d only made that one catch in Super Bowl XLIII, ‘Tone would belong in the discussion.

  • But does Antwaan Randle El belong in this conversation?

Steel Curtain Rising holds Antwaan Randle El in high esteem. Randle El arrived as part of the Steelers 2002 draft class, and made an immediate impact as a wide receiver and kick returner. His skill as a quarterback was Inspector Gadget aka Mike Mularkey’s dream. While most of his time was spent as a number three or slot receiver, when asked to take over the starting role, Randle El was up to it.

And no one in Steelers Nation need be reminded of how Ken Whisenhunt deployed Randle El versatility with lethal effectiveness in Super Bowl XL.

  • But does Randle El deserve consideration as the Steelers 5th, or even 6th best wide receiver of all time?

Respectfully, Steel Curtain Rising argues that there several Steelers wide receivers who should rank ahead of Antwaan Randle El. Who? The first two names that jump to mind are Plaxico Burress and Yancey Thigpen. Burress is 9th on the Steelers All-Time receiving list whereas Randle El is 23rd. Thigpen is 14th on the list and caught 3 times as many touchdowns.

What about Mike Wallace? Wallace career production is actually above ‘Tone’s, but for my money both Santonio Holmes playoff production and perhaps Antwaan Randle El puts them above Wallace.

Then there is one player who played before Chuck Noll’s time who also deserves consideration, Buddy Dial. Matthews.

Buddy Dial played in Pittsburgh from 1959 to 1963, playing 12 and 14 game seasons and in an age when a run first mentality dominated the entire league, yet he still ranks as the Steelers 8th leading receiver. Actually, Dial is sixth if you limit the list to wide receivers.

  • So where to rank Antwaan Randle El among Steelers wide receivers?

Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t honestly know. Numbers don’t like but sometime statistics deceive. Dwight Stone is ahead of Randle El on the Steelers all time receiving list, and if you were picking All-Time Draft Steelers draft, would you pick Stone over Randle El? Neither would I. Charles Johnson also ranks ahead of Randle El but I’d think twice about picking him over Randle El.

At the end of the day, I’m undecided about where Antwaan Randle El ranks among Steelers wide receivers, but I do know that I’d put at least put Plaxico Burress , Yancey Thigpen, Buddy Dial and perhaps Mike Wallace ahead of him.

Where do you think he belongs? Take a moment to leave a comment.

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Remembering Weegie Thompson – One Tough 1980’s Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver

When I was a kid, my grandfather would rattle off obscure names of former Pittsburgh Steelers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. These players obviously weren’t stars, but to him, they were favorites that he had a soft-spot in his heart for.

  • Perhaps today, there are 40-somethings who grew up in the 1980s, telling their kids about this former Steelers receiver named Weegie Thompson.
weegie thompson, steelers, wide receiver,

Weegie Thompson Steelers wide out 1984-89

Willis “Weegie” Thompson played his college football at Florida St., before arriving in Pittsburgh as a fourth round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.  During a three-year college career, Thompson caught just 41 passes for 711 yards and five touchdowns.

  • But 31 of those catches, 502 of those yards and three of those touchdowns occurred during his final year, which probably helped his draft-status immensely.

It also didn’t hurt that Thompson stood at 6′ 6″ and weighed 212 pounds–measurables that would equal the playing field for most unheralded college receivers looking to make it at the pro level.

Thompson was part of the same class that produced Louis Lipps. After a rookie season that included 17 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns, playing behind both Lipps and the legendary John Stallworth, it may have looked like the future was bright for the young Thompson.

  • Unfortunately for Thompson, he never broke through to the top of the depth chart and never caught more than 17 passes in any given season.

Thompson went on to play just six seasons with the Steelers, before getting on with his life’s work following the 1989 Steelers story book season. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out in a story about Thompson in 2003, maybe if he had played 15 years later, he would have been utilized as more of a downfield weapon, instead of primarily as a blocker for the always conservative Chuck Noll.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

But as Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then, he had few regrets about his career:

I don’t dwell on it. I was proud to be a member of the Steelers and of the time I spent in Pittsburgh. I played hard and performed to the best of my abilities when I was there. I gave it my best and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

However, while Thompson had a rather obscure career that included just 79 receptions for 1,377 yards and 11 touchdowns, thanks to his abilities as a blocker, he was able to gain lasting respect from one of the all-time greats, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.

Thompson’s play during the Steelers’ famous upset victory over San Francisco in Week 7 of the 1984 season (the only loss by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers that year and perhaps Noll’s most impressive post-’70s regular season victory) is mentioned in a SFGate article about Lott from 2000.

What follows is a snippet of the article, along with a quote from Lott:

Call it respect–for yourself, for others. It had meaning to Lott. You earned his respect by playing hard and tough, and within the rules. He still fairly gushes when he talks about a journeyman Pittsburgh wide receiver named Weegie Thompson. In Thompson’s rookie season, 1984, the Steelers were the only team to beat the 49ers. One reason they did was by assigning Thompson to block Lott on every play. 

“He blocked my butt all day–and fair,” Lott remembered. “Every play, he came after me. And I respect the hell out of Weegie Thompson to this day. He’s one of the toughest guys I ever played against.”

Some NFL players go on to have Hall of Fame careers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth), some are borderline (Hines Ward). Others have good careers that may have been better in different eras or under different circumstances (Buddy Dial, Roy Jefferson and Louis Lipps), while some never reach their full potential (Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and maybe Martavis Bryant).

But there are countless NFL players who play for a while and end their careers with no legacy.

  • Football doesn’t define them; it’s something they did for a part of their lives.

Weegie Thompson was that kind of football player, but he still left enough of an impression on fans and even peers playing for rivals to be proud of his time with the Steelers and the NFL.

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