James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com
The fact that James Washington did this after a rather forgettable rookie season in-which he posted a miserable 217 receiving yards on an equally miserable 16 receptions was all the more remarkable considering he didn’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the 2019 season.
That’s right, without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a major elbow injury that would require invasive surgery to repair, the Steelers quarterback play, well, it left a lot to be desired a season ago. Mason Rudolph had his moments, as did Devlin Hodges, but both also turned in moments that weren’t so great.
And let’s not forget about Chase Claypool, the Notre Dame receiver the Steelers just selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Claypool is big, fast and strong–they haven’t dubbed the native Canadian “Mapletron” for nothing.
Big things are expected from Smith-Schuster, Johnson and even Claypool in 2020.
Why has James Washington gotten lost in the shuffle? Why aren’t bigger things expected of him. How come he’s not expected to make an even bigger leap in 2020 thanks to the return of Roethlisberger?
I wish I had the answer to these questions, but he has just as much of a chance to make an impact on the Steelers offense in 2020 as any other member of their receiving corps.
As the saying goes, I wouldn’t sleep on James Washington if I were you.
I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.
Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.
But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.
The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.
It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.
But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.
Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.
Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.
That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.
Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.
While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.
Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.
Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.
After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.
Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:
In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”
This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year
But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”
Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.
Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.
The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.
The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.
Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.
Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.
By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.
Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.
Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton
Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.
Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.
Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.
Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.
Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:
Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”
That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.
But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.
“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.
My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):
“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.
In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.
After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.
My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.
While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)
I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.
I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.
Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.
Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.
Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”
When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.
Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports
Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.
Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.
No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.
But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.
The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.
Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’sJim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.
Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com
Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?
According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:
…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.
So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).
Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights
The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”
He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:
Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.
To milk the metaphor a bit more, Brown and Bell seem intent on keeping the story alive by stinging their former team via social media.
But none of the barbs that Brown and Bell are throwing Ben Roethlisberger’s way change the fact that these two Killer Bees left town without fulfilling their purpose – bringing Lombardi Number Seven back to Pittsburgh.
Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, given the trio’s nickname.
Sports nicknames entrench themselves with fans when they’re both fun and accurate.
The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com
Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine really did churn out division titles, pennants, and championships in machine like fashion. Washington’s “Hogs” really did dominate the line of scrimmage. The Redskin’s “Fun Bunch” was fun.
And so it was with the Steelers Killer Bees, whose nickname was both fun and accurate.
The “killer bees” or Africanized bees were brought to the Americas in the late 1950’s in an attempt to breed bees that produced more honey. They were originally contained in a secure apiary near Rio Claro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the escaped and headed north!
An urban legend was born.
The phenomenon reached critical mass in popular culture the 1970’s. Although their stings weren’t worse than normal bees, “killer bees” were more aggressive, and more likely to swarm. It was too much for Hollywood to resist.
Several (bad) killer bees movies were shot. If memory serves, a Super Friends episode plot line revolved around the “killer bees.” And I even had to read a story about the coming threat of the “Killer Bees” in one of my elementary school reading books.
When the killer bees arrived in the United States in the 1980’s, their buzz was much worse than their bite.
Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.
Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide
Shortly after the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, a fellow Steelers blogger, who is no homer, sent me a sort of “chin up” email, assuring me that by mid-October the Steelers offense would be “Blowing other teams out of the water.”
As others, such as the Post-Gazette’sJoe Starkey have pointed out, injuries and suspensions are the main culprit behind Steelers Killers failure meet expectations. Ben, Bell, Brown and Byrant only played together for a handful of quarters in 2015. Le’Veon Bell missed games to suspension in 2015 and 2016 and Martavis Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension.
The Steelers should have had the 3 Killer Bees on the field together for 6 playoff games.
Instead, Ben, Bell and Brown only managed 3 complete games and the first quarter of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots together. They won 2 of those three, and only won 1 of the other 3 contests.
Injury was the ultimate insect repellent even when all 3 Killer Bees remained healthy.
The 2017 Steelers defense was flashing signs of being good, if not very good before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. But of course we know what happened to the defense without Shazier. For whatever else you want to say about the Jacksonville disaster, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell (and Martavis Bryant) did their part.
Its been pointed out that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before Bell and Brown even arrived on the scene. Perhaps he can do it again.
The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.
The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.
Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.
In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.
We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.
All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.
Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter
If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.
Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.
This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)
It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision
There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.
As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.
While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.
One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.
That could happen.
But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.
Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.
Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.
Sort of, but not really.
It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).
Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt
Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.
Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.
They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.
The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.
OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?
I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.
In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.
In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.
While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.
The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.
A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.
To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.
You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.
Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.
You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.
After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.
Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.
It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.
James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com
But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.
Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.
Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:
Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.
Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.
Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly
As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.
But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.
Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.
There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.
Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.
Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.