10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

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

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

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

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

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

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

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

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

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

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

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

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

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

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

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

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

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

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

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

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

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

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Dies

The news is hitting Steelers Nation like a shock wave:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney has passed away at the age of 84.

No cause of death has been reported and the news comes as a shock as there have been no reports of Rooney battling health problems. Nonetheless, it caught this blogger’s attention that Dan Rooney appeared to be absent in the photo that the Steelers published following the 2016 NFL Draft.

"Dan

Dan Rooney was born in 1932, one year before his father Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, then known as the Pirates. Although he was the owner’s son, Dan Rooney literally pulled the pro football equivalent of working his way up from the shop floor onward, first working as a ball boy, then working in various aspects of the Steelers management.

  • During this time the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst franchise in the NFL.

Those lessons were not lost on Dan Rooney, however. Quite the contrary, Rooney learned from his father’s mistakes, and by the time Art Rooney Sr. turned over control of the franchise to him in the 1960’s, Rooney was already laying the blueprints for the foundation that would support the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

It was at Dan Rooney’s behest that the Steelers parted with Buddy Parker, who insisted trading away draft picks in favor of washed up veterans. It was Dan Rooney who convince the Pittsburgh Courier’s Bill Nunn Jr. to begin scouting for the Steelers. Bill Nunn’s connections of led the Steelers to draft such veterans as Mel Blount, John Stallworth and L.C. Greenwood.

  • His most important decision of course came in 1969 when Rooney hired Chuck Noll.

Chuck Noll would go one to be the first NFL coach to win 4 Super Bowls, and the only man to win 4 championships in 6 years. Dan Rooney did it again in 1992 when he hired Bill Cowher and, while the decision to hire Mike Tomlin is reported to have been Art Rooney II’s, Dan fully signed off on that move as well.

It should also be noted that, during the 2004 NFL Draft, while the Steelers were on the clock it was Dan Rooney who spoke up and suggested Ben Roethlisberger‘s name when Cowher and Kevin Colbert appeared ready to draft an offensive line man.

Aside from giving the franchise a legacy of stability in the “Not for Long” league, Rooney’s wise management decisions directly resulted in the Steelers winning 6 Super Bowls, or more than any other franchise.

Editors Note: Steel Curtain Rising will have further coverage on Dan Rooney’s life and legacy. Check back soon.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Washington Redskins

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Washington Redskins includes 77 contests played over the course of 83 years.

The record reflects that the Washington holds the advantage over Pittsburgh. Overall, the Steelers record vs. the Redskins is 33-43-4. However, the Steelers are 7-4 vs. the Redskins since Chuck Noll’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 1969. The Steelers 2016 season opener on Monday Night Football at FedEx Field will mark the 78 installment of this series.

Art Rooney Sr. was the polar opposite to both George Preston Marshall and Jack Kent Cooke. And about the only similarity between Daniel Rooney and Daniel Snyder is the their first name.

Even if the rest of Steelers Nation isn’t ready to get the pitchforks out for the Redskins, the Steelers history vs. the Washington Redskins has provided a lot of memorable games – for both franchises. With the help of Tony Defeo we recount them here.

Scroll down or click on the link below.

LaMarr Woodley sacks Jason Campbell in Steelers 2008 win over Redskins. Photo Credit: Evan Vucci, Associated Press

LaMarr Woodley sacks Jason Campbell in Steelers 2008 win over Redskins. Photo Credit: Evan Vucci, Associated Press

1979 – Super Steelers Peak Against Redskins

November 4, 1979 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 38, Washington 7

Terry Bradshaw had his best day passing, to that point in his career. Both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth caught for over 100 yards, for only the second time in their careers. Chuck Noll’s offense totaled 545 yards – his best effort to that point. The Steelers scored 38 points against a Redskins team that entered the game as the stingiest defense in points allowed. It was the worst Redskins loss since 1970… And did we mention that Bradshaw missed most of the second half with a concussion?

  • If the Super Steelers of the 70’s had a single peak moment, the 1979 Redskins victory would be a candidate.

Joe Theismann describes the Redskins effort as “Embarrassing.” John Riggins conceded to John Clayton, then of the Pittsburgh Press:

They’re the defending Super Bowl Champs, and they’re playing at the top of their game now. You expect them to when November rolls around. That’s when the giants tart to wake from their slumber. They were awake today.

Indeed, in addition to the touchdown John Stallworth’s two touchdowns, Terry Bradshaw threw scores to Bennie Cunningham and Randy Grossman, while Rick Moser (who?) scored the Steelers final touchdown. Donnie Shell and Mel Blount both recorded interceptions.

The win over Washington marked the third straight week the 1979 Steelers demolished a playoff contender, with victories over Denver and Dallas preceding it, followed by another win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Key Takeaway from Steelers vs Washington Redskins History: 2 weeks later the 1979 Steelers fell 35-7, suffering their worst defeat in San Diego at the hands of Don Coryell, whose offense was coached by a then-obscure offensive coordinator named Joe Gibbs….

1985 – Redskins “Officially” Send Steelers into 80’s Mediocrity Era

November 24, 1985 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Washington 30, Pittsburgh 23

The 1984 Steelers had shocked the NFL by winning the AFC Central, upsetting John Elway at Mile High in the Divisional Playoff game and knocking on heaven’s door by reaching the AFC Championship. 1985 started with the bang of Mark Malone’s 5 touchdown game vs. the Colts. But that win was led to a 3-5 record at midseason, when a Malone injury led to David Woodley getting the starting nod, who led Pittsburgh to 3 straight wins.

  • Unfortunately, stomach flu would sideline Woodley, forcing Scott Campbell into his first NFL action.

Change was also the watch word in Washington. A week before Lawrence Taylor had sacked Joe Theismann, knocking out of the game and ending his career. Jay Schroeder responded by rallying the Redskins to victory, and started his first game against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.

Scott Campbell played a respectable first half, connecting with Louis Lipps and Rich Erenberg to tie the score at the half. However, the Redskins owned the second half, with the Steelers only managing two Gary Anderson field goals as John Riggins ran for a touchdown, while Mark Mosley knocked in two more.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: The 1985 loss to the Redskins dropped the Steelers record to 6-6, signaling 7-9 finish and introducing an era of Pittsburgh would find itself mired in mediocrity.

1988 – Young Steelers Suffer Serious Growing Pains vs. Redskins

September 11, 1988 @ RFK Stadium
Washington 30, Pittsburgh 29

Chuck Noll’s 1988 Steelers won the franchise’s first game without Art Rooney Sr. a week earlier against Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys. Could this young Steelers team upset the Super Bowl champions?

  • For 3 and 3/4 quarters, the 1988 Steelers teased that they could.

Bubby Brister showcased his rocket like arm and his mobility. First hitting Louis Lipps on an 80 pass were Lipps burned future Hall of Famer Darrell Green. Brister then scrabbled for a touchdown, although mistake that proved costly, Harry Newsome bobbled the snap, and the Steelers missed the extra point.

The Redskins pulled a point ahead as the fourth quarter began, but Brister hit Dwight Stone over the middle, Stone zinged past Wilber Marshall and ran 70 yards untouched for a touchdown. Gary Anderson knocked in his 3rd field goal of the game. Midway through the 4th quarter, the Steelers had a nine point lead…

…Yet, in what would be a recurring theme during the 1988 season, Tony Dungy’s defense failed to defend a 4th quarter lead. The Redskins scored quickly on a 74 yard drive, and then Darrell Green returned a punt 13 yards to the Steelers 44, setting up an easy field goal drive.

Just how bad was the Steelers defense? After the game Doug Williams confided in Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I played terrible in the first half. The offensive line gave me time, and I wasn’t doing my job.” For the record, Williams had what was then a second best passing day for a Redskins quarterback completing 30 of 52 passes for 430 yards.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: The 1988 Steelers would lose several close games like this. But the great individual efforts that powered those “almost wins” revealed that these Steelers had real potential, something that the 1989 Steelers would realize. None of that was apparent as Pittsburgh finished 1988 at 5-11.

1991 – Redskins Render Steelers as Road Kill on Ride to Super Bowl XXVI

November 17th, 1991 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Washington 41, Pittsburgh 14

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins both entered the 1991 season with something to prove. The Redskins had gone all the way to the NFC Championship, only to fall to the 49ers who were in route to their 4th Super Bowl. Only a few years before, it was the Redskins, and not the 49ers who’d been dubbed “The team of the 80’s.”

Although 80’s were over, another Super Bowl would put Redskins back in the conversation.

In contrast, the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers had shocked the world, overcoming a disastrous start and a regular season that saw them shut out 3 times, only to see them make the playoffs and upset the Oilers in the Astrodome. In 1990 however, the Steelers limped to a 9-7 record, as inconsistency and an inability to win divisional games cost them a playoff game. Steelers Digest Bob Labriola editor remarked that 1990 marked the year the Steelers had either learned to win or to lose games.

  • The Steelers entered 1991 hoping to prove that learned to win.

Sadly, by the time the Redskins arrived at Three Rivers Stadium in week 11, Washington already had an 11-0 record, while Steelers held a 4-6 record, which wasn’t nearly as good as it looked.

The Redskins trashed the Steelers that day, as a Mark Rypien to Art Monk 63 yard hookup led to a 1 yard Gerald Riggs touchdown just four plays into the game. By half time the Redskins led 17-0. After three quarters the Redskins led 27-0.

  • Then the Steelers did what those 1990 and 1991 Chuck Noll teams did all too well – the teased.

Neil O’Donnell hooked up with Adrian Cooper and then Dwight Stone early in the 4th quarter to cut the
Redskin’s lead to 13. Suddenly, it seemed like the Steelers had a chance. Of course they didn’t. Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark hooked up with Rypein from 49 and 40 yards to reestablish the Redskin’s 27 point margin.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Chuck Noll may hold a 2-1 advantage over Bill Walsh, but the Emperor was 0-3 vs. Joe Gibbs, a statistic that reveals just how great of a coach Joe Gibbs was – and that comes from someone who grew up actively rooting against Gibbs’ Redskins.

1997 – 3 Scappy Steelers Interceptions Seal the Deal

September 7, 1997 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 14, Washington 13

Just like in 1988, Pittsburgh opened the season with back-to-back games against Dallas and Washington. And like 1988, the Steelers were facing a Cowboys Super Bowl coach who would ultimately be heading into his final campaign. But unlike 1988, the Dallas Cowboys had come into Three Rivers Stadium, trashing the Steelers to the tune of 37-7.

  • So the Redskins arrived in Pittsburgh facing a Steelers team looking for a comeback to defuse the “Free Agency is ruining the Steelers” stories that were a stable of 1990’s.

The Steelers got their comeback win, but the outcome was in doubt until the final gun. For the record, Kordell Stewart rushed for one touchdown, to open the scoring and Jerome Bettis closed it with another touchdown. But the Steelers defense wrote the real story of the game.

Twice in the first half Gus Frerotte led the Washington deep into the Red Zone, and twice Pittsburgh’s defense picked off his pass in the end zone, with Darren Perry and Levon Kirkland splitting the honors. Following Bettis’ touchdown, Frerotte ripped off a perfect pass to Michael Westbrook, only to have Randy Fuller, he of 1995 AFC Championship fame, deflected the pass.

The Redskins had one final chance following the 2 minute warning and threatened to reach field goal range when Jason Gildon tipped a pass that Chris Oldham picked off, ending the game.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: This game established the 1997 Steelers as a scrappy, team that could rally to beat just about anyone during the regular season.

2000 – Steelers Scalp Redskins to Close Three Rivers Stadium

December 16, 2000 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Washington 3

If ever there was a case study in contrast to who Daniel Rooney and Daniel Snyder run their franchises, the Steelers 2000 victory over the Redskins offers the perfect example.

The 2000 off season marked Daniel Snyder’s first full year as Redskins owner, and he made no bones about breaking from the past. Upon assuming control of the team, Snyder summarily fired dozens of Redskins first office workers, many secretaries and administrative staff, some who’d had decades of service to the team.

  • That meant less to Snyder than showing everyone a new chief was in charge.

The offseason also saw Snyder the first of many off season Lombardi Trophies by signing any and every big name free agent the Redskins could fit under their salary cap. Washingtonians drank the Kool-Aid. Deion Sanders signing earned a front page story in the Washington Post and 2 and a quarter full pages from the sports section. Fans called into radio shows predicting an undefeated season.

Prior to the season opener, an owner at the Wheaton Athletic Club remarked to a patron, “…I’m tired of hearing about Tampa’s injured players. A win is going to be a win.” The client’s response, “Yeah. And a Super Bowl is gonna be a Super Bowl.”

  • Given that the Steelers were coming off a 6-10 season, Redskins fans figured the final game at Three Rivers Stadium would be a road sign route to Lombardi number 4. If they thought of it at all.

By reality unfolds at its own pace. The 2000 Steelers started 0-3, but rallied with 5 straight wins and held a 7-7 record heading into their matchup against Washington. Meanwhile, at 7-6 but on a two game losing streak, Snyder fired Norv Turner. Before the Steelers game, interim coach Terry Robiskie was forced to admit that he’d need to clear any quarterback changes with Snyder.

  • The game itself was a work of beauty. A better send off for Three Rivers Stadium could not be had.

Jerome Bettis rumbled for 104 yards, and Deion Sanders pulled back rather than try to tackle. Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington intercepted Jeff George, Snyder’s anointed starter, two times while future Super Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson watched from the bench.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: When Daniel Snyder objects to Myron Cope’s “Wash Redfaces” nickname for the Redskins, Cope mocks Snyder on the air declaring: “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he can take his head and stick it in a bucket of paint.”

2004 – Jerome Bettis Ties Franco Harris Record for 100 Yard Games

November 28th, 2004 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 16, Washington 10

Joe Gibbs return from retirement heading into the 2004 season was one of the biggest stories, as one of the most underrated coaches (nationally) would seek to revive the fortunes of a once proud fantasy. The Pittsburgh Steelers, following their 6-10 2003 campaign, were supposed to be in “Rebuilding” mode, as rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was to get an apprentice year behind Tommy Maddox.

  • But of course things seldom workout as planned.

The Steelers entered their week 12 matchup vs. Washington with a 9-1 record, while Gibbs Redskins had a 3-7 mark. But again, what looked to be a mismatch on paper, turned out to be something very different in reality.

The 2004 Redskins defense was deceptively good, holding the Steelers to a 13-0 lead at half time, thanks to two Jeff Reed Field goal and a Jerome Bettis touchdown (set up by a Antwaan Randle El punt return.) In the third quarter the Redskins made it look like they’d give Pittsburgh a run for their money, as Patrick Ramsey hooked up with Chris Cooley to make the score 13-7.

But another Jeff Reed Field goal, followed by a Deshea Townsend put the game out of reach as on a day where Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and Aaron Smith teamed to sack Patrick Ramsey 5 times.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: With his 4ths straight 100 yard game, Jerome Bettis tied Franco Harris’ franchise record for 100 yard games. Not bad for a player supposedly getting a “scholarship” year.

2008 – Steelers Nation Anexxes over Fed ExField

November 3, 2008 @ FedEx Field
Pittsburgh 23, Washington 6

For a Steelers fan who grew up in Metro Washington DC subjected to an endless stream of “Are you a Redskins fan?” “No,” “Then you’re a Cowboy in Redskins territory….” The Steelers 2008 Monday night win at FedEx Field was a portrait of glory.

Fans forget in hindsight that this game did not start out well for the Steelers. Bob Ligashesky’s special teams botched a surprise on-sides kick to open the game, followed by another Steelers turnover deep in their own territory. Redskins fans at FedEx Field were fired up, as Washington led for the first 29:28 of the first half until Ben Roethlisberger put the Steelers ahead with a rushing touchdown.

  • With Byron Leftwich taking over for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers defense took over.

James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Nick Eason, Aaron Smith, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, who saw his first extended action – at outside linebacker, combined for 7 sacks, and Tyrone Carter end a Jason Campbell streak of 271 passes without an interception.

Best of all, before it was all over, Steelers fans had taken over FedEx Field to the point where the Redskins were forced to use a silent count.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Jim Zorn’s Redskins were 5-2 heading into the game, looking to make “statement.” Instead, the Steelers made a statement that they were serious Super Bowl contenders.

2012 – Dick LeBeau Schools RGIII

October 12, 2012 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, Washington 12

In 2012 Robert Griffith III, or RG3 was a rookie sensation that was shaking the NFL. After just 7 games pundit were already saying that RG3 was doing what Doug Flutie, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb had promised to do in earlier generations – prove that you could win big with a non-pocket passer.

  • Worse yet, the Steelers 2012 defense had been shaky, having failed to protect 4th quarter leads on 3 separate occasions.

Dick LeBeau answered by unleashing his defensive backs on the Redskins wide receivers, and the Steelers corners and safeties hit hard. This led to numerous drops on the part of the Redskins’ receivers. On offense, Todd Haley did his best Ron Ernhart impression, as the Steelers fed the ball to Jonathan Dwyer and dominated time of possession, keeping the ball for over 33 minutes as the Steelers beat the Redskins 27-12.

Key Steelers history vs Washington Redskins Takeaway: Dick LeBeau improves his record to 15-1 against rookie quarterbacks. For the Record RGIII finished the day 16-34-177, 1 touchdown and 8 yards rushing. Need we say more?

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Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Common Sense Rules Day in Artie Burns Rookie Prediction Poll

Call it a victory for common sense. As is custom here at Steel Curtain Rising, immediately after the 2016 NFL Draft we polled our readers giving them a chance to voice their predictions on how the Steelers 1st round pick Artie Burns career will turn out.

Steelers, Artie Burns, 1st round pick

Steelers 1st round pick Artie Burns @ OTA’s; Photo Credit: ESPN.com

  • Savvier readers are aware, is largely an exercise in satire.

While it understands and respects their entertainment value, this site does not believe in instant draft grades and never treads in those waters. Some of this skepticism is rooted in being dumb enough to voice out loud doubts about the wisdom of picking Ben Roethlisberger arguing Tommy Maddox could get the job done.

  • In the years since then, events have vindicated the lesson.

In 2015, Ike Taylor’s retirement offered an example of just how piss poorly some post draft graders got it wrong on him. This year, the Steelers 2011 draft class provided another picture perfect example of why thorough draft evaluation comes 5 years after the fact.

  • So these polls are posted with a very large dose of tongue and cheek.

artie burns, rookie predictions, steelers, 1st round draft pick, cornerbacYou, my beloved readers, got it lock stock and barrel, as fully 50% of you gave the correct response: ask me in a couple of three years. For the first time in recent memory, this poll drew its share of write ins – thank you to both those supplying the answer and the others who joined in the chorus.

Of those readers who did feel confident enough to make a prediction, fully 9% of them project Artie Burns as the next Ike Taylor. If Burns does turn out to be as good as Taylor, he will have had a good career. Another 7% say he’ll turn out like the Steelers last 1st round pick, Chad Scott. Scott took a lot of heat from the fans, but a Chad Scott caliber cornerback would have represented a major boost at cornerback over all 2015 Steelers cornerbacks not named William Gay.

6% of readers thought that Artie Burns might turn out to be the next Deshea Townsend.  This is interesting, because even Burn’s backers concede he is raw, and the Steelers drafted Townsend in 1998, but Townsend didn’t crack the starting lineup until 2003.

But Deshea Townsend was good enough to start in Super Bowl XL and be a major contributor to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

3% of our readers thought that Artie Burns would have the potential to be the next Dwayne Woodruff, a proposition I’m sure Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler or Carnell Lake would take. 1% of our readers boldly predicted that Artie Burns would be the next Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. No one was ready to call him the next Willie Williams or the next Delton Hall.

The truth is that one can hope that is not the case. Willie Williams had a good career for a 5th round pick, but probably played his best ball in Seattle. In contrast, Delton Hall out performed Rod Woodson to win the Steelers 1987 rookie of the year award, but  injuries, inconsistency and lack of discipline thereafter marred his career thereafter.

How will Artie Burns career turn out?

Who knows. Like most readers here, I’m taking a wait and see approach as I do with all draft picks. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who took out time to vote.

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Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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Why Rod Woodon’s Rugby Tackle Crusade is a Wise One

The Pittsburgh Steelers have sent three cornerbacks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. While all three earned a ticket to Canton by dominating opposing receivers and quarterbacks, Mel Blount and Jack Butler have also left their mark off the field.

Blount so thoroughly dominated opposing receivers that he forced an NFL rule changed that opened up the passing game. Jack Butler, as head of the BLESTO scouting combine, had a role, albeit an indirect one, in constructing the Super Steelers.

  • Now Rod Woodson has a chance to make an even bigger mark.

As Yahoo sports writer Eric Edholm details, Rod Woodson is stepping out to work with middle school and high school players in an attempt to make the game safer. Rod Woodson, currently the Oakland Raiders secondary coach, will be working at the Pro Fooball Hall of Fame’s academy to encourage and teach young players to tackle Rugby style.

  • Edholm praises Rod Woodon’s rugby tackle crusade suggesting it might help save the game of football.

Edholm probably takes things too far. Nonetheless, no one can question the wisdom of Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle initiative.

Applying the Rugby Tackle to Football

The idea of importing players or principles from Rugby into football is hardly new. Like Brad Wing before him, Steelers punter Jordan Berry has experience as a Rugby player. On a number of occasions, this site’s Spanish language writer Gustavo Vallegos aka “El Dr. de Acero” has suggested that the NFL could improve its tackling technique by studying the way Rugby players do it:

El Dr. de Acero’s 2014 missive, “Mirando Los Steelers, Me Hace Preguntar ¿Tacklear o Golpear?” (Watching the Steelers Forces Me to Ask, “Tackle, or Hit?” speaks directly to the points that Rod Woodson is trying to address – NFL players too often try to hit first and tackle second.

  • Tackling in today’s NFL is more about mustering force and hitting than it is about using technique to bring the person down.

It wasn’t always this way.

Although memory flaws may betray some of the details, I can remember Terry Bradshaw discussing this while doing a Steelers game in the early 1990’s, contrasting the shoulder pads used in the 1970’s with the ones used in the 1990’s. Bradshaw used visuals to depict how “improved” shoulder pad technology allowed players like Delton Hall to use their shoulders like projectiles, barely needing to wrap a ball carrier.

  • Similar improvements in helmet technology, have, ironically facilitated the use of the head in tackling.

Woodson relates as to why this is a problem:

When your head is in front of the ball, a lot of time what happens is that his head and your head collide. When [the students] see the rugby players tackle – and do so without helmets, without pads, and not get nearly the number of concussions that NFL players get, I think it will be beneficial.

This brief tutorial on rugby tackling helps bring the issue into perspective:

Absent pads and helmets, the importance of protecting the head becomes an issue not only for the tackled but the tackler as well. And, as the video makes clear, while force is necessary, the rugby tackle makes it clear that proper technique goes a long way.

Lest anyone fear that using rugby style tackles will soften the game, this video should dispel those worries:

Can Safer Tackling Save Football?

Steelers Nation reacted with outrage in 2010 when Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson scapegoated James Harrison in their attempt to reduce helmet-to-helmet hits. When Steelers fans fans complained that Goodell and Anderson were attempting to sissify the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette cautioned that Pittsburgh legends such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell managed to combined hard hitting with textbook tackling.

  • At the time, it seemed like Bouchette might be offering a simple solution to the emerging CTE crisis.

After all, the first known victims of CTE, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters had all played in the 80’s when players got seemingly exponentially bigger, faster and at the exact time when hitting was eclipsing technique in NFL tackling.

  • Alas, we now know things aren’t so simple.

With CTE diagnosis coming following the deaths of older players like Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, and younger players like Adrian Robinson, we now know that the problem’s roots run far deeper. And it should be noted the specter of CTE is causing its own complications for sport of rugby.

IF Football is to answer the threat that CTE poses to its very existence, then an effective response will likely come in the form of some sort of impact absorbing helmet technology, drugs that neutralize the TAU protein that causes CTE and safer tackling. If that day arrives, as anyone reading this surely hopes it does, then Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle crusade will have helped preserve the game we love.

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Filling a Need for a Nose, Steelers Draft Javon Hargrave in 3rd Round, NT from South Carolina State

Day two of the 2016 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to tick off their needs. After drafting cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second round, Pittsburgh looked to fill their next glaring area of need at nose tackle as the Steelers draft Javon Hargrave a nose tackle out of South Carolina State.

Perhaps what’s most telling about the move are the comments from Steelers defensive line coach and assistant head coach Johnny Mitchell. Mitchell is a veteran and makes no bones about the need to strip his players down to zero, and coach them up from there.

In other words, Mitchell is not known for lavishing praise on rookies. Yet, Mitchell did not hold back:

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn was alive today, he would really like this pick. Javon Hargrave is a self-made man,” continued Mitchell. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackle, this guy is pretty impressive.

Invoking Bill Nunn’s name in connection with a third round pick his high praise in indeed, as Nunn was the scout who found such Steelers gems as Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood and of course Donnie Shell who also hailed from South Carolina State.

Video Highlights of Javon Hargrave

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert put a lot of stock on what they see on tape from potential draft prospects, and Javon Hargrave has quite a pedigree:

On Johnny Mitchell’s watch, which began in 1994 after Bill Cowher dismissed Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness as defensive line coach, the nose tackle’s role from Joel Steed to Casey Hampton has traditionally been to clog up the middle first, with pass rushing coming second.

  • But the nose tackle is evolving under defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The Steelers want nose tackles who an not only be stout against the run, but also pressure the passer. Steve McLendon did that in 2012 in relief of Casey Hampton, but was less of a presence in the pass rush after taking over the role in 2013.

  • Looking at his college states, Javon Hargrave can fill that need.

In his NCAA career, Hargrave compiled 37 sacks, including 29.5 in his last two seasons alone. He’s got a 40 time of 4.9 which is good for a defensive lineman. As Jim Wexell points out, Hargrave even had 6 sacks in a game that he didn’t start.

A big part of the reason the Steelers let Steve McLendon go to the Jets was that he was off of the field for almost 2/3rds of the defensive snaps. Yet Johnny Mitchell sees Hargave breaking that mold, explaining “I’ll tell you this, he will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-package.”

Depending on Hargrave’s ability to pick up the Steelers scheme, he’s seen as someone who can also help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, allowing Mitchell to set up a rotation at defensive line, which has been on of the hallmarks of his strategy.

The Steelers will not hand Hargrave anything. Daniel McCullers will enter training camp as the team’s number one nose tackle, but Hargrave will get every chance to press McCullers for playing time and even the starting role.

  • That’s what you want to hear of a third round pick.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Just Hargrave.

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8 Steelers on Super Bowl 50 Golden Team Confirms Steelers of 70’s Best Ever Status

Sometimes even the most scrupulous Steelers fan gets greedy. “8 Steelers Make Super Bowl 50 Golden Team” read the headline. A short while latter, Ed Bouchette’s tweet followed:

The initial reaction was that seeing Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Chuck Noll honored was nice, but it begged the question: “What about Steelers from Pittsburgh’s second Super Bowl era?”

Less = More for Steelers on Super Bowl 50 Golden Team

After all, Ben Roethlisberger would be too much to hope for, but Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca and perhaps James Harrison would have strong cases for their inclusion in any all-time Super Bowl team. For Steelers fans to “Go there” would be incredibly greedy for one simple reason:

  • The NFL Hall of Fame selection committee didn’t make “any” all time Super Bowl team, it assembled one definitive Super Bowl 50 Golden Team.

Let’s tip our caps to the NFL Hall of Fame selection committee for what they achieved in constructing the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team – this is a bare bones team that limits itself to the best of the Super Bowl’s best. This cuts against the grain. These “All Time teams” such as the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team generally cast as wide a net possible both to spur fan interest and to drive Google clicks.

  • The Super Bowl 50 Golden Team moves in the opposite direction

Here’s the NFL’s description the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team’s composition:

The Super Bowl 50 Golden Team roster consists of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, two offensive tackles, two guards, one center, two interior defensive linemen, two defensive ends, two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers, two cornerbacks, two safeties, one kicker, one punter, and one return specialist. One head coach has also been chosen.

The only concession to the change of the game is including 4 down lineman and 4 linebackers. Other than this, the Hall of Fame selection committee in Canton plays this one strictly by the book. Here’s a complete look at the depth chart of the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team.

Super Bowl 50 Golden Team Depth Chart: Offense

Quarterback: Joe Montana; San Francisco 49ers (1)
Halfback: Emmitt Smith; Dallas Cowboys (1)
Fullback: Franco Harris; Pittsburgh Steelers (1)
Tight End: Jay Novacek; Dallas Cowboys (2)
Offensive Tackle: Larry Allen; Dallas Cowboys (4)
Guard: Forrest Gregg; Green Bay Packers (1)
Center: Mike Webster: Pittsburgh Steelers (2)
Guard: Art Shell; Oakland Raiders (1)
Offensive Tackle: Gene Upshaw; Oakland Raiders (2)
Wide Receiver:  Jerry Rice; San Francisco 49ers (2)
Wide Receiver:  Lynn Swann; Pittsburgh Steelers (3)

Super Bowl 50 Golden Team Depth Chart: Defense

Defensive End: Reggie White; Green Bay Packers (2)
Defensive Tackle: Mean Joe Greene; Pittsburgh Steelers (4)
Defensive Tackle: Randy White; Dallas Cowboys (5)
Defensive End: Charles Haley; San Francisco 49ers (3), Dallas Cowboys (6)
Outside Linebacker: Lawrence Taylor; New York Giants (1)
Inside Linebacker: Jack Lambert; Pittsburgh Steelers (5)
Inside Linebacker: Ray Lewis; Baltimore Ravens (1)
Outside Linebacker: Jack Ham; Pittsburgh Steelers (6)
Cornerback: Deion Sanders; San Francisco 49ers (4), Dallas Cowboys (7)
Cornerback: Mel Blount; Pittsburgh Steelers (7)
Strong Safety: Ronnie Lott; San Francisco 49ers (5)
Free Safety: Jake Scott; Miami Dolphins (1)

Super Bowl 50 Golden Team Depth Chart: Specialist and Head Coach

Place Kicker: Adam Vinatieri; New England Patriots (1), Indianapolis Colts (1)
Punter: Ray Guy; Oakland Raiders (3)
Kick Returner: Desmond Howard; Green Bay Packers (3)
Head Coach of the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team: Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers (8)

Super Bowl 50 Golden Team Reveals Special Super Steelers Were

Some Steelers fans have groused about the absence of Terry Bradshaw and John Stallworth, the only two Hall of Famers from the Super Steelers not on the roster. To that, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the perfect response:

Yes, like Montana, Terry Bradshaw is the only other 4-0 Super Bowl quarterback, and he and John Stallworth authored one of the greatest plays Super Bowl history with Super Bowl XIV’s “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go,” but their absence is what make the Super Bowl 50 Golden Team so special – it focuses on the best of the best.

  • In the process, it is also reveals just how special the Super Steelers were.

Lynn Swann had to beat out Michael Irvin to earn his spot. The committee chose Franco Harris over Walter Payton. Jack Lambert got the nod over Ray Nitschke. Mel Blount made it in over Darrelle Revis and Rod Woodson. Joe Greene never won a Super Bowl MVP award but passed over Richard Dent who did.

  • And of course Chuck Noll beat out media darlings like Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick

In looking at the depth charts above, one can also not help but notice that the Super Steelers stand alongside several of the men they beat to either get to win those Super Bowls. Super Bowl 50 Golden Team marks a truly elite team of Super Bowl greats, and it confirms that, with 8 members of the team, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70’s were truly the greatest of all time.

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Shoring Up Secondary, Steelers Sign Ross Cockrell to 1 Year Contract

Pittsburgh took its first step towards shoring up its secondary in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ross Cockrell to a one year contract. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of the Steelers exclusive rights free agents, meaning he couldn’t negotiate with any other team, but the Steelers still needed to make him an offer.

If the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had one unquestionable weakness, it was in their secondary. For starters, the 2015 Steelers fielded an accidental secondary, as no one, save for Mike Mitchell, played in the role envisioned for him when he was acquired.

That might seem like a tautology but the Steelers secondaries from 2011-2013 were far from dominant, but played better without much of a pass rush to speak of. While Ross Cockrell might not be close to being a “shutdown corner,” bringing him back to Pittsburgh is a smart move.

Ross Cockrell 2015 Retrospective

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin turned a lot of heads when the Steelers claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers after the first wave of mandatory cuts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo saw the move as sufficiently puzzling enough to question whether the Steelers coaches and scouting teams were not on the same page, much as they had been over offensive line in general and Max Starks in particular in 2007 and 2008.

  • While not speaking directly to Ray Fittipaldo’s point, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola boosted the level of debate on the subject.

Responding to a reader’s question, Labriola cited legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who instructed younger scouts not to put too much faith into the performance of defensive backs on other teams, because you had no way of knowing what those DB’s had been instructed to do.

  • Enter Ross Cockrell, the 2014 4th rounder that Rex Ryan and company couldn’t wait to get rid of.

As a wavier wire pickups go, Ross Cockrell’s 2015 season alone makes him a success. Per the Steelers rendering, Cockrell started 7 games and suited up for 15, the only game he missed was the season opener at New England. While Ross Cockrell’s 2015 performance doesn’t project him as another Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, he did give the Steelers secondary something it sorely needed – turnovers.

The fumble recover shows some particularly good concentration and execution (available as of 1/23/16 — watch it now before Roger Goodell’s You Tube police have it taken down):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GPk3MghFHA

And without question, Cockrell’s most important play of the year came in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals. It took Jarvis Jones to stop Jeremy Hill, Ryan Shazier to strip the ball and Ross Cockrell to recover it.

The Steelers secondary needs help. Ross Cockrell might not be “The Answer” to the Steelers defensive backfield woes, but he is certainly part of the equation.

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