Hidden Risk? Do Art Rooney’s “Time to Get Some Playoff Wins” Comments Set the Bar Too Low?

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gave his annual end-of-the year press conference this and there was one quote that landed as music in the ears of many citizens of Steelers Nation.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake, James Harrison 2nd retirement

Art Rooney II & James Harrison shake after the Steelers 2017 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When asked about the Steelers historic playoff drought, Rooney bluntly declared:

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency. I think everybody, myself, Mike, guys that have been on the team for a while, T.J., Cam, everybody, we’ve had enough of this. It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.

Art Rooney II seldom speaks to the press. When he does he says very little. But those words carry a tremendous impact – after all, after the 2004 season ended in another AFC Championship loss it was Rooney who declared it was time for a Super Bowl. And the 2005 Steelers brought the Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.

The response on social media was swift and decisive. Here’s one example:

And this is understandable.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not won a playoff game since Chris Boswell kicked them out of Kansas City and into the AFC Championship in January 2017. That’s a long time. To put that in context, even after the Super Steelers faded, Chuck Noll never went more than four years without a playoff win during the 1980s.

  • Yet here’s Mike Tomlin looking at 7 years and counting since his last playoff win.

So while it is good that the Steelers brass embraces the elephant in the room, there is a flaw in Rooney’s response. Notice that Rooney simply said, “It’s time to get some [playoff] wins.”

  • That risks setting the bar too low.

In 1992 when Bill Cowher returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Steelers, he offered a change of pace and he did so immediately by declaring that his goal for his rookie season was to win the Super Bowl.

Chuck Noll had started the 1990 and 1991 seasons saying similar things, talking about having “Championship caliber talent” with players like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Merril Hoge in mind. But Cowher delivered his remarks with a difference – he really believed it.

And that caused reporters openly snicker and rolled their eyes.

Yet Cowher’s 1992 Steelers took the league by storm and entered the playoffs as the AFC’s first seed. Those Steelers of course didn’t win the Super Bowl, and Bill Cowher faced a long road litter with AFC Championship losses to get to Super Bowl XL.

  • But his goal remained constant.

And setting winning the Super Bowl as the standard for success paid dividends in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger arrived. Injuries to Tommy Maddox forced Ben Roethlisberger into the line up in week 2 and the franchise never looked back.

  • When the playoffs arrived, the Super Bowl was the goal and the expectation.

That left no room for a “We’re just glad to have won 14 straight games with a rookie quarterback and be in the AFC Championship” mentality. Winning a Super Bowl was the only success metric.

I’m sure if you asked Rooney a follow up question, he’d affirm that winning the Super Bowl is his goal and he was simply acknowledging that wining playoff games is a perquisite to a Lombardi.

  • So there’s no reason to overact here.

But Rooney and everyone else must be mindful that comments like “its time get some [playoff] wins” can carry unintended consequences.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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When Christmas Came Every Friday: Missing the Days of Steelers Digest

A new entry from the Mexican WhatsApp Mesa de Acero feed made my phone buzz at 2:47 pm, local time in Buenos Aires on Thursday afternoon. I glanced down. Instantly the image of the latest Steelers Digest issue transported me back 35 years and 6000 miles away.Steelers Digest, Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Darth Vader

It was the summer of 1989 and I was in the magazine aisle at Superfresh (aka A&P) in Aspen Hill’s Northgate Shopping Center. There I rummaged through preseason football magazines, searching for my fix on Steeler news. In Street & Smith’s, opposite an article on the Steelers, I saw it – an advertisement for something called Steelers Digest.

  • I didn’t subscribe to Steelers Digest that year, and it’s a decision I still regret.

(If you know the 1989 Steelers story, you’ll understand.) I don’t remember why. I probably didn’t have enough money on me to buy Street and Smiths and maybe it was gone by the time I could get back.

But I made sure to subscribe to the Steelers Digest for the next season and remained a subscriber until 2012 or 2013.

  • In those days before the internet, Steelers Digest was a lifeline.

Although I was fortunate enough to live in places that had solid sports pages, Steelers Digest offered the lone source of Black and Gold centric-coverage.

The Digest typically arrived on Fridays, following a familiar format. Bob Labriola led with a full page column. A summary of the past week’s game followed along with statics. Then came interviews with players. Each week had at least one feature story tied to the season. Myron Cope had a half page column titled “Coping” until he lost his wife Mildred in 1994.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Other features were tucked further in. Vic Ketchman might have a feature on Steelers history – those were always clip and save stories. Former players such as Andy Russell and even Mark Malone would publish stories there. A Catholic Church on the North Side used to advertise mass schedules designed around Steelers games. Teresa Varley often did profiles on players or human interest stories that were always “can’t miss.”

At the end was The Overview, where Bob Labriola would print reader letters, offering what information he could about Steelers bars and responding to other questions just the way he does today in “Asked and Answered.”

Things were different then. The idea of getting a newspaper on Friday focused on last Sunday’s games seems quaint today. But back then, even though you knew the game’s results, like a fine wine, the in-depth, Steelers-focused analysis countered for its lack of freshness with maturity. In fact, the Digest’s arrival was highlight of the week.

  • Differences extended beyond the timing and delivery.

The Digest got creative in ways that would backfire in the social media age. If memory serves, when my very first Steelers Digest arrived my mom announced, “There’s something in the mail for you that called ‘Steelers Digest’ with a guy in a Superman suit on it.”

  • Sure enough, Rod Woodson was on the cover, outfitted in a Superman suit.

Can you imagine the reaction if Steelers.com tried to do something similar with T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick today?

Yet, that wasn’t a one off for the Digest. As you can see above, another they led with a picture of Greg Lloyd with a Darth Vader helmet. In the fall of 1990, they featured Woodson, Carnell Lake, D.J. Johnson and Thomas Everett standing in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium with orange barrels, stop signs and road blocks – that week’s feature was on Dave Brazil’s defense who were enjoying a phenomenal run in limiting touchdown passes (the run lasted for 15 games, until Cody Carlson torched them in the season finale at the Astrodome).

  • The Digest also served as a means for differentiating serious Steelers fans from casual ones.

Living in the DC area, Baltimore (pre-Ravens), Boston and later Cincinnati, people would often see me wearing Steelers stuff, prompting spontaneous high fives. After that, the conversation evolved in one of two ways.

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

You’d say something like, “Man, I LOVE Merril Hoge, I honestly think that they upgraded at fullback by bringing John L. Williams in” and the fan would either say, A. “Ah, man, I love the Steelers, but I’m not that up on today’s players. I just loved like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann,” or B. he’d dive into debating the nuances of the Hoge vs Williams dynamic.

  • Group B fans were almost always Steelers Digest readers.

I continued subscribing to Steelers Digest, even after the advent of “the world wide web” provided access to papers like the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review and later Steelers blogs. The Digest still offered exclusive features by writers like Mike Prisuta, Jim Wexell or Dale Lolley or exclusive interviews with Dan Rooney, Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert.

As time passed many if not most of those exclusives found their way on to Steelers.com – once as I was performing my Saturday night ritual of reading Bob Labriola’s column I realized it was the same column that he’d published on Monday after the game.

  • And that’s when I allowed my subscription to lapse.

And that’s OK. Times change. Today a serious fan, from any corner on the globe, literally has a choice of hundreds, if not thousands of articles, videos or other forms of “content” about the Steelers. Quality may suffer in that sea of quantity, but you can still find it, if you look for it.

Would I go back if I could? Consider this: My first view of Bill Cowher came several days after he was hired when I spied a rumpled copy of the USA Today sitting on the floor of my dorm room at Loyola Maryland (Wynnwood Towers 905E if you must know.) In 2007, in the evening after work, I watched an on-line recording of Cowher’s retirement press conference from my apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • So no, I wouldn’t go back if I could.

But is it possible that for all we’ve gained, maybe we’ve also lost something too? I don’t know.

But I do know this: I miss the days when Christmas came in my mail box every Friday thanks to the Steelers Digest.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the San Francisco 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers are two of the modern NFL’s most storied franchises. The Steelers defined the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s and continued winning Super Bowls into the 1990s.

Going into 2023 the Steelers record against the 49ers is 10-12, but of course time robbed history for a chance to see a definitive match up between titans of separate decades.

However, the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Francisco 49ers is filled with both inspiring upsets and disappointing losses for the Steelers. We recount all of them since 1984 here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.

Donnie Shell, Joe Montana, Steelers vs 49ers

Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer: Donnie Shell stares down Joe Montana. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Steelers vs. 49ers 1984: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I

October 14, 1984 @Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 20, San Francisco 17 

Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s?

Who can say? No matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.

This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1987: Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II

September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 30 @ San Francisco 17 

Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating (yes that’s forty six point six.) And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.

John Stallworth, Ronnie Lott, Steelers vs 49ers

2 Hall of Famers: John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via SI.com

Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.

  • With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list

Steelers vs. 49ers 1990: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I

October 21st, 1990 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 27, Pittsburgh 7 

The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.

Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….

…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.

  • In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1993: Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II

September 5th, 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 13 

After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.

Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.

  • In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice’s 8 catches were for touchdowns…

Steelers vs. 49ers 1996: Don’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)

December 15th, 1996 @ Three Rivers Stadium
San Francisco 25, Pittsburgh 15 

It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…

…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.

The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.

  • In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.

Steelers vs. 49ers 1999: Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse

November 7, 1999 @ Candlestick Park
Pittsburgh 27, San Francisco 6 

After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.

After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.

  • The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2003: Tommy Gun Misfires

November 17, 2003 @Candlestick Park
San Francisco 30, Pittsburgh 

Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw.

San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2007: Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin…

September 23, 2007 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, San Francisco 15 

Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.

What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.

On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2011:  The Night the Lights Went Out @ Candlestick

December 19, 20011 @ Candlestick Park
San Francisco 20, Pittsburgh 3 

This was the last Monday Night Football game played at Candlestick Park and the lights appropriately went out in the middle of the game. Its also marks the moment when the lights went out on the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a chance to leap above the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

Ben Roethlisberger had been injured in a Thursday Night Football contest ten days prior to the game. Mike Tomlin decided to play him. While many defended Tomlin, the truth is Tomlin should have pulled Roethlisberger. This much was clear when Roethlisberger couldn’t even make it to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense.

Given Charlie Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bhttp://steelcurtainrising.com/2011/12/tomlin-chokes-on-roethlisberger-decision-steelers-lose-to-49ers.html/ench in subsequent games, Tomlin’s decision is more easily understandable. However, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been on the field.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2015: Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game

September 23rd, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 43, San Francisco 18

The easy lead on this game was that the Steelers offense led by the short-handed Killer Bees scored over 40 points while running just 52 plays. And to be sure, only 6 of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes hit the ground, while Antonio Brown had nearly 200 yards receiving and even Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he could be a weapon on the passing game.

Ryan Shazier, Colin Kapernick, Steelers vs 49ers

Ryan Shazier corrals Colin Kapernick. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin broke form and wasted little time making Shazier his starter as a rookie in 2014. But injuries sidelined Shazier, and when he return he found himself competing for playing time with Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Fans were already beginning to call Shazier a “bust.”

  • Shazier swiftly began altering that narrative that Sunday afternoon against San Francisco.

Shazier exploded with 15 tackles, dropping 3 49ers for losses, a strip-sack, a fumble recovery all while completely neutralizing Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. While some griping over his development continued, this was the first game where Ryan Shazier signaled he could be something really special.

Steelers vs. 49ers 2019: The Mason Rudolph “Era” Begins

September 22nd, @ Levi’s Stadium
San Francisco 24, Pittsburgh 20

Stunning disappointments had marked 2019 thus far for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year began with fallout of Antonio Brown’s late season meltdown, ultimately leading to his trade. Then tragedy struck at St. Vincents as wide receivers coach Darryl Drake died suddenly.

Meanwhile Antonio Brown orchestrated his exit from Oakland, only to land with the Patriots, who creamed the Steelers in the season opener. And to prove that things get worse before they get better, a week later the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

People forget but Rudolph’s first start went saw him play reasonably well, as rookie Diontae Johnson made his presence known while Minkah Fitzpatrick, newly arrived via trade, made an immediate impact, notching an interception, a QB hit and a pass defensed.

The two teams actually traded the lead several times, with the 49ers pulling ahead with just over 1-minute remaining. Mason Rudolph tried to rally, but could only muster 9 yards.

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Watt’s a Fullback Worth? Ideally, the Steelers Would Resign Derek Watt. But the World Ain’t Ideal

Believe it or not, but the fullback was once the lifeblood of the Steelers offense. Franchise greats such as Franco Harris and Merril Hoge as well as disappointments such as Walter Abercrombie all played fullback in Chuck Noll and Tom Moore’s offense.

Ron Erhardt’s offense sharply curtailed the fullback’s carries and shifted his focus to blocking. And that’s where it remained for the balance of the 90’s. During the 21st century the role of the fullback faded both in Pittsburgh and the rest of the NFL.

Yet the Steelers went back to their roots in 2020 when they signed Derek Watt to a 3 year contract. That contract is up and he’s now about to be a free agent again. Should the Steelers keep in in Pittsburgh?

Derek Watt, Steelers vs Eagles

Derek Watt catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Derek Watt Career with the Steelers

Here’s a good test. True or False: “In 2022, Matt Canada greatly expanded Derek Watt’s role in the Steelers offense.” Raise your hand if you answer “True.” I raised my hand.

  • But I shouldn’t have.

The Steelers brought Derek Watt to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2020 and then proceeded to play Watt in 52 or 6% of offensive snaps. The transition from Randy Fitchner to Matt Canada only increased Watt’s snap percentage by 1%. And Watt’s snap count remained at 7% in 2022.

What did change was that in 2022 Derek Watt actually started getting the ball. No, Watt’s carry count didn’t break double digits, but his 9 carries is the highest number of carries by a Steelers fullback since Tim Lester’s 8 carry season in 1996. (As Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala did line up as a fullback at times, you could argue the point.)

  • And while 9 carries might seem insignificant 8 of those carries converted a 3rd or a 4th down.

Perhaps more importantly, Derek Watt has been a vital part of the Steelers special teams throughout his time in Pittsburgh, logging almost 2/3s of special team snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

For all the focus on passing and building up Fantasy Football stats, in the NFL games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. In Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and a growing offensive line, the Steelers have the foundation for a winning rushing attack.

Derek Watt gives you the physicality to push that rushing attack over the top. He also provides special teams consistency.

Oh, and to those who argue that his short yardage success is just a “nice to have,” the Steelers were 7-1 in games when Derek Watt got a carry. Just Sayin….

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

Fullbacks have authored some of the most glorious moments of the Steelers past. Fullbacks form a fundamental part of the franchise’s legacy.

And that’s the point. They’re part of the franchise’s legacy, not its future. Yes, there still is a place for fullbacks in NFL – for now – but the Steelers have paid Derek Watt just under 10 million dollars over the last three years to touch the ball 19 times and make 28 special teams tackles.

Surely Omar Khan can find some combination of veteran minimum salary players and/or undrafted rookie free agents to do the same for a faction of the salary cap space. Can’t he?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Derek Watt

This is a tough nut to crack. The old school Generation X Steelers fan in me screams, “Bring him back! You never appreciate what a fullback can do until you don’t have one!”

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

And even if you can’t make sentimental personnel decisions, Mike Tomlin is right when he says “You can never have enough Watts.” Which is a way of saying that Derek Watt brings a lot more value to the team than his numbers suggest.

But does that value justify 3.3 million in salary cap space per year?

  • The change in front office is another factor to consider.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert worked extremely well together. In business terms you’d say, “Coaching achieved alignment with the Front Office.” But there are times when the two were been out of step. See Max Starks‘ career arc for an example.

  • Its been suggested that Derek Watt this could be another example of this.

If it is, then will Omar Khan back Derek Watt the way Kevin Colbert backed Max Starks? Or will he be differential to the coaching staff?

At the end of the day, Derek Watt is a good player. He isn’t as dynamic as T.J. Watt is on the field, but like his brother his brings the kind of character to locker rooms that helps you win Super Bowls. The Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh, but only at the right price.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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How Bubby Brister’s Words from ’88 Put Cam Heyward’s “Butt Retweet” into Perspective

ICYMI, Steelers team captain and defensive mainstay Cam Heyward is supposedly “in trouble.” Why? Well, its that (not so) old evil social media. After the Steelers shellacking at the hands of the Bills, Cam Heyward made the following retweet:

Heyward immediately clarified the situation, labeling it a butt retweet. When that didn’t appease  the peanut gallery, Cam doubled down:

But the “masses” in the Steelers Nation remain unmoved. Just Google “Cam Heyward butt retweet” and you’ll find no shortage of bloggers, social media general managers who insist this is all just a nod and a wink, and that the longest tenured Steeler really wishes to double cross Mike Tomlin.

What to make of all of this? Well, age has proven that in times like these, its best to lean into Sgt Hulka’s* wisdom:

The Steelers are 1-4. Tom Brady is coming to town. Injuries have knee-capped their defense. Pittsburgh stands poised to fall to 1-5. Or worse. This is when things get colorful in the NFL. But Cam’s retweet is anything but colorful.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

If you want to see colorful, take a long look back to the dark days of the 1988 Steelers. After the 1-6 Black and Gold lost their sixth straight, starting quarterback Bubby Brister proclaimed “…we may as well punt on first down and get it over with.”

Brister didn’t stop there. The Bubster assailed his own pass rush, calling for “Anybody who rushes the passer, call the stadium. We need help quick.” Although Brister praised Chuck Noll, confirming, “I think he’s a good coach,” the story went national, getting coverage in the Washington Post on WMAL with Ken Beatrice’s “Sports Call.”

But both Noll and Dan Rooney downplayed the comments, affirming that they shared his frustration. According to Ed Bouchete’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, Tom Moore, the Steelers offensive coordinator took Bubby out for a beer after practice and smoothed things over.

  • Yes, ‘Twas innocent the age that preceded social media.

(Today Twitter would probably be debating the size of the tip they left.)

The Steelers responded the next Sunday with a rousing 39-21 win over the Denver Broncos, that included a cult-hero status worthy performance by running back Rodney Carter, reverses by Louis Lipps, nearly 100 yards from Merril Hoge, six Gary Anderson field goals and interceptions by Rod Woodson and Cornell Gowdy (who?).

  • Alas, the midseason rally was not to be, as the ’88 Steelers lost their next 4 before winning 3 of their final 4.

Circling back to 2022, I’d be shocked if Kenny Pickett made similar comments, even if the Steelers reach 1-6 as they are likely to do. But something Bubby Brister said then rings true today, “With what he has to work with right now, he’s doing the best job he can. It’s going to take another two or three years to rebuild this thing, get young guys some experience…. We need a whole lot of stuff.”

With an injury report that contains Cam Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, Levi Wallace, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Montravius Adams, Larry Ogunjobi, Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, few should argue if Pickett made similar comments about Tomlin.

But the hemming and hawing over Cam Heyward’s butt retweet shows that many probably would.

*If you’re a male millennial Steelers fan who is unfamiliar with the Sgt. Hulka clip, find out where to stream Stripes or, if need be, buy the DVD on Amazon, convene your buddies for a “Men’s Night In,” and take in what was the ultimate “guy movie” for both Boomers and Generation X.

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15 Memories that Unite Generation X Steelers Fans

Staff writer Tony Defeo recently published an article waxing on what it’s like to be a Steelers fan reaching 50. With a nod to Jimmy Buffett, its titled “A Steelers Fan Looks at 50.”

While I’m still a few months (ok, weeks) from passing the half century mark myself, it got me thinking about some of the unique touchstones that mark me and my fellow Generation Xers as Steelers fans.

Here is my list:

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

1. You had this photo on your wall.

In 1980, you could get a copy of this photo of Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw through a promo run by either the Pittsburgh Press or Giant Eagle. My aunt and God Mother who lived in Monroeville called down to Maryland asking if my brother and I wanted copies. Of course we did! They hung on our bedroom walls just as they hung on yours for years to come.

2. You remember when Pittsburgh really was the Steel City.

Arriving in Pittsburgh from Maryland usually meant taking the Parkway into downtown from the Turnpike. So my first views of Pittsburgh were of J&L’s blast furnaces. They were truly awesome. (Don’t try Googling the terms, just trust memory here.) They were just as awesome as the gastly smells you’d have to endure as we took Carson Street to Becks Run Road en route to Brentwood-Carrick.

The mills are long gone, but seeing them, even in their twilight, was special.

3. You thought Queen wrote “We Are the Champions” for the Steelers.

My older sister and brother told me that Queen had written “We are the Champions” for the Steelers. As a naïve first grader I believed them. But why shouldn’t I have? The Steelers were the champions. At 6 years old that felt like a permanent condition.

4. You parents had to convince you that the Steelers were terrible once.

My parents are Pittsburghers to their cores, but neither is a football fan. When I asked them what it was like rooting for the Steelers when they were kids, my mom would explain “You have to understand. The Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were kids.” History proves them right, especially for the Steelers. But I sure was one skeptical seven year old.

Steelers Jacket 70's

I got one of these from my older cousin David. I couldn’t WAIT to grow into it! Photo Courtesy of @Vintage Steelers

5. Kids made fun of you as you kept wearing Steelers stuff into the 80’s.

My inventory of Steelers stuff remained well stocked through elementary school thanks to hand-me downs from my older brother and my cousin. What didn’t stay well stocked was the Steelers inventory of wins. And kids, as they are wont to do, made fun of me for  wearing Steelers stuff to school.

I wore my gear anyway, because Steelers fans are loyal.

6. Hearing the words “Immaculate Reception” caused you to run to the TV.

Today you can watch the “Immaculate Reception” at the touch of a button while say, slogging through Buenos Aires down Aveneda Directorio on Bus 126 from Flores to Puerto Madero if you so choose.

But I remember as a kid my older brother made a point of showing me the “Immaculate Reception” while watching NFL Films. And for the next several decades, I made it a point to watch the play every chance I got. Kids today are spoiled indeed.

7. You often learned of the results from Sunday’s games on Monday morning.

This is unique to children of the Pittsburgh diaspora, but before the age of the internet, or even cable TV there were plenty of times when I’d have to wait until Monday morning to learn the results of Sunday’s Steelers game. And in the ‘80s, that could lead to a lot of downers at the breakfast table. Although there were pleasant surprises….

8. The 1989 Steelers will always carry a special place in your heart.

The Boomers before us and the Millennials came after us who were reared on Super Bowls don’t understand. But we do. Starting in 1987 we saw flashes of greatness. We even convinced ourselves we could glimpse positives in the 3-1 close to the dismal 5-11 1988 campaign.

The 1989 Steelers story book season validated our faith and we felt like we’d closed the door on the 80’s by opening the door to a second Super Bowl era. That didn’t happen, but boy, it sure felt good to believe.

9. When fans attack the offensive coordinator your reflex is: “Yeah. …But Joe Walton was worse.”

Offensive coordinators are the favorite whipping boys of Steelers fans, whether you’re talking about Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley. But Generation X Steelers fans know that none of them was worse than Joe Walton, even if in middle age we’ve grown to appreciate Walton as an outstanding person who did a lot of Western Pennsylvania football at Robert Morris.

10 a. The split back or “Pro” style offense looks normal.

Thanks to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, and Merril Hoge and Tim Worley, the sight of two running backs lined up behind the quarterback will always be “normal.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

10 b. You still scream for the fullback to get carries.

Your mind understands how and why the game has changed, but every time “they” talk about cutting Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell’s or Najee Harris’ workload your heart screams “Why can’t they just let the fullback run the ball?”

11. Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka is the only Steelers fight song.

OK. Let’s concede that James Psihoulis’ aka Jimmy Pol’s fight song is the property of our parent’s and our grandparent’s generation. But I first heard the song during the ’93 season on my first trip to a Steelers bar (Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon no less).

It was the sound of heaven. Listen for yourself:

I mean no disrespect to “Here We Go,” “Black and Yellow,” “Climbing the Stairway to Seven,” or any of the other fight songs. But the “Western Pennsylvania Polka,” from Jimmy Pol’s thick Pittsburgh accent, to the passion in which he implores “…Let’s go and score, and never ever yield!” while invoking Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s “hunky friends,” Franco’s Army and Gerela’s Gorillas perfectly preserves the Super Steelers and Pittsburgh’s essence.

12. You once thought Dan Rooney was “Cheap” or you defended him.

In the 1990’s, spring free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh were the norm. In the days before Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t have the revenue to compete. Fans didn’t want to hear it and wrote Dan Rooney off as “cheap,” while others, like me, defended him. These arguments were staples of our 20-something bar room banter.

13. When there’s a special teams coaching vacancy, you scream “Bobby April!”

Atrocious special teams plagued Bill Cowher’s 1993 Steelers. He responded by hiring Bobby April who rejuvenated the unit and cemented his cult-hero status with the successful surprise on-sides kick in Super Bowl XXX.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

14.  Number 95 is sacrosanct.

Whether “Just Plain Nasty,” or “I wasn’t hired for my disposition” lights your fire, you loved your “Avoid Lloyd” shirt and you instinctively know that no other Pittsburgh Steeler else can ever live up to the standard that Greg Lloyd set when he donned number 95.

15. You try, and fail, to explain Myron Cope to a new generation.

In 1992, Sports Illustrated described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were right.  Yet Myron was someone to be experienced in real time, and attempts to explain him ultimately fall short. But it is your duty to try.

There you go in Steelers Nation. Those are my top 15 (ok, 16) memories or touchstones that unique to Generation X Steelers fans.

  • Is this a definitive list? I certainly hope not!

While we all share a love for the Black and Gold, each of us has your unique way of finding it. Take a moment to leave a comment and share your additions to the list. (Comments are moderate to keep out the spammers and tolls, but if you write something it will get published.)

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Why the Steelers 1987 Draft Is Still My Favorite

This April marks the 35-year anniversary that I was allowed to stay home from school and watch the 1987 NFL Draft.

Maybe it wasn’t the best parental decision my mom ever made, but considering I am able to encapsulate my feelings about that day so many years later while utilizing my gift of writing, well, maybe it was a smart choice, after all.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Anyway, 1987 was the last year that the annual draft was held on a weekday — Tuesday–and started at 7 a.m. Exactly one year later, it was held on Sunday, which would be the NFL’s day of choice for the event for many springs after, and it started at noon.

Obviously, the NFL Draft continued to become a sports phenomenon over the years and has grown so much, not only is it now a primetime event that starts on Thursday and dominates an entire weekend, its ratings are superior to actual sports contests held by its rivals — including the NHL and its Stanley Cup Final.

It’s something that I should have a tremendous appetite for at this point in my life, especially with such easy access to all things NFL Draft — thanks to the explosion of both cable and the Internet, there is now round-the-clock coverage, endless mock drafts and the ability for any fan to do all of the research necessary to become an expert on all of the prospects.

  • But, in an ironic twist, it’s just not like that for me in 2022.

Back in the late-’80s, however, when I was about as obsessed with the draft as I’d ever be, I would have given anything to have access to the information that I do right now.

My obsession with the draft truly started in 1988 — the year that would see the Steelers select Aaron Jones in the first round — and began to subside after Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992 and soon showed me that winning playoff games and being an annual Super Bowl contender was far-more exciting and satisfying than studying draft prospects and hoping that a “known name” would come to town and rescue the black and gold.

I wasn’t super stoked about the draft in ’87, but I wanted to watch it, and I was more than excited when my mom let me stay home from school. I didn’t know who Rod Woodson was, but I quickly learned that it was quite the coup that Pittsburgh, a team that had drafted ninth a year earlier and selected some guard named John Rienstra, had landed this talented cornerback from Purdue with the 10th pick.

The Browns, the Steelers’ fierce rivals in the old AFC Central Division, had a shot at Woodson with the fifth pick, but, instead, chose Mike Junkin, an inside linebacker from Duke.

Junkin went on to play in 20 games over three seasons before his NFL career went up in smoke.

In Cleveland’s defense, a lot of teams missed out on Rod Woodson, who was the only First-Ballot Hall of Famer from the ’87 draft class. In fact, legendary wide receiver Cris Carter, who was inducted in 2013, was the only other Hall of Fame member to come out of the 1987 NFL Draft.

As I said, it was quite the coup for the Steelers to land a generational talent such as Rod Woodson, and do so after nine other teams had already passed on him in the first round.

Chuck Noll said he was “in love” with Woodson not long after making the selection (you could see why it was love at first sight for the head coach who spent most of his post-Super Bowl years futilely trying to find love in the first round).

Again, I didn’t know anything about Rod Woodson–never even heard of him prior to the draft — but I was excited that so many others were excited about the Steelers landing him.

Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

All-in-all, the Steelers’ ’87 draft was one of Noll’s finest over his last 15 years or so as head coach of the team. In addition to Woodson, Pittsburgh selected cornerback Delton Hall (round two); safety Thomas Everett (round four); linebacker Hardy Nickerson (round five); linebacker Greg Lloyd (round six); and running back Merril Hoge (round 10). Most would go on to have lengthy and distinguished careers — both with the Steelers and with other teams (Everett was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, for example) — and Woodson, Lloyd and, to a lesser extent, Hoge, went on to become vital members of Cowher’s playoff teams of the 1990s.

While I was super-hyped for the next several drafts–as many tend to do now, I was devouring every morsel of draft coverage I could find weeks and months before the event–none of them lived up to 1987.

To reiterate, the 1987 NFL Draft was the greatest one I ever watched, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

Maybe my mom knew what she was doing, after all.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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