Watch Tower: NFL Scouting Combine, Draft Stories Coming Too Early for One Steelers Scribe

The NFL’s free agency signing period is less than a week away and to be sure Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers franchising Le’Veon Bell is universally the top story in Steelers Nation. But scan major Steelers sites and you’ll find that, almost without exception, all of the coverage is on the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Forgive me, but this is one Steelers fan who finds this intense focus on the NFL Combine and the draft as coming a little too early.

And to be clear, I’m speaking with voice as a Steelers fan, not as a Steelers blogger. As readers know, I don’t pretend to know enough about college football to wade into the pre-Draft analysis and I won’t do you the disservice trying to fake it.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown scouting combine,

Steelers Antonio Brown at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. Photo Credit:

The NFL Combine is an important event, and in many ways is the unofficial beginning of the NFL off season. We hear a lot about how the NFL’s popularity is in decline, and over exposure is part of that equation. But the appetite for 24/7/365 football news is real, and you can’t blame the NFL for milking the combine for what its worth.

  • Still, if Mike Tomlin is correct in writing off OTA’s as “Football in shorts,” then what does that make the NFL Combine?

Kevin Colbert seemed to acknowledge that as much when he clarified that the Steelers value one-on-ones and medical information than data points that come out of the track meet.

  • Let’s also be clear about something, the Watch Tower isn’t criticizing the pros or our fellow bloggers for Combine stories.

Revenue generating sites come with page-view quotas, and that requires copy. And stories about prospects the Steelers meet with at the NFL Scouting Combine are much more relevant than Throw-Back-Thursday types strolls down memory lane.

There’s also the fact that is pushing the combine heavily. While the Watch Tower has yet to take an in-depth look, the fact is that the Steelers website at least indirectly dictates the story lines that so many other sites must follow.

  • How does this work, you ask?

The dynamic is pretty simple. If writes an article on Antonio Brown or Ryan Shazier’s NFL Combine workout, then Google searches for “Antonio Brown NFL Combine” and “Ryan Shazier NFL Combine” are sure to follow.

That’s fine. And the truth is that there are a lot of good stories being written on the NFL Scouting Combine with the benefit of a lot of first-hand journalism. Jim Wexell and Jon Ledyard work over at Steel City Insider provide to excellent examples. Steel City Blitz has also published a lot of quality draft-combine related stories over the last week. Kudos for them, and apologies to the dozens of other writers doing good work not mentioned.

  • But it’s simply too early for this Steelers fan to focus on the draft.

Can’t get my head around the fact that the Steelers draft decisions, as will every NFL team’s, will be driven by the fallout from free agency.

Seeing the words “NFL Combine” can’t help but remind me of my first memory of the event, which involved hear WMAL’s Ken Beatrice describe the Indianapolis Colts sending the Atlanta Falcons the store because they were blow away by Jeff George’s workout at the Combine (gee, that worked out well, didn’t it?) Also can’t help but remember that an early mock drafts had the Steelers picking Gerod Holiman in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

  • Beyond that it seems like the sheer volume of NFL Combine and draft stories is much heavier here in early March than in year’s past.

As most sites lack chronological archives it is hard to be sure. But either way all of this coverage on the 2018 NFL Draft is coming just a little too soon for this Steelers fan.

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Celebrate Chris Hubbard as a Steelers Success Before He Leaves Pittsburgh as a Free Agent

Times have changed. As NFL free agency turns 25, Steelers fans who remember the 1990’s will recall when Steelers routinely developed young talent only to see it leave in free agency.

  • The Rooneys kept their word when Heinz Field opened, and the Steelers have been much more competitive in retaining home-grown players.

But sometimes tough choices mean that a budding star will seek greener pastures. The conventional wisdom that Steelers free agent tackle Chris Hubbard is all but certain play 2018 somewhere other than Pittsburgh. Today our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Focus looks at whether that should and will happen.

Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts

Chris Hubbard in the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit:

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

In about five months or so we’ll be flooded with blog posts, tweets, Facebook comments and full-blown articles bemoaning preseason football that call for sharply curtailing it or perhaps eliminating it altogether.

  • When you see such rants next August remember Chris Hubbard’s story.

The Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was heavy on offensive lineman, and included the much ballyhood Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka Nik Embernasty. No one paid any attention to Chris Hubbard.

And when Steelers Nation got its first look at the undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like on one should pay attention to him. As Steel City Insider reader “Heinzsight” observed:

Hubbard was a good lesson/reminder for me. I remember his first preseason game against the Giants at LG. I thought he was so irredeemably awful that they should do everyone a favor, including Hubbard, and cut bait and not waste any more of anyone’s time on him. He really was that bad. His pass pro was nonexistent, and spent most of the run game on the ground, getting shrugged, jerked, or ragdolled. No center, always getting out over his hands, and tossed/discarded. Look at him now. Obviously wasn’t irredeemable.

Non-Steel City Insider subscribes will have to accept this author’s assurances that “Heinzsight” knows more about the fundamentals football than 90% of bloggers, including this one, will ever forget.

Chris Hubbard made the Steelers practice squad in 2013 and returned in 2014 to make the active roster. He saw his first professional action in the Steelers 2014 win at Carolina, one of the first truly impressive “scary good” performances of the offensive line of the entire Tomlin era.

Hubbard would see action in 7 games in 2015, saw action in 15 games in 2016 including four starts. Chris Hubbard started 10 games and appeared in 16 regular season games for the Steelers in 2017, proving himself to be that all-so-invaluable 3rd starting swing tackle charged with opening holes for Le’Veon Bell and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

You can never have too many good offensive lineman? How many times during has fate taught that lesson to the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era?

Chris Hubbard is the real deal. He’s a legitimate, quality starting tackle in league that puts a premium on this position. On top of that, he’s another guy like his counterpart Alejandro Villanueva or Kelvin Beachum who the rest of the NFL looked over, and said, “No Thanks” to. The Steelers were smarter, invested the time and effort into developing him. Why shouldn’t he stay in Pittsburgh?

  • Sentimentally doesn’t and shouldn’t drive free agent decisions.

The truth is that the will turn 27 this year, while Marcus Gilbert will turn 30, and Gilbert has more than his share of injuries on his frame having missed significant time in 2017 to injuries. The smart salary cap money says cut Gilbert, who’ll get signed in a snap, and resign Hubbard.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

It’d be easy to say that cutting Marcus Gilbert in favor of Chris Hubbard isn’t part of “The Steelers Way.” And it would give Steelers fan a warm and fuzzy feeling inside if we said it.

  • Unfortunately its not true.

The Steelers cut veterans before the end of their contracts, and during the early portion of the Tomlin era this was standard operating procedure especially on offensive line (just ask Justin Hartwig, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu.)

But the truth is the if the Steelers cut Marcus Gilbert, they’d take close to a 5 million dollar dead money salary cap hit, and this is the game that needs to get every bit of football out of its salary cap dollars as it can. And given that the Steelers extended Gilbert in 2014, Hubbard would certainly command a higher salary cap number.

You’d like to keep a guy like Chris Hubbard, but the numbers just don’t add up.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Hubbard

Kevin Colbert is a wiz a plucking gems from the undrafted rookie free agent pool, and Mike Tomlin is a coach whose dedicated to giving those young men a fair shot. You know their names. Roosevelt Nix, Ramon Foster, Willie Parker, and James Harrison. To name a few.

  • In another year, with a healthier cap situation, the Steelers might take a shot at keeping Hubbard.

But the Steelers salary cap situation simply doesn’t afford them that luxury. The Steelers gave Chris Hubbard an opportunity, he took full advantage of it, and he deserves to cash in. It won’t be in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply the way things work out.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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The Pro’s and Con’s of the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Every NFL personnel decision carries its own pro’s and con’s, and each choice a team makes comes with its own opportunity costs, especially in the salary cap era.

  • But the pro’s and con’s of the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell are perhaps a little more complex than others.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never faced a bigger, more consequential free agent decision than one that the now face with Le’Veon Bell. What will the Steelers do? What should they do? How will Bell react if the Steelers try to franchise him? Let’s take a look.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Have the Steelers made a more ballyhood second round pick? Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell the best running back the draft as soon as Pittsburgh picked him. Later, Ed Bouchette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

To keep that in context, Bouchette had watched the preseason debuts of Steelers first round running backs Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. This was hardly his first rodeo with a highly hyped rookie. Yet, Bouchette seemed to be going a little too far over the top.

  • Five years later, it is clear everyone should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

What’s all the more amazing even if this is true, it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the summer of 2013. Injuries kept Le’Veon Bell from 2014 post-season. Both 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse suspensions, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

  • Then, in 2016 Bell dominated the NFL at a level the league has not seen in a generation.

In 2017 Le’Veon Bell logged his first injury and suspension free season, and while his production dipped, he clearly remains the NFL’s best running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Just how important is Le’Veon Bell to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense? Number don’t lie:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell rushing averages, Le'Veon Bell touches, Le'Veon Bell receptions

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

No disrespect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but the Steelers offense really does revolve around Le’Veon’Bell. In contrast to 2016, in 2017 Ben Roethlisberger had weapons like Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald at his disposal, Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense still increased.

The number crunchers can make all of the arguments that they want about running backs, their declining productivity and lack of durability, but all of those meta statistics, while valid to a certain extent, miss a fundamental point:

  • Le’Veon Bell is a championship caliber player.

This is a man who broke the Steelers regular season in 2016 and then a few weeks later broke the post-season record in his first playoff experience, accomplishing something that John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, never did.

Player like this do not come along often. When you find one, you keep him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

By all accounts, the Steelers gave Le’Veon Bell an offer that would have paid him considerably more than the next highest paid running back and guaranteed close to 30 to 32 million dollars over its first 3 years.

  • Bell balked, leaving the Steelers (and his agent) at the altar.

Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, but would he really go so far as to sweeten the pot beyond what the Steelers were offering a year ago? That’s simply not sound football sense.

Bell’s yards-per-carry dropped from 4.9 to just over 4.0 from 2016 to 2017. His longest run was only 27 yards, calling into question his ability to go the length of the field. He’s a year older and has another 400 touches – and hits – on his frame.

The Steelers could franchise Le’Veon Bell again, but that would wreak havoc with their salary cap, and there’s a real risk that Bell might sit out the season, acting as a martyr for his fellow running backs.

  • Aside from his injury history, Bell is one bong hit away from another suspension.

While James Conner isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered as a replacement, the Steelers could likely replace Bell with some combination of Conners, Stevan Ridley, a moderately priced free agent and a draft pick.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

This is a tough call because the Steelers are to some degree into uncharted territory. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly franchise running backs appear to be a thing of the past in the NFL. This site has suggested that Le’Veon Bell might change that, and Bell demands he be paid like a franchise running back.

  • Yet, Bell’s decline in production from 2016 to 2017 undercuts his own argument.

Even if that’s true, Le’Veon Bell remains a championship caliber player by any measure. The types of plays he delivers game-in and game-out, are not the type of plays you can simply make up with a “Moneyball” type approach to building your running backs depth chart. The tweet below offers only one example of that:

Franching Le’Veon Bell for another year might a wise option in the abstract, but that would complicate the already tight salary cap position the Steelers already face.

One way or another, it seems like Le’Veon Bell will be with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, but this is one time when yours truly doesn’t envy the decision that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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A Look at Greg Ducre (Who?), the Steelers Restricted Free Agent Corner You Never Heard Of

One of the downsides of the age of the internet and instant communication is that it can be hard for serious fans to be surprised to learn something about their favorite team. But those moments still happen, and one such came in the form of a Bob Labriola “Asked and Answered” column when he listed Greg Ducre as one of the Steelers restricted free agents.

  • My response to reading Greg Ducre’s name was to ask, “Who?”

Certainly, I’ve got plenty of company. But Greg Ducre’s still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and he’s set to become a restricted free agent, so let’s take a deeper look.

Greg Ducre, Sammie Coates

Greg Ducre breaks up a pass headed for Sammie Coates at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP via

Capsule Profile of Greg Ducre’s Steelers Career

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed cornerback Greg Ducre to a futures contract on January 30th 2017, and they placed him on the waived-injured list on August 23rd 2017.

After he cleared waivers, his rights reverted back to the Steelers. ESPN tells us that Greg Ducre made 2 tackles in the Steelers preseason game against the Faclons. also assures us that Greg Ducre made a key special teams punt coverage play in the preseason against Indianapolis.

So I guess that sort of makes him the Steelers Nation’s equivalent of an Archibald “Moon Light” Graham, doesn’t it? (Google the name plus Field of Dreams if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Greg Ducre’s

There is none.

Given that even the lowest level restricted free agent tenders will likely be about 1.8 million dollars, there isn’t even a theoretical case to be made for the Steelers offering Greg Duce a restricted free agent tender.

Not even in Bizzaroworld could you make this case.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Greg Ducre

See above.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Greg Ducre

Whether it’s been drafting Shaquille Richardson in 2014, picking up DeMarcus Van Dyke and Antwon Blake off the waiver wire, or signing free agents like Brice McCain or attempting to retread Donald Washington as a cornerback, the Steelers have certainly taken a “No loose stone unturned” approach to trying to improve at corner.

But the Steelers could have relinquished their rights to Greg Ducre but instead chose to protect him (and pay him) during the 2017 season. On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell mentioned his name when reviewing the Steelers roster and implied he might still be in Pittsburgh’s plans.

Greg Ducre does have 9 games of NFL experience from the 2014 and 2015 seasons which he spent with the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins, and even had an interception for Washington.

Clearly Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin think that the kid has something to offer the Steelers, so it’s possible that he’ll get an invitation to St. Vincents and have another shot this summer.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Watch Tower: Analyzing Coverage of Unrest in Steelers Ownership Ranks, Coaching Shake Ups, Le’Veon’s Lateness

The Steelers 2017 abrupt playoff exit has drawn the season’s backstory out of the woodwork, giving the Watch Tower plenty of material to shine its lights on. So now we focus on unrest in the Steelers ownership ranks, Todd Haley’s departure, Le’Veon Bell’s lateness to practice, and much more.

Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley

Mike Tomlin yells, while Todd Haley scows. Photo Credit: Steelers 24/7

Unrest Among the Steelers Minority Owners…?

Two days after the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported “…some of the team’s limited partners intend to lobby owner Art Rooney to fire of Tomlin and to hire a new coach.”

By any measure, this qualifies as news.

While the Steelers 2008 ownership restructuring was big story, the minority partners have remained out of sight since then. In January 2010 rumors held some of them wanted Bruce Arians’ head, but if that’s true, they didn’t get it.

  • Outside of that, it’s safe to say that 99% of Steelers Nation hasn’t given the minority owners a 2nd thought until Florio’s report hit the web.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette added to the story immediately. While his reporting neither confirmed nor denied Florio’s report, Bouchette brought a bevy of factoids to the story that must be considered scoops.

Bouchette’s opinion piece put the Steelers supposed lack of discipline into perspective by offering:

[Bill Cowher] allowed his players in 1994 to hold a Super Bowl video rehearsal in the team meeting room before the AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

The saga of the 1994 Steelers, the Super Bowl Rap video and the Chargers AFC Championship upset are well known, but this is the first time that the Watch Tower is aware of a suggestion that The Chin knew and approved of the escapade in advance.

At the time, word was that Bill Cowher hadn’t known, and when he learned he exploded at his team. Bouchette was only getting warmed up however, as he quickly dropped another bombshell:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

There’s never been any question as to whether the Rooneys and/or the Rooney and the McGinley families maintained majority control of the Steelers, but this is the first time the Watch Tower is aware that any enlightened observer has put a number on the stake controlled by the minority partners.

The Steelers hold the details of their ownership structure tightly to the vest. For example, Dan Rooney Jr. has been a partner, yet that only became public after his father’s death. While Bouchette leaves himself wiggle room with the language he chooses, it’s highly unlikely that Dean of the Steelers press corps would write what he did absent confirmation.

Finally, Ed Bouchette got Thomas Tull and Larry Paul on the record in favor of Art Rooney II’s stewardship, which is important because getting seldom-heard from minority owners on the record trumps anonymous sources by any journalistic measure.

This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.

Shakeups on the Steelers Coaching Staff

If social media has given Steelers fans a platform to let the world know what they think about which assistant coaches should go, it still falls to credentialed media to inform us of who will actually go.

In doing so Bouchette linked Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk of a year ago to a harsh interaction with Haley following the AFC Championship game (although Bouchette’s language does leave wiggle room; nonetheless, he would have had to confirm this fact before reporting it.) Fellow Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac broke the news that Tomlin was not going to make changes on his defensive staff, albeit with the caveat that Bruce Arians has been told the same thing.

And of course Carnell Lake has resigned and Johnny Mitchell is moving into a new position, paving the way for Tom Bradley and Karl Dunbar to assume new positions.

This site’s assumption, although with several others, was that Lake was being politely shown the door. Not so fast reports Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who in responding to a reader’s question (full disclosure, yours truly posed the question) informs:

OK, Lake’s departure was not forced. He has been missing his family for a couple of years now and had the chance (put to me that way) to get back for his son’s final year of high school and jumped at it.

Wexell also informs that Johnny Mitchell’s new job as full time assistant head coach isn’t a ceremonial or figurehead type position, but a serious gig that will include “bringing ‘tough love’ to Tomlin when he sees the need….”

Given the number of paywalls that protect Steelers-related stories these days, the Watch Tower can’t verify Wexell’s the only person reporting these details, but he did make them available through a free article on his sight, and it’s good to see these stories enriched in such public fashion.

Some Context for Le’Veon’s Lateness, Please?

The Steelers discipline, or lack thereof has been a focus all season long, both of the fans and within the credentialed press. Perhaps there has been no bigger magnet Le’Veon Bell. It once again fell to Ed Bouchette to break what has been the hottest news of the off season thus far with his fateful paragraph:

Not only did Bell arrive much later than that for the playoff game against Jacksonville (as well as one coach), he missed practically the entire Saturday walk-through the day before, showing up about five minutes before practice ended.

The ripple effect created by Bouchette’s 38 words could spawn an entire series of Watch Tower-type columns. We will make no attempt to do so here. However, one source consulted by the Watch Tower as soon as the news broke cautioned about the story’s lack of context, suggesting that perhaps Bell’s absence was excused.

To be clear, the tone of Bouchette’s report, including the headline “Le’Veon Bell blew off the Steelers’ last walk-through” doesn’t suggest that Bell had permission to be late, although this was the explanation that Bell provided when prompted by reporters.

While the Watch Tower takes no issue with Bouchette writing a story whose tone is in tune with what his sources are telling him, but rather with other reporters who could have done more to confirm the story in the five days that elapsed between Bouchette’s report and Bell’s rebuttal.

This would have been all the more useful, given that Le’Veon Bell has a history of denying reports that later turn out to be true.

Wolfley Howls on SCI, and ESPN Gets a Clue (for now)

Veteran Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley ears poised to step up his profile on Steel City Insider this off season and if his recent two part Q&A series is any indication, readers are in for a treat.

Wolfley answered well over a dozen questions and pulled no punches, offering frank commentary on everything from Mike Mitchell‘s play, to stories from the Chuck Noll era which make 2017’s supposed “lack of discipline” look tame by comparison, to tackling complex X’s & O’s questions.

  • Along the way, Steel City Insider Jim Wexell has reported a previously undisclosed Bud Dupree injury, which might not qualm fans criticism of the Steelers 2015 1st round pick, but is a nonetheless useful factoid.

Finally, the end of the 2017 playoffs has brought a welcome change to those who access to ESPN’s NFL site via Latin America (or at least Argentina.)

As the Watch Tower reported earlier, at the beginning of the 2017 season visitors who tried to access ESPN’s NFL site in English were automatically forced to the Spanish page, with no option to navigate back to English. Fortunately, during the week of the conference championships, visitors were once again free to browse the English language site.

While the Watch Tower expects to encounter the same problem next September, the change for the off season is appreciated.


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In Defense of “The Steelers Way”

The Steelers Way” is under attack, and it is time to defend it. No defense should be necessary. But if social media offers any guide, it is. Site scribe Tony Defeo has already offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin, but the implicit criticism the Steelers are weathering from a good portion of their fan base goes beyond Tomlin.

Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the issue perfectly. In responding to a fan asking about why some regard Mike Tomlin as irreplaceable, Zeise remarks:

Tomlin supporters demand to know who the Steelers could get that is better, and I always say, “How about the next Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher?” In other words, when those two coaches were hired, nobody really knew who they were. And both won a Super Bowl. The Rams hired an excellent young coach who was an unknown. There are a lot of great coaches out there. You could end up worse off, but you could also be Tampa, Baltimore or Denver who all replaced highly successful coaches with coaches who took the team to Super Bowl titles. There is no law that reads “The next coach will be worse” than the successful coach you fire.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Denver and Tampa were on the precipice of a Super Bowl and coaching changes yielded instant Lombardi Trophies. To listen to Zeise , its almost as easy as snapping your fingers, isn’t it?

Except it’s not.

And rather than bemoan Art Rooney II’s steady hand, Steelers fans should give thanks for the fact that Art Rooney II, like his father before him, is guided by the Rooney rule. No, we’re not talking about the NFL’s Rooney Rule, but rather the one that has guided the franchise since 1969 and his best enunciated by Mike Silverstein, aka “Homer J” from Going Deep with the Steelers:

  • You find the best guy you can to coach the team, and you stick with him as long as you can.

Since the wanning days of the Lyndon Johnson administration, just 3 men, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have carried the title of “Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers.” That’s a record of not even remotely matched not only in the NFL, but in all of North American major league sports.

  • It’s also not a coincidence that the Pittsburgh Steelers are also the only team to own 6 Lombardi Trophies.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit:

Coaching a team to a Super Bowl victory is not easy. Doug Peterson deserves every bit of credit heaped upon him for leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but no one should be fooled into thinking that finding the next Doug Peterson should be easy.

Consider this, from Chuck Noll’s first post-Super Bowl era losing season in 1985 to his retirement, precisely one Super Bowl was one by a coach who was hired during that time span. And that was George Siefert, who inherited a Super Bowl champion (to be fair, Jimmy Johnson got hired in 1989 and won a Super Bowl in 1992, a year after Noll’s retirement.) There wasn’t as much coaching turnover in the 80’s as there was today, but the number of new coaches hired during that 7 year period could easily approach 2 dozen.

From Bill Cowher’s first losing season in 1998 until his victory in Super Bowl XL only two NFL head coaches were hired who won Super Bowls during that time span, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden.

  • Is there an up and coming coach out there who could come into Pittsburgh and do a better job than Mike Tomlin?

Yes, possibly there is, just as it’s possible that Bill Cowher could have been replaced by someone better after the dark days of the ’98 and ’99 seasons. But the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t operate that way. They don’t abandon a coach who is a proven winner in favor of a quest for perfect coach.

The Steelers worst finish since 1970 came in 1988 when the team went 5-11; no other NFL franchise has avoided dipping below 5 wins during that time span.

  • That fallout from 1988 campaign illustrates how the Steelers Way works.

Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t the only legendary franchise to suffer hard times in 1988. Tom Landry and the Cowboys finished 3-13 (in fact, one of Noll’s wins came and Landry’s expense). Bum Bright responded by selling the team to Jerry Jones, who hired Jimmy Johnson as coach even before he had the decency to fire Tom Landry.

Dan Rooney responded differently. He pressured Noll to make changes, Noll resisted and almost resigned. But Noll returned, had another blaze of glory with the 1989 Steelers and retired two years later.

  • That gives you a good contrast between “The Steelers Way” and the rest of the NFL’s way.

And let’s be clear about something: since that fateful juncture, the Dallas Cowboys actually have won 3 Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2, including a win over Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX.

But the Steelers have also made it to the Big Dance 4 times, have been to more conference championships, had more playoff wins, have only suffered 4 losing seasons, and have overall been a more consistent winner.

That’s “Steelers Way,” in action and I’ll take that over any other NFL team’s operating philosophies.

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New Steelers Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar Returns to Pittsburgh with Big Shoes to Fill

In tandem with the announcement that Tom Bradley was joining the Steelers coaching staff as defensive backs coach, the team also announced that Karl Dunbar will return to Pittsburgh to assume the role of defensive line coach.

Johnny Mitchell, who has held the title of Steelers defensive line coach since 1994, will move into a full time roll as assistant head coach. And in doing so, Mitchell leaves Karl Dunbar with incredibly large shoes to fill.

Karl Dunbar

Karl Dunbar, Steelers new defensive line coach. Photo Credit: Mark Rebilas, USA Today, via SCI

Steel Curtain Rising will have a longer look at Johnny Mitchell’s tenure as defensive line coach in the future, but “distinguished” would be the first word the comes to mind. It’s often said that “NFL” means “Not for Long” and assistant coaches are hired to be fired.

  • By surviving two head coaches and 6 defensive coordinators alone Mitchell has beaten the system.

Not bad for a man who arrived in Pittsburgh and was tasked with succeeding Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness.

Karl Dunbar is no stranger to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chuck Noll took him as a defensive lineman in the 8th round the 1990 NFL Draft, although Dunbar did not make the team. Dunbar did get NFL experience playing for the New Orleans Saints in 1993 and the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and 1995.

Dunbar coached for the Chicago Bears in 2004, and then moved on to Minnesota in 2006, where he worked for Mike Tomlin. Dunbar stayed in Minnesota until 2011, and then coached defensive line for the New York Jets from 2012 to 2014 and then with the Buffalo Bills in 2015.

  • Karl Dunbar has worked on Nick Saben’s staff at Alabama during 2016 and 2017.

If Johnny Mitchell, who knows Dunbar from their days at LSU, leaves a big shoes to fill, he’s also giving his successor an awesome set of tools to work with. Cam Heyward is arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and if Stephon Tuitt can manage to stay healthy, he could give Heyward a run for his money.

Javon Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year and continues to offer plenty of “upside” while Tyson Alualu has proven to be an invaluable 4th lineman. L.T. Walton certainly struggled in relief of Hargrave in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he offers valuable depth.

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Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

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Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit:

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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Why Mike Tomlin Is Still the Right Head Coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers

You know what they say: “Don’t make a decision about something when you’re emotional.”

As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was pretty emotional after their quick ousting from the 2017/18 NFL playoffs at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 14 at Heinz Field.

  • “Why weren’t they prepared?” like many other fans, I asked rather angrily. Furthermore, we had a right to be angry.

And, of course, the wave of negative news that quickly surfaced in the days after the Steelers season came to a crashing halt, such as star running back Le’Veon Bell arriving with about five minutes (or perhaps more, depending on who you believe) left in the walk-through practice the Saturday before the playoff loss, just seemed like one straw too many.

  • Yes, for a brief moment, I thought about the possibility of the Steelers moving on from long-time head coach Mike Tomlin and taking things in a whole new direction.
Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, at a December 2017 press conference. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

But while I thought about it, I never actually allowed those words to leave me lips. For one thing, it’s just ludicrous, right? Why part ways with a head coach who has accomplished as much as Mike Tomlin has during his 11-year tenure with the Steelers organization?

  • We’re talking about a man with a 116-60 career record, eight playoff appearances, six division titles, two trips to the Super Bowl and one Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl XLIII.
  • That’s only one win less than Don Shula in the same time span, the winningest coach in NFL history.

Anyway, here we are three weeks later, and after taking some time to reflect–and discovering that perhaps, as he told reporters recently, Bell had a personal reason for missing that final practice and was given permission by his head coach–I realize that maybe things aren’t always as they appear–or as they’re reported.

  • Obviously, someone had an ax to grind with Mike Tomlin–perhaps now ex-offensive coordinator Todd Haley–and wanted to make him look bad.

But that’s neither here nor there, because, even without the leaked story about Bell missing practice, there are those who will never give Mike Tomlin his due and will continue to scream for his dismissal as head man on the Steelers sidelines.

Part of me can’t figure out why, but then, Mike Tomlin is the first Steelers coach of the social media era. And, as you probably know, there is rarely anything logical or rational about most takes on Facebook or Twitter.

Yes, whereas in the late-90’s, when only a select few fans could call into sports talk radio every night and tell the hosts what they thought of Bill Cowher‘s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), today, every Tom, Dick and Harriet from all over the globe can take to the world wide web and use all capital letters to tell you how much they hate Tomlin’s clock-management skills.

And they’re not all irrational either. There are some logical fans, albeit fans with an agenda against Mike Tomlin, who can come up with some darn good reasons why the Steelers should find a new head coach.

But the good news is, regardless of the illogical or even sane negative takes on Mike Tomlin, Mr. Obvious obviously being obvious, the Steelers won’t be in the market for a new head coach anytime soon.

For starters, it just goes against reason and logic to suggest the Steelers, a team that has played exactly one game under Mike Tomlin where it was already out of playoff contention at kickoff, are in total disarray, as has been suggested time and time again, by both the media and fans, alike.

In a classic case of giving the players all the credit and the coach none, Mike Tomlin’s critics state–and with a straight  face, mind you–that Pittsburgh has only been as successful as it has over the years because it boasts a superbly-talented roster that includes a franchise quarterback in one Ben Roethlisberger and numerous All-Pros.

Conveniently, this ignores the fact that NFL history is littered with countless superbly-talented rosters that never came close to achieving what the Steelers have under Tomlin, and that’s because those teams lacked a leader the equal of a Tomlin.

Secondly, the Rooneys have never had a fast-trigger with getting rid of coaches–at least not over the past 49 years, when they’ve employed just three of them.

And there’s a simple reason for that: you don’t get rid of a head coach when he wins, which the Steelers coaches have done, since Chuck Noll gave the organization the blueprint for success back in 1969.

  • Why? Because even good ones are just oh so hard to find.

Maybe I’m more exhausted from arguing with other fans about the Steelers head coach than a supporter of another team would be from arguing about their team’s coach, because it’s so uncommon for any team to employ a coach as long as Pittsburgh has employed Tomlin.

But if you look around the league, you’ll see that the most stable franchises–even the ones that don’t win Super Bowls every season–have long-tenured head coaches.

Take a look at the Packers, and their head coach Mike McCarthy; he’s been with Green Bay since 2006, and has a track-record pretty much on-par with Tomlin.

  • Like Pittsburgh, the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since they defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. And, like Steelers fans, Green Bay faithful have high expectations of their team.
  • You don’t think Packers fans have been quite vocal on social media about McCarthy’s underachieving teams the past seven seasons?

Like Steelers fans, do you think Packers Cheeseheads are betting the farm McCarthy will be an abject failure once his franchise quarterback–Aaron Rodgers–hangs up his cleats?

A good guess is that they are–again, fans are usually more apt to give credit to the player than to the coach.

However, I’ll just wager a bet that the Packers’ front-office won’t be looking for a new head coach in the near future, not unless McCarthy drifts far from the consistency he’s provided the organization the past 12 years.

Yes, consistency, something that your garden variety entitled fan rarely puts much stock in–until it’s gone.

As a fan of the University of Pittsburgh Men’s basketball team, I can tell you I was pretty darn frustrated year after year, as I watched head coach Jamie Dixon achieve great success in the regular season, only to underachieve in the postseason.

  • Many other Pitt fans–including some highly-influential alums–felt the same way.
  • Long story short, Dixon was effectively forced out two years ago–even if he officially left to coach his alma mater, TCU.

In the wake of Dixon’s departure, the Panthers hired Kevin Stallings, a coach that was far down the list of desired successors, and, today, the program finds itself back at rock-bottom, complete with an 0-11 record in the ACC.

Right about now, those yearly appearances in the Big Dance–even if  they often stalled out in the Sweet 16–don’t look so bad.

If insiders such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Bob Labriola are to be believed–and there’s nothing to suggest they aren’t–the Steelers goal every year is to compete and have a chance to win a championship.

With the exception of maybe a half a dozen years, the Steelers have been a legit championship contender every season, dating back to 1992, when Cowher took over for the legendary Noll.

Far few teams can make that kind of claim, and there’s something to be said for that.

Right now, the New England Patriots are in the throes of one of the greatest championship runs in professional sports history. Despite their 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII on Sunday night, the Patriots have now made it to eight Super Bowls since 2001, winning five of them.  But when the run is over, and Tom Brady finally does retire, will head coach Bill Belichick stick around and try to rebuild?

  • And when Belichick does finally part ways with the Patriots, will they be able to maintain the current winning culture over the next 20 or 30 years?

Finally, while you might consider Tomlin’s years to be a waste–only a truly entitled fan would think that way–fact is, he truly is at an elite level in his profession.

So, while you and I might continue to battle back and forth on social media over Tomlin’s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), he’ll continue to man the Steelers sidelines.

Good head coaches are hard to find, and Mike Tomlin has proven to be a great one.

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