1999 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Donahoe Feud, Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened 1999 in unfamiliar territory:  Instead of playing in the post season, they were watching from home. You can criticize the Steelers brain trust of Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney for many of their 1999 off season decisions.

  • But there is one thing they refused to do following the first losing season of the Cowher era: Panic.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily in 1998. So the Steelers response of firing Ray Sherman and replacing him with Kevin Gilbride was expected. Giving Stewart a 5-year extension that would pay him 27 million more dollars was decidedly unexpected. Yet that’s just what the Steelers did.

Kordell Stewart had hardly been the only one at fault during the up-and down 7-4 start and the ensuing game season-ending meltdown. The offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver had been weak spots.

So the Steelers let Carnell Lake go, a mainstay in the defensive backfield since 1989, and replaced him with Travis Davis. Former first round wide receiver Charles Johnson was allowed to walk, too. They also brought in not one, but two tackles, Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown.

  • And, with the 13th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Steelers took wide receiver Troy Edwards.

Today, we know that Troy Edwards was a bust, but the pick was popular at the time. But there’s a backstory behind the pick.

As Troy Edwards’ name was being sent to the podium, the Steelers were on the phone with Jevon Kearse. This factoid only emerged in 2016, but today it tells us something very important about how and why the Steelers 1999 season unfolded the way it did.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL after a 3-year hiatus on September 12th 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city of Cleveland was ecstatic. The Browns were back!

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

Richard Huntley runs over the Browns. Literally. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The celebration ended quickly.

The Steelers amassed a 20 to 0 zero half time lead, which became a 27 to 0 3rd quarter lead after the first two series. Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak and then Pete Gonzalez. Jerome Bettis gave way to Richard Huntley and then Amos Zereoue. The Steelers won 43 to 0, registering their first shutout in two years.

ESPN commentator Joe Theismann went so far as to compare the 1999 Steelers offense to the 1995 edition which had taken them to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The new Browns were an expansion team, so a Steelers’ victory was expected.

But Pittsburgh made it look easy, incredibly easy. Was the 1998’s 0-5 implosion  just a mirage?

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

Three Rivers Stadium welcomed the Browns for the first time in 3 years in week 9 of the 1999 season. The Steelers were on a 3 game winning streak. Cleveland came to Pittsburgh seeking its first win.

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

During the entire first half, the Steelers could only muster a meager Kris Brown field goal in response. But at least the Browns hadn’t sniffed another score. Kris Brown booted another field goal to start the first half. Then, with victory in their grasp, the Steelers made two critical errors:

  • Richard Huntley scored a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.
  • Yet Bill Cowher opted to go for two and the Steelers failed.

So instead of 13 to 7, the Steelers led 12 to 7.

Still, the Steelers kicked another field goal to start the 4th quarter, making it 15 to 7. That made the lost point inconsequential. Didn’t it?

With about 7 minutes left, the Steelers forced a Browns punt and simply had to kill the clock. Yet after Jerome Bettis gained 6 yards, Kordell Stewart misfired to Mark Bruener. Then he tried a bubble screen to Troy Edwards.

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

Phil Dawson kicks the game winner in 1999. Photo Credit: Browns.com

  • But John Thierry blew by Wayne Gandy and intercepted Stewart’s pass.

The Browns scored a touchdown 3 plays later, but their 2 point conversion failed. This time the Steelers tried pounding the ball, calling 7 straight running plays but were forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Browns milked all but 2 seconds off of the clock before kicking the game winning field goal.

The Steelers had opened the season by welcoming the Browns back to the NFL by wiping the floor with them. Nine weeks later they were wiping egg off of their faces after giving the Browns their first win since 1995.

After the game, team leader Levon Kirkland confessed, “I’m not going to say it’s the most embarrassing loss, because you never know what’s going to come up next.”

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

So what happened in between those Browns bookend games? The Steelers followed their opening day romp over the Browns with a lackluster win over a middling Ravens team. The Steelers returned to Three Rivers Stadium to suffer a 5-interception blowout loss to the Seahawks, followed by 17-3 home loss to the Jaguars that saw free agent tackle Wayne Gandy give up sacks on back-to-back drives that resulted in safeties.

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

Jeremy Staat closes in on Doug Flutie. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Steelers followed that with a 24-21 loss to the Bills

After the game Bill Cowher commented that Kordell Stewart could have benefited from seeing Doug Flutie in action. This was ironic, because Stewart’s success in 1997 helped pave the way for Flutie’s NFL return.

For as bleak as things looked during those three losses, the Steelers rebounded with three straight wins. Their win on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion Falcons ended with not one, but two “Who wants it more?” 4th quarter goal line stands.

Pittsburgh followed that with a 27-6 road win over the San Francisco 49ers and by all appearances, the Steelers had done what so many previous Bill Cowher teams had done before them: Right themselves after stumbling early.

Wrong. The Steelers had only set themselves up for a bigger fall.

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

The 1999 Steelers fulfilled Levon Kirkland’s worst fears by losing 7 of their next 8 games and in the process looked worse than any Steelers team had looked since 1969. Chuck Noll’s 1986 and 1988 teams had finished 6-10 and 5-11, but at least both of those squads were playing their best football by season’s end.

But The 1999 Steelers found new ways to get worse as fall faded into winter.

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The bottom fell out of the defense. On the road against the Titans, Chris Sanders hauled in a 46- yard reception as Travis Davis and Scott Shields essentially “watched.” Two weeks later Qadry Ismail came to Pittsburgh and scorched the Steelers secondary for 258-yard, 3-touchdown game.

During a loss to a terrible Bengals team Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart. Fans cheered as Mike Tomczak took the field, but the results were the same.

The Steelers did secure a post-Christmas win over the Carolina Panthers. But that win came by way of Shar Pourdanesh replacing the inept Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad who’d been alternating at right tackle, and some mid game snow that inspired Jerome Bettis to a 100-yard game.

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

Chad Scott stuffs Fred Lane for a 3 yard loss. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The season ended with a sloppy 47-36 loss to a Tennessee Titans backup squad that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman shirt in front of cameras following a garbage-time touchdown, yet another safety and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell following an interception. Worse yet, although the Steelers started at the Titans 5-yard line and ran 6 plays, they still failed to score.

For the record, the 1999 Steelers final record was 6-10, but this was by far the worst Steelers squad since Chuck Noll’s 1-13 1969 team.

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

The 1999 Steelers finished 6-10, and looked a lot worse than their 7-9 1998 predecessors in doing so. But the difference wasn’t driven by talent: The 1999 team was rotting at its core.

The feud between head coach Bill Cowher and Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe that had been simmering for years was consuming the team. Donahoe’s “flat” comment following Fog Bowl II first exposed the tensions between the two men but by 1999, things had become unmanageable.

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

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

The fact that the front office and head coach weren’t even on the same page regarding the first round draft reveals just how deep the dysfunction sank.

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

In the week leading up to the Bengals loss, 3 separate national stories reported that Bill Cowher was planning to leave the team. Tom Donahoe had strong relations with the press, and could have swatted it down with an off-the-record denial.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero evidence to suggest that he declined an opportunity to do so. But after the Steelers laid an egg against the Bengals, Donahoe was on the record and his tongue was particularly sharp as he quipped, “Let me say this, I think we’re more talented than Cleveland and Cincinnati.”

A few days later, Cowher insisted that he was staying, and retorted, “I know what my responsibilities are to this football team and what I’m here to do. That’s to coach a football team, to coach the players I have.”

Late in the season as losses cascaded into bigger, uglier losses, Lee Flowers called out his teammates for “loafing.”

  • Flowers was right. The circus atmosphere of the season finale proved it.

Normally, when players quit on a losing team, it is an indictment of the head coach. But by 1999, this wasn’t a “normal” Steelers team. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reveals that Bill Cowher barred Donahoe from attending coaching meetings because he thought he was a “spy.”

Cowher’s instincts were correct. After the season it was revealed that Tom Donahoe had been privately bashing Cowher to the press.

  • Front office-coaching tension is normal and, in the right dosage, healthy.

But even the most brilliant football minds can’t function successfully if they can’t cooperate. The Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but immune. Art Rooney, Jr. led the greatest scouting team pro football has or ever will see. Chuck Noll was one of the greatest coaches in the game.

  • Yet, by the mid-80’s the two men couldn’t function together.
  • By 1999 Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had reached the same juncture.

Dan Rooney again had a decision to make. And once again, Dan backed his coach over the front office and fired Tom Donahoe.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Marty Schottenheimer was a Coach I Hated as a Kid but Respected as a Man

Marty Schottenheimer, one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history, passed away on February 8 at the age of 77.

Schottenheimer won 200 regular-season games over a 20-year career that included stints with four different teams, including the Browns (1984-1988), Chiefs (1989-1998), the now Washington Football Team (2001) and Chargers (2002-2006).

Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher, Steelers

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer. Photo Credit:Charley Gallay, Getty Images

It was Schottenheimer’s tenure in Cleveland in the mid-to-late-’80s that drew the ire of a little Steelers fan in Pittsburgh. I’m talking about yours truly, of course. Right around the time Schottenheimer was turning the Browns into Super Bowl contenders in the mid-’80s, the Steelers, who had won four Lombardi trophies in the previous decade, were firmly in the throes of their post-dynasty malaise that would basically last through the final year of Chuck Noll‘s career in 1991.

It was Schottenheimer who would coach the Browns to their first-ever victory at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. It was those same Browns who would lay to rest whatever slight playoff hopes Pittsburgh had thanks to a 37-31 overtime loss at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the rematch late in the season.

Schottenheimer would go on to coach the Browns to three-straight AFC Central titles from 1985-1987. Meanwhile, the Steelers, following a stunning appearance in the AFC title game in 1984, were about to embark on their ugliest stretch since the pre-Noll days and wouldn’t win another division title until Noll retired and was replaced by Bill Cowher in 1992.

It wasn’t a fun time watching Schottenheimer’s Browns reign supreme in the AFC Central during those aforementioned three seasons, while Pittsburgh could only muster records of 7-9, 6-10 and 8-7, respectively.

  • But time, they say it heals all wounds.

As I got older and learned a bit more about Schottenheimer, I realized he was not only a good and super-positive guy–someone who always got his players to respond to his message — but he was from the Greater Pittsburgh area, namely, Canonsburg, Pa. Furthermore, Schottenheimer was the only coaching boss Cowher ever had, as the fellow Pittsburgh area native cut his teeth on Schottenheimer’s staff in Cleveland as both a special teams coach and then a secondary coach.

Bill Cowher followed Schottenheimer to Kansas City and was the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator from 1989-1991. It was there that Cowher emerged as a bona fide head-coaching candidate and found himself on the Steelers’ radar during their very important search to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Emperor.

Many said Cowher was too much like his coaching mentor, which was to say he was too conservative on offense; instead, relying on defense and a sound running game

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

After several near-misses, Cowher finally got his ring in 2005 when the Steelers vanquished the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Many have said that the key was taking the handcuffs off Ben Roethlisberger, his second-year quarterback who had the “it” factor the organization seemed to be missing at the position since the days of Terry Bradshaw.

  • Sadly, Cowher’s old boss never did win a ring.

Heck, Schottenheimer never even appeared in a Super Bowl, as many promising seasons in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego ended before they could even reach that coveted grand stage.

Some have called Schottenheimer’s coaching career tragic due to his playoff failures, but I don’t see it that way. If you’ve never seen the A Football Life episode about Schottenheimer’s football career, I highly recommend it. Schottenheimer had a nondescript playing career for both the Bills and Patriots in the 1960s before turning to a life in coaching. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer spent several years trying to get his foot in the door in both the college and professional ranks but struggled to even get an interview.

As he told it, Schottenheimer’s family was struggling financially and pretty close to seeing everything come crashing down when the Giants hired him to be their linebackers coach in 1975. During his A Football Life episode, Schottenheimer broke down in tears when discussing the break that he got in New York. It changed his life. It changed his family’s life.

No, there was nothing tragic about Schottenheimer’s coaching career. Did his teams often come up short on the biggest stages? Yes, but he got to live his dream.

  • He got closer than many ever will to NFL’s Promised Land.

People think life is about the destination, but it’s really about the journey. I’d say Marty Schottenheimer had a great and memorable one.

Thank you, Marty Schottenheimer, not only for preparing Bill Cowher to be the Steelers’ next head coach after Chuck Noll but for being the kind of coach this man would have loved to play for if I had the talent to do so.

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Ben Roethlisberger to Return to Steelers in 2021: It is a Risk, but the Right Move for Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger will be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. The suspense is over. Nearly two months after the Steelers 2020 season ended in Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic fashion in defeat the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh has answered its biggest off season question.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Details are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks, but statements by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert left no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was going to have sacrifice to return. Ben Roethlisberger met with Art Rooney II, and undoubtedly said he would.

After he met with Art Rooney II, his agent Ryan Tollner confirmed:

For fans looking at that 3 interceptions in less than a quarter against the Browns left wondering, “Why bringing him back?” another game against Cleveland offers clarity.

The Case for Bringing Back Ben

As I’ve confessed before, when I first learned that injuries might force Terry Bradshaw to retire, I was happy, because my older brother had told me “Bradshaw was ‘old.’” To an 11 year old, “Young” meant automatically better.

  • Ah, the ignorance of youth. Cliff Stoudt was younger, but he certainly wasn’t better.

I remember seeing a few games after the fateful declaration, but didn’t see too many after that. But I do remember tuning into one a few years later. The 1987 season opened with Mark Malone and Chuck Noll logging their second upset of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

  • Could the Steel Curtain be ready to rise again?

Channel 11 in Baltimore was showing the game in week 2, a Steeler road game against the Browns. The picture in the DC suburbs was fuzzy as it arrived from Baltimore, but I didn’t need HD quality to understand the disaster.

I tuned in in the fourth quarter. The Browns were winning, but only by 20-10. It was just in time to see Mark Malone toss an interception right to Clay Matthews, which Matthew returned for a touchdown. I think, I can’t be sure, but I think that was his 4th on the day. If I’m right, he quickly threw another with the Browns converted into another touchdown.

  • Chuck Noll had seen enough, and benched Malone.

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

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

Bubby Brister to the rescue? Right? Ah, no. The Bubster threw an interception of his own and went 1-5 in mop up duty. He also got sacked.

7590 days elapsed between Terry Bradshaw’s last pass to Calvin Sweeney and Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass to Plaxico Burress. No, not all of those days were as bleak as that afternoon at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but the moral of the story is clear: If you have a franchise quarterback, you ride him as far as he will take you.

Yes, There is a Risk in Roethlisberger Returning

The risk of a Ben Roethlisberger return is real. One Mexican blogger spelled it out:

What we saw at the end of 2020 might be the best Ben can bring with the new arm that’s attached to his 39 year old body. Even if he can get comfortable with his arm’s “bionics” (to borrow Jim Wexell’s term) the Steelers will still need to:

  • Find a starting caliber running back
  • Rebuild the offensive line
  • Keep or replace key players on defense

But Ben Roethlisberger has obviously indicated he’s willing to give up enough salary to let the Steelers try to do that. Mason Rudolph has shown real upside. (And please, the Steelers can and will do what is needed to keep in in Pittsburgh in 2022.)

Mason Rudolph might represent the future, the here in the present Ben Roethlisberger still represents the Steelers best shot at going to the Super Bowl in 2021.

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All Steelers Playoff Exits Don’t Result from Bad Locker Room Culture…

The Steelers were bounced in Hindenburg Meets the Titanic fashion from the wildcard round of the playoffs in a 48-37 loss at the hands of the Browns last Sunday evening at Heinz Field.

  • Naturally, the fans and media being who they are, heads immediately had to roll and certain folks had to be held accountable.

The first heads to be handed to the public on a pike were offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and secondary coach Tom Bradley.

Randy Fichtner had long-since worn out his welcome with Steelers fans, many of whom have never met an offensive coordinator that they wanted to like for more than a year. As for Sarrett and Bradley? Likely collateral damage.

But coaches aren’t the only ones to blame for the Steelers’ quick and painful playoff exit. No, folks want the players to be held accountable, as well.

Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Still Curtain.com

Namely, receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Chase Claypool, both of whom had some less than flattering things to say about the Browns before and after the postseason matchup.

Smith-Schuster made headlines for stating that the “Browns is the Browns” in a press conference with the media in the days before Cleveland came to town. This was seen as ripe bulletin board material and something to really rile those Brownies up something good. As for Claypool, following the Browns’ victory over Pittsburgh, he took to TikTok and said: “Bad loss, but the Browns are going to get clapped next week, so it’s all good.”

  • Considering Cleveland is playing the Chiefs in the divisional round, Claypool is probably right.

Doesn’t matter to many. Claypool is being labeled a sore loser and, like with Smith-Schuster, some are suggesting he’s showing signs of becoming the next Antonio Brown–if not in terms of talent, certainly in terms of being problematic.

Most of all, the Steelers’ talkative young receivers are seen by many as a symptom of a poor locker room culture.

  • Isn’t that always the case when Pittsburgh loses in the playoffs?

Isn’t it always about a lack of leadership and/or a toxic culture? Many fans and media members can’t wait for Smith-Schuster, a pending free agent, to leave town. In case this sounds familiar to you, they were just as eager to see Brown and Le’Veon Bell exit Stage Left.

I’m sure it won’t be long until Claypool wears out his welcome in Pittsburgh, thanks to one too many social media posts that don’t show total dedication to the game of football.

  • Why can’t the Steelers ever just lose because it wasn’t good enough?
  • Why does it always have to be about culture, attitude and a lack of leadership?
  • How many players must a team part with before there’s a perfect locker room dynamic that’s conducive to winning?

I’ll tell you how many, an infinite amount because there’s really no such thing as perfect locker room chemistry.

  • Do you really think attitude and a lack of dedication were the problem for Pittsburgh in 2020?

Of course, you do, that’s why I’m writing this article. OK, fine, but if that was the case, how do you explain the total dedication both Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner displayed in the weight room all offseason? You remember the social media posts from the summer where they seemed to be all about improving their bodies so they could be better players in the fall and winter.

How about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who not only spent the entire spring and summer rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow, but he also appeared to lose about 20 pounds of Big Ben fat in the process?

  • If those three instances, alone, aren’t great examples of total dedication to one’s craft, I don’t know what are.

People must remember that this Steelers organization has employed many interesting characters throughout its illustrious history. Jack Lambert once said that quarterbacks should wear skirts. Greg Lloyd was called the meanest guy in football. Joey Porter used to prance around with his abs exposed before games and pick fights with any opposing players who were willing. Guess what? All three played for teams that won Super Bowls or were at least contenders.

The post-Brown and Bell Steelers were seen as a bunch of great guys, especially when they started out the 2020 campaign 11-0.

  • Funny how that all changed once they started to lose.

The Steelers didn’t lose to the Browns because they had a cultural problem. They lost because of a talent and/or game-plan problem.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier for the fans and the media to accept the former than it is the latter.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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Rapid Reaction to Steelers Loss to the Browns

The Cleveland Browns eliminated the once Pittsburgh Steelers to the tune of 49-37 on a bleak night at Heinz Field.

The game ended at just before 2:00 am here in Buenos Aires, and with a long work day looming I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get the post-game analysis up. Those are always a challenge following night games, and other events could over take us.

So here is some Rapid Reaction:

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns

Ben Roethlisberger can do nothing after the opening snap flies over his head. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

  • The Steelers didn’t play that badly after they spotted the Browns 28 points

Seriously (well, not really), after that the Pittsburgh out score Cleveland 37 to 20. And after the Browns went up 35 to 7, the Steelers held the the Browns to just 13 points. So remember that boys and girls, if you get into an NFL playoff game, its probably not a good idea to spot your opponent four touchdowns.

  • Where was the defense?

This game hinged on turn overs, make no mistake about it. But those turnovers were one sided. The Browns got them (or were handed them) in droves, while the Steelers came up with none. The Steelers have been a take away machine for much of the past two seasons, but when it counted the most they came up with naught.

And it wasn’t just lack of turn overs. T.J. Watt made some nice plays behind the line of scrimmage, but never really got to Baker Mayfield. Minkah Fitzpatrick couldn’t work any of his magic. It is amazing to think that Nick Chubb only had 76 yards, because he seem to run at will.

  • COVID who?

This was the 2nd came where the Steelers supposedly enjoyed an unfair advantage due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the opposition. But you’d have never have known it watching the game. Well, maybe you’d have known it a little, the Steelers could have used Joe Haden.

  • Thank you JuJu, Thank you James

Unless there is a major off season surprise, this was JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s final game with the Steelers. It was also likely James Conner‘s final game with the Steelers. Both players left all they had on the field. James Conner only had 60 total yards, but he scored the team’s first touchdown and willed in the 2 point conversion.

JuJu Smith-Schuster led the Steelers receivers with 13 catches for 157 yards and 1 touchdown. It is a shame that JuJu’s first and fourth seasons with the team are book-ended by bad playoff losses. This is one player who deserved more.

  • Has midnight arrived for Big Ben?

Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions. One bounced of Diontae Johnson‘s hands and most certainly should have been caught. Another was tipped at the line of scrimmage — a chronic issue all season long — and perhaps isn’t quite his “fault.”

But the other two were ugly. And there was another “should have been intercepted” ball.

Beyond that, Ben Roethlisberger’s arm looked good. He threw better downfield than at any other point in the season. He’s indicated he wants to keep playing, but he’ll count upwards of 40 million against the salary cap next year.

It will likely be Ben’s choice as to whether he returns or not, but one has to wonder if Art Rooney II isn’t going to be tempted to “officially” begin rebuilding.

That’s all for now folks. Check back in a day or so for our full analysis. Thanks to everyone who came and read this season.

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Can the Steelers Dress Joshua Dobbs vs Browns? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The Steelers 2020 season finale against the Browns contained an unexpected wrinkle: Joshua Dobbs.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach decided early to “Air Mail” players to the playoffs, including Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds and Maurkice Pouncey. That meant that Mason Rudolph would start.

  • Mason Rudolph indeed started and played very well.

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But his understudy Joshua Dobbs also saw action, rushing the ball several times and completing a number of passes (OK, they were shovel passes.) This was a wrinkle that no one was expecting, and given that the Steelers offense is desperate to do anything to breathe life into its running game, deploying Dobbs was a welcome sign.

  • When asked if this could continue in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deadpanned: “It’s a possibility.”

Yet most pundits wrote this off as head coach bluster designed to give opposing defensive coordinators a little something extra to think about. The reasoning is that Mason Rudolph clearly earned his stripes as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 going into the playoffs. Ergo, there’s no way the Steelers would give Joshua Dobbs a helmet over Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course, everyone KNOWS, there’s no way the Steelers would have 3 quarterbacks active on game day.

This is one case where the conventional wisdom is probably right. But it doesn’t have to be. Keeping 3 quarterbacks active isn’t the radical notion that it sounds like. In fact it used to be reasonably common. In fact, keeping three quarterbacks dressed and on the active roster was a critical component of the Steelers first serious attempt at 1 for The Thumb.

3 Quarterbacks, the 1995 Steelers and Slash

Dressing 3 quarterbacks was a fundamental and intentional part of the 1995 Steelers offensive strategy. It started rather unintentionally on opening day when injuries to both Neil O’Donnell and later Mike Tomczak forced Jim Miller into the game for one play (where he threw a long pass that was the equivalent of an interception.)

It was one of the rare times when 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game, and it was the only time that phenomenon occurred in that season.

And while Mike Tomczak wasn’t getting a lot of love, Kordell Stewart was enjoy the heyday of the “Slash Era.” At the time NFL game day rosters limited teams to 45 members, plus an emergency 3rd string quarterback.

Whether Jim Miller continued to suit up as the team’s emergency 3rd stringer while Kordell Stewart was a wide receiver is a question best left to NFL archivists. It doesn’t really matter, because today teams are allowed to dress 46 active players.

The game has certainly changed since 1995. Each team’s personnel needs with regards to injuries, substitutions and situational packages is unique. But if the 1995 Steelers could find a way to dress 4 or 5 wide outs, 2 quarterbacks and a “Slash” then it would see that the 2020 Steelers could find a way to dress Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Dobbs.

For what its worth, and for those of you boning up on your Steelers 3rd string quarterback trivia, the last time times 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game came against the Browns, most recently in the 2008 season finale and prior to that in the 1999 season opener.

If the Steelers do defy the odds and dress Joshua Dobbs alongside the other two quarterbacks, let’s hope that there’s no cause for QB number 2 to throw a pass outside of garbage time.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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Blame JuJu? If Steelers Go One & Done vs Browns “They” Will Say “Its All Smith-Schuster’s Fault”

The Steelers are set to take on the Browns in an AFC wildcard game at Heinz Field on Sunday night, but if you think Cleveland is in trouble thanks to several players and head coach Kevin Stefanski being placed on the COVID list, guess again.

  • Pittsburgh is the squad in serious jeopardy of going one and done. Again.

Why?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

Two years ago JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. This time it could be his mouth. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

While speaking virtually with the media during the week, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster infected his squad with something even worse than COVID; he plagued Pittsburgh with negative bulletin board material that the Browns will surely use as an elixir to cure what ails them ahead of their first postseason game in 18 years.

“Nah, I think they’re still the same Browns that I’ve played every year,” Smith-Schuster said in a quote courtesy of CBS Sports.com. “I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple of good players on their team. But at the end of the day … the Browns are the Browns. It’s AFC North football. They’re a good team. I’m just happy we’re playing them again.”

  • Ouch…if you believe in such things.
  • I don’t, of course.

Believing in bulletin board material is cute and all, but I don’t think it has any effect on the outcome of a game. Oh, sure, players and coaches might say it gave them extra motivation after a win, but what about all those times a team has lost despite going into a game equipped with bulletin board material?

Funny how bulletin board material is never mentioned after a loss. I guess that’s because the team that didn’t shut up, put up.

  • Either that, or it’s because bulletin board material doesn’t mean squat.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what I think about bulletin board material, because if the clock strikes midnight on the Steelers’ 2020 season this Sunday evening at Heinz Field, the fans and media will have a convenient scapegoat to blame: JuJu’s mouth.

Just like with head coach Mike Tomlin’s interview with Tony Dungy back in 2017 where he mentioned a possible postseason rematch with the Patriots weeks before he knew he’d have to win a rematch with the Jaguars before even facing New England, folks will point to Smith-Schuster’s comments as the reason Pittsburgh lost to the Browns.

If you talk to someone during the offseason, they’ll bring up Smith-Schuster’s virtual press conference. If you listen to sports talk radio next summer ahead of the Steelers reporting to St. Vincents College for training camp (hopefully), they’ll cite Pittsburgh’s lack of focus and lack of respect for the Browns as to why the franchise came up short in the previous postseason.

Again, I think it’s silly, but it’s low-hanging fruit for the media and the masses, and it’s easy to blame intangibles such as quotes and a player’s social media activity than it is to acknowledge that the opposing team was just better on a certain day.

The Steelers and Browns have spent hours preparing for Sunday’s postseason clash, and to think, the outcome could actually be decided by JuJu Smith-Schuster’s perceived lack of respect for the Browns.

Unless the Steelers win, of course.

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