What’s Le’Veon Bell’s Shelf Life? Steelers Franchise Running Back History Offers Mixed Signals…

Le’Veon Bell returns to action today for the Steelers in their Sunday Night Football matchup vs the Chiefs. While Steelers Nation rightly celebrates Le’Veon Bell’s return, asking, “What is Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life” is a fair question, given the ever shortening careers of NFL running backs and Bell’s own injury history.

A look at the history of Steelers running back durability offers a mix of both promising and discouraging insights….

…Click on the links below or just scroll down.

 

Le'veon Bell, Le'veon Bell's shelf life, steelers running back durability, NFL running back career length, steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell stiff arms a San Diego Charger. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post Gazette

Prelude: Could the Steelers have Prevented Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 Injury?

Prelude: Today’s prelude borrows DC Comics’ parallel universe concept for a quick visit to Earth 2, where Steelers history has evolved quite similarly to our own, albeit with a few twists….

Sunday Night Football, November 16th, 2014 in Nashville Tennessee: At 75 and after 55 years of coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a player and coach, Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak thought he’d heard it all…. Until tonight. Le’Veon Bell has just opened the 4th quarter by scoring a touchdown to bring Pittsburgh within four in what has become a dogfight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Nashville Oilers.

Le’Veon Bell is simply on fire. In the touchdown drive alone, Bell ripped off runs of 7, 27, and 11 yards, as Bell is taking control of the game in fashion that’s worthy of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

  • Which is why what Hoak hears next defies belief.

During the past offseason season the Steelers exited their comfort zone and hired Robert Morris statistics professor Jonathan D. Stutts to assist with personnel assessments and game day strategy. As soon as Bell scores the touchdown, Stutts slides next to Hoak in the coaches box and instructs: “Tell Todd that Le’Veon needs to come out of the game… He’s just crossed the 21 touch threshold….”

  • Incredulous, the lone assistant to serve on the staffs of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin does as asked, swearing that he’ll retire if his boss submits to such lunacy.

On the sidelines, LeGarrette Blount overhears the exchange between Todd Haley and Hoak. Instinctively, Blount grabs his helmet and trails Haley in route to head coach Tomlin. Alas, Tomlin’s retort, “What? Bean counters don’t win football games, ball players win games. Le’Veon stays in. Period” His hopes crushed, Blount’s abandons this teammates for the locker room.

Le’Veon Bell never leaves the field and closes the game with 6 straight runs of 10, 10, 8, 3, 8, and 5 yards.

The Steelers win a “closer than it should have been” matchup, and Le’Veon Bell has just taken over his first game in the same fashion as the great ones.

The Problem with Applying “MoneyBall” NFL Game Management

Back to reality. This never happened. During his breakout 2014 season, the Steelers never attempted to limit Bell’s carry count, even when Blount was still on the team. And Bell’s success in the real game against the Tennessee Titans shows show why.

But this brief bout with alternative reality helps frame the paradox that comes with the rise of saber metrics, “Money Ball” approaches to the NFL and, along those lines, it also illuminates the hubris afflicting the so-called “educated fans” in the information age.

Everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers found a special player in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they picked Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a true double threat who burns opposing defenses both on the ground and through the air.

  • Performances like Bell’s 2014 campaign almost promise to revive the concept of “franchise running back.”

But for Bell to accomplish that revival, he must first stay healthy.

With that in mind, a year ago this site called for DeAngelo Williams to continue to get carries for the sake prolonging Le’Veon Bell’s career. A long look at the history of the Steelers leading running backs from 1972 onward led to these seemingly wise words of “advice” for the Steelers brain trust:

…But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.) The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

Ah, there we have it! Meet the 21st century’s educated football fan, spreadsheet in hand!

  • If only I could get Mike Tomlin’s eyes on my analysis!

Yeah, right.

The idea makes/made sense on paper, but there several problems arise when you try to put it into practice. Keeping a player under 350 touches per-season means limiting him to an average of 21 touches per game or less. It works fine in theory, but the real Steelers-Titans game of 2014 illustrates the complications coaches face in trying to put that into practice.

  • You don’t sit a back who is dominating a game the way Le’Veon Bell was that night.

And yet, there’s another, more disturbing point, that further number crunching reveals: that by the time the plea to give DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game was made it might have been too late….

Relation of Injury to Workloads of Steelers Franchise Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other team since the NFL merger. That’s a point of pride in Pittsburgh, as it should be. But it also gives us a deep trove of rushing data for analysis. In looking at the careers of Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon simultaneously, two numbers pop out: 369 and 47%.

Total touches represent the sum of a back’s carries and catches. % touches represents the running back’s percentage of the team’s total receptions and rushes.

Here’s what the full set of numbers looks like:

Le'Veon Bell's shelf life, nfl running back durability, steelers running back durability, peak workloads of steelers franchise running backs, jerome bettis, le'veon bell, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, franco harris

With two exceptions the rows above correspond to the peak workloads of the Steelers running backs in question. Franco Harris highest touch total actually came in 1983, his last with the team, but that total was 313 and his percentage of the team’s total touches in 1983 was actually smaller, coming in at just over 37%. For that reason, we’re focusing on Franco Harris’s 1978 season, where he had his heaviest workload, in terms of carries. Jerome Bettis is another outliner, which we’ll discuss later.

  • The interesting thing about these six separate seasons isn’t the seasons themselves, but rather what happened the year after.

With the exception of Franco Harris, each of the players suffered career-altering injuries in the seasons that followed their peak workloads.

Rashard Mendenhall, Mendenhall ACL tear, Steelers running backs durability

Rashard Mendenhall on the trainers table after tearing an ACL late in the Steelers 2010 season

Barry Foster got off to a strong start in 1993, but an injury ended his 1993 campaign at mid-season. He was bothered by injuries in 1994 and out of football by 1995.

In 2001, Jerome Bettis looked to be having a career year, until an injury until a week 11 injury all but ended his season. Bettis bounced back, but within a year, naysayers like Mike Pruista started beating the drum for the Steelers to get off the Bus. Bettis of course proved them wrong, but he was never a season-long, full time starter again.

Willie Parker followed up his 2006 season with a fabulous 2007 season that tragically ended with a broken leg in week 15 of 2007. Parker played two more seasons, but saw his production decline in each and was out of football after that.

Ditto Mendenhall. Mendenhall 2011 rushing average was actually higher than his 2010 average, and the arrow was pointing up as the playoffs approached but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Steelers 2011 season finale against the Browns. Le’Veon Bell of course was playing gang busters during 2015, only to tear his MCL vs. the Bengals.

  • Let’s remember: Correlation does not equal causality.

Le’Veon Bell’s case exemplifies that. Even if his collision injury against the Bengals would have taken place on the first carry of his rookie year, Bell probably would have torn his MCL just as badly as he did in week 7 of his 3rd year.

But if these numbers fail to prove anything in a strict statistical sense, they do reveal one clear tendencies:

  • The season after Steelers running back crosses the 347 touch mark they tend to suffer a serious injury followed by a drop in production.

That is, unless you’re a Steelers running back named Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis.

Franco and the Bus, Hall of Famers and Outliers

Does that mean that Le’Veon Bell chances for a true comeback leading to a long career are doomed? To answer that, let’s look at the two outliers in this study are Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis celebrate the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Franco Harris presents the most tantalizing example, because he never suffered a serious injury in his career. And there’s a good reason for that, but probably not one that is useful to Le’Veon Bell.

Franco Harris’ career high touch total of 313 was below the 369 touch average that Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell had in their non-injury shortened seasons as full time starting Steelers running backs.

Likewise, Franco never touched ball on more than 41% of the Steelers offensive snaps on a season-by-season basis, and Franco’s career average seasonal touch percentage was 35%, almost 10 points below the percentages of Foster, Bettis, Parker, Mendenhall and Bell posted in their full seasons as starter.

There’s no secret behind this. Franco Harris actually played as a fullback in a two back offense were both backs got carries. Two back offenses are only slightly more common than Haley’s Comet sightings in today’s NFL, and two man backfields where both backs get significant carries are rarer than unicorns.

  • Like it or not, the days of the two running back backfields are gone and never to return.

Data taken from Jerome Bettis career, however is a little more hopeful.

As more astute fans have probably already noticed, Bettis peak season, in terms of work load, did not come in 2000, but rather in 1997 where he rushed for a career high 375 carries, and had a career high 390 touches, leading the Bus to carry the ball on 47% of the Steelers touches, which is a hair below his career high of 49%. And you know what?

  • Bettis didn’t suffer a serious injury in 1998 or 1999.

Yes, his yards-per average did drop, but that had everything to do with rushing behind some piss-poor Pittsburgh offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 than his 1997 workload.

  • The moral of Bettis’ story is that longevity, and the mixture of luck and durability that go with it, are a part of the greatness that Hall of Famers exhibit.

It is not a stretch to say Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame level talent. Will his health hold up long enough to transform that talent into a Hall of Fame career? Well, if the limited sample that he presented in preseason is any indication, the Le’Veon Bell’s latest injury hasn’t robbed him of any ability on the field. Now, can Bell muster that mix of luck and durability that can lead to longevity?

Steelers Nation will get its first glimpse this evening vs. the Chiefs.

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Steelers Claim Zach Mettenberger Off Waivers, Put Bruce Gradkowski on Injured Reserve

The Pittsburgh Steelers clarified their quarterback depth chart today by making two moves. The first move saw the Steelers claim Zach Mettenberger off of waivers, less than a day after the San Diego Chargers parted ways with the quarterback. The Steelers also placed Bruce Gradkowski on injured reserve, ending his season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh.

steelers vs. titans, zach mettenberger, zach mettenberger steelers, james harrison, vince williams, zach mettenberger vs. Steelers, november 2014

James Harrison and Vince Williams close on in Zach Mettenberger in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

Landry Jones will back up Roethlisberger as his number two, much to the chagrin of much of Steelers Nation. The third slot would appear to be headed to Zach Mettenberger, although the Steelers have previously said they plan to start 4th string quarterback Bryn Renner against Carolina in their 2016 preseason finale.

For most of the preseason, Dustin Vaughan worked as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback, but he broke his thumb in the preseason loss to the Eagles and the Steelers have since placed Vaughan on the injured/waived list.

A Closer Look at Zach Mettenberger

Ken Whisenhunt of Tennessee Titans originally draft Aach Mettenberger by the in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, taking him with the 178th overall pick. In 2014 Mettenberger started weeks 8 through 16.

That span included the Steelers week 10 victory at Tennessee, where Mettenberger went 14 of 25 for 2 touchdowns and one interception. While William Gay did transform one Mettenberger pass into a pick six, Mettenberger also burned the Steelers on an 80 yard touchdown to Nate Washington, and left the Chargers with a 24 to 13 lead in entering the fourth quarter.

In 2015, Mettenberger started weeks 7 and 6 as well as week’s 15 and 16.

  • Overall Mettenberger has logged 10 starts and played 14 games played in his career.

Zach Mettenberger has never won a game as a starter, and he has completed 208 passes for 2,347 yards and 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Following 2015, Mettenberger followed Ken Whisenhunt to San Diego, but could not secure a spot on the Charger’s depth chart behind Philip Rivers.

It is unclear whether the Steelers plan to give Zach Mettenberger a chance to play vs. the Carolina Panthers Thursday night.

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DeAngelo Williams Needs More Carries – For the Sake of Le’Veon Bell’s Durability

In his weekly press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley confirmed that he wants to get DeAngelo Williams the ball more. That is a refreshing sign because DeAngelo Williams needs more carries.

  • That might seem odd given that Le’Veon Bell has close to 300 yards from scrimmage in just two games.

But in this case counter intuition wins the day. DeAngelo Williams needs more carries precisely because Le’Veon Bell is such a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers need to keep him that way. Le’Veon Bell is entering his third year as a starter. While that doesn’t sound like much, the truth is that he he’s already reaching the point where most NFL running backs are done.

Depending on whether you believe the NFLPA or the NFL owners, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years or about 6 years. But the average running back only plays for 3.1 years, by far the shortest in of any NFL position group.

nfl running backs, average career length, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams

The average career of an NFL running back is 3.11 years. Le’Veon Bell is already in his third year….

Those statistics are not encouraging.

The Myth of the Durable Steelers Running Back

While the short self-life of NFL running backs is nothing new, the rise of saber metrics and fantasy football has brought the issue into much closer focus. Art Rooney II once declared that running the football was “the foundation of the franchise.” No team has rushed for more yards since the NFL-AFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • At first glance, it might seem that Pittsburgh bucks the tradition and durable Steelers running backs are the norm.

After all, Hall of Famers Franco Harris played for 12 years and Jerome Bettis played for 10 years in Pittsburgh. Rocky Bleier played for 11 years, Dick Hoak played for 10 years, Frank Pollard played for 9 years and Merril Hoge played for 7 years.

  • Alas, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs are no more durable than the rest of the NFL’s.

In 1992 when Cowher Power was taking the NFL by storm on the back of Barry Foster’s franchise record breaking season, Bill Cowher once joked that they’d run Foster until “parts of his body came falling off.” That’s pretty close to what happened. After rushing for over 2000 yards from scrimmage in 1992, Foster’s productivity dramatically dropped off in 1993 and by 1994 he was done.

  • Willie Parker was a little more durable, rushing for 3 straight 1000 yard seasons before injuries began to take their toll.

One of the differences between the other running backs mentioned here and Willie Parker, is that Harris, Bleier, Hoak, Pollard, Hoge and, to some extent, Bettis, all had strong number two backs to help them split the load.

The Case for Giving DeAngelo Williams 5 Carries a game

The nature of the running back position in the NFL has twisted in turned since the NFL merger. Most people fail to realize that Franco Harris was listed as a fullback on Chuck Noll’s depth chart. The position hardly exists today, but it thrived in Harris day in part because most NFL teams field twin backfield sets where both backs got carries.

  • The trend continued in one form or another during the 80’s, but began to change in the 1990’s.

While this dates me, during the 1990’s it became common to look at the Monday morning box scores and see a single running back getting the lion’s share if not all of a team’s carries. Running back by committee seems to be more in vogue these days as the concept of a “franchise running back” is all but extinct.

  • A player of Le’Veon Bell’s caliber could change that, however.

But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.)

  • The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.

This of course sounds nice in theory, but it can be difficult to implement in practice. Last year against the Titans, Bell showed he was capable of taking over a game, and you don’t sit a running back when he’s in the zone.

And there’s no assurance it will work even if the Steelers can find a way to get Williams on the field. Mike Tomlin used Isaac Redman to spell Rashard Mendenhall in 2010 and 2011, but Mendenhall was essentially done after 2012. But the Steelers were right to try then, and they’d be right to ensure DeAngelo gets his carries in 2015.

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Can Pittsburgh Break the Jeff Fisher Jinx? Steelers Record vs Jeff Fisher is Pretty Poor…

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has been around the NFL a long time.

When Jeff Fisher got his first head coaching job, the Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers, the St. Louis Rams played in Los Angeles alongside the Raiders, Art Model’s™s Cleveland Browns were still in Cleveland while professional football fans in Baltimore rooted for the CFL’s Stallions.

  • A lot has changed since late November 1994 when Bud Adams fired Jack Pardee and Kevin Gilbride and named Jeff Fisher as head coach of the Houston Oilers.

For the record, by that time the 1994 Steelers had already beaten the Houston Oilers twice. Once in a Monday night blowout where Cody Carlson completed 3 of 7 passes before getting knocked out of the game, and another where Rod Woodson and Gary Anderson did a redux of their forced-fumble, game overtime winning field goal from the 1989 Steelers Astrodome playoff win. So it wasn’t until wasn’t until the 1995 season that Jeff Fisher first faced the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For 16 years Jeff Fisher coached the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers, and Tennessee Titans. That’s a long time to be an NFL coach, and one of the benefits of such a long coaching tenure is that it gives you a deep pool of data to draw conclusions from.

Jeff Fisher’s record in Houston and Tennessee was 141-115 for a winning percentage of .551, and included a heart breaking loss in Super Bowl XXXIV. He also coached against the Steeler 21 times, including the playoffs.

During those same 16 years the Pittsburgh Steelers amassed a 160-95-1 record for a winning percentage of .625. They also won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and appeared in Super Bowl XXX and Super Bowl XLV.

  • Despite Pittsburgh’s superior performance over those sixteen years, the Steelers record vs Jeff Fisher is only 9-12.

In other words, the Steelers had a .625 winning percentage against the rest of the NFL, but only managed a measly .428 vs. Jeff Fisher. Interpreted literally, the Steelers were almost 20% worse against Jeff Fisher than the rest of the NFL.

Why is the Pittsburgh Steelers record vs Jeff Fisher so poor?

What’s going on here?

First, let’€™s give Jeff Fisher his due. He is a disciple of Buddy Ryan, than man whom Bud Adams brought in to run Buddy Ryan’s defense after Buddy Ryan left to coach the Arizona Cardinals. Ron Erhardt was the Steelers offensive coordinator then, and his troubles vs. Buddy Ryan’€™s defenses dated back to their battles in the NFC East during the 1980’€™s, when Buddy Ryan’s Eagles routinely gave Bill Parcell’€™s Giants fits.

While Chan Gailey, Kevin Gilbride, Mike Mularkey, and Ken Whisenhunt made modifications, Ron Erhardt served as the Steelers offensive base during that time.

  • While that’s an important factor, Pittsburgh’s poor record vs. Jeff Fisher is probably better explained by a Tomlinism.

“Players play, coaches coach.”€ At the end of the day, the best scheme in the world won’€™t matter if the players on the field fail to execute it. And during the majority of his tenure in Houston and Tennesse, Jeff Fisher had one player who executed to near perfection: Steve McNair.

As Steel Curtain Rising noted on the day Steve McNair died, McNair’™s record against the Steelers was 11-5.

  • To put that into context, the Steelers record in seasons where McNair started against them was .594.

Without McNair, the Jeff Fisher hasn’€™t done quite so well against the Steelers. He does however, have another tendency going his way in this Sunday’s match up. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-11-1 vs. the Cleveland, Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams on the road.

  • However, the Steelers lone road win against the Rams came during Mike Tomlin’s rookie season in 2007.

It says here that the Steelers match up vs. the Rams will come down to how well the Steelers offensive line can stand up against Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, and Chris Long to give Ben Roethlisberger time to throw and Le’Veon Bell room to run.

But Jeff Fisher is certainly one NFL coach who is no stranger to putting his players in position to succeed against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Bud Dupree Learning Steelers Way, Mike Tomlin Way

“…the guys know that the playing field is level. We don’t care by what means guys get here. Capable guys, guys that prove that they can be positive competitors to our efforts will be given an opportunity to play.” – Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, following the 2015 NFL Draft.

Steelers first round pick Bud Dupree is quickly learning that Mike Tomlin means what he says and says what he means, especially when it comes to rookies.

  • Mike Tomlin’s philosophy on rookies is simple: He does not believe in anointing them.

He went so far as to create a faux competition between Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott to avoid the appearance of “handing” the starting job to Maurkice Pouncey when Pouncey was a rookie.

It’s true that he immediately installed Ryan Shazier as that starter during Steelers 2014 OTA’s, but that experiment left Tomlin with a bit of buyer’s remorse, as pointedly did not get his starting job back when he returned to health late in 2014 and found himself vying for snaps with Vince Williams and Sean Spence.

Just how serious does Mike Tomlin take his philosophy on rookies? Some of you might remember this little play:

For those of you taking notes, that play came in week 2 when the Steelers upset the Titans in 2010. The play is all the more remarkable because it was Antonio Brown’s first touch of an NFL football.

  • How did Tomlin reward the rookie for his efforts?

He kept Brown inactive for 6 of the next 9 weeks, reminding people that Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were “Two dogs” competing for one bone.

Now fast forward to the Hall of Fame Game. Mike Tomlin held many veterans out. Among those were James Harrison and Jarvis Jones. So naturally you’d think Mike Tomlin’s choice to accompany Arthur Moats at outside linebacker with the first unit would be his first round pick, Bud Dupree?

  • It’s a logical choice. Give your rookie exposure vs. the Viking’s first string.

Guess again. Instead the preseason start when to Shayon Green, who was an undrafted rookie free agent last year with the Miami Dolphins. When the Steelers signed Shayon Green, 1 month prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, it appeared that Green was just “a body.” Someone to fill out the training camp roster.

  • Green has been playing well in camp, and played well in the Hall of Fame game, per Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com.

Bud Dupree didn’t see any action until the 2nd quarter, and by many accounts his performance was uneven – at best. Still, give the Steelers 2015 1st round draft choice some credit – he knows how to say the right things. When asked about his playing time, Dupree admitted “We’ve got good players on the team already. Nothing is going to be given to you, I just have to go out there and take it.”

That is exactly the type of attitude you want to hear from a rookie at St. Vincents.

Dupree’s Debut Draw Mixed Reviews

Once he got into the game, Bud Dupree played almost until the end, and drew mixed reviews from the press. Fowler credited Dupree for showing good speed but described it as a “quiet night.” Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wasn’t so kind.

In Bouchette’s eyes, Dupree “looked completely lost” and lacked football instincts, asserting that “…he did not look like a natural football player out there.” A day later, however, Bouchette cautioned a reader not to get concerned about Dupree yet.

The Dale Lolley, flat out asserted that Dupree needed to learn to get off blocks, something he struggled with in college. Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider noted that Dupree failed to shed the tight end who was blocking him on an 18 yard run that resulted in a Vikings touchdown, but repeatedly cautioned his readers against judging Dupree too harshly.

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review perhaps provided the most positive assessment of Dupree, crediting him with getting stronger against the run and generally being in position. Paulk however got Dupree on the record complaining (or at least noting) that he was being held more in the NFL than in college.

  • As Dupree explained to Paulk “Once you get held, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That attitude is slightly more worrisome. As James Harrison can testify, NFL officials are more than ready to look the other way when offensive lineman hold Steelers pass rushers.

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Steelers Vote Le’Veon Bell MVP for 2014

Christmas came two days early on the South Side and in the end it was a mere formality as the Pittsburgh Steelers voted Le’Veon Bell as the MVP for 2014.

With one game to go, Bell has already broken the Steelers franchise record for total yards from scrimmage, which currently stands at 2,115. In games vs. the Titans, Bengals, and Saints, Bell racked up over 200 yards from scrimmage, a feat that only Walter Payton has accomplished.

  • While those numbers are impressive, they don’t tell the full story.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed on Thanksgiving, the Tennessee game marked Bell’s passage into the status of the elite. The Steelers were behind in the third quarter by two scores, and they turned the game over to Bell, and Bell delivered.

The Steelers team MVP is voted on by the players in the locker room. They don’t release vote totals, although Mark Kabloy got Michael Mitchell on the record saying that the choice was between Bell and Antonio Brown. Either would have been a good choice, as would have Ben Roethlisberger, the third member of the Steelers “Killer Bees” trio.

Bell is the first Steelers running back to win the team MVP award since Willie Parker won it in 2006. Jerome Bettis won the award in 2000, 1997, and 1996. Barry Foster won it in 1992, and Franco Harris won it in 1972.

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Watch Tower: Bleacher Report & Roethlisberger’s Non-Injured Wrist, Belichick’s Machinations in the Spotlight

The Steelers slip to 7-5 certainly did create a buzz, but it is the off the field issues which give the Watch Tower its material, highlighting the divide between the old and new press.

Roethlisberger’s Wrist

As any Pittsburgh resident can tell you, stories about Ben Roethlisberger’s generate attention. Traffic on Post-Gazette.com the day of Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident exceeded that of Super Bowl XL.

  • The slightest hint of a Roethlisberger injury is enough to prompt the local news to interrupt programing to preview a story about the signal callers issues with hang nails.

So the Bleacher Report made news with their sport medicine writer Will Carroll broke the story that Ben Roethlisberger had in fact broken an bone in his wrist in the loss to the Saints. The fact that he was held out of practice only seemed to add credence.

  • All of which provides a window into how press coverage of the Steelers works.

Yours truly learned of the news during a quick scan of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC on occasion.) Site editor Neal Coolong wrote a quick article referencing the story, and then publishing a tweet from Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola.

Publishing such an article makes sound business sense, even if, on this occasion, Coolong (who does have sources on the South Side) did not have any new information to add. Any report of a Roethlisberger injury is going to generate Google searches, and a big part of the SB Nation business model is to capture those.

  • Interestingly enough, the BTSC article was titled: Ben Roethlisberger injury: Steelers QB didn’t practice Wednesday but it wasn’t injury-related.

Leading with the key word “Roethlisberger injury” both in the title and the URL kind of reminds you of the Kevin Nealon Saturday Night Live character, “Mr. Subliminal,” but the Watch Tower can’t quite bring itself to criticize our esteemed colleague and friend, as both moves represented smart business decisions, even if journalism purists might demure.

The traditional press quickly attacked the report.

Bouchette’s tweet was backed by a story with quotes from Roethlisberger himself. Dale Lolley slammed the report too, comparing it to the Roethlisberger trade rumors of a year ago (something which the Watch Tower unfortunately never had a chance to cover….), and citing multiple sources in the organization which discredited it.

At the end of the day, it looked to be much to do about nothing. But it does show the power that one reporter with a national media outlet has to set the Steelers news cycle for least for a day.

Blount’s Departure Revisited

The previous edition of the Watch Tower discussed how coverage of LeGarrette Blount’s going AWOL at the end of the Titan’s game drew contrasting coverage from Steelers beat writers, with Ed Bouchette effectively signaling is departure.

  • The story thickened when Blount was quickly signed by the New England Patriots.

The quickness of the move raised eyebrows. Dale Lolley was one of the first in the Steelers press corps to address the issue sharing:

Some people within the Steelers organization feel that Blount made a calculated move by leaving the field prior to the end of regulation in the team’s 27-24 win over Tennessee Monday night because he wanted out of Pittsburgh.

Lolley also made it clear that he doesn’t buy into such reports. Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette also weighed in on the issue, issuing the following tweet:

The tweet was backed up by a story. Bouchette did not cite any indirect sources the way Lolley did, but he did explore the hypothetical ways in which Blount and the Patriots could have colluded to secure his release. (He also chided the Steelers for not doing more to punish Blount.)

From a media analysis stand point these stories tell us a number of things:

1. There are people in the Steelers organization who at least suspect that Bill Belichick under handed ways at work
2. This kind of thing is plausible

Bouchette made a point of telling his readers that contact between players and opposing teams happens all of the time. Agents do it all the time, and often times let reporters in on the story.

Assuming Le’Veon stays healthy for the balance of the season (God willing) this is a story that will die, but it’s interesting to discuss in the here and now.

 

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Mike Tomlin’s Player Discipline Philosophy Continues to Evolve – In the Right Direction

Mike Tomlin’s player discipline philosophy continues to evolve and in the right direction.

  • Sure, LeGarrette Blount’s 12 carry, 78 yard, 2 touchdown performance in New England might suggest otherwise.

But don’t be fooled Steelers Nation. Tomlin made the right decision by cutting LeGarrette Blount in the blink of an eye, as the move marked departure from past practice.

Compared to say, the Marv Lewis of the Bengals, Tomlin has had to deal with relatively few discipline issues. Some such as the decisions on James Harrison and Cedric Wilson or to trade Santonio Holmes, weren’t his to make alone.

However, decisions which, at least one the outside, do appear to have been Tomlins:

Most of what goes on in NFL locker rooms stays out of the public eye, even in this age of social media and the never ending news cycle. Case in point, Joey Porter tirade against Ben Roethlisberger in 2006 didn’t reach the light of day until the word “Midgeville” entered the vernacular in Steelers Nation.

But Blount had had public issues, and by Ed Bouchette’s account, had become “a problem” in the Steelers locker room. While declining talent has been a the heart of the Steelers recent back-to-back 8-8 seasons, a leadership deficit contributed too.

  • Absent Hines Ward, “Young Money” looked to have all the value of a “sub-prime mortgage” by the end of 2012.

There is perhaps no bigger sin than abandoning your teammates. After the Steelers 2010 playoff win over the Ravens, Ben Roethlsiberger shared how Flozell Adams picked himself up off a gurney in the 4th quarter, attempting to go back in. That’s the type of closeness that wins championships, (even if the Steelers fell short in Super Bowl XLV).

Such selfish attitudes should not and cannot be tolerated, and Mike Tomin made that clear when he cut Blount.

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Watch Tower: Kudos for Bouchette on Blount Story, Persistent Steelers Media Guide Error

The Steelers may have reached their bye week, but there’s plenty for the Watch Tower to shine its light on including LeGarrette Blount’s departure,a persistent error in the Steelers media guide, and some kudos for “Matt C. Steel” a contributor to Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider.

Being Blunt on Blount

A glaring negative that shines through the Steelers win over the Titans was LeGarrette Blount’s decision to go AWOL during the game’s final moments. Once the news broke, speculation immediately turned to what action Mike Tomlin would take to discipline him.

The interesting thing from a media analysis stand point, is how the press covered the event. As the Watch Tower has observed, the press that covers the Steelers, generally know more than they print, which isn’t to say they’re remiss in holding back.

But that insider knowledge does influence coverage of news that sees the daylight of public consumption, and Blount going AWOL is a perfect example. For example, at 1:15 am Dale Lolley made this observation:

If Blount did, indeed, leave before the game was completed, that was not a good, or smart, move by him. I’m sure head coach Mike Tomlin will have some kind of punishment for him, even if it’s not made public.

While that’s a reasonable observation, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette clearly outhustled him (and much of the rest of the Steelers press corps.) Theirteen minutes before Lolley pubished the above on his blog entry, Bouchette landed this bombshell:

Blount has been an internal problem for at least a month for the Steelers and sources told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is dragging down star halfback Le’Veon Bell, even though that obviously was not the case Monday night when Bell ran 33 times for 204 yards.

Bouchette also offered that one player told him privately that the team should have left Blount in Nashville. While few specifics of how Blount was a “problem” surfaced, Ray Fittipaldo got Antoino Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward on the record endorse the decision to cut Blount.

Journalism professors are fond of saying that “the media’s role is to prepare the public for what is to come.” Well, Bouchette didn’t predict the Steelers would cut Blount, when they did it wasn’t a surprise based on his reporting.

The Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.

NFL Network Strikes Again?

The Steelers of course needed to replace Blount. Before news broke that Josh Harris was being promoted, speculation turned to available free agents, with Cleveland’s Ben Tate chief among them.

The NFL Network immediately jumped on the story, with Aditi Kinkhabwala tweeting:

Kinkhabwala made her tweet at just before four pm. However, ESPN’s Scott Brown fired back with this about 90 minutes later:

But running back Ben Tate, who was waived by the Browns on Tuesday after falling out of favor in Cleveland, has not drawn any interest from the Steelers, a source told ESPN.

Differing stories in a situation like this isn’t necessarily fodder for the Watch Tower, but Kinkhabwala’s track record with these stories is. Back when the Steelers fired Jack Bicknell, she claimed to have foreseen the move, yet could produce nothing to back up that claim. The Watch Tower commended Dejan Kovacevic for taking her and the NFL Network to task.

  • Brown’s story doesn’t mean that Kinkhabwala didn’t actually talk to someone who told her that the Steelers made inquiries with the Browns about Tate. Such conversations may have taken place.

But the Watch Tower is inclined to believe Brown….

Persistent Error in the Steelers Media Guide

The problem with incorrect facts being reported is that they get repeated, and if it happens often enough conventional wisdom leads them to become accepted as true.

For example, the Steelers traded Huey Richardson at the end of his second training camp (to the Redskins for an 8th round pick), yet more often than not, you’ll see it reported that he was cut.

  • It’s one thing for scribes to get these facts wrong – it’s another when the Steelers themselves are the source of the error. And so it is with the Steelers History section of the Steelers Media Guide.

Page 316 of the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers Media Guide reads like this:

In 1988 the team suffered through its worst campaign in 19 years with a 5-11 record. The next season got off to an similar start with losses of 51-0 and 41-10 in the first two games as the offense failed to score in the first month of the season…. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds about right doesn’t it? The 1989 Steelers started off in total disaster only to finish in the playoffs. That is true.

But the Steelers offense most certainly did score during the first month.

In fact, Bubby Brister hooked up late in week 2 with Louis Lipps to add window dressing to a blowout. But the Steelers didn’t stop there. Merril Hoge, Tim Worley and Mike Mularkey all scored touchdowns in the ’89 Steelers week 3 upset of the Vikings. The 1989 Steelers scored touchdowns in week 4 vs. the Lions.

  • These facts are all well documented, including in the Pittsburgh Steelers 1990 Media Guide.

Yet year after year, the Steelers PR office keeps reprinting the same mistake. The error first surfaced in 1997. Yours truly wrote a letter (yes, a pen and paper letter) and the next year the error was corrected. But the Steelers PR man moved on after 1998, and the error resurfaced again in 1999 and has remained since then.

In an effort to catch their attention, Santiago Murias, Vice President of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires, even sent letters (yes, pen and paper letters) in 2003 and 2004 pointing out the error.

Yet they keep printing it, year after year.

  • For the record, the Steelers offense did once go a month without scoreing a touchdown. That happened in 1990 under Joe Walton.

Perhaps this public calling out will prompt a correction.

5 Minutes of Fame for Matt C. Steel

A few weeks back the Watch Tower looked at the work of Matt C. Steel on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site, complementing him on his detailed, nuanced critique of how and why Todd Haley’s offense was struggling early in the year.

One of the points Steel kept hammering was how effective Ben Roethlisberger was as a quarterback using play action under center.

Late in the game vs. the Titans, Steel got his wish (available 11/23/14, watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police find it):

Sometimes, it is really fun to be right. Here’s to hoping you’re right more often as we close down the season Mr. C. Steel.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to read more from The Watch Tower.

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LeGarrette Blount Mans Up to Mistakes

Say one thing about now former Pittsburgh Steelers and once again New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount – at least he’s willing to man up.

  • As is well documented, LeGarrette Blount left the field during the Steelers-Titans game before the game was over.

The game was of course Le’Veon Bell’s breakout night, as he became only the 4th Steeler to rush for over 200 yards in a game, a feat only previously accomplished by John Henry Johnson, Frenchy Fuqua, and Willie Parker, and one that eluded Hall of Famer Franco Harris and should be Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.

While Blount formed a quick friendship with Bell, he was not happy about seeing his carries reduced, and had pubically complained about not getting the ball more often. And, as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported, insiders within the Steelers organization admitted that they felt that Blount was a “problem” for the last month or so.

Mike Tomlin did not take kindly to Blount’s going AWOL, explaining Blount’s release with a rather terse statement “We believe the decision to release LeGarrette is in the best interest of the organization and wish him the best of luck.”

Judging by comments from the Steelers locker room, Blount didn’t leave Pittsburgh with a lot of friends, although he quickly resigned with his former team, the New England Patriots.

Credit Blount with one thing, he wasted no time in owning up to his actions:

Perhaps the kid has learned something, and if so more power to him.

 

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