Sunday January 30th 2018 closes the 2018 NFL regular season and it also brings the Pittsburgh Steelers Cleveland Browns rivalry full circle.
Few contemporary Steelers fans probably even think of the Cleveland Browns as “rivals” to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s because in many ways the rivalry has been on hold for 23 years. But there was a time when things were different. Oh yes, once things were very, very different.
We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s flash back to night it all changed.
A Steelers fan and Browns fan in Cleveland, January 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Fansided
Yet, this is no ordinary Monday night football game.
A clip on Baltimore’s WIYY aka “98 Rock” illustrates why. “Back goes Eric Zeier to pass. Andre Rison is open in the end zone. He throws, Rison catches it. Touchdown, Baltimore Browns!”
Less than a week before the unthinkable and once impossible had occurred. After building facilities for the Cavaliers and Indians, the city of Cleveland had shifted focus to building one for the Browns.
Yet, during the summer, Browns owner Art Modell cut off negotiations in the name of focusing on winning a Super Bowl. Little did we know, Modell had secretly begun negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move his team to Baltimore. Municipal officials in Cleveland plowed ahead without Modell, and announced a November 7th ballot referendum to fund a new stadium for the Browns.
On Monday, November 7th, Art Modell dropped a bomb: He was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The move sent shock waves through the NFL.
Usually when a team relocates, its because they lack local support. No one could say that the Cleveland failed to support the Browns. Every game was sold out, and television ratings were among the highest in the league.
I’m sick about (the move). This is the best rivalry in sports. To go up there to play in Cleveland on that grass field on a gray day – I don’t want to get dramatic, but it really is something. It’s the essence of football.
As fate would have it, the Browns first game after the move came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Steelers fans of that generation were genetically hardwired to hate the Cleveland Browns and their fans.
But as a show of solidarity, Steelers fans wore orange arm bands that night. (Terry Bradshaw even wore one while interviewing Paul Tagliabue about the move.)
To understand just how deep of a gesture Steelers Nation made, one must understand just how bitter the Steelers-Browns rivalry flowed.
Just two years earlier, Jerry Olsavsky had blown out all four ligaments in one of his knees Cleveland Municipal Stadium, yet fans at the Dawg Pound threw beer bottles at him as he was being taken away from the field on stretcher. As Tim Gleason recounts in From Black to Gold, cars with Pennsylvania license plates would get their tires slashed if they were parked near Cleveland Stadium during a game.
An old friend of my from college named “Mike” told me of how his father had to protect him from a drunk who tried to attack him at a game in Cleveland in the early 80’s because he was wearing a Steelers shirt – Mike was 6 years old at the time.
Yet, on that night, Steelers fans stood in solidarity with Browns fans.
If the Steelers beat the Bengals and the Browns upset the Ravens, Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs.
But a Browns win at Baltimore would also signify that the franchise is poised to return to contender status next season, transforming games against the Browns into competitive affairs. If that happens, then the Steelers-Browns rivalry will indeed have come full circle.
Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.
Sort of, but not really.
It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).
Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt
Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.
Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.
They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.
The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.
OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?
I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.
In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.
In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.
While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.
The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.
A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.
To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.
You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.
Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.
You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.
After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.
Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.
It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.
Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris connected through the Immaculate Reception on December, 23rd 1972, combining to make the most spectacular play in football history.
That fateful day came precisely one week before my 4 month birthday, making me a member of Steelers Nation’s post Immaculate Reception generation.
Understanding just what that means requires knowing what came before, experiencing what followed, and appreciating the almost super natural aspect of what occurred on that day. Scroll down or click on the links below to reach each thread of the story behind the Big Bang the created Steelers Nation.
Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP
Won 6 Super Bowls, a record the Steelers set in Super Bowl XLIII and that has only been tied since
Played in 8 Super Bowls, tying for 2nd in most championship appearances
Achieved a winning record in 35 of those 46 years, again, more than anyone else
Posted an .621 winning percentage in that time – better than any other NFL team
Sent 78 players on the NFL’s All Pro Teams,
Never once did they win fewer than 5 games something that no one else in the NFL can say
These stats have been updated, but originally they came courtesy of Tim Gleason, author of From Black to Gold, whose article on the Immaculate Reception on Behind the Steel Curtain is simply one of the best articles on the Pittsburgh Steelers I have ever read.
Pittsburgh measures success in Super Bowls. Few other NFL cities can make that claim. Its often said that Steelers fans are spoiled, and to a large extent that’s true.
No other NFL franchise can match the Steelers record of success, stability and sustained since that day in December 1972.
The Pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers
The Immaculate Reception was also the Steelers first playoff victory.
That’s hard for many fans to fathom, just as it was hard for me to grasp as a child.
The morning after the Penguins ’09 Stanley Cup victory, I declared that Pittsburgh was once again the City of Champions.
In doing so, I shared memories of seeing framed copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell adorning walls that overlooked barbershop counters where Iron City Steelers Championship cans were proudly displayed.
An unremarkable memory, until you consider the fact that Dino’s barbershop lay in Aspen Hill, Maryland, which sits about 10 miles from the DC border.
But to a 7 year old all of this was “normal.” Neither of my parents followed sports closely, but as a child I naturally asked them if they’d similarly been Steelers fans growing up.
“You don’t understand, the Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were growing up,” was the response.
The Pirates did have their moments in the sun, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were a paragon to futility for 40 years. Aside from failing to win a playoff game, the pre-Immaculate Reception Steelers could “boast” of:
A single playoff appearance (a 1962 loss to Detroit)
A mere 8 winning seasons and 5 more seasons at .500
Not even allowingJohnny Unitas, perhaps the best quarterback ever to play, to throw a pass in practice before giving him his walking papers
Cutting Len Dawson, future Super Bowl Champion and NFL Hall of Famer
Trading Bill Neilson away for nothing to the arch-rival Cleveland Browns where he’d appear in two NFL Championships
Passing on future Hall of Famers Bill Schmidt and Lenny Moore opting to pick dud Gerry Glick in the later case
Stubbornly sticking to the obsolete Single Wing formatting deep into the 50’s
The pre-Immaculate Reception Pittsburgh Steelers also suffered their share of bad luck.
Legendary Pitt coach Jock Sutherland coached the Steelers two winning seasons following World War II, but unfortunately died after the 1947 season on a scouting trip. Joe Bach was also making progress towards building a winner, until health problems forced him form the game.
Then there was Gene Lipscomb aka “Big Daddy” tragic death to heroin in 1963. Former Colorado stand out Byron White led the NFL in scoring, rushing, and total offense in 1938, but decided to study for a year at Oxford and played for Detroit in 1940. (White later went on to the US Supreme Court.)
The Steelers just couldn’t seem to get a break.
The Immaculate Reception — A Franchise’s Fortunes Change
The root of many if not all of the Steelers ills for those 40 years was the simple fact that Art Rooney Sr., for as decent and honorable of a man he was, was as bad at picking coaches as he was good at handicapping horses.
Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, came to Steelers in the next year as the number one overall pick in the 1970s NFL Draft
Jack Ham, another future NFL Hall of Famer followed in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft
Chuck Noll entered the 1972 NFL Draft actually wanting to draft Robert Newhouse. But Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Radakvoich and prevailed on him to ignore Newhouse and instead take Penn State fullback Franco Harris.
Finally, reason intervened in the draft room and tipped the scales in the Steelers favor to another Hall of Famer.
Still, when Harris first joined the Steelers, team capital Andy Russell feared he wouldn’t make it, as Harris seemed to shy from hitting holes.
Yet, in his first exhibition game start off tackle to the left, found nothing, planted his foot, and cut back to the right, exploding for a 75 yard touchdown. After the play Noll offered his running backs coach, Dick Hoak a simple instruction:
“Dick, don’t over coach him.”
At 6’2” 220 lbs., Franco Harris was a big back for his day. Yet he was fast. He was also cerebral.
According to The Ones Who Hit the Hardest Harris once confided to NFL Films that “The art of running is being able to change and do things because what you thought would be there is not there.”
That ability served Franco Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Steelers Nation extremely well on December 23rd 1972.
The Raiders and Steelers staged the first of many hard-fought battles those two teams would fight throughout the 1970’s. The score stood at 0-0 at the half, and the fourth quarter found the Steelers clinging to a 3 point lead.
John Madden benched starter Daryl Lamonica for of “The Snake” Ken Stabler. With just over a minute to play, Stabler exploited the weakness of a the Steeler Curtain without Dwight White, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
Art Rooney Sr. had waited 40 years to taste playoff victory, and the Chief concluded he’d have to wait one more, heading to the locker room to console his team.
The Steelers got the ball back, but only advanced to their 40 by the time 22 seconds remained. The call was “66 Circle Option Play” to Barry Pearson.
Terry Bradshaw faded back. The Raiders laid in the blitz. Bradshaw evaded. Bradshaw stepped up. Bradshaw fired a missile downfield to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball soared downfield carrying with the momentum of 40 years of losing.
As the ball reached about the 30 it slammed into a wall created by a hellacious collision between Jack Tatum and Frency Fuqua ricocheting it backwards.
And in that instant, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers changed (available as of 12/23/16):
Certainly no one diagrammed “66 Circle Option Play” to end that way.
Was it luck or did a divine hand intervene to push the ball in Franco’s direction? I’ll lean towards the later, but you decide that question for yourself.
But there was nothing super natural about Franco being in the right place at the right time.
Franco Harris role in “66 Circle Option Play” was to block the outside linebacker. He wasn’t even supposed to be downfield. But when the linebacker didn’t appear, Franco took off feeling he might contribute elsewhere.
As Chuck Noll explained, “Franco hustled on every play.”
The Immaculate Reception – The Big Bang the Created Steelers Nation
Fortune’s hand, in one form or fashion, opened the door between winning and losing for Pittsburgh, but it was Franco’s dedication and determination that drove the Steelers through it.
That confluence of forces on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio formed the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.
And for 40 plus years the franchise has continued moving forward.
Since then more Steelers seasons have ended at the Super Bowl than have ended as losing efforts.
Since that fateful day, “Steelers” has been synonymous with success, winning, and championships for an entire generation within Steelers Nation. You can simply call us Generation Immaculate Reception.
Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:
The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.
Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.
By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.
JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:
Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?
That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.
The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.
Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.
Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.
On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.
On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.
However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:
The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
Chris Boswell began missing kicks again
Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.
The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out
Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.
Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.
Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.
You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”
There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.
But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.
It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.
These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.
So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.
If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.
Carlos Ortiz reacted the news by arguing “…esto no fue ‘roughing the passer’ esto fue ‘roughing the grass.’” (Carlos Ortiz writes on Steelers360 and if you’re not fluent enough in Spanish to follow his work, well then maybe its time to give Berlitz a call.)
T.J. Watt drew a 20,054 fine for this low “hit.” Photo Credit: AP, via Cincinnati.com
The tweet is of course from T.J. Watt’s brother J.J. Watt. As you can see, T.J. Watt did his best to avoid contact, and barley touched Matt Ryan. An Oscar worthy performance for Ryan followed, because Ryan almost certainly did not fall on his own power.
For his troubles, T.J. Watt is now $20,054 poorer. Clearly Watt won’t have problems buying Christmas presents for his family come December, but a $20,000 dollar fine means a lot more to a player who is still on his rookie contract that it would mean to someone like Joe Haden, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.
This wasn’t the only questionable roughing the passer penalty called against the Steelers last Sunday.
Jon Bostic also drew a flag when he arrived a second too late on a Cam Heyward sack of Matt Ryan, but was not fined.
Mike Tomlin of course is not happy about any of this, and he too his poor for his words, however truthful the might be. But perhaps Mike Tomlin wasn’t telling the complete truth. Penalizing and issuing fines for plays like these isn’t simply a joke, it is mockery of the game itself.
And please spare me any player safety talk about the need to protect players from CTE and head trauma.
But let’s be clear, the NFL isn’t going to eliminate one future case of CTE by fining players for “hits” like T.J. Watt’s.
In taking the NFL to task a few days ago for fining Mike Tomlin, I conceded that protecting the quarterback was important, but not if those protections altered the essence of the game. T.J. Watt’s words to reporters after learning of this fine underline just how malevolently the essence of the game is being altered.
Before getting to T.J. Watt’s words, let’s recall remarks of former Steelers linebacker, this one a Hall of Famer. And before sharing this Hall of Famers words, let’s politely suggest that if you either don’t understand or don’t agree with him then you should stop watching on Sundays and stick to Madden and Fantasy Football instead.
I don’t know. If I was him I would. Why not? Fifteen yards helps your team a lot. If I’m a quarterback I’m going to sell it too. I can’t blame him for playing the game. [Emphasis added]
Sadly, here in 2018 taking World Cup soccer like dives is becoming part of “playing the game.” But it is not the way the game should be played. And that shows just how show just how grotesquely Roger Goodell is distorting football as we know it.
News that NFL was fining Mike Tomlin hardly came as a surprise. The NFL has long fined head coaches for criticizing the officials, long before Roger Goodell brought his Kangaroo Court style of justice to the league.
When reporters questioned Mike Tomlin about the officiating after the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, the Steelers head coach didn’t hold back. After conceding that the two penalties called on Bud Dupree were probably legitimate, Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words:
Some of the other stuff, man, is a joke. We gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We gotta get ‘em correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you.
While he doesn’t mention them directly, Mike Tomlin was referring to the penalties called on Jon Bostic who arrived a second too late after Cam Heyward sacked Matt Ryan, and T.J. Watt who barley made contact with Ryan yet still got the 15 yard flag.
Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com
In other words, the NFL is fining Mike Tomlin for telling the truth: The NFL is becoming a joke.
Business Case for Protecting Quarterbacks
Unlike Roger Goodell’s 2010 arbitrary crack down on hits to the head which unfairly targeted Pittsburgh Steelers such as James Harrison and Ryan Clark, controversy about protecting the quarterback is hardly new to Pittsburgh.
While it is hard for a Steelers site to take up for the son of a Cleveland Browns legend, Clay Matthews Jr. got flagged doing nothing other than tackling the quarterback. While traditionalists have cried foul, the NFL’s latest quarterback protection rule has no shortage of apologists.
MMQB’s Andrew Brandt and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Paul Zeise have argued that quarterbacks are a key ingredient to the NFL’s on the field product and that therefore doing what is necessary to keep them in the game is simply a wise business decision.
That line of thinking isn’t new and unlike when Jack Lambert claimed quarterbacks should wear dresses the NFL has a salary cap. So when a quarterback goes down, the NFL is literally seeing money taken off of the field.
So protecting the quarterback make good business sense, to a point.
But when these protections begin to alter the essence of the game, they go too far.
And football, at its core, is a game that is meant to be won by those that hit the hardest, as Jack Lambert argued. And the current movement to protect the quarterback is an attempt to alter that reality.
Fantasy football owners might be happy with rules that cause flags fly after Stephon Tuitt barley love taps Andy Dalton a half second after Dalton releases his pass. But those rules water down the essence of the sport, and that will do far more damage to the NFL’s on the field product in the long run.
The difference between coming out on the right side of the fine line that separates winning and losing in the NFL is often defined by who wins a test of wills.
That includes the quest to get the quarterback.
If the NFL eliminates that element from the game in the name of coddling quarterbacks, then it will be doing far more damage to its on the field product than whatever damage losing quarterbacks to injury causes.
Mike Tomlin is telling the truth, and because of that he’s $25,000 poorer.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have a quarterback quandary. They created it, but that fact simplifies nothing. Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph give the Steelers a 4 quarterback preseason roster. Each offers assets to the team. But the Steelers can’t keep four quarterbacks on their roster, or can they?
After all, the Steelers have carried 4 quarterbacks on their roster twice, in 1995 and 1999.
Could they do it again? Should they do it again? Does the Steelers history with four quarterbacks serve as any sort of guide? Let’s find out….
Can the Steelers keep 4 quarterbacks in 2018? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
A Youngster Learns about NFL Quarterback Depth Charts…
I’m old enough (barely, mind you) to have an big brother who explained to me the concept of “strings” using Terry Bradshaw as the Steelers first string quarterback, Cliff Stoudt as the 2nd string quarterback and Mark Malone as third string quarterback.
My brother also told me that NFL teams carried three quarterbacks, but sometimes kept four.
Sometimes, my brother assured me, teams kept four. But my first and only memory of that came in 1989 when the New England Patriots opened and closed season with four quarterbacks, Tony Eason, Steve Grogan, Doug Flutie and Marc Wilson. Each started a game, and the Patriots finished 5-11.
Keeping four quarterbacks was not a sign of strength for the ’89 Patriots, but it isn’t necessarily always the case.
But O’Donnell, in the final year of his contract, talked a good game about staying in Pittsburgh, but Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hedged their bets.
In preseason both Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart played well and remained healthy.
Although roster limits had grown between 1989 and 1995, the salary cap had forever altered NFL roster dynamics. Keeping four quarterbacks cut sharply against conventional wisdom. But Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola resolved the question with simple logic: The 1994 Steelers had played the entire season with Fred Foggie and Charles Davenport on their roster and finished just shy of the Super Bowl.
Bill Cowher made the right move by carrying 4 quarterbacks.
Mike Tomczak remained as a backup, former Pitt stand out Pete Gonzalez’s audible ability had impressed Bill Cowher during the 1998 preseason, and Anthony Wright, an undrafted rookie free agent possessed “one of the strongest arms” Bill Cowher had ever seen.
The Steelers carried four quarterbacks in 1999 (yes, yesterday’s Steelers.com article was wrong, don’t believe it? Click here), as Gonzalez saw mop up duty in the opener against Cleveland, Stewart got benched and moved to wide out while Mike Tomczak finished the season as the starter.
They’d been talk of Anthony Wright getting snaps in the meaningless season finale, but that never materialized, (…although Bobby Shaw did flash his Superman jersey after catching a garbage time touchdown.)
In 1999, the 6-10 Steelers revealed their weakness by keeping four quarterbacks.
The 2018 Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart
Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones are staying put, barring a ridiculous trade offer for Landry Jones. The Steelers aren’t cutting Mason Rudolph. That leaves Joshua Dobbs as the odd man out.
Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post
Mike Tomlin is starting him in the preseason finale and Joshua Dobbs has had a strong summer. He works hard and is probably the better option at this point should the Steelers need to play a 3rd quarterback. And Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks have seen a lot of non-mop up action under Mike Tomlin.
Landry Jones will be a free agent next spring, and the Steelers could gain salary cap relief by with two quarterbacks playing on their first contracts as backups.
The flipside to the argument is that many NFL teams only keep two quarterbacks, not three, and the Steelers need the roster spots at linebacker, tight end, defensive back and perhaps running back.
What would a fourth string quarterbackdo in 2018, anyway?
In 1995, Bob Labirola argued for keeping four by suggesting that there must be some sort of “busy work” for an NFL 4th string quarterback. There was of a sort, but “busy work” entailed Kordell Stewart playing wide out in practice.
In 1999, Bill Cowher conceded that Anthony Wright would make a good free safety in practice.
In a perfect world, the Steelers would find a way to keep Joshua Dobbs in Pittsburgh. Like 1995 and unlike 1999, carrying 4 quaterbacks would signal the strength of the Steelers 2018 roster.
But the Steelers Super Bowl window is closing, but Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert need to keep the 53 men most likely to help land Lombardi Number 7 in Pittsburgh, and that 53rd man is unlikely to be a 4th string quarterback.
So, unless injury intervenes, Joshua Dobbs’ start against Carolina tomorrow night will likely be his last for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however unfortunate that may be.
The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.
Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.
But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.
Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com
Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers
Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.
And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.
Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.
However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.
Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’sEd Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.
The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.
Who Is Mike Tomlin?
Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”
Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’sFacebook Live feed notwithstanding.)
But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.
In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”
Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette
Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.
Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.
During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”
Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.
Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”
Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.
Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present
Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.
Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.
So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.
Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.
Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.
Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee
In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.
As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.
Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?
Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.
Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.
And of course the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
So Wexell was right there but he was still wrong. In the week before the draft, Wexell wrote that the Steelers should only draft Rudolph if they felt he was deserving of a 1st round pick. Well, they did not, and drafted him in the third round.
Steelers 3rd round pick Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive
Steelers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner things that Mason Rudolph could have been a first round pick, explaining:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you know that some systems might fit better for certain people. I’ve liked him since the beginning, since we started evaluating him. I think that maybe if there’s any negative to his game, it might must be the ability to except and extend, but boy, you sure do see him do it a lot…. The ability to stand in the pock and make big plays on third down, be effective in situational football, the way he’s been, is very exciting.
The Steelers of course picked Rudolph one round after picking his favorite target, James Washington, in the second round. Rudolph discussed going to “the next chapter with one of your brothers, with your best receiver that you’ve spent your whole college days with, who you can potentially spend another 15 years with, that’s going to be one heck of a ride and I can’t wait to get it going.”
The story and idea of keeping a college QB-WR combo together makes for compelling copy, but there’s no assurance that the same magic can transfer from college to the pros. The Steelers made Charles Johnson, wide receiver out of Colorado their first round pick in 1994 and drafted Kordell Stewartin the 2nd round of the 1995 draft.
The Steelers have invested heavily in scouting Mason Rudolph, with Kevin Colbert in attendance at Oklahoma State’s 59-21 win over Pitt last season, which saw Rudolph lead his team to 49-7 half time lead while throwing 5 touchdown passes.
Here’s a longer look at his highlight reel:
Mason Rudolph certainly can plan at the college level.
But the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph with a third round pick and even traded up a few slots to get him.
You generally don’t project third round draft picks as franchise quarterbacks, but third rounders are premium picks whom you do expect to develop into starters. And the Steelers have a history of turning third round picks into starting quarterbacks, as evidenced by the careers of Buddy Brister and Neil O’Donnell.
Neither man brought home One for the Thumb.
But Brister flashed potential in leading the 1989 Steelers to their near miracle turn around season, and Neil O’Donnell rallied a struggling 1995 Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX (where he promptly threw two boneheaded interceptions.)
One slot before the Steelers would have made their third round pick Bill Walsh took a young quarterback who’d grown up in Western Pennsylvania. His name is Joe Montana and he ended up tying Terry Bradshaw‘s then record 4 Super Bowl rings.
Not too many 3rd round quarterbacks have succeeded in following that template since then, but Joe Montana’s story shows that Mason Rudolph can do what’s being asked of him.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison announced his retirement today. Ah! How’s that for daily dose of déjà vuall over again?
This not the first time you’ve read the opening sentence of this blog and it is not the first time yours truly has written it. James Harrison has already retired. He did so on August 30th 2014 in standing their at the podium on the South Side.
47 games and 15 sacks later, 6 forced fumbles later and 2 interceptions later, Harrison is doing it again.
Except this time won’t be another comeback and this time James Harrison’s retirement isn’t “news” save for the fact that we really can say that Silverback’s NFL career has come full circle.
James Harrison’s 2nd retirement brings him full circle. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
James Harrison 2nd Retirement Brings His Career Full Circle
James Harrison will and should be remembered and celebrated as the undrafted rookie free agent who worked a tenuous hold on an NFL practice squad slot into the man became the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, author of arguably the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers sack records and for being an all around ass kicker to delivered game-changing plays time and time again.
James Harrison also made life hell for bloggers.
Seriously. What separates a good blogger from a “content aggregator?” Well, for my money a good blogger finds ways to add value to the story. That can lie in saying things a little better than everyone else is staying them, or by exploring new angles to the story that others overlook.
But really, that’s just the nature of the incredible journey that James Harrison blazed in his career.
He started on the practice squad roster bubble, worked himself into a regular roster bubble player, then established himself as a backup, and then took on the role of the veteran refused to let a team move on from.
While it is longshot, Canton, Ohio would provide the perfect venue for such a reunion.
But until then, perhaps it’s fitting that James Harrison’s 2nd retirement arrives absent any pomp or circumstance as a type of side note event that, in the pre-digital world, would have warranted a couple of three inches of text. In other words, perhaps its fitting that James Harrison’s career ends the way it began.
Good luck and God Speed Debo. Steelers Nation will leave the light on and the door unlocked for whenever you’re ready to come home.