Are the Steelers Hiding the Next Yancey Thigpen on their 2024 Roster?

What is the Steelers plan at wide receiver for 2024?

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asked that question late last week. A day later, Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review cautioned readers that the Steelers lack of depth at wide out can’t be “rationalized away.”

  • Both writers make valid points.

The Steelers opened the off season by trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina Donte Jackson. Everyone expected Omar Khan to follow with another splash personnel move. But since then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” Steelers Nation has spent the off season “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”

Outside of George Pickens the Steelers cupboard at wide receiver is pretty bare. And with the draft over and free agent options dwindling the answers to Wexell’s question appear to be:

1. Omar Khan still has another “Khan Artist” like move up his sleeve.
2. Arthur Smith and Mike Tomlin are all in on a “Damn the receivers! Pound the rock!” offense.

Those two possibility have been widely bandied about on blogs and social media. But there’s a third one that no one is entertaining:

3. The Steelers are hiding the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

The likely response of those who either remember or at least know about Thigpen’s playing days is, “…Yeah, Right. Someone’s been drinking too much Argentine wine.” Well, I do send too much of my money to the Salentein family, but the idea is not alcohol induced. Read on….

None of the Steelers New Veteran WRs Look Like Thigpen

Instead of bringing in a blue chip wide out, Omar Khan has scoured the NFL’s free agent bargain bin. Since saying goodbye to Diontae, the Steelers have Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins and most recently Scott Miller. (They also signed Denzel Mims in late January. Drafted Roman Wilson and still have Calvin Austin.)

Van Jefferson had 20 catches last year with the Falcons and Rams, Watkins logged 15 for the Eagles and Miller grabbed 11 at Atlanta. (Mims was out of football, but had 11 catches for the Jets in 22.)

Even if you agree (and I’m not sure that I do) that you can substitute quantity for quality at wide receiver in the NFL, the trio collectively still falls short of Diontae Johnson’s 51 catches.

So no, none of them projects to be the next Thigpen. Not even close. At first glance the easy response is, “…Pal, keep drinking Salentein, but stick to Portillo. Stay away from the expensive stuff.”

But Thigpen Didn’t Look Like Thigpen. Until He Did.

The Steelers new wide outs have good speed, but outside of that nothing inspires. Yancey Thigpen didn’t inspire anyone either. Until he did.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

Yancey Thingpen played four games in 1991 for the San Diego Chargers and recorded zero stats as a wideout. During the middle of the Steeler 1992 season Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher picked him up off of the waiver wire.

Thigpen played special teams in 1992, recording one catch on four targets. In 1993 he had nine grabs on 12 targets. By the end of ‘93 it was clear that the Steelers lacked a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps. So they parted ways with their number 1 wide receiver Jeff Graham, and tried to convert other starter, Dwight Stone into a utility back.

Yet going into the 1994 season, the arrow was pointed out at wide receiver in Pittsburgh.

Andre Hastings looked primed to make the proverbial “Second year leap” and the franchise had just picked Charles Johnson with their first pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.

Yet neither man was the Steelers best receiver when the 1994 campaign ended, because Thigpen had earned that distinction. Yes, Johnson had one more catch, but Thigpen was the one who delivered down the stretch and in the playoffs.

A year later Thigpen was breaking John Stallworth’s single-season reception record en route to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXX. Injures sabotaged his 1996 season, yet a year later, Thigpen became Kordell Stewart’s go-to man in the 1997 season that ended in the AFC Championship.

By the time Thigpen left as a free agent in 1998, he’d earned the right to be considered alongside Louis Lipps as one of the franchise’s best receivers behind Swann and Stallworth. In contrast, Hastings and Johnson were disappointments.

Does that mean that Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins Scott Miller or Denzel Mims will prove himself to be the next Yancey Thigpen in 2024?

I wouldn’t be on it. But then again, no one was betting on Yancey Thipgen in May of 1994….

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Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

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 beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, bad idea.

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

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

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

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

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

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

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

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

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

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

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

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

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

  • But consider the context.

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

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

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

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

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

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

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

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

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

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

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

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

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

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Steelers Fire Matt Canada. Now What? 1999’s Kordell Stewart Benching Offers a Warning….

Yesterday Mike Tomlin shattered franchise precedent by firing Matt Canada in season and in the process he gave Steelers fans what they’ve long wanted. Tomlin’s decision makes sense for a lot of reasons.

Sure, the Steelers are sitting on a 6-4 record, but each of those six wins has been ugly. And the last second loss to the Browns felt like the proverbial other foot had dropped. The Steelers offense has been lackluster for years, but it was poignantly pathetic in Cleveland. And it wasn’t going to get any better with Canada at the helm.

  • But with Matt Canada gone the focus now becomes more intense: What happens next?

As I watch Steelers Nation celebrate Canada’s dismissal on social media, I can’t help but think of a similar situation the Steeler found themselves in back in November 22, 1999. Indeed, as this current season has evolved, its resonance with the 1999 Steelers has grown stronger.

That season offers a clear lesson for today: While Matt Canada was part of the problem, there’s no assurance that firing him will work as a solution.

Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, 1999 Steelers

Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomlin in the late 1990s.

Nightmare Like Its 1999

You can take a deep dive on the 1999 Steelers here. This is the the backstory you need to know now:

Although the Steelers closed 1998 with 5 straight losses to finish 7-9, they began 1999 with hope. Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe confidently boasted to the media something along the lines of, “…No offense. But I like proving you wrong. I don’t think we’re that far off from being a contender again.”

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

The ’99 Steelers opened with a blowout over the expansion Cleveland Browns and a lack luster win against a weak Bears team. Three butt ugly losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars at home, and Doug Fluite and the Bills on the road followed.

  • If you asked any fan what the Steelers needed to do they’d have answered in unison: Bench Kordell!

But Bill Cowher stuck with Kordell Stewart, and the Steelers won 3 straight, then dropped a horrific home loss to the Browns, and an terrible loss to the Titans on the road.

That brought a home game against the Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals of that era were the AFC Central’s doormat. Tom Donahoe, in a bit of candor you would never see in 2023, openly proclaimed Pittsburgh as the more talented team.

The Bengals scored a touchdown on their first possession. The Steelers answered with 4 plays followed by an interception. The Bengals responded with a second touchdown. The teams traded a couple of punts, Pittsburgh managed to get a field goal and Carlos Emmons even opened the second quarter with an interception of his own.

After a 1 yard run to Jerome Bettis, (“Sludge Ball” foreshadowed) Kordell fired off pass towards Jon Witman and Rodney Heath intercepted, returning it 58 yards for a pick six.

Bill Cowher had seen enough.

On the next series Mike Tomczak was under center at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon cheered. The guy two bar stools down from me who’d spent the previous hour alternating between railing against “Queerdell!” and asking “You guy’s don’t think this makes me a racist, do you?” was elated.

Meanwhile, at Three Rivers Stadium where it actually counted, Mike Tomczak hit Troy Edwards for 4 yards. Jerome Bettis ran for 4 more. On third and 3 Richard Huntley ran for 3 more…

…before fumbling, with Takeo Spikes recovering. Corey Dillon ripped off runs of 20 and 12 yards and 6 plays later the Bengals were scoring again, leaving Pittsburgh down by 24-3 just 20 minutes into the game.

To be fair to Mike Tomczak and everyone else, the Steelers offense perked up, putting 17 points on the board in the next 25 minutes to enter the third quarter only down 24 to 20. But here’s how the 4th quarter unfolded for Pittsburgh:

  • Jerome Bettis being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 4th down
  • Tomczak tossing incompletes and then giving up 2 sacks
  • A Wayne Gandy penalty at Cincinnati’s 21, follow by 3 straight Tomczak incompletes

The Bengals scored another field goal along the way, winning the game 27 to 20.

1999’s Lessons for 2023

That home loss to the Bengals left the 1999 Steelers at 5-6, but Pittsburgh still had a shot at the playoffs if not the AFC Central crown. Bill Cowher stuck with Mike Tomczak as quarterback, but the Steelers only won one of its next 5 games.

Tomzack’s final quarterback rating was 75.8 compared to Stewart’s 64.9, but his completion percentage was 5 percentage points lower. Benching Kordell Stewart did spark the offense a bit, but here’s what it didn’t do:

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

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

Indeed, two weeks after Stewart’s benching, the Ravens came to town and earned their first victory in Pittsburgh on the back of a Qadry Ismail 258 yards receiving performance. As Scottie Brown, who was sort of the dean of the Purple Goose quipped after Ismail’s second 50 yard plus touchdown, “Its Kordell’s fault!”

  • And that’s something to keep in mind as the Steelers start life without Matt Canada.

As someone who defended the decision to bring Canada back after 2022’s strong finish, I have no problem eat my share of crow this morning. I was wrong. Clearly his offense lacked “coordination” and, well, that was his job.

But it’s also wise to remember isn’t the only thing that ails the 2023 Steelers. Canada’s absence won’t change the fact that the Steelers seem to be losing a safety and/or an inside linebacker to injured reserve per week.

When the calls to “Fire Canada” went viral in September, I’d have warned you that firing Canada wouldn’t have made any of the offensive lineman playing better. Fortunately offensive line play has improved.

As recently as two weeks ago following the Titans game, there were still tangible reasons to be optimistic that things might soon “click” for Kenny Pickett. After watching him “get by” against the Packers and then struggle against the Browns, I’m less sure.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is true that a bad offensive coordinator can stunt the development of a young quarterback (see Joe Walton and Bubby Brister, or Ray Sherman and/or Kevin Gilbride and Kordell Stewart). And when you invest a first round draft pick in a quarterback, you need to do all you can to make it work.

But the fact is that far more quarterbacks drafted in the first round fail than succeed and replacing one franchise quarterback with another is very difficult to do.

And firing Matt Canada isn’t going to change either of those realities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

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

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

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

  • Differences extended beyond the timing and delivery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

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

  • Group B fans were almost always Steelers Digest readers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sometimes Lady Luck Ain’t Fair: Cory Trice’s Injury Begins the Winnowing of the ’23 Steelers Draft Class

It only took the first day of padded practices. The injury was actually contactless. Yet the winnowing of the Steelers 2023 draft class has begun.

And its first victim is 7th round draft pick Cory Trice.

Cory Trice is a 6’3” cornerback who played in 30 games for Perdue making 5 interceptions. Trice tore an ACL in his left leg 2021, but he rebounded to post a strong season for the Boiler Makers in 2022.

Cory Trice, Cory Trice injury

Steelers 7th round pick Cory Trice is carted from the field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Despite his injury history, Dane Brugler of The Athletic rated him as the 14th best corner in the draft and the 88th best player overall. NFL scouts felt differently. Trice didn’t go a 88, but 153 picks later. Still, when the Steelers drafted him at 241 in the 7th round, drafnics immediately pronounced him as “steal.”

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took stock of Trice’s medical history and draft pedigree to conclude: “They HAD to take this cornerback.”

Maybe they did. And maybe couple of 3 years from now we’ll say that Corey Trice was to Lombardi Number 7 what Deshea Townsend was to Lombardi Number 5 and Lombardi Number 6. Let’s hope so.

But today the story on Corey Trice is something different and cautionary, if not darker:

  • Lady Luck plays as big of a role in successful NFL drafting as does science and art.

Normally when you think of Lady Luck’s role in the draft you think of the players you could or couldn’t take. Think of missing out on William Jackson and getting Artie Burns instead. Or not getting O.J. Simpson and having to “settle” for drafting Joe Greene.

  • But Lady Luck continues playing her role long after a pick reaches the podium.

All reports on Corey Trice from OTA’s, Minicamp and non-padded practices were positive. This kid looked like a keeper. Yet, on Tuesday August 1st, Kwon Alexander tackled Jordan Byrd. Corey Trice didn’t touch either man or anyone else during the play, but as soon as it was over he stood in in pain favoring his left side, having sustained an injury to his right leg.

“That’s just unfortunate,” Mike Tomlin explained, “but that’s football and life.”

Tomlin is right. Sometimes Lady Luck just ain’t fair.

In 2011 running back Baron Batch started off at St. Vincents looking like a late round steal, only to tear his ACL. Further back, 6th round pickc ornerback Barron Miles was having a very strong camp until suffering a knee injury in the 1995 Steelers preseason game against the Bills, and was lost for the year.

Batch returned in 2012 to earn 49 yards on 25 carries, but Barron Miles never played down in the NFL, (although he was quite successful in the CFL.)

Those two fared better than Senquez Golson, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Golson missed his rookie training camp with a torn rotator cuff, suffered a Lisfranc injury in his second summer at St. Vincents, got injured again in ’17 and after being cut he spent a few days on Tampa Bay’s practice squad and was done.

That’s three NFL careers – two would-be steals and one premium pick – all ended in the blink of Lady Luck’s eye.

  • Corey Trice should remain hopeful. Lady Luck sometimes grants second chances.
Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

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

Ahead of the Steelers 1987 draft Tom Donahoe spied a dominating outside linebacker in some grainy footage from Ft. Valley State. The Steelers picked Greg Lloyd in the 6th round that spring, but Lloyd tore an ACL in preseason against Washington and spent his rookie year on IR. Lloyd got injured again in the summer of 1988 and spent the first seven games in IR.

But Lloyd appeared in the final nine games of 1988 including four starts.

Here’s where things get a bit uncanny. Where did Lloyd make his first start? On November 13th 1988 at Philadelphia. Where was his last start for the Steelers? November 23rd, 1997 where he injured himself on the turf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium during the 1997 Steelers loss to the Eagles.

It would seem that even when she grants second chances, Lady Luck certainly lacks no sense of irony.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Watch Tower: Labriola Mans Up, Trubisky Non-Story & Steelers Draft History Gem

The Watch Tower has been dim for quite a while, but its lights shine again today with a focus on a major Steelers media figure manning up, making a story out of a non-story and draft war room nuggets.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

Bob Labriola Mans Up

Dick Haley’s death marked the passing of yet another of the architects of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970’s.

As Haley’s role in building four Super Bowl Championships doesn’t get the attention that Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr.’s roles do, the Watch Tower made an extra effort to soak up as much as possible from his eulogies.

So the Watch Tower reached out to Ron Lippock who seemed to have published the quote before, and the Steelers Takeaways author confirmed that the quote indeed had come from his 2012 interview with Dick Haley.

Lippock contacted Labriola, and to his credit the editor of Steelers.com immediately manned up:

Rampant content stealing is a depressing downside of the digital age. Often, if not most of the time, it it’s not a question of who has the idea, the insight or who is breaking news, but who has the ability to push it to their followers. Rarely do those who engage in that behavior recognize it let alone apologize for it.

Bob Labriola, who assuredly made an honest mistake, acknowelged it immediately and made things right. In doing so, he set an example for all of us. Good for you Bob.

Mitch Tribusky Staying with Steelers – The Non-Story of the Century

Art Rooney II does his annual State of the Steelers sit down with the press after the season is over, and he rarely, if ever, speaks after that.

  • But the flip side is that the Steelers President isn’t coy.

Yes, he is guarded with his words. But if he says the Steelers are leaning in certain way, expect his lieutenants to follow in that direction. After the 2009 season he said the Steelers need to run better. And guess what? The Steelers ran better in 2010. In January 2017 he said the Steelers would probably draft a quarterback, and sure enough they picked Joshua Dobbs.

So when Art Rooney II opened the 2023 off season by confirming that the Steelers expected Mitch Trubisky back,  that should have ended any and all questions about Trubisky’s future in Pittsburgh.

Except the opposite happened.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

When Omar Khan spoke to reporters at the NFL Combine a month later, reporters asked him if Tribuisky would be back, Khan confirmed he would, and the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both bloggers and the professional press alike.

  • But you’d figure that the “story” would have ended with Khan’s comments.

Except it didn’t.

One month later reporters asked Mike Tomlin about Tribuisky at the NFL Owners Meeting, where Tomlin confirmed (again) that the Steelers were keeping Tribuisky. And again the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both the professional press and bloggers alike.

In the past the Watch Tower has wondered, “If a reporter breaks news and it doesn’t go viral is it still a scoop?” with Jim Wexell getting Ben Roethlisberger on the record confirming his plans to return before the Jaguars playoff game, only to have Roethlisberger say the same thing after the loss and have it treated as “new news.”

  • Here, the opposite has happened.

Each of the Steelers top three officials all confirmed that Mitch Tribuisky was in the team’s long term plans, yet somehow both bloggers and writers kept spinning yarns about scenarios that would see him leave Pittsburgh right up until Trubisky signed signed a contract extension.

Who knows? Maybe next off season reporters can try coaxing Khan, Tomlin or Rooney into saying, “Yes we’ll wear dark jerseys at home and white ones on the road next year” to see if that generates page views.

Donahoe’s Reveal on Steelers Draft Strategy in the ‘90’s

Tom Donahoe joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986 as a BLESTO scout and quickly rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel and Development in 1989 before ascending to  Director of Football Operations in 1992, upon Chuck Noll’s retirement.

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

With Bill Cowher, Donahoe oversaw the Steeler return to contender status during the 1990’s, but ultimately clashes with The Chin came to a head in 1999, and Dan Rooney sided with his head coach.

Still, Donahoe’s service to the Steelers from ’86 to until early 2000 make him one of the organization’s most informed insiders from that period. Yet, he’s seldom spoken about the organization since leaving.

Jim Wexell has changed that in a big way to the tune of a 4,301 word interview as part of research for his book On the Clock, the History of the Steelers Draft. Wexell shared the full interview with Steel City Insider subscribers last spring.

The interview is a pure gold for Steelers history buffs, as Donahoe shares insights into how stars from the ‘90s  like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Dermontii Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Darren Perry, and Chad Brown made their way to Pittsburgh.

Donahoe also offers draft room back stories about players such as Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith who’d go on to help Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Any one of Donahoe’s 36 answers would  suffice to earn Wexell Watch Tower kudos, but here’s an exceptional exchange:

Q: Did it hurt you guys economically not having the new stadium in free agency?
TD: It was a challenge. But we always tried to prepare for the guys that we thought were probably not going to be here to replace them. Maybe not to the same degree but we would at least have a player waiting in the wings where we wouldn’t have to just go out and buy a free agent. Although we did that the one year with Kevin Greene. He was a great pickup for us at that time. But Chad Brown was a tough loss.

Tom Donahoe’s answer might not qualify as “news” or a “revelation” for fans who suffered through those annual free agent exoduses during the 1990’s. But, to the Watch Tower’s knowledge, this is the first time that someone from the organization actually confirmed that anticipated free agent losses shaped the Steelers draft strategy in the 90’s.

And for that Jim Wexell earns a double dose of Watch Tower Kudos.

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Former Steelers Personnel Director Dick Haley, 1937-2023, Embodied the “Steelers Way”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley passed away at the age of 85 on Friday March 10, 2023. Haley, along with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr. architected the most dominant dynasty that the NFL has ever seen.

In many ways Dick Haley’s story is the antidote to the “me” centeredness that plagues modern narratives of organizational success.

Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Steeler Training Camp 1991

Dick Haley and Chuck Noll at St. Vincents in 1991. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via FOX News.

To hone in on what I’m talking, just think of how the smart advice to job hunters today is to be ready to show the value that you added to company and to always use the word “I” aned never “we” during interviews. Scaling up a bit, think of how the story of every successful tech startup gets tethered to the biography of entrepreneur who gets credit for it all. If you doubt this then ask if the names “Jobs,” “Musk,” “Gates” or “Brandsen” ring a bell.

For the last 50 years the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in professional sports, and it certainly is tempting to apply this same “who is the singular genius behind it all” mentality to them.

  • Tempting, but ultimately unsuccessful.

I once asked Ed Bouchette during a Post-Gazette on-line chat, “Who was most responsible for the scouting success of the 70’s? Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn or Dick Haley.” Bouchette’s response was unequivocal: Each one of them always insisted that it was a team effort.

How refreshing.

Refreshing, if not surprising, because this emphasis of team over the individual is the very essence of the Steelers Way.

Dick Haley’s Role in Architecting the Steelers Dynasty

Art Rooney Jr. professionalized the Steelers scouting organization. Bill Nunn used his connections with the HSB network to give the Steelers “Ace in the Hole” on draft day. But Dick Haley’s contributions were equally critical.

Sure, Rooney spotted Jack Lambert pulling cinders out of his skin while practicing on Kent State parking lot, just as Nunn got near-exclusive access to John Stallworth’s tapes from Alabama A&M. But Dick Haley validated the evaluations of both players.

John Stallworth, Super Bowl XIII, Steelers vs Cowboys, Lynn Swann, Benny Barnes, Charlie Waters

Super Bowl XIII: John Stallworth is headed to the end zone. Benny Barnes and Charlie Waters can only look on. Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images via FanSided

Art Rooney introduced the use of computers, making the Steelers one of the first NFL teams to bring IT into the scouting department. But Dick Haley balanced the quantitative with the qualitative by trusting his eyes.

As he explained to Pittsburgh Sports‘ Ron Lippock in 2012, “Yeah…I say it often I know – ‘Don’t tell me how fast or big a player is, just tell me how good he is.’ Just big and fast won’t work. Big, fast and good….we’ll take that player!”

He further detailed to Lippock, “Lambert was a good example. He was only 202 pounds in training camp. He was 6’5″. Ham was 209 pounds. Webster was only 250 pounds – tell Webster he wasn’t big enough.”

The results of this team driven approach to scouting speak for themselves:

  • 4 Super Bowls in 6 years
  • 73 Pro Bowl selections during the 70’s
  • 2 Super Bowl victories over a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, the team to accomplish that
  • The 1974 Draft yielding 4 Hall of Famers plus 1 undrafted rookie free agent Hall of Famer
  • 10 Hall of Famers

Dick Haley’s role in architecting that dynasty should be enough to earn him a spot in Canton alongside Bill Nunn (Art Rooney Jr. belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.) But Haley’s contribution to the Steelers legacy extends beyond the 70’s. And since its seldom discussed elsewhere we’ll do it here.

Steelers of the 80’s: Friction Between Coaching and Scouting = Stagnation

Business analysts love to talk about “process.” And Pittsburgh’s process for building the dynasty of the 70’s was simple: Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and other Steelers scouts would evaluate prospects and build the draft board, and Chuck Noll would draft the players.

  • Peek back at the bullet points above to see how well it worked.

But then in 1976 the NFL moved the draft from just after the Super Bowl to March. In theory the extra time should have helped an organization like the Steelers.

  • Instead, the exact opposite occurred.

The increased time allowed Chuck Noll to start micromanaging the process. He started challenging draft board rankings. He got his assistant coaches more involved in scouting. As Art Rooney Jr, declared in his book Ruanaidh, some of them weren’t up to it.

The organization also began to outthink itself. They’d pass on guys whom they’d rated highly thinking, “How’s he gonna beat out Stallworth or Lynn Swann?” or “Is this kid really gonna push Greenwood or Mean Joe for playing time?”

David Little, Mel Blount, Marcus Allen, 1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs

David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen

At its best, that led to the Steelers trying to replace guys like Lambert and Ham with the likes of David Little and Bryan Hinkle. At it its worst it produced draft picks like Darryl Sims.

  • That created tension and communication dysfunction between Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll.

By the 1986 season tension got so bad that Dan Rooney had to make a decision, and he fired his brother, leaving Dick Haley as head of scouting.

Haley’s Role in Building the “Blitzburgh” Teams of the ‘90s

The quick and easy take away from Dan Rooney’s decision to fire his brother is to look at what happened next and say, “Well, that I didn’t work.” After all, Chuck Noll only won one more playoff game (but man, it was a heck of a win) followed by deeply disappointing campaigns in 1990 and 1991.

  • However, communication did improve between scouting and coaching, for a while at least.

In both 1987 and 1988 Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers in the form of Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. And while the Steelers did need a lot of luck to land Woodson, those weren’t isolated examples.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

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

The Steelers 1987 draft also delivered Thomas Everett, Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd and Merril Hoge. 1988 brought John Jackson to Pittsburgh. The Steelers 1989 draft featured Carnell Lake, Jerrol Williams, D.J. Johnson, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig.

And it is true that by 1990 some of the same communication breakdowns between scouting and coaching resumed, but even those drafts delivered players like  Justin Strzelczyk, Neil O’Donnell and Ernie Mills who helped the 1995 Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX.

Dick Haley left the Steelers after Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe to Director of Football Operations when Chuck Noll retired. Haley worked as the New York Jets Director of Player Personnel from 1992 to 2000, and then served as their General Manager during 2000 and 2001.

But even if Dick Haley left Pittsburgh in 1992, his finger prints are just as much a part of the success first part of the Cowher Era as they are of the first Super Bowl Era of 1970s.

No, when they write the story of Super Bowl XXX, they don’t list a tally of players from the Dick Haley era just as they don’t do a tally of Tom Donahoe players on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII squads. Nor should they.

  • Because each front office executive’s success = the Steelers success.

Indeed, the late Dick Haley was a walking embodiment of “The Steelers Way.” May he rest in peace.

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Mike Tomlin is on the Brink of His First Losing Season. Will He Go Over?

There are many things that annoy fans about Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Number one, they think the only reason Dan Rooney, the late, great owner of the franchise, hired Tomlin to be the Steelers’ next head coach in 2007 was because of the Rooney Rule (Rooney stated multiple times that this wasn’t the case, but even if it was, so what?)

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Number two, they think Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII with a team that was assembled by Bill Cowher, the man Tomlin replaced as head coach and someone who only managed to win one Super Bowl in 15 years with teams he helped to assemble. (For the record, I love Bill Cowher, but that is one of the dumbest criticisms of Tomlin I have ever heard–it’s too bad it never seems to go away. And how come no one ever criticizes Kevin Colbert for “Only Winning with Tom Donahoe’s players?”) Number three, Tomlin’s teams have only won three playoff games since the 2010 season, when he guided the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV where they lost a heartbreaker to the Packers.

Of those first three reasons, the third one is by far the most valid criticism. While Tomlin has had a great career as the Steelers’ head coach, it comes down to postseason results at the end of the day, and there’s no question he’s come up short in that department over the past 13 seasons.

But there is a fourth reason why fans have often been critical of Mike Tomlin (well, there are plenty more than just four, but who has time for that?), and that’s the fact that he’s never suffered a losing season as head coach of the Steelers.

  • Why is that a criticism of his?

Beats the holy heck out of me, but Tomlin’s most vocal critics love to weaponize it and mock the streak that currently stands at 15 straight seasons. Maybe it’s because Tomlin’s most vocal supporters use it to prop him up in just about every argument involving Tomlin and his abilities as a head coach in the National Football League. Can you blame Tomlin’s supporters for that, though? I mean, the man started to be roundly and unfairly criticized long before the streak was even a streak.

Tomlin remarkably kept past teams together and rallied them to non-losing seasons, and even playoff appearances, during years when they easily could have fallen off a cliff. The Steelers managed to remain relevant in the 2010s, even after the legendary roster that produced three AFC championships and two Lombardi Trophies between 2005-2010 got old all at once.

Perhaps more impressive than Tomlin’s lack of a losing season as head coach of the Steelers is the fact that his teams have only played one game during his tenure where they were officially eliminated from playoff contention at kickoff.

For the record, that game was the final one of the 2012 regular season. It was also the first time Tomlin was on the brink of having his first losing campaign (although, the streak wasn’t long enough for anyone to notice at that point). Fortunately, the Steelers took on a pretty pathetic Browns team at Heinz Field and won in a rather convincing fashion to finish the regular season at 8-8.

  • It was actually the Steelers’ ninth-straight non-losing season dating back to the Cowher years.

The Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons was in serious jeopardy in 2013 when they started out 0-4 and 2-6. After rallying to get back to 5-6, Pittsburgh then lost two heartbreakers — 22-20 to the hated Ravens on Thanksgiving Night, and then 28-24 to the Dolphins on December 8 — to drop to 5-8.

  • It looked like the streak would end in short order.

In fact, my old boss, completely disinterested in attending another game that season, gave me two free tickets to the Steelers’ next matchup: A Sunday night affair against the soon-to-be AFC North champion Bengals at Heinz Field.

I invited my uncle to the game, and we both froze our butts off. Actually, I later found out that I suffered frostbite in my right big toe, an appendage that still goes numb to this day if my feet get too cold. (Because of the cold and the Steelers’ subpar record, this was the lowest-attended game in the history of Heinz Field up to that point.)

I may have suffered frostbite — and I may have spent half the night standing in the men’s room trying to stay warm–but Pittsburgh won that game rather convincingly to improve to 6-8.

Not only did the Steelers win their last two games to finish the regular season at 8-8, but they ended their season still in playoff contention, where they would remain for the next few hours until Chiefs kicker, Ryan Succop, dashed their hopes out in San Diego.

It wasn’t long after 2013 that the Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons became Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons (and, again, a weapon for his supporters and detractors to use in every debate about his coaching prowess).

Tomlin’s streak hasn’t really been in danger since 2013, even if it looked like it was going straight down the tubes after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the year in the second game of the 2019 campaign (see Tomlin’s ability to rally compromised teams).

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger fat, Ben Roethlisberger out of shape,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in late 2019. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via York Dispatch

  • That brings us to the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers currently sit at 5-8 after an annoying loss to the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Not only is Tomlin again on the brink of suffering his first losing season as the head coach of the Steelers, but thanks to the NFL’s new 17-game schedule, his team now has to win an extra game in order to keep the streak alive.

  • Can Tomlin avoid it? I don’t really care.

For that matter, neither does Tomlin, who’s on record as saying that he doesn’t seek comfort in something like that. He’s only worried about winning a Super Bowl, and any season that falls short of that is a failure.

But part of me would love to see that streak stay alive. Why? Tomlin’s detractors seem to hate it more than his supporters love it.

Right now, I picture Tomlin as this heel wrestler who is trying to survive a 30-man battle royal. He’s teetering on the brink of elimination and has several other wrestlers attempting to push him out of the ring. Maybe they already have, but they don’t know that both of his feet must touch the ground in order for him to be eliminated. Much like Shawn Michaels in the 1995 Royal Rumble, maybe some people already assume that the end of Tomlin’s streak is a mere formality.

  • But he’s still alive. His second foot hasn’t touched the ground.

Tomlin is still plotting out a way to have yet another non-losing season and anger Steelers fans…for some reason.

I refuse to count out Mike Tomlin until that second foot has touched the floor.

 

 

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