Can the Steelers “Band of Brothers” Spirit Weather Le’Veon Bell’s Disruptive Antics?

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2018 season today at Cleveland against the Browns. Like all other seasons, a Lombardi Trophy will define success or failure. Earlier this week this site laid out 4 key questions the Steelers needed to answer affirmatively to bring up a 7th Super Bowl.

Now, thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s hold out has added a 5th question:

  • Can the Steelers maintain the “Band of Brothers” mentality in the locker room?

Building a coheshive locker room is critical to winning championships. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reflected on Hines Ward’s 2005 holdout by saying he felt the team had the closeness that is necessary for championships.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Concerned that contract squabbles could jeopardize this closeness Dan Rooney had Jerome Bettis bring Hines Ward to the Latrobe airport for a one-on-one. The results was that Hines Ward reported to camp, got a new contract, and the Steelers season ended with victory in Super Bowl XL.

Except it wasn’t that simple. The 2005 Steelers faced more than their share of ups and downs, and injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch and inconsistency on the part of Tommy Maddox led Bill Cowher to start 3 quarterbacks that fall.

  • The Steelers overcame those difficulties, in no small part, because they remained united, and focused.

Fast forward to 2018. Everyone knows that Le’Veon Bell has refused to sign his franchise tender and is not part of the 2018 Steelers. Until this point, the rest of the Steelers locker room had been neutral, if not supportive of Bell,

But when Bell failed to show up for practice on Wednesday the gloves came off. One by one, from David DeCastro, to NFLPA Rep Ramon Foster to center Maurkice Pouncey criticized Bell.

Pittsburgh 247 writer Jim Wexell made what might have been the defining analytical quote of the 2018 season when he observed: “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

That’s a pretty dramatic statement, but if there is any reporter who has an accurate pulse of the Steelers locker room, it is Jim Wexell. Right now the Steelers locker room is united, but what happens when Le’Veon Bell returns?

The Buffalo Bills easily had the most talent roster in the AFC in the early 1990’s, making for straight Super Bowl appearances. They lost each one of them. While the ’91 Redskins and the ’92 and ’93 Cowboys held clear talent edges, Buffalo didn’t help themselves by creating an atmosphere that led them to be labeled as the “Bickering Bills.

Antonio Brown has extended an olive branch, assuring that Bell will be welcomed as family when he returns. While fans may not be so welcoming, locker room divisions serve no one.

As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler confided to Jim Wexell, “The good thing we’ve got, I think, is our locker room. Probably our strongest suit is our locker room. That’s going to always be the case here.”

Le’Veon Bell’s eventual return promises to put the later part of Butler’s statement to the test.

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How Mike Tomlin Strengthens His Locker Room Credibility by Keeping Joshua Dobbs Over Landry Jones

With the dust settling on the Steelers 2018 roster it has become apparent Pittsburgh has permanently parted ways with Landry Jones.

But now that Joshua Dobbs is officially the Steelers new QB Number 2 behind Ben Roethlisberger that doesn’t seem likely to happen. As someone who both advocated for keeping Joshua Dobbs AND who’s a little nervous about the Steelers cutting Landry Jones, one thing is immediately clear about this choice:

  • Mike Tomlin has strengthened his locker room credibility in with his decision.
Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“The best 22 players will start. The best 53 men will earn roster spots. The next best 10 will join the practice squad. Everyone else had best prepare for ‘Life’s Work.'” All NFL coaches say it, all of the time. And most of them really do want to mean it.

  • But the realities of the modern NFL often make it hard for coaches to truly put their money where their mouths are.

Sometimes salary cap realities dictate that a player who otherwise might be cut stay on the roster. The reverse is also true, hence the term “salary cap casualty.” Other times it is draft status. The last time the Steelers cut a rookie 4th round draft pick, Bill Clinton was President (no, sorry Doran Grant in 2015 doesn’t count.)

A coach can preach his “Keep the best 53” sermon without losing credibility because NFL players understand all of the above.

  • Sometimes NFL coaches keep a player because cutting him falls a little too far outside his comfort zone.

Those are the choices that lead to coaches causing trouble for themselves. Most outsiders thought that Chuck Noll was as unsentimental as Bill Belichick when it came to parting ways with old players. He wasn’t.

Keeping an aging Dwight White over Dwaine Board serves as the best example, but if you sat down with someone like Dick Hoak, Dick Haley or even Art Rooney Jr. they’d probably supply a good half dozen similar examples without breaking a sweat. Moving to more modern times, Bill Cowher’s decision to keep Duce Staley on the 2006 roster provides another example.

  • And that brings us to Mike Tomlin’s decision to keep Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones.

During the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers have made personnel mistakes (see Shamarko Thomas), but they’ve rarely been guilty of hanging on to a player who is ready for “Life’s Work.” Perhaps keeping Aaron Smith into 2011 serves as one example, and certainly there are others but not many.

Nonetheless, the Steelers 2018 roster certainly has taken the franchise out of its comfort zone.

Tomlin Takes Steelers Out of Their Quarterback Depth Chart Comfort Zone

The last time the Steelers started a season without a veteran back up quarterback on its depth chart was in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger and Brian St. Pierre backed up Tommy Maddox.

  • And that situation only arose because Charlie Batch got injured in training camp.

To find a time when the Steelers voluntarily opted not to staff a veteran back up quarterback must go back to 1990 when Rick Strom and rookie Neil O’Donnell backed up Bubby Brister (although the picky purists in Pittsburgh will point out that Strom had thrown one incompletion in 1989 – keep that fact handy should you ever reach the Who Wants to be a Millionaire finals.)

In the Steelers preseason win over the Panthers, Joshua Dobbs didn’t simply “lean into the tape.” His play was exceptional enough to convince Mike Tomlin to disregard 28 years of franchise Quarterback depth chart policy.

So next time a player hears Mike Tomlin insist that “The best 53 will make it,” they’ll know he means it.

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Fans Get What They Want: Steelers Cut Landry Jones, Rudolph & Dobbs to Back Up Big Ben

For much of Steelers Nation the move comes 5 years late, as Steelers cut Landry Jones as the team moved to reduce its roster down to 53 ahead of the NFL deadline. The Steelers of course drafted Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft after watching both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch lose the footrace with father time.

  • Drafting Landry Jones sparked immediate controversy, compounded each time the Steelers kept him the roster.

As previously mentioned, preseason is not available here in Buenos Aires without NFL Game Pass, but Going Deep with the Steelers scribe Ivan Cole, the antithesis of a knee jerk fan if there ever was one, assured me Landry looked lost in preseason during both 2013 and 2014. The Steelers made a serious run at replacing during the summer of 2015, but Jones rose to the moment.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers cut Landry Jones

Landry Jones in the 2016 season finale vs Browns. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI.com

Indeed, it quickly became clear that Landry Jones, and not Mike Vick, was the better backup quarterback, as Jones closed victories against Arizona and Oakland.

But the Steelers have been investing in their future at quarterback, having drafted Joshua Dobbs in the 2017 NFL Draft and Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Both quarterbacks played well enough during the preseason for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert to decide the future is now.

The Steelers were undoubtedly unable to trade Landry Jones, but the backup quarterback’s phone will ring soon.

Careful What You Wish For….

Despite improved play from Landry Jones during his limited opportunities (OK, the 2015 deer in the headlights playoff appearance against Cincinnati notwithstanding) a large and vocal segment of the fan base has advocated moving on from Landry Jones.

It says here that Randy FichtnerMike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert know a lot more about what qualifies a player to be ready as a backup NFL quarterback than I do. But I also know that the Pittsburgh Steelers policy dating back to Bill Cowher’s arrival has been to staff a veteran backup quarterback.

  • Now the Steelers have two quarterbacks holding clipboards behind Ben Roethlisberger who haven’t taken an NFL snap.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have never let fear drive their personnel decisions out of fear, and they’re not starting to do so now. Good for them.

  • But some of the social media jubilation that cutting Landry Jones has sparked on social media gives this scribe pause.

Landry Jones might have been lost as he looked to be in 2013 and 2014, but by 2015 he showed he belonged, and by 2016 he performance merited respect. Landry Jones might never be a great or even good starting caliber NFL quarterback, but he’s proven himself to be a quality backup.

And to those who say “good riddance” at Landry’s departure, I can’t help but remember the following Darth Vader quote from the original Star Wars (sorry, its Star Wars, not A New Hope):

If you’re not up on your Star Wars history, things don’t quite work out the esteemed Lord of Sith expected.

There’s no substitute for experience in the NFL. Should Ben Roethlisberger go down with injury early in the season much as Tommy Maddox did in 2004, its possible that Mason Rudolph could play like Ben Roethlisberger did as a rookie.

And for as much as I wanted to see the Steelers find a way to keep Joshua Dobbs, that desire was rooted in a wish to see the Steelers keep 4 quarterbacks for a 3rd time since 1995.

Following the Steelers preseason win over the Carolina Panthers, Mike Tomlin claimed Pittsburgh had “4 above the line quarterbacks.” The Steelers decision to cut Landry Jones shows that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are ready to put their money where their mouth is.

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Recent Steelers Third String Quarterback History Shows Mason Rudolph CAN Help Pittsburgh in 2018

Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph have put the Steelers signal caller firmly into the news. Given where we are in the off season, its all that anyone in Steelers Nation is talking about.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick, Steelers third string quarterbacks

Think Mason Rudolph can’t help the Steelers in 2018? Guess again. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steel Curtain Rising has already taken Ben Roethlisberger to task for his implicit attitude behind his statements on Rudolph. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. But there’s another bone to pick with Big Ben’s comments, a bone that’s completely objective in it comes from one of the few seemingly uncontroversial things he said:

Nothing against Mason. I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. [Emphasis added]

OF all of Roethlisberger’s remarks on Rudolph, his assertion in bold is likeliest to elicit a “Well, he’s got a point there” nod from even his harshest critics. Because on the surface it’s hard to dispute his logic. After all, third string quarterbacks don’t do much, even in practice, right?

Third string quarterbacks rarely earn even footnotes in football history. For most of their history, the Steelers offer no exception. When was the last time you saw a parent-child combo strutting around Heinz Field sporting Rick Strom and Brian St. Pierre jerseys on throwback weekend?

  • But in this case, experience trumps logic, and Ben’s own history with the Steelers shows his claim about Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks is wrong.

Think back to the Steelers 2005 season that culminated with victory in Super Bowl XL. That Super Bowl season saw the Steelers start their third string quarterback twice, as Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch started four games that season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger after Jacksonville loss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • Its almost certainly as coincidental as it is ironic but Steelers third string quarterbacks have enjoyed their moment in the sun during the Roethlisberger era.

We covered much of this ground on the eve of the 2015 season when justifying Landry Jones roster spot in the face of fans who felt he should have been cast aside in favor of Mike Vick. Let’s spell it out in Black and Gold again:

  • In 2005, Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox both saw starts after holding the QB number 3 designation
  • In 2006, third string quarterback Dennis Dixon started against the Ravens
  • In 2010, Charlie Batch started games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore as the third stringer
  • In 2012, a Byron Leftwich injury again thrust Charlie Batch from 3rd to first as Batch started two games
  • In 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness of Mike Vick elevated Landry Jones from 3rd stringer to starter

Just looking at the math, during the Roethlisberger era about every third season has seen a Steelers third string quarterbacks suit up as a starter….

…And two full seasons have elapsed since that last occurred.

Past performance may not predict future results, but it would behoove Ben Roethlisberger to do what he can to get Mason Rudolph ready to play sooner rather than later.

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What I Did The Day The Steelers Drafted Ben Roethlisberger

Just like Chad Pennington a few years earlier, I started hearing quarterback Ben Roethlisbergers name linked to the the Steelers as a potential first-round pick, long before the 2004 NFL Draft.

In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the fall of 2003 and hearing some random national sports talk show host discussing the prospects of Roethlisberger being Pittsburgh’s first first-round quarterback since Mark Malone in the spring of 1980.

Ben Roethlisberger

The day the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger was a momentous one for the franchise. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Of course, at that time, with the Steelers still in the throes of their ’03 campaign, the last thing I cared about was who they’d draft about six months down the road.

  • But if you remember that 2003 season, it was one you may want to forget.

Instead of remaining in the ring of Super Bowl contenders, a ring they occupied  the previous two seasons, the Steelers started the year 2-6, before finishing with a 6-10 record.

The downside was the 6-10 record. The upside was a rare flirtation with a top-10 selection, as Pittsburgh would pick 11th in that spring’s annual NFL Draft.

Despite Roethlisberger’s name being linked to the Steelers for quite some time, the Miami of Ohio superstar quarterback took a backseat to NC State’s Philip Rivers, who was climbing up the draft boards fast and, thanks in-part to playing his college ball at the same school as head coach Bill Cowher, seemed the likely choice, if he were available, and the team was serious about finding its next great franchise passer.

But by the eve of the draft, River’s stock had risen so high, if he wasn’t selected first overall by the Chargers, he would be taken fourth by the Giants.

Rivers ultimately became a Charger, after initially being drafted by New York, who then made a rather bizarre draft-day trade with San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning, the most coveted quarterback prospect in the draft.

That left Roethlisberger as the only quarterback remaining of the “Big Three” prospects believed to have that truly elite talent, talent that could quickly change the fortunes of a franchise.

But there were still six teams drafting before the Steelers and, besides, other players who represented perhaps more urgent needs such as South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson and Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews were also linked to Pittsburgh by many in the know.

  • The first round was held on Saturday back then, and like most Saturdays, I had to work.

I listened to pick after pick on the radio, and I was kind of giddy when I heard that Robinson was drafted by the Texans just one pick before Pittsburgh.

  • Who would the Steelers select with the 11th pick?

Would it be Roethlisberger or would the often conservative Bill Cowher go with a safer bet, such as an Andrews?

Before I could hear Pittsburgh’s decision, I was called away for something (the life of a retail manager is one where you’re lucky to enjoy one song on the radio without someone bothering you, let alone an entire draft).

When I returned moments later, I round out Roethlisberger was indeed the pick, and this excitement came over me that I don’t think I had ever experienced following a Steelers draft choice.

  • Even at the time, I didn’t know why I was so giddy.

After all, Tommy Maddox had established himself as the team’s starting quarterback not even two seasons earlier, and even after the drafting of Roethlisberger, it was mostly understood that Maddox would remain in that role for at least the ’04 campaign (and be backed up by veteran Charlie Batch), while the rookie watched and learned from the sideline.

In fact, in subsequent days, there were stories of Maddox being very upset about the Roethlisberger pick (“I thought  they were going to get me a tackle,” is a quote from Maddox I remember reading during that time).

Anyway, it was a surreal feeling, this joy over a first-round quarterback who, as far as anyone knew at the time, could have turned out to be a major bust (that is if he could even unseat the very determined Maddox).

I had no idea why I was so happy, and for reasons that had to do with my limited VHS options (this was a full year or so before I owned my first DVD player), I popped in Tough Guys, an NFL Films production released in 1989 and hosted by legendary head coach Mike Ditka.

This feature chronicled the careers of some of the toughest guys in NFL history–including Jack Lambert, Jim Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Conrad Dobler and Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.

That’s right, Fouts was actually included in this group–his story was the last one, in fact–and that was the main reason for popping this tape into my VCR.

  • I was just so happy the Steelers drafted a quarterback, I needed to watch highlights of quarterbacks.

In case you don’t know much about Fouts, in addition  to being one of the most prolific passers of his day, he was also one of the toughest, as he stood in the pocket and took hit after hit, while delivering pass after pass.

Fouts played with many injuries during his career–including a broken nose suffered right in the middle of a game.

It was ironic that Fouts was my main inspiration for watching this  tape that day, because Roethlisberger would go on to build a Hall of Fame career of his own complete with a reputation for physical toughness perhaps unmatched by any quarterback throughout NFL history.

You obviously know the story of Ben Roethlisberger–one that will hopefully continue for a few more seasons (that’s not what this article is about)–and why I was so excited about the drafting of a quarterback by a team that seemingly already had a starting quarterback in place.

There’s just no substitute for that truly elite, franchise quarterback.

As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter where you rank the truly great quarterbacks of the present, because if your team is lucky enough to have one of them, your team is so far ahead of the game in terms of contending for Super Bowls.

  • The Steelers have accomplished so much since the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger 14 years ago.

The 2004 NFL Draft is one that will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the genesis of so many great memories yet to come.

 

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The Bright Side to the Steelers Loss To The Patriots? Was It Wasn’t A Playoff Game

You’ll have to forgive me for my sour mood, but I haven’t been this angry after a Steelers loss in a very long time.

  • In fact, the last time I was angry–really angry–after a Steelers loss, Pittsburgh wasn’t even playing.

I’m talking about the Ryan Succup missed field goal at the end of regulation during the Chiefs/Chargers 2013 regular season finale that, had it been made, would have put Pittsburgh into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

Steelers vs Patriots, Tom Brady, Jacob Hollister, Sean Davis

Tom Brady Jacob Hollister celebrate a 1st quarter touchdown over the Steelers at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Nancy Lane, Boston Herald

If I had to think of another time I was this angry, we have to go back almost 15 years, to the moments after Tommy Maddox‘s Steelers lost in overtime to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the 2002 playoffs, thanks mostly to a running into the kicker penalty on Steelers cornerback Dwayne Washington, who ran into Joe Nedney, after Nedney missed a short field goal, thus affording the kicker with the great acting skills another shot at sticking the dagger into the heart of Steeler Nation (he did).

  • After the game Nedney himself even joked about his “Oscar winning performance” if memory serves.

Anyway, in-case you’ve been living under a rock, the source of my current anger is the Ben Roethlisberger to Jesse James 10-yard touchdown catch with 28 seconds left that would have clinched a bye for the Steelers, a touchdown that was ultimately overturned due to the NFL’s ridiculous idea of what a catch is.

Was it the right call?

  • By the letter of the law, yes, yes it was.
  • Is the catch rule a stupid one that totally insults the intelligence of anyone with two good eyes?
  • Yes, yes it is.

But there’s nothing you can do about it. Fortunately, however, unlike those previous anger-inducing moments I referenced, the Steelers can actually step up and do something about this clear miscarriage of justice.

The 27-24 loss to the Patriots, Sunday night, didn’t end Pittsburgh’s season; it merely dropped the team to 11-3 and took the control of the number one seed out its hands and placed it firmly into the Patriots’ with just two games left.

But the Steelers still control their own fate with regards to the number two seed and a bye, which, while not the perfect scenario, isn’t exactly chopped liver.

And guess what?

If the Patriots lose one game, while Pittsburgh wins two, the black and gold could still get the top seed in the AFC playoffs. And wouldn’t that be delicious? You lose-out on the head-to-head tiebreaker to both the Patriots and the Jaguars, who came into Heinz Field in Week 5 and had their way in a 30-9 beat-down, but it doesn’t matter, as you some how finish ahead of both in the win/loss column.

I would relish that, because I would welcome the opportunity to see both or either team have to come crawling back to loud and crazy Heinz Field for a playoff game, which, believe me, Heinz Field in a playoff setting is so much different than it is in the regular season.

But regardless of how the playoff seeding ultimately shakes out, the Steelers will actually be in the dance, and that angry feeling I have right now? That won’t last an entire offseason, and there’s still a chance for redemption.

The Steelers 2017 story isn’t over yet, and the final chapter can still go many different ways.

 

 

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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How Ladarius Green Highlights Steelers Tight End History of Boom-Bust “Splash Personnel Moves”

As expected, the Steelers release of Ladarius Green has sparked a lot of finger pointing and recriminations in Steelers Nation. A headline accompanying Ed Bouchette’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Ladarius Green’s acquisition as “’Worst signing ever.’”

  • That’s a pretty harsh claim, but one which will hold some truth if Bouchette’s reporting is accurate.

But if you cast aside some of the sound and fury surrounding what clearly is one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s major personnel failures, you’ll find that it unfortunately fits the Steelers boom-bust history with splash personnel moves at tight end.

Heath Miller, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller catches a pass in the Steelers 2012 loss to the Cowboys @ “Jerry’s World.” Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS Sports

Steelers Boom-Bust History of “Splash Personnel Moves” @ Tight End

Larry Brown and Randy Grossman held down the tight end duties as the Super Steelers were cutting their teeth. Two Super Bowls into their run, Noll realized that Larry Brown was an even better tackle and made the move. Noll would later say that Larry Brown’s play at right tackle merits Hall of Fame consideration.

Drafting tight end Bennie Cunningham in the 1st round of the 1976 NFL Draft was one of the things that allowed Noll to make that move. While Cunningham split the starting duties with Grossman, by any measure Bennie Cunningham was an extremely solid player, giving Terry Bradshaw a reliable alternative to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • Count picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round as the Steelers first successful “Splash Personnel Move” at tight end.

As the Steelers championships of the 70’s faded into the mediocrity of the 1980’s, the tight end disappeared from Chuck Noll’s offense. As Noll once explained, “When people ask ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun’ they’re really asking ‘Why don’t you win?’”

Well, People asked “Why don’t you throw to the tight end? a lot in the mid-1980’s, and in 1989 the Steelers decided to rectify that via Plan B Free Agency when they signed Mike Mularkey from the Minnesota Vikings.

  • Mularkey had an explosive season as the Steelers starting tight end, bringing down 22 passes and scoring a touchdown.

No, that’s not a typo. 22 receptions is a partly by 2017 standards, but remember:

  • The NFL was less pass happy then, and even by the era’s standards, the Steelers were “a running team”
  • Mularkey’s predecessor Preston Gothard combined passing total for 1987 and 1988 was 22 passes
  • Louis Lipps was the 1989 Steelers leading receiver with 50 catches.

So count the Plan B Free Agency signging of Mike Mularkey as second successful “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end.

Since the 1989 signing of Mularkey worked out so well (OK, its really because Joe Walton was now the offensive coordinator), the Steelers decided to make another in 1990 by taking Eric Green in the 1st round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

Eric Green, Steelers tight end history

Eric Green in the Steelers 1994 season opening-loss to the Cowboys. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Eric Green of course held out for all of training camp, missed the first month of the season, then exploded as “Green’s second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs for touchdowns.

Although the 1990 Steelers would struggle and ultimately self-destruct under Joe Walton’s offense, one positive from that otherwise deeply disappointing season was that Pittsburgh looked to have found a transformational player. And to be honest, it would be grossly unfair to label Eric Green as a bust.

And Eric Green’s performance on the field never came close to approaching that level thanks to injuries, drug suspensions and flat out want-to. And then there was Green’s infamous “Super Bowl Rap Video” prior to the 1994 AFC Championship game.

  • Count Eric Green as one failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Mark Bruener, Jerome Bettis, Steelers tight end history

Mark Bruener prepares to block for Jerome Bettis @ Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers replaced Eric Green by taking Mark Bruener with their first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Although Mark Bruener never caught more than 26 passes in a season, it says here that Burner was an excellent pick by the Steelers. Had Steel Curtain Rising existed in the 1990’s it would have argued (possibley incorrectly) that Mark Bruener catch rate and Percentage passes for touchdowns would have indicated he should have been targeted more often.

But even if Mark Bruener couldn’t have been a more of a receiving threat, he provided the Steelers with consistency at tight end for almost a decade.

  • Count Mark Bruener as a third successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox

The emergence of Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2002 tempted Bill Cowher to open up the passing game and the Steelers went out and signed Jay Riemersma to give Tommy Gun another target. When the Steelers won their 2003 opener over the Ravens, Bill Cowher cited Jay Riemersma’s presence over the middle as one of the reasons for their success.

  • Unfortunately, the rest of Jay Riemersma’s Pittsburgh Steelers career would consist of 22 games and 15 catches.
  • Count Jay Riemersma’s as a second failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.

The Steelers responded to the Jay Riemersma failure by drafting Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Heath Miller’s resume needs to review here. Over the course of 11 seasons, Heath Miller established himself as the best tight end in Steelers history, and Heath Miller’s legendary dependability made gave Ben Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as is practically possible.

  • Count Heath Miller as a fourth successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end
Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger

When Heath Miller retired, the Steelers acted boldly, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin traveled to Florida to convince Ladarius Green to sign with them on the first day of free agency in 2016. We know how that move turned out. Even if Ladarius Green did give the Steelers “field flipping” capability that helped secure wins against the Colts, Giants and Bengals, his signing was a mistake.

  • Count Ladarius Green as a third failed Steelers “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end

Although both men were successful, it’s hard to label the acquisitions of Larry Brown or Randy Grossman as a “Splash Personnel Move” as one arrived to the Steelers as a 5th round pick and the other an undrafted rookie free agent.

But since their arrival, the Steelers have invested 4 first round draft picks and 3 major free agent signings in trying to acquire a marquee tight end and their record is 4-3. Take this for what it is, but the odds indicate that whether move the Steelers make at tight end in the 2018 off season, it will be a success.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Find Players to Help Roethlisberger Win Now

Since Chuck Noll ushered Pittsburgh into the modern era of pro football, the Pittsburgh Steelers have used 1st round picks on quarterbacks exactly 3 times.

  • Their first came when they drafted Terry Bradshaw with the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.
  • Ten years later they returned to the well, drafting Mark Malone with the last pick of the first round of 1980 NFL Draft.

Steelers Nation would have to wait 24 more years until the 2004 NFL Draft for Pittsburgh to use another first round draft pick on a quarterback, and the decision to pick Ben Roethlisberger only really came at the behest of Dan Rooney who, by his own admission, was haunted by the teams decision not to draft Dan Marino thinking that the Blond Bomber had a few more seasons, instead of just 8 more throws, left in his arm.

Although is return for 2017 is confirmed, since incumbent Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger has publically as uttered the “R” word it is only fair to ask if the Steelers needs justifying picking a quarterback with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Quarterback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

Closing in on his 15th NFL season Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. The Steelers Killer Bees, Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give Pittsburgh its strongest concentration of talent at the skill positions since the days Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris lined up alongside Bradshaw.

  • To judge solely by his passer rating of 95.4, Ben Roethlisberger 2016 season was almost identical to 2015’s (94.5).

But that shows you how fickle of a measure passer rating can be as his completion percentage dropped by 4 points, but he threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions and took fewer sacks. And he did it without the services of Heath Miller, Ladarius Green, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey for much or all of the season.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger continued to prove that he was still a championship-caliber franchise quarterback during 2016, his game was not without its flaws.

First, there was a sharp disparity between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and his play at home. Beyond that, in the playoffs with Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton as his number 2 and 3 receivers the Steelers needed Ben Roethlisberger to make them look better than they were.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Quarterback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Steel Curtain Rising has written more in defense of Landry Jones that he probably deserves, but such is the nature when two of a site’s writers style and ideas overlap. So be it. There’s no need to repeat our praise of the embattled backup here as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert agree with Landry Jones is a viable NFL backup. If Landry looked lost in 2013 and 2014, the showed he belonged in 2015 and in 2016 he proved that the previous season was no mirage.

  • No, the Steelers cannot expect to contend for a Super Bowl if Landry Jones has to start for an extended period.

But you can say almost every other NFL contender can say the same thing about having to start their backup for more than a few games.

Behind Landry Jones the Steelers have Zach Mettenberger, whom they picked up off of waivers. Both fans and columnists would prefer to seen Mettenberger holding down the number two slot and if he proves himself in training camp he may get that opportunity.

When all is said and done, it could be that the Steelers decision to claim Mettenberger off of waivers will grow in importance to Kevin Colbert’s 2002 decision to sign Charlie Batch after the Detroit Lions cut him loose. At the time it looked like Charlie Batch was merely provided a fringe benefit of additional depth behind Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.

  • Ten years later we know that Charlie Batch grew into one of the best backup quarterbacks the Steelers have ever staffed.

Can Zach Mettenberger follow the same script? At this point it is an unknown.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Quarterback

While Ben Roethlisberger might have sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation by admitting he needed to take time to decide whether he would play again in 2017, the fact is that he has made similar statements in private. That’s normal and even healthy thought process for a player to take at this stage of his career.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs quarterback

If statements of Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are any guide the Steelers expect Ben Roethlisberger to finish his contract.

  • There’s a simple but unpleasant reality at work when it comes to the Steelers replacing Roethlisberger.

Replacing one franchise quarterback with another is easier said than done. Sure San Francisco did it with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Green Bay did it with Brett Favre and Aaron Rogers. The Colts did it with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. It is pretty hard to find other success stories.

The difficulty of trying to find your next franchise quarterback while your team still has one ranges somewhere between completing King Authur’s hunt for the Questing Beast and seeing Haley’s Comet – many try but only a few succeed.

Word is that 2017 NFL Draft is a weak one for quarterbacks, and even if it were not, the chances of a franchise quarterback slipping to the Steelers at the 30th pick are non-existent.

If the Steelers can select excellent value at quarterback with their third or 2nd round pick then they might want to consider it, but barring that, focusing on players who help bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 as opposed to trying to lasso a unicorn would represent a far wiser investment of Pittsburgh’s draft capital.

But when all is said and done, Ben’s public utterance of the word “retirement” doesn’t change any of the dynamics at work and the Steelers 2017 draft need at quarterback must be considered Low-Moderate.

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10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

Long time Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney passed away in April 2017, leaving a unprecedented legacy of matching excellence with humility.

As part of our on-going tribute to the man who transformed the Steelers into champions, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1965: Accepting Buddy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

Buddy Parker, Steelers head coach Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney decisions

Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney hires Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires Art Rooney Jr., Dan Rooney fires brother

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney hires Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

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

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney Decisions, Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Rooney decisons

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

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