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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Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Steelers Sign Travis Feeney, Rookie Inherits Challenge, Steelers 6th Round Linebacker Pedigree

The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with rookie linebacker Travis Feeney, their 6th round pick out of Washington.

Rookie signings are essentially pro-forma exercises following the institution of the rookie wage scale as part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Nonetheless, it is good to get players under contract quickly.

The Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and outside linebackers coach Joey Porter think highly of Travis Feeney, whom they did not still expect to be on the board in the 6th round. During his time in Washington, Feeney made 247 tackles and sacked the quarterback 15 and a half times and during his seinor season he registered 8 sacks and made 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

  • That’s an impressive college record, but Feeney’s biggest challenge begins now.

Travis Feeney must carve a roster spot out of a depth chart headed by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. That’s one defensive player of the year, two first round draft picks, and a veteran whose contract runs through 2017. Hope to it rook!

Steelers 6th Round Linebackers Set Precedent for Success

As daunting as Feeney’s task might seem, linebackers drafted in the 6th round have a strong pedigree with the Steelers.

Vince Williams was a 6th round pick and he ended up starting as a rookie (although he struggled.) Eric Ravotti and Bryan Hinkle were also 6th round draft picks. The most accomplished Steelers linebacker drafted in the 6th round was Steelers legend Greg Lloyd.

Greg Lloyd’s situation was somewhat similar to Travis Feeney’s, in that he joined the Steelers and found himself looking at a depth chart headed by Brian Hinkle and Mike Merriweather who then owned the Steelers single-season sack record. Super Bowl veteran Robin Cole was also on the roster, although Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy had moved him to inside linebacker by that point in his career.

Lloyd’s rookie season was lost to a torn ACL, but when he returned for the second half of 1988, Greg Lloyd played well enough to make Merriweather, then in a season-long hold- out, expendable.

  • Can Travis Feeney retrace Greg Lloyd’s footsteps?

That’s up to him, but he can rest assured that Keith Butler and the rest of the Steelers coaches will give him a fair shot.

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Sending a Message: Tony Dungy Names Donnie Shell Hall of Famer Presenter

Make no mistake about it Steelers Nation: Tony Dungy is making a statement by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Dungy, Donnie Shell, Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Steelers, Training camp 1982

Tony Dungy coaches his former mentor Donnie Shell at St. Vincents in July 1982; Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest individual honor a football player can attain. To date, only 303 players, coaches, or builders have secured induction into Canton. The site Pro Football Reference lists 3,860 defensive backs alone, highlighting just how elite the men wearing the gold blazers are.

  • Hall of Famers, in turn, have the chance to bestow their own honor by choosing their presenter.

The choice of a Hall of Famer presenter is a highly personal one. Hall of Famers sometimes disappoint when they fail to choose a teammate or coach and instead tap a family member, college or high school coach or even a life-long friend. But this choice belongs to the Hall of Famer, and he has the right to ask whomever he wishes.

  • But Hall of Famer’s choice sends a strong signal about who that Hall of Famer is and what he stands for.

Dan Rooney asked Joe Greene to present him to confirm unequivocally that Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh shifted the Steelers fortunes. In contrast, Steelers Nation took Terry Bradshaw’s choice of Verne Lunquist as his presenter as a slap in the face and a snub of Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney and the rest the Super Steelers.

John Stallworth chose his son, which must rank as one of the all-time father and son honors. Mike Webster gave Terry Bradshaw his final chance to put his hand under his butt. Franco Harris chose Lynn Swann to boost his Hall of Fame chances, and Lynn Swann returned the favor for Stallworth.

And so it is with Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell.

Tony Dungy’s Special Relationship with Donnie Shell

Tony Dungy’s play for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back and later contributions as defensive coordinator did not earn him his spot in Canton. He’s getting elected for his accomplishments as Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach and for being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

  • It says here that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

But Dungy’s decision to name Donnie Shell as his Hall of Famer presenter represents an implicit acknowledgement of his roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell forged their relationship on the fields of St. Vincents Latrobe.

  • Like Donnie Shell, Tony Dungy came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent.
tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

Dungy made the Steelers final roster as a after his rookie training camp, and recorded 3 interceptions and even pulled double duty as an emergency quarterback in a road game against the Houston Oilers. According to Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp during his sophomore season because of mononucleosis and feared he’d get cut because of it. Shell, his roommate and mentor challenged him to put his faith ahead of football.

  • Dungy did so and led the Steelers in interceptions that Super Bowl season.

Donnie Shell, along with Greene, Franco Harris traveled to Tampa to comfort Dungy when his 18 year old son James tragically took his own life in 2005. As Pomerantz notes, Shell felt like he and Dungy were still teammates.

And now Dungy is doing his part to boost the Hall of Fame chances of his teammate.

Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Shell

Of all of the greats from the Steel Curtain defense, Donnie Shell might be the most overlooked and most forgotten. He shouldn’t be.

Shell joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in summer of 1974 along with the Steelers legendary 1974 Draft Class. Shell found himself behind Pro Bowler Glen Edwards, but the Steelers traded Edwards, in part, to get Shell into the line up.

Stats compiled by the Dallas Morning News’s  Rick Gosselin show how wise of a decision that was. Between 1974 and 1987, Donnie Shell played in 201 games and started 162. During those games Shell:

  • Intercepted 51 passes
  • Recovered 19 fumbles
  • Earned 4 Super Bowl rings
  • Made 5 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to 3 All Pro teams
  • Won Steelers MVP honors in 1980 on a team with 8 Hall of Famers starting

Shell’s 51 interceptions tie him for 32nd on the all time interceptions list, and if that sounds pedestrian, over a dozen Hall of Famer’s on Pro Football Reference’s list of interception leaders have less (although to be fair, not all of those are defensive backs.) As Dungy himself told Gosselin:

Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.

Yes, Donnie Shell could do it all that’s a Troy Polamaluesque resume. Make no mistake about it, by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Dungy is giving his former teammate and lifelong friend a platform that highlight’s Shell’s own Hall of Fame credentials.

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Former Steelers Kevin Green and Tony Dungy Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame, Alan Faneca Must Wait

While it might not evoke cheers of “Here We Go Steelers Here We Go!” the way it did for Jerome Bettis last summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2016 class has been announced and this year’s class as a Black and Gold tinge.

  • Former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene was elected along side former Steelers defensive back and defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy.

Kevin Greene Shined in Black and Gold

In the spring of 1993 NFL teams literally tripped over themselves to land free agents such as Reggie White. Ticker tape parades were thrown, keys to cities were bestowed, and there was much pomp and circumstance. The Steelers took a low key approach, and one of the signings they made was that of Kevin Greene.

By the time the Steelers signed Greene, he was over 30 years old and had amassed 72.5 sacks. Yet he was little known outside of the NFC West, where he’d played for 8 years for the Los Angeles Rams. That changed in a hurry, as Bill Cowher pared him with Greg Lloyd, and together the tandem terrorized opposing quarterbacks for the next three seasons.

  • Greene played for the Steelers from 1993 to 1995, with his last game being Super Bowl XXX.

During that time Kevin Greene amassed 35.5 sacks, but the Steelers opted to let him depart via free agency, thinking his best days were behind him. That conclusion was very, very wrong, as Greene would go on to play for 4 more years and register another 52 sacks in the process.

As it was, Greg Lloyd’s next two season would be shortened by injury, the Steelers would lose Chad Brown in another year, Jason Gildon would show he was good but not great, and Carlos Emmons provided average play until the Steelers could draft and develop Joey Porter.

Dungy’s Roots Trace Back to Pittsburgh

The Steelers drafted Tony Dungy in 1977, and he played as a back up defensive back. His most notable feats were subbing as emergency quarterback as a rookie in 1977 when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek both got hurt. Dungy’s performance was a disaster, but he did complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Dungy also become one of the few modern era players to both record and throw and interception in the same game.

[Editors note, the orginal version of this article had an error, which has been redacted and corrected below.]

  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced a fumble after the Dallas Cowboy’s final on-sides kick which Rocky Bleier recovered.
  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced Randy White fumble which Dennis Winston recovered. One play later, Bradshaw hooked up with Swann in the end zone

Despite that, the Steelers traded Dungy after the 1978 season, and he played another year in San Francisco.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

George Gojkovich, Getty Images – In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator

Dungy spent 1980 coaching defensive backs for the University of Minnesota, but a year later Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh, first as a defensive assistant, then as a defensive backs coach. In 1984, Noll promoted Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator at age 29, making him one of the first, if not the first, African American defensive coordinators.

Dungy’s first two years as defensive coordinator were so successful that he was touted as possibly being the NFL’s first African American head coach. The Steelers defense declined in 1986 and 1987, as the full impact of the Steelers mediocre drafting of the early and mid 1980’s was felt. Nonetheless, in 1987 the Steelers defensive touchodowns, and were 5th in take aways.

  • The Steelers defense fell on hard times in 1988, finishing dead last.

Indeed, the 1988 Steelers finished 5-11, but saw 4th quarter leads evaporate in at least 3 games. Dan Rooney decided to order changes, and in the ensuring scuffle, Tony Dungy opted to resign rather than accept demotion.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Dungy with Kanas City’s Rod Rust, while Dungy took a position under new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher’s staff….

Dungy of course, never did succeed Chuck Noll as many once expected him to, but he did go on to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he hired and mentored Mike Tomlin has his defensive backs coach.

Tony Dungy rightly wins Hall of Fame induction for his work as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and for becoming the first African American to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he made important contributions while a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in many ways, his influence lives on in the organization.

Faneca Must Wait

The Hall of Fame candidate with the strongest ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization will have to wait another year. Former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca was a candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame, but did not receive the necessary votes.

  • This was Faneca’s first year of eligibility, and it is not unusual for offensive lineman, who lack statistics and other high-profile measures of success, to wait several years to get induction.

Joining Greene on the Hall of Fame dias are Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.

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Watch Tower: Steelers Sports Writers Get “Two for Flinching,” Shazier the Signal Caller & More

As the Pittsburgh Steelers look to their Wild Card game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, the Watch Tower looks back at their last game in the Queen City and the “they fined me, they fined me not” controversy over Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier’s emergence as signal caller, plus odds and sods on ex-Steelers and the Steelers evaluation processes.

Perhaps Two for Flinching for Steelers Sports Writers?

Back in junior high, if you flinched when someone pretend to hit, they got to claim “Two for flinching” and then hit you (sort of) for real twice. Perhaps something similar is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered Vontaze Burfict’s fine or seeming lack thereof.

  • As Steelers Nation knows, Vontaze Burfict made a blatantly illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger that the officials chose not to flag.

The early word was that Roger Goodell’s suits at the NFL’s corporate office also declined to fine Vontaze Burfict for his dirty play.

The news that the NFL was turning its head the other way on yet another illegal hit on Ben Roethlisberger came with a peculiar twist – the story broke on Wednesday. That’s odd, because NFL fans are used to hearing how “FedEx envelops carrying fines arrive on Thursday.” But on Wednesday Vontaze Burfict’s agent Audie Attar told told the rest of the world that his client faced no fine.

  • The blogesphere erupted, and credentialed Steelers writers followed suit.

In an article published that morning, Mark Kaboly, Ralph N. Paulk and Chris Adamski of the Tribune Review opined: “the NFL fined a player as the result of an incident during Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals game. It wasn’t whom the Steelers might have hoped, though.” They then discussed the Steelers who were fined, and communicated that Vontaze Burfict wasn’t.

Later that day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo simply stated “The NFL has decided against fining Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict…” and then reported various player comments about the issue. A day later, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler restated that “Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was not fined for a helmet shot to Ben Roethlisberger’s ankles.”

Then a funny thing happened.

  • Vontaze Burfict got a FedEx package from Roger Goodell with a fine in it.

The Steelers sports writers quickly issued updated stories informing that Burfict had been fined, along with Michael Mitchell, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Brandon Boykin, William Gay and Marcus Gilbert.

  • But almost no one stopped to do any self-examination as to why the word of an agent was taken as Gospel.

Seriously. Agents plant stories about their clients all of the time. Sometimes there is even some truth to them. Other times? Not so much. Agents don’t exactly carry the same credibility as Pope Francis.

It would seem like the following is in order for the Steelers sports writers who covered the Vontaze Burfict saga:

Or is it?

Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo raised some very relevant points. After indicating that fine amounts would be known on Friday of that week, Fittipaldo vented to his readers:

So we’ll get this all cleared up about 48 hours after the first report that Burfict would not be fined. There has to be a better way for the NFL to handle its business.

Surely someone from the NFL office monitors what people like Adam Schefter of ESPN and Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network report from agents. The NFL sends players fines via Fed Ex by Wednesday so the NFL surely knew the reports were false.

Why not get the word out sooner to avoid a whole lot of confusion and bad publicity for the league?

The smartalec in the Watch Tower wants to say, “Sure Ray, you could have called the league office to confirm.” But in all fairness to Fittipaldo, maybe he did try to confirm the report and got stonewalled and hence he’s frustrated.

But his larger point is quite relevant. The uneven and arbitrary enforcement of justice in Roger Goodell’s NFL is well documented, and the Vontaze Burfict “they fined me, they fined me not” fiasco underlines that yet again.

Ryan Shazier the Signal Caller

Comparing the first and second half performance of the Steelers defense in the Broncos game is like comparing the last place 1988 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers Super Bowl defense.

When asked about that, Mike Tomlin simply said there had been communication issues. Miscommunication forms a part of every football game, but the public only finds out about them when the consequences are evident on the field.

  • Thanks to Jim Wexell, Steelers Nation has a potential explanation for the root cause of some of the Steelers defensive miscommunications.

During much, if not all of 2015, Ryan Shazier and not Lawrence Timmons has worn the “helmet with the green dot,” or in other words, its Shazier and not Timmons who has the microphone in his helmet and makes the calls on the field.

Wexell first broke the news on a message board chat on December 11th on his Steel City Insider site, and then expanded on the Shazier signal caller story after the Denver game. To the best of the Watch Tower’s knowledge, no other reporter has brought this information to the public. (If they have, their work isn’t indexed very well by Google.)

While this factoid is hardly ground shaking, but Jim Wexell’s ability to uncover nuggets like this come from the time and energy he’s invested in building relationships in the locker room. Once again, Wexell wins Watch Tower Kudos.

SteelersWire on former Steeler Jon Witman

When fans think of great Pittsburgh Steelers running backs, the name Jon Witman usually does not jump to mind. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe picked Jon Witman out of Penn State in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and by 1999 Witman was the starting fullback, leading the way for Jerome Bettis.

  • Like too many, life has not gone well for Witman.

Neal Coolong of the SteelersWire brought that information to the attention of his readers, as Witman served as an example of someone whom the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust was able to help, as Witman battled addiction, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

While Jon Witman’s story is hardly encouraging, sturggles of post-NFL life, either with or without CTE, need to be told, and SteelersWire was the only Steelers site or Pittsburgh publication to pickup the story. Watch Tower Kudos are in order for Coolong.

Insight into Steelers Talent Evaluation Methods

Shortly after the 2015 NFL Draft, the Watch Tower lamented the lack of visibility into the Steelers scouting and talent evaluation methodologies. Now Steelers Nation knows a little more, thanks to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

In a blurb on who the NFL’s best athlete might be, Fowler offered this about Martavis Bryant:

But what makes him the Steelers’ best athlete is his quick-burst ability. The Steelers track short-burst speed through GPS monitors, and I’m told Bryant often has the fastest times, despite his lanky frame.

That’s an interesting piece of information to have about both Bryant and the Steelers.

Like any NFL team, the Steelers collect reams and reams of information on players prior to the draft, but little is known about if or how those evaluations continue once they reach the South Side.

Thanks to Fowler, now Steelers Nation knows a little more.

Interesting Tidbit on Tony Dungy’s Quarterbacking Stint

Injuries to quarterbacks have been big news in the NFL this year, and with both Mike Vick and Landry Jones getting starts for the Steelers, Pittsburgh is no exception. Studious Steelers fans know Tony Dungy, a former college cornerback who played defensive back for the Steelers, threw 8 passes for Pittsburgh in 1977. But the story of why is not well known.

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert changed that with a story on Tony Dungy’s fourth quarter quarterbacking career effort vs. the Houston Oilers after Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek left the game injured.

  • Dungy’s performance was dismal.

But he did do complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth while earning himself the distinction of being the only modern-era player to both throw and make an interception in a single game.

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Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee has announced the 25 finalists for the 2016 Hall of Fame class. In his first year of eligibility former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca has made it to the semifinalist round, and is joined by other recent retirees, Brett Favre and Terrell Owens.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, emergency quarterback, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy has again made it to the semifinal round, as has former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1998 draft offers a model example of how long it can truly take to evaluate in NFL draft class. When Dan Rooney chose Bill Cowher over Tom Donahoe in January 2000, the Steelers 1998 draft was better known for busts like defensive tackle Jeremy Staat and failed offensive tackle Chris Conrad.

  • Yet, during the 1998 draft the Steelers also picked Deshea Townsend, Hines Ward and Alan Faenca, who was easily Tom Donahoe’s best first round pick.

Unlike defensive players, and offensive “skill” players, there are no statistics to measure the work of offensive lineman. Yet it is there toiling in the trenches that allows the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers to amass the video game like statistics that keep Fantasy Football owners happy. Alan Faneca was one of the better offensive lineman, and arguably the best guard in Steelers history.

Lacking any stats to back up his claim, let’s just show you a piece of his finest handiwork (YouTube video available as of 11/25/15):

Everyone remembers Willie Parker’s 75 yard scamper to the end zone on Super Bowl XL. But what’s less memorable, but no less important, is that Alan Faneca made that play possible by pulling, and totally eliminating the Seattle Seahawks defender from the play, creating a giant hole for Fast Willie to run through.

  • It is difficult to assess how good Alan Faneca’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame are.

The current group of 25 finalists will be narrowed further to a group of finalists, who will be debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee and announced prior to the Super Bowl. In recent years former Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered from the “Already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame” bias, which likely delayed the entry of Jerome Bettis and Dermontti Dawson into the Hall of Fame.

Offensive lineman, lacking quantitative measures, also often have to wait.

Time will tell.

Dungy, Greene, Knocking on Canton’s Door. Again.

Both Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene have been NFL Hall of Fame Semifinalists and finalists several times before, but have failed to make the cut as finalists. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Tony Dungy as an unrestricted rookie free agent out of Minnesota in 1977.

Dungy, who’d played quarterback in college, spent a week working with the Steelers as a wide receiver before Chuck Noll decided to shift him to safety. Dungy remained at safety for two years with the Steelers, aside from a one game stint as Steelers emergency quarterback in which he managed to complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

The Steelers traded Dungy to the San Francisco 49ers after Super Bowl XIII (after Dungy had made the game-saving on-sides kick recovery).In 1981 Chuck Noll hired Tony Dungy as a defensive backs coach, and promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1984 making him both the youngest coordinator in the league at that time, and the first African American coordinator.

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kevin Greene as an unrestricted free agent from the Los Angeles Rams in the spring of 1993. In Pittsburgh, Greene made the switch from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he started 48 games and 35.5 sacks.

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Defending the Steelers Michael Vick Signing

Who said preseason was boring? Just days ago the story on Steelers quarterbacks centered on Landry Jones’ development and Bruce Gradkowski’s PUP activation. Now Gradkowski is on injured reserve and the Steelers have signed Michael Vick

All one need do is peek at Twitter:

While some tweets such as the above, were humorous, others were not:

In a word the Steelers Michael Vick signing is controversial. And this is understandable. Michael Vick is a convicted felon and who spent 21 months in federal prison for his role in running a dog fighting ring. There’s no sugar coating what Vick did. He mangled dogs, he drowned them, he electrocuted them.

  • Such crimes are as heinous as they are inhumane.

The Steelers nonetheless have signed Michael Vick and welcomed him into their locker room, sending much of Steelers Nation up in arms. Defending the Steelers Michael Vick signing might not be popular, but the move is consistent with the franchise’s values, it is morally justifiable and finally it makes football sense. Now let’s proceed to these three points in order.

Steelers Michael Vick Signing is Consistent with Franchise Values

Steelers fans and Steelers bloggers, including this site at times, like to wrap a halo around the Steelers and the Rooney’s as the NFL’s good citizens. The fact is that the while the Pittsburgh Steelers generally run one of the cleaner shops in the NFL, they don’t deserve any halos.

Yet even if one accepts that, there are other who charge that the Steelers Michael Vick signing contradicts the values the franchise has long stood for. One such Tweet from Dominic DiTolla illustrates this:

I’ve only interacted with Dominic DiTolla a few times on Twitter, and do not claim to know him well, although I was a fan of his work at the old NicePickCowher site. His overall commentary on Twitter regarding the Vick signing is reasonable and balanced, but yours truly disagrees and argues that there is a “Steelers Way” (albeit one that falls far short of being saintly) and the Vick signing does not contradict that.

  • Wait! How can you say that knowing what Vick did?

Consider this scenario:

A player going through a divorce needs money. Dan Rooney offers to help and asks him to come to Pittsburgh. The player drives from Texas. He arrives in Pittsburgh too late and the Steelers offices are closed. So the player drives west through Ohio….

The player, who has a 9 millimeter and a shot gun with him, feels that trucks are trying to run him off the road and starts shooting at their tires. The police begin a high speed chase. The player drives off the highway, breaks an axel, loses a tire and abandons his car, at which point he fires at a police helicopter and wounds an officer in the leg. The player tries shooting at another officer on foot but his gun jams. He doesn’t stop until police literally put a gun to his head.

  • Such a player would certainly have played his last down for the Pittsburgh Steelers, right?

No, that player was in fact Ernie Holmes. The Steelers learned of the incident, vouched for Holmes, got him released under psychiatric care, and Holmes went on to start in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X alongside Joe Green, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White as the original Steel Curtain.

The Steelers gave Ernie Holmes a second chance. And while Holmes was always a handful, he never remotely did anything approaching the highway incident in Ohio again. If Holmes deserved a second chance, so does Michael Vick.

But Wait! Holmes Had Psychological Problems, Vick’s was Premeditated Crime

Yes, unlike Vick, Ernie Holmes had diagnosed psychological problems. Vick’s was a cold blooded premeditated crime pure and simple. All true. But Michael Vick has gone to prison for his crimes. He has been punished, he has repented, he has kept a clean record since then, and he has worked to make amends with animal rights groups.

Fans forget, but former Pittsburgh Steelers player and assistant coach Tony Dungy has personally counseled Vick since his release. There are few men in the NFL with more integrity than Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy is Mike Tomlin’s mentor. He knows the Rooneys well. Mike Tomlin mentioned doing due diligence before signing Vick. You can bet that part of that involved a call to Tony Dungy.

  • The Steelers do have a history of getting rid of bad apples (see Bam Morris to name one).

But the Steelers also have a history of giving players second chances. Two of them are named James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger. In short, Michael Vick committed his crime, paid his debt to society, stayed clean and has earned a second chance.

The Steelers Signing Michael Vick is (Plausibly) the Right Football Move

The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will not and should not enter the season considered Super Bowl favorites. But they are Super Bowl contenders. The same thing could be said in 2008. Unfortunately, early in training camp that summer Charlie Batch broke his collar bone.

  • Mike Tomlin wanted a backup quarterback capable of leading the team should Roethlisberger go down.

Within a day Byron Leftwich and Duante Culpepper were in Latrobe, working out for the Steelers. Both former first round draft picks looked strong, but Leftwich was comfortable with his backup role. The Steelers signed Leftwich. Fortunately they didn’t need him much, but when Ben Roethlisberger went down vs. the Redskins in Washington, Leftwich stepped in and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.

  • Anyone argue that the Steelers dominate that second half the way they did if Dennis Dixon were to have played?

Tomlin himself explained the Steelers decision to sign Vick by going back to that summer of 2008. Landry Jones might have improved, but he clearly isn’t ready to play for the Steelers should Roethlisberger go down even for a short stretch.

Is Michael Vick ready? That’s an open question, as Dominic DiTolla’s tweet indicates:

Those numbers are not encouraging in today’s NFL. Divisions within Steelers Nation over Vick’s viability as an NFL quarterback are almost as sharp as they are over the moral issues surrounding his signing.

  • At 35, Vick’s days as an NFL starting quarterback are over. Fortunately the Steelers are not bringing him into start. God willing, they won’t need him.

But the bottom line is that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin both believe in the dying art of staffing your backup quarterback position with an experienced veteran. While stats geeks like Bill Barnwell argue that this is salary cap folly, the success of players like Tommy Maddox, Leftwich and Batch speak vindicate Colbert and Tomlin’s approach.

  • In that light, Vick was the best backup veteran quarterback available.

Perhaps the Steelers could have picked up someone via the wavier wire but that’s involves a big roll of the dice on something that might not happen. Even then, the said newly unemployed veteran would not know the Steelers offense.

Does Michael Vick still have anything left in the tank, even as a backup? If all goes well, Steelers Nation never finds out.

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Saluting, Remembering Scott Paulsen’s Steeler Nation on July 4th

As we gather to celebrate July 4th its appropriate for Steelers fans to reflect Scott Paulsen’s Steeler Nation, something highly relevant to our nation. To put Paulsen’s seminal work into context, we must first take a step back:

January 2006Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers, left for playoff dead in early December, defied the NFL by squeaking into the playoffs by winning their final four games. Pittsburgh opened with a playoff road win vs. Cincinnati. They followed by upsetting the Indianapolis Colts.

  • Victory over the Colts arrived with a special twist.

The 2005 Colts had been a juggernaut anointed by the national media as “The Team of Destiny.” Then, just days before Christmas, the son of Colt’s coach Tony Dungy, tragically took his own life.

Dungy, who defines the concept of “Class Act,” found the entire NFL rallying around him in support, making the Colts the sentimental NFL favorite. And yet, leading up to their AFC Divisional playoff game vs. the Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts ticket office made a peculiar announcement:

  • They would refuse all calls originating from a 412 area code.

That’s right, Colts were set to play the biggest game in the franchise’s Indianapolis history, and yet they still struggled to keep Steelers fans out of their stadium. The sight of Steelers fans invading opposing NFL venues had been common since the mid 1990’s – Dan Rooney traces it a 1994 road game in Arizona – but the movement was clearly gaining momentum.

  • But it lacked one thing:  a name.

WDVE’s Scott Paulsen changed it all in just over 900 words with his seminal “Nation Building” essay released shortly before the Steelers AFC Championship Game vs. Denver.

Steelers Nation; Scott Paulsen's Steeler Nation, Nation building, steelers fans

Steelers Nation; Photo credit: Fabus, Getty Images/New York Daily News

Paulsen’s piece spread like wildfire in cyberspace, yet was not to be found in a search a few month’s ago on WDVE’s site. Fortunately, an Inbox cleaning effort turned up a copy Paulson’s “Nation Building,” and Steel Curtain Rising now offers it here, for everyone in Steelers Nation to enjoy.

Scott Paulsen Gives Us Steeler Nation

Nation Building By WDVE‘s Scott Paulsen – January 18, 2006

Think about this the next time someone begins to argue with you that a professional sports franchise is not important to a city’s identity:

In the 1980’s, as the steel mills and their supporting factories shut down from Homestead to Midland, Pittsburghers, faced for the first time in their lives with the specter of unemployment, were forced to pick up their families, leave their home towns and move to more profitable parts of the country. The steel workers were not ready for this. They had planned to stay in the ‘burgh their entire lives. It was home.

pittsburgh, sun rise, dave dicello, steeler nation

Breath taking Pittsburgh sunrise by Dave DiCello

Everyone I know can tell the same story about how Dad, Uncle Bob or their brother-in-law packed a U-Haul and headed down to Tampa to build houses or up to Boston for an office job or out to California to star in p_rn vide_s.

  • All right. Maybe that last one just happened in my family.

At this same time, during the early to mid-eighties, the Pittsburgh Steelers were at the peak of their popularity. Following the dynasty years, the power of the Steelers was strong. Every man, woman, boy and girl from parts of four states were Pittsburgh faithful, living and breathing day to day on the news of their favorite team. Then, as now, it seemed to be all anyone talked about.

  • Who do you think the Steelers will take in the draft this year?
  • Is Terry Bradshaw done?
  • Can you believe they won’t give Franco the money – what’s he doing going to Seattle?

The last memories most unemployed steel workers had of their towns had a black and gold tinge. The good times remembered all seemed to revolve, somehow, around a football game. Sneaking away from your sister’s wedding reception to go downstairs to the bar and watch the game against Earl Campbell and the Oilers – going to midnight mass, still half in the bag after Pittsburgh beat Oakland – you and your grandfather, both crying at the sight of The Chief, finally holding his Vince Lombardi Trophy. Good times baby …. good times.

  • And then, the mills closed.

Damn the mills.

One of the unseen benefits of the collapse of the value systems our families believed in – that the mill would look after you through thick and thin – was that now, decades later, there is not a town in America where a Pittsburgher cannot feel at home.

Pour House, Steelers Bars, Washington DC Steelers Bars, Steelers Nation

Pour House, a now defunct DC Area Steelers Bar. Photo Credit: SteelersBars.com

Nearly every city in the United States has a designated “Black and Gold” establishment. From Bangor, Maine to Honolulu, Hawaii, and every town in between can be found an oasis of Iron City, chipped ham, perogies, kilbosa, and yinzers. It’s great to know that no matter what happened in the lives of our Steel City refugees, they never forgot the things that held us together as a city – families, food, and Steelers football.

  • It’s what we call the Steeler Nation.

You see it every football season. And when the Steelers have a great year, as they have had this season, the power of the Steeler Nation rises to show itself stronger than ever. This week, as the Pittsburgh team of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Jerome Bettis and Joey Porter head to Denver, the fans of L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Rocky Bleier and Mel Blount, the generation who followed Greg Lloyd, Yancey Thigpen, Rod Woodson and Levon Kirkland will be watching from Dallas to Chicago, from an Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota, to a tent stuck in the sand near Fallujah, Iraq.

I have received more email from displaced Pittsburgh Steelers fans this week than Christmas cards this holiday season.

  • They’re everywhere.
  • We’re everywhere.
  • We are the Steeler Nation.

And now, it’s passing from one generation to the next. The children of displaced Pittsburghers, who have never lived in the Steel City, are growing up Steelers fans. When they come back to their parents’ hometowns to visit the grandparents, they hope, above all, to be blessed enough to get to see the Steelers in person.

  • Heinz Field is their football Mecca.

And if a ticket isn’t available, that’s okay, too. There’s nothing better than sitting in Grandpa’s living room, just like Dad did, eating Grandma’s cooking and watching the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Just like Dad did.

So, to you, Steeler Nation, I send best wishes and a fond wave of the Terrible Towel. To Tom, who emailed from Massachusetts to say how great it was to watch the Patriots lose and the Steelers win in one glorious weekend. To Michelle, from Milwaukee, who wrote to let me know it was she who hexed Mike Vanderjagt last Sunday by chanting “boogity, boogity, boogity” and giving him the “maloik”. To Jack, who will somehow pull himself away from the beach bar he tends in Hilo, Hawaii, to once again root for the black and gold in the middle of the night (his time), I say, thanks for giving power to the great Steeler Nation.

All around the NFL, the word is out that the Pittsburgh Steeler fans “travel well”, meaning they will fly or drive from Pittsburgh to anywhere the Steelers play, just to see their team. The one aspect about that situation the rest of the NFL fails to grasp is that, sometimes, the Steeler Nation does not have to travel. Sometimes, we’re already there.

  • Yes, the short sighted steel mills screwed our families over.

But they did, in a completely unintended way, create something new and perhaps more powerful than an industry.

They helped created a nation. A Steeler Nation.

From Steeler Nation to Steelers Nation

Nearly ten years later, reading Scott Paulsen’s epistle still raises the hair on the back of my neck.

His term “Steeler Nation” took on a life of its own, morphing into “Steelers Nation” and has been the subject of books and documentaries since then. The movement continues, with the sight of Steelers fans dominating opposing stadiums becoming more and more common.

And as the nation celebrates July 4th, as Steelers fans let’s give thanks to Scott Paulsen and WDVE for giving our nation its name.

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