Steelers 1974 Rookie Class Legend Deepens Thanks to Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Induction

I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.

  • Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.

But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.

The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.

  • It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.

But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.

Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.

Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.

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

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

But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.

  • That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.

Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.

While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.

  • Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.

Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.

 

 

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs at Safety: Starter-Back Up Breach Looms Large

Safety, as the name implies, is a critical position in football. Unlike other positions, it is almost impossible to mask sub-standard safety play with scheming and/or double teaming.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily at safety via the draft and free agency over the last decade.

Some of those investments have borne fruit, others have rotten on the vine. During 2019 the Steelers had some stellar play at safety for the first time since Troy Polamalu retired. But that doesn’t mean they’re “safe” at safety and we’ll soon see why.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

There’s one thing that the Steelers starting safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick share – no one predicted their arrival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted Terrell Edumnds with their first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, shocking observers everywhere.

That was nothing compared to the shock that came 18 months later when they traded their first round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t trade first round picks. They just don’t. The last time they did it was in the mid 60’s when most people heard the word “Beatles” they still probably thought of insects.

  • In two season Terrell Edmunds has started 31 of 32 possible games and hardly missed a snap.

While the Steelers defense isn’t as complex as it was under Dick LeBeau, it is certainly not easy for a young player to come in and play so consistently.

However, if Edmunds has quantity on his resume, quality is an open question. It is far too early to label him a bust. And Edmunds clearly has the athleticism needed to excel at the position. But he hasn’t shown the type of playmaking the Steelers need at strong safety either.

  • In contrast, Minkah Fitzpatrick has proven the trade skpetics wrong.

As Tony Defeo argued so correctly, Minkah Fitzpatrick did nothing less than save the Steelers 2019 season. Minkah had 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and two touchdowns in just 14 games. Moreover, Minkah makes the rest of the secondary better.

Fitzpatrick forces opposing quarterbacks to account for him on every play, and that extra millisecond of delay helps Joe Haden and Steven Nelson be better cornerbacks, and gives T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree just a little more time to get to the quarterback. The results speak for themselves.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Unfortunately, for the Steelers they’re depth at safety is perilously thin. Their number one backup, Jordan Dangerfield, neither got a restricted free agent tender nor did he get interest from opposing teams. Marcus Allen failed to make the initial 53 man roster, only landing their when AAF re-tread Kameron Kelly was waived due to off the field issues.

Marcus Allen might offer legitimate “upside” and Jordan Dangerfield might get by in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want either man to be starting for an extended period.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

The Steelers find themselves in a similar situation at safety as they do at other positions on the depth chart. They’ve got two established starters.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Terrell Edmunds still has a long way to go to justifying the faith that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert showed in him when the made him a first round pick. But there’s no realistic scenario that would see the Steelers entering this year’s draft looking to find Edmunds’ replacement.

  • Given the Steelers limited draft capital, the idea of targeting a premium pick to push Edmunds is just as imprudent.

But the Steelers depth chart is screaming to be addressed in the draft. Maybe Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen can play at a Will Allen level of pressed into duty.

But nothing either man has indicates they can be counted on to do that.

There have also been whispers about either Cam Sutton and/or Justin Layne shifting to safety on a part or even full-time basis. And while that might work, it would compromise cornerback depth….

So the Steelers needs at safety going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered as Moderate-High.

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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Should Keep Sean Davis in Pittsburgh, but Won’t

How critical of a role does safety play in the Steelers defense? Its hard to say. You can find times when the Steelers defense has struggled despite quality safety play.

  • In contrast, the Steelers defense has never excelled absent strong safety play.

The Steelers history at safety is a minor study in contractions. Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell entered the league as first round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. On the flip side, premium picks like Shamarko Thomas and Anthony Smith floundered, while late rounders like Darren Perry soared.

With that backdrop, we come to Sean Davis, who played safety for the Steelers for four years and is about to become a free agent.

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’ Career with the Steelers

By the end of 2015, it was clear that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had failed and the Steelers responded by drafting Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Sean Davis looked like a steal, earning a starting spot and rookie of the year honors. Davis excelled in run support, hauled in an interception and recorded a sack. In the playoffs he atoned for a costly mistake with a key pass defense in the end zone to help seal the win against Kansas City.

  • Conventional wisdom holds that Sean Davis struggled in his sophomore year.

The truth is that Davis played reasonably well early in the season. Yet, the entire defense slipped following injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis slipped with them, taking bad angles at critical moments and by getting abused by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowkski in the Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers moved Davis from strong safety to free safety in 2018, where Davis’ steady presences helped the Steelers limit long gains which had plagued them the previous season. Unfortunately, Davis’ most memorable play of 2018 was when he KOed Joe Haden, transforming an certain end zone interception into a touchdown in the loss to the Chargers.

Sean Davis got injured during training camp in 2019, missed the season opener. He played in the home opening loss to the Seahawks, aggravated his injury and was out for the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

If Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick gets hurt in 2020, who do you want as your “Next man up?” Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen?

  • That my friends, is a black and white question.

Sean Davis isn’t going to supplant either starter, but he’s clearly a starter-capable backup and superior to any player the Steelers could find in the 2020 NFL Draft or as a veteran minimum free agent.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already signed him…?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

….The Steelers haven’t signed him because with 3 seasons of starts under his belt, Sean Davis isn’t going sign for a veteran minimum contract, nor does he have any incentive to sign any sort of “home town” discount deal. A “prove it” contract has no point because with both starting safety slots locked down, Davis figures to have little chance to prove anything.

The Steelers got good value out of Sean Davis on his rookie deal, but really, there’s no room for him in Pittsburgh now that he’s a free agent. It is time for both sides to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis

While this won’t be popular with a lot of fans, the truth is in pure football terms the Steelers resigning Sean Davis makes a lot of sense. Aside from the depth he’d deliver, the prospect of Sean Davis pushing Terrell Edmunds for playing time isn’t so far fetched.

  • Steelers lack of safety depth isn’t trivial.

Pittsburgh perhaps has less depth at safety than it does salary cap space. The disadvantage they face is great. As Bob Labriola pointed out on a recent “Asked and Answered,” if Jesse James can get 22.5 million dollar contract to catch 16 passes as a backup tight end, another NFL teams will certainly give Sean Davis a 7 figure signing bonus to play safety.

  • Sean Davis knows this, and reportedly cleaned out his locker a long time ago.

It would be great to see Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply not going to happen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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No Respect? Jordan Dangerfield Reaches Restricted Free Agency. Will Steelers Tender Him?

Undrafted rookie free agents are NFL citizens who live on a prayer. Their phones didn’t ring on draft day, the managed to get an invitation to a training camp, but they’re the last to get consideration for playing time and practice reps.

The day after every draft I never hesitate to remind readers that the Undrafted rookie free agent class could very well contain the next Ramon, Willie Parker, James Harrison or even Donnie Shell.

  • That’s a great story, but the reality is that those four men are examples of the exceptions.

Most successful undrafted rookie free agents rarely taste NFL glory as the career of Jordan Dangerfield illustrates who entered the NFL in 2013 and is only now a restricted free agent who still doesn’t know if the Steelers will tender him or not.

Jordan Dangerfield, Steelers vs Bengals

Jordan Dangerfield in his only start for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Jordan Dangerfield’s Career with the Steelers

Jordan Dangerfield first signed with the Steelers in January 2014, after a stint on the Bills practice squad. From there he spent time in on the Steelers practice squad in 2014 and 2015. In 2016 he played in 14 games on special teams, making six special teams tackles during the season.

  • Late in the season his number 37 jersey started appearing occasionally on passing downs.

Dangerfield seemed to be working a niche for himself as a backup safety, but he got injured late in preseason and was waived/injured. The Steelers brought him back to the practice squad in October 2017, and that is where he remained.

Jordan Dangerfield returned to the Steelers in 2018, where he appeared in 16 games, and started the season finale against Cincinnati filling in for an injured Sean Davis. Dangerfield again played in 16 games during 2019, including a forced fumble in the Steelers win over the Colts. He also recorded a tackle for a loss against the Jets.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jordan Dangerfield in 2020

At safety the Steelers have Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen….

Sean Davis is as good as gone. Jordan Dangerfield has been with the Steelers in some form or fashion since 2014. He knows Keith Butler’s defense and has shown serviceable skills. The Steelers need depth at safety and Jordan Dangerfield provides it, while filling a key role on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jordan Dangerfield in 2020

Kameron Kelly. When Sean Davis couldn’t start for the Steelers against the Patriots, the Steelers didn’t look to Jordan Dangerfield to take his place, but instead to AAF retread Kameron Kelly. Jordan Dangerfield has been a roster bubble baby for his entire NFL career, and he’ll certainly enter Latrobe as a roster bubble baby in 2020.

Sure, he “knows the system” but could a late round draft pick and/or another undrafted rookie free agent take his place?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jordan Dangerfield

The Steelers obviously see something they like in Jordan Dangerfield. He’s a guy who has been around long enough to share a locker room with Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, all the way through Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt.

  • How many defenders have the Steelers drafted since then who have come and gone?

The key decision with Jordan Dangerfield will be whether the Steelers offer him a restricted free agent tender or not. Salary cap space is spare in Pittsburgh and an original round tender is projected at $2,144,000. The veteran minimum is $735,000 less than half, although that could go up if the new CBA is ratified.

Those realities mean there’s a strong chance the Steelers won’t tender him but try to bring him back on the cheap. Which is ironic, because he could be the “Next man up” come opening day in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Extend Kevin Colbert’s Contract through the 2021 NFL Draft

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the 2020 off season is a foot, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted little time in getting their 2nd biggest off season question answered when they extended Vice President and General Manager Kevin Colbert’s contract through the 2021 NFL Draft.

Traditionally the Steelers have announced contract extension for front office staff shortly before training camp. Last season the Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract but they did not extend Kevin Colbert’s contract as Art Rooney II announced that Colbert prefers to renew on a year-by-year basis.

While most observers expected Kevin Colbert to return to the Steelers, there have been rumors that he could bolt to the Carolina Panthers, whose owner David Tepper was a former Steelers minority owner.

All of that talk is for naught, as Kevin Colbert is staying put in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert Authors 20 Years of Unparalleled Excellence in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh native, Kevin Colbert’s return to his home city in February 2000 came as a bit of a surprise. The Steelers had endured two tumultuous seasons, finishing 7-9 in 1998 after suffering a 5 game losing streak, followed by a 6-10 finish that saw the Steelers lose 7 of their last 8.

While failures in the draft and free agency fueled this decline, a feud between Hall of Famer Bill Cowher and then Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe provided a nasty backstory to the on the field implosion. Dan Rooney had to choose between the two, and he chose Bill Cowher.

  • The Steelers took an aggressive approach to replacing Donahoe, interviewing several up and coming names around the league, but Dan Rooney settled on Kevin Colbert.

Some commentators panned the move, questioning the decision to fly in people from around the league, only to hire the guy who’d graduated from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic – the same school that the Rooneys and Tom Donahoe had attended.

  • Since then, Kevin Colbert has authored an unparalleled record of excellence.

During Kevin Colbert’s two decades overseeing the front office Kevin Colbert the Steelers have only suffered one losing season, made the playoffs 12 times, earned 9 AFC Central or AFC North titles, won three AFC Championships and of course won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert has done this by excelling on first round draft picks – Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns stand has is only two misses – made prudent free agent signings securing talents like James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Steven Nelson traded up to bring in stars like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and had uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents by finding gems such as James Harrison and Willie Parker.

With Kevin Colbert locked down for another year, Steelers Nation’s attention now turns to the biggest question of the off season – that of Ben Roethlisberger’s prognosis for recovery from his elbow injury. Per reports, Roethlisberger is scheduled to have his elbow examined in late February.

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Color Canton Black & Gold: Troy Polamalu Elected to Hall of Fame!

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 Class will have an unmistakable Black and Gold tinge Troy Polamalu was elected to the 2020 class where he will join fellow Steelers safety Donnie Shell and his former coach Bill Cowher who were inducted as part of the Centennial Class.

  • All of the news wasn’t good for Steelers Nation however, as Alan Faneca was passed over again.

In the words of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu was a generational talent and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot was a no brainer. Going into the voting the fear was that the “Too Many Steelers” mentality espoused by Peter King and other voters might hurt Polamalu’s candidacy.

Fortunately, voters set aside their any bias or political agendas, and did the right thing.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

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

Troy Polamalu Once in a Lifetime Talent, Hall of Famer

During his 12 year career, Troy Polamalu made 783 tackles, logged 56 tackles-for-losses, sacked the quarterback 12 times, intercepted 32 passes, dislodged 14 forced fumbles, recovered 7 fumbles and scored 5 touchdowns.

  • To those regular season numbers, Troy Polamalu added 3 interceptions and half a sack.

Those playoff numbers may seem pedestrian, but they in fact show why he was so special. His last post-season interception came in the 2008 AFC Championship game against the Ravens. If you’ve read this far, you obviously remember it, but you’ll just as obviously want to see it again:

This was one of the most spectacular defensive touchdowns in this history of football. That’s easy to remember. But even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is easy to forget the play’s ominous backstory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud franchise. But the Steelers had also lost 3 straight AFC Championships at home. They’d lost the 1997 AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos in Three Rivers Stadium. Then they’d lost the 2001 AFC Championship and again the 2004 AFC Championship to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter holding a 16 to 7 lead. Yet, the Baltimore Ravens took their first 4th quarter possession and marched to the Steelers end zone with startling ease. The Steelers next possession amounted to a 2 yard Willie Parker run followed by Willie Colon penalty and a 3rd down Terrell Suggs sack of Ben Roethlisberger that forced a punt.

In Heinz Field the feeling of “Here we go again” was palpable.

  • Six plays later, Troy Polamalu took it to the house, exorcising the Ghosts of AFC Championships’ past

Take that play away, and Troy Polamalu probably still has a Hall of Fame worth resume. But with his interception of Joe Flacco, and his wild, zig zaging return for touchdown, Troy Polamalu cemented his status as a legend.

Welcome to Canton Mr. Polamalu.

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Like the Oscars, Simple Hall of Fame Consideration Marks NFL Greatness

It seems like the annual arguments about who should or shouldn’t be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have an extended shelf-life this year; that’s thanks to the NFL’s special series of inductees as part of the Centennial Class that commemorates the league’s hundred-year anniversary.

  • Former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and safety Donnie Shell were beneficiaries of this special selection process, as both were elected for the Class of 2020.

Next week, former Steelers guard Alan Faneca, who has been a finalist several times, and former safety Troy Polamalu, who is eligible for the first time, will find out their fates next weekend, on the eve of Super Bowl LIV.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated


Will Alan Faneca finally get in, or will he be a victim of a possible first-ballot induction of Troy Polamalu, as well as the Steelers bias that always seems to plague certain Black and Gold alumni, what with so many of them being represented in Canton, Ohio?

Will former Steelers offensive tackle Larry Brown ever get in? How about possibly the greatest snub in franchise history, L.C. Greenwood, the late, great defensive end who was part of Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain front-four of the 1970s?

For that matter, what about former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, the man with 1000 catches, a Super Bowl MVP and a reputation as the best blocking receiver in NFL history on his resume?

How about current head coach Mike Tomlin, a man that, despite his consistency and lack of a losing season, has almost as many critics as he does supporters among Steelers fans?

  • Alan Faneca, no matter how long he has to wait, will get in, same for Troy Polamalu, who is only on the bubble for his first-ballot induction.

As for the likes of Larry Brown, L.C. Greenwood, Hines Ward and Mike Tomlin? It might never happen. I mean, let’s be real. Cowher may not have gotten in, if not for the NFL’s special centennial celebration, same for Shell.

Having said all of that, however, the simple fact that people are arguing over whether or not individuals like Greenwood and Ward are deserving, that speaks volumes for the marks they left on the NFL.

The fact that entire radio segments have been designated to Mike Tomlin’s Hall of Fame resume in the wake of Bill Cowher’s election, that tells you all you need to know about the former’s abilities as a head coach.

We tend to make fun of and/or look down on individuals that spend many years on the Hall of Fame bubble. Take Drew Pearson, a former receiver and a member of those famed Cowboys teams of the 1970s and ’80s. Many folks mocked and/or criticized Pearson last week for his emotional response to being denied enshrinement, yet again, even as a part of the NFL’s special centennial class.

  • But, while Pearson certainly had a right to be disappointment in his exclusion, no one had the right to criticize him for it.
  • I would be disappointed, too. I’m guessing you would, as well.

None of that matters, anyway. Simply having the opportunity to be disappointed was a testament to the wonderful career Drew Pearson had in the NFL.

  • Simply having sportswriters stand up before Hall of Fame voters and advocate on his behalf, well, that says a lot about the mark his career left on the NFL.

Remember the late Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama? Anyway (and excuse me for talking politics), he called his nomination the great honor of his life. Just like former NFL players and coaches who find themselves on the Hall of Fame bubble, we tend to look down on the party nominee who the lost presidential election, this despite the fact that nearly half of American voters thought he or she should be the leader of the free world.

It is not always that way in our “Winner Take All Culture.” While winning an Oscar is clearly the prize that everyone in the movie business longs for, simply getting nominated is an honor in and of itself. Just think of how many times you’ve seen actors or directors introductions start with, “Nominated for Oscar 11 times….”

Simply getting nominated is an honor, just as getting serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be considered an honor that carries no shame for those who don’t make the final cut. 

 

 

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Justice Done! Former Steeler Donnie Shell Elected to Hall of Fame Centennial Class

After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.

Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:

  • In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”

This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year

But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”

Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.

Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.

  • The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.

Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

  • Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.

By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.

Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.

  • Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.

Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

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

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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