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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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

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

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

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.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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NFL Concussion Protocol be Dammed Steelers Should Sit Mason Rudolph vs Chargers

Twitter can be addictive. Which is why I don’t neither stay logged into it on my desktop nor my mobile devices. But yesterday afternoon a retweet caught me by surprise.

mason rudolph, mason rudolph nlf concussion protocol

Mason Rudolph practices while in Step 4 of NFL Concussion Protocol. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette via Twitter

The original tweet was from Matt Freed, a photograph from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It does of course show Mason Rudolph throwing the football at the Steelers practice facility on the South Side.

The fact that Mason Rudolph is able to go out and throw a football a few days after suffering a hit that knocked him unconscious is a welcome sign. The sight of Mason Rudolph laying there motionless as JuJu Smith-Schuster signaled frantically for the medical staff to take the field was harrowing.

  • Early word was that Mason was doing well, but was not talking to the press as he was in the NFL’s Concussion protocol.

Can players practice while in the NFL’s Concussion Protocol? Well, according to the NFL’s 5 step guidelines, they can. After a player has rested and proceeded through the light exercise phases of the protocol, he entered Step Four: Step Four: Football Specific Activities.

Per Joe Ruttner’s reporting in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Mason Rudolph not only threw, but was running reps with the scount team, which would put him in Step Five of the NFL’s Concussion Protocol which Step Five: Full Football Activity/Clearance.

In pure football terms this means that if Mason Rudolph can make it through a week’s practice without showing signs of a concussion, he and not Devlin Hodges could actually start for the Steelers on Sunday Night against the LA Chargers.

Given that the Steelers will take the field without Jaylen Samuels and James Washington and with other key starters such as Vance McDonald and James Conner already having missed portions of games with injuries, this is a welcome sign in pure football terms.

  • But football is not the only concern here.

Mason Rudolph’s long-term health is. I do not pretend to be an expert on concussions, but everything we know indicates that if a player has suffered one concussion they’re more susceptible to other concussions and this is at its highest immediately after a concussion has been suffered.

  • NFL Concussion Protocol be dammed, the Steelers should sit Mason Rudolph for the Chargers game no matter what.

Sit him out for a week. Give him the bye week off, and give him 3 full weeks before he’s exposed to the risk of another concussion. Mike Tomlin has always deferred to his medical staff when it comes to clearing an injured player to return. That is as it should be.

But concussions are different. Isaac Redman once admitted he lied while in the concussion protocol to return to play. Hines Ward once lashed out at Ben Roethlisberger for NOT lying about having headaches so that he’d be able to play. After retiring, Troy Polamalu admitted to having suffered far more concussions than had ever been publicly diagnosed.

One would hope that Mason Rudolph would be smart enough NOT to do that, but one never knows, which is exactly why the decision should be taken out of his hands.

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What the Hell Happened? Blogger Reflects on Steelers News After 2 Weeks Away…

A lot can change in 2 and a half weeks in Steelers Nation. The Steelers ugly season opening loss to the Patriots came ahead of a business trip that would keep me off line and unable to write for 2 weeks. As on cue, all hell broke lose (more on that at the end.)

But, as I pointed out after James Harrison got cut during my first Christmas in the US in 17 years, sometimes not being able to blog is a blessing.

Here go my reactions in sequence.

Steelers vs Patriots,

Pouncey “forgets”to snap. Photo Credit: News.com.au

Steelers Lose to Patriots

I drank the Kool Aid. On paper, the Steelers 2019 squad was better than the 2018 squad that defeated the Patriots last December. And those Patriots had the look of a ’79 Steelers type squad to me – a dynasty enjoying its last roar before falling and fading. Plus the Steelers looked really good in preseason.

I don’t know that I expected a win, but I did expect the Steelers to fight tooth and nail and for the game to go down to the wire.

  • Instead, the Steelers looked like they hadn’t so much as done a walk through in training camp.

They really came out flat in all three phases.

But it was only week one, we were told….

Steelers Trade Dobbs

I’m a sucker for underdogs like Joshua Dobbs. I was rooting for him since the day the Steelers drafted him. Yet, based on everything I read and what little I saw, he seemed to hit a plateau during the 2019 preseason campaign, and there was no question that Mason Rudolph should back up Ben Roethlisberger.

So the Steelers trading him for a 5th round pick seemed to be a smart move, even if it did depart from the Franchise’s core philosophy of always keeping 3 quarterbacks.

Besides, an extra 5th round pick would bolster their depleted capital going into the 2020 NFL Draft….

Ben Roethlisberger Injures His Elbow

So there I was, handing out tickets to the San Francisco Giants game, blissfully unaware of anything happening as the Steelers were playing the Seahawks, on the other side of the country.

At about the 6th inning I made it up to the luxury box my company had rented. I sit down, crack open a drink, scan the TV showing NFL scores, and I see Mason Rudolph’s passing numbers!

What??????

It didn’t take too long to find out that Ben Roethlisberger had left the game injured and that the Steelers had suffered yet another loss.

Well, we always knew that Ben Roethlisberger could suffer a season-ending injury, and now it has happened.

Steelers Trade 1st Round Pick for Minkah Fitizpatrick

I’m sitting there at a trade show, and I see a tweet from the Mexican Steelers WhatsApp group saying the Steelers have traded their 2020 1st round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • This has to be wrong, because the Pittsburgh Steelers NEVER trade their first round draft pick. Right?

Well, it wasn’t wrong, it was right.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. The Steelers philosophy of building through the draft is one that has served the franchise well. Just look at those 6 Lombardi’s and its overall outstanding record since 1969. Sure, Bobby Beathard built two and a half Super Bowl championship teams by trading draft picks for proven players.

  • But that’s not the Steelers Way.

Seeing the Steelers trade away a 1st round draft pick at the beginning of week three is kind of like trying to pen a love letter to your wife with your left hand. It just feels WRONG.

  • But this isn’t a one-sided story.

No disrespect to Joe Haden, but Minkah Fitzpatrick already looks like he could be the secondary’s most dynamic playmaker, and the secondary has not had a dynamic playmaker since Troy Polamalu in 2013.

Sean Davis’ injury is also a factor. With Sean Davis out, the Steelers were looking at the prospect of Kameron Kelly starting the rest of the year at free safety. Even if the rest of the Steelers defense starts living up to its pedigree, that could be enough to sink the unit by itself.

Steelers history junkies can look at how the Steelers defense cratered in 1988 when Cornell Gowdy manned the strong safety spot between Donnie Shell’s retirement and Carnell Lake’s arrival via the 1989 draft.

The Steelers do not play for draft position, and that philosophy has served them well. Bill Austin supposedly screwed the team by not losing enough in 1968 therefore depriving Pittsburgh of a shot at drafting O.J. Simpson. Chuck Noll had to settle for Joe Greene instead.

How did that turn out?

Beyond affirming the franchise’s commitment to winning, the Steelers also get Minkah Fitzpatrick at a very salary cap friendly contract for 2 years plus the 5th year option.

Steelers Trade for Nick Vannett

Just to keep things interesting, the Steelers then went and traded away one of those 5th round picks for tight end Nick Vannett.

  • Sometimes living in your hopes can animate your worst fears.

The Steelers gambled going into 2019 that 1. Vance McDonald’s relative health in 2018 would continue. 2. That Xavier Grimble was ready to be a true number 2 tight end.

We’re only 3 weeks into the season, and Vance McDonald has already missed action in multiple games. Xavier Grimble is probably a serviceable number 3 tight end, but he looked in over his head as a legit number 2, and certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a number 1. Besides, he’s hurt.

  • Really, the situation was no different than it was at safety with Sean Davis injured.

The Steelers made a move they had to make, but it came at the expense of yet another draft pick.

One Constant Remains

A lot can change in two weeks in Steelers Nation, but one constant remains: When I am unable to write, big things happen. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head in 2000 on my first trip to Argentina. Dan Rooney sided with The Chin
  • As the Rooneys themselves, agonized between Russ Grimm and Mike Tomlin, I was on vacation in Chile
  • Super Bowl week in 2009 found me in Tandil deep in the province of Buenos Aires
  • Super Bowl week in 2011 found me in Brazil where I missed Super Bowl XLV
  • When Bruce Arians got the ax in 2012 I was in New York City on vacation (Rumor has it I tried to write something only to get “caught” by my wife….)
  • When the Steelers decided to resign Antonio Brown in 2011 I was off on a weekend get away in Colonia Uruguay
  •  Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retired on my first important business trip for a new job in 2015
  • Dan Rooney died the day I returned form another trip in 2017
  • James Harrison got cut and signed with the Patriots during the first Christmas I celebrated in the US in 17 years

Yes, a lot has changed in the last two weeks. But somethings remain the same.

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

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

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

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

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Trading Up! Steeler Draft Devin Bush after Trade with Denver Broncos

In the end, the Steelers got their Devin.

Since the 2018 season ended, word is that the Steelers wanted one of the Devins either Devin White or Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft. Devin White went 5th and with the way the 1st round was unfolding there was no way the David Bush was going to fall to the Steelers at 20.

  • In past drafts the Steelers seen the Ravens and Bengals draft players Pittsburgh covets and the Cincinnati Bengals were picking 11th.

This time Kevin Colbert wasn’t going to let that happen, and he swapped the Steelers 20th round pick for the Denver Bronco’s 10th pick, along with the Steelers 2019 second round pick and a third rounder in 2020.

  • And with that the Steelers picked Devin Bush, inside linebacker from Michigan.

The first time the Kevin Colbert traded up was in 2003 when he moved up to get Troy Polamalu; he did it again in 2006 to grab Santonio Holmes. When asked why he moved up to pick Devin Bush, Kevin Colbert explained “He wasn’t the 15th person on our board.”

Devin Bush, Roger Goodell,

Devin Bush with Roger Goodell at the 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Mike Tomlin characterized Devin Bush as an “Exciting, all situations linebacker,” praising the rookie for his pass rush and coverage ability. Devin Bush brings tremendous athleticism to Pittsburgh, having run the 40 in 4.43, which is the type of speed that the Steelers have been missing since they lost Ryan Shazier.

Indeed, in talking with Pittsburgh area reporters, the inevitable comparison to Ryan Shazier came up. Bush responded “I feel like Ryan Shazier is a great player. Still is,” Bush said. “I hope to see him soon and wish all the best for Ryan Shazier in his recovery. I know he’s going to do well. … He will be back.”

When asked to compare himself to Shazier, Bush declined offering, “I’m ready to be Devin Bush,” he said. “I’m not trying to compare myself to Ryan Shazier or anybody else,” according to Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review.

Devin Bush Highlights Tape

Any good NFL draft prospect is going to have his YouTube highlights package, and Devin Bush is no exception.

You can see why the Steelers were excited to bring Devin Bush to Pittsburgh.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Devin Bush.

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