After 50 Years, Will the Raiders Complaining about the Immaculate Reception Stop?

I just turned 50 years old, an age that, according to studies, is when people begin to grow happier.

  • I’m just an infant in this whole “50-something” experience, but I sure hope those studies are correct.

Speaking of turning 50, the Immaculate Reception, a play that many football historians consider to be the greatest and most unlikely in NFL history, will celebrate its 50th birthday on December 23.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

To commemorate this play, the Steelers and Raiders, the protagonist and antagonist of that incredible play (or antagonist and protagonist, if you consider silver and black to be your favorite colors), will square off in a primetime affair on Christmas Eve — or 50 years plus one day after the divisional-round matchup at old Three Rivers Stadium that proved to be the grand stage for this magnificent moment on December 23, 1972.

It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this article who would need a refresher on the Immaculate Reception, but if for some reason you do, let me explain it to you: With mere seconds left in the game, and the Raiders, who were representing the City of Oakland at the time (and not Las Vegas), leading 7-6, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass on fourth and 10. After avoiding several Raiders’ pass-rushers, Bradshaw, with his howitzer of a right arm, uncorked a pass down the middle of the field that was intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua. Unfortunately, Fuqua was headed for a collision with Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ late, great safety who preferred decapitations over pass breakups. Sure enough, the two players met right as the ball was arriving. “BOOM!” to quote the late, great John Madden, the Raiders head coach at the time.

The ball went ricocheting backward, which seemed to signal the end of the play and the Steelers’ season, a surprisingly magical campaign that included 11 victories and a division title. The Steelers, who were founded in 1933 and had never won a playoff game in their four-decade history, were about to go home again without advancing in the postseason. In fact, the Chief, Art Rooney, the founder and owner, was so sure his team was S.O.S (Same Old Steelers) that he left his suite at TRS before the fourth-down play and hopped on the elevator so he could be there in the locker room to console his fellas after a heartbreaking defeat.

  • But, wait! Out of nowhere came Franco Harris on a white stallion to save the day for the Steelers.

Harris, the very-popular and productive rookie running back, snagged the backend of the football just inches before it reached the old, hard TRS astroturf and galloped down the left sideline for what looked like a miraculous game-winning touchdown with just five seconds left.

I say “looked like,” because even though delirious Steelers players and fans rushed into the end zone to celebrate with Franco, the game-day officials weren’t initially sure what to call the play. Was it a touchdown, or was it an illegal touch?

Believe it or not, there was a rule that existed back then that prohibited an offensive player from catching a pass after it had already been touched by another eligible receiver. Why did this rule exist? I’m sure the NFL had its reasons, but this rule caused the on-field officials to delay the call. In fact, the referee for the game, Ed Swearingen, reportedly called up to the head of NFL officiating at the time, Art McNally, to tell him that he didn’t think there was illegal touching on the play, a determination that McNally said he agreed with.

  • That was six points for Pittsburgh! The Steelers won the game and launched a dynasty in the process.

To reiterate, the play has gone on the become the stuff of legend. Here I am talking about it 50 years later. The NFL still thinks so much of this play that it made sure to honor it on its 50th anniversary.

The Steelers have always been happy with the Immaculate Reception, of course, and didn’t need to wait for it to turn 50 in order to appreciate it.

The Raiders, on the other hand, have never gotten over the possibility that Fuqua touched the football right before Harris did. They’ve always thrown around wild conspiracy theories about the officials and their motives in the immediate aftermath of the play. They sometimes even bring up the fact that Franco Harris may have trapped the football to the turf before pulling it in and galloping for a score.

  • Fact is, none of this stuff can be proven one way or another. (Myron Cope argued to the contrary in Doble Yoi)

I could see if there was clear evidence that the ball hit Fuqua before reaching Harris, but there isn’t. The play has been dissected a zillion times at many different angles, and nobody has ever been able to determine anything definitively. In fact, if I understand the archaic rule correctly, once the ball hit Tatum (and there’s just as much evidence that it hit him as there is of it touching Frenchy), all bets were off regarding illegal touching. As for the football hitting the turf before Franco could catch hit, again, where’s the clear-cut evidence?

And those conspiracy theories about the officials being afraid to call it an illegal play for fear of being mobbed by thousands of angry Steelers fans? That seems like a stretch.

Again, nothing about the Immaculate Reception can be proven or disproven — even 50 years after the fact–and if the Steelers were on the losing end of the officials’ ruling, they could have had just as big of an ax to grind as Oakland — if not bigger.

I don’t know why the Raiders, after 50 years, still can’t let go of a play that has always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery, especially when they went on to have so much success for the next decade and won three Super Bowls by 1983.

Instead of being bitter about a play that happened 50 years ago, the Raiders and their fans should be bitter about how far their organization has fallen over the past two decades due to incompetent ownership and/or living in the past, a la the Cowboys and Commanders.

It’s time to let go of the Immaculate Reception, Raiders.

  • You’ve moved three different times since the early-80s, which means you have no trouble moving on from cities.

It’s now time to move on from the past.

 

 

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Kevin Colbert Left His Mark As The Steelers General Manager

“I don’t want to say better than,” said Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert, while speaking to reporters alongside head coach Mike Tomlin during a post-draft press conference on Saturday. “I’m proud to say we added to that [trophy] room. It was four trophies. There was four when we got here. And you knew the task. You think about DMR [the late Dan Rooney] and being able to add to that room means a ton. It doesn’t mean it’s over. The next step, I mean we gotta get more than, and we’ll never lose that. But it means a lot.”

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

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

I should say “former” Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert. That’s right, after more than 22 years as the team’s de facto general manager– he was the Director of Football Operations from 2000-2010 — and then first official general manager (the organization simply refused to name one for the longest time), Colbert wrapped up his full-time duties with the organization on Saturday by putting the finishing touches on the Steelers 2022 NFL Draft.

In case you didn’t watch Saturday’s press conference–and in case the quote from above didn’t convey it — Colbert got surprisingly emotional when he talked about being able to help the Steelers add two more Lombardi Trophies to their trophy case during his tenure.

It was certainly a tall task to get the Steelers back to the top of the mountain after spending most of the 1970s there and giving the founder and owner — the late Art Rooney Sr. — a reason to actually have a trophy case for the first time ever in the history of what had forever been a floundering franchise.

Times were tougher in the 1980s, and after head coach Chuck Noll retired in 1991, there were a lot of near-missed in the 1990s under new head coach, and Pittsburgh native, Bill Cowher. It may have actually been because of all of those near-misses that Colbert, like Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, got a great job with his hometown football team. Tom Donahoe, the Steelers Director of Football Operations (general manager) starting in 1991, resigned from the organization after losing a power struggle with Cowher after the 1999 season. Like Cowher and Colbert, Donahue was a Pittsburgh native, but just because two people grow up in the same city, that doesn’t mean they’re going to get along.

Kevin Colbert was able to put his ego aside — if he even had one — and build some of the greatest rosters in franchise history while working alongside Cowher and his huge ego.

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

The fruits of their labor ended in more near-misses early on in Colbert’s reign, but after the drafting of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 — a move that was, as legend has it, “strongly encouraged” by Dan Rooney, the late, great president and owner of the franchise–Colbert was able to finally help the organization add to that room with a fifth Lombardi, thanks to a victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Colbert was able to do it again a few years later, this time while working alongside the Steelers’ new head coach, Mike Tomlin, a man who also seems to have — as most head coaches do — a huge ego.

Head coaches are always at the forefront and are certainly vital to a team’s fortunes, but general managers also play a huge role. They might not share the same spotlight as the coach, quarterback or often even the team owner, but they have to be involved with every facet of the organization–including drafting, development, negotiations and even disciplinary issues.

It would be easy — and maybe even understandable — for someone with so many responsibilities to yearn for the spotlight, for attention, for credit. But while Kevin Colbert certainly got the credit — and even his share of the blame when things went askew — he always seemed to be more than happy with being in the background. Don’t get me wrong, Colbert certainly spent a lot of time talking to the media during his time as the Steelers’ general manager. He didn’t hide.

  • People knew who he was.

But he never seemed to care about anything other than getting the job done and doing so with a calculated, even-keeled approach. Colbert was a calm facilitator in a profession with strong, type-A personalities.

  • The Steelers have rarely ever acted on impulse.

Even sudden moves like signing the just-released Joe Haden to a lucrative deal just days after he was released by the Browns in 2017 or trading a first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019 seemed pragmatic and sensible.

Colbert always talked about moving up or down in the first round of the draft, but the Steelers rarely did that; when they did, however, the moves usually panned out.

The Steelers have rarely acted aggressively during unrestricted free agency or when there was a public cry to get one of their own players signed to a huge deal. In order for an organization to have that kind of an approach, it needs someone who isn’t prone to overreactions. That’s a job for a person who stays the course and sticks to the plan.

  • Maybe that’s why the Steelers only had one losing season during Colbert’s tenure.

Yes, we talk about Tomlin’s streak of non-losing seasons — as well as the organization’s lack of a sub-.500 record since 2003 — but imagine being the general manager of an NFL team for 22 seasons and only suffering one losing record. Imagine being an NFL general manager for two decades and having more Super Bowls than losing seasons.

That’s amazing.

There’s a lot of luck that goes into that, but there’s also a lot of skill. Colbert certainly was a very talented NFL executive, but, to reiterate, he didn’t seem to care about getting any of the glory.

He just wanted to add to the room.

Colbert did that, and he did his job–a job that can be a hot pressure-cooker if you allow it to be–better than few in his position ever have.

  • I don’t think people realize how good Colbert was at his job.

Take a bow, Kevin Colbert, I know you don’t like to do those kinds of things, but you certainly deserve it.

 

 

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Word to the Wise: Don’t Take Your Instant Draft Analysis Too Seriously. This Scribe Doesn’t

With the 2022 NFL Draft just on the horizon, it’s likely you’ve spent the past few months reminding others of their horrible post-draft takes from the past.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

You know how the three-month period can be that starts after the Steelers season and doesn’t end until well after the draft. Let’s just say it’s quite contentious and includes many disagreements between folks who just know what the Steelers should and/or will do.

Once the Steelers have done their thing, the disagreements continue, with the ones opposed to Pittsburgh’s pick(s) usually being the loudest.

Do people get reminded of their horrible hot takes many years after the draft? The famous journalists do, for sure, but not usually the nobodies like me.

However, I have had my fair share of post-draft horrible takes over the years, takes I’d like to share with you right now.

Did you know I was so angry after the Steelers selected Aaron Jones in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft (a great hot take, btw), I lashed out at my television when Pittsburgh picked center/guard Dermontti Dawson in the second round?

I’d say old Dirt’s career turned out quite well.

Later that same draft, the Steelers selected Gordie Lockbaum, a two-way ironman superstar from tiny Holy Cross and a Heisman Trophy finalist in both 1986 and 1987, in the ninth round. I was so starved for a big name and for Pittsburgh to make a huge splash, I ran around my house screaming, “The Steelers drafted Gordie Lockbaum!” My grandfather made fun of me, and rightfully so.

  • Lockbaum didn’t make the final cut out of training camp that year.

I didn’t really have many horrible hot takes about the draft between the late-’80s and the social media age, thanks in large part to the Steelers being so darn successful during that time and winning many games, many division titles, and even a couple of Super Bowls.

It’s been a different story during the social media age, as my takes have been plentiful, as both a writer and podcaster.

For example, I thought Jarvis Jones, an outside linebacker the Steelers selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, would be a pick-and-plug player, someone whose slow 40-time would not be an issue at the NFL level.

I’d say I was wrong there.

I mocked the Steelers for selecting Le’Veon Bell, a running back from Michigan State, in the next round of that same draft. Why? For one thing, I wanted Pittsburgh to take Eddie Lacy, the running back I knew, instead. Also, I wanted to mock Steelers fans for their desire to get back to smashmouth football.

I was off the mark on both the Steelers’ decision to draft Bell, as well as for mocking the fans for wanting a strong running game. Bell may have had an ugly end to his career in Pittsburgh, but when he was doing his thing at the All-Pro level, there may not have been a better or more prolific running back in Steelers history.

I don’t think I’ve had many horrible takes since 2013. Although, I was glad to see the Steelers draft Artie Burns in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Also, I thought it was a no-brainer for Pittsburgh to trade several picks away in order to move up to the 10th spot to select linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • What is my point with all of this? Do I have this strong desire to confess that I was wrong, to eat a little crow?

Not really on either front. No, I don’t really care that I was wrong on those aforementioned hot takes. Why? Because the draft is a crapshoot, that’s why, and there’s no point in reminding folks when they’re wrong, which is a lot of the time.

I just wanted to say that it’s okay to be wrong about the draft because NFL teams are often just as wrong and just as often.

 

 

 

 

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Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Offensive Tackle

The Steelers continue to rebuild an offensive line that was once the envy of the National Football League.

Pittsburgh spent draft picks and free-agent money on the unit last spring to mixed results during the regular season. After dazzling with a couple of free-agent additions along the interior of the line during the onset of the 2022 free agency period, is the rebuilding as complete as it needs to be, or should the Steelers try and address the offensive line in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft, specifically the offensive tackle positions?

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle: The Starters

A third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, Chukwuma Okorafor has had an up-and-down Steelers career, thus far (at least in the eyes of the fans and media). After starting three games in his rookie season and another one in 2019, Okorafor lost the training camp battle for the starting right tackle spot to Zach Banner in 2020.

However, Banner was lost for the rest of the year after suffering a torn ACL in a Week 1 victory over the Giants, and Okorafor wound up starting 15 games at right tackle.

Okorafor was again the full-time starting right tackle in 2021, the final year of his rookie deal, and to the surprise of many, quickly agreed to a rather lucrative three-year deal on the first day of unrestricted free agency.

Dan Moore Jr. was a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2022 NFL Draft and seemed to impress the coaches, fans and media the second he stepped onto the Heinz Field grass last summer at training camp. Moore continued to perform well all-throughout training camp and ultimately won the starting left tackle spot. Moore kept his top spot all season and started 16 of 17 games. Did he struggle at times? Sure, but he also acquitted himself quite well, like when protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side while blocking the always menacing Myles Garrett.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle: The Backups

Joe Haeg is a versatile veteran who the Steelers signed last spring and is capable of playing both guard and tackle. Haeg, 29, has one year remaining on a two-year deal.

Chaz Green was a 2015 third-round pick by the Cowboys. After failing to establish himself in Dallas, Green became the proverbial journey tackle and spent time with the Saints, Raiders, Broncos and Colts before winding up in Pittsburgh last season.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Steelers Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle

It’s hard to imagine that the Steelers would sign Okorafor to a three-year deal worth up to $29 million and then immediately go searching for his replacement in the draft. And after finding a bit of a diamond in the rough in Dan Moore last year, I can’t see them trying to supplant him by selecting someone with a premium pick.

But that doesn’t mean depth isn’t an issue. Depth is an issue which would make the position’s draft need Moderate

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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Why the Steelers 1987 Draft Is Still My Favorite

This April marks the 35-year anniversary that I was allowed to stay home from school and watch the 1987 NFL Draft.

Maybe it wasn’t the best parental decision my mom ever made, but considering I am able to encapsulate my feelings about that day so many years later while utilizing my gift of writing, well, maybe it was a smart choice, after all.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Anyway, 1987 was the last year that the annual draft was held on a weekday — Tuesday–and started at 7 a.m. Exactly one year later, it was held on Sunday, which would be the NFL’s day of choice for the event for many springs after, and it started at noon.

Obviously, the NFL Draft continued to become a sports phenomenon over the years and has grown so much, not only is it now a primetime event that starts on Thursday and dominates an entire weekend, its ratings are superior to actual sports contests held by its rivals — including the NHL and its Stanley Cup Final.

It’s something that I should have a tremendous appetite for at this point in my life, especially with such easy access to all things NFL Draft — thanks to the explosion of both cable and the Internet, there is now round-the-clock coverage, endless mock drafts and the ability for any fan to do all of the research necessary to become an expert on all of the prospects.

  • But, in an ironic twist, it’s just not like that for me in 2022.

Back in the late-’80s, however, when I was about as obsessed with the draft as I’d ever be, I would have given anything to have access to the information that I do right now.

My obsession with the draft truly started in 1988 — the year that would see the Steelers select Aaron Jones in the first round — and began to subside after Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992 and soon showed me that winning playoff games and being an annual Super Bowl contender was far-more exciting and satisfying than studying draft prospects and hoping that a “known name” would come to town and rescue the black and gold.

I wasn’t super stoked about the draft in ’87, but I wanted to watch it, and I was more than excited when my mom let me stay home from school. I didn’t know who Rod Woodson was, but I quickly learned that it was quite the coup that Pittsburgh, a team that had drafted ninth a year earlier and selected some guard named John Rienstra, had landed this talented cornerback from Purdue with the 10th pick.

The Browns, the Steelers’ fierce rivals in the old AFC Central Division, had a shot at Woodson with the fifth pick, but, instead, chose Mike Junkin, an inside linebacker from Duke.

Junkin went on to play in 20 games over three seasons before his NFL career went up in smoke.

In Cleveland’s defense, a lot of teams missed out on Rod Woodson, who was the only First-Ballot Hall of Famer from the ’87 draft class. In fact, legendary wide receiver Cris Carter, who was inducted in 2013, was the only other Hall of Fame member to come out of the 1987 NFL Draft.

As I said, it was quite the coup for the Steelers to land a generational talent such as Rod Woodson, and do so after nine other teams had already passed on him in the first round.

Chuck Noll said he was “in love” with Woodson not long after making the selection (you could see why it was love at first sight for the head coach who spent most of his post-Super Bowl years futilely trying to find love in the first round).

Again, I didn’t know anything about Rod Woodson–never even heard of him prior to the draft — but I was excited that so many others were excited about the Steelers landing him.

Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

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

All-in-all, the Steelers’ ’87 draft was one of Noll’s finest over his last 15 years or so as head coach of the team. In addition to Woodson, Pittsburgh selected cornerback Delton Hall (round two); safety Thomas Everett (round four); linebacker Hardy Nickerson (round five); linebacker Greg Lloyd (round six); and running back Merril Hoge (round 10). Most would go on to have lengthy and distinguished careers — both with the Steelers and with other teams (Everett was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, for example) — and Woodson, Lloyd and, to a lesser extent, Hoge, went on to become vital members of Cowher’s playoff teams of the 1990s.

While I was super-hyped for the next several drafts–as many tend to do now, I was devouring every morsel of draft coverage I could find weeks and months before the event–none of them lived up to 1987.

To reiterate, the 1987 NFL Draft was the greatest one I ever watched, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

Maybe my mom knew what she was doing, after all.

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The Steelers 2022 Free Agent Activity Has Been Splashy But Practical

You can tell Steelers fans aren’t used to their favorite football team being extremely active during the onset of the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin in 2019.

Why do I say that? Because I think the fans want to elect Kevin Colbert, the team’s long-time general manager, king of Pittsburgh after he finally hangs up his executive badge for good following the 2022 NFL Draft.

What Steelers fans are experiencing so far is your normal free-agent activity that most teams have this time of year. This is what happens with actual cap space, something the Steelers haven’t had this much of since forever–after starting out with just under $30 million last week, they still have over $20.5 million according to Spotrac.

Maybe that’s why the signing of Mitchell Trubisky seemed like such a big deal when the news broke last week that they agreed to a two-year contract with the still fairly young quarterback. Perhaps this is why inking a deal with inside linebacker Myles Jack feels like a bigger coup than it actually is.

Make no mistake, though, while the Steelers have been a bit splashier than usual through one week of free agency, they’ve still been just as practical as ever.

Neither Trubisky or Jack is a perennial All-Pro player, but they’re both good enough that they represent upgrades over what we saw at their respective positions a year ago — sorry to break this news to the truly diehard Ben Roethlisberger fans out there.

I think even the most intense Steelers fan wouldn’t go overboard with the individual signings of guard James Daniels, center Mason Cole and cornerback Levi Wallace, but put them together with the Trubisky and Jack deals, and it feels like a time to celebrate and throw a parade.

But all Colbert did with these moves was make the Steelers better on paper at positions that needed to be upgraded, and he did this without breaking the bank in the process.

No deal that’s been signed so far has made you feel like the Steelers are mortgaging their future. No, they’re just quietly going about rebuilding their roster and reinforcing it with youth by bringing in guys on their second contracts, players who may still have their best football ahead of them.

  • Again, it just seems flashier because you’re not used to the Steelers doing so much.

Will all of these moves pan out? The odds and free-agent history say heck no, but some of them likely will. If it’s Trubisky, for example, wow, will the Steelers be in tremendous shape moving forward. But even if someone like Daniels steps in and becomes the anchor of an improved offensive line, the Steelers should be able to build upon that.

I like what the Steelers are doing. Am I worried about any free-agent grades and someone declaring the Steelers “winners”? Not really. I’m just excited about how these new players can collectively help the team expedite its rebuild.

The real winning is done in October and November, but I must say, it is pretty cool to see the Steelers do a little “winning” in March for a change.

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It’s OK If the Steelers (and Their Fans) Actually Accept Rebuilding

“I’m ready to move on, man, and I’m serious. I wouldn’t be upset if Ben decided to retire after this season and the team sunk to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.”

That was you for the past few years, and the “Ben” you were referring to was the ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger, the legendary quarterback of the Steelers for many years. Alas, Roethlisberger’s reign in Pittsburgh ended after 18 seasons, and he officially announced his retirement following a blow-out wildcard playoff loss to the Chiefs to close out the 2021 campaign.

Now you, the Steeler fan, get your wish.

  • The Steelers could, in fact, sink to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great, right?

Not according to the fans, at least the ones on social media who can’t seem to shut up about the Steelers and what big moves they’ll make with the new calendar year — along with unrestricted free agency — set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

Heck, the fans on social media can’t even handle all of the rumors swirling around without losing it and worrying about the Steelers falling behind every other team in the AFC North, including the Browns, who acquired receiver Amari Cooper from the Cowboys on Saturday.

Why weren’t the Steelers more aggressive in going after Cooper? After all, the haul that Dallas will get back for Cooper is just a couple of late-round picks. Good point, a very good point. Only problem with that logic is that it’s not something a rebuilding team does. No, a rebuilding franchise is the one who trades the player for the draft picks. (Full disclosure: The Cowboys aren’t in a rebuild; they just didn’t want to honor Cooper’s current contract.)

So, why would the Steelers go after a Cooper if they are now in full-rebuild mode following Roethlisberger’s retirement? Also, why would they give up the farm to acquire Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson?

Or, for that matter, why would they go after Carson Wentz or Jimmy Garoppolo to fill their quarterback void?

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Again, you wanted a rebuild, right? You said you were exhausted by all of those seasons that didn’t result in more Super Bowls–as fun as some of those years may have been with Big Ben and the other Killer B’s, including Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, pulling the wagon.

I don’t know how an observer of things can actually be exhausted, but you know who is probably really exhausted after 13 years of trying to reach Seventh Heaven? The Steelers. Seriously, they’re like that young doctor on Day 3 of no sleep. They’re downing caffeine. They’re splashing cold water on their face. They’re doing everything that can to stay sharp, but that knife is now pretty dull.

It’s time for a rest.

The Steelers now have more cap space than they normally know what to do with, and with free agency just on the horizon, I fully expect them to do things to build up their roster. They may even make a splash signing or two.

But would that signify a quick end to the rebuild? No, I think it’s just getting started. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to last forever. A few moves here, a few moves there, and suddenly you’re back to being a serious contender again, one full of fresh legs and quick-twitch muscle fibers.

In the meantime, the Steelers and their fans may have to sit back for a season or two and watch other teams “go for it.”

Will it suck? How can it not? Will it be frustrating to listen to all of those talking heads mock the Steelers for falling behind in the annual off-season Lombardi race? Sure.

  • But those talking heads never seem to grow tired.

Football teams sometimes do.

Let the Steelers get some sleep in 2022. They’ll be awake again to fight another day.

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Steelers Free Agent Taco Charlton May Be a Failed First Rounder, But He’ll Be a Good “Next Man Up”

Is there a single position that’s more important to the Steelers defense than outside linebacker? It is hard to argue to the contrary. In 2019, Pittsburgh’s defense returned to elite status thanks to the late blooming emergence of Bud Dupree.

And you can pinpoint the moment the unit lost elite status to Dupree tearing an ACL during the 3rd quarter of the December 2nd 2020 “win” over the Ravens.

  • Depth at outside linebacker therefore is critical for the Steelers.

During the latter part of 2021, Taco Charlton served as the “next man up” at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Does his tape warrant him staying in Pittsburgh for another season?

Taco Charlton, Steelers vs Browns

Taco Carlton in Ben Roethlisberger’s Heinz Field Finale. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Taco Charlton’s Steelers Career

Taco Charlton was a decorated outside linebacker at Michigan and a prospect often linked to the Steelers in the months prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. Charlton was selected with the 28th overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys, who were drafting just two spots ahead of Pittsburgh.

After two underwhelming seasons in Dallas, Charlton was released early in the 2019 campaign. After playing for the Dolphins and Chiefs in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively, Charlton was signed to the Steelers practice squad early in the 2021 season. Charlton was ultimately promoted to the active roster on November 2. Charlton appeared in 11 games for the Steelers in 2021 and recorded 18 tackles and a half of a sack.

The Case for the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton In 2022

Despite having just 11.5 career sacks to his name, there’s no question Charlton has a great draft pedigree and is quite talented. Depth at outside linebacker was an issue in 2021 and it reared its ugly head multiple times, as both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith missed time. The Steelers paid Charlton $550,000 in 2021, and if they can get him for around that amount in 2022, I see no harm in bringing him back, even for just one more season.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton in 2022

As a recent first-round pick, Charlton may still have designs on being a starter in the NFL. While certainly not on the same level in terms of accomplishment, do the Steelers want to bring back Charlton and have a repeat of the messy situation that developed with veteran Melvin Ingram, who apparently was unhappy with playing time?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Taco Charlton in 2022

To tell you the truth, I really can’t think of a legit case against bringing back a player like Charlton in 2022. He’s the proverbial low-risk, high-reward player, and if the Steelers can flesh out the talents that made him a first-round pick five years ago, everyone wins.

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