Look Far, Stay Close: Steelers Hire Omar Kahn to Replace Kevin Colbert

After interviewing 16 candidates from around the NFL to find Kevin Colbert’s replacement, Steelers President Art Rooney II settled on one who has been in his own back yard since 2001, naming Omar Khan as the next General Manager.

Omar Khan, Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert

Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Omar Khan joined the Steelers in 2001, one year after Kevin Colbert arrived, serving as football operations coordinator and was named as Vice President of Football and Business Administration in 2011, one year after Kevin Colbert officially got the title of general manager.

In a statement released by the team, Khan commented:

I am extremely excited for this opportunity to be the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I would like to thank Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, and Kevin Colbert for their support throughout this process. I am ready for this challenge and grateful to continue the success we have had on the field during my first 21 years. I look forward to completing our football operations staff and working tirelessly to build another championship football team for Steelers Nation and our community.

The choice of Khan does represent a bit of a departure for the Steelers in that his background is on the business side of the operations, as opposed to scouting. (Although Khan did gain scouting experience while working with the New Orleans Saints.

Andy Weidl of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was also a finalist to replace Colbert, will reportedly join the team as Assistant General Manager, although the hire has not yet been announced.

There’s been no word on what role if any Brandon Hunt, the Steelers current Pro Scouting Coordinator will play with the organization. Hunt interviewed and was a finalist for the job.

Steelers MO: Look Far for Coaches, Stay Close for Front Office

In another sense the Steelers decision to promote Khan from within is in keeping with their MO for hiring a front office head. For all intents and purposes, Art Rooney Jr. was the first head of the Steelers scouting department.

And when Chuck Noll retired and Haley left the Steelers, Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations. When the breach between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe became unbridgeable, Dan Rooney again interviewed candidates from across the league, only to settle on Kevin Colbert, who was not only a Pittsburgh native, but an alumni of North Catholic, the same high school that Rooney and Donahoe had attended.

  • That stands in contrast to their MO for hiring coaches.

Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll from outside the organization (OK, it’s not like Bill Austin’s staff was stocked with up and comers). When Noll stepped down, the smart money was on Joe Greene as his replacement.

But an exhaustive search lead them to Bill Cowher. When Bill Cowher hung it up, the front runners to replace him were Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. Both men were serious contenders and Grimm was one of the finalists, but the job ultimately went to Mike Tomlin, who was with the Minnesota Vikings.

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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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Steelers 2017 Draft Grades – An A+ for Drafting T.J., JuJu, Sutton & Conner

The 2022 NFL Draft is now history. In Kevin Colbert’s finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round. They also addressed wide receiver and defensive line with their premium picks.

So now time to get down to grades – grades for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class.

Yes, Chuck Noll always said it took five years to grade an NFL Draft class, and if it was good enough for The Emperor, its good enough for me.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

First Round: T.J. Watt – Striking Gold

29 teams drafted before the Pittsburgh Steelers that day. The Kanas City Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes. The other 28 wished they’d picked T.J. Watt instead.

In 5 years T.J. Watt has put himself on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He’s a playmaker and possibly a generational talent. It is conceivable that during his 6th year he’ll break the Steelers All Time sack record. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: JuJu Smith-Schuster — A True Steelers from the Get Go

JuJu Smith-Schuster landed in Pittsburgh and eventually pushed not one, but two players off of the team. He had a phenomenal rookie year and followed it up with a team MVP performance. His 3rd year was marred by injuries, poor quarterback performance and an imploding offense.

Even if his numbers never bounced back in year’s four and five, JuJu Smith-Schuster was still a factor on the team, still a player who gave his all on every play. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Third Round A: Cam Sutton – The Late Bloomer

Cam Sutton is the second to last defensive back drafted during Carnell Lake’s tenure as secondary coach, and he’s probably the best. Sutton got onto the field in late 2017, played more in 2018, and began making plays at a steady pace through 2019 and 2020. Facing salary cap Armageddon in the 2020 Off Season the Steelers targeted Sutton for an extension and he delivered in 2021. Grade: Quality Value Pick

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Third Round B: James Conner – The Home Town Hero

In minds of many, James Conner’s Steelers career is measured by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. As Tony Defeo pointed out in his free agent profile, that’s not fair to Conner. At all.

James Conner’s body of work with the Pittsburgh Steelers reveals him as a good running back. Not a great one, but a good one. The injuries aren’t Conner’s fault. Nor is the fact that a once great offensive line slipped into deep decline just when he needed him the most. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Fourth Round: Joshua Dobbs – The Rocket Scientist

Joshua Dobbs was a bit of a surprise pick and became the type of player that just kept sticking on.

His body of work with the Steelers is limited. His first pass was, well, like a rocket converting a third down on the road deep in Baltimore territory in spot duty. He looked good in his limited action in the 2020 finale. And the Rocket Scientist turned backup QB was a constant fixture along side Ben Roethlisberger reviewing plays on tablets. All that’s good, but you still expect a bit more from a 4th rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Fifth Round: Brian Allen – Another Dud @ DB

The Steelers drafted Brian Allen as a project. Allen had only switched to cornerback for his final two years at Utah. But at 6’3” and 215 pounds and with long arms, and with a 4.48 40 time he had all of the measurables.

Brian Allen saw action on special teams in 16 games over two years with the Steelers and then was waived/injured at the end of training camp in 2019. He latched on to a number of practice squads in 2019, played 24 defensive snaps for the 49ers in 2020 appearing on one game, and appeared in 3 games on special teams for the Browns in 2021. Grade: Bust

Sixth Round: Colin Holba – The Luxury Long Snapper

My immediate reaction to the Steelers decision to use a draft pick on a long snapper was, “Colbert and Tomlin are getting cocky.” It just seemed like a waste of a pick. And it sort of was. Colin Holba didn’t make the team, but got pick up by the Jaguars, who spanked the Steelers in the playoffs. He also played for the 49ers and Giants in the next three seasons. Grade: Farm Team

Seventh Round:  – The Unsung Linebacker that Never Was

With the depth chart ahead of him it didn’t seem like Keion Adams stood a chance at making the team when they drafted him in 2017. However, his story reminded this scribe of Carlos Emmons, another 7th round linebacker who faced a stacked depth chart to make the team and eventually work himself into a serviceable starter.

Alas, Adams would not follow in Carlos Emmon’s footsteps. He spent 2017 on IR, got cut at the end of summer in 2018, spent a day on the practice squad, spent some time with the Giants and was done.

Final Grade for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class

One Grand Slam, 3 Quality Value Picks, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Bust and 1 Farm Team Pick. Moreover, the first 4 picks became starters, all four got second contracts, 2 with the Steelers. And of course the first rounder is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Grade: A+

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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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Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Houston Texans Fire Dave Culley, Another “Sour Apple’ on the Bill Cowher Coaching Tree? Not Quite

Scratch one more from the “Bill Cowher Coaching Tree.” After a 4-12 inaugural campaign the Houston Texans have fired head coach David Culley. Cully’s roots to Pennsylvania run deep but they are decidedly shallow on the Pittsburgh side.

Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher coaching tree

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Jamie Mullen, Getty Images, via BTSC

After Super Bowl XXX, Bill Cowher fired Ron Erhardt as his offensive coordinator, promoting wide receivers coach Chan Gailey to take his place. The Chin then hired David Culley to take Chan Gailey’s place as Steelers wide receivers coach.

David Culley served in that capacity from 1996 to 1998, and this was hardly the golden age of Steelers wide receivers. Yes, Yancey Thigpen flourished during the Steelers 1997 season, but his tenure is more notable for the failed development of Charles Johnson, Will Blackwell and to a lesser extent Jahine Arnold.

  • Takeaway Number 1:  These disappointments say more about the deterioration of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s relationship than Culley’s coaching ability.

Charles Johnson was a first round pick, Will Blackwell a second and Arnold a 4th. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe put together some good drafts early on, but as communication broke down between the two, the Steelers misfires on draft day became more severe — these three flameouts at wide receiver aren’t even the most egregious example.

After leaving Pittsburgh, Culley hopped on the Turnpike to Philadelphia, where he spent several years on the staff of Andy Reid, before following Reid to Kansas City, and then going on Buffalo and Baltimore. A year ago the Houston Texans hired him, and today he is without a job.

  • Takeaway Number 2: This highlights how “Coaching Trees” are overrated.

I don’t follow the Houston Texans so I can’t comment on Culley’s performance, but pulling the plug on a coach after one season seems a bit harsh. But fair or not, it makes Culley the latest former assistant of Bill Cowher to fail as a head coach.

Dom Capers was Cowher’s first assistant to get a head coaching job, and was followed by Chan Gailey, Jim Haslett, Dick LeBeau (indirectly), Mike Mularkey, Marv Lewis, and Ken Whisenhunt. All of them had their moments with Whisenhunt coaching against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, but none of them could sustain success.

And while critics might seek to use that as ammunition against Bill Cowher, they should not. While the “Bill Walsh” coaching tree is successful (although not as successful as it is made out to be), that does not make him a better coach. Indeed, Joe Gibbs won the same number of Super Bowls in the same era, with lesser talent.

No, the fact that this latest and perhaps last apple from the Bill Cowher coaching tree had a sour experience as a head coach says more about impatient, irrational owners and underlines how difficult it is to succeed in the NFL.

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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A Steelers Fan Salutes John Madden: He Was “What the Game of Football is All About”

My boomer brethren in Steelers Nation will blanch at this, but at one point in my youth, I thought that John Madden had been a player or coach for the Steelers.

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

John Madden interviews Joe Greene before Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Anonymous/AP via the Virginian-Pilot

John Madden, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oakland Raiders head coach, CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC broadcaster and video game entrepreneur passed away on Sunday, December 28th. Here we honor his memory and his life’s work.

Born 4 months before the Immaculate Reception, my understanding of the concept of “Steelers Rival” was the Houston Oilers. My introduction to John Madden came from watching games on CBS. So instead of being associated with the arch-rival evil Oakland Raiders, to me John Madden was simply to “Voice of the NFL.”

  • And what a voice he had.

For 22 years John Madden commentated in tandem with Pat Summerall and together they embodied the absolute best in sports television broadcasting. Summerall with his deep baritone did the play-by-play, while Madden handled the color commentary, with an emphasis on color.

Listening to Summerall, it was easy to imagine him narrating a documentary on say, the Gettysburg Address or the D-Day landings or some other hinge-of-history moment. Listening to Madden, it was easy to imagine him chowing down with truckers at a highway greasy spoon somewhere west of the Mississippi.

  • You wouldn’t think such a pairing would work, but it did – to perfection no less.

Football is a complex sport. As Andy Russell once observed, success or failure in football often comes down to subtle shifts in angles and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fans.

Russell is right which speaks precisely to John Madden’s genius. John Madden had the ability break down the complexities of any given play and explain them to the average viewer. And he could do it in the space of about 20 seconds. He did it hundreds of times each weekend for 3 decades.

But if Madden had an uncanny gift for explaining the science of the angles and alignments of football, he was never a football nerd. Far from it. He knew that the game’s art lay in the elegance that grew from overpowering your opponent in the trenches.

And that’s what Madden loved the most, the big guys, the offensive lineman, the tight ends and the fullbacks . I can remember one 49ers game in the late 80’s where Madden remarked, that if someone came down from Mars and asked to see a football player, you’d show him 49ers fullback Tom Rathman.

And I suppose that love for the working-class, blue collar ethos of the game is what led me as a naive grade schooler to assume he’d been associated with the Steelers, an assumption riddled with irony…

John Madden and the Steelers

John Madden stared down Chuck Noll during all of the franchises’ epic games in the 70’s, from the Immaculate Reception, to the 1974 AFC Championship, to the 1975 rematch at Three Rivers Stadium, and to the AFC Championship loss in 1976 suffered in the absence of both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. When John Madden retired in 1977, his record coaching against Chuck Noll and the Steelers was 6-5, a mark any of his contemporaries would have envied.

  • Yet after that, Madden seldom crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Steel City Star, during their 22-year run at CBS, Madden and Summerall never called a Steelers game. At FOX they only called three, the Steelers 1994 and 1997 opening day blowout losses to the Cowboys and the 1996 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

That shows you just how fundamental John Madden was to the game, given that my football attention is almost singularly focused on the Steelers.

John Madden did of course called Super Bowl XL and later Super Bowl XLIII, famously assuring viewers after Ben Roethlisberger’s hookup with Santonio Holmes that he got both feet in bounds, had control of the football and, most importantly, scored a touchdown.

But by that point, he was already a Living Legend and one who’d found yet another way to grow his footprint on the game on the field

John Madden Football

Without a doubt the best Christmas present I ever got as an adolescent was one that came for Christmas of 1989 – John Madden Football for the Apple II. As mentioned many here many times, although both of my parents are Pittsburghers to the core, neither are into sports.

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

Without a doubt, the BEST Christmas present I EVER got as a kid.

My big brother handled that part of my education early on, but by the mid-80’s he was off to college. So I was on my own. Watching shows like NFL PrimeTime and reading the Washington Post sports page helped.

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

Before Madden , words like “slot,” “stunt,” “weakside,” “sweep,” and “nickleback” were little more than noise uttered between the cacophony of plays. Playing John Madden Football did more than breathe life into those terms – it added a new dimension to the game. Suddenly I could not only recognize formations in real time, but I understood why coaches were making their choices. .

How many hours did I spend playing John Madden Football on the Apple IIc my parents got me to help with school work?

  • Far, far too many to count.

I do know that I played it enough to prove that the Steelers of the 70’s could whip the tails off of the 49ers of the 80’s. I played enough to build my own All Time Steelers team featuring a QB depth chart of Terry Bradshaw, Bubby Brister and Bobby Layne throwing to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner playing in front of Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Dwayne Woodruff (apologies to Jack Butler for my youthful ignorance.)

Obituary after obituary for John Madden tells of how generations of fans learned the game by playing John Madden. I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon. Countless Argentine football fans, when asked how they learned the game before the days of NFL GamePass and/or free illegal game streaming sites, would simply respond, “Madden.”

Indeed, when asked to explain the opening scene of Friday Night Lights, the one featuring Frank Winchel’s grandmother quizzing him on his playbook, I went to the book case and showed my wife the playbook that came with John Madden Football back in 1989.

What the Game of Football is All About

John Madden brought the game of football into people’s living rooms in ways few have done before or since. One anecdote suffices.

On opening day 1993 CBS carried the Bears vs the Giants as a national telecast. As the game came down to the wire, and the opposing teams lined up at the goal line for one final play, I told my roommates, “Watch. Madden is going to tell us ‘This is what the game of football is all about.’” 10 seconds later, as if he’d been listening to me, Madden declared, “This is what the game of football is all about!”

  • How fitting. Because John Madden himself is what the game of football is all about.

Thank you, John, for your contributions to the game we all love. I’m sure you and Summerall are already calling games together again now that you’re both on the other side.

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Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors: Cam Heyward Wins a Second Time

Thanksgiving 2021 has arrived so it’s time to award this year’s Steel Curtain Risings Steelers Thanksgiving Honors. To understand our what crystalized our choice, let’s return to the tail, tail end of the Steelers tie against the Lions.

On 3rd and goal with 20 seconds remaining all that separated the Detroit Lions from a touchdown going into half time was 8 yards. Here’s the Pro Football Reference stat line for what happened next:

A curious choice for a stat to highlight, especially given Cam Heyward’s twin sacks in 3rd down in the 4th quarter and then again in overtime? Maybe. Not.

It wasn’t the tackle that Heyward made, although his save a touchdown and force a field goal, it was the way that Cam Heyward made the tackle. He wrapped Swift at the 2-yard line and tossed him back like a rag doll a good 3 or 4 yards.

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Heyward Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors winner. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Those kinds of plays are all about attitude. In a goal line situation is the defense’s way of channeling their inner Gandalf the Grey saying, “You SHALL Not Pass!” Those are the kind of plays that define a good defense, and it is with that style an attitude that Cameron Heyward has defined himself as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Normally, we’d look to bestow the award on someone new. But Cam Heyward’s play in 2021 has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The Steelers defensive line is hurting. Stephon Tuitt has yet to play a game or even take a snap on practice. Tyson Alualu was lost, likely for the season, in week 2. Cameron Heyward is responding like any true champion: He’s stepping it up.

He already has 4.5 sacks on the season, one more than his 2020 total. He’s dropped 7 players for losses, equaling his 2020 total. He’s hit quarterbacks 10 times. His batted down 7 balls – doubling his 2020 total. And he’s forced and recovered a fumble and has an interception to his credit.

  • All with 7 games to go.

But like with his tackle of D’Andre Swift, it isn’t what he’s doing, is the way he’s doing it and when he’s doing it.

  • Throughout this season of barn burners, Cameron Heyward is consistently making big plays at big moments.

Case in point: This article was drafted on Sunday, before the Chargers game. In that contest Cam Heyward “only” had two tackles and one pass defensed. What those numbers don’t show is that he ran down Justin Herbert on a 36 yard run and kept him out of the end zone. Then, 5 defensive plays later he batted away a pass, which Cam Sutton picked off, setting up Ben Roethlisberger’s tying touchdown to Pat Freiermuth.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

You think Art Rooney II knew what he was doing at the tail end of training camp in 2020 when he essentially told Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert to get Cam Heyward signed, damn the salary cap consequences?

You only need to register a pulse to know that Cameron Heyward has been a good player since the Steelers drafted him. But during 2021 he’s taken it a step further.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Aaron Smith yield nothing to any other franchise in terms defensive line legacy.

  • During 2021 Cam Heyward has once again proven he belongs in that elite group of excellent players.

And for that, for his leadership in the locker room and in the community of Pittsburgh, Cameron Heyward wins Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Explained

Steelers Thanksgiving honors is a tradition that began here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The idea was to pick a player or member of the Steelers organization who gave Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

Football, while important to all of us isn’t and shouldn’t be our top priorities – that should be family and friends. So the hope here is that everyone reading this has reason to give thanks for the people in their lives.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Frustrated by Devin Bush in 2021? Chill & Remember ACL Tears Are Complicated to Comeback from

Question: Entering the Chargers game, which injures have hurt the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers the most? There’s no definitive answer, but this blogger offers an unorthodox suggestion:

  • The injuries in question have probably never shown up on the Steelers weekly injury reports.

Injuries, as the late, great Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice reminded listeners, are just as much of a factor as talent and coaching. This was true for the NFL during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is even more true today.

  • Where in 2021 have injuries hit the Steelers the hardest?

The Steelers certainly missed Ben Roethlisberger against the Lions and Justin Herbert will force them to miss Minkah Fitzpatrick just as dearly tomorrow. And anyone who has seen the Steelers run defense lapse could and should point to the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

So if those are your answers, you’re in good company, just as is anyone who brings up T.J. Watt’s name. But my two choices are Devin Bush and Zach Banner.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Banner and Bush don’t share a lot in common, but both men suffered ACL tears during the 2020 season.

  • Zach Banner played in training camp and preseason, but had to be put on IR.

The Steelers failure to use him on Sundays has drawn frustrated “Whys” as Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor have had their struggles. Devin Bush has of course played all season, but he hasn’t been the same. This has led even level-minded reporters to go as far as to question the Steelers decision to trade up to get him.

The frustration with Banner and Bush is understandable, but perhaps misguided.

ACL Tears Remain Serious Injuries in 2021

Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell doom for a professional football player. Anterior cruciate ligament sent the legendary Gale Sayers career on the path to ruin. Fortunately, with the rise of arthroscopic surgery, and improvements in rehabilitation therapy, ACL tears stopped being an immediate threat to a player’s career.

In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was the first NFL player to tear his ACL in a season, only to return later that year.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Woodson tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers season opener, but returned to play 12 snaps in Super Bowl XXX. Woodson’s pass defense of Michael Irvin is one of Steelers Nation’s legitimate bragging points from otherwise disappointing loss.

  • In that sense, perhaps Steelers fans got a little spoiled.

Not only because Woodson’s feat remains rather unique, but because it came with a cost. As Woodson confessed to Jim Wexell in Men of Steel, returning for the Super Bowl was “‘not the smartest thing to do'” continuing he adds, “‘I was probably 45-50 percent healthy at that point.'”

Woodson of course returned for the Steelers 1996 season and in the home opener he returned Vinny Testaverde’s first pass 43 yards for a pick six. Woodson made the Pro Bowl in 1996.

  • So of course he was fully recovered, right?

Wrong. Woodson confided this to Wexell, “’In ’96, I was still sore, and then my Achilles started acting up a lot, just from compensating for my knee….’” Woodson left the Steelers after 1996, but went on to play in 7 more years, making 4 Pro Bowls and one All Pro Team will appearing in two more Super Bowls.

  • So surly he was fully recovered by time he left Pittsburgh, right?

Wrong again. While admitting to struggling a bit in San Francisco, Woodson explained, “’I was still trying to recover from the knee a bit, even that second year.’”

And while players like Casey Hampton and Heath Miller returned for a productive seasons after suffering ACL tears late in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, it is easy to forget just how fortunate they were. Shaun Suisham suffered an ACL tear during the 2015 Hall of Fame game that ended his career.

Are Bush and Banners ACL Tears Lingering On?

It is hard to really say how much impact Zach Banner’s absence has had on the offensive line. He won the starting job in 2020, only to tear his ACL in the season opening win over the Giants. Which is to say, he’s largely an unknown commodity.

  • With Devin Bush, it’s a little different.

Bush had a strong, if not fantastic rookie year in 2019 and was playing well early in 2020. So far in 2021 he’s been a non-factor. Is it because he’s still not fully recovered from his ACL tear? It is hard to know for sure.

Some film analysis of the Lions game suggests he was badly out of place on some of those critical runs the Lions used to gouge the Steelers defense. That was only one play, however, and Bush was far from the only person on the Steelers defense out of position (see Joe Schobert and Cam Sutton.)

  • While medicine is a science it remains an inexact science.

People’s bodies heal differently and at distinct paces. Modern medicine has done a lot to make ACL tears more manageable for NFL players, but if something seems not quite right with Devin Bush, just remember that even in 2021 anterior cruciate ligament injuries anything but trivial.

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