1999 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Donahoe Feud, Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened 1999 in unfamiliar territory:  Instead of playing in the post season, they were watching from home. You can criticize the Steelers brain trust of Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney for many of their 1999 off season decisions.

  • But there is one thing they refused to do following the first losing season of the Cowher era: Panic.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily in 1998. So the Steelers response of firing Ray Sherman and replacing him with Kevin Gilbride was expected. Giving Stewart a 5-year extension that would pay him 27 million more dollars was decidedly unexpected. Yet that’s just what the Steelers did.

Kordell Stewart had hardly been the only one at fault during the up-and down 7-4 start and the ensuing game season-ending meltdown. The offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver had been weak spots.

So the Steelers let Carnell Lake go, a mainstay in the defensive backfield since 1989, and replaced him with Travis Davis. Former first round wide receiver Charles Johnson was allowed to walk, too. They also brought in not one, but two tackles, Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown.

  • And, with the 13th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Steelers took wide receiver Troy Edwards.

Today, we know that Troy Edwards was a bust, but the pick was popular at the time. But there’s a backstory behind the pick.

As Troy Edwards’ name was being sent to the podium, the Steelers were on the phone with Jevon Kearse. This factoid only emerged in 2016, but today it tells us something very important about how and why the Steelers 1999 season unfolded the way it did.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL after a 3-year hiatus on September 12th 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city of Cleveland was ecstatic. The Browns were back!

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

Richard Huntley runs over the Browns. Literally. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The celebration ended quickly.

The Steelers amassed a 20 to 0 zero half time lead, which became a 27 to 0 3rd quarter lead after the first two series. Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak and then Pete Gonzalez. Jerome Bettis gave way to Richard Huntley and then Amos Zereoue. The Steelers won 43 to 0, registering their first shutout in two years.

ESPN commentator Joe Theismann went so far as to compare the 1999 Steelers offense to the 1995 edition which had taken them to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The new Browns were an expansion team, so a Steelers’ victory was expected.

But Pittsburgh made it look easy, incredibly easy. Was the 1998’s 0-5 implosion  just a mirage?

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

Three Rivers Stadium welcomed the Browns for the first time in 3 years in week 9 of the 1999 season. The Steelers were on a 3 game winning streak. Cleveland came to Pittsburgh seeking its first win.

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

During the entire first half, the Steelers could only muster a meager Kris Brown field goal in response. But at least the Browns hadn’t sniffed another score. Kris Brown booted another field goal to start the first half. Then, with victory in their grasp, the Steelers made two critical errors:

  • Richard Huntley scored a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.
  • Yet Bill Cowher opted to go for two and the Steelers failed.

So instead of 13 to 7, the Steelers led 12 to 7.

Still, the Steelers kicked another field goal to start the 4th quarter, making it 15 to 7. That made the lost point inconsequential. Didn’t it?

With about 7 minutes left, the Steelers forced a Browns punt and simply had to kill the clock. Yet after Jerome Bettis gained 6 yards, Kordell Stewart misfired to Mark Bruener. Then he tried a bubble screen to Troy Edwards.

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

Phil Dawson kicks the game winner in 1999. Photo Credit: Browns.com

  • But John Thierry blew by Wayne Gandy and intercepted Stewart’s pass.

The Browns scored a touchdown 3 plays later, but their 2 point conversion failed leaving the game tied. This time the Steelers tried pounding the ball, calling 7 straight running plays but were forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Browns milked all but 2 seconds off of the clock before kicking the game winning field goal.

The Steelers had opened the season by welcoming the Browns back to the NFL by wiping the floor with them. Nine weeks later they were wiping egg off of their faces after giving the Browns their first win since 1995.

After the game, team leader Levon Kirkland confessed, “I’m not going to say it’s the most embarrassing loss, because you never know what’s going to come up next.”

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

So what happened in between those Browns bookend games? The Steelers followed their opening day romp over the Browns with a lackluster win over a middling Ravens team. The Steelers returned to Three Rivers Stadium to suffer a 5-interception blowout loss to the Seahawks, followed by 17-3 home loss to the Jaguars that saw free agent tackle Wayne Gandy give up sacks on back-to-back drives that resulted in safeties.

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

Jeremy Staat closes in on Doug Flutie. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Steelers followed that with a 24-21 loss to the Bills

After the game Bill Cowher commented that Kordell Stewart could have benefited from seeing Doug Flutie in action. This was ironic, because Stewart’s success in 1997 helped pave the way for Flutie’s NFL return.

For as bleak as things looked during those three losses, the Steelers rebounded with three straight wins. Their win on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion Falcons ended with not one, but two “Who wants it more?” 4th quarter goal line stands.

Pittsburgh followed that with a 27-6 road win over the San Francisco 49ers and by all appearances, the Steelers had done what so many previous Bill Cowher teams had done before them: Right themselves after stumbling early.

Wrong. The Steelers had only set themselves up for a bigger fall.

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

The 1999 Steelers fulfilled Levon Kirkland’s worst fears by losing 7 of their next 8 games and in the process looked worse than any Steelers team had looked since 1969. Chuck Noll’s 1986 and 1988 teams had finished 6-10 and 5-11, but at least both of those squads were playing their best football by season’s end.

But The 1999 Steelers found new ways to get worse as fall faded into winter.

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The bottom fell out of the defense. On the road against the Titans, Chris Sanders hauled in a 46- yard reception as Travis Davis and Scott Shields essentially “watched.” Two weeks later Qadry Ismail came to Pittsburgh and scorched the Steelers secondary for 258-yard, 3-touchdown game.

During a loss to a terrible Bengals team Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart. Fans cheered as Mike Tomczak took the field, but the results were the same.

The Steelers did secure a post-Christmas win over the Carolina Panthers. But that win came by way of Shar Pourdanesh replacing the inept Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad who’d been alternating at right tackle, and some mid game snow that inspired Jerome Bettis to a 100-yard game.

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

Chad Scott stuffs Fred Lane for a 3 yard loss. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The season ended with a sloppy 47-36 loss to a Tennessee Titans backup squad that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman shirt in front of cameras following a garbage-time touchdown, yet another safety and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell following an interception. Worse yet, although the Steelers started at the Titans 5-yard line and ran 6 plays, they still failed to score.

For the record, the 1999 Steelers final record was 6-10, but this was by far the worst Steelers squad since Chuck Noll’s 1-13 1969 team.

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

The 1999 Steelers finished 6-10, and looked a lot worse than their 7-9 1998 predecessors in doing so. But the difference wasn’t driven by talent: The 1999 team was rotting at its core.

The feud between head coach Bill Cowher and Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe that had been simmering for years was consuming the team. Donahoe’s “flat” comment following Fog Bowl II first exposed the tensions between the two men but by 1999, things had become unmanageable.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The fact that the front office and head coach weren’t even on the same page regarding the first round draft reveals just how deep the dysfunction sank.

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

In the week leading up to the Bengals loss, 3 separate national stories reported that Bill Cowher was planning to leave the team. Tom Donahoe had strong relations with the press, and could have swatted it down with an off-the-record denial.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero evidence to suggest that he declined an opportunity to do so. But after the Steelers laid an egg against the Bengals, Donahoe was on the record and his tongue was particularly sharp as he quipped, “Let me say this, I think we’re more talented than Cleveland and Cincinnati.”

A few days later, Cowher insisted that he was staying, and retorted, “I know what my responsibilities are to this football team and what I’m here to do. That’s to coach a football team, to coach the players I have.”

Late in the season as losses cascaded into bigger, uglier losses, Lee Flowers called out his teammates for “loafing.”

  • Flowers was right. The circus atmosphere of the season finale proved it.

Normally, when players quit on a losing team, it is an indictment of the head coach. But by 1999, this wasn’t a “normal” Steelers team. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reveals that Bill Cowher barred Donahoe from attending coaching meetings because he thought he was a “spy.”

Cowher’s instincts were correct. After the season it was revealed that Tom Donahoe had been privately bashing Cowher to the press.

  • Front office-coaching tension is normal and, in the right dosage, healthy.

But even the most brilliant football minds can’t function successfully if they can’t cooperate. The Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but immune. Art Rooney, Jr. led the greatest scouting team pro football has or ever will see. Chuck Noll was one of the greatest coaches in the game.

  • Yet, by the mid-80’s the two men couldn’t function together.
  • By 1999 Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had reached the same juncture.

Dan Rooney again had a decision to make. And once again, Dan backed his coach over the front office and fired Tom Donahoe.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Watch Tower: Predicting Steelers Pick of Artie Burns, Almost Picking Jevon Kearse and More

A lot has happened since the Watch Tower last shined its lights at the end of March and today its focus is on the Steelers Draft, free agency’s finish, other Steelers-related comings and goings along with another round of “Taking Our Own Medicine.”

artie burns, steelers, steelers draft 2016, art rooney ii

Artie Burns addresses the press as Art Rooney II looks on; Photo credit: steelers.com

Paulk Wins Steelers Draft Prediction Prize

Who will we draft? Answering that question was once a simple water cooler conversation fueled the previous night’s banter AM sports-talk radio station. Now it’s a cottage industry. Mocking the next year’s draft begins before this year’s is complete with some pundits going as far as grading teams’ performance in mock drafts (seriously).

Grading mock draft IS excessive, but mock drafting is fun and arouses imaginations of pros and armatures alike, but the Steelers 2016 Draft Class shows just how much of a minefield it can be. Everyone knew that the Steelers would look to cornerback early in the 2016 NFL Draft, but the question of which corner the Steelers would take a hot potato.

  • Steelers Nation’s true winners in its 2016 mock draft sweepstakes is Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, who correctly tagged Artie Burns as the Steelers first round pick.

Other national writers made similar predictions, but Paulk was almost only Pittsburgh writer the Watch Tower is aware of that accurately predicted Burns going to the Steelers.

The “almost” qualifier might seem odd, but Jim Wexell also picked Burns going to the Steelers in the Steelers Digest pre-draft edition, but Wexell’s “official” pick 36 hours prior to the draft was cornerback James Bradberry from Stanford. (Alas, the Zino iPad App that I read Steelers Digest on has no linking functionality….)

Shift in Steelers Drafting Philosophy?

In an age where post-draft analysis/post draft grades is as instantaneous as it is meaningless, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review distinguished himself by providing his readers with some meaningful insight the morning after that draft.

The Steelers 2016 draft class, in Kaboly’s estimation, confirms that the “Steelers have changed their drafting philosophy.” The change, in Kaboly’s view, comes down shifting form an emphasis on projection to one on production, particularly on the defensive side. As Kaboly expands:

The organizational shift away from deferring to what a player may be able do to what a player has already done continued for the Steelers for the second consecutive draft over the weekend.

One could certainly quibble with Kaboly’s conclusion, as both Artie Burns and Bud Dupree have been panned more as “Projects” as opposed to finished products, but Kaboly backs up his claim with Mike Tomlin’s “Speed without production is less attractive…” quote, and in pointing out that Pittsburgh have gone a dozen years since a Steelers cornerback has made 4 interceptions in a season and contrasted that with the 21 interceptions that Burns, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant recorded in their collegiate careers.

  • But even if he’s ultimately wrong on the project vs. production question, Kaboly wins Watch Tower Kudos for attempting to provide substantive post-draft day analysis.

So Steelers Almost Drafted Jevon Kearse….?

The Steelers decision to pick Artie Burns drew a lot of criticism from both the press and from Steelers Nation at large all of which prompted Jim Wexell to mount a vigorous defense of the pick. The logic of Wexell’s defense can perhaps be read here (the article sits behind his pay wall,) but it also included an eye-opening Steelers draft history nugget:

…But, still, the anger rolled in. One reader even called Burns “Troy Edwards,” in honor of the reach Tom Donahoe made in 1999 when — and I learned this a few days ago — they had the great Jevon Kearse ON THE PHONE AT THE TIME.

While it’s a little late to award a “scoop” on the Steelers 1999 draft, Wexell’s Jevon Kearse story qualifies as a major bombshell both in terms of reporting and in terms of what it potentially unveils about the depths of dysfunction that existed between Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher at the time.

  • On the site’s message board conversation yours truly suggested the nugget could be grown into a full-length story and the Watch Tower reaffirms that here.

A year ago the Watch Tower observed that stories abounded to explain how players like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and the other Super Steelers arrived in Pittsburgh. In contrast, since then, stories from inside the Steelers draft war room have grown more and more scarce.

  • In just 46 words, Jim Wexell has taken a small step towards rectifying that, and the Watch Tower offers him thanks on behalf of Steelers Nation citizens who crave enlightenment.

Thank you Mr. Wexell.

An Overlooked Artie Burns-Jarvis Jones Link?

Finally, the Watch Tower’s analysis of Steelers draft coverage ends with a look at a long-form piece by Coolong on USA Today’s Steelers Wire.

  • Count Coolong squarely in the camp of the Artie Burns skeptics.

In his article, Coolong bases his skepticism on solid footing, and in doing so he draws out an interesting parallel to one of the questions Kevin Colbert was asked, about whether the rain influenced Burn’s workout times, as they apparently did during the workout of Jarvis Jones.

  • While that’s not an earth shaking connection, it is an interesting one tying together two picks who critics label as “reaches”

Beyond that, Coolong manages to make his case on Artie Burns in an article that weaves together treads concerning Bruce Arians’ firing and Todd Haley’s accomplishments. That’s no easy feat, but he pulls it off, leaving the Watch Tower to hope aloud that Coolong will manage to find more time to write similar pieces now that he’s been kicked upstairs to the position of Senior Editor of NFL Sites USA TODAY Sports Media Group.

Scoops on Jarvis Jones and Senquez Golson

As everyone in Steelers Nation now knows, the Steelers declined to offer a 5th year tender to Jarvis Jones, but Jason Mackey of DK on Pittsburgh Sports knew it before anyone else and beat the rest of his competition to the punch. Mackey was of course the first Steelers reporter to break the Martavis Bryant suspension story, so it would seem that he has a knack for finding news.

We now know that Senquez Golson’s MRI was not related to his shoulder injury, but is due to another “soft tissue injury.” Fair enough. And missing OTA’s in May for an MRI is hardly a reason to hit the panic button.

But the Steelers have a lot riding on Senquez Golson’s development – perhaps too much – and any news of an injury which might impede his development merits attention, so Lolley wins Watch Tower kudos for breaking it.

Watch Tower Takes Its Own Medicine

Watch Tower’s role to document and analyze press coverage of the Steelers with an eye toward understanding what makes it tick, offering positive or negative criticism when warranted. But if the Watch Tower is going to take reporters to task from time-to-time, then it this site’s own errors must receive the same critical eye.

  • And I’ve made a bunch of goofs of late.

Some have been trivial, such as forgetting to include cornerback in our Steelers pre-draft needs poll (something easily remedied). Others have resulted from legitimate confusion, such as mentioning that Dale Lolley’s blog was going behind a paywall (its hasn’t) or misstating that Jim Wexell is a self-identified alcoholic (he is not.)

Corrections have been made and apologies to Lolley and Wexell issued.

…Then there was the blog post that had Will Johnson following Steve McLendon to the New York Jets. Ah, yeah, Will Johnson went to New York alright, but as a Giant not as a Jet! Thankfully a reader on Twitter alerted me to the error and the post had a half-life of about 20 minutes.

  • Sure, the post came after a hectic workday and just before a 2 week long international trip.

Those were contributing factors, but the real culprit was getting so caught up in a sexy “Pittsburgh on Hudson” storyline that I missed the most fundamental of facts. Such lapses are inexcusable and to you my readers, I offer a heartfelt apology.

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Are the Steelers Pinning Too Much Hope on Senquez Golson? Kris Farris Offers Cautionary Tale

NFL owners meetings bring big news to Steelers Nation simply because they’re the only off season moment when Mike Tomlin talks to the press. At a recent meeting in Boca Raton, Tomlin offered unqualified praise for cornerback Senquez Golson:

We are excited about getting Senquez Golson back in the mix. I think oftentimes he is forgotten about. We were excited about him a year ago when we drafted him. I still share that same level of excitement. I can’t wait to get him on the grass.

Mike Tomlin’s embrace of Senquez Golson is both revealing and alarming. The 2015 Steelers weak spot was cornerback and it remains so a month into free agency with Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin departing.

However, last spring plays like the one below prompted the Pittsburgh Steelers to pick Senquez Golson with their 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The athleticism, tracking ability and discipline Golson reveals in the play would leave any coach licking his chops. But Golson unfortunately course injured his shoulder in Steelers OTA’s last year, sat out training camp on the PUP list, and lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The headline, “Rookie season lost to injury” sounds ominous, but should it?

Starting your career on injured reserve is hardly ideal, but several Seelers have bounced such setbacks.

sean spence, injury, 2012 preseason, steelers, carolina panthers

Sean Spence is injured during the 2012 preseason

Sean Spence lost his first two years to injury, yet Spence was starting for the injured Ryan Shazier by week 4 of 2014. Keenan Lewis suited up for a handful of games in 2009, but his rookie season was marred by injury. Lewis didn’t do much in 2010 either. He flashed little in 2011, and by 2012 he’d improved so much he became the guy the Steelers couldn’t afford to keep.

A torn ACL cost the legendary Greg Lloyd his rookie season, and another knee injury cost him the first half of his second season. Yet by the end of 1988, Lloyd was pushing for starting time, and going into 1989 NFL Draft, Greg Lloyd had made the reigning single season sack leader Mike Merriweather expendable.

Mike Tomlin’s faith in Golson is hardly unprecedented. However, placing too much hope in a rookie’s ability to bounce back from injury is generally a mistake, and the case of Kris Farris reveals why.

The Cautionary Case of Outland Trophy Winner Kris Farris

The Steelers offensive line needed help in 1999. Badly. When Jerome Bettis had arrived via trade in 1996, he proclaimed that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “Like running down hill.” But by 1999, the line had lost Leon Searcy, John Jackson, Justin Strzelczyk, Will Wolford to free agency, injury and retirement.

Worse yet, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had swung and missed badly in attempting to replace them by drafting Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins and Chris Conrad.

  • Drafting the 1999 Outland Trophy winner would appear to be a sure bet to snap that streak, if only the Steelers got the chance.

The Steelers got that chance in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, taking the Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris the middle of their trio of 3rd round picks that year.

But during rookie workouts Farris’ foot began to get sore. At first he’d be OK after a few minutes, but each day it took longer to feel normal. Farris aggravated the injury on Memorial Day, sat out veteran mini-camp, and took it easy, hoping the rest would ready him for St. Vincents.

Kris Farris, not wanting to beg off of Bill Cowher’s annual run test, told the Steelers he was 90 to 95%. Farris gave it his all, but when it was all over a concerned Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis approached him because he looked so pale.

  • Farris tried to make a go of it in the first full pads practice of Camp Cowher 1999, but could not finish.

Subsequent MRI’s reveal cracks and then a full hairline fracture in his foot. The Steelers put Kris Farris on season-ending injured reserve, and hoped for the best.

During the 1999 season, the Steelers offensive line’s decline accelerated as as coaches alternated between Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad to see who would was “less worse.” In bars throughout Steelers Nation, fans shook their heads asking, “If only we had Kris Farris…..”

Kris Farris returned to St. Vincents with the Steelers in the summer of 2000, but earned reputation for “being soft” and Steelers cut Farris  trimmed their roster to 70.

The Bengals picked him up, but he was unable hold a roster spot in Cincinnati. Tom Donahoe brought Farris to Buffalo in 2001, did manage to play 3 games in 2001 but, in an cruelly ironic moment, Farris broke his leg in a 20-3 loss to the Steelers. Sadly, Farris never played football again.

  • The moral of the story isn’t that the Steelers can’t improve at cornerback from 2015 to 2016.

Despite that disappointment, the 2000 Steelers were far stronger at right tackle with rookie Marvel Smith, 1999’s third stringer Shar Pourdanesh and Larry Tharpe been out of football in 1999, but whom Kevin Colbert knew from his Detroit days.

But Kris Farris’ story also should serve as a caution against the Steelers pinning too many of their hopes for improving at cornerback on Senquez Golsen.

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Watch Tower: Ken Beatrice Obituary – Steelers Nation Expats in Washingtion Metro Area Lose a Friend

Steelers Nation expats in the Washington DC Metro area lost a great friend when long-time WMAL and WTEM sportscaster Ken Beatrice passed away in early December 2015.

Although he’d stepped away from his microphone over 15 years ago (can it really be that long…?), Ken Beatrice offered Steelers fans in suburban Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia a vital lifeline to information about their beloved Black and Gold during the pre-internet years.

This Ken Beatrice obituary not only remembers and praises him for keeping Steelers fans informed, but also memorializes and salutes him for simply being the person he was.

ken beatrice obituary, steelers fans in washington DC, wmal, wtem

Former WMAL, WTEM sportscaster Ken Beatrice provide Steelers fans in the DC area with a vital lifeline in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Photo Credit: James M. Thresher/The Washington Post

Before It Had Google, Washington Had Ken Beatrice

If you’re under say, 35, it is probably hard to remember or even imagine the type of sports media landscape in which Ken Beatrice’s signature show “Sports Call” thrived.

Today, living 6,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, if thanks to Direct TV’s live pausing, I happen to be watching a Steelers game 2-3 minutes behind real time I’ll know if the Steelers score a touchdown because my upstairs neighbor bangs on the floor….

…During much of Beatrice’s tenure, a Steelers fan who wasn’t watching another game on Sunday and who missed the evening news might need to wait until the Washington Post got delivered the following morning to find out how Chuck Noll’s ’84 Steelers fared against Bill Walsh’s 49ers. And if you weren’t sure who your favorite team’s third string running back was, you didn’t have Google so you called Ken Beatrice.

WMAL was the Redskins flagship station during most of Beatrice’s time there, and the station made no bones about giving priority coverage to the Redskins and other area teams.

  • But DC is a city of transplants, and as a sportscaster, Beatrice was perfect for the town because Beatrice possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of well, sports.

On any given night, for every 3 or 4 fans that called with questions about the Terrapins, Bullets, Capitals or Orioles (sorry Malcolm) or other DC-area teams, Ken would take 1-2 calls from fans wanting to know about the Chicago Cubs, the Seattle Supersonics, Houston Oilers, Hartford Whalers or Duke Blue Devils.

  • As one of his retirement profiles pointed out back in 2000, sometimes Ken was “a little too accurate.”

More recently Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post recounted how a fellow journalist called in and asked about non-existent Penn State Linebacker’s draft prospects only to have Ken adlib his answer, down to given heights and weights of a player who didn’t exist….

But if Ken did fudge it at times and apparently outright fake it at others, he should rightly be remembered for the depth and breadth of his knowledge rather than the gaps in it.

Ken Beatrice Sports Call – the Antithesis of Shock Jock Sport’s Talk

Ken Beatrice’s ability to act as a human sports database was remarkable enough. But that’s not what truly endeared him to his loyal listeners.

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Ken Beatrice around 1977 (Credit: Harry Naltchayhan/The Washington Post)

Ken Beatrice’s Sports Call was about the callers. Or put more precisely his “guests,” which is how he treated his audience. He never had silly contests. Beatrice never delved into gimmickry prize give-aways to attract attention, and he gave each caller a good 5 or 6 minutes. He even gave out is office number.

Ken Beatrice would have a hard time succeeding in today’s sports talk radio because Ken was everything today’s “Shock Jocks” are not: Polite to a fault, respectful of disagreement, and patient with callers of all stripes.

  • Whereas today’s sports talk DJ’s seek to enrage and insult callers, Ken’s M.O. was to engage and inform.

Yes, Ken Beatrice could get overbearing with his opinions, but he welcomed reasoned and vigorous discussion with callers who thought differently than he did. He didn’t cut callers off or hang up on them.

  • And, not surprisingly, because Ken Beatrice treated his listeners with respect, they reciprocated.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we have a sample of Beatrice at his best (available as of 12/12/15):

Keep in mind, this call would have had to have been made during the 1993 off season. He was sitting in Washington DC, on the opposite end of the country from Phoenix, Arizona and he had neither a tablet, nor a laptop to get his information. (Note his glowing evaluation of former Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Tyronne Stowe.)

Night after night, year after year Ken answered call after call like the one you can listen to above. He claimed his mission was to help people enjoy sports more, and that was certainly the case with me, because in a pre-dot.com world he was one of the only places to turn for information about the Steelers.

Ken Beatrice on the Steelers

I have my own experience with Ken Beatrice fudging it when it came to the Steelers. To win a bet with a roommate I once called him to clarify which play was the “Immaculate Reception” and which was “The Catch.”

  • Beatrice answered correctly of course, but told me Lynn Swann or John Stallworth had been Terry Bradshaw’s target instead of John “Frenchy” Fuqua.

But that was a momentary lapse, as both before and after that I heard him correctly debate whether the ball had touched Frenchy before Franco Harris caught it. And I learned a lot about the Steelers in the years before I could get it from the internet.

For example, in the late 80’s, Beatrice informed that the Steelers wanted to move Gerald Williams from nose tackle to defense end, a switch that didn’t happen until Joel Steed broke the starting lineup in 1993. A year later, Ken Beatrice also correctly predicted that 1994 would be Eric Green and Barry Foster’s final seasons in Pittsburgh.

  • In that same call, he also said the Steelers would target tight end in the 1995 draft, and of course they drafted Mark Bruener several months later.

He was also adamant that Joe Greene would be an exception to the “rule” that naturally talented players would make poor head coaches. Now Greene’s tenure as a Steelers assistant coach seems to suggest otherwise, but Ken made a sound argument.

During Bill Cowher’s rookie training camp, Ken also gave a clue that Huey Richardson could be in trouble, when he told me that should either David Little or Hardy Nickerson get injured, the Steelers should turn to rookie Levon Kirkland and not Richardson.

Ken had his quirky opinions with regard to the Steelers. He regularly insisted that both cornerbacks Delton Hall and Chad Scott should have been safeties, although the later opinion was validated (indirectly) years later by Bob Labriola who shared that many Steelers coaches felt the same about Scott.

While Beatrice was generally a fan of Tom Donahoe’s scouting and drafting ability, he quickly labeled their decision to pick Scott Shields in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft as “Inexplicable,” and again Ken was right on the money:  Scott Shields was a bust.

These Steelers tidbits from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s might sound trivial by today’s standards, but the fact is that Steelers fans living in the Washington DC area in the pre-internet world had no other way to get information on their team.

Ken Beatrice filled that void, not only for Steelers fans, but for fans of out of town teams of every sport and every stripe every night of the week.

Ken Beatrice, Retirement and Passing

A few days after the 2000 NFL Draft news rocked the Washington DC sports landscape – Ken Beatrice was calling it quits.


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Steelers fans in the DC Metro Area lost a friend when Ken Beatrice passed away

I learned of the news in a monologue from Tony Kornheiser who, although he’d been a long time Beatrice nemesis, praised Beatrice for being one of Washington’s sports radio pioneers. Kornheiser argued that it was the consistent ratings drawn by Ken Beatrice’s Sports Call that led to the establishment of WTEM, DC’s first All-Sports station.

No reason was given for the retirement at age 56. Some reports suggestd that it may have been health related. In a comments discussion on BTSC, a former employee of ABC News once suggested that Beatrice was forced out. Who knows what his reasons were?

  • At the time, Beatrice told Scott Harris of the Montgomery Gazette that he simply wished to spend more time with his family.

Beatrice lived out his retirement in Annapolis and then Northern Virginia and he would surface in the DC area sports media landscape from time to time and also worked as a lector at St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, Virginia. Beatrice continued to support charities, such as the Juvenile Diabetes foundation. He also did part-time post-Redskins game analysis for WBIG in the early 00’s.

  • Ken Beatrice passed away at age 72 in a hospice center in Aldie, Virginia and is survived by his wife, son, daughter two grandchildren.

Although he hadn’t been on the air for a decade and a half, there isn’t one of his former listeners who will fail to miss him.

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Who is Gerod Holliman? The Steelers Next Darren Perry… Or Scott Shields?

NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah earned bragging rights during the 2015 NFL Draft. He had the Steelers picking Gerod Holliman and the Steelers drafted him. The problem is that Pittsburgh picked the Louisville safety in the 7th round and not in the first as Jeremiah projected.

  • The life and times of 7th round picks should normally remain ho-hum affairs. If the said 7th round pick is lucky fans will recognize his name when it appears on the list of final cuts.

Not so with Holliman, he’s one 7th round pick who’ll arrive at St. Vincents with notoriety. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed Holliman “…can take credit for making the first and last interceptions of the spring for the team” (including one of Ben Roethlisberger‘s passes) even though he didn’t get many reps.

  • Who is Gerod Holliman? Have the Steelers EVER had a 7th round picks whose generated such a buzz before training camp has even started?

The answer to the question is “No.” Steelers 7th round picks simply don’t generate this kind of attention. When Gerod Holliman arrives at St. Vincents all eyes will await the answer to two questions – can he hit and can he tackle?

  • The Steelers demand two things of their safeties – they need to be ball hawks and they must hit hard.

Hoillman’s 14 interceptions provide ample proof that he meets the first criteria, but the knock on him is that he shies away from contact. Gerrod Holliman “Write his own story” as Mike Tomlin would be wont to say, but history suggests two interesting if divergent parallels for Holliman’s development – that of Darren Perry or that of Scott Shields.

Darren Perry Under Spoken Upstart of the Steelers 1992 Draft

Darren Perry didn’t arrive at St. Vincent’s college in the summer of 1992 with fans and the press doubting his hitting and ball hawking skills. That’s because, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, internet profiles and YouTube video collages didn’t exist back then.

What Darren Perry did do is something that none of the “studs” from the Steelers 1992 draft classLeon Searcy, Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed – earn a starting spot.

Perry was an 8th round pick, meaning he would have even been drafted today, who showed up at camp, button his chin strap, and went on to win the free safety spot, making incumbent hold out Thomas Everett irrelevant in the process. (Although in all fairness to Everett, he was traded to Dallas and started in 3 Super Bowls for them.)

  • Darren Perry didn’t have lot of the measurable, standing at less than six foot and weighing less than 200 pounds.

But Perry was a professional ball hawk. The man had a knack for being around the ball which allowed him to haul down 32 interceptions in 126 starts with the Steelers from 1992 to 1998. In fact, Perry started every game he played with the Steelers, until Bill Cowher benched him in favor of Bo Orlando at the close of the 1998 season.

IF there’s such a thing as a Steelers patron saint of underdog safeties, Donnie Shell should probably win, but Darren Perry would be a close second.

Holliman can look to Perry’s example for inspiration, if need be, but he would also be wise to look just as closely at the story of the man who the Steelers drafted to replace Perry.

Scott Shields the Steelers “Inexplicable” Second Round Safety

While Perry played 7 strong season for the Steelers, his performance began to decline when his age crossed the big 3-0 threshold. The Steelers looked to the 1999 NFL Draft for his replacement, and picked Scott Shields.

  • While the internet was in full bloom by 1999, there still wasn’t as much detailed information out there on draft picks as there is today.

So, like many other Steelers expats living in the Washington DC area, yours truly looked to WTEM’s Ken Beatrice for insight on who the Steelers picked. Beatrice, who generally lauded the Steelers drafting in the 1990’s, labeled the Steelers decision to pick Shields in the second round of the 1999 draft as “inexplicable.”

  • As it turns out, Shields got labeled as one of the biggest draft busts of the last 20 years by Pittsburgh Sporting News.

IT didn’t start out that way for Shields however. While Jamain Stephens gassing out during the Steelers run test grabbed all of the headlines as the Steelers opened 1999 training camp, Scott Shields quietly led the team Cowher’s annual run test.

As an athlete, Shields had everything a coach could want. He was big, he was fast, he had the measurables, and he was versatile – word was he was good enough to function as a stand in place kicker if need be. Heck, the Steelers even issued him Mel Blount’s no 47….

And Shields rookies season was promising too. He sealed both the Steelers road victory over San Francisco and the Steelers post-Christmas win over Carolina with interceptions. In fact, he tied Dewayne Washington for the interception lead while only starting one game.

Shields started in the opening day shut out vs. Baltimore. He found himself relegated to the nickel, and after Tim Couch and Steve McNair both lead their teams down the field for late go ahead touchdowns, the Steelers benched Shields all together.

For all of his athletic prowess, Shields couldn’t tackle and struggled in coverage. He only appeared in ten games that in 2000, and was cut before 2001. If memory serves, Tom Donahoe gave him a shot in Buffalo, but Shields never made the roster. He played in 2002 for NFL Europe’s Scottish Claymores and spent time on the Kansas City Chiefs roster in 2004.

Holliman’s Opportunity Approaches

The Steelers defense is a unit in desperate need of turnovers, and Gerod Holliman would seem to offer Keith Butler and Carnell Lake that skill. As he prepares to go to St. Vincents, Holliman should do so secure in the knowledge that the Steelers will give him the fair shake just as they gave to Perry, but he should also know that they’ll also cut him loose just as they did with Scott Shields.

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Steelers vs Worst NFL Draft Classes in Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has ranked the 4 worst draft classes of the NFL’s last 25 years. If that sounds curious it should. Reineking actually claims to rank the NFL’s five worst draft classes, but he’s already included the 2013 NFL Draft, and 2 years is far too short a time to draw conclusions about any draft class.

  • Beyond that, the simple fact is that at this time of year pro football focused sites, including this one, become desperate for anything that generates them page views.

But let’s assume that Reineking’s methodology is sound and the analysis behind his rankings is solid. The question of interest to Steel Curtain Rising is “How did the Steelers fare vs the worst NFL draft classes in history?”  Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Steelers 1992 NFL Draft Class

For Reineking, the 1992 NFL Draft was the worst of the last 25 years and if he’s right, then this is all the much sweeter for Steelers nation, because the Steelers 1992 draft class was one of the best of the post-Chuck Noll era.

The 1992 NFL Draft was Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s first together, and their first three picks were Leon Searcy, Levon Kirkland, and Joel Steed. None of the three started in Cowher’s 1992 opening day upset of the Houston Oilers. That honor feel to Darren Perry who started all sixteen games and hauled in 6 interceptions.

  • Searcy, Kirkland, and Steed did start on opening day 1993, and were regular starters through Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers also grabbed long snapper Kendall Gammon in the 11th round of the 1992 NFL Draft who served as long snapper for 4 straight years. Searcy left after 1995, but Kirkland, Steed, and Perry all signed multiple contracts from the Steelers. Kirkland and Steed made 3 Pro Bowls between them.

The Steelers 1992 draft class did not produce superstars, but Pittsburgh did find four solid, long-term starters and critical special teams role player. That’s a very good effort for any draft, and all the more so for one that is rated as the worst overall draft in a quarter century.

Steelers 2013 NFL Draft Class

It is way, way too early to evaluate the Steelers 2013 draft class. Going into 2015, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas represent huge question marks and you don’t want to say that of your first and third round pick two years after the draft. Especially when the success or failure of your defense hinges closely on their development.

Yet, Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams, and Markus Wheaton have all shown “something” and that bodes well for the overall fate of the 2013 draft class.

Steelers 2009 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 2009 draft class has perhaps been one of the most misunderstood. By definition, it’s a disappointment when no members of your draft class get second contracts. And if Ziggy Hood was a disappointing 1st round pick, he was no bust, and as Steel Curtain Rising demonstrated last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers made good picks in 2009, the problem is that the rest of the NFL benefited from them.

If 2009 was the third worst draft of the last 25 years, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin sent a lot of the right names to the podium, even if it did Pittsburgh little good.

Steelers 1999 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 1999 draft class was Tom Donahoe’s last, and it was far from his best. The Steelers were picking 13th, and their first two picks were Troy Edwards and Scott Shields, both of whom were busts. 3rd round pick Kris Farris represented another waste of a premium pick.

  • But the 1999 draft was far from a total loss for Pittsburgh.

Round’s 3 and four included men by the names of Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, two men who own three Super Bowl rings between them. Amos Zereoue also arrived in that draft and, while Zereoue never reached his potential he was hardly a bust.

The Steelers laid a couple of eggs in the 1999 NFL Draft, but they also found 2 diamonds in the rough.

Steelers 2002 NFL Draft Class

The 2002 NFL Draft was Kevin Colbert’s third with the team, and it was easily its best in terms of finding overall value. Only one of the 8 players the Steelers drafted in 2002 failed to make the roster.

Injuries ruined Kendall Simmons career, but he stayed healthy enough to start in Super Bowl XL. Most people will never think of Antwaan Randle El as great, but his value to the Steelers offenses went far beyond his stat sheet (just ask Hines Ward). Ditto Larry Foote. The Steelers upgraded when they replaced Chris Hope with Ryan Clark, but Hope was good enough to start during the 2004 15-1 season and the Super Bowl that followed a year later.

Verron Haynes and Lee Mays weren’t household words in Steelers Nation even when they were playing, but Hayes was a serviceable back up, and Lee Mays a decent spot duty role player.

  • The final pick was of course Brett Keisel. What more do we need to say?

Kevin Colbert really did save the best for last here.

Keisel might not be a future Hall of Famer, he might have only earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Brett Keisel blossomed into a great player in every sense of the word.

The Steelers do Well in Picking from Weak NFL Draft Classes

Going into ever NFL draft, fans are wont to hear that “This it’s a great year to for teams that need to draft ______ [insert your position name(s)],” or “Unfortunately, there aren’t any viable franchise quarterbacks coming out this year.”

  • The funny thing is, you rarely hear draft classes collectively panned or praised after the fact.

Credit NFL.Com’s Jim Reineking for trying to change that.

Steel Curtain Rising offers no opinion either way of his choices, but if his rankings are right, then the Steelers have provided a case study proving the old adage that “Good players are available in every round waiting to be found,” it just takes a smart scouting organization to find them.

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