John Stallworth’s Steelers Career: An Improbable Journey from Overlooked Draft Pick to Hall of Famer

NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.

The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.”  That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.

In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr.

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

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years of the Super Steelers

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

  • But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

  • Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

  • Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

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

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

  • It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.

But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

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A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.
Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

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

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

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

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Steelers Draft Diontae Johnson, Who’ll Be Seen, Fairly or Unfairly, as Antonio Brown’s Replacement

The Steelers opened night two of the 2019 NFL Draft as spectators having traded their second round pick to the Denver Broncos to draft Devin Bush, but used the Raiders 3rd round pick they obtained from the Antonio Brown trade to pick Diontae Johnson, the wide receiver from Toledo.

  • The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.

Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers draft Diontae Johsnon

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com

Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout who helped Pittsburgh discover players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and John Stallworth always admonished, “Never draft a player higher than you need to.” (Indeed, Chuck Noll wanted to take John Stallworth ahead of Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert in the Steelers famed 1974 Draft but Nunn convinced Noll that Stallworth would sit on the board – he did.)

  • Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?

According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:

…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.

So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).

Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights

The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”

He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:

Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.

Diontae Johnson doesn’t give Ben Roethlisberger the coveted tall target he seeks, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eli Rogers and Donte Moncrief ahead of him, he won’t automatically get playing time due to his status as a 3rd round pick.

However, Diontae Johnson’s arrival in Pittsburgh could very well leave Ryan Switzer looking over his shoulder, as Diontae Johnson has kick return experience.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Diontae Johnson.

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Steelers Draft Terrell Edmunds in First Round of 2018 Draft. Did They Repeat Historical Mistake?

In what amounts to a mild surprise, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds a safety out of Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained the reasons for picking Edmunds along the following lines:

Within (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster’s scheme you saw him play free, you saw him play strong, you saw him play deep middle, you saw him play sub-package linebacker in there alongside his brother. That versatility was exciting.

Terrell Edmunds,

Steelers 2018 first round draft pick Terrell Edmunds at Virginia Tech. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine, USA Today via ESPN.com

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the Steelers at first attempted to trade down to pick Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, but were blocked.  Wexell didn’t lay down any odds on the Steelers taking Edmunds, by he did lay down 4-1 odds that the Steelers would draft Justin Reid, a safety from Stanford, who Pittsburgh left on the board.

  • Many analysts had not graded Edmunds as a 1st round pick, yet the Steelers were willing to look past his 2017 tape due to a shoulder injury that Edmunds had suffered and focus more on his accomplishments in 2016.

As Kevin Colbert explained, “The previous year head had four interceptions and then last year he had two in 10 games. But last year he was, again, minus the shoulder. He was a really important part of a really good defense.” With that said, Edmunds himself was surprised by the pick admitting: “Honestly, I was surprised,” to be taken in the first round, Edmunds explained “I’m just ready, though. I’m telling you. I’m ready. I was praying and hoping. Now, it’s time to work.”

If nothing else, Edmunds candor is refreshing.

Terrell Edmunds Video Highlights

The Harris Highlights video clip touted him as “The Nation’s Most Underrated Safety.” Of course Harris was hired to promote Terrell Edmunds Draft fortunes so you’d expect them to say that. Take a look for yourself:

Terrell Edmunds certainly makes some impressive plays for Virginia Tech on that highlight reel, although some of those passes he is picking off are not going to be thrown by NFL caliber quarterbacks.

A sampling of NFL Draft analysts finds a lot of skepticism being leveled at the Steelers for the pick. Mel Kipper Jr. had Edwards rated as the 8th best safety in the draft. Todd McShay of ESPN thought that Edmunds went too early, and Luke Easterling of the DraftWire labeled the pick as a “head scratcher.”

  • Clearly the thinking inside the South Side differs from the outside.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are wise to keep their own council. While it seems like “only yesterday” 18 years ago a good majority of the talking heads felt that the Steelers HAD to draft Chad Pennington to replace Kordell Stewart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin took Plaxico Burress instead. Both men had respectable careers, but it was Burress who made game-changing plays in the Super Bowl, albeit not for Pittsburgh.

Are Steelers Repeating Historical Mistake with Edmunds Pick?

Still, even from the perspective of self-professed draft ignoramus, there one aspect of the decision to pick Terrell Edmunds appears to be worrisome, and that’s the historical precedent.

In the early 1970’s Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, and Dick Haley established the NFL’s diamond standard for drafting excellence. Yes, they hit a grand-slam with the Steelers famous 1974 Draft Class that brought in Hall of Famer’s Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. But even before the 1974 NFL Draft, the quart had already drafted four Hall of Famers in the form of Joe Greene in 1969, Terry Bradshaw in 1970, Jack Ham in 1971 and Franco Harris in 1972. After 1975 or 1976, the quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive.

However, one of those reasons, as explained by Art Rooney Jr. in Ruanaidh, was that the Steelers ended up outsmarting themselves, but trying to find players who might have fallen for some reason. And Kevin Colbert’s explanation sounds an awful lot like a similar justification.

  • Hopefully, Terrell Edmunds will prove that those are unfounded fears.

He’ll get a shot to start doing that this summer as he competes with newly J.J. Wilcox and Morgan Burnett for playing time while at St. Vincents. Welcome to Steelers Nation Terrell Edmunds.

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Problem with the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class? Its Too Big

The Pittsburgh Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor Class became official last week and the selection committee chose to dive head first launching the Steelers Hall of Honor by naming 27 members to be inducted this week:

Contributors: Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll

Steelers from the pre-Chuck Noll era: Walt Kiesling, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Bill Dudley, Bobby Layne, Ernie Stautner, Jack Butler, John Henry Johnson, Dick Hoak

Chuck Noll Era Steelers: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell

Cowher Era Steelers: Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Kevin Greene, Jerome Bettis

Going forward, the plan is to induct 2-4 new members to the Steelers Hall of Honor every year. The Steelers Hall of Honor 2017 Class will take their place Alumni Weekend (Nov. 25-26), and they be recognized during halftime of that weekend’s game between the Steelers and Packers.

Fair enough. It will be a spectacle to celebrate in Black and Gold. But there’s a problem with the Steelers inaugural Hall of Honor class: It is too big.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class, Steelers Hall of Honor, Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriolia, Mel Blount

Stan Starvan, Art Rooney II, Bob Labriola & Mel Blount announce the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class. Photo credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Simply Too Large

As a life-long Steelers fan and armature Steelers historian, yours truly can’t quibble with any of the selections, save for Walter Kesiling, the coach who cut Johnny Unitas without some much as given him a practice snap.

But perhaps Wiesling does deserve induction, and the rest of the members certainly do.

In this light, the selection committee consisting of Art Rooney II, Joe Gordon, Bob Labriola, Stan Savran and Tony Quatrini chose to operate on the philosophy of “They’re going ot make it eventually, so why not induct them now?” Bob Labriola more or less seem to be speaking to that point, when he said the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class was more about recognition, then about competition.

Andy Russell, Steelers Hall of Honor Inaugural Class

Steelers linebacking legend Andy Russell. Photo Credit: Andy Russell.org

To that end, you can see the Steelers MO in selecting members from the Chuck Noll era: All of the Hall of Famers earned induction, as well as Donnie Shell, Andy Russell and L.C. Greenwood – three players whom the franchise also think are Hall of Fame worthy, but denied recognition because of the “Already too many Steelers in Canton” mentality.

  • But if the Steelers are going to take that approach to the Hall of Honor, then what about Larry Brown?

Larry Brown is the one player that Chuck Noll adamantly argued deserves Pro Football Hall of Fame honors, and will certainly find his way in to the Steelers Hall of Honor but was left out of the inaugural class. Ditto Rocky Bleier. Dan Rooney argued that Bleier deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he will certainly make it to the Hall of Honor, but he will have to wait. For that matter, no one would argue that Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll deserve recognition in the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors.

  • But why induct several of his players, while keeping Bill Cowher on the outside looking in?

By the same token, Bill Nunn Jr. Myron Cope, and Art Rooney Jr. certainly belong and will find their way into the Steelers Hall of Honor as contributors. So why not put them in now?

While this “debate” is little more than background noise for most citizens of Steelers Nation, the arguments stand on their own merits. And by taking a “recognition over competition” approach, the selection committee unwittingly opened themselves to the competition argument.

Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class Should Have Taken a Rushmore Approach

So what would the alternative be? Truthfully, when you have a franchise that is as stories as the Pittsburgh Steelers and you try to launch a Hall of Honor 85 years into your existence, you’re never going to make anyone happy.

  • A better way to from the Steelers Inaugural Hall of Honor Class would have been to take the “Rushmore Approach.”

We know the Rushmore approach thanks to the rise of the internet, which demands you fill web pages with “content” 365 days a year, every year. (Hence, you see sites that not only debate “Steelers Rushmore” but “Steelers Assistant Coaches Rushmore” “Steelers coaches Rushmore” and probably for that matter, “Steelers backup tight ends Rushmore.”)

Here’s how Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers Rushmore would shape up:

  • Ernie Stautner, to represent the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll era
  • Joe Greene, whose arrival effected the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to perennial contender and frequent champion
  • Franco Harris, who authored the Immaculate Reception the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation
  • Hines Ward, because he forms the bridge between the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin Eras

It is far to argue that a player like Troy Polamalu, who had once in a generation talent, would be more deserving than Ward, but players need to be retired for at least 3 years before they can enter the Hall of Honor, and Polamalu doesn’t make that cut.

But Hines Ward is a franchise great by any measure, likely won’t make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and would give the class balance between offense and defense as well as representation of all franchise eras.

  • And as a contributor, Art Rooney Sr. would enter as well, because there’s no way you launch a Steelers Hall of Honor without The Chief.

The selection committee, however, didn’t ask this sites opinion. They made their own choices. These men who form the Inaugural Steelers Hall of Honor class have done far more than yours truly ever would or could to build the Pittsburgh Steelers legacy, and we celebrate in their recognition for those accomplishments. But nonetheless, we suggest that the process should have been more gradual.

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Steelers Release Greg Warren, Highlighting Difference Between 2 Super Bowl Eras

And then there were two. “Real” football news can be quite rare in late May of any year, but the number of Super Bowl veterans on the South Side dwindled to two as the Steelers released Greg Warren, who handled the long snapping duties for the team since 2005, earning him rings in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Steelers kicked off their 2017 season by signing Greg Warren to their customary 1 year deal in February, Warren’s release is hardly a shock. The Steelers turned heads in the 2017 NFL Draft when they used their sixth round pick to draft long snapper Colin Holba of Louisville.

Greg Warren, Steelers Greg Warren Super Bowl Eras

Greg Warren tackles Solomon Patton early in the first quarter of the Steelers 2014 loss to Tampa @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

The move was instantly panned by both professional journalists as well as bloggers (this site included), but Jim Wexell and other reporters informed that the Steelers had legitimate concerns about Greg Warrens durability. It would seem like those concerns were well founded, as Greg Warren himself related:

I would first like to thank the Steelers organization, coaches and training staff for their help and advice over the last few weeks. I had full intentions of playing this upcoming season, but in light of new information I’ve recently received from my doctors relating to a past injury, it has been determined that trying to compete in the 2017 season may be a risk to my long-term health. After discussing this with the Steelers, we have decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to release me at this point.

Signed in 2005, Greg Warren played in 181 regular season games, more than any other Steeler at that time, for coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. With Warren’s release, only Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison remain as veterans from the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII championship squads.

Greg Warren’s Release Highlights Differences Between Steelers 2 Super Bowl Eras

Let’s admit it, when you think of “Steelers Super Bowl Eras” the name of Greg Warren doesn’t jump out at you. If you’ve got a long view of things, the names Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert spring to mind.

And you probably associate the Steelers second Super Bowl era with players like Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, and perhaps Willie Parker. But Greg Warren has provided vital stability during his era, and highlights how different the Steelers second Super Bowl Era has been from the first.

  • Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl teams were drafted together, matured together, won Super Bowls together, and then got old together.

Unfortunately, for reasons that go well beyond the scope of this blog post, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn struggled to restock the Steelers roster, even after mediocre records improved their drafting position.

Steel Curtain, 1974 AFC Championship, Steelers vs Raiders, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, LC Greenwood

Dwight White, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: SI

This second era has been different, largely thanks to Dan Rooney’s wisdom, the Steelers were able to draft a franchise quarterback and add him to a team that was already Super Bowl ready.

Although only two seasons separated the Steelers last two Lombardi Trophy presentations, Mike Tomlin’s ’08 squad featured a number of new faces in important places compared to Bill Cowher’s ’05 squad. Thanks to Heath Miller’s retirement and Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins, William Gay is the only other veteran from Super Bowl XLIII.

  • On a more personal level, Greg Warren’s retirement also underscores just how much perception of time evolves with age.

Born mere months before the Immaculate Reception provided the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation, I have no memories of Super Bowls IX or X. I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII but recall few details beyond my older sister asking “Who is that guy in the hat they keep showing” every time the camera focused on Tom Landry. I remember Super Bowl XIV better, and particularly John Stallworth’s game changing 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go touchdown.

After that with my age not yet breaking double digits, I had difficulty understanding why the Steelers struggled in the early 1980’s, not wanting to accept my older brother’s explanation that “All the Steelers have are old guys and rookies.”

It was difficult to follow the Steelers growing up in suburban DC in the pre-internet age. And by the time I started following the Steelers seriously again during the 1987 season I was in high school, and I was shocked to see that Super Bowl veterans such as Stallworth, Mike Webster and Donnie Shell were still playing.

  • At time it seemed like several generations of football has passed since the last Super Bowl, when in fact less time separated the Steelers from their last Lombardi than does now.

Time most certainly does move faster as you age.

Bit contributor or not, Steel Curtain Rising Thanks Greg Warren for helping bring home One for The Thumb and then completing the Super Bowl Six Pack, and wishes him the best as he begins his “Life’s Work.”

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Ross Cockrell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Dan Rooney’s passing might have consumed the attention of Steelers Nation for the better part of six days but the business of football continues. On Monday Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell signed his one year tender, ending any possibility that he would defect away from Pittsburgh.

  • The news comes with the proverbial glass half-empty half-full catch.

On the one hand, Ross Cockrell has made tremendous strides since the Steelers claimed him off of waviers in August 2015. So it is good that to know that he his continues on his upward trajectory the Steelers will benefit, at least for another season.

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

Ross Cockrell brings down his first interception in the Steelers September loss to the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the flip side, there’s the simple fact that 31 other NFL teams, many of which are flush with salary cap space, didn’t think enough of his current talent or “upside” to part with a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to secure his services.

  • What’s a law abiding citizen of Steelers Nation to conclude?

It says here that Ross Cockrell returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a good thing. When Ross Cockrell arrived in Pittsburgh, the common response was “Who?”

On the face of it, the fact that the Steelers picked a player who’d been waived in the first round of training cuts made it appear like the Steelers were continuing to try to fill their need at cornerback on the cheap, as they’d done with the Brice McCains, Antwon Blakes and Brandon Boykins.

  • But as Bob Labriola cautioned on Asked and Answered, its hard to judge a DB soley on tape because you don’t know what he’s being asked to do.

The wisdom came from the late Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout, and had Nunn lived to see Cockrell play, he’d have been proud, as Cockrell made two interceptions as a rookie and recovered the fumble that Ryan Shazier caused in the 2015 AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, enabling Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback.

The Steelers promoted Cockrell to starter in 2016, and while he did not come away with any interceptions, he did have 14 defensed passes, including a key one in the December win over the Bengals.

A lot of critics suggested the Steelers were low balling Ross Cockrell by only giving him an original round tender, and many suggested that this signified that they the franchise really didn’t regard him as starter material. That may be the case, but the Steelers actual risk factor was low, as they retained the right of first refusal.

The gamble they made with Cockrell really was no different than the ones they made with Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon in 2013.

  • Both men returned to start, and both men remain starters in Denver and New York.

Ross Cockrell returning to the Steelers is a decidedly half full proposition for Pittsburgh. Had the Steelers lost him, they’d almost have been forced to take a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft as Artie Burns has only played on year, William Gay is fading and newly signed Coty Sensabaugh remains unproven.  After that, the Steelers cornerback cupboard is pretty thin – unless you’re ready to count on Senquez Golson.

The Steelers should and probably will take a cornerback with one of their first 3 if not first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but having Ross Cockrell back for a year relieves Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin of the need to reach.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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