Watch Tower: Legendary Steelers Scribe Ed Bouchette Retires – Thank You Ed

The Watch Tower’s Lights have been dim for too long, but they’re lighting up today to say “Hail and Farewell” to a long time friend.

Ed Bouchette Announces His Retirement

The winds of change are sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation this off season. First Ben Roethlisberger retired. Then came Kevin Colbert’s final draft. And now, long time Steelers scribe the “Dean” of the Steelers press crops Ed Bouchette is retiring.

Ed Bouchette announced his retirement on a local Pittsburgh radio show The Fan Morning Show . A day later he followed with a farewell column in The Athletic that has drawn over 450 comments.

Ed Bouchette, Steelers beat writer, Ed Bouchette Post Gazette, Ed Bouchette The Athletic

Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette. Photo Credit: Barnett Media

Such a retirement calls to mind Pittsburgh native David McCollough’s observation that by the time Franklin Roosevelt died, many Americans didn’t think of him such much as the President but rather as the Presidency itself.

The same can be said for Ed Bouchette who was more than just a Steelers journalist, but in many ways embodied Steelers journalism.

The fact that Bouchette began covering the Steelers in 1974 – when this writer was only two – and has been on the beat since 1985 helps a lot. But if such longevity is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. And below we’ll take just a moment to explain why.

Bouchette, Newspaper Man

As a child of re-located Pittsburghers who weren’t football fans, I had to self-educate on the Steelers.

That education took place in the form of reading newspapers at my grandparents’ homes on trips to Pittsburgh in the late ‘80s. Before too long newspapers became mandatory cargo for any and all family members traveling either up or down the Turnpike and I-70.

By 1988ish I knew who Gene Collier and Bob Smizik were. I honestly can’t tell you when the name “Ed Bouchette” started meaning something to me. In a way, that’s fitting.

  • That’s because the other two were columnists, but Ed Bouchette was an old fashioned newspaper man, working the beat.

Someone reared and raised in a generation when a reporter’s first job was to avoid making his or herself as part of the story.

But even if I didn’t know who he was, Ed Bouchette played a vital role in bringing tone and color to the 1989 Steelers storybook season to life in a way that Washington Post sports section and ESPN NFL PrimeTime highlights never could.

Those were days long before interviews lived forever on Twitter, before you could watch the Immaculate Reception at the press of a button or watch a press conference at your convenience from say, Buenos Aires. Thanks to Ed Bouchtte’s slogging through the depths of old AFC Central locker rooms, I got a feel for how men like Merril Hoge, Bubby Brister, Rod Woodson, Rodney Carter, Greg Lloyd and Delton Hall authored the most improbable in-season turn around in NFL history.

Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

But I think what really cemented Ed Bouchette as an authorities Steelers voice was the Dawn of a New Steel Age, the book Bouchette authored on Bill Cowher’s 1992 season. Bouchette’s book remains special to this day because of his unique ability to capture the feel and texture of the moment as Cowher Power was awakening Steelers Nation while also gaining an understanding the historical context  behind that transformation. (You can read the full review of Dawn of a New Steel Age here.)

From then on out, anytime any bit of news or rumor reached me about the Steelers, my first instinct was “OK, what does Bouchette have to say about this?”

Bouchette Cuts Against the Grain, Graciously

If Ed Bouchette did embody the old “newspaper” man ethos in so many ways, there’s one way he was an exception, and that exception endeared him to so many.

  • Early in my time in Buenos Aires, I made a run at working as a freelance journalist.

While I did publish a few articles in the now-defunct Buenos Aires Herald, I did a lot more freelance writing than I did publishing. That experience involved banging heads against the wall with editors who would “lose” articles they promised to publish. That only happened once in part because I learned that editors often couldn’t even be bothered to read an email pitching an article.

When I vented about this to a friend who worked in journalism, he told me, “Welcome to the world of newspapers where, as a rule, the more widely read you are, the ruder you.”

Well, Ed Bouchette is probably Pittsburgh’s most widely-read journalist, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone more polite, friendly or helpful. Here’s one such example:

Jim Wexell, who was already a veteran journalist when he joined the Steelers beat in 1995, wrote in Polamalu that Bouchette reached out to him before his first draft and acted as a mentor. Looking at the comments second of his farewell article in The Athletic, you’ll find similar comments from a journalist who covered the Steelers briefly for the Oil City Derrick, another from a student journalist who covered the Steelers for his college’s paper, and many, many more.

  • Bouchette’s generosity extended to bloggers.

The first time I contacted him for a comment about an article, he blew me away by complementing my work and sending me his cellphone number. Through the years he helped me out with a number of articles. And, when I pointed out an error in a Post Gazette story that referenced the ’88 quarterback competition at St. Vincents, he couldn’t have been more appreciate in his response.

Bouchette’s Footprints

One thing that has surprised me, is that both when I asked him about his favorite stories from the PG days and in his farewell article, Bouchette shared a few specifics, but didn’t supply a long list of articles you might expect of a journalist of his tenure.

  • I suspect there are two reasons for this.

One, because for Bouchette, its never been about him, its always been about the story. Second, I also suspect that as an old newspaper man, Bouchette quickly accustomed himself to rushing his copy in by deadline in the evening, watching it go out the door the next morning and then seeing used as fish wrappers by the next day.

  • But world has changed, and in a good way.

When asked why he’s retiring, Bouchette echoed Chuck Noll, explaining “Its time.” That’s a fitting reference. In Bouchette’s story on Noll’s retirement, he closed by quoting Noll as saying, ‘”Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints,’” and then reminded readers that the 4 Super Bowl trophies in the lobby at Three Rivers Stadium were Noll’s footprints.

  • And where can Ed Bouchette’s footprints can be found?

On in the digital pages of the Post-Gazette, The Athletic, and within Google Newspaper Archives. The city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation are lucky to have them.

Thank you Ed. Enjoy your well earned retirement.

 

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Trubisky Time? Steelers Sign Mitch Trubisky, Giving Another 1st Round Quarterback a 2nd Chance

Although they can’t make it official until Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will sign Mitchell Trubisky to a two year contract. Trubisky joins a quarterback room with Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins and will challenge Mason Rudolph for the starting quarterback position this summer at St. Vincents.

The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd overall pick during the 2017 NFL Draft. Trubisky started 50 games for the Bears and appeared in 51. Mitchell Trubisky’s record as a starter is 29-21 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoff losses to the Eagles (2018) and the Saints (2020.)

According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Mitch Trubisky’s 2 year contract with the Steelers is valued at 14 million dollars but can climb to 27 million based on incentives.

Mitch Trubisky

The Steelers have signed Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year deal. Photo Credit: AAdrian Kraus, AP, via NJ.com

Trubisky Time! …We’ll See

With a contract that averages nearly 7 million a year, Mitchell Trubisky is making almost twice as much as Mason Rudolph. While that doesn’t assure him a starting job, it clearly indicates where the Steelers are leaning.

  • The question is, this the right decision?

Looking at the numbers, Mitch Trubisky has authored a respectable career, albeit, one that fails to live up to his draft status.

Overall, Trubisky boasts a career completion rate of 64.1% which is a hair below Ben Roethlisberger’s 64.4%. He’s also got a 64 touchdown passes to 37 interceptions, giving him a pick rate of 2.4% which is a hair below Roethlisberger’s 2.5% His career passer rating is 87, which is a full 5 points below Big Ben’s.

And numbers can be deceiving – Walter Abercrombie has a higher yards-per-carry average than Jerome Bettis – Anyone prefer him to The Bus? Last year, the Bears opted not to pick up his fifth year option, and  Trubisky couldn’t get a wiff of a starting job, instead spent 2021 backing up Josh Allen for the Buffalo Bills.

Mitchell Trubisky does offer the Steelers mobility, and in that sense is a better fit for Matt Canada’s offense.

Trubisky, the Latest First Round Pick to Get a 2nd Chance in Pittsburgh

Mitch Trubisky’s arrival all but rules out the Steelers using a first round pick on Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, Malik Willis or any of the other QB prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft.

If the Steelers don’t often draft a quarterback in the first round, having only done it 3 times since the Nixon Administration, they’ve given several former first rounder’s a 2nd chance, with mixed results.

Dwayne Haskins is one of those, and he’s still writing his story. Paxton Lynch was another, but he wrote footnote instead of a story.

Fresh off of XFL glory, Steelers took a flyer Tommy Maddox in 2001. He was only ever supposed to be a backup, but Tommy Gun unseating team MVP Kordell Stewart was the story of the Steelers 2002 season.

Bubby Brister

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

Back in 1988, the Steelers traded for Todd Blackledge whom Kansas City had taken 20 slots ahead of Dan Marino the 1983 NFL Draft.

Unlike Maddox, the Steelers brought in Blackledge to compete with Bubby Brister. Yet, Bubby started training camp proclaiming, “I’m your man!” Brister not only claimed the starting job, but when he got injured that year, Steve Bono pushed Todd Blackledge playing time, and by mid-1989, Rick Strom had relegated Blacklege to the 3rd string.

  • So what’s the moral of these men’s stories?

Mitch Trubisky would be wise to take nothing for granted.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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A 4 Point Roadmap Steelers Should Follow to Return to The Super Bowl

Super Bowl LVI is today. And again, the Pittsburgh Steelers will watch from home. Worse, the franchise hasn’t been farther away from a Super Bowl since their God-awful 1999 season.

  • This reality is generating untold angst within Steelers Nation.

Social media is full of solutions for returning the Steelers the Big Dance. First, there are the “Make Buddy Parker Proud” plans that involve trading a pirate’s ransom of draft picks to get Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.

On the flip side, there are demands to trade T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward because, “We’re never going to contend during their careers, so why not?” In between, you see calls for sticking with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins — but not to explore their potential — but because they’re Pittsburgh’s best shot at a top 5 draft pick.

No, nothing is easy, is it? Now you understand why Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin agreed to take a final, longest of long shots with Ben Roethlisberger.

If the Steelers road to Lombardi Number 7 certainly isn’t easy, the map they need to follow isn’t complicated because it involves focusing on the fundamentals that got the franchise their first 6 Super Bowls. Here is a four point roadmap.

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

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

1. Embrace the Suck

Jim Wexell quoted Tammy Duckworth’s “Embrace the suck” mantra following Martavis Bryant’s second substance abuse suspension. Duckworth of course lost both her legs in Iraq rebounded to become a US Senator.

In this context, the Steelers “Embracing the suck” means accepting that they are neither a quarterback nor a handful of key players away from contending again. A big part of this site’s Steelers 2021 season review hinged on who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft and who actually made (or stayed) on the field in the early fall.

  • That perspective was useful for reviewing 2021, but is irrelevant for 2022.

Take Tyson Alualu. The Steelers run defense certainly would have been better with Alualu. Alualu can probably help in 2022. But Alualu will be 35 and has only played in 17 of a potential 33 games over the last two seasons. He’s not a long-term answer. The Steelers need long term answers.

Fans can fantasize all they want, but it is important that Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert and his successor are honest with each other and with the men in the mirror about where this team stands.

2. Prioritize Winning Big Over Winning Fast

After Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll in 1969, Chuck Noll told him that he could win quickly by beefing up the roster with a few trades. But Noll and Rooney agreed on winning big instead of winning fast.

  • In this light, the idea of trading away 3 or 4 premium draft picks for a blue chip quarterback is pure folly.
Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, the Steelers are in a much better place today than in 1969. In Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Dan Moore and a few others the Steelers have foundational players.

  • But they need to find more foundational pieces, and they need to take them where they can find them.

Outside of perhaps safety and running back, there’s not a spot on the Steelers depth chart that should be off of the board on Days 1 and 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has argued repeatedly, good things happen when your best player is your hardest worker (and if possible) is the biggest guy in your locker room.

If ever there was a year for the Steelers to deprioritize need in favor of talent in the draft, it is 2022. That could leave some painful holes in the 2022 roster but will deliver long-term dividends.

3. Don’t Try to Force Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Finding a franchise quarterback requires 3 things:

1. Luck
2. Patience
3. Instincts

The importance of luck should be obvious, but it’s not. To understand luck’s role, think of how the Steelers found their first franchise quarterback. Despite drafting Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 NFL Draft, Chuck Noll went 1-13 that season.

The Steelers tied the Bears for the worst record, and they tossed a coin for the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.

  • Pittsburgh won the toss and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The rest is history.

Patience is just as critical as luck. The Steelers whiffed in 1983, drafting Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino. Fans and press pundits panned the team for trying to get by with Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister – didn’t Rooney and Noll know how important the quarterback position was?

They did.

And they also knew that franchise quarterbacks few and far between. Outside of Steve Young in the 1984 Supplemental draft and Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL Draft the Steelers didn’t have a shot at a true franchise quarterback until they passed on Drew Brees in 2001. (Ok, they should have taken Tom Brady instead of Tee Martin in 2000. 29 other NFL teams should have too.)

Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert

Bill Cowher sits beside Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: The Toledo Blade

Reaching for a quarterback and missing is more costly than it is at any other position. Just ask the people who picked Andre Ware, Cabe McNown and JaMarcus Russell. That’s why Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were wise to resist any temptation to draft Chad Pennington in 2000.

  • The Steelers must exercise the same prudence today.

And that’s where instincts come in. Dan Rooney lived through the mistake of passing on Marino and ensured that history didn’t repeat. So if and when the Steelers brain trust really does think they’ve found a franchise quarterback, they must take him.

4. Strive to Be Great, But Build to Win with Good

I took a lot of grief in high school, college and later sports bars defending Bubby, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. After all, the Steelers continued to make playoff runs while teams like the Bengals wasted first round picks on busts like David Klingler and Akili Smith.

  • And besides, you didn’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, you only needed a good one.

Then I saw Ben Roethlisberger go 9 of 12 while throwing laser like touchdown strikes to Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller to open the 2005 AFC Divisional win over the Colts. That’s when I understood why teams threw first round picks at quarterbacks. Neither Bubby, nor Neil nor Kordell could have done what Roethlisberger did that day.

  • The game has changed a lot since 2005 and much more since the 1990s.

Today conventional wisdom holds: You can’t win with a “Good” quarterback anymore, you can only win with a Great one. If you look at the names of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the 21st century, it is hard to argue against that.

Hard, but not impossible.

There’s no doubt that without a franchise quarterback, a team must be virtually error-free in the draft, have depth everywhere, and reach the playoffs in excellent health. But non-franchise quarterback do lead their teams to Super Bowls.

Nick Foles did it in 2017. In 2015 the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with excellent defense, a strong running game and a Peyton Manning who was a glorified game manager at that point in his career. Many would put the Joe Flacco-led Ravens Super Bowl in 2012 into that same boat.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

The Steelers of course tried to win a Super Bowl with a good quarterback in the 1990’s and the early ‘00’s, only to come up short with losses in Super Bowl XXX and 3 AFC Championship games.

But because they were built to win with good while seeking to be great, when luck, patience and instinct combined to start the Ben Roethlisberger Era in 2004 the Steelers as an organization were ready. And 3 Super Bowl appearances and victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII followed in the next 7 years.

Today, Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin must follow the same formula.

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

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

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

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

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

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

  • And what a voice he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Madden and the Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Madden Football

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

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

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

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

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

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

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

  • Far, far too many to count.

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

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

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

What the Game of Football is All About

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Represented Well in The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. Troy Aikman? He Got Screwed

With the Steelers bye week upon us let’s delve into something that there simply wasn’t time for during the off season, namely The Athletic’s NFL Top 100.

The Athletic kicked off their series on July 8th with Derrick Brooks at 100 and closed it on September 8th with, you guessed it, Tom Brady at number 1.

  • Overall, the series was an interesting and ambitious effort.

And like most Steelers fans my focus was to see how well (or poorly) the Black and Gold fared. Fortunately, the Steelers did well, landing 8 players on the list:

98. Dermontti Dawson
71. Mel Blount
69. Terry Bradshaw
57. Mike Webster
52. Jack Ham
37. Jack Lambert
26. Rod Woodson
14. Joe Greene

(Technically you could argue the Steelers have 9, as Bobby Layne made the list at 89 and Layne played 5 seasons in Pittsburgh.)

Sure, one can quibble (as many did) over Troy Polamalu not making it while Ed Reed did. One could also protest Franco Harris’ absence. (Few did, even though Franco still owns several Super Bowl records and of course authored the Immaculate Reception, greatest play in the history of the sport.)

  • On the flip side, naysayers could (and did) object to Bradshaw’s inclusion.

But no matter how you cut it, the Athletic’s writers clearly give the Steelers the respect they’ve earned.

The same cannot be said, however, for Troy Aikman.

Levon Kirkland, Troy Aikman, Kevin Greene, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30,

Levon Kirkland after sacking Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A Steelers Fan Takes up for Troy Aikman? Yes.

Troy Aikman remains only one of four quarterbacks to win 3 Super Bowls having pulled off that feat in 4 years failed to make The Athletic’s NFL Top 100 list.

This is insane.

It might seem odd for a Steelers fan to take up for Troy Aikman, let alone one who insisted that the ’89 Steelers would should regret not having a shot a drafting Aikman because “we’ve got Bubby Brister.”

  • Six year later, Aikman would show that same 23 year old just how naïve his 16 year old self had been.

Against the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Troy Aikman played better than any other Dallas Cowboy on the field. As the legendary Will McDonough argued, he should have been the game MVP. True, Aikman’s Super Bowl XXX stats might not knock you on your ass.

Emmit Smith, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30

Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd tackle Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But he played a mistake free game, and he did it against the Blitzburgh defense. Sure, that Steelers secondary was stuck together with spit, duct tape and bubble gum, but that same defense made Emmitt Smith look like a mere mortal (OK, like a mere mortal except for when he was in the Red Zone – but there’s a reason why they called it the “Emmitt Zone” back then.)

  • Troy Aikman didn’t do it just once against the Steelers, but he did it two other times in the Super Bowl.

“Ah, but performance in Super Bowls only goes so far….” Frankly, I’m not sure of that. A quarterback’s success or failure to get it done on the game’s biggest stage is one of the most critical metrics of his mettle. Terry Bradshaw would have zero justification for a place on this list had he not played so well in his Super Bowls.

  • But a “Stats not Super Bowls” argument falls flat when applied to Aikman.

Dan Marino’s (No. 18) career passer rating was 86.4. Brett Favre’s (No. 22) was 86. By comparison, Troy Aikman’s was 81.6. So maybe The Athletic used a passer rating of 85 as some sort of cut off? Nope. John Elway (No. 15) was 79.9. Roger Staubach (No. 78) had a career passer rating of 83.4.

It says here that all of the other quarterbacks discussed here as well as others not mentioned deserve a spot on The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. But if they do then Troy Aikman certainly does as well.

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The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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Why Joe Walton’s 2nd Act at RMU Ellipses the “What IFs” from His Time with Steelers

Beaver Falls native and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Joe Walton passed away earlier this week at age 85. Joe Walton devoted his adult life to football and, when assessing his contribution to Western Pennsylvania football, he leaves an important lesson: Sometimes second acts can ellipse unanswered questions.

Walton Cut Teeth in Pittsburgh, then Made It Big in New York, Washington

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Joe Walton was an Academic All American and team captain for the Pitt Panthers where he played from 1953 through 1956. In the NFL he played tight end for 4 seasons in Washington followed by 3 more for the New York Giants.

Walton then picked up a whistle, stop watch and clip board, joining the Giants first as a scout, then as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator. During the 70’s he went back to Washington to work as running backs coach and offensive coordinator, before heading north on I-95 in 1981 towards New York, this time to join the Jets.

He served first as the Jets offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 1983 to 1989. There, Walton fielded two playoff teams, in 1985 and 1986, but struggled outside of that.

On Valentines Day 1990, Chuck Noll announced that, 33 years after leaving, Joe Walton was coming home to Pittsburgh to serve as the Steelers Offensive Coordinator.

Two “What IFs” Define Joe Walton’s Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator generated a lot of sound and fury and in the end it signified the end of The Emperor’s reign in Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, it was not a success. (For a full account of Joe Walton’s time as Steelers offensive coordinator, click here.)

  • Yet, Walton’s time in the Black and Gold left us with two big “What IFs.”

The first “What IF” is, what if Chuck Noll had stuck with Tom Moore or handed the reigns to his offense to someone else? The 1989 Steelers, in spite of the story book nature of their season, had finished 28th in total offense. The “front office,” (most likely Tom Donahoe pushing Dan Rooney) wanted change.

As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette in November 2009, Joe Walton came in and it “wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

“What IF” Chuck Noll had resisted front office pressure to fire Tom Moore and/or handed the reigns to someone else? Bill Cowher’s success with the 1992 Steelers suggests those 1990 and 1991 teams were capable of much more. But we’ll never know.

  • The second “What IF” revolves around whether Walton scuttled Bubby Brister’s development.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Statistically speaking, Bubby Brister’s 1988 and 1989 seasons was pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the day. But Bubby Brister had play making potential, and could be downright deadly when hooking up with Dwight Stone and Louis Lipps downfield.

  • But Walton’s offense centered around running backs and tight ends.

That suited Neil O’Donnell fine, but Bubby Brister hated it with a passion. Walton insisted to Myron Cope that he used the same offense and same playbook at with great success at Robert Morris, explaining that “It was just that Brister couldn’t remember the formations.”

There’s no reason to doubt Walton on this one, especially given the difficulty Brister had when Mike Shanahan tried to hand him the Broncos offense in 2000, after John Elway retired.

But Brister’s raw talent was undeniable, and one has to wonder how it might have developed with a different mentor. Again, we’ll never know.

Walton Soars in Second Act with Robert Morris

As Ed Bouchette reported in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Joe Walton asked Dan Rooney to consider him as Chuck Noll’s replacement, but his wish went nowhere.

But Walton did fulfill his desire to stay in Pittsburgh when he was hired in 1993 to found Robert Morris University’s football program.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola explains:

He did it all with the Colonials: hiring coaches, purchasing equipment and recruiting athletes for the inaugural season of 1994. He started that season with 64 freshmen at a school that never had football and ended up leading the team to a 7-1-1 record. He won his first game 21 days after the start of training camp and immediately ran off a five-game winning streak.

Under Walton’s guidance, Robert Morris went 115-92-1 while winning 6 Northeastern Championships. According to Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, Robert Morris won NCAA I-AA mid-major national championships in 1999 and 2000.

  • Many if not most Steelers fans will always remember Walton for his time as offensive coordinator.
  • Most Pittsburghers probably will too.

That’s unfortunate. Joe Walton’s “Life’s Work” was certainly coaching, and he truly excelled in his vocation at Robert Morris. While it is easy to cite his record and say “It speaks for itself,” that would be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Current Robert Morris coach Bernard Clark Jr. drives this point home, explaining, “The first time I heard former student-athletes talk about coach Walton, not one mentioned how good a football player he made them. They all spoke about the men he helped them become. That is the sign of a great teacher….”

Amen to that.

Joe Walton’s decision to return to his Pittsburgh roots as Chuck Noll’s final offensive coordinator might not have borne fruit, but his choice did pave the way for him to become a mentor to hundreds of young men at Robert Morris.

And in that sense, his contribution to Western Pennsylvania was likely larger than it ever could have been with the Steelers.

What a worthy second act.

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Steelers Nation Matured with Bill Cowher as He Validated Mom’s Wisdom

Today, Bill Cowher enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame 29 years after becoming Steelers coach in January 1992.

“Passionate” “Inspiring” “Intense” “Daring” “Emotional” “Intimidating” “Fiery” “Boisterous” “Balanced” are all excellent words that describe Bill Cowher. Yet most Steelers fans could have applied these adjectives to The Chin before he’d even coached a half season’s worth of games.

Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 16 years. As we observed in the intro to “The Cowher Years” the series, the world changed tremendously during his time. And it is through change that we learn the most.

To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them and to re-experience all of the change wrought by them.

  • So what did Steelers Nation learn and what did it gain from Bill Cowher’s time in Pittsburgh?

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via Daily Record

Vindicating Faith

Generation X occupies a curious spot within Steelers Nation. Unlike the our Depression Era grandparents and our War Baby/Boomer parents, we never experienced the perpetual losing SOS (Same Old Steelers.)

  • But unlike the millennials, we did live through the 80’s, when the Steelers muddled through mediocrity.

Yet, as children of the ’70’s we had been young enough to actually believe that “We Are the Champions” really was written for Steelers. And this instilled in us an unshakable faith that someday, I daresay, the Steel Curtain would Rise Again.

Chalk some of that up to naiveté of youth, says the writer who scoffed at winning “The Aikman Derby” because, “The Steelers don’t need to draft Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister!

But the 1989 Steelers breathed new life into those hopes. And if 1990 disappointed, the logic behind Bob Labriola’s favorable position-by-position post-season comparison between the Steelers and the surprise Super Bowl Champion Giants was sound.

The Steelers had the pieces needed to be champions. Chuck Noll felt so himself, but admitted to his wife during the 1991 season that he couldn’t coach them up to that level.

And in writing about the early Cowher years, it occurred to me that during the early 1990’s, Steelers Nation experienced what it was like in the 70’s when the team was on the rise. Winning was novel. Winning was fun. And it was pure.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

I’ll never forget answering the door 2 days after Christmas at my grandma’s house in Baldwin, moments after the 1992 Steelers closed with a win over the Browns. I greeted a teenage paper boy sporting a Steelers hat, Steelers jacket and Steelers T-shirt and huge simile tattooed across his face. I’d been to Pittsburgh scores of times through the 80’s, but I hadn’t seen that enthusiasm since the late 70’s.

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

Not only were the Steelers finally playing the Championship Caliber football that they could have and should have been playing before, but they were playing the Championship Caliber football that we fans felt we deserved to see them play.

That feeling reached its peak when Yancey Thigpen took out his Terrible Towel in the end zone 1994 AFC playoff win the Browns.

A generation of Steelers fans felt like we were were finally claiming our birthright!

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

As we know too well, a week later Alfred Pupunu broke the magic spell that Thigpen’s Terrible Towel twirl had cast. That loss, ugly as it was, fostered a transition in how Steelers Nation perceived its beloved team.

The Steelers of the 70’s might not have been the Greek gods that NFL Films portrays them as, but they were modern day Epic heroes, Goliaths, if you will. In contrast, the Steelers of the 1990’s, ever struggling against the salary cap, played the role of Davids.

  • And that perception was grounded in a bit of reality.

The Steelers Digest once ran covers of Rod Woodson dressed as Superman and another of Greg Lloyd posing with a Darth Vader helmet. Both motifs were appropriate.

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

But I’ll simply observe, with my heart full of love for Number 26 and Number 95, that Jack Lambert never needed costume department props to stage his iconic photo.

  • The “David” role suited the Steelers and Steelers Nation well.

But it also confronted some hard realities. In Super Bowl XXX team “David” came far closer to slaying team “Goliath” than anyone expected. But when David’s sling is quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Goliath has Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman as his sword, Goliath is going to win most of time, especially if David’s sling fires at the wrong team, twice.

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

Let’s be honest. The “David” complex led to a bit of self-righteousness on the part of Steelers Nation. Who didn’t snicker when Tom Donahoe waived off Eric Green and Woodson’s requests to return with his “Salvation Army” comment? I know I did.

Well, they defied gravity until they couldn’t. The Cowher-Donahoe dispute proved that, even if the Steelers do run one of the better, more people-friendly organizations in the NFL, they are not immune from the poisons of petty personnel disputes and ego clashes.

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

The fact that the Steelers were able to return to contender status so fast after the dark days of 1998 and 1999, attests to how well the organization was run. Yet, before the 21st century was even a half decade old, the Steelers had played two more AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh and lost both of them.

Players who could have, and should have helped bring One for the Thumb back to Pittsburgh, guys like Mark Bruener, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake gave way to players like Heath Miller, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, and yet the Super Bowl remained distant. To repeat:

  • To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them.

With passing article in the Cowher Years series, the feelings generated by those inopportune interceptions, blocked kicks, free agent departures, blown calls and those lost AFC Championships grew more acute.

And it reminded me of something my mother told me in 1980 when I was a 3rd grader complaining that the Steelers weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Here is her response:

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Ben Roethlisberger and Bill Cowher in the final moments of Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey, AP via The Athletic.

“If the Steelers won the Super Bowl every year, it wouldn’t be special.”

Mom was right, as she (almost) always is. By the mid 00s, instead of expecting a Super Bowl, many Steelers fans feared they’d never see one. Of course Dan Rooney steered Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And while Big Ben didn’t deliver in his first season, he did in his second.

Bill Cowher could finally make good on his promise to Dan Rooney. He brought home the 5th Lombardi.

And when it finally happened, one Steelers scribe had the maturity to appreciate just how special it was.

Thank you Bill. May your bust in Canton shine forever!

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era

Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.

Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.

At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.

  • Kevin Colbert has vindicate Rooney’s wisdom time and time again.

But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Colbert Effect

If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.

People expected the Steelers to use the 8th pick overall to draft Chad Pennington, the top quarterback in the draft; Colbert and Cowher instead drafted Plaxico Burress. He also signed Brent Alexander, cut guard Brendan Stai and replaced him with Rich Tylski.

Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.

The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.

  • So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.

The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com

After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.

It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”

After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”

Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.

  • Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.

So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.

  • Run blocking was improving.
  • Jerome Bettis was proving the doubters to be wrong.
  • Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.

And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.

After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.

  • The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!

Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.

Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.

  • It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.

It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.

The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.

With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?

Digging Out from 0-3

The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:

  • Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
  • Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
  • Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
  • Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
  • Begun to watch Hines Ward, and not Plaxico Burress nor Troy Edwards separate himself at wide out

Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.

As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport

Growing Pains

The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.

The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.

  • A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.

The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.

For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.

His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.

  • If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.

Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.

The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.

The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.

Undaunted, the Steelers closed their home season with a rousing 24-3 pasting of the Washington Redskins in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Dieon Sanders shying away from tackling a roaring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers forcing Jeff George from the game, and Myron Cope telling off Daniel Snyder on the open air.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.

His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.

Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.

Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.

While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.

There’s a reason why an entire sub-section earlier in this article is dedicated to one steamy afternoon in Jacksonville and titled “Hinge of Fate.” That’s because a 0-3 team went into hostile territory and trashed a conference-favorite. In doing so they set the tone for not just the season, but the entire decade:

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation

“There’s a big opportunity to win here. I think the tradition, the stability, the credibility of the front office and the wealth of talent on this team is exciting to any football coach….” – Bill Cowher, on his first day as Steelers head coach.

“…And Mark Royals standing at his own 40, the rush – and he’s passing down field and he completes the pass pulled in by Warren Williams…” – Jack Fleming during the Steelers 1992 opening day victory vs. the Houston Oilers

Bold words backed by bold actions – Bill Cowher began his tenure as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach by defining a single success metric: winning the Super Bowl.

It may have taken 15 years for him to do that, but Bill Cowher’s confidence inspired the 1992 Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh, and the team’s nationwide legion of fans. Steel Curtain Rising’s look at the Bill Cowher years starts where it all began, with the Steelers 1992 season.

Bill Cowher, Rod Woodson

Bill Cowher and Rod Woodson cerca 1992

1992 Opener vs Oilers: Bold Words, Bolder Actions

Bill Cowher’s declaration shocked reporters, who rolled their eyes at Cowher’s contention that the Steelers had a “wealth of talent” and “no glaring weakness.” A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette preseason reprint from the book Cowher Power, argued that the 1992 Steelers would be lucky to post a winning season while assailing nearly every position on Pittsburgh’s roster.

  • Bill Cowher’s confidence stood on a solid foundation, but perhaps the press’ cynicism can be forgiven.

Just three years earlier the 1989 Steelers storybook season had ignited hope that the Steel Curtain was finally rising again. Chuck Noll openly spoke of “Championship talent.” The Emperor felt he could win big again. But the playoffless, 9-7 1990 Steelers season effort earned the Steelers an “Underachieving” label. By the time Noll retired after a 7-9, 1991 campaign, most NFL observers, inside and outside of Pittsburgh, wrote the Steelers roster off as mediocre at best.

Bill Cowher saw things very differently, and early on, he refused to flinch when challenged to prove it.

Cowher Power Takes the NFL by Storm

And so it was, that the 1992 Steelers began the Bill Cowher era in Houston, taking on the division rival Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers had looked “OK” in preseason, but preseason means nothing.

Lore has it that, rather than discuss the challenge presented by the 11-point underdog Steelers, the Houston Chronicle focused most of its Sunday morning opening day coverage how it was imperative that the Oilers secure home field advantage during the playoffs.

  • Early events appeared to vindicate the wisdom of the Houston Chronicle editors

The Steelers fumbled away their first two possessions, in effect spotting the Oilers 14 easy points to start the first quarter. But then, on 4th and 15 at the Oilers’ 45, Bill Cowher ordered punter Mark Royals – who’d never thrown an NFL pass before, to go for it. Warren Williams caught Royals’ pass and scampered 44 yards, setting up a Barry Foster touchdown.

  • From that point on, the Steelers and Oilers fought tooth and nail.

Larry Griffin, rookie Darren Perry and Rod Woodson picked off Warren Moon 5 times, and in the process ended two would-be game-willing drives by the Oilers. Dwight Stone ran reverses twice, including one on third and long. When it ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers stood as 29-24 victors in a game no one gave them a chance of contesting, let alone winning.

  • NFL history proves that opening day upsets aren’t difficult, sustaining momentum from them is.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers sustained their momentum, with a home opening win over the New York Jets that saw Barry Foster run for 190 yards, followed by a road victory of the San Diego Chargers. In the blink of an eye, the Pittsburgh Steelers had shot from afterthought to the talk of the NFL. The Steelers fell in their next game to Brett Favre’s debut and lost the following week to Cleveland, setting up a critical mid-season stretch.

Something Special Happening with the Steelers

The 1992 Steelers snapped their 2 game losing streak with an impressive shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, giving them a 4-2 record heading into a critical 3 game stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Oilers, and the Buffalo Bills.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola observed at the time, a win over any of these teams would still be considered “an upset.”

This three game stretch would define the 1992 Steelers as contenders or pretenders. The Steelers traveled to Arrowhead Stadium, then considered an extremely difficult place to play, and blindsided the Chiefs to the tune of 27 to 3. In the process, Bill Cowher not only bettered his mentor Marty Schottenheimer, but also managed to keep Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith off of Neil O’Donnell, while the Steelers defense racked up 3 interceptions and Greg Lloyd added two sacks.

  • Following the win, Bob Labriola proclaimed that the Steelers could be counted on to defeat any NFL team at any time.

No, this wasn’t the “On any given Sunday credo,” but rather a reflection of the reality that 1992 Steelers had proven they were for real. Although it’s been almost a quarter century since I read the words in Steelers Digest, the memory of Labriola’s words still raises the hair on my arm. I’ll paraphrase that passage here:

Something very special is happening to this team and this city. A win next week over the Houston Oilers will give the Steelers sole possession of the AFC Central; energize the city and galvanize their nationwide legion of fans. The possibility of playoff games at Three Rivers Stadium will become a reality for the first time in a decade.

Rod Woodson, Warren Moon

Rod Woodson after sacking Warren Moon.

The Houston Oilers refused to go gently into the good night, as they held a 20 to 7 lead going into the 4th quarter.

But the Steelers fought back, and twin touchdown passes from Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper put Pittsburgh into the lead. Houston made one final stab at victory, racing to midfield with the clock ticking. Assistant coaches implored Bill Cowher to use the Steelers time outs. Cowher balked, saying, “He’s going to miss the field goal.”

Walking into the locker room, Rod Woodson proclaimed, “We OWN the division baby!” He was right. The 1992 Steelers took possession of the AFC Central lead that day never looked back, winning their first AFC Central title since 1984.

The Playoffs Return to Three Rivers Stadium

The 1992 Steelers won five of their next eight games to finish 11-5. Nationwide, fans took notice. As Ed Bouchette reports in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when the Steelers would arrive at their hotels for road games, they were suddenly greated by thongs of fans cheering “Here We Go Steelers! Here We Go!” Veterans like Tunch Ilkin had seen a little of this in 1980 but never since.

Although they weathered some close calls and an injury to Neil O’Donnell combined with two subpar games from Bubby Brister, they qualified as only bumps in the road: The 1992 Steelers entered the playoffs as the AFC’s number one seed.

  • The cover of Steelers Digest said it all, “A Run for the Ring.”

There’s something electric about a home playoff game played in front of a fan base that believes in your team, and even on TV, it was evident that the fans at Three Rivers Stadium believed.

  • History shows that Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers weren’t quite cut out to be champions.

Cowher started Neil O’Donnell. O’Donnell wasn’t fully healthy and it is a decision Cowher now regrets. The Steelers crossed mid-field over a half dozen times, yet could only score 3 points. 4th string cornerback Richard Shelton infamously dropped an interception that had pick six written all over it.

But the fact that the Steelers Digest could even discuss a Super Bowl run revealed just how thoroughly Bill Cowher’s arrival had transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • The transformation went beyond the city of Pittsburgh.

And that’s the real achievement of Bill Cowher’s first season: The 1992 Steelers didn’t succeed in winning the Super Bowl, but Cowher Power had succeeded in awakening Steelers Nation.

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