Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is set to hire Arthur Smith as his 5th offensive coordinator. In making the move, Tomlin may not have quite turned over all possible loose stones, but he did make good on his promise to look outside the organization.
Smith is most recently served as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and prior to that he worked for two years as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He will be the first Steelers offensive coordinator in the 21st that neither has ties to the team nor the city of Pittsburgh.
Ironically however, a quick look at Smith’s track record suggests he could help the franchise remain true to its roots.
Mike Tomlin shakes hands with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com
Of Running, Ryan and Combos
In his season-ending press conference, Mike Tomlin clarified that he wanted his next offensive coordinator to have experience and that he wanted someone who can foster Kenny Pickett’s development.
Arthur Smith checks both boxes.
The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft he started 88 games for them over 6 seasons. Tannehill’s numbers were OK, but never delivered what you’d need and expect an 8th overall pick to deliver. He never started a playoff game although the 2016 Dolphins did make it to the playoffs, Tannehill did not play as they got crushed by the Steelers.
The Dolphins moved on after 2018 and Tannehill headed to Tennessee where he joined Smith, who’d just been promoted to offensive coordinator. The difference was eye popping. Tannehill’s average passer rating at Tennessee was 91.2. In his two seasons with Smith that soared to 117.5 and 106.5
That pickup caught the attention of NFL owners, undoubtedly helping Smith land the head coaching job in Atlanta. And what’s telling here is that without Smith Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to Miami-like levels.
And there’s no real secret to Smith’s success with Tannehill – he leaned into the running game.
Under Smith’s guidance, the Titan’s rushing offense ranked 2nd and 3rd in rushing in the NFL. That’s welcome news for Steelers Smash Mouth Football purists who’ve longed for the team to get back to its roots.
It also may signal that Mike Tomlin’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If anyone ever doubted that, look no further than Josh Allen’s role in defeating the Steelers during the playoffs. But you can build a Super Bowl team around a solid running game and a strong defense as the 2015 Denver Broncos demonstrated (please spare me the “but they had Peyton Manning” replies, Manning was a glorified game-manager at that point in his career.)
With the Smith hire, it seems that Tomlin is acknowledging that the Steelers don’t have a super star quarterback and is acting accordingly.
The other encouraging sign in Smith’s resume is his background as a tight ends coach. Working as with tight ends gives a coach a unique perspective on the dynamics that drive both the running and passing games. I can’t speak for the rest of the league, but both Bill Cowher promoted both Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, and the Steelers offense flourished under both.
With that said, if during the Steelers 2022 win over the Falcons, Atlanta didn’t lean into its running game when it should have and they lost because of it, so that’s something to keep in mind.
Of Precedents and Pedigrees
The Steelers tendency to keep things in the family when it comes to finding offensive coordinators is nothing new. Tom Moore, Chan Gailey, Mularkey, Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians, Randy Fitchner and Matt Canada were all in-house hires. Both Joe Walton and Todd Haley had ties to the city and/or the team.
So Smith is now just the 4th “virgin” Steelers offensive coordinator hire, with Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride being the first three.
Looking at his track record, Arthur Smith looks a lot more like Ron Erhardt than a Sherman or a Gilbride. That’s a good thing.
“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.
A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X
1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process
The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.
In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.
On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.
As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.
2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health
You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.
Yeah, bad idea.
Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.
3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton
Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com
At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.
Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “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.”
This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)
But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.
In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.
5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh
Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com
Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.
The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.
The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.
After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.
The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.
Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.
But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.
When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.
That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.
It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.
8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner
My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.
Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.
And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.
9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022
Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.
So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.
During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.
During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.
Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.
(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris
This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.
In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.
Pat Rooney stands in front of a portrait of his father Art Rooney, Sr. Photo Credit: Richard Garulich, The Palm Beach Post
Patrick J. Rooney, former minority owner and son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. has passed away at the age of 84. Of all of the Rooney brothers, Pat Rooney kept the lowest profile when it came to his association with the Steelers.
Dan Rooneyof course ran the team for over 50 years, guiding it from NFL laughing stock to one of the most successful pro sports franchises in history. Dan’s decisions continue to shape the Steelers today. Art Rooney, Jr. ran the scouting department and, along with Bill Nunn and Dick Haley, oversaw some of the greatest drafts in league history.
Tim Rooney never held a formal role with the franchise, yet he was the one who penned the letter to “The Chief” imploring him to force head coach Walt Kiesling to keep Johnny Unitas. (The Chief balled the letter up and threw it in the trash, explaining to his sons, “There can only be one boss.”) John Rooney, Pat’s twin, never held a role with the team either, but he helped keep the Steelers in Rooney hands when Stanley Druckenmiller tried to buy the team in 2008.
But, as Pat Rooney explained to Jim O’Brien in his 2002 book The Chief, maintained few ties to the Steelers:
The last connection I had with the Steelers’ front office, aside from my brother Dan, was Mary Regan, who had been my dad’s secretary all those years. When they left Three Rivers Stadium for the new set-up on the South Side, Mary Regan retired. When I went in there before Mary Regan was the only one who knew me. I don’t know who to see now. That’s the way it is.
That may have been the way it was, but that was a pretty remarkable comment from a man who owned a 16% stake in the team and sat on its Board of Directors.
Pat Rooney ran the Palm Beach Kennel Club when the family bought it in 1970 and he moved to Florida to run it full time in 1984.
Although he was the first brother move as far away as Florida, Pat Rooney always remained true to his roots, recounting to O’Brien how he and his brothers would give out season ticket flyers outside the steel mills during shift changes, back when season tickets cost $25 or $30 dollars.
And Rooney remained close to his brothers, as he explained to O’Brien, “I talk to John every day. I talk to Tim about three or four times a week. I talk to Art several times a week. I talk to Dan now and then. John talks to Dan almost every day, and he tells me what Dan said. I talk to Art II.”
Like Dan Rooney, Pat was involved in the America Ireland Fund and even maintained a home in County Clare for a decade, where he’d spend approximately 2 months a year.
Pat Rooney along with his brother Tim wanted to accept Stanley Druckenmiller’s offer, however his other brother’s wishes prevailed. Although Pat didn’t quite get his way, events ultimately validated his wisdom.
In Ed Bouchette’s iconic 1992 volume Dawn of a New Steel Age, when talking about the possibility of keeping the Steelers within the family, Pat Rooney predicted, “Realistically Art’s going to have to buy out the partners.”
Patrick was predeceased by his brothers Dan and John and is survived by wife Sandra Sully Rooney and their seven children, several grandchildren and one great grandchild. Steel Curtain Rising offers them our thoughts and our prayers.
The Watch Tower has been dim for quite a while, but its lights shine again today with a focus on a major Steelers media figure manning up, making a story out of a non-story and draft war room nuggets.
Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)
Bob Labriola Mans Up
Dick Haley’s death marked the passing of yet another of the architects of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970’s.
As Haley’s role in building four Super Bowl Championships doesn’t get the attention that Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr.’s roles do, the Watch Tower made an extra effort to soak up as much as possible from his eulogies.
So the Watch Tower reached out to Ron Lippock who seemed to have published the quote before, and the Steelers Takeaways author confirmed that the quote indeed had come from his 2012 interview with Dick Haley.
Lippock contacted Labriola, and to his credit the editor of Steelers.com immediately manned up:
It has been brought to my attention that some of the Dick Haley quotes used in a recent story came from an interview done by Ron Lippock for Steelers Takeaways. Here is a link to the complete interview:https://t.co/Mye0CEMwwF
Rampant content stealing is a depressing downside of the digital age. Often, if not most of the time, it it’s not a question of who has the idea, the insight or who is breaking news, but who has the ability to push it to their followers. Rarely do those who engage in that behavior recognize it let alone apologize for it.
Bob Labriola, who assuredly made an honest mistake, acknowelged it immediately and made things right. In doing so, he set an example for all of us. Good for you Bob.
Mitch Tribusky Staying with Steelers – The Non-Story of the Century
Art Rooney II does his annual State of the Steelers sit down with the press after the season is over, and he rarely, if ever, speaks after that.
But the flip side is that the Steelers President isn’t coy.
Yes, he is guarded with his words. But if he says the Steelers are leaning in certain way, expect his lieutenants to follow in that direction. After the 2009 season he said the Steelers need to run better. And guess what? The Steelers ran better in 2010. In January 2017 he said the Steelers would probably draft a quarterback, and sure enough they picked Joshua Dobbs.
Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com
When Omar Khan spoke to reporters at the NFL Combine a month later, reporters asked him if Tribuisky would be back, Khan confirmed he would, and the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both bloggers and the professional press alike.
But you’d figure that the “story” would have ended with Khan’s comments.
Except it didn’t.
One month later reporters asked Mike Tomlin about Tribuisky at the NFL Owners Meeting, where Tomlin confirmed (again) that the Steelers were keeping Tribuisky. And again the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both the professional press and bloggers alike.
Each of the Steelers top three officials all confirmed that Mitch Tribuisky was in the team’s long term plans, yet somehow both bloggers and writers kept spinning yarns about scenarios that would see him leave Pittsburgh right up until Trubisky signed signed a contract extension.
Who knows? Maybe next off season reporters can try coaxing Khan, Tomlin or Rooney into saying, “Yes we’ll wear dark jerseys at home and white ones on the road next year” to see if that generates page views.
Donahoe’s Reveal on Steelers Draft Strategy in the ‘90’s
Tom Donahoe joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986 as a BLESTO scout and quickly rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel and Development in 1989 before ascending to Director of Football Operations in 1992, upon Chuck Noll’s retirement.
Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Still, Donahoe’s service to the Steelers from ’86 to until early 2000 make him one of the organization’s most informed insiders from that period. Yet, he’s seldom spoken about the organization since leaving.
Jim Wexell has changed that in a big way to the tune of a 4,301 word interview as part of research for his book On the Clock, the History of the Steelers Draft. Wexell shared the full interview with Steel City Insider subscribers last spring.
Any one of Donahoe’s 36 answers would suffice to earn Wexell Watch Tower kudos, but here’s an exceptional exchange:
Q: Did it hurt you guys economically not having the new stadium in free agency?
TD: It was a challenge. But we always tried to prepare for the guys that we thought were probably not going to be here to replace them. Maybe not to the same degree but we would at least have a player waiting in the wings where we wouldn’t have to just go out and buy a free agent. Although we did that the one year with Kevin Greene. He was a great pickup for us at that time. But Chad Brown was a tough loss.
Tom Donahoe’s answer might not qualify as “news” or a “revelation” for fans who suffered through those annual free agent exoduses during the 1990’s. But, to the Watch Tower’s knowledge, this is the first time that someone from the organization actually confirmed that anticipated free agent losses shaped the Steelers draft strategy in the 90’s.
And for that Jim Wexell earns a double dose of Watch Tower Kudos.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley passed away at the age of 85 on Friday March 10, 2023. Haley, along with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr. architected the most dominant dynasty that the NFL has ever seen.
In many ways Dick Haley’s story is the antidote to the “me” centeredness that plagues modern narratives of organizational success.
Dick Haley and Chuck Noll at St. Vincents in 1991. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via FOX News.
To hone in on what I’m talking, just think of how the smart advice to job hunters today is to be ready to show the value that you added to company and to always use the word “I” aned never “we” during interviews. Scaling up a bit, think of how the story of every successful tech startup gets tethered to the biography of entrepreneur who gets credit for it all. If you doubt this then ask if the names “Jobs,” “Musk,” “Gates” or “Brandsen” ring a bell.
For the last 50 years the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful organizations in professional sports, and it certainly is tempting to apply this same “who is the singular genius behind it all” mentality to them.
Tempting, but ultimately unsuccessful.
I once asked Ed Bouchette during a Post-Gazette on-line chat, “Who was most responsible for the scouting success of the 70’s? Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn or Dick Haley.” Bouchette’s response was unequivocal: Each one of them always insisted that it was a team effort.
Refreshing, if not surprising, because this emphasis of team over the individual is the very essence of the Steelers Way.
Dick Haley’s Role in Architecting the Steelers Dynasty
Art Rooney Jr. professionalized the Steelers scouting organization. Bill Nunn used his connections with the HSB network to give the Steelers “Ace in the Hole” on draft day. But Dick Haley’s contributions were equally critical.
Sure, Rooney spotted Jack Lambert pulling cinders out of his skin while practicing on Kent State parking lot, just as Nunn got near-exclusive access to John Stallworth’s tapes from Alabama A&M. But Dick Haley validated the evaluations of both players.
Super Bowl XIII: John Stallworth is headed to the end zone. Benny Barnes and Charlie Waters can only look on. Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images via FanSided
Art Rooney introduced the use of computers, making the Steelers one of the first NFL teams to bring IT into the scouting department. But Dick Haley balanced the quantitative with the qualitative by trusting his eyes.
As he explained to Pittsburgh Sports‘ Ron Lippock in 2012, “Yeah…I say it often I know – ‘Don’t tell me how fast or big a player is, just tell me how good he is.’ Just big and fast won’t work. Big, fast and good….we’ll take that player!”
He further detailed to Lippock, “Lambert was a good example. He was only 202 pounds in training camp. He was 6’5″. Ham was 209 pounds. Webster was only 250 pounds – tell Webster he wasn’t big enough.”
The results of this team driven approach to scouting speak for themselves:
4 Super Bowls in 6 years
73 Pro Bowl selections during the 70’s
2 Super Bowl victories over a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, the team to accomplish that
The 1974 Draft yielding 4 Hall of Famers plus 1 undrafted rookie free agent Hall of Famer
10 Hall of Famers
Dick Haley’s role in architecting that dynasty should be enough to earn him a spot in Canton alongside Bill Nunn (Art Rooney Jr. belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.) But Haley’s contribution to the Steelers legacy extends beyond the 70’s. And since its seldom discussed elsewhere we’ll do it here.
Steelers of the 80’s: Friction Between Coaching and Scouting = Stagnation
Business analysts love to talk about “process.” And Pittsburgh’s process for building the dynasty of the 70’s was simple: Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and other Steelers scouts would evaluate prospects and build the draft board, and Chuck Noll would draft the players.
Peek back at the bullet points above to see how well it worked.
But then in 1976 the NFL moved the draft from just after the Super Bowl to March. In theory the extra time should have helped an organization like the Steelers.
Instead, the exact opposite occurred.
The increased time allowed Chuck Noll to start micromanaging the process. He started challenging draft board rankings. He got his assistant coaches more involved in scouting. As Art Rooney Jr, declared in his book Ruanaidh, some of them weren’t up to it.
The organization also began to outthink itself. They’d pass on guys whom they’d rated highly thinking, “How’s he gonna beat out Stallworth or Lynn Swann?” or “Is this kid really gonna push Greenwood or Mean Joe for playing time?”
David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen
At its best, that led to the Steelers trying to replace guys like Lambert and Ham with the likes of David Little and Bryan Hinkle. At it its worst it produced draft picks like Darryl Sims.
That created tension and communication dysfunction between Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll.
Dick Haley left the Steelers after Dan Rooney promoted Tom Donahoe to Director of Football Operations when Chuck Noll retired. Haley worked as the New York Jets Director of Player Personnel from 1992 to 2000, and then served as their General Manager during 2000 and 2001.
But even if Dick Haley left Pittsburgh in 1992, his finger prints are just as much a part of the success first part of the Cowher Era as they are of the first Super Bowl Era of 1970s.
No, when they write the story of Super Bowl XXX, they don’t list a tally of players from the Dick Haley era just as they don’t do a tally of Tom Donahoe players on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII squads. Nor should they.
Because each front office executive’s success = the Steelers success.
Indeed, the late Dick Haley was a walking embodiment of “The Steelers Way.” May he rest in peace.