Looking Back: Steelers Last Win in Philadelphia Gave Mike Nixon His 15 Minutes of Fame

Tomorrow Mike Tomlin will attempt something that neither Bill Austin, nor Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher ever did:

  • Lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory on the road in Philadelphia.

While Philly fans are loyal, there’s no question that when it comes to Pennsylvania’s two football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Keystone State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Steelers lead the Lombardi count 6 to 1 and have appeared in the Super Bowl 8 times compared to 3.

And of course the Steelers lead the Eagles in other measures such as games won since the NFL-AFL merger, division titles, playoff appearances, wins etc. And the Steelers count on a nationwide, no, global fan base.

  • That’s great. But the Eagles OWN the Steelers when they play in Philly.

The last time the Steelers won a game in Philadelphia was at Franklin Field on Sunday, October 24, 1965 during Mike Nixon’s lone season as coach. 20,825 days have passed since the Steelers clocked that milestone, in case you really, really want to know. It isn’t just the the Steelers 57 year losing streak there:

  • Bad things happen when the Steelers play in Philly.

In 1997 alone, Philadelphia marked the end of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. Heck, the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown in Philly was when Kordell Stewart connected with Will Blackwell.

Much Has Changed Since the Steelers Last Win in Philly

A lot has changed since Steelers last win in the City of Brotherly Love.

Their last win came 360 days before my older sister was born (she’s a Ravens fan, but we still love her just the same) so suffice to say I have no memory. And although my parents were newlyweds living in Pittsburgh in 1965, they’re not much for sports so its no use asking them.

  • But thanks to the Magic of Google Newspaper Archives, we can glimpse of what it was like then.

In 1965, man on the moon was more fiction than science. In fact, the headline of October 25th Pittsburgh Press tells us that the Gemini Mission has been Scrubbed as Agenda Fails. The Post-Gazette led with Gemini story too. Except the Post-Gazette tells us Gemini Launching, Space Docking a ‘Go.’

The first Gemini Space rendezvous occurred later that December, but it was supposed to happen in October. (The lesson then, as it is now, is that you need to read beyond the headlines.)

Just below that story, the Post Gazette tells us that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson is off to Rhodesia for talks with the white settler government who was vying for independence. “Rhodesia” is now best known (at least in Argentina) as a chocolate bar, and the country in question is Zimbabwe.

The Pittsburgh Press devotes about a 1/3 of its front page to Vietnam coverage, and talks about the record low 25- degree temperature Pittsburgh experienced that weekend. It also informs us that the Civic Arena turned its first profit for the first time since it opened in 1961.

Digging into the Post-Gazette you see that Giant Eagle is selling Roast Pork Butt for 49 cents per pound. The same add tells us that a 9 oz package of Scallops would set you back 89 cents.

Not to be out done, A&P is selling “Long Bologna” for 49 cents a pound and Jane Parker Large Apple Pie for 39 cents (normally it would have cost 49 cents, the ad assures us). In between the two adds, you learn that you could have bought a Polaroid Swinger Camera for $19.95.

Yes, times have changed. But has enough changed for the Steelers to recapture some of that 1965 magic?

Mikey Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Art Rooney Sr. was notoriously bad at hiring head coaches. Yet even he knew Mike Nixon wasn’t the man for the job. When Dan Rooney accepted/forced Buddy Parker’s resignation during the 1965 preseason, Art Rooney reportedly called Nixon, told him he was going to offer him the job but encouraged him to reject it because he wasn’t ready.

Nixon ignored The Chief’s advice, accepted the job and then preceded to lose his first five games as Steelers head coach. Game six brought the Steelers to Philly, and thus began Mike Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame.

  • The Steelers beat the Eagles that day, 20 to 14.
Jim Bradshaw,

1960’s Steelers safety Jim Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But by the look of the box score, it was an UGLY win. Quarterback Bill Nelsen went 6 of 16 for 79 yards. Running back Mike Lind also got 16 carries, managing 30 yards, but he did catch 2 passes for 11 yards including a touchdown.

The highlight of the day, and one would presume the season, came in the 2nd quarter when safety Jim Bradshaw returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown, which was one of 3 picks for a total of 101 yards.

The Steelers would win again the next week 22 to 13 over the Dallas Cowboys back at Pitt Stadium. So Mike Nixon can hang his hat on the fact that he’s one of the very few head coaches who went undefeated against Tom Landry during his career.

Alas, after beating Landry, Mike Nixon’s Steelers lost their next 7 games finishing the season 2-12, and Nixon got fired.

Nixon did enough to impress Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who hired him as an assistant coach, giving Nixon three years of gainful employment before he faded into a footnote in Steelers history.

  • Can Mike Tomlin repeat Mike Nixon’s success in Philly?

It is doubtful. But I’ll wager that Kenny Pickett will pass for more than 79 yards and Najee Harris will run for more than 30 (well, he’d better.) Who knows? But even if Minkah Fitzpatrick has an 82 yard pick six, expect the Eagles to win and the Steelers to take a 2-6 record into the bye week.

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15 Memories that Unite Generation X Steelers Fans

Staff writer Tony Defeo recently published an article waxing on what it’s like to be a Steelers fan reaching 50. With a nod to Jimmy Buffett, its titled “A Steelers Fan Looks at 50.”

While I’m still a few months (ok, weeks) from passing the half century mark myself, it got me thinking about some of the unique touchstones that mark me and my fellow Generation Xers as Steelers fans.

Here is my list:

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

1. You had this photo on your wall.

In 1980, you could get a copy of this photo of Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw through a promo run by either the Pittsburgh Press or Giant Eagle. My aunt and God Mother who lived in Monroeville called down to Maryland asking if my brother and I wanted copies. Of course we did! They hung on our bedroom walls just as they hung on yours for years to come.

2. You remember when Pittsburgh really was the Steel City.

Arriving in Pittsburgh from Maryland usually meant taking the Parkway into downtown from the Turnpike. So my first views of Pittsburgh were of J&L’s blast furnaces. They were truly awesome. (Don’t try Googling the terms, just trust memory here.) They were just as awesome as the gastly smells you’d have to endure as we took Carson Street to Becks Run Road en route to Brentwood-Carrick.

The mills are long gone, but seeing them, even in their twilight, was special.

3. You thought Queen wrote “We Are the Champions” for the Steelers.

My older sister and brother told me that Queen had written “We are the Champions” for the Steelers. As a naïve first grader I believed them. But why shouldn’t I have? The Steelers were the champions. At 6 years old that felt like a permanent condition.

4. You parents had to convince you that the Steelers were terrible once.

My parents are Pittsburghers to their cores, but neither is a football fan. When I asked them what it was like rooting for the Steelers when they were kids, my mom would explain “You have to understand. The Steelers and Pirates were terrible when we were kids.” History proves them right, especially for the Steelers. But I sure was one skeptical seven year old.

Steelers Jacket 70's

I got one of these from my older cousin David. I couldn’t WAIT to grow into it! Photo Courtesy of @Vintage Steelers

5. Kids made fun of you as you kept wearing Steelers stuff into the 80’s.

My inventory of Steelers stuff remained well stocked through elementary school thanks to hand-me downs from my older brother and my cousin. What didn’t stay well stocked was the Steelers inventory of wins. And kids, as they are wont to do, made fun of me for  wearing Steelers stuff to school.

I wore my gear anyway, because Steelers fans are loyal.

6. Hearing the words “Immaculate Reception” caused you to run to the TV.

Today you can watch the “Immaculate Reception” at the touch of a button while say, slogging through Buenos Aires down Aveneda Directorio on Bus 126 from Flores to Puerto Madero if you so choose.

But I remember as a kid my older brother made a point of showing me the “Immaculate Reception” while watching NFL Films. And for the next several decades, I made it a point to watch the play every chance I got. Kids today are spoiled indeed.

7. You often learned of the results from Sunday’s games on Monday morning.

This is unique to children of the Pittsburgh diaspora, but before the age of the internet, or even cable TV there were plenty of times when I’d have to wait until Monday morning to learn the results of Sunday’s Steelers game. And in the ‘80s, that could lead to a lot of downers at the breakfast table. Although there were pleasant surprises….

8. The 1989 Steelers will always carry a special place in your heart.

The Boomers before us and the Millennials came after us who were reared on Super Bowls don’t understand. But we do. Starting in 1987 we saw flashes of greatness. We even convinced ourselves we could glimpse positives in the 3-1 close to the dismal 5-11 1988 campaign.

The 1989 Steelers story book season validated our faith and we felt like we’d closed the door on the 80’s by opening the door to a second Super Bowl era. That didn’t happen, but boy, it sure felt good to believe.

9. When fans attack the offensive coordinator your reflex is: “Yeah. …But Joe Walton was worse.”

Offensive coordinators are the favorite whipping boys of Steelers fans, whether you’re talking about Chan Gailey, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley. But Generation X Steelers fans know that none of them was worse than Joe Walton, even if in middle age we’ve grown to appreciate Walton as an outstanding person who did a lot of Western Pennsylvania football at Robert Morris.

10 a. The split back or “Pro” style offense looks normal.

Thanks to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, and Merril Hoge and Tim Worley, the sight of two running backs lined up behind the quarterback will always be “normal.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

10 b. You still scream for the fullback to get carries.

Your mind understands how and why the game has changed, but every time “they” talk about cutting Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell’s or Najee Harris’ workload your heart screams “Why can’t they just let the fullback run the ball?”

11. Jimmy Pol’s Western Pennsylvania Polka is the only Steelers fight song.

OK. Let’s concede that James Psihoulis’ aka Jimmy Pol’s fight song is the property of our parent’s and our grandparent’s generation. But I first heard the song during the ’93 season on my first trip to a Steelers bar (Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon no less).

It was the sound of heaven. Listen for yourself:

I mean no disrespect to “Here We Go,” “Black and Yellow,” “Climbing the Stairway to Seven,” or any of the other fight songs. But the “Western Pennsylvania Polka,” from Jimmy Pol’s thick Pittsburgh accent, to the passion in which he implores “…Let’s go and score, and never ever yield!” while invoking Joe Greene, Chuck Noll’s “hunky friends,” Franco’s Army and Gerela’s Gorillas perfectly preserves the Super Steelers and Pittsburgh’s essence.

12. You once thought Dan Rooney was “Cheap” or you defended him.

In the 1990’s, spring free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh were the norm. In the days before Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t have the revenue to compete. Fans didn’t want to hear it and wrote Dan Rooney off as “cheap,” while others, like me, defended him. These arguments were staples of our 20-something bar room banter.

13. When there’s a special teams coaching vacancy, you scream “Bobby April!”

Atrocious special teams plagued Bill Cowher’s 1993 Steelers. He responded by hiring Bobby April who rejuvenated the unit and cemented his cult-hero status with the successful surprise on-sides kick in Super Bowl XXX.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

14.  Number 95 is sacrosanct.

Whether “Just Plain Nasty,” or “I wasn’t hired for my disposition” lights your fire, you loved your “Avoid Lloyd” shirt and you instinctively know that no other Pittsburgh Steeler else can ever live up to the standard that Greg Lloyd set when he donned number 95.

15. You try, and fail, to explain Myron Cope to a new generation.

In 1992, Sports Illustrated described Myron Cope as the soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were right.  Yet Myron was someone to be experienced in real time, and attempts to explain him ultimately fall short. But it is your duty to try.

There you go in Steelers Nation. Those are my top 15 (ok, 16) memories or touchstones that unique to Generation X Steelers fans.

  • Is this a definitive list? I certainly hope not!

While we all share a love for the Black and Gold, each of us has your unique way of finding it. Take a moment to leave a comment and share your additions to the list. (Comments are moderate to keep out the spammers and tolls, but if you write something it will get published.)

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Steelers Resign Minkah Fitzpatrick to 4 Year Extension, Proving that Yes, Sometimes Social Media Rumors Are True

The Pittsburgh Steelers have resigned Minkah Fitzpatrick to a 4 year extension worth a reported 73.6 million dollars with 36 of it guaranteed. The deal makes him the NFL’s highest paid safety and proves, once again, that Minkah Fitzpatrick shows that sometimes its worth paying attention to social media.

  • Ah, how’s that you say?
Luke Wilson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick denies Luke Wilson a touchdown. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Let me explain. Part of being an intelligent football fan in the digital age is being wise enough to ignore much if not most of what you see on social media. For quick reference think back a few months to those reports that “The Steelers have a deal in place to land Aaron Rodgers should he ask out of Green Bay.”

A lot of people on Twitter believed that. Bless their hearts, they really did.

Many also bought the Tweets and Facebook posts that explained why Russell Wilson was destined for the Steel City. And of course there were fans who got frustrated when the Steelers didn’t offer 5 first round draft picks for Deshaun Watson, as reports assured us they were ready to do.

Which isn’t to say that those reports are always wrong. A tweet from someone I trust led your truly to write up an article detailing the Steelers signing of Tyrann Mathieu. Thank God I double checked, because it will be Terrell Edmunds and not Mathieu lining up along side Minkah this year.

  • But Minkah has been different.

During September 2019, I was hurriedly getting ready to work my company’s booth at Oracle Open World when I saw on WhatApp that the Steelers were trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. I thought nothing of it, because everyone “knows” the Steelers never trade their first round pick.

  • They especially wouldn’t trade him less than 24 hours after losing Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

No, I figured it was some over enthusiastic, gullible fan who’d been duped by social media and forgot about it. But then I found out it was real.

The same thoughts occurred to me today when I saw the news. I figured it had to be false, because the Steelers never make those moves now, always right before the season.

But sign Minkah they have. The question is why now?

Omar Khan Effect?

The Pittsburgh Steelers pioneered the practice of resigning free agents who are in the final year of their deals. And they often made those signings in the spring, well before training camp. Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson inked deals during this timeframe.

  • James Harrison similarly got an extension in the spring as have a few others.

But by in large, as the Kevin Colbert era progressed, the Steelers have waited until the end of the summer to resign their players. Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt all inked deals just before the beginning of the season. Heck Troy Polamalu signed his contract at the airport as the Steelers were leaving for Baltimore for the 2011 opener. (The Steelers unlike other clubs don’t negotiate contracts during the season.)

The Steelers were expected to do the same with Minkah. Hold off through training camp and preseason as insurance against injury and ink a deal before the season’s start.

  • But instead, they’ve signed him.

Whether this is a tactical shift by new General Manager Omar Khan or a one-off move, this is the right thing to do. Yes, there is a risk that Fitzpatrick could get injured during drills at St. Vincents or during preseason. But there’s also a greater chance that he could get injured in the season opener.

This way Minkah will be with the team, fully participating in drills and in preseason, if you’re a curmudgeon like me who still believes “practice makes perfect,” that’s a good thing.

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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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Why the Steelers 1987 Draft Is Still My Favorite

This April marks the 35-year anniversary that I was allowed to stay home from school and watch the 1987 NFL Draft.

Maybe it wasn’t the best parental decision my mom ever made, but considering I am able to encapsulate my feelings about that day so many years later while utilizing my gift of writing, well, maybe it was a smart choice, after all.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Anyway, 1987 was the last year that the annual draft was held on a weekday — Tuesday–and started at 7 a.m. Exactly one year later, it was held on Sunday, which would be the NFL’s day of choice for the event for many springs after, and it started at noon.

Obviously, the NFL Draft continued to become a sports phenomenon over the years and has grown so much, not only is it now a primetime event that starts on Thursday and dominates an entire weekend, its ratings are superior to actual sports contests held by its rivals — including the NHL and its Stanley Cup Final.

It’s something that I should have a tremendous appetite for at this point in my life, especially with such easy access to all things NFL Draft — thanks to the explosion of both cable and the Internet, there is now round-the-clock coverage, endless mock drafts and the ability for any fan to do all of the research necessary to become an expert on all of the prospects.

  • But, in an ironic twist, it’s just not like that for me in 2022.

Back in the late-’80s, however, when I was about as obsessed with the draft as I’d ever be, I would have given anything to have access to the information that I do right now.

My obsession with the draft truly started in 1988 — the year that would see the Steelers select Aaron Jones in the first round — and began to subside after Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992 and soon showed me that winning playoff games and being an annual Super Bowl contender was far-more exciting and satisfying than studying draft prospects and hoping that a “known name” would come to town and rescue the black and gold.

I wasn’t super stoked about the draft in ’87, but I wanted to watch it, and I was more than excited when my mom let me stay home from school. I didn’t know who Rod Woodson was, but I quickly learned that it was quite the coup that Pittsburgh, a team that had drafted ninth a year earlier and selected some guard named John Rienstra, had landed this talented cornerback from Purdue with the 10th pick.

The Browns, the Steelers’ fierce rivals in the old AFC Central Division, had a shot at Woodson with the fifth pick, but, instead, chose Mike Junkin, an inside linebacker from Duke.

Junkin went on to play in 20 games over three seasons before his NFL career went up in smoke.

In Cleveland’s defense, a lot of teams missed out on Rod Woodson, who was the only First-Ballot Hall of Famer from the ’87 draft class. In fact, legendary wide receiver Cris Carter, who was inducted in 2013, was the only other Hall of Fame member to come out of the 1987 NFL Draft.

As I said, it was quite the coup for the Steelers to land a generational talent such as Rod Woodson, and do so after nine other teams had already passed on him in the first round.

Chuck Noll said he was “in love” with Woodson not long after making the selection (you could see why it was love at first sight for the head coach who spent most of his post-Super Bowl years futilely trying to find love in the first round).

Again, I didn’t know anything about Rod Woodson–never even heard of him prior to the draft — but I was excited that so many others were excited about the Steelers landing him.

Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

All-in-all, the Steelers’ ’87 draft was one of Noll’s finest over his last 15 years or so as head coach of the team. In addition to Woodson, Pittsburgh selected cornerback Delton Hall (round two); safety Thomas Everett (round four); linebacker Hardy Nickerson (round five); linebacker Greg Lloyd (round six); and running back Merril Hoge (round 10). Most would go on to have lengthy and distinguished careers — both with the Steelers and with other teams (Everett was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, for example) — and Woodson, Lloyd and, to a lesser extent, Hoge, went on to become vital members of Cowher’s playoff teams of the 1990s.

While I was super-hyped for the next several drafts–as many tend to do now, I was devouring every morsel of draft coverage I could find weeks and months before the event–none of them lived up to 1987.

To reiterate, the 1987 NFL Draft was the greatest one I ever watched, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

Maybe my mom knew what she was doing, after all.

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Resist the Restructure: Steelers Should Start Post-Roethlisberger Era with Sound Salary Cap Management

The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.

  • And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.

A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.

  • Things are different this year.

Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

Of course. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.

  • That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?

No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.

Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”

NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.

  • For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.

This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.

The Steelers resigned essential stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. They brought in under the radar free agents like Kevin Greene, Ray Seals and John Williams.

  • But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.

  • The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.

That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.

  • These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”

But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.

The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.

  • It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.

  • The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?

No one knows.

But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.

 

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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1998 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Black & Gold Crashes Down to Earth

The 1997 Steelers finished a handful of plays away from winning the AFC Championship. The silver lining was that they had proven they could defy gravity. Pittsburgh had replaced over a dozen Super Bowl XXX starters and  come within a whisker of making Super Bowl XXXII.

  • And they’d done it with Kordell Stewart, a first year starting quarterback.

Sure, Kordell’s twin end zone interceptions had flipped momentum in Denver’s favor. But those were just growing pains. Weren’t they?

The Steelers lost left tackle John Jackson and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen in free agency. Jackson had been a mainstay since Chuck Noll’s time and Thigpen was a playmaking wide out. But big name free agents left Pittsburgh throughout the 1990’s, and the Steelers kept winning.

  • Why would 1998 be any different?

In fact, when two “defectors” Rod Woodson and Eric Green, got cut by their new teams and asked to return to Pittsburgh, Tom Donahoe quipped, “We’re not the Salvation Army.”

  • Steelers Nation snickered.

So did most of the rest of the NFL as one preseason publication (Street and Smiths?) projected Pittsburgh as the NFL’s 3rd best. Sure, cornerback Chad Scott had torn an ACL during OTAs ending his season in May, but the Steelers would compensate. They always did. Right?

By the summer of 1998 everyone just assumed that “The Steelers Way” meant automatically fielding a contender.

The 1998 season would challenge a lot of assumptions about the Steelers.

Greg Jefferies & Robert Porcher bring Jerome Bettis down. Photo Credit: Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Preseason Danger Sign: Premium Draft Picks Not Panning Out

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hid their “secret” for surviving annual free agent exoduses in plain sight: Anticipate departures and draft accordingly. The duo’s first two picks in the 1992 NFL Draft were Leon Searcy and Levon Kirkland. When Tunch Ilkin and Hardy Nickerson left as free agents in the spring of 1993, Searcy and Kirkland took their places.

Levon Kirkland, Frank Reich, Steelers vs Lions

Levon Kirkland closes in on Frank Reich. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The plan functioned to near perfection through the mid-1990’s.

But it was Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who sensed that something was amiss as preseason ended. He could have focused on the Steelers looking less than stellar that summer. But he didn’t.

  • Instead he focused on two critical position battles at offensive line and wide receiver.

The Steelers had drafted Will Blackwell in 1997 to replace Yancey Thigpen, yet Blackwell couldn’t beat out Courtney Hawkins, who’d been brought to in ’97 Pittsburgh as a 3rd wide receiver. At least that contest had a winner.

At right tackle, Bill Cowher had staged a battle between Jamain Stephens and Paul Wiggins. When neither man stepped up, he injected Chris Conrad into the competition. Conrad failed to grab the opportunity, forcing Cowher to move Will Wolford to left tackle, shifting Justin Strzelczyk from guard to right tackle and starting Roger Duffy in his place while rookie Alan Faneca got ready to start.

  • Stephens, Blackwell, Wiggins, and Conrad represented 1st, 2nd and two 3rd round picks from the ’96, ’97 and ’98 drafts.

None of them were ready to start. Factor in the ACL tear that cornerback Chad Scott, 1997’s first round pick, had suffered during OTAs ending his season in May.

This was not in the plan…..

Veteran Leadership Sorley Lacking for the Steelers

Looking back, the first month of the Steelers 1998 season offered several touchstones that signaled disaster:

  • There were the two lackluster wins over the Ravens and Bears to start the season
  • In week 3 the Dolphins dealt the franchise suffered its first shutout loss in 5 years
  • Kordell Stewart suddenly  looked tentative and was unable, or unwilling, to throw deep

All troubling trends, to be sure, but they were just symptoms of a root problem that was on display in a week 5 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

Carl Pickens, Dwayne Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Pickens burns Steelers Dwyane Washington. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

The Steelers had fought a back-and-forth game, with Kordell Stewart leading a comeback just inside the 2 minute warning, only to see the Bengals comeback to win with no time outs. The play that everyone remembers was Neil O’Donnell faking a spike with 2 minutes left and instead hitting Carl Pickens for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The play stung to be sure, but the more telling play come a minute earlier.

The Bengals had started their drive at their own 7. After a few plays, the Steelers defense had the Bengals at 4th and 12 from their own 15, only to see Neil O’Donnell complete a 50 yard pass to Carl Pickens.

The scene screamed for a Greg Lloyd or Rod Woodson to rally the troops – Cincinnati still had 50 yards to go in under a minute and the clock was ticking.

But Lloyd was in Carolina and Woodson in Baltimore, and instead of steeling themselves to make the stop, Pittsburgh’s defenders stood pouting, with their hands on their hips. Given that attitude it is no surprise that that O’Donnell could steal the game by fooling them so easily.

Steelers Tantalize Fans with “Tease Wins” at Midseason

By capitulating to Cincinnati at the final gun the 1998 Steelers had accomplished a rare feat during the Cowher era: They lost a close game. To that point, Bill Cowher’s teams had been blown out and embarrassed plenty of times, but they’d almost always found ways to win the close ones.

  • Although, that was about to change, the 1998 Steelers would not go gently into this good night.

Far from it. Over next the six weeks the 1998 Steelers would tantalize their fans with a series of tease wins. The month of October would see the Steelers drop two decisions to the Tennessee Oilers in the span of 3 weeks.

  • But those losses were staggered by Steelers wins on Monday Night Football over the Chiefs and Packers.

Courtney Hawkins, Steelers vs Packers

Courtney Hawkins advances against the Packers on MNF. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Allsport

Both victories came over contenders. Both wins were convincing. Jerome Bettis ran for 100 yards in both games. Kordell Stewart played competent, if unspectacular football. Rookie Hines Ward even completed a pass to Stewart in the Chiefs win.

  • The 2nd loss to the Oilers set up a AFC Central show down at Three Rivers Stadium with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers were ready. Dwayne Washington opened and closed the game with 58 and 74 yard pick sixes. In between, Norm Johnson booted 3 field goals and Mark Bruener scored a touchdown to deliver a convincing, 30 to 15 win over the division leader.

The 1998 Steelers were now 7-4 and heading into a short week and a trip to Detroit for what looked to be a little more than a Thanksgiving layup against a 4-7 Lions team. To boot, Detroit was Jerome Bettis’ hometown and his mother welcomed the team with a Thanksgiving dinner.

What could go wrong?

Thanksgiving Coin Toss Exposes 1998 Steelers as Turkeys

Thanksgiving 1998 is a day that will live in infamy within Steelers Nation.

After a sloppy 4 quarters of football, the Steelers had blown a 13-3 lead only have Norm Johnson kick a last second field goal to force overtime. Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake took the field. The Bus called “tails.” The coin landed on tails.

  • Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions.

Even the Lions captain Robert Porcher stood dumbfounded. But if this was one of the most egregious examples of an officiating error impacting the outcome of a game, Dan Rooney called it straight when he declared that it never should have come to overtime. The 1998 Detroit Lions were bad team. The Steelers had botched multiple opportunities to put them away.

But just as the Thanksgiving game never should have gone to overtime, a bad coin toss never should have unraveled the entire Steelers 1998 season.

But it did.

Steelers Close 1998 with Total Implosion

The 1998 Steelers didn’t field a championship caliber roster, but they certainly had a playoff caliber team. You’d never know it after watching the final 5 weeks of the season.

A week after the Thanksgiving debacle, the Patriots came to Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense responded to New England going up 23-9 early in the 4th quarter with a 46 yard Earl Holmes interception return that took Pittsburgh to the Patriots 22, with 4 minutes and change remaining. Here’s what followed:

  • Kordell Stewart threw 7 passes, yet couldn’t find the end zone.
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out.
  • Kordell took the Steelers to the 10 yard line, then he threw an interception.

The Patriots had tried to give the Steelers the game, but Pittsburgh refused to accept their gift.

A week later Bill Cowher lost control. Early in the 3rd quarter during a deluge in Tampa, Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. Kordell Stewart protested, getting in his coach’s face. Next, Kordell was seen crying on the bench.

Back on the field, Mike Tomczak was busying fumbling the ball on his third play in the game, and then he throwing an interception on his second pass. Meanwhile, hurricane force rains continued to pour.

  • Stephen King couldn’t have scripted a more horrific scene had he tried.

A beleaguered Bill Cowher reinserted Kordell Stewart. To no one’s surprise, Kordell failed to rally the team. The downward spiral continued. Steelers fans scapegoated Kordell Stewart. That was both ugly and unfair. He had plenty of help.

Offensive Coordinator Ray Sherman was in over his head. Beyond having no idea of what to do with Kordell Stewart his play calling was so predictable that on 3rd and 7, patrons of Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon would call out, “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee.” Invariably at the snap, McAfee would get a pitch, run to the weak side, and make it about 6 yards before getting clobbered.

  • The defense, which had carried the team, collapsed.
  • But worse of all, the Steelers quit on Cowher.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

Certainly, not players like Levon Kirkland, Dermontti Dawson and Jerome Bettis. But they were exceptions. The Post Gazette’s Ron Cook went as far as to call out Carnell Lake for “playing so poorly with such little passion down the stretch.”

By the time they reached their 1998 season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh was playing for pride.

  • They’d already been eliminated from the playoffs.
  • Bill Cowher had stripped Ray Sherman of play calling duties.
  • The Jaguars playoff position was set
  • Tom Coughlin started third string quarterback Jonathan Quinn.

Each of those factors flowed in Pittsburgh’s favor. But they were formalities. The Steelers lost 21-3. Bill Cowher suffered his first losing season as the 1998 Steelers finished 7-9.

And Pittsburgh, learned the hard lesson that in the NFL gravity could only be defied for so long.

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1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell

Gravity is the universe’s inescapable force. In football gravity has always taken the forms of age, injury and the NFL draft. With 1992’s Freeman McNeil verdict, gravity gained a new form to its NFL repertory: Free Agency.

  • Free agency was supposed to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, stuck in a small, shrinking rustbelt market and locked into an unfavorable lease in an old utility stadium, could never compete with the likes of Jerry Jones and Edward DeBartlo.

  • And besides, as any fan would have told you in the 1990’s, Dan Rooney was cheap.

And so it was that every spring saw a free agent exodus out of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t backups and/or secondary starters that left, but first round picks, long time starters, perennial Pro Bowlers, a starting Super Bowl quarterback, future Hall of Famers and, in one off season, 2/3rds of the starting defensive line.

  • All of those losses came before 1997.

That spring the Steelers lost two starting-caliber wide receivers, a starting defensive end, and their TOP THREE cornerbacks. Did we mention that one of those corners was franchise icon Rod Woodson? Departures also extended to the coaches, as Dick LeBeau returned to the Cincinnati Bengals.

And by the way, the Steelers had just handed the reigns of the offense to Kordell Stewart, giving them their third new starting quarterback in 3 years.

1997 would be the season when gravity finally sucked the Pittsburgh Steelers down. Or would it….?

Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Broncos

Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart in the 1997 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: AP, via the Tribune-Review

Steelers Affirm Core Cowher Belief

In Heart and Steel, Bill Cowher declares that the 1997 Steelers were his best team. That may not be the case, but the 1997 team certainly proved one of Cowher’s core beliefs: Teams define themselves during the season’s first 4 to 6 weeks.

To that end, the Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh and put 37 unanswered points on the board until Kordell Stewart and Mark Bruener hooked up for a face-saving, garbage-time touchdown. Commentators rushed to take this as confirmation of the impending disaster foreshadowed in Fog Bowl II during the ’96 playoffs.

Really, opening day embarrassments were par for the course in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers stuck to the script by bouncing back with a convincing win against Washington in week 2.

A week later, the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville. They got embarrassed in the first half, clawed their way back into position to win at the buzzer, only to lose on a blocked field goal. The rollar coaster continued the next week against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium as Kordell Stewart would throw 3 interceptions in the first half.

  • Throwing 3 picks is never pretty, but each interception was uglier than the one before.

But Kordell Stewart shook it all off by throwing 3 touchdown passes and rushing 74 yards for another one in the 2nd half, as the Steelers pulled out a 42-34 win. The victory evened the 1997 Steelers record to 2-2, but more importantly, it established an identity: This team got right back up whenever it got knocked down.

Greg Lloyd, Steelers vs Ravens,

Greg Lloyd in his only trip to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: RVR Photos, USA TODAY Sports

Thriving on the Edge

As the first month of the season illustrated, gravity had the power to suck the 1997 Steelers to the edge. But in 1997, that was perfect for Pittsburgh, because the 1997 Steelers weren’t just a team that lived on the edge, it thrived on it. Consider:

  • The 1997 Steelers played in overtime 3 times during the year, winning each time
  • Their win over the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts came down to a missed field goal
  • Twice in overtime situations, Bill Cowher opted to ride The Bus to the end zone, rather than kick a field goal
  • When the Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in late November, they responded with 3 straight wins

Greg Lloyd’s loss, in many ways, epitomized the 1997 season.

Greg Lloyd had been a dominate player and a fan favorite for the Steelers since the late 1980s. He’d lost his 1996 season to injury, and suffered a slow start to 1997. But he’d registered a sack in each of the three games leading up to the Eagles game in late November. But just when Greg Lloyd was recovering his playmaking form, he suffered a staph infection on the turf of Veterans Stadium.

But the team took the loss in stride. Former 7th round pick Carlos Emmons stepped into the starting role and while he wasn’t a superstar, he held his own. And so it was across the depth chart.

Neither free agent Cortney Hawkins nor rookie Will Blackwell were quite as good as Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings had been, but both authored strong seasons on smaller contracts. The same can be said for defensive end Nolan Harrison.

At cornerback, Chad Scott had a pretty strong rookie year, and Bill Cowher liked “the look in his eye.” After Scott, things got tricky at cornerback, but that helped keep the team on the edge, which is exactly where they needed to be.

In that vein, the NFL schedule makers actually did the 1997 Steelers a favor by scheduling four of their final five games on the road.

Comebacks Against Broncos, Patriots Highlight ’97 Regular Season

Letting Rod Woodson go as a free agent is one of the worst personnel decisions in Steelers history – and this from a franchise that cut Johnny Unitas. What makes that decision even dumber is the fact that they tried to replace him with Donnell Woolford.

  • Wolford struggled along as a starter for 12 weeks during the 1997 regular season.
  • The Steelers then went 1-1 on the first two road games of their season ending.

But week 15 brought the Denver Broncos to Three Rivers Stadium and Wolford had no hope of containing John Elway, who’d been burning offenses with Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

  • So Bill Cowher did what he’d done in 1995 – he moved Carnell Lake to cornerback and started Myron Bell at safety.

For the first time in memory, the Steelers held closed practices and when Bill Cowher was asked where Carnell Lake would play, his response was “defense.”

Not that it seemed to matter at first, as Kordell Stewart started off erratically missing open receivers while John Elway abused W0olford, then relegated to slot corner, to open a 21 to 7 lead in the first 20 minutes. But Stewart rallied throwing two touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen to tie at the half, and he then followed with two more runs for touchdowns in the second half.

Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett, Steelers vs Broncos

Yancey Thigpen advances on Ray Crockett. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Jerome Bettis took over the game in the 2nd half, rumbling for 125 yards on 25 carries.

The defense limited Denver to 3 points, and Myron Bell and Carnell Lake helped scuttle the Broncos’ comeback attempts with an interception and a sack.

In the season’s penultimate contest, the Steelers traveled to New England to take on Pete Carroll’s Patriots. This was about as even as a match up as you can find in the NFL. But for most of the evening, the Patriots were getting the better of the Steelers.

  • Holding an 8-point lead with one play before the 2-minute warning, the Patriots only needed to covert a 3rd and 7 for victory.

Drew Bledsoe dropped back to pass. In a Textbook-Zone Blitz move, Kevin Henry slid back into coverage. Bledsoe fired a pass to his left, never seeing Henry who intercepted the ball and took it 37 yards down field.

With two minutes remaining and no time outs, the Steelers ran 6 plays, including one on 4th and 7. With less than 40 seconds left, Kordell Stewart hit Mark Bruener for a touchdown, making it 20-19. Next Kordell connected with Yancey Thigpen for the 2-point conversion, tying the game.

The Steelers won the toss, as Courtney Hawkins and Mark Bruener made critical catches to bring the Steelers to the Patriots 13-yard line where Norm Johnson split the uprights.

The win improved the Steelers’ record to 12-5 and allowed Bill Cowher to rest his starters heading into the playoffs

1997 Playoffs – The Chess Match and the AFC Championship that Got Away

The 1997 Steelers record earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs, but that didn’t save them from a rematch against the New England Patriots. This time the Patriots had to travel to Three Rivers Stadium which is good because the Steelers needed every advantage they could get.

  • Fantasy Football owners moan about games like this, but the truth is it was a textbook defensive chess match.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

The Steelers drew blood on their first possession, as Kordell Stewart ran for a 40-yard touchdown. The Patriots tacked on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the 2nd and another in the 4th. And that was it for the scoring.

The game was so tight that Bill Cowher opted to go for it on 4th and goal at the one with less than 2 minutes playing instead of kicking a field goal. The Patriots stopped them, but rookie Mike Vrabel stripped Drew Bledsoe of the ball 8 plays later, sealing the win and bringing Denver back to Three Rivers Stadium for an AFC Championship rematch.

The Steelers jumped to a 14-10 lead early in the 2nd quarter and with just under 5 minutes remaining before half time, consolidated their lead, having moved to Denver’s 35 with a 3rd and 2 to convert.

  • Rather than ram the ball through with Jerome Bettis, Chan Gailey opted to pass
  • Rather than take a safe throw, Kordell Stewart looked to the end zone
  • Rather than throw it away Kordell tried to force it into double coverage by Steve Atwater and Ray Crockett

Yancey Thipgen never had a chance as Crockett intercepted. The Broncos capitalized going up 17-14 inside the 2-minute warning. The Steelers then went 3 and out, burning 68 seconds off of the clock, leaving Denver with 43 to score. John Elway only needed 30 of those to find Ed McCaffrey.

John Elway, Nolan Harrison, Steelers vs Broncos

John Elway torched the Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Brian Bahr, Getty Images

  • In less than 5 minutes the Denver Broncos had transformed a 14-10 deficit to a 24-14 lead.

Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis opened the second half by marching down the field, executing a methodical clock-consuming drive. This is exactly what the Steelers needed to do to take control of the game. Yet on 2nd and 5 Chan Gailey again opted to pass, and again Kordell Stewart made the wrong decision, hitting Allen Aldridge instead of Charles Johnson.

The Steelers defense forced 4 straight punts, including one on a drive that came following a lost fumble. Kordell Stewart rallied Pittsburgh late in the 4th quarter, connecting with Charles Johnson with 2:46 left.

  • If the defense could force another punt, Pittsburgh had a chance.

Alas, the defense that had kept the Steelers Super Bowl hopes alive during the second half could not stop John Elway from killing the clock. The Denver Broncos won 24-21 and went on to the Super Bowl, ending the Steelers 1997 season.

  • Conference championship losses are disappointing by definition.

One person who wasn’t down was Bill Cowher, who told his team, “We’ll be back.” Who could argue?

In just 2 years the Steelers had replaced at least 12 starters from their Super Bowl XXX squad, and all that separated them from another Super Bowl appearance were a first-year starting quarterback’s growing pains.

The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers had proven that they could defy gravity.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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