The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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Steelers Need to Keep Miles Killebrew in Pittsburgh

Steelers free agent signings fall into three categories: Guys you’re glad came to Pittsburgh, ones you wish were, and others whose names prompt you to ask, “Who?”

Miles Killebrew falls into that latter category. But there’s no doubt he’s one of Kevin Colbert’s better under the radar signings. Now Killebrew is set to become a free agent again. Will Omar Khan keep him in the Steel City?

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Miles Killebrew Career with the Steelers

At first glance, Miles Killebrew’s stat line with the Steelers seems pretty spare. He’s had 43 tackles in three seasons and two for losses. Taking a deeper look doesn’t help much – his defensive snap count topped out at 10% in 2023, and that was thanks to injures to Minkah Fitzpatrick, Keanu Neal, Trenton Thompson and Damontae Kazee‘s suspension.

  • But here’s a much more meaningful stat: 4.

As in Miles Killebrew has blocked 4 punts for the Pittsburgh Steelers during his three years in the Steel City. In 2021 he blocked a punt in the opener, helping swing the game vs the Bills in Pittsburgh’s favor. His blocked punt against the Chargers also sparked a fourth quarter rally that fell just short.

His blocked punt against the Ravens opened the door to a Steelers comeback, and his blocked punt against the Patriots should have done the same.

Oh, and during his time with the Steelers, Killebrew has played 68, 66 and 71% of special teams snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Miles Killebrew

Nothing can shift the course of a game like a big special teams play as the San Francisco 49ers and ex-Steelers returner Ray-Ray McCloud reminded the world in the Super Bowl. Miles Killebrew is a Pro Bowl special teamer who can will and does make those game-changing plays.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Miles Killebrew

Miles Killebrew’s got a nice story going for him, but he’s also a veteran and someone who likely cannot be brought back on a veteran minimum. Wouldn’t the Steelers be better suited to having someone who excels at special teams and can be something more than an “In case of emergency, break glass” player at another position?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Miles Killebrew

The Steelers are smart enough know what they have in Miles Killebrew and should have the salary cap space to keep in in Pittsburgh. Expect that to happen.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

 

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Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Thanksgiving Honors: Chris Boswell

When the Steelers got the ball in Cleveland twice during the last five minutes in a tie game, did you ever have a doubt that Chris Boswell would boot it in if the offense could get him close enough?

No. Neither did I.

That’s because Chris Boswell has redefined what it means to be “Mr. Automatic.” And for that Chris Boswell wins 2023 Thanksgiving Honors.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Crisis Opens the Door to Opportunity

The NFL lexicon is littered with clichés. Not For Long. You’re hired to be fired (ask Matt Canada about that one.) Another is that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

  • In Chris Boswell’s case, 3 men’s misfortunes combined to open his door to opportunity.

The Steelers started the 2015 preseason thinking they were set at place kicker, behind the trusty leg of Shaun Suisham. But Suisham injured himself on the terrible truf in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio.

So the Steelers signed Garrett Hartley. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Rooney family is known for their Catholicism, because Garrett Hartley is kind of the Pope John Paul I in the Steelers kicking Parthenon. We never got to know him, because he got injured at the end of free agency.

Kevin Colbert sprung into action and traded for Josh Scobee. Scobee started out OK, but missed an extra point in week 2 against San Francisco. He was OK in week two, but in week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens he missed two field goals in the last 2 and half minutes of regulation of a tie game.

The Steeler won the toss in over time, but on 4th and 2 from the Ravens 39, Mike Tomlin opted to run it with Mike Vick. The Steelers got the ball back, but again on 4th and won Tomlin opted to let Vick try to hook up with Antonio Brown.

  • The two failed to connect and 8 plays later Justin Tucker won it for the Ravens.

The Steelers sign Chris Boswell a few days later, and haven’t looked back since.

Boswell Best in Long Line of Excellent Steelers Place Kickers

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was recently asked about Chris Boswell, and responded:

Its automatic. I’ve been really blessed here in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve been here a long time and essentially had three kickers. That continuity, that ability to deliver with a high level of consistency, we don’t talk about it enough, but its appreciated.

The only issue with Mike Tomlin’s statement is that it isn’t inclusive enough.

Gary Anderson, Harry Newsome, Steelers vs Oilers, 1989 Steelers overtime upset of Oilers at Astrodome

Gary Anderson splits the uprights in overtime at the Astrodome. Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been blessed with excellent place kickers since the 1980s. In his day, Gary Anderson was known as “Mr. Automatic,” and Jerry Glanville can tell you just what that means. Norm Johnson succeeded Anderson, and his role in Steelers place kicking lineage is under rated. After an interregnum covered by Kris Brown and Todd Peterson, Jeff Reed took the mantel in the middle of 2002 and remained with the team until the middle of 2010.

  • But if you compare the numbers it wouldn’t take long to see that Chris Boswell is best of all.

Bob Labriola provided the stats on the Steelers elite place kickers and Boswell just about leads them all almost every key metric. Suisham’s career field goal percentage is still a hair higher than Boswell’s, but Boswell has improved in the 3 weeks since Labriola published his numbers.

More importantly, Boswell’s been perfect in the playoffs. Indeed, he kicked the game winner on a ucky, rainy night in Cincinnati following some late game heroics from Ryan Shazier and Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Boswell’s boot that put the Steelers into the AFC Championship in 2016.

Yes, Steelers fans really should give thanks for Chris Boswell.

A Word on Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

“Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” is a home-grown award here at Steel Curtain Rising. The tradition began during 2009’s five game losing streak and the first award winner was Rashard Mendenhall, who’d picked himself up off the turf and ran nearly the length of the field to prevent an interception and a pick six.

And we’ve continued this each since. Here are previous winners:

2009 – Rashard Mendenhall
2010 – Marukice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Al Everest
2011 –  Antonio Brown
2012 – Keenan Lewis
2013 – Cam Heyward
2014 – Le’Veon Bell
2015 – “The Understudies” – Alejandro Villanueva, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace
2016 – Ryan Shazier
2017 – Ben Roethlisberger
2018 – JuJu Smith-Schuster
2019 – Kevin Colbert
2020 – T.J. Watt
2021 – Cam Heyward (second time)
2022 – Larry Ogunjobi

As always we close with a reminder that it is our hope that everyone reading this has many, many reasons to be thankful that have nothing to do with the Steelers or football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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When Christmas Came Every Friday: Missing the Days of Steelers Digest

A new entry from the Mexican WhatsApp Mesa de Acero feed made my phone buzz at 2:47 pm, local time in Buenos Aires on Thursday afternoon. I glanced down. Instantly the image of the latest Steelers Digest issue transported me back 35 years and 6000 miles away.Steelers Digest, Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Darth Vader

It was the summer of 1989 and I was in the magazine aisle at Superfresh (aka A&P) in Aspen Hill’s Northgate Shopping Center. There I rummaged through preseason football magazines, searching for my fix on Steeler news. In Street & Smith’s, opposite an article on the Steelers, I saw it – an advertisement for something called Steelers Digest.

  • I didn’t subscribe to Steelers Digest that year, and it’s a decision I still regret.

(If you know the 1989 Steelers story, you’ll understand.) I don’t remember why. I probably didn’t have enough money on me to buy Street and Smiths and maybe it was gone by the time I could get back.

But I made sure to subscribe to the Steelers Digest for the next season and remained a subscriber until 2012 or 2013.

  • In those days before the internet, Steelers Digest was a lifeline.

Although I was fortunate enough to live in places that had solid sports pages, Steelers Digest offered the lone source of Black and Gold centric-coverage.

The Digest typically arrived on Fridays, following a familiar format. Bob Labriola led with a full page column. A summary of the past week’s game followed along with statics. Then came interviews with players. Each week had at least one feature story tied to the season. Myron Cope had a half page column titled “Coping” until he lost his wife Mildred in 1994.

Chuck Noll, Mark Malone

Chuck Noll and Mark Malone.

Other features were tucked further in. Vic Ketchman might have a feature on Steelers history – those were always clip and save stories. Former players such as Andy Russell and even Mark Malone would publish stories there. A Catholic Church on the North Side used to advertise mass schedules designed around Steelers games. Teresa Varley often did profiles on players or human interest stories that were always “can’t miss.”

At the end was The Overview, where Bob Labriola would print reader letters, offering what information he could about Steelers bars and responding to other questions just the way he does today in “Asked and Answered.”

Things were different then. The idea of getting a newspaper on Friday focused on last Sunday’s games seems quaint today. But back then, even though you knew the game’s results, like a fine wine, the in-depth, Steelers-focused analysis countered for its lack of freshness with maturity. In fact, the Digest’s arrival was highlight of the week.

  • Differences extended beyond the timing and delivery.

The Digest got creative in ways that would backfire in the social media age. If memory serves, when my very first Steelers Digest arrived my mom announced, “There’s something in the mail for you that called ‘Steelers Digest’ with a guy in a Superman suit on it.”

  • Sure enough, Rod Woodson was on the cover, outfitted in a Superman suit.

Can you imagine the reaction if Steelers.com tried to do something similar with T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick today?

Yet, that wasn’t a one off for the Digest. As you can see above, another they led with a picture of Greg Lloyd with a Darth Vader helmet. In the fall of 1990, they featured Woodson, Carnell Lake, D.J. Johnson and Thomas Everett standing in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium with orange barrels, stop signs and road blocks – that week’s feature was on Dave Brazil’s defense who were enjoying a phenomenal run in limiting touchdown passes (the run lasted for 15 games, until Cody Carlson torched them in the season finale at the Astrodome).

  • The Digest also served as a means for differentiating serious Steelers fans from casual ones.

Living in the DC area, Baltimore (pre-Ravens), Boston and later Cincinnati, people would often see me wearing Steelers stuff, prompting spontaneous high fives. After that, the conversation evolved in one of two ways.

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

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

You’d say something like, “Man, I LOVE Merril Hoge, I honestly think that they upgraded at fullback by bringing John L. Williams in” and the fan would either say, A. “Ah, man, I love the Steelers, but I’m not that up on today’s players. I just loved like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann,” or B. he’d dive into debating the nuances of the Hoge vs Williams dynamic.

  • Group B fans were almost always Steelers Digest readers.

I continued subscribing to Steelers Digest, even after the advent of “the world wide web” provided access to papers like the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review and later Steelers blogs. The Digest still offered exclusive features by writers like Mike Prisuta, Jim Wexell or Dale Lolley or exclusive interviews with Dan Rooney, Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert.

As time passed many if not most of those exclusives found their way on to Steelers.com – once as I was performing my Saturday night ritual of reading Bob Labriola’s column I realized it was the same column that he’d published on Monday after the game.

  • And that’s when I allowed my subscription to lapse.

And that’s OK. Times change. Today a serious fan, from any corner on the globe, literally has a choice of hundreds, if not thousands of articles, videos or other forms of “content” about the Steelers. Quality may suffer in that sea of quantity, but you can still find it, if you look for it.

Would I go back if I could? Consider this: My first view of Bill Cowher came several days after he was hired when I spied a rumpled copy of the USA Today sitting on the floor of my dorm room at Loyola Maryland (Wynnwood Towers 905E if you must know.) In 2007, in the evening after work, I watched an on-line recording of Cowher’s retirement press conference from my apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • So no, I wouldn’t go back if I could.

But is it possible that for all we’ve gained, maybe we’ve also lost something too? I don’t know.

But I do know this: I miss the days when Christmas came in my mail box every Friday thanks to the Steelers Digest.

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Flipping the Script: Steelers Trade of Kevin Dotson to Rams Reverses Recent Trends

The composition of the Steelers roster remains unknown as Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan have the lion’s share of their cuts to make before today’s 4:00 pm deadline.

  • But we already know one fundamental fact: The duo is flipping the script on Steelers late summer trading narrative.

News broke during the weekend that the Steelers had dealt Kevin Dotson, their 4th round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft to the Los Angeles Rams. In exchange the Steelers get the Rams’ 4th round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The teams will exchange 5th rounds picks in the 2025 NFL Draft and the Steelers will send Los Angeles their 6th round pick in 2025.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Time will tell which side gets the better of this deal, but the move reverses the Steelers recent tendency to trade away picks to bolster depth. To be fair to Kevin Colbert, these trades typically involved a lot of back and forth, with the Steelers dealing and often times getting back 5th and 6th round picks.

But taken as a whole, the Steelers eroded their draft capital by trading to bring the Malik Reed, Joe Schobert, Avery Williames of the NFL to Pittsburgh.

By adding an extra 4th round pick Omar Khan is beginning to change that.

Snapshot of Kevin Dotson’s Steelers Career

Although he was only a 4th round pick, Dotson arrived in Pittsburgh and was penciled in as a future starter. Dotson started 4 games as a rookie, and when the team opted to let Matt Feiler walk, Dotson earned the starting spot.

In 2021 Dotson started the first 9 games at left guard during a season when the Steelers had one of their worst offensive lines in recent memory. Yet, in this scribe’s humble opinion they were reaching the outskirts respectability by midseason, only to see that journey come to a crashing halt when they lost Dotson in the tie against Detroit.

Dotson rebounded in 2022 and started all 17 games, but was reportedly fighting nagging injuries throughout the year.

Early in the 2023 off season the Steelers brass showed signs of being read to move on. First they signed guard Nate Herbig in free agency. But Herbig’s contract tagged him as a backup. This was not the case for Isaac Seumalo who got clear starter’s money.

As the Steelers learned all too painfully early during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. But the emergence of Spencer Anderson and the number of snaps Kendrick Green got against the Falcons at guard put the writing on the wall for Kevin Dotson.

Getting a 4th round pick for a backup guard playing on the final year of his rookie contract is an excellent deal in today’s NFL.

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Steelers Sign Kwon Alexander. Lesson? Watch What Omar Khan Does, Not What He Says

Although they’ve been at St. Vincents for less than 4 full days under, the Steelers made their first personnel move by signing veteran inside linebacker Kwon Alexander.

We’ll talk about what he brings to Pittsburgh a little later, but the quick takeaway is that, as it was with Kevin Colbert, so it is with Omar Khan. Which is: Watch not what he says, but what he does.

Kwon Alexander, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Jets

New Steelers Kwon Alexander tackles Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Khan Follows Colbert’s Footsteps

Kevin Colbert famously began the 2003 Steelers off season by defending the team’s secondary. He then promptly let longtime veteran Lee Flowers walk in free agency, tried and failed to sign Super Bowl MVP Dexter Carter, and then traded up to draft Troy Polamalu waited a few rounds, and then picked Ike Taylor.

  • During the 2023 off season the Steelers ripped their inside linebacking depth chart up root and stem.

Devin Bush’s departure was a given (as Mark Kaboly quipped, Devin Bush Sr. had a better chance of playing for the Steelers in 2023.) I strongly suspect that the Steelers were surpised to lose Robert Spillane. But even if that is true, when Spillane went to Oakland, it didn’t stop the Steelers from showing Myles Jack the door.

  • That left 2022 rookie Mark Robinson, he of 44 defensive snaps, as the “veteran” at inside linebacker.

Omar Khan quickly added Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts as the team’s starters at inside linebacker in free agency. While the Steelers address several key areas of defensive need in the 2023 NFL Draft, inside linebacker was not a position they were able to get to.

So, when Khan took questions from the media, they naturally asked him how he felt about depth at inside linebacker. Here’s Khan’s full response:

We signed the guys that we did because we felt we had to get better, and we think we’re going to be better with those guys. I’m confident with the group we have there. If there’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group, we’re always going to look at it, and if it makes sense it makes sense.

He praised his guys. Expressed confidence that they’ll improve the defense. While he left open the door to adding someone else “If t here’s an opportunity to upgrade a position group” (notice “a” the indefinite article, not “the”) he’d do it.

It sounded like Khan was content to stand pat with his current inside linebackers. And then three days later, he went out and signed Kwon Alexander.

So what is Alexander bringing to the Steelers?

Quick Look at Kwon Alexander

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Kwon Alexander their 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started for 3 straight seasons, until injuries derailed his career. After starting 40 games in his first 3 seasons, he started 14 over the next two, six in Tampa Bay, 8 in San Francisco.

He almost doubled that in 2020, starting 13 games, but he played for the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints after being dealt to the Big Easy. He started 8 games in New Orleans in 2021, and then went to the New York Jets, where he started 12 games in 2022.

All in all, he’s seen action in 95 NFL games, making 8 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, forcing 11 fumbles and making 49 tackles for losses. He’s seen as being strong in coverage, and his 33 passes defensed would lend credence to that, but only 3 of those passes defensed came in the last two seasons.

When asked why he opted to sign with the Steelers, Alexander explained, “I really came here cause of the defense,” further expanding that “Hard-nosed football, hit hard, run, get the ball. That’s the type of player I am.”

Terms of his contract haven’t been announced, but one can imagine it is either at or very near the veteran minimum.

In addition to Holocomb, Roberts and Robinson, the Steelers also have newcomers Tanner Muse and Nick Kwiatkoski listed as inside linebackers, but they’re seen more as special teams contributors. After finishing 2023 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad Chapelle Russell is also in the mix.

But one can imagine that Alexander is at the top of that pecking order.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Le’Veon Bell Should Apologize to the Man in the Mirror. Not to Steelers Fans

Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.

The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”

  • Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.

Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the gridiron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Why Bell Owes No Apology to Steelers Fans

Full disclosure. When the Steelers slapped the 2nd franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, I said it wasn’t what either side wanted, but probably what both needed. I was wrong.

And when Bell failed to show up on the first day of practice before the opener, I like many other was upset. Later, as the deadline to report loomed, I opined that Mike Tomlin should call Bell and convince him to report.

The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?

Perhaps.

But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.

That’s simply not Bell’s fault.

Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology

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

Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”

NFL players have a code.

Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.

  • And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.

Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.

The Man in the Mirror

When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.

But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.

  • In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.

The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.

The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.

And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.

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