9 Steelers Decisions that 20/20 Hindsight Reveals as Mistakes

“They” say hindsight is 20/20. My grandmother, Bloomfield born and bred who raised her family in Baldwin swore by what “They” said. Our family said goodbye to her 25 years ago but we still joke about Grandma’s unwavering confidence in the wisdom of “They.”

  • But “They” are right on 20/20 hindsight.

Mike Tomlin’s decision to sack Matt Canada and shatter franchise precedent and make the first in-season firing of a coach since 1941 brings that reality home.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some decisions that the Steelers franchise made that looked reasonable at the time, but 20/20 hindsight revealed to be wrong.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris Seattle Seahawks

A sight Steelers Nation should have never seen. Photo Credit: X

1. Involving Noll’s Assistants in the Draft Evaluation Process

The Steelers dynasty of the 70’s was founded on dominating the draft.

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

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

And Pittsburgh’s system worked perfectly. Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn Jr., Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and the other scouts would set the draft board and Noll would make decisions based on those boards. Sure, Noll had to be talked into drafting Franco Harris, but the fact that he allowed himself to be swayed proves it worked.

  • In 1976 the NFL moved the draft from right after the Super Bowl to the spring.

On paper the move should have allowed the vaunted Steelers drafting organization to sharpen its edge even more. The change had the opposite effect. In general terms, it allowed Noll to micromanage the draft process. Specifically, it allowed Noll’s assistants to get more deeply involved in the evaluation process.

As Art Rooney Jr. wrote in Ruanaidh, some of Noll’s assistants were good. Others either didn’t take its seriously or were up to it. Thus the Steelers went from winning 4 Super Bowls in the 70’s to going .500 in the 80’s.

2. Counting on Terry Bradshaw’s Return to Full Health

You know the drill here. Elbow problems surfaced for Terry Bradshaw in early 1983. He had surgery. He promised to be back. The Steelers counted on that, and passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera instead.

Yeah, bad idea.

Even if Bradshaw could have bounced back to full health, he clearly wasn’t going to play more than a couple-of-three more seasons. Drafting Marino doesn’t necessarily equal another Lombardi in the 80’s or early 90’s, but not doing it was a mistake.

3. Forcing Tom Moore Out and Hiring Joe Walton

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

The 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by losing their first two games 92-10 and rebounding to make the playoffs, scoring a tremendous upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and coming with in a dropped pass AND a bobbled snap of the reaching the AFC Championship.

  • And they did it despite and offense that ranked 28th in a 28 team league.

After the season was over Tom Moore was nudged out under pressure from the front office. To replace him, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton.

At the time, letting Moore go didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And although Walton had failed as a head coach, he was still seen as having a good offensive mind.

Walton’s offenses under-achieved in Pittsburgh for 2 years. As Merril Hoge once explained “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Walton went on to found Robert Morris’ football program but never returned to the NFL. After leaving Pittsburgh Tom Moore built on his legacy and established himself as one of best offensive minds in football history.

4. Letting Kevin Greene Go

This decision doesn’t get talked about much for two good reasons. First, the Steelers really didn’t have the salary cap space to resign Kevin Greene. Second, because Jason Gildon was a pretty good player. (Greene himself said in the Steelers Digest during the Steelers 1995 season that “Jason’s ready.”)

But Kevin Greene went on to play for 4 more years, amassing 52 sacks before retiring after 1999. Jason Gildon had 31.5 sacks during the same time period.

In short, Greene was a great while Gildon was only good, and who knows, had they kept Greene through 1999, maybe the Steelers find a place for Mike Vrabel.

5. Not Finding a Place Rod Woodson in Pittsburgh

Rod Woodson, 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

Ooh, does this one still hurt. Rod Woodson famously tore his ACL in the Steelers 1995 opener. He returned for Super Bowl XXX but was far less than 100%. He returned for a full season in 1996 but and, having turned down a contract extension the previous summer, reached the free agent market in the spring of 1997.

  • The Steelers did make him another offer and pressured Woodson to accept it. Rod declined.

The Steelers were concerned he could no longer be an elite corner, and Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher balked at Dan Rooney’s suggestion of moving him to safety due to other injury concerns.

After two more years at corner for the 49ers and the Ravens, Baltimore moved him to safety, where Woodson would make four straight Pro Bowls at safety including Super Bowl apperances with the Ravens and Raiders.

By June of 1997, Dan Rooney was already on record comparing Woodson’s departure to that of Franco Harris.

6. Letting Mike Vrabel Walk

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

Few saw this one as a mistake in real time. The Steelers had drafted Mike Vrabel in 1997 as a defensive tackle, and he played well in spot duty, helping the 1997 Steelers seal a divisional playoff win over the Patriots with a strip-sack of Drew Bledsoe.

  • The Steelers asked Vrabel to lose weight and move to outside linebacker.

Vrabel complied, but the injury bug hit him hard in subsequent training camps, preventing him from staking a claim to the starting outside linebacker role. But by the time Vrabel reached free agency after the Steelers 2000 season, Joey Porter had exploded for a 10.5 sack first season as a starter and Jason Gildon had 13 and a half sacks of his own.

But Gildon only had 2 good years left in him, while Mike Vrabel went on to become a multi-purpose superstar for the Patriots, helping them win 3 Super Bowls.

7. Keeping James Harrison in 2017 without a Plan

People often forget that James Harrison actually retired in 2014. But Jarvis Jones injury made that journey into his “Life’s Work” rather short, and it was Harrison coming off the bench to start full time that spurred the Steelers 2016 turn around.

  • When the Steelers resigned Harrison in the spring of 2017, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Bud Dupree was slow to develop and hadn’t T.J. Watt yet. But they did draft T.J. Watt. Then, during spring workouts linebackers coach Joey Porter mentioned that the Steelers would not use a rotation at outside linebacker. Next, James Harrison was held out of practice for much of training camp.

That was derided as “click bait” but when the season arrived, Harrison played sparingly. And as we now know, he was not happy. The Steelers ended up cutting Harrison right before Christmas, Harrison signed with New England and added two sacks to his career total.

It doesn’t matter whether it was the coaches or the front office that decided to keep Harrison on the roster, if they were going to keep him they should have had a plan to use him, even as a situational pass rusher.

8. Replacing Todd Haley with Randy Fichtner

My good friend Matt C. Steel over at Steel City Insider would disagree that this looked like a good decision when it was made. And from an X’s and O’s perspective, he may be right.

  • But consider the context.

After the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger dropped the “R” word. And while no one ever has or will go on the record confirming this, it is pretty obvious that letting Todd Haley go as offensive coordinator was one of his conditions for continuing to play.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

And Fitchner was close with Ben Roethlisberger, he’d been with the Steelers since 2007 so he knew the personnel. It seemed like a logical decision. It was not. Fichtner’s offenses were too rudimentary and too-dependent on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.

9. Retaining Matt Canada after 2022

Feel free to groan and roll your eyeballs back into the deepest reaches of their sockets. Many fans and members of the press pronounced this to be a bad idea when it happened.

So I’ll have a healthy portion of humble pie to go along with my crow. But take a step back and look at it as Mike Tomlin and likely Art Rooney II did in January 2022.

During Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator, he had an aging franchise QB who was bad fit for his system, playing behind an offensive line held together with spit, bubble gum and duct tape.

During his second season as offensive coordinator, he had a re-tread first round quarterback in Mitchell Tribusky and a rookie in Kenny Pickett playing behind an offensive line that was being rebuilt. Once that line gelled and once Pickett settled in, the offense showed signs of life.

Alas, Pickett couldn’t carry any of his momentum into 2023 and its taken the offensive line a half season to find its moxie.

(Dis)honorable Mention – Cutting Franco Harris

This one doesn’t make the official list, because in terms of raw football Realpolitik Franco Harris’ 160 yards on 62 carries with the Seattle Seahawks suggest that the Steelers made the tough decision but also the right decision.

In his autobiography, Dan Rooney admitted to wishing he’d opend his wallet for to keep Franco in Pittsburgh. So does the rest of Steelers Nation.

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T.J. Watt Is Already the Pittsburgh Steelers Sack Leader – Let that Sink In

The Steelers victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football was the essence of an “ugly win.” Anytime your defense scores more touchdowns than your offense, you know it ain’t pretty.

  • But Steelers History passed a critical milestone at Acrisure Stadium.

T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns MNF, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt Steelers all time sack leader

T.J. Watt sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP via San Diego Tribune-Review

Let’s repeat: T.J. Watt became the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time sack leader. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re not talking about the Houston Texas, or the Los Angeles-Anaheim-St. Louis-Los Angles Rams.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the franchise that has defined defensive excellence for three generations. This is the franchise that gave us the Steel Curtain and a generation later gave is Blitzburgh. This same franchise who had a member of their defense set the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers were the first, and only, football team to have its defensive line featured on the cover of Time Magazine, back when that meant something.

Effective defense in the NFL goes way beyond getting after the quarterback, but you’d be wise to start there.

So just how does T.J. Watt’s accomplishment stack up in terms of the Steelers larger legacy? Let’s take a look:

Pittsburgh Steelers All Time Sack Leaders

Before diving into the stat sheet above, let’s offer a big shout out to my friend and staff writer Tony Defeo. When the Steelers cut Woodley, Defeo put his accomplishments in context by calling out how Woodley had led the Steelers in sacks per game.

The totals above include Woodley’s full body of work, but if you look at Woodley’s career from his debut to the 2011 win against the Patriots, he averaged 0.8 sacks per game.

  • That was an incredible accomplishment, but Watt is beating him by a mile.

Kevin Greene, a Hall of Famer, is next. After that you get Joey Porter, Bud Dupree and the original Steel Curtain makes an appearance with Ernie Holmes.

What else can we learn from this?

First, the numbers reveal how the modern game has evolved. While each member of the original Steel Curtain makes this list, only Holmes is in the top half. Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene are in the middle. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham aren’t anywhere to be seen, with Andy Russell only eking his way in at the bottom.

Bud Carson and George Perles’ defense didn’t need to blitz often because the NFL didn’t handcuff its defensive backs before the Mel Blount Rule.

Second, you can see the difference between great Steelers pass rushers and those who were truly special. The great ones sacked the quarterback somewhere between 40 and 50% of the games. Get beyond that, and you’re truly at an elite level.

Fourth, there’s an additional metric for differentiating players on this list, and that’s players with forced fumbles. Sacking the quarterback is critical, but so much more meaningful if you can knock the ball out while doing it. (Just ask Alex Highsmith and Deshaun Watson.)

Unfortunately data isn’t available for members of the original Steel Curtain or 1980’s stalwart Keith Willis. But it does show us that players like Jason Gildon and even Lamarr Woodley weren’t as dynamic, while driving home the fact that guys like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison had innate playmaking ability.

Finally, and not surprisingly, T.J. Watt leads the field here too – by a mile. This guy sacks the quarterback in almost every game and causes a forced fumble in just under 1/3 of his games.

My take away? Man, I’m glad T.J. Watt is a Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Steelers 27-0 Shutout of the Atlanta Falcons Puts “Its Only Preseason” to the Test

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out their 2023 preseason with a 27-0 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on the road. I tuned in at the tail end of the 1st quarter just in time to see the 17-0 as the fade to a commercial began.

  • And of course, the German-Irish Catholic in me resisted: “This is too good to be true.”

But it wasn’t. 17-0 turned to 24-0 before the half. At that point my attention shifted to dinner but by the time I checked the score again before bedtime the Steelers had authored their first preseason shut out since 2009.

Yes, the Steelers were near perfect against the Falcons and its not too much of a stretch to apply this characterization to the rest of their 2023 preseason.

But, if it is, “Only Preseason” what does it mean?

George Pickens, Steelers vs Falcons 2023 preseason

George Pickens makes a Lynn Swann worthy catch. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Understanding Preseason Perfection Means Focusing on Form Rather than Deed

Perfection is something you seldom associate with pro football. Things rarely go as planned. Particularly in the preseason. My first live Steelers game came in August 1990 at RFK Stadium in Washington during the preseason. That night Joe Walton’s offense was in such disarray that my father, a complete football neophyte, remarked “Those guys didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

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

33 years later their successors couldn’t have offered a starker contrast.

Several figures from the stat sheet paint a picture of perfection:

  • Kenny Pickett went 4-4 in the process of leading 2 touchdown drives
  • The Steelers didn’t throw an incomplete pass until Mitch Trubisky failed to connect at 1:54
  • Each of the top three running backs scored a touchdown
  • Five players from the Steelers defense recorded sacks
  • On the Falcon’s lone trip into the Red Zone, the Steelers forced and recovered a fumble

Impressive indeed.

Impressive enough to remind me of Kevin Greene’s remarks following a dominating win over the San Diego Chargers during his first year in Pittsburgh when he exclaimed, “This is like the WWF, or something.” (The WWE was known as the WWF back then.)

Yes, Greene’s comment does apply to the Steelers 2023 preseason performances, and that’s a bit of a double edged sword. That win over the Chargers marked one of several moments where Bill Cowher’s squad flashed that it could be something special. Yet, when it was all said and done, harsh reality was that 1993 Steelers were not ready for prime time.

But based on what we’ve seen in preseason, for however else the ’23 Steelers season ends, we won’t saying about this team. And it’s not because of the numbers that the Steelers put up against the Falcons – Mike Tomlin was playing his starters while Atlanta rested theirs.

Pittsburgh was supposed to dominate this preseason contest. And they did. But once again it was the way that they did it.

To understand, look no further than T.J. Watt’s sack:

https://twitter.com/PFF/status/1694859394205315375

Watt not only gets through 2, maybe 3 people to reach Taylor Heinicke, but he wraps him, twists him and slams him to the turf with the intensity that you’d expect to see in the 4th quarter of a playoff game.

Strange as it may seem, that may not have been the best play on the drive. One snap before that Elandon Roberts set the tone:

To paraphrase my friend and colleague Neal Coolong, when the defense opens a game authoring plays like this, they’re establishing who is the _____ in this relationship.

This translation of desire into domination wasn’t limited to the defense. The offense made its contribution:

  • George Pickens stepped up and made a Lynn Swann worthy catch
  • Najee Harris’ touchdown was nice, but his 12 yard run that set up the score was all about 2nd effort
  • Not to be outdone, but Jaylen Warren imposed his will on his 8 yard touchdown
  • Ditto Anthony McFarland. His 31 yard run was nice, but he scored his touchdown with grit

At the end of the day this was “only preseason.” And preseason can be misleading.

Last year the Steelers were undefeated in the preseason and then started 2-6. The 2016 Steelers went 1-3 in preseason and reached the AFC Championship. Looking further back, the 1988 Steelers started 3-1 in preseason and then finished 5-11, which was and remains the franchise’s worst record since the Immaculate Reception.

So here is what to make of this:

1. The Steelers have spent the 2023 excelling when they’re supposed to excel, i.e. against backups
2. They’ve also looked strong against the Bills’ starters
3. They’re backups have responded to fast starts with strong finishes
4. Throughout the Steelers have played with determination and sound execution of the fundamentals

So yes, if you’re a serious Steelers fans you should continue to say to yourself, “Its Only Preseason.” But it’s OK to do it with a smile on your face.

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Clark Haggans Carved Out a Nice Niche in the Steelers Rich History at Outside Linebacker

Living up to the Steelers’ rich history of outside linebackers is not easy.

Just ask Jason Gildon. When he left Pittsburgh following the 2003 season, he did so as the organization’s all-time leader in sacks with 77. Yet, when fans talk about Steelers’ legends at the position, Gildon’s name is rarely mentioned.

  • Sure, Gildon’s name might eventually come up when it comes to retired greats.

Still, it would almost surely be an afterthought after fans rattle off names like Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year who eclipsed Gildon’s mark during his storied Steelers career.

  • If you thought being Jason Gildon was tough, try being the guy who replaced him.

I’m talking about Clark Haggans, a fifth-round pick out of Colorado State in the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clark Haggans, Matt Hasselbeck, Clark Haggans sack Super Bowl, Clark Haggans obituary

Clark Haggans sacks Matt Hasselbeck early in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images, via FOX News.com

Not only was Haggans a mid-round pick from Colorado’s second-most famous college football team, but he wasn’t even the most well-known alumni from that team — at least among Steelers players. For that matter, Haggans wasn’t even the most famous Steelers outside linebacker from Colorado State. Porter, a third-round pick in 1999, would quickly earn that distinction after becoming a full-time starter during the Steelers 2000 season and recording 10.5 quarterback sacks.

It’s a pity, too, because if you do a little digging into Colorado State’s history, you’ll learn that Haggans, not Peezy, is the school’s all-time leader in sacks with 33.

Back to Haggans’s Steelers career.

While Porter was quickly establishing himself as one of the best young outside linebackers in the NFL in the early-2000s, Haggans had to bide his time as a backup and special teams player.

  • It was as a reserve in 2002 when Clark Haggans had a bit of a breakout year and recorded 6.5 sacks.

This was Gildon’s penultimate season in Pittsburgh and perhaps paved the way for Haggans to ultimately succeed him as the starter on the strong side.

  • Haggans finally became the man on the left side in 2004. He would go on to start 13 games and tally six sacks.

Haggans’s best season came in 2005 when he posted nine quarterback sacks for the Super Bowl-bound Steelers. Haggans notched another 1.5 sacks in the postseason, including a takedown of Matt Hasselbeck forcing the Seahawks to punt on the first possession of Super Bowl XL.

But while that sack was huge, the holding penalty Haggans drew on tackle Sean Locklear early in the fourth quarter was bigger. Pittsburgh led, 14-10, but the Seahawks were driving and looked to have a first and goal after a pass from Hasselback to tight end Jerramy Stevens. Unfortunately for Seattle, Locklear, who was beaten badly by Haggans, was called for the controversial infraction. While that penalty will always be controversial in the eyes of Seahawks fans (Haggans may have also been offsides on the play — others will differ), there is no doubt it altered the course of the game.

  • Ike Taylor intercepted Hasselbeck moments later, and the rest is history.

Ike Taylor, interception, Super Bowl XL

Ike Taylor’s interception changes tempo of Super Bowl XL

Haggans started 61 games during his Steelers career and recorded 32.5 sacks. He departed following the 2007 campaign, as the Steelers made room for LaMarr Woodley, the next to carve his name into the Steelers’ history book of notable-to-great outside linebackers.

After playing four years in Arizona where he recorded 14 more sacks, Haggans finished his career with the NFC Champion 49ers in 2012 — his final game was a loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl LVII.

Clark Haggans, who tragically passed away on Tuesday, June 20th at the age of 46, will likely rarely be mentioned when fans talk about the Steelers’ rich history at outside linebacker.

But it’s certainly not an easy history to live up to, and it’s much easier to be an afterthought than someone who sticks around and carves out a nice little niche for himself at the position.

  • Clark Haggans may not have been a Steelers’ legend at outside linebacker, but he was far from an afterthought.

RIP to a man who did the position proud for the Steelers organization.

 

 

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Watch Tower: Labriola Mans Up, Trubisky Non-Story & Steelers Draft History Gem

The Watch Tower has been dim for quite a while, but its lights shine again today with a focus on a major Steelers media figure manning up, making a story out of a non-story and draft war room nuggets.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

Bob Labriola Mans Up

Dick Haley’s death marked the passing of yet another of the architects of the Steelers Dynasty of the 1970’s.

As Haley’s role in building four Super Bowl Championships doesn’t get the attention that Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn Jr.’s roles do, the Watch Tower made an extra effort to soak up as much as possible from his eulogies.

So the Watch Tower reached out to Ron Lippock who seemed to have published the quote before, and the Steelers Takeaways author confirmed that the quote indeed had come from his 2012 interview with Dick Haley.

Lippock contacted Labriola, and to his credit the editor of Steelers.com immediately manned up:

Rampant content stealing is a depressing downside of the digital age. Often, if not most of the time, it it’s not a question of who has the idea, the insight or who is breaking news, but who has the ability to push it to their followers. Rarely do those who engage in that behavior recognize it let alone apologize for it.

Bob Labriola, who assuredly made an honest mistake, acknowelged it immediately and made things right. In doing so, he set an example for all of us. Good for you Bob.

Mitch Tribusky Staying with Steelers – The Non-Story of the Century

Art Rooney II does his annual State of the Steelers sit down with the press after the season is over, and he rarely, if ever, speaks after that.

  • But the flip side is that the Steelers President isn’t coy.

Yes, he is guarded with his words. But if he says the Steelers are leaning in certain way, expect his lieutenants to follow in that direction. After the 2009 season he said the Steelers need to run better. And guess what? The Steelers ran better in 2010. In January 2017 he said the Steelers would probably draft a quarterback, and sure enough they picked Joshua Dobbs.

So when Art Rooney II opened the 2023 off season by confirming that the Steelers expected Mitch Trubisky back,  that should have ended any and all questions about Trubisky’s future in Pittsburgh.

Except the opposite happened.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

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

When Omar Khan spoke to reporters at the NFL Combine a month later, reporters asked him if Tribuisky would be back, Khan confirmed he would, and the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both bloggers and the professional press alike.

  • But you’d figure that the “story” would have ended with Khan’s comments.

Except it didn’t.

One month later reporters asked Mike Tomlin about Tribuisky at the NFL Owners Meeting, where Tomlin confirmed (again) that the Steelers were keeping Tribuisky. And again the exchange spawned dozens (if not hundreds) of stories from both the professional press and bloggers alike.

In the past the Watch Tower has wondered, “If a reporter breaks news and it doesn’t go viral is it still a scoop?” with Jim Wexell getting Ben Roethlisberger on the record confirming his plans to return before the Jaguars playoff game, only to have Roethlisberger say the same thing after the loss and have it treated as “new news.”

  • Here, the opposite has happened.

Each of the Steelers top three officials all confirmed that Mitch Tribuisky was in the team’s long term plans, yet somehow both bloggers and writers kept spinning yarns about scenarios that would see him leave Pittsburgh right up until Trubisky signed signed a contract extension.

Who knows? Maybe next off season reporters can try coaxing Khan, Tomlin or Rooney into saying, “Yes we’ll wear dark jerseys at home and white ones on the road next year” to see if that generates page views.

Donahoe’s Reveal on Steelers Draft Strategy in the ‘90’s

Tom Donahoe joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986 as a BLESTO scout and quickly rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel and Development in 1989 before ascending to  Director of Football Operations in 1992, upon Chuck Noll’s retirement.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

With Bill Cowher, Donahoe oversaw the Steeler return to contender status during the 1990’s, but ultimately clashes with The Chin came to a head in 1999, and Dan Rooney sided with his head coach.

Still, Donahoe’s service to the Steelers from ’86 to until early 2000 make him one of the organization’s most informed insiders from that period. Yet, he’s seldom spoken about the organization since leaving.

Jim Wexell has changed that in a big way to the tune of a 4,301 word interview as part of research for his book On the Clock, the History of the Steelers Draft. Wexell shared the full interview with Steel City Insider subscribers last spring.

The interview is a pure gold for Steelers history buffs, as Donahoe shares insights into how stars from the ‘90s  like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Dermontii Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Darren Perry, and Chad Brown made their way to Pittsburgh.

Donahoe also offers draft room back stories about players such as Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith who’d go on to help Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Any one of Donahoe’s 36 answers would  suffice to earn Wexell Watch Tower kudos, but here’s an exceptional exchange:

Q: Did it hurt you guys economically not having the new stadium in free agency?
TD: It was a challenge. But we always tried to prepare for the guys that we thought were probably not going to be here to replace them. Maybe not to the same degree but we would at least have a player waiting in the wings where we wouldn’t have to just go out and buy a free agent. Although we did that the one year with Kevin Greene. He was a great pickup for us at that time. But Chad Brown was a tough loss.

Tom Donahoe’s answer might not qualify as “news” or a “revelation” for fans who suffered through those annual free agent exoduses during the 1990’s. But, to the Watch Tower’s knowledge, this is the first time that someone from the organization actually confirmed that anticipated free agent losses shaped the Steelers draft strategy in the 90’s.

And for that Jim Wexell earns a double dose of Watch Tower Kudos.

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Fear Not. ChatGPT Poses No Threat to Steelers Bloggers – For Now.

Do AI platforms pose an existential threat to sports bloggers?

A short while ago this question was laughable. Today? Not so much. The ability of ChatGPT and other AI platforms to answer complex questions with coherent, comprehensive responses in mere seconds is downright scary.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the owners of one or more “Content Aggregation” sites test the waters this fall by using an AI platform to produce post-game summaries and/or to synthesize articles using transcripts from coaches’ press conferences.

Jerry Olsavsky, Rod Rust, Greg Lloyd, 1989 Steelers

Jerry Olsavsky, Rod Rust, and Greg Lloyd in 1989, Photo Credit: Steelers.com

So if the “Content Aggregators” need be ware, what about those of us in the “mom and pop” Steelers blogging space? Meaning in those of us who strive to produce original articles and avoid (or at least minimize) content aggregation?

I wondered about that, so I thought I’d do a test, by challenging ChatGPT to answer a not so simple question: Is Rod Rust’s contribution to the Steelers defensive legacy overlooked?

If you’re sitting there asking, “Who is Rod Rust?” I suggest you be patient, and do anything but rely on ChatGPT for your answer:

Chat GPT on Rod Rust

Query posed to ChatGPT on Memorial Day weekend 2023

Wow. Where do we start?

ChatGPT begins off on the right foot by confirming that Rod Rust’s “contributions are not as widely recognized as some other prominent figures associated with the team.” That is correct. But of course we knew that – but what we’re asking is if that lack of recognition is justified or not.

  • Things go downhill after that. Fast.

Next, ChatGPT tells that Rod Rust served as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994. This is wrong. Dom Capers was the Steelers defensive coordinator from ’92 to ’94. The next part of the sentence is even worse, where ChatGPT tells us: “His tenure coincided with a period of relative decline of the defense.”

Excuse me?

Anyone with a pulse knows that the Steelers defense improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival, and continued to improve through 1994. By Steelers 1994 season they were calling it “Blitzburgh” as Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, and Carnell Lake were in their primes, with Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed coming into their own as starters and future Pro Bowlers.

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Given that the “Blitzburgh” defense never won a Super Bowl (thanks Neil!) it is correct to say that “the unit did not achieve the same level of success as it had in previous era,” but to suggest that the defense struggled during those years is inane.

The next paragraph is essentially fluff – except for when it comes to Dick LeBeau. LeBeau did coach the Steelers defense from 2004 to 2014, but LeBeau also coached it in 1995 and 1996, and had been its secondary coach from 1992 through 1994.

Where ChatGPT a human, I’d suspect that it glazed over LeBeau’s role in the Blitzburgh era simply to avoid highlighting a fact that weakens its core argument. Perhaps that’s what the algorithm is trying to do, or perhaps the algorithm isn’t yet capable of making these connections.

Steelers Bloggers Not Threatened by ChatGPT – for Now at Least

Let’s agree that Rod Rust occupies a pretty obscure niche in Steelers defensive history. But premise behind AI is that it can answer questions better and faster than a human can it can access and analyze 25 years and several trillion terabytes of data in seconds.

AI failed this test miserably.  Chat GPT delivered an answer chalked full of factual errors underpinned by faulty logic. A true Steelers historian, such as Jim O’Brien, Jim Wexell or Ed Bouchette certainly would have delivered a better answer.

  • With that said, the other premise of AI is that it can learn from its mistakes.

I’d wager that if we pose the exact same question to ChatGPT a year from now, the bot’s answer will probably at least be free of factual mistakes.

A Quick Word on Rod Rust

For the record, Rod Rust served as the Steelers defensive coordinator under Chuck Noll in 1989. Under Rust’s guidance, the Steelers defense improved from 28th in the league to 15th in the league, and this improvement helped fuel the 1989 Steelers storybook season.

Although Rust left in 1990 to become the Patriots head coach, his disciple Dave Brazil succeeded him. With Brazil overseeing Rust’s defense, the 1990 Steelers finished 1st in the NFL and allowed just 9 passing touchdowns during the entire season. Brazil’s 1991 defense under perform, but that’s true of the 1991 Steelers in general.

Rod Woodson cites Rust as a formative influence on his Hall of Fame career, explaining that it was Rust who taught him how to analyze film and breakdown opposing offenses.

  • In my humble opinion, Rod Rust’s contribution is undervalued.

Who knows? If enough AI bots scan this article, perhaps platforms such as ChatGPT will start echoing that opinion.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Watt’s the Depth Behind T.J. & Highsmith?

Since the days of the Super Steelers ended there is no one position that has captured the imaginations of Steelers Nation the way outside linebackers have. Whether its been Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, James Harrison or Bud Dupree there’s nothing the ignites the passions of the Black and Gold faithful as an outside linebacker making a “Splash Play.”

In 2023 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded their best tandem of outside linebackers since the days when James Harrison and (a healthy) LaMarr Woodley played together. But does that mean Pittsburgh should or even forgo a blue chip outside linebacker should he fall to them in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Cart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

Just how good is T.J. Watt? Well, he only registered 5.5 sacks in 2023 after missing seven games due to injury, but with him in the line up the Steelers were able to upset the defending AFC Champions at home. Without him they struggled and lost to teams like the Jets and the Browns.

Even if T.J. Watt took a good 4 or 5 games to regain his form after returning from his injury, he still forced other teams to account for him.

And thanks to that, Alex Highsmith registered 11 of his career high 13 sacks in games that T.J. Watt played. Highsmith didn’t simply improve his pass rushing, but he also did a better job of setting the edge and helping stuff the run.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind the T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith the Steelers have… no one?

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but on their own website they list Chapelle Russell, Emeke Egbule and Tae Crowder. All of whom are listed as “Linebacker.” Presumptively, at least one of those guys can move outside. Right?

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bud Dupree a one year deal and Bud said, “Thanks but no thanks” and took a two year deal from Atlanta. So its not much of a stretch to conclude that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin were counting on Bud Dupree’s return to Pittsburgh.

That hasn’t happened.

So as a consequence the Steelers now have a player bordering on being a generational talent and a player on the verge of being a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker backed up by… Guys who will be lucky to make practice squad come September.

In a nutshell, the Steelers certainly don’t need to draft an immediate starter, but they do need to find someone who can play quickly if injury should strike.

So, the Steelers need at outside linebacker heading into the into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Extreme.

 

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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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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.

Thanks for reading. For the next article, “1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell,” click here. For the full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to begin its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.

Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

Thanks for reading. For the next article, “1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy ‘Two Interceptions Too Far,'” click here. For the full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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