The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert’s final one, is complete. How well did Colbert do? What “grade” did he get for his final draft? That question will take several years to answer.
One thing we can say today: Kevin Colbert is leaving the NFL the way he arrived – doing it his way.
When Kevin Colbert returned to Pittsburgh in the winter of 2000, the Steelers were reeling. The 1999 Steelers had finished 6-10, as Bill Cowher feuded with Tom Donahoe while Kordell Stewart’s regression continued. Although Kordell Stewart had signed a big contract after a shaky 1998 season, the conventional wisdom was that the Steelers should move on.
And Pittsburgh held the 8th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
The consensus among the draft pundits was that Kevin Colbert should begin his tenure by turning the page at quarterback and drafting Chad Pennington. And really, how many new general managers wouldn’t jump at the chance to put their on stamp on a franchise by drafting a quarterback with their first pick?
Kevin Colbert wasn’t having any of it. For Colbert, it was never about his ego and always about making the right decision. So he and Cowher ignored the pleas from the peanut gallery, followed their own counsel, drafted Plaxico Burress, posted a winning record in 2000 and were in the AFC Championship in 2001.
22 years later as he prepared to exit the NFL, Colbert faced a similar situation.
Ben Roethlisberger had just retired, and the franchise is suffering drought of playoff wins. The conventional wisdom among both pundits and actually NFL personnel men was that this was a historically weak draft class.
Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
The prevailing opinion, including mine, is that the wise move for Kevin Colbert would have been to address other needs and allow his successor to find a franchise quarterback in 2023 when the class is said to be stronger.
By Kevin Colbert paid them no mind, and drafted Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Let’s take a quick look at the others who join Pickett as part of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class.
Because Kevin Colbert finished his days in the draft room the way he began them, by marching to his own drummer, its tempting to argue that Kenny Pickett’s success or failure will define Kevin Colbert’s final effort.
The lesson that Kevin Colbert has been teaching us means that this is a temptation we should all resist.
There’s no question that if Kenny Pickett leads the Steelers up the Stairway to Seven, we’ll all say, “Yes, Kevin Colbert sure went out with a bang.” But, remember, Pickett doesn’t necessarily need to become a true, Joe Burrowesque franchise quarterback to do that.
And even if Kenny Pickett becomes a bust, that wouldn’t define Colbert’s final draft, let alone his legacy. Think back to the 2000 draft. Plaxico Burress certainly was a good player for the Steelers, but he won his Super Bowl with the Giants. But during the ’00 draft, the Steelers also added Marvel Smith and Clark Haggans, both of whom started Super Bowl XL.
That was of course the first of two Super Bowls Colbert helped bring back to Pittsburgh, the other being Super Bowl XLIII.
And the real lesson of Colbert’s legacy that extends through is final draft can be found in his own words, as he reflected on his role in adding to the organization’s Lombardi count, “… and being able to add to that room means a ton. But it doesn’t mean it’s over. The next step, I mean, we’ve got to get more, and we’ll never lose that. But it means a lot.”
In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.
But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.
That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.
I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.
If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.
That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)
Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.
There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.
You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.
The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.
You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.
Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.
But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.
The Perils of Playing for Draft Position
Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).
But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.
Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?
Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.
Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.
The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.
The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.
Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”
That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.
Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.
Coming off back-to-back playoff runs that ended short of the crown, both Steelers Nation and the Steelers organization entered 2003 re-energized. Bill Cowher had weathered a turbulent three-year period from 1998-2000 and rebuilt his team into the same bona fide contender it had been in the early-to-late-’90s.
But of course the goal is to be a champion, not a contender.
Hope that the Steelers could finally do that in 2003 had been given new life thanks to Tommy Maddox. Maddox had come out out of nowhere to help rescue a 2002 Steelers season that was quickly imploding. “Tommy Gun” was the toast of the town for his guts, his bravado and his ability to lead a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t really been seen in Pittsburgh since Terry Bradshaw’s time.
With Kordell Stewart‘s departure in the offseason, there was no doubt who the Steelers starting signal-caller would be in 2003.
The Steelers had thrown that lot in with Maddox, and the season would rise and fall with his success.
Ed Hartwell brings Tommy Maddox down. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report
Critical Seeds Planted During the 2003 Off Season
Other than Stewart, there weren’t any notable departures. Outside of adding tight end Jay Riemersma, you could say the same for free-agent acquisitions, as Pittsburgh would be entering the ’03 campaign with the roster that won back-to-back division titles mostly intact.
Troy Polamalu. Photo Credit: WTAE.com
The 2003 NFL Draft was noteworthy for the fact that the Steelers, in a rare move for the organization, took a huge gamble and traded up 11 spots from 27 in order to select USC safety Troy Polamalu with the 16th pick. Polamalu appeared to be the prototypical strong safety for the Steelers 3/4 zone-blitz defense, so trading up seemed like a calculated risk worth taking.
Because Pittsburgh had to give up a few picks in the trade with the Chiefs–in addition to the Steelers’ first-round pick, Kansas City also received a 2003 third and sixth-round pick–the 2003 draft class consisted of just five players, with other notable members being outside linebacker Alonzo Jackson (second round, Florida State) and cornerback Ike Taylor (fourth round, Louisiana-Lafayette).
In training camp news, Amos Zereoue, in a development that seemed to be inevitable based on the previous season, beat out the very popular Jerome Bettis in a battle for the starting running back spot. It was certainly a great opportunity for Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in 1999, and perhaps signified the beginning of the end for the 31-year old Bettis, who had been battling injuries the previous few seasons.
Tragedy nearly struck the organization at the tail-end of training camp, when outside linebacker Joey Porterwas shot outside a Denver nightclub while in town to watch his alma mater, Colorado State, take on rival Colorado in an early-season college matchup. Fortunately, Porter wasn’t critically wounded, as the bullet entered his buttock and lodged in his thigh. Porter’s recovery time was brief, and he actually appeared in 14 games in ’03.
Steelers Open 2003 with “Ominous” Win
With the Porter incident behind them, the Steelers opened up the season with an impressive 34-15 victory over the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field. Tommy Maddox passed for 260 yards and three touchdowns on the day –including two to receiver Hines Ward — as the offense, specifically the passing attack, appeared to pick right up where it left off the previous season.
2003 marked the first opening day win for the Steelers since the 1999 season.
Both the 1999 and 1998 seasons had opened with wins but ended with ugly implosions. Could and opening day win be an ominous sign?
After splitting their next two games on the road — including a 41-20 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium that was a little closer than the final score indicated and a win over the Cincinnati Bengals — the Steelers were sitting at 2-1.
With both victories coming against AFC North foes, Pittsburgh looked poised to win its third-straight division title.
Injuries and Miscalculations Doom 2003 Steelers
Then the wheels fell off.
The Steelers lost their next five games to fall to 2-6 at the halfway mark of the season. Perhaps the most noteworthy losses during this streak were the two that started it — back-to-back blowout home defeats at the hands of the Titans and Browns, respectively.
Andre Davis scores a touchdown as Chad Scott is too late. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP, Via USA Today
The offense wasn’t clicking. The defense was failing. This included the rookie Troy Polamalu, who certainly wasn’t the phenom he would one day become, as he struggled to grasp the Steelers’ very complicated zone-blitz scheme.
As for Amos Zereoue and his starting opportunity, it was an epic fail; he started just six games and rushed for a total of 433 yards. Bettis won back his starting job by season’s end and tallied 811 yards, while also eclipsing the 12,000-yard mark for his legendary career.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Steelers’ failures in ’03 had to do with a sudden love affair with the passing game.
While Tommy Maddox wasn’t necessarily horrible in his first full year as a starter–he passed for 3,414 yards while throwing 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — he clearly wasn’t capable of carrying an offense, especially one that would go on to finish 31st in rushing — a result that seemed inexplicable for a Cowher coached team.
Nick Ferguson forces a Jerome Bettis fumble. Photo Credit: Michael Martin, Getty Images, via the Denver Post.
This result was inexplicable even if you factor in the injuries decimated the offensive line.
A neck injury cost left tackle Marvel Smith most of the season. During training camp Kendall Simmons experienced a sudden weight loss and was diagnosed with diabetes which disrupted his ability to play. Things got so bad that by mid season, Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle for a few games, and in a few other contests Faneca was rotating between the two positions depending on which down it was.
But even if injuries made the Steelers offensive line into a liability, the team simply lacked a commitment to the run, as evidenced by Mike Mularkey’s decision to call 38 pass plays on the in near blizzard like conditions in a road game against the New York Jets — which the Steelers lost 6 to 0.
A False Shot at the Playoffs and a False Prophecy
Even as the Steelers languished near the bottom of the AFC North, there was hope. Hope because the AFC North was one of the NFL’s worst divisions that year. After a thrilling 13-6 road victory over the Browns on November 23, The Steelers sat at 4-7 and were just two games behind the Ravens, with a Week 17 matchup between the two rivals still on the horizon.
Ike Taylor tries to tackle Curtis Martin. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images and JetsFactor.com
In other words, believe it or not, the Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs.
Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed thanks to losses in two of the next three games — including a last-second defeat against the Bengals at Heinz Field the following week and the fore-mentioned infamous 6-0 loss to the Jets at Giants Stadium on December 14.
The Steelers and Ravens still met on Sunday Night Football to close the season. And although neither team had anything to play for, both teams fought as if a playoff berth were on the line. In fact, Bill Cowher opened the 2nd half by calling a fake punt, which tied the score, and then the Steelers went ahead late in the fourth.
The Ravens tied the game with a 46 yard field goal and then one it in over time with another 47.
The Steelers would ultimately finish third in the division with a 6-10 record, as Baltimore captured the North with a 10-6 mark.
For Bill Cowher, it was his fourth playoff-less season in six years and the second time his teams finished 6-10 since 1999. In many ways, the 2003 campaign felt like the final chapter of a wacky, unstable and topsy turvy era that began with the five-game losing streak that closed out the 1998 season.
Indeed, in the pages of the Steelers DigestBob Labriola cautioned fans to look at 2003’s disappointments the way one would view someone with a weight problem — who didn’t gain that weight over night, nor would they lose it overnight.
Sure, the 6-10 finish earned Pittsburgh the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but its not the Steelers were only one player away from re-opening their Super Bowl window, were they?
Yes, the Steelers 2003 season felt like an end to an era. That feeling turned out to be true.
You know that whole “He won with Cowher’s players” thing people like to use to diss Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when discussing his team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory following the 2008 season?
I doubt many of those Steelers fans thought they’d ever show that kind of reverence for Bill Cowher in early 2001.
Not after three tumultuous seasons that saw his squad miss the playoffs every year between 1998-2000. Bill Cowher was right smack-dab in the middle of a reality-check after a six-year start to his career as the Steelers coach. That six year stretch saw his very talented and playoff-bound squads came oh so close to getting over the Super Bowl hump, only to come up short at the end each time.
Even if the franchise’s 5th Lombardi remained elusive, the playoffs had almost almost automatic for Pittsburgh. Then suddenly they weren’t. As the Steelers said goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium and opened Heinz Field, what “New normal” would 2001 bring?
Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher
The late-’90s were an ugly time in Steelers’ history.
Thanks to one-too-many free-agent defections, Pittsburgh went from a perennial contender to a level just above doormat status. The Steelers dropped 18 of 24 games during a span that lasted from late-’98 through early-2000.
The “My buddy’s the cop” rumors about his personal life were disturbing and cruel. Nor was Bill Cowher was immune, as rumors of an extra-marital affair circulated in 1999. Add that as a backdrop to the power struggle between Cowher and Tom Donahoe and by the end of the 1999 season the Steelers were an organization in disarray.
Dan Rooney backed Bill Cowher, but that didn’t mean the fans and media agreed.
In fact, many questioned how the organization could give Cowher a contract extension following the Steelers 2000 seasonone that saw the Steelers miss the postseason for a third-straight year.
History was made on February 11, 2001, when Three Rivers Stadium, the host of both professional football and baseball since 1970, was imploded to make way for Heinz Field and PNC Park, two state-of-the-art facilities that would be the new digs for the Steelers and Pirates, respectively.
Chuck Noll was never shy about the role that having Three Rivers Stadium played in turning the franchise’s fortunes around, could Heinz Field have the same effort for is successor?
Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season
Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh native hired replace Tom Donahoe, inked a deal with veteran guard, Jeff Hartings, who came to Pittsburgh after five seasons with the Lions. Hartings may have been a guard by trade, but he was brought to Pittsburgh to take the place of Dermontti Dawson, the legendary center, who retired after an injury-riddled 2000 campaign.
Jeff Hartings and Kordell Stewart at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com
The Steelers went into the 2001 NFL Draft needing a Joel Steed-type to be the nose tackle of their 3-4 defense. They found just that and more in Casey Hampton, the man his teammates would affectionately nickname “Big Snack.” Hampton would make an immediate impact, same with Pittsburgh’s second-round pick, Kendrell Bell, an inside linebacker, who would go on to be named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Veteran running back, Jerome Bettis signed a second contract extension stay in Pittsburgh his sixth season.
The Steelers also locked up Hines Ward with a contract extension, after Ward had finally established himself as a starting receiver alongside Plaxico Burress, the team’s number one pick a year earlier.
Make no mistake, though, the Steelers’ chances of being contenders again in 2001 hinged on the talents of Kordell Stewart, the beleaguered and embattled quarterback, a man that had been through the wringer the previous few seasons; he was yanked in and out of the starting lineup, saddled with two offensive coordinators who didn’t know what to do with him, and even banished to the receivers room at one point.
Thankfully, something clicked for Stewart when he won back the starting job midway through the 2000 season and nearly guided Pittsburgh to the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Mike Mularkey, the team’s tight ends coach the previous five years, was promoted to offensive coordinator in ’01 and would ultimately prove to be Stewart’s greatest offensive ally since the days of Chan Gailey.
Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the start of their 2001 campaign would be ugly in more ways than one.
Just days after a listless 21-3 Week-1 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, tragedy struck the nation on September 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans lost their lives in a series of terrorist attacks that took place in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., a small town just 80 miles from Pittsburgh, where a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the ground, killing everyone on board.
Obviously, football — any kind of pastime, really — was the last thing on anyone’s mind, as the country tried to find its bearings, process what happened and heal.
With that in mind, the NFL postponed its ’01 campaign for three weeks.
The Steelers defeated the Bengals in their first game at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, Getty Images via Bleacher Report
The Steelers’ season finally resumed on September 30, with a 20-3 victory over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers made their regular-season debut at Heinz Field the following week and ushered in their new home with a 16-7 victory over Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh would continue to roll from there, winning 11 of its next 12 games.
The only loss during that stretch was a home defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens, a game in which struggling kicker, Kris Brown, missed four field goals — including one at the end of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime.
The Steelers got their revenge many weeks later with a 26-21 road victory over the Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Not only did Pittsburgh exact revenge over its division rival, it clinched its 15th and final AFC Central crown (the division was rechristined the AFC North the following season after realignment).
Despite an upset road loss to the Bengals two weeks later, the Steelers clinched the number one seed and would go on to finish with a 13-3 record — their best regular season record since 1978.
2001 Banner Year for Stewart, Bettis, Ward and Steelers Defense
Kordell Stewart finished the regular season with 3,109 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also contributed with his legs to the tune of 537 rushing yards and five touchdowns. For his efforts, Stewart was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was voted team MVP.
2001 was the year Hines Ward became a star and the leader of the wide-outs, as he caught 94 passes for 1,003 yards and four touchdowns. Plaxico Burress added 66 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, elevating this receiving duo to one of the most potent in the NFL.
It was another productive year for Jerome Bettis, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth-straight year (1,072), even though he missed the final five games with a groin injury.
With The Bus leading the way, the Steelers ground attack finished first in the NFL with 2,774 yards.
As for the defense, it was lights out. It was dominant. It was Super Bowl-ready. The unit finished first in yards allowed and was the most stout against the run. With 12 sacks, outside linebackerJason Gildon led a pass-rush that would tally a whopping 55 sacks on the season.
The Steelers headed into the postseason with the look of a team that was ready to get over the hump and capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi trophy. Could Stewart, Bettis, Ward and a retooled defense accomplish what O’Donnell, Foster, Thigpen and Blitzburgh had tried and failed to do a half decade earlier? It was time to find out.
Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field
First up for Pittsburgh was an AFC Central rematch, as the Ravens came to town for a divisional round in Heinz Field’s first ever playoff game. There was a bit of fear that Baltimore, a team that proved to be a fierce road warrior a year earlier on the way to a Super Bowl title, would march into town with its swaggar turned up at full blast after a resounding road victory over the Dolphins on Wildcard Weekend.
Jerame Tuman gives Rod Woodson a warm “welcome” back to Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Thankfully, Amos Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in the 1999 NFL Draft, was up to the task, rushing for 63 yards on 24 carries.
Zereoue scored two one-yard touchdowns to help Pittsburgh jump out to a 17-0 first-half lead.
Jermaine Lewis gave the home folks a reason for concern when he returned a Josh Miller punt 88 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to make the score 20-10. Fortunately, Kordell Stewart and Plaxico Burress quickly put those fears to rest when they connected on a 32-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to basically put the game out of reach.
Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins
It was on to the AFC title game for the first time in four seasons and a home matchup against an upstart Patriots team led by some coach named Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by some guy named Tom Brady, who was starting in place of the veteran Drew Bledsoe after he suffered an early-season injury and never got back in the lineup.
The Steelers were favored by 10 points, and nobody outside of New England gave the visitors much of a chance. That may seem funny now, but Bill Cowher owned Bill Belichick when the latter was coach of the Browns in the early 1990’s.
But there’s a reason why we play game.
Troy Brown smokes the Steelers for a 55 yard 1st quarter touchdown punt return. Photo Credit: SBnation.com
Special teams had been a thorn in the Steelers’ side dating back to the 2000 season, and that thorn would feel quite painful late in the first quarter when Troy Brown returned a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for a score. Making matters worse was the fact that Miller was re-kicking thanks to an illegal procedure penalty on receiver Troy Edwards that nullified the previous one.
Tom Brady got injured late in the second quarter, but the Patriots didn’t miss a beat as Bledsoe entered the game helped to further stun the home crowd with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to put Pittsburgh in a 14-3 hole at the half.
Things got even worse early in the third quarter when Kris Brown’s 34-yard field goal was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and returned for a touchdown by Troy Brown to make it 21-3.
Pittsburgh mounted a furious comeback and cut the lead to four thanks to touchdowns by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, respectively.
Unfortunately, the Steelers would get no closer, as Stewart threw interceptions on successive drives with the team trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter.
It was the third home loss in the AFC title game for Bill Cowher, and the second where his team was a huge favorite.
While the loss was deeply deeply disappointing end to a promising 2001 campaign, it was clear that Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert had rebuilt a roster that would be able to compete for a Super Bowl title for many for years to come.
After a three-year stretch of chaos and uncertainty, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers were contenders again.
Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.
Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.
At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.
But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.
Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
The Colbert Effect
If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.
Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com
Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.
Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.
The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.
So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.
But would change result in anything new?
Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3
The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.
The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.
Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com
After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.
It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”
After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”
Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.
Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.
So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.
Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.
And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.
After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.
The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!
Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.
And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….
Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate
No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.
Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.
It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.
It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.
The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.
With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?
Digging Out from 0-3
The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:
Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.
As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.
Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport
The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?
No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.
After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.
The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.
A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.
The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.
For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.
Kordell Sparks Resurgence
Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.
His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.
If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.
Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.
Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter
The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?
Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.
Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.
The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.
The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.
Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.
His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.
Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era
As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.
Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.
While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.
All good things come to an end. And so it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ramon Foster.
While most expected this parting of the ways, Ramon Foster threw everyone a bit of a curve last week by announcing his retirement. Today we take time to step back, look at Ramon Foster’s Steelers career and the role he played during his time in Pittsburgh.
Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com
Ramon Foster, ever the class act and always willing to talk to the media, released this statement:
When the time comes, you just know, and now is the time for me to take a bow. I’ve made some friends for a lifetime, had some moments that I’ll never forget and seen some things I never thought I would because of this game. I’m glad to say I was a Steeler for life, and there is no other organization I would have rather played for in my career.
Ramon Foster’s retirement sets in motion a shakeup on the Steelers offensive line that has been remarkably stable for that last several seasons. With B.J. Finney having signed with the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Foster’s slot will almost certainly be taken by moving Matt Feiler from tackle to guard, opening the way for either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor to start at right tackle.
In a way, it is fitting that Ramon Foster’s departure will spark changes on the Steelers offensive line because Foster’s arrival, unhearded that it was, started the stabilization process.
Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career – From Transition to Transformation
When the book The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line is written, Ramon Foster’s name won’t earn mention alongside guards from the Super Steelers like Sam Davis and Gerry Mullins. He won’t be seen in the same light as colorful figures like Craig Wolfley, nor will he be considered a peer of should be Hall of Famer Alan Faneca. Objectively speaking, Ramon Foster probably wasn’t as good as the talented, but deeply troubled Carlton Haselrig.
But those omissions mask the role that Ramon Foster played authoring a critical transformation of the Steelers offensive line.
One fact that the “Mike Tomlin only won with Bill Cowher’s players” crowd conveniently ignores is that Tomlin didn’t enjoy continuity of Cowher’s offensive line. Jeff Hartings retired in 2006, and Tomlin enjoyed a one year rental from Alan Faneca. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons performed well in 2007, but both men’s bodies fell apart in 2008.
You can best describe the Steelers strategy on offensive line at that point as “Plug and Patch.”
Opportunity would grant 15 minutes of fame to obscure players like Darnell Stapelton and Doug Legursky, who started in Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.
Ramon Foster, who arrived in Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was very much a piece in that plug and patch offensive line strategy. Foster started four games as a rookie, then started another 8 in his second year including Super Bowl XLV.
By the 2011 season, Ramon Foster was starting 14 of 15 games.
But injuries to both men allowed Foster to stake his claim as permanent starter, and since 2012 Ramon Foster has started 119 regular season and 7 playoff games for the Steelers. And during that time, the offensive line has transformed itself from being a perennial liability, to an area of undisputed strength. And make no mistake about it:
Ramon Foster wasn’t simply present for that transition, he actively participated in authoring the the transformation.
Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.
Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.
In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.
In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI
Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships
The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.
His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.
Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.
As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)
Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”
The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.
Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.
Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.
While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.
This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.
And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.
That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.
Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference
Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.
Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.
He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.
Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.
While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.
If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.
But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.
A fabled franchise flashes the greatness needed to recapture championship glory, only to fall short in the playoffs thanks to a frustratingly bad call….
The next season begins with high hopes, only to have injuries strike key starters as the franchise slides into double-digit losses….
Disaster strikes again the next season, robbing the franchise of its starting quarterback….
.…The call goes to a rookie, who struggles in his first outing, but rebounds to lead his team to 7 straight wins.
We’re of course telling the story of the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. But this story isn’t exclusive to “America’s Team,” the Pittsburgh Steelers have lived through this too. As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field its interesting to reminisce about the situation the Steelers found themselves in 2004.
Ben Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox in 2004. Photo Credit: Spokeo
Few were expecting to see anything from the 2014 Cowboys; no one expected Tommy Maddox to do anything other than hold a clipboard in 2002.
A blowout during the Cowboys home opener in 2014 led one writer to speculate over whether Jerry Jones berated his son demanding: “You made me pass on Johnny Football for this….” Yet, led by Romo, the Cowboys bounced back winning 12 games. They then beat the Lions in the playoffs, and appeared to be in position to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field only to lose the game based on the “Catch-Non-catch call.”
Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” led the Steelers to 10 straight wins. While threw plenty of picks, as gunslingers are wont to do, commentators wondered aloud as to whether or not Maddox was throwing touchdowns to too quickly to Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. In the playoffs, Maddox led a dramatic come from behind win over the Browns. The next week, however, the Steelers lost due to a bogus roughing the kicker call where Al Del Greco took a dive worthy of World Cup Soccer.
Unlike Romo in 2015, Maddox escaped the injury bug in 2003, but a good chunk of his offensive line did not, with Kendall Simmons struggling with diabetes and Marvel Smith getting hit with the neck injury that would ultimately end his career. Things got so bad that Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle and back again depending on the down.
The 2015 Cowboys saw Romo, Dez Bryant and several other key players seasons ruined by injuries.
Of Young Dak Prescott and the Once Young Ben Roethlisberger
The parallels of the stories diverge a bit here, as the Cowboys didn’t pick Dak Prescott to be their franchise quarterback in the 4th round. Although the Steelers had done just that with Ben Roethilisberger, Big Ben wasn’t supposed to play as a rookie.
Like Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger struggled in his first action, throwing a pick six vs. the Ravens.
But also like Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger went on a tear.
Tony Romo is back to health, and team owner/general manager Jerry Jones admits the situation is muddled, and likely to remain so. Like Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson before him, Garrett appears to content to go with the hot hand. And so he should.
During the entire 2004 regular season, Ben Roethlisberger never once gave Bill Cowher a reason to second guess his decision to back Roethlisberger. However, Ben appeared nervous in the playoffs against the Jets, and struggled against the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
After the game, Bill Cowher insisted he never considered pulling Rothlisberger in favor of Tommy Maddox.
But after so many AFC Championship frustrations, the thought had to have crossed his mind at some point. No one is comparing the Keith Butler’s 2016 defense to Dick LeBeau’s 2004 version. But with Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier back, the Butler’s boys are showing signs of life.
Will that be enough to temp Jason Garrett into making a switch? Probably not, but Steelers fans can always hope….
The 2013 NFL Draft is only days away which means its time for Steel Curtain Rising’s latest edition of the The Colbert Record, and in depth review of Kevin Colbert’s performance.
Last year The Colbert Record praised the Steelers General manager for never missing on a first round pick. The development (or lack thereof) of Ziggy Hood and/or Cameron Heyward might force us to revise that, but even then Kevin Colbert’s record in the 1st round of the NFL draft would remain without no peer. (Click here for a full review of Colbert’s 1st round record.)
This year we take aim at Kevin Colbert’s body of work in the second round.
Although still highly coveted, second round picks in the NFL Draft are considered second best, and they are a lot harder to evaluate. Indeed, during the 1980’s the NFL Draft’s second round became known as the Steelers “Jinx” round as Pittsburgh misfired on players like Charles Lockett and Derek Hill (to name two).
How has does Kevin Colbert’s record in the second round stack up against that of Tom Donahoe and Dick Haley? Today we take a look.
In his time in Pittsburgh, Colbert has made 11 second round NFL Draft picks, opting to trade the pick in the 2006 and 2009 NFL Drafts.
Here’s a Snap shot of Colbert’s Second Round Picks (click on the name for a more detailed profile)
When Kevin Colbert arrived in 2000 the Steelers were mess at tackle even though Tom Donahoe had invested heavily at the position throughout the late 1990’s. Unfortunately most those Donahoe picks were busts, from Jamain Stephens in 1996, to Paul Wiggins in 1997, to Chris Conrad in 1998, and Kris Farris in 1999.
Colbert sought to rectify that by picking Marvel Smith in the second round of the draft, and Smith became an immediate starter and developed into a Pro Bowler. After starting at right tackle, he moved to left tackle following Wayne Gandy’s departure, and helped anchor a line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.
The Steelers traded down in the 2001 NFL Draft and still got the man they wanted, Casey Hampton. Trading down in the first allowed the Steelers to move up into the second, where they signed Kendrell Bell.
Kendrell Bell was an immediate sensation who appeared incapable of wrong . His goal line stop of Jerome Bettis during training camp and the ensuing “crack” that was heard all over Latrobe were the stuff of legend.
Bell took the league by storm as a rookie, registering nine sacks and earning AP all Rookie Honors.
Unfortunately, like previous Steelers who’d won the Joe Greene Rookie of the Year award (see Delton Hall, Troy Edwards), Kendrell Bell turned out to be a one year wonder. Injuries set him back in 2002, but when healthy he was effective. In 2003 he appeared lost, with some commentators suggesting that Tim Lewis had “coached the aggressiveness out of him.”
Injuries again were an issue in 2004, and Larry Foote replaced him in the starting line up, and he openly discussed about whether he wanted to jeopardize his value on the free agent market by playing the Steelers playoff games.
Bell clearly had athletic talent, but apparently resisted learning coverage schemes and assignments, an attitude which can cost you dearly in the NFL.
Antwaan Randle El is easily the most versatile of Kevin Colbert’s 2nd round picks. Randle El made an immediate impact as a rookie returning kickoffs, returning punts, catching passes, running reverses, and throwing passes.
Randle El continued to be a quadruple threat for the Steelers in 2003 and 2004, before graduating to the starting role in 2005. Measured in pure quantitative terms, the trend line of his production dropped after his rookie year, but in qualitative terms his contributions got larger.
While a legitimate threat running a reverse, this former college quarterback also threw four regular season touchdown passes for the Steelers, showing he could hurt the opposition in multiple ways.
And of course his most pass was the last one he threw in his first stint with the Steelers. You might remember it from Super Bowl XL:
And while the coaches were unimpressed with his speed or by how much he’d forgotten of the playbook, El gave it his all and his 2-2-0-2 passing record shows the element of unpredictability he brought to the offense.
LaMarr Woodley and/or Marvel Smith can lay a stronger claims to being Kevin Colbert’s best second round pick, Randle El was unquestionably the most exciting to watch.
Shortly after the 2003 NFL Draft the Steelers Digest published a profile of him at Steelers mini camp with a photo of Jackson warning number 95. Upon seeing that I uttered aloud (much to the confusion of my wife), “Son, you have to earn the right to wear Number 95 in Pittsburgh.” (“95” of course being the number worn by the legendary Greg Lloyd.)
Unfortunately, Jackson either never understood that or quite simply lacked the God given ability to live up to the challenges of the NFL.
In 2 seasons with the Steelers, Jackson appeared in only 9 games and recorded 2 tackles.
Amazingly Ricardo Coclough lasted 4 seasons with the Steelers, showing some promise as a rookie and in his sophomore season as he registered 2 sacks and one interception while appearing in 30 games.
Things petered out quickly for Coclough in the third game of his third season as he fielded a punt he should not have, allowing Cincinnati to back the Steelers up deep in their own territory. Bill Cowherput him in injured reserve the next day.
Mike Tomlin actually gave him a second chance, but Coclough only made token appearances in three games.
At the end of the day, Coclough was neither able to make the transition to NFL corner nor was he able to make himself a threat in the return game. Another bust.
It’s never really a good thing when play 6 years in the NFL and your best play comes in your rookie year, as Byrant McFadden’s did when he made a key pass defense in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff victory vs. the Indianapolis Colts.
However, unlike Kendrell Bell, Bryant didn’t fade after his rookie year, but rather never quite seemed to realize his potential. As a second round pick Bryant was supposed to replace Deshea Townsend, but never could quite beat him out, and when he finally did, he had to split time with William Gay
The Steelers of course allowed McFadden to defect to Pittsburgh West after Super Bowl XLIII, only to bring him back during the 2010 NFL Draft. While McFadden was an improvement over William Gay (who struggled as a starter in 2009), he clearly wasn’t the answer and lost the starting job to an improving Gay in 2011.
You’d generally like to see a little more out of a second round pick, but the Steelers got decent value for B-Mac, and he certainly was no bust.
The first two picks of the Mike Tomlin era were both linebackers, and for a long time Steelers Nation often wondered if the order shouldn’t have been reversed. LaMarr Woodley did not get a ton of playing time as a rookie, but he made four sacks in spot regular seasons duty.
When the Steelers reached the playoffs in 2008, Woodley again turned it up registering two sacks in each of the Steelers playoff games, including a strip sack that ended any chance of a Kurt Warner fueled comeback in Super Bowl XLIII.
Worilds played well on special teams as a rookie and flashed in spot duty. In 2011 Worilds got extensive playing time as both Harrison and Woodley were injured for periods. Worilds performance was pedestrian at best, but the linebacking corps as a whole suffered with multiple players playing out of position.
Worilds got more time in 2012, and early in the season was the team’s sack leader. Clearly the kid has some upside, but 2013 will likely prove to be the definitive “make or break” year for Jason Worilds.
Marcus Gilbert wasn’t supposed to see action as a rookie, but an opening day injury to Willie Colon changed all that. Gilbert was forced in the starting line up, and did fairly well considering the circumstances.
Their was talk of Gilbert moving to left tackle in 2011, but that did not happen. Gilbert also had the misfortune to collide with several Steelers, either injuring them badly or ending their seasons. Gilbert struggled in 2012 and then got injured himself in mid 2012 and was lost for the year with an ankle injury.
The jury is still out on Gilbert, assuming he fully recovers from the injury. If the Steelers take a tackle early on in the 2013 NFL Draft, that’s a clear sign that they’re concerned.
Mike Adams holds the distinction of being the only collegiate player to get himself knocked off of the Steelers draft board only to work himself back on.
Adams had been projected as a first round pick, but his positive test for marijuana knocked him into the second round where the Steelers swooped him up, and immediately decided to move Willie Colon from tackle to guard.
Adams, however, did not win the starting left tackle position during training camp, but injuries to Marcus Gilbert did force him into the line up, where he did well for a rookie, until he himself got injured vs. Cleveland.
It is way too early to make a pronouncement on Adams, but clearly the Steelers are counting on him.
Out of his eleven second round picks, Kevin Colbert has drafted four players who developed into solid starters or better in the form of Marvel Smith, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden and LaMarr Woodley.
Kendrell Bell was a solid contributor for a year, then provided nothing, while Jason Worilds has delivered some value in the opportunities that he’s been given.
Alonzo Jackson, Ricardo Colclough and Limas Sweed were busts, there’s no way to sugar coat that, no other available conclusion exists.
It’s too early to reach a conclusion on either Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams.
So to score it, Kevin Colbert has 4 clear wins and 3 clear losses in the 2nd round, with one break even (summing the contributions of Worilds and Bell), with the fate of 2 undetermined picks left to be decided.
The disconnect between the front office and the coaches was real. Bruce Arians was reportedly not fond of him, which would explain his repeated vetoing of Willie Colon’s move to guard.
Likely Scenario Sees Steelers and Starks Parting Ways for Real in
Even though the Steelers have never had a clear head about what they want to do with Max Starks, he’s managed to make himself as a bedrock of the offensive line. He bailed them out in 2008, 2011 and in 2012 he was the only lineman to start every game in the same position. In spite of that…
The odds strongly go against Starks being available to do that again in 2013.
Beyond that, the Steelers have serious salary cap issues. Every dollar is precious, and that means that they probably cannot afford Starks even if he comes back at the veteran minimum, an unlikely prospect in and of itself.
Scenario that Sees Starks Sticking with Steelers
How could Max Starks return to Pittsburgh? For that to happen the 31 NFL teams would have to pass on a proven left tackle with two Super Bowl rings who has started 28 games in two years and 96 games overall.
That is an highly unlikely, however, it has happened before.
Before the Steelers resigned him in 2011, the Minnesota Vikings worked Starks out but said “no thanks.” Starks literally came off the street and started 12 straight games for the Steelers.
Starks got no real takers as a free agent in 2012 either.
Even if the Steelers improbable run of luck with Starks’ availability were to hold up, something else would have to change for Starks to return, as he just doesn’t seem to be in their plans.