A Steelers Fan Salutes John Madden: He Was “What the Game of Football is All About”

My boomer brethren in Steelers Nation will blanch at this, but at one point in my youth, I thought that John Madden had been a player or coach for the Steelers.

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

John Madden interviews Joe Greene before Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Anonymous/AP via the Virginian-Pilot

John Madden, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oakland Raiders head coach, CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC broadcaster and video game entrepreneur passed away on Sunday, December 28th. Here we honor his memory and his life’s work.

Born 4 months before the Immaculate Reception, my understanding of the concept of “Steelers Rival” was the Houston Oilers. My introduction to John Madden came from watching games on CBS. So instead of being associated with the arch-rival evil Oakland Raiders, to me John Madden was simply to “Voice of the NFL.”

  • And what a voice he had.

For 22 years John Madden commentated in tandem with Pat Summerall and together they embodied the absolute best in sports television broadcasting. Summerall with his deep baritone did the play-by-play, while Madden handled the color commentary, with an emphasis on color.

Listening to Summerall, it was easy to imagine him narrating a documentary on say, the Gettysburg Address or the D-Day landings or some other hinge-of-history moment. Listening to Madden, it was easy to imagine him chowing down with truckers at a highway greasy spoon somewhere west of the Mississippi.

  • You wouldn’t think such a pairing would work, but it did – to perfection no less.

Football is a complex sport. As Andy Russell once observed, success or failure in football often comes down to subtle shifts in angles and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fans.

Russell is right which speaks precisely to John Madden’s genius. John Madden had the ability break down the complexities of any given play and explain them to the average viewer. And he could do it in the space of about 20 seconds. He did it hundreds of times each weekend for 3 decades.

But if Madden had an uncanny gift for explaining the science of the angles and alignments of football, he was never a football nerd. Far from it. He knew that the game’s art lay in the elegance that grew from overpowering your opponent in the trenches.

And that’s what Madden loved the most, the big guys, the offensive lineman, the tight ends and the fullbacks . I can remember one 49ers game in the late 80’s where Madden remarked, that if someone came down from Mars and asked to see a football player, you’d show him 49ers fullback Tom Rathman.

And I suppose that love for the working-class, blue collar ethos of the game is what led me as a naive grade schooler to assume he’d been associated with the Steelers, an assumption riddled with irony…

John Madden and the Steelers

John Madden stared down Chuck Noll during all of the franchises’ epic games in the 70’s, from the Immaculate Reception, to the 1974 AFC Championship, to the 1975 rematch at Three Rivers Stadium, and to the AFC Championship loss in 1976 suffered in the absence of both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. When John Madden retired in 1977, his record coaching against Chuck Noll and the Steelers was 6-5, a mark any of his contemporaries would have envied.

  • Yet after that, Madden seldom crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Steel City Star, during their 22-year run at CBS, Madden and Summerall never called a Steelers game. At FOX they only called three, the Steelers 1994 and 1997 opening day blowout losses to the Cowboys and the 1996 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

That shows you just how fundamental John Madden was to the game, given that my football attention is almost singularly focused on the Steelers.

John Madden did of course called Super Bowl XL and later Super Bowl XLIII, famously assuring viewers after Ben Roethlisberger’s hookup with Santonio Holmes that he got both feet in bounds, had control of the football and, most importantly, scored a touchdown.

But by that point, he was already a Living Legend and one who’d found yet another way to grow his footprint on the game on the field

John Madden Football

Without a doubt the best Christmas present I ever got as an adolescent was one that came for Christmas of 1989 – John Madden Football for the Apple II. As mentioned many here many times, although both of my parents are Pittsburghers to the core, neither are into sports.

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

Without a doubt, the BEST Christmas present I EVER got as a kid.

My big brother handled that part of my education early on, but by the mid-80’s he was off to college. So I was on my own. Watching shows like NFL PrimeTime and reading the Washington Post sports page helped.

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

Before Madden , words like “slot,” “stunt,” “weakside,” “sweep,” and “nickleback” were little more than noise uttered between the cacophony of plays. Playing John Madden Football did more than breathe life into those terms – it added a new dimension to the game. Suddenly I could not only recognize formations in real time, but I understood why coaches were making their choices. .

How many hours did I spend playing John Madden Football on the Apple IIc my parents got me to help with school work?

  • Far, far too many to count.

I do know that I played it enough to prove that the Steelers of the 70’s could whip the tails off of the 49ers of the 80’s. I played enough to build my own All Time Steelers team featuring a QB depth chart of Terry Bradshaw, Bubby Brister and Bobby Layne throwing to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner playing in front of Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Dwayne Woodruff (apologies to Jack Butler for my youthful ignorance.)

Obituary after obituary for John Madden tells of how generations of fans learned the game by playing John Madden. I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon. Countless Argentine football fans, when asked how they learned the game before the days of NFL GamePass and/or free illegal game streaming sites, would simply respond, “Madden.”

Indeed, when asked to explain the opening scene of Friday Night Lights, the one featuring Frank Winchel’s grandmother quizzing him on his playbook, I went to the book case and showed my wife the playbook that came with John Madden Football back in 1989.

What the Game of Football is All About

John Madden brought the game of football into people’s living rooms in ways few have done before or since. One anecdote suffices.

On opening day 1993 CBS carried the Bears vs the Giants as a national telecast. As the game came down to the wire, and the opposing teams lined up at the goal line for one final play, I told my roommates, “Watch. Madden is going to tell us ‘This is what the game of football is all about.’” 10 seconds later, as if he’d been listening to me, Madden declared, “This is what the game of football is all about!”

  • How fitting. Because John Madden himself is what the game of football is all about.

Thank you, John, for your contributions to the game we all love. I’m sure you and Summerall are already calling games together again now that you’re both on the other side.

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Steelers Represented Well in The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. Troy Aikman? He Got Screwed

With the Steelers bye week upon us let’s delve into something that there simply wasn’t time for during the off season, namely The Athletic’s NFL Top 100.

The Athletic kicked off their series on July 8th with Derrick Brooks at 100 and closed it on September 8th with, you guessed it, Tom Brady at number 1.

  • Overall, the series was an interesting and ambitious effort.

And like most Steelers fans my focus was to see how well (or poorly) the Black and Gold fared. Fortunately, the Steelers did well, landing 8 players on the list:

98. Dermontti Dawson
71. Mel Blount
69. Terry Bradshaw
57. Mike Webster
52. Jack Ham
37. Jack Lambert
26. Rod Woodson
14. Joe Greene

(Technically you could argue the Steelers have 9, as Bobby Layne made the list at 89 and Layne played 5 seasons in Pittsburgh.)

Sure, one can quibble (as many did) over Troy Polamalu not making it while Ed Reed did. One could also protest Franco Harris’ absence. (Few did, even though Franco still owns several Super Bowl records and of course authored the Immaculate Reception, greatest play in the history of the sport.)

  • On the flip side, naysayers could (and did) object to Bradshaw’s inclusion.

But no matter how you cut it, the Athletic’s writers clearly give the Steelers the respect they’ve earned.

The same cannot be said, however, for Troy Aikman.

Levon Kirkland, Troy Aikman, Kevin Greene, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30,

Levon Kirkland after sacking Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A Steelers Fan Takes up for Troy Aikman? Yes.

Troy Aikman remains only one of four quarterbacks to win 3 Super Bowls having pulled off that feat in 4 years failed to make The Athletic’s NFL Top 100 list.

This is insane.

It might seem odd for a Steelers fan to take up for Troy Aikman, let alone one who insisted that the ’89 Steelers would should regret not having a shot a drafting Aikman because “we’ve got Bubby Brister.”

  • Six year later, Aikman would show that same 23 year old just how naïve his 16 year old self had been.

Against the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Troy Aikman played better than any other Dallas Cowboy on the field. As the legendary Will McDonough argued, he should have been the game MVP. True, Aikman’s Super Bowl XXX stats might not knock you on your ass.

Emmit Smith, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30

Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd tackle Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But he played a mistake free game, and he did it against the Blitzburgh defense. Sure, that Steelers secondary was stuck together with spit, duct tape and bubble gum, but that same defense made Emmitt Smith look like a mere mortal (OK, like a mere mortal except for when he was in the Red Zone – but there’s a reason why they called it the “Emmitt Zone” back then.)

  • Troy Aikman didn’t do it just once against the Steelers, but he did it two other times in the Super Bowl.

“Ah, but performance in Super Bowls only goes so far….” Frankly, I’m not sure of that. A quarterback’s success or failure to get it done on the game’s biggest stage is one of the most critical metrics of his mettle. Terry Bradshaw would have zero justification for a place on this list had he not played so well in his Super Bowls.

  • But a “Stats not Super Bowls” argument falls flat when applied to Aikman.

Dan Marino’s (No. 18) career passer rating was 86.4. Brett Favre’s (No. 22) was 86. By comparison, Troy Aikman’s was 81.6. So maybe The Athletic used a passer rating of 85 as some sort of cut off? Nope. John Elway (No. 15) was 79.9. Roger Staubach (No. 78) had a career passer rating of 83.4.

It says here that all of the other quarterbacks discussed here as well as others not mentioned deserve a spot on The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. But if they do then Troy Aikman certainly does as well.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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Steelers Fans Should Always Embrace History, Not Just When Players Make it to Canton

t was a magical weekend in Steeler Nation, as five former members of the Steelers organization–including players Donnie Shell, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, as well as head coach Bill Cowher and legendary scout, the late, great Bill Nunn–were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That’s right, in a rare instance of the COVID-19 virus bringing about something cool, Shell, Polamalu and Cowher–members of the 2020 class who had to wait a year because of the worldwide pandemic–joined Faneca–who, along with the deceased Nunn, was inducted in 2021–for a tremendous weekend of fun and celebration.

Memories were shared. Speeches were given. Tears were shed. Lots of tears were shed by Steelers fans, in fact, as they honored their heroes from the past and endlessly thanked them for serving their favorite football team well.

It was nice to see Steelers fans honor the past. It was cool to see them pay homage to people who created so many awesome moments in their lives.

  • In my opinion, fans just don’t do much of that, these days.

I’m not sure if they ever did, but they certainly don’t seem to appreciate the history of the NFL in 2021, not when the acquisition of a fourth-string tight end garners way more “clicks” and discussion than the passing of a legendary head coach, such as Don Shula, who died in 2020 at the age of 90. Few seemed to notice or take the time to honor a career that included two Super Bowls, an undefeated season and the most wins by a head coach in NFL history (347.)

Truthfully, it may be unfair to expect Steelers fans, especially those under the age of 40, to even know who Shula is, let alone honor his passing. Also, Shula coached the Colts and Dolphins, not the Steelers. Duh! I get that, but I have always had great respect for the history of the NFL, a history that includes more than just the black and gold, btw.

I grew up on NFL Films. I gained so much knowledge about the players, the rules, the history of the game, etc. Heck, just hearing John Facenda, the voice of so many NFL Films features before his sudden passing in 1984, still gives me chills. Same for the awesome NFL Films scores, such as The Autumn Wind. That score and accompanying Facenda narration honors the Raiders, an old rival of the Steelers. So, again, why should I expect the black-and-gold faithful to care about that? Fine, I’ll give you that.

However, fans should appreciate the past just a little more. And if they don’t want to appreciate and honor it, they should at least know it. I’ve often joked that newer Steelers fans sometimes refer to Chuck Noll, the team’s legendary former head coach who helped to transform the franchise into the NFL juggernaut it is today, as “Knoll” or even “Knox.”

  • Unfortunately, I’m not stretching the truth much when I make that joke.

I think it’s important to know the NFL’s/Steelers’ past. No, you don’t have to appreciate, respect or honor it — as an 11-year old, I certainly didn’t shed a tear when George Halas passed away in 1983.

But knowing the Steelers’ past allows you to gain a better perspective on things that are happening today. The world, the NFL and the Steelers existed before “now,” before social media. For example, did you know that Jack Lambert was the first training camp holdout in franchise history? That happened in 1977, the same year that Mel Blount also held out of camp and even threatened to sue Noll over Noll’s testimony in the “criminal element” lawsuit filed by Raiders’ defensive back, George Atkinson.

Steelers players got arrested in the past. They had pastimes outside of football. Terry Bradshaw recorded country albums and starred in movies. He even flirted with leaving football full time to focus on music (can you imagine a story like that in the age of social media?) Frenchy Fuqua used to show up to the stadium wearing funky and fly outfits, complete with shoes that had goldfish floating in the heels.

Mean Joe Greene once threatened to quit the Steelers over a perceived lack of commitment by the organization to win a championship.

Fans spent the vast majority of Bill Cowher’s career thinking he was merely an okay head coach that didn’t have what it took to win a title. The Chin would never “Win the Big One” fans insisted. 

Chuck Noll once walked out of a press conference when reporters asked him if he would ever consider stepping down as head coach of the Steelers.

Dan Rooney, the transformative team president, had to fire his brother, Art Jr., the chief scout and one of the architects of those legendary 1970s Super Bowl teams.

Oh well, that’s my lecture for the day. As the Steelers continue to prepare for their 2021 campaign, remember that they will face challenges during the season, but these challenges likely won’t be unique or original.

  • Knowing Steelers’ history doesn’t make you a better fan.

It does however make you a fan who’s perhaps capable of taking more things in stride.

 

 

 

 

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Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

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Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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Steelers 1974 Rookie Class Legend Deepens Thanks to Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Induction

I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.

  • Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.

But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.

Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.

The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.

  • It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.

But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.

Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.

Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.

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

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

But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.

  • That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.

Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.

While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.

  • Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.

Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.

 

 

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Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Justice Done! Former Steeler Donnie Shell Elected to Hall of Fame Centennial Class

After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.

Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:

  • In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”

This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year

But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”

Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.

Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.

  • The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.

Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

  • Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.

By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.

Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.

  • Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.

Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.

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