How Bubby Brister’s Words from ’88 Put Cam Heyward’s “Butt Retweet” into Perspective

ICYMI, Steelers team captain and defensive mainstay Cam Heyward is supposedly “in trouble.” Why? Well, its that (not so) old evil social media. After the Steelers shellacking at the hands of the Bills, Cam Heyward made the following retweet:

Heyward immediately clarified the situation, labeling it a butt retweet. When that didn’t appease  the peanut gallery, Cam doubled down:

But the “masses” in the Steelers Nation remain unmoved. Just Google “Cam Heyward butt retweet” and you’ll find no shortage of bloggers, social media general managers who insist this is all just a nod and a wink, and that the longest tenured Steeler really wishes to double cross Mike Tomlin.

What to make of all of this? Well, age has proven that in times like these, its best to lean into Sgt Hulka’s* wisdom:

The Steelers are 1-4. Tom Brady is coming to town. Injuries have knee-capped their defense. Pittsburgh stands poised to fall to 1-5. Or worse. This is when things get colorful in the NFL. But Cam’s retweet is anything but colorful.

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

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

If you want to see colorful, take a long look back to the dark days of the 1988 Steelers. After the 1-6 Black and Gold lost their sixth straight, starting quarterback Bubby Brister proclaimed “…we may as well punt on first down and get it over with.”

Brister didn’t stop there. The Bubster assailed his own pass rush, calling for “Anybody who rushes the passer, call the stadium. We need help quick.” Although Brister praised Chuck Noll, confirming, “I think he’s a good coach,” the story went national, getting coverage in the Washington Post on WMAL with Ken Beatrice’s “Sports Call.”

But both Noll and Dan Rooney downplayed the comments, affirming that they shared his frustration. According to Ed Bouchete’s Dawn of a New Steel Age, Tom Moore, the Steelers offensive coordinator took Bubby out for a beer after practice and smoothed things over.

  • Yes, ‘Twas innocent the age that preceded social media.

(Today Twitter would probably be debating the size of the tip they left.)

The Steelers responded the next Sunday with a rousing 39-21 win over the Denver Broncos, that included a cult-hero status worthy performance by running back Rodney Carter, reverses by Louis Lipps, nearly 100 yards from Merril Hoge, six Gary Anderson field goals and interceptions by Rod Woodson and Cornell Gowdy (who?).

  • Alas, the midseason rally was not to be, as the ’88 Steelers lost their next 4 before winning 3 of their final 4.

Circling back to 2022, I’d be shocked if Kenny Pickett made similar comments, even if the Steelers reach 1-6 as they are likely to do. But something Bubby Brister said then rings true today, “With what he has to work with right now, he’s doing the best job he can. It’s going to take another two or three years to rebuild this thing, get young guys some experience…. We need a whole lot of stuff.”

With an injury report that contains Cam Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, Levi Wallace, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Montravius Adams, Larry Ogunjobi, Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, few should argue if Pickett made similar comments about Tomlin.

But the hemming and hawing over Cam Heyward’s butt retweet shows that many probably would.

*If you’re a male millennial Steelers fan who is unfamiliar with the Sgt. Hulka clip, find out where to stream Stripes or, if need be, buy the DVD on Amazon, convene your buddies for a “Men’s Night In,” and take in what was the ultimate “guy movie” for both Boomers and Generation X.

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Watch Tower: Legendary Steelers Scribe Ed Bouchette Retires – Thank You Ed

The Watch Tower’s Lights have been dim for too long, but they’re lighting up today to say “Hail and Farewell” to a long time friend.

Ed Bouchette Announces His Retirement

The winds of change are sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation this off season. First Ben Roethlisberger retired. Then came Kevin Colbert’s final draft. And now, long time Steelers scribe the “Dean” of the Steelers press crops Ed Bouchette is retiring.

Ed Bouchette announced his retirement on a local Pittsburgh radio show The Fan Morning Show . A day later he followed with a farewell column in The Athletic that has drawn over 450 comments.

Ed Bouchette, Steelers beat writer, Ed Bouchette Post Gazette, Ed Bouchette The Athletic

Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette. Photo Credit: Barnett Media

Such a retirement calls to mind Pittsburgh native David McCollough’s observation that by the time Franklin Roosevelt died, many Americans didn’t think of him such much as the President but rather as the Presidency itself.

The same can be said for Ed Bouchette who was more than just a Steelers journalist, but in many ways embodied Steelers journalism.

The fact that Bouchette began covering the Steelers in 1974 – when this writer was only two – and has been on the beat since 1985 helps a lot. But if such longevity is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. And below we’ll take just a moment to explain why.

Bouchette, Newspaper Man

As a child of re-located Pittsburghers who weren’t football fans, I had to self-educate on the Steelers.

That education took place in the form of reading newspapers at my grandparents’ homes on trips to Pittsburgh in the late ‘80s. Before too long newspapers became mandatory cargo for any and all family members traveling either up or down the Turnpike and I-70.

By 1988ish I knew who Gene Collier and Bob Smizik were. I honestly can’t tell you when the name “Ed Bouchette” started meaning something to me. In a way, that’s fitting.

  • That’s because the other two were columnists, but Ed Bouchette was an old fashioned newspaper man, working the beat.

Someone reared and raised in a generation when a reporter’s first job was to avoid making his or herself as part of the story.

But even if I didn’t know who he was, Ed Bouchette played a vital role in bringing tone and color to the 1989 Steelers storybook season to life in a way that Washington Post sports section and ESPN NFL PrimeTime highlights never could.

Those were days long before interviews lived forever on Twitter, before you could watch the Immaculate Reception at the press of a button or watch a press conference at your convenience from say, Buenos Aires. Thanks to Ed Bouchtte’s slogging through the depths of old AFC Central locker rooms, I got a feel for how men like Merril Hoge, Bubby Brister, Rod Woodson, Rodney Carter, Greg Lloyd and Delton Hall authored the most improbable in-season turn around in NFL history.

Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette, Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher on the cover of Ed Bouchett’s Dawn of a New Steel Age.

But I think what really cemented Ed Bouchette as an authorities Steelers voice was the Dawn of a New Steel Age, the book Bouchette authored on Bill Cowher’s 1992 season. Bouchette’s book remains special to this day because of his unique ability to capture the feel and texture of the moment as Cowher Power was awakening Steelers Nation while also gaining an understanding the historical context  behind that transformation. (You can read the full review of Dawn of a New Steel Age here.)

From then on out, anytime any bit of news or rumor reached me about the Steelers, my first instinct was “OK, what does Bouchette have to say about this?”

Bouchette Cuts Against the Grain, Graciously

If Ed Bouchette did embody the old “newspaper” man ethos in so many ways, there’s one way he was an exception, and that exception endeared him to so many.

  • Early in my time in Buenos Aires, I made a run at working as a freelance journalist.

While I did publish a few articles in the now-defunct Buenos Aires Herald, I did a lot more freelance writing than I did publishing. That experience involved banging heads against the wall with editors who would “lose” articles they promised to publish. That only happened once in part because I learned that editors often couldn’t even be bothered to read an email pitching an article.

When I vented about this to a friend who worked in journalism, he told me, “Welcome to the world of newspapers where, as a rule, the more widely read you are, the ruder you.”

Well, Ed Bouchette is probably Pittsburgh’s most widely-read journalist, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone more polite, friendly or helpful. Here’s one such example:

Jim Wexell, who was already a veteran journalist when he joined the Steelers beat in 1995, wrote in Polamalu that Bouchette reached out to him before his first draft and acted as a mentor. Looking at the comments second of his farewell article in The Athletic, you’ll find similar comments from a journalist who covered the Steelers briefly for the Oil City Derrick, another from a student journalist who covered the Steelers for his college’s paper, and many, many more.

  • Bouchette’s generosity extended to bloggers.

The first time I contacted him for a comment about an article, he blew me away by complementing my work and sending me his cellphone number. Through the years he helped me out with a number of articles. And, when I pointed out an error in a Post Gazette story that referenced the ’88 quarterback competition at St. Vincents, he couldn’t have been more appreciate in his response.

Bouchette’s Footprints

One thing that has surprised me, is that both when I asked him about his favorite stories from the PG days and in his farewell article, Bouchette shared a few specifics, but didn’t supply a long list of articles you might expect of a journalist of his tenure.

  • I suspect there are two reasons for this.

One, because for Bouchette, its never been about him, its always been about the story. Second, I also suspect that as an old newspaper man, Bouchette quickly accustomed himself to rushing his copy in by deadline in the evening, watching it go out the door the next morning and then seeing used as fish wrappers by the next day.

  • But world has changed, and in a good way.

When asked why he’s retiring, Bouchette echoed Chuck Noll, explaining “Its time.” That’s a fitting reference. In Bouchette’s story on Noll’s retirement, he closed by quoting Noll as saying, ‘”Don’t leave anything on the beach but your footprints,’” and then reminded readers that the 4 Super Bowl trophies in the lobby at Three Rivers Stadium were Noll’s footprints.

  • And where can Ed Bouchette’s footprints can be found?

On in the digital pages of the Post-Gazette, The Athletic, and within Google Newspaper Archives. The city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation are lucky to have them.

Thank you Ed. Enjoy your well earned retirement.

 

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line – Invest in the Future Now

Draft picks on defensive line have a way of defining eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Greene’s arrival pivoted the franchise from loser to champion. Passing on Dan Marino for Gabe Rivera was a mistake it took 2 decades to atone for. And the selection of Aaron Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft is one of the unsung moments in the building of the Steelers second Super Bowl Era.

As the 2022 NFL Draft arrives, defensive line is clearly an area of need for Pittsburgh. Lets find out just how deeply that need runs.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart at: The Starter

The bad news? Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers only have one confirmed starter on the defensive line.

When the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert pronounced it a “historic day” for the franchise. Those were perhaps the truest words of post-draft praise since Chuck Noll proclaimed his love for Rod Woodson during the 1987 NFL Draft.

In playing 11 years, 166 games and 131 starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cam Heyward has become more than a dominant player on the field, a locker room leader off the field and a pillar within the community of Pittsburgh, Heyward has arguably become the face of the franchise.

In 2021, at age 32 and playing alongside junior varsity defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, didn’t simply turn in an All Pro performance with his 10 sacks, 17 QB hits, interception and nine defensed passes, he showed himself to be worthy of mention alongside franchise legends Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.

Heyward will be 33 in 2022, and if he’s shown little sign of slowing down thus far, the Steelers must be mindful of his age.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Could Be Starters

If you are surprised to read that Cam Heyward is the only confirmed starter on defensive line, you should be. Thus far there’s been no public indication that Tyson Alualu will not be back in 2022. And Steel Curtain Rising has zero access to sources that would contradict this.

However, Alualu is 35 and he is coming off of an injury that cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2021 campaign. If Alualu can stay healthy and can return to something resembling his former level, he’ll be an asset to the team.

The Steelers defense dominated at the beginning of 2020 and only began to slip with Alualu’s injury against the Ravens. The run defense took a noticeable hit when he went out against the Raiders in week 2 of 2021 and never improved.

Unlike Alualu, there has been question about whether Stephon Tuitt will return to play football in 2022. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all expressed optimism, but they’ve all been non-committal.

Stephon Tuitt had a monster year in 2020, 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Mike Tomlin likes to say that backups are really just “starters in waiting.” Yeah. That might be true in many cases, but it certainly was false for the Steelers in 2021. The absence of Tuitt and Alualu exposed the Steelers defensive line’s dearth of depth the way a root canal without pain killers exposes a nerve.

  • The Steelers had the worst run defense in franchise history since the 1940’s.

The unit was so bad that the Steelers signed Montravius Adams in week 13 off of the Saints practice squad, started him and saw the unit improve. Adams pushed Isahiah Buggs off the team, and will be back in 2022.

One potential “benefit” to the injuries to Tuitt and Alualu is that the Steelers got Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field. The Steelers traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get Loudermilk, and many questioned the move. However,  Loudermilk played reasonably well with on sack and 3 passes defensed and appears to have upside.

They also have Chris Wormley who started 14 games in 2021 and recorded 7 sacks, shining brightly against Baltimore.

In addition to Wromely, the Steelers have Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis. Mondeaux saw action in 15 games and Davis played in 4 games, or 3 fewer than his rookie season.

The Steelers 2022 Defensive Line Draft Needs

A best case scenario for the Steelers in 2022 would see Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu rejoin Cam Heyward as starters. That would be great, but it wouldn’t change the fact that all are over 30. Loudermilk’s sample size is small, but he has potential to be at least starter capable.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Wormley and Adams’ appear to be serviceable backups, but both are replaceable. As for Henry Mondeaux and Davis? The Steelers trade for Loudermilk reminded me of Mondeaux and Davis faux tussle on the sidelines of the ’20 finale against Cleveland.

That in turn reminded me of my high school wrestling coach, the amateur Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, who once stopped practice admonished two wrestlers who were staring each other down with, “If either of you was as tough as your pretending to be you’d both be state champions. Now get back on the mat.”

  • Neither Mondeaux nor Davis is as tough as they were pretending to be that day. Instead, they’re roster bubble babies.

How does all of this impact the Steelers draft needs? Well, the Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need to draft a starter this week, but they really must to use this draft to find future starters, so their need at defensive line must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Time to Beat Around the Bush?

Perhaps no area on the Steelers roster has seen more turmoil over the last 5 years than inside linebacker. That turmoil began with Ryan Shazier’s injury which set off a series of free agent signings, draft day trades, surprise retirements, training camp trades and more free agent signings.

The question is, have the Steelers done enough to address this position, or must they again dedicate draft capital in the position in 2022?

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

3 years ago, before COVID-19 changed our world and Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery accelerated the arrival of his “Life’s Work” Kevin Colbert made a mammoth trade to get Devin Bush.

Devin Bush started his Steelers career with a bang. As a rookie he made 2 interceptions, recovered 4 fumbles and had a sack, while making 109 tackles. More importantly, he did those at critical moments in games, including his touchdown against the Chargers and his forced fumble against the Bengals that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered, turning the tide in a critical division game.

Bush was back, starting throughout 2021, but he was clearly not the same player. While he did make two sacks and forced a few fumbles, his tackle count was only 79, a sharp drop off from his rookie year.

Expected to start alongside Bush in 2022 is Myles Jack, a free agent signing the Steelers made from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jack brings the Steelers 82 starts worth of experience and should provide much needed stability.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Bush and Jack, the Steelers have Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen, both of whom are returning as restricted free agents. Robert Spillane stepped in for Devin Bush in 2020 and performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.

However, during the 2021 preseason, he struggled in pass coverage, leading the Steelers to trade for Joe Schobert, whom they’ve subsequently waived. Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker who has seen little more than spot duty at his new position. Ulysees Gilbert III is also in the mix, as the 2019 6th round pick finally got healthy enough to see some playing time in 2021.

Finally, the Steelers have Buddy Johnson. The Steelers drafted Johnson in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he only saw spot duty in 2 games.

The Steelers 2022 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL DraftWhat do the Steelers really have in Devin Bush?

Is Devin Bush’s ACL injury, like Rod Woodson’s before him, one of those ACL injuries that takes over a year to heal completely? Or did the Steelers misjudge his talent? Or is it a compilation of both?

Looking beyond Bush, the Steelers also need to ask whether Buddy Johnson can make the 2nd year leap. Given that he was a 4th round draft pick, he wouldn’t have been expected to contribute much, but the fact that Johnson didn’t play much on special teams is worrisome.

Given that Myles Jack is playing on a two year contract and that Devin Bush and Robert Spillane are playing on their final years, the Steelers need at inside linebacker should be considered Moderate-High.

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Why the Steelers 1987 Draft Is Still My Favorite

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

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

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

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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Were Fumbling Issues Why Steelers Could Sign Gunner Olszewski So Easily?

What price can you put on special teams ball security? I don’t have the answer. But the Pittsburgh Steelers decision to let Ray-Ray McCloud walk to San Francisco while replacing him with Gunner Olszewski will come to the difference between 0.25% and $6,200,000.

  • That might sound complicated, but it’s not.

Success in the salary cap era comes down to getting the biggest bang for your salary cap buck. Ray-Ray McCloud handled the Steelers return duties for the last two years. Ray-Ray did a good job, but he wasn’t going to remind Boomers and Generation Xers of the return men of yore.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Think of guys like Mel Gray, or to keep this Steelers centric, Rod Woodson or Dwight Stone. Actually, Stone’s return numbers with the Steelers weren’t that great, but as Tony Defeo reminded us, he deserves to be remembered for more than his “Hands of Stone.”

Actually, stony hands or lack thereof is what the Steelers decision between Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski comes down to.

  • If you look at their career kick and punting return averages, McCloud and Olszewski are pretty similar.

Ray-Ray McCloud has more reps in both categories, so his sample size is larger. McCloud has a 22.6 kickoff return average and a 9.5 yard punt return average. That ranks him well among his peers.

Gunner Olszewski, who began his career against the Steelers 2019 season-opening loss to the Patriots, has a 23.2 yard kick return average and an 12.6 yard punt return average. He also has more a punt returned for a touchdown, something McCloud hasn’t been able to do.

The San Francisco 49ers signed McCloud to a 2 year, 10.6-million dollar contract (good for you Ray-Ray, mange it wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life, even if you only play for one season.) The Steelers deal Olszewski with is also for 2 years, but for only 4.2 million dollars.

Taken at face value, Kevin Colbert appears to have gotten the same thing for 6.4 million less.

  • But there’s one number that just might make that 6.2 million worth it.

And that’s 0.25%. During his 2 years with the Steelers, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled 6 times on 130 returns. That gives him a fumble rate of 4.6%. In three years with the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball 5 times on 107 returns, giving him a 4.85% fumble rate.

So the Steelers calculation is that 0.25% greater chance of a fumble is worth the 6.4 million dollars in salary cap savings. (This ignores Ray-Ray McCloud’s serviceable skills as a backup wide out – something that Gunner Olszewski has yet to prove.)

  • For my money that’s a prudent calculation for Pittsburgh.

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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The Steelers Should Resign Joe Haden – But Only at the Right Price

Cornerback is one of the NFL’s most taxing positions to fill. So the Pittsburgh Steelers having sent cornerbacks Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson and Mel Blount to the Hall of Fame have a good track record there. Ike Taylor likely could have joined them, had he been able to hold on to interceptions (outside of his game changing pick in Super Bowl XL).

But since Taylor’s retirement the Steelers have struggled to fill their needs at cornerback, which is why they snapped up Joe Haden when the Browns cut him in August 2017.

The Steelers resigned Haden in 2019, and now that deal is up too. Will the Steelers extend his day in Pittsburgh even further?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Joe Haden’s Career with the Steelers

When Joe Haden arrived in Pittsburgh, he sustained an upswing in the Steelers defense that had begun a half season before. Haden started instantly and became an immediate leader in the locker room and in on the field.

While most people point to Ryan Shazier’s injury as the moment the Steelers defense dipped into decline, the truth is the trouble started with Joe Haden’s injury against the Colts that fall. Haden returned later that year and started for the next 3 seasons, logging 9 interceptions, defending 54 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and even dropping 11 ball carriers for losses.

  • Those statistics, while impressive don’t capture what Haden has meant to team.

To understand that look no further than the Steelers 2021 home win against the Titans, were on 4th and 6th with 0:27 at the Steelers 15, Joe Haden stoned Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for no gain sealing the Steelers win.

That one play is Joe Haden’s Steelers career in a nutshell. When the game is on the line, you can count on Joe Haden to make a play.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

1-9. That’s the Steelers record in games that Joe Haden has missed since 2018. Since Ike Taylor’s “Life’s Work” arrived the Steelers have tried finding corners on the waiver wire, rummaging in through the free agent bargain basement, making trades, drafting them late and developing them or drafting them early.

None of it has worked. The only thing that worked was bringing back departed free agents (see William Gay), and even that was sort of an accident.

Joe Haden changed all of that. His value to the team is clear and he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

Cornerback is a young man’s game. Joe Haden will be 33 next year. 33 is not young in the NFL and is positively old in defensive back years. The Steelers have Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong late in the season.

  • Who are you going to spend your salary cap space on?

The 33 year old corner who missed 5 games last year? Or the 27 year old cornerback who had 2 interceptions in his second start and 3 picks in a five game span (oh, and he also tied for the team lead in passes defensed.)

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joe Haden

Joe Haden wanted a contract extensions before the season and wasn’t happy when he didn’t get one. He even thanked “Pittsburg” before Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, clearly communicating his impression of where he is headed.

Yet, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette indicates that his sources are telling him that the door is open for Haden’s return.

  • It might be, but only at the right price.

The Steelers would be wise to prioritize signing Ahkello Witherspoon while letting Joe Haden test the market, to see who is ready to pony up for a 33-year-old corner. If no takers can be found, the Steeler would be wise to bring him back at a reasonable third contract, and allow him to serve as a 3rd corner.

He’d be a strong presence off of the bench and in the defensive backs room.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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

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

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

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

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

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

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

  • Things are different this year.

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

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one knows.

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

 

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

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

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

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

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

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

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

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

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

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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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