1998 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Black & Gold Crashes Down to Earth

The 1997 Steelers finished a handful of plays away from winning the AFC Championship. The silver lining was that they had proven they could defy gravity. Pittsburgh had replaced over a dozen Super Bowl XXX starters and  come within a whisker of making Super Bowl XXXII.

  • And they’d done it with Kordell Stewart, a first year starting quarterback.

Sure, Kordell’s twin end zone interceptions had flipped momentum in Denver’s favor. But those were just growing pains. Weren’t they?

The Steelers lost left tackle John Jackson and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen in free agency. Jackson had been a mainstay since Chuck Noll’s time and Thigpen was a playmaking wide out. But big name free agents left Pittsburgh throughout the 1990’s, and the Steelers kept winning.

  • Why would 1998 be any different?

In fact, when two “defectors” Rod Woodson and Eric Green, got cut by their new teams and asked to return to Pittsburgh, Tom Donahoe quipped, “We’re not the Salvation Army.”

  • Steelers Nation snickered.

So did most of the rest of the NFL as one preseason publication (Street and Smiths?) projected Pittsburgh as the NFL’s 3rd best. Sure, cornerback Chad Scott had torn an ACL during OTAs ending his season in May, but the Steelers would compensate. They always did. Right?

By the summer of 1998 everyone just assumed that “The Steelers Way” meant automatically fielding a contender.

The 1998 season would challenge a lot of assumptions about the Steelers.

Greg Jefferies & Robert Porcher bring Jerome Bettis down. Photo Credit: Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Preseason Danger Sign: Premium Draft Picks Not Panning Out

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hid their “secret” for surviving annual free agent exoduses in plain sight: Anticipate departures and draft accordingly. The duo’s first two picks in the 1992 NFL Draft were Leon Searcy and Levon Kirkland. When Tunch Ilkin and Hardy Nickerson left as free agents in the spring of 1993, Searcy and Kirkland took their places.

Levon Kirkland, Frank Reich, Steelers vs Lions

Levon Kirkland closes in on Frank Reich. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The plan functioned to near perfection through the mid-1990’s.

But it was Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who sensed that something was amiss as preseason ended. He could have focused on the Steelers looking less than stellar that summer. But he didn’t.

  • Instead he focused on two critical position battles at offensive line and wide receiver.

The Steelers had drafted Will Blackwell in 1997 to replace Yancey Thigpen, yet Blackwell couldn’t beat out Courtney Hawkins, who’d been brought to in ’97 Pittsburgh as a 3rd wide receiver. At least that contest had a winner.

At right tackle, Bill Cowher had staged a battle between Jamain Stephens and Paul Wiggins. When neither man stepped up, he injected Chris Conrad into the competition. Conrad failed to grab the opportunity, forcing Cowher to move Will Wolford to left tackle, shifting Justin Strzelczyk from guard to right tackle and starting Roger Duffy in his place while rookie Alan Faneca got ready to start.

  • Stephens, Blackwell, Wiggins, and Conrad represented 1st, 2nd and two 3rd round picks from the ’96, ’97 and ’98 drafts.

None of them were ready to start. Factor in the ACL tear that cornerback Chad Scott, 1997’s first round pick, had suffered during OTAs ending his season in May.

This was not in the plan…..

Veteran Leadership Sorley Lacking for the Steelers

Looking back, the first month of the Steelers 1998 season offered several touchstones that signaled disaster:

  • There were the two lackluster wins over the Ravens and Bears to start the season
  • In week 3 the Dolphins dealt the franchise suffered its first shutout loss in 5 years
  • Kordell Stewart suddenly  looked tentative and was unable, or unwilling, to throw deep

All troubling trends, to be sure, but they were just symptoms of a root problem that was on display in a week 5 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

Carl Pickens, Dwayne Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Pickens burns Steelers Dwyane Washington. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

The Steelers had fought a back-and-forth game, with Kordell Stewart leading a comeback just inside the 2 minute warning, only to see the Bengals comeback to win with no time outs. The play that everyone remembers was Neil O’Donnell faking a spike with 2 minutes left and instead hitting Carl Pickens for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The play stung to be sure, but the more telling play come a minute earlier.

The Bengals had started their drive at their own 7. After a few plays, the Steelers defense had the Bengals at 4th and 12 from their own 15, only to see Neil O’Donnell complete a 50 yard pass to Carl Pickens.

The scene screamed for a Greg Lloyd or Rod Woodson to rally the troops – Cincinnati still had 50 yards to go in under a minute and the clock was ticking.

But Lloyd was in Carolina and Woodson in Baltimore, and instead of steeling themselves to make the stop, Pittsburgh’s defenders stood pouting, with their hands on their hips. Given that attitude it is no surprise that that O’Donnell could steal the game by fooling them so easily.

Steelers Tantalize Fans with “Tease Wins” at Midseason

By capitulating to Cincinnati at the final gun the 1998 Steelers had accomplished a rare feat during the Cowher era: They lost a close game. To that point, Bill Cowher’s teams had been blown out and embarrassed plenty of times, but they’d almost always found ways to win the close ones.

  • Although, that was about to change, the 1998 Steelers would not go gently into this good night.

Far from it. Over next the six weeks the 1998 Steelers would tantalize their fans with a series of tease wins. The month of October would see the Steelers drop two decisions to the Tennessee Oilers in the span of 3 weeks.

  • But those losses were staggered by Steelers wins on Monday Night Football over the Chiefs and Packers.
Courtney Hawkins, Steelers vs Packers

Courtney Hawkins advances against the Packers on MNF. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Allsport

Both victories came over contenders. Both wins were convincing. Jerome Bettis ran for 100 yards in both games. Kordell Stewart played competent, if unspectacular football. Rookie Hines Ward even completed a pass to Stewart in the Chiefs win.

  • The 2nd loss to the Oilers set up a AFC Central show down at Three Rivers Stadium with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers were ready. Dwayne Washington opened and closed the game with 58 and 74 yard pick sixes. In between, Norm Johnson booted 3 field goals and Mark Bruener scored a touchdown to deliver a convincing, 30 to 15 win over the division leader.

The 1998 Steelers were now 7-4 and heading into a short week and a trip to Detroit for what looked to be a little more than a Thanksgiving layup against a 4-7 Lions team. To boot, Detroit was Jerome Bettis’ hometown and his mother welcomed the team with a Thanksgiving dinner.

What could go wrong?

Thanksgiving Coin Toss Exposes 1998 Steelers as Turkeys

Thanksgiving 1998 is a day that will live in infamy within Steelers Nation.

After a sloppy 4 quarters of football, the Steelers had blown a 13-3 lead only have Norm Johnson kick a last second field goal to force overtime. Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake took the field. The Bus called “tails.” The coin landed on tails.

  • Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions.

Even the Lions captain Robert Porcher stood dumbfounded. But if this was one of the most egregious examples of an officiating error impacting the outcome of a game, Dan Rooney called it straight when he declared that it never should have come to overtime. The 1998 Detroit Lions were bad team. The Steelers had botched multiple opportunities to put them away.

But just as the Thanksgiving game never should have gone to overtime, a bad coin toss never should have unraveled the entire Steelers 1998 season.

But it did.

Steelers Close 1998 with Total Implosion

The 1998 Steelers didn’t field a championship caliber roster, but they certainly had a playoff caliber team. You’d never know it after watching the final 5 weeks of the season.

A week after the Thanksgiving debacle, the Patriots came to Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense responded to New England going up 23-9 early in the 4th quarter with a 46 yard Earl Holmes interception return that took Pittsburgh to the Patriots 22, with 4 minutes and change remaining. Here’s what followed:

  • Kordell Stewart threw 7 passes, yet couldn’t find the end zone.
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out.
  • Kordell took the Steelers to the 10 yard line, then he threw an interception.

The Patriots had tried to give the Steelers the game, but Pittsburgh refused to accept their gift.

A week later Bill Cowher lost control. Early in the 3rd quarter during a deluge in Tampa, Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. Kordell Stewart protested, getting in his coach’s face. Next, Kordell was seen crying on the bench.

Back on the field, Mike Tomczak was busying fumbling the ball on his third play in the game, and then he throwing an interception on his second pass. Meanwhile, hurricane force rains continued to pour.

  • Stephen King couldn’t have scripted a more horrific scene had he tried.

A beleaguered Bill Cowher reinserted Kordell Stewart. To no one’s surprise, Kordell failed to rally the team. The downward spiral continued. Steelers fans scapegoated Kordell Stewart. That was both ugly and unfair. He had plenty of help.

Offensive Coordinator Ray Sherman was in over his head. Beyond having no idea of what to do with Kordell Stewart his play calling was so predictable that on 3rd and 7, patrons of Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon would call out, “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee.” Invariably at the snap, McAfee would get a pitch, run to the weak side, and make it about 6 yards before getting clobbered.

  • The defense, which had carried the team, collapsed.
  • But worse of all, the Steelers quit on Cowher.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

Certainly, not players like Levon Kirkland, Dermontti Dawson and Jerome Bettis. But they were exceptions. The Post Gazette’s Ron Cook went as far as to call out Carnell Lake for “playing so poorly with such little passion down the stretch.”

By the time they reached their 1998 season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh was playing for pride.

  • They’d already been eliminated from the playoffs.
  • Bill Cowher had stripped Ray Sherman of play calling duties.
  • The Jaguars playoff position was set
  • Tom Coughlin started third string quarterback Jonathan Quinn.

Each of those factors flowed in Pittsburgh’s favor. But they were formalities. The Steelers lost 21-3. Bill Cowher suffered his first losing season as the 1998 Steelers finished 7-9.

And Pittsburgh, learned the hard lesson that in the NFL gravity could only be defied for so long.

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The Extension: Yes, Mike Tomlin Deserves Criticism. But He’s Earned Far More Credit

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for 3 more years. His new current contract will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season.

Tomlin’s contract extension might not be a surprise, but it does come a bit off schedule as the Steelers typically have extended their coaches during the summer, either shortly before or during training camp.

The decision also indicates that Mike Tomlin will oversee at least the beginning of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mike Tomlin’s last extension mirrored Ben Roethlisberger’s, leading to speculation that Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert would simultaneously retire.

  • That appears far less likely now.

In a prepared statement Art Rooney II extolled his 14 year head coach:

Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League. We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.

If Mr. Rooney were to poll the citizens of Steelers Nation, he’d undoubtedly find disagrees. Indeed, the dissenters would be many, and they would be vocal. They would also be wrong.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has one ring from Super Bowl XLIII, two AFC Championships, 7 AFC North Championships, 9 playoff appearances while compiling a 145-78-1 regular season record while never suffering a losing season. Only once, on Tomlin’s watch have the Steelers been eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final game.

Yet for all that, based on social media reaction you’d think resume was on par Rod Rust’s 1990 campaign in New England.

Let’s debunk some of the charges leveled against Tomlin:

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

Pittsburgh’s playoff record since Super Bowl XLV certainly strings. Those last two home playoff losses sucked.

But if that’s your argument against Mike Tomlin then ask yourself this one question – would you feel different if he’d racked up a bunch of AFC Championship losses?

Seriously.

  • Bill Cowher won playoff games a plenty between 1992 and 2004.
Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Yet the knock on Cowher was, “He can’t win the big one.” After he suffered his 2nd humiliating Heinz Field AFC Championship defeat to the Patriots in 2004, there was no shortage of fans who felt he should be fired. Fortunately, Dan Rooney ignored them and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL a year later.

“He only won with Bill Cowher’s players.”

Really? Well, by that measure, Bill Cowher started losing in the late 1990’s when Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake, the Hall of Famers/All Pros he inherited from Chuck Noll, either left or started fading. He only became a champion after a franchise QB (whom he didn’t really want to pick) dropped in his lap.

And if we’re using a predecessor’s success to discredit a successor, then let’s also acknowledge that Kevin Colbert only won with Tom Donahoe’s players.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go there either.

“He’s had 10 YEARS to Rebuild Since Super Bowl XLV”

True. Very true. It’s also true that rebuilding around a franchise QB is hard. Don Shula went to the Super Bowl in ’82, got his franchise QB in ’83, went to another Super Bowl in ’84 and never sniffed another. Shula is generally recognized as one of the top 3 coaches of all time….

“BUT Tomlin’s had a franchise QB his ENTIRE career. And he’s ONLY won ONE Super Bowl.”

Number don’t lie. This is true. But tell me:

  • How many Super Bowls did Sean Peyton win with Drew Brees?
  • Mike McCarthy had Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. How many rings does he wear?
  • Pete Carroll is a fine coach. Russell Wilson is a great QB. How many trophies do they have?
  • And, by the way, how did that Legion of Boom dynasty pan out?

Tom Coughlin did win two Super Bowl rings and he beat the Patriots to get his. Give the man credit. He also closed his chapter in New York with 3 straight losing seasons.

Would Steelers Nation trade 7-9 and twin 6-10 records for another Lombardi? We might. Throw in a playoff win over the Patriots, and I probably take that deal.

But it still shows how hard it is to sustain winning after a championship run. Oh, and how has New York done since kicking Coughlin to the curb?

Give Tomlin the Criticism Deserves and the Credit He’s Earned

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games too often. Sure, there are some mitigating circumstances in some cases. But it has happened too often to dismiss as chance.

Has he stubbornly run running backs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell into the ground while failing to staff adequate back up depth? Yes sir! This scuttled two if not 3 playoff runs.

But has wiffing on picks like Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns set the rebuild behind? Absolutely.

Does he let loyalty and personal relationships cloud his decisions on assistants? Yes, at times it seems he does.

These faults are real. But this is also real: No other coach Bill Belichick and arguably Tom Coughlin has been better than Mike Tomlin during the Tom Brady era.

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COVID 19 Will Test “Steelers Way,” Art Rooney II Like Never Before

The “Steelers Way” is at once palpable and nebulous. The Pittsburgh Steelers march to their own drummer, how they do it eludes precise definition.

The “Steelers Way” extends far beyond contract negotiation and salary cap management, but COVID-19 will soon test those aspects of the team’s MO like never before.

  • To illustrate how, we’ll revive an anecdote shared here before.

It was the summer of 1993. Free agency had just arrived and was transforming the league. Free agent shopping sprees where the norm in the NFL with that year’s top free agent, Reggie White, being wooed by gifts of city keys and ticker tape parades.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

COVID-19 Will Test Art Rooney II like never before. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

Free agency forced Pittsburgh to say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilkin as well as young upstarts like Jerrol Williams. Tampa Bay almost signed away starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell. And while Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe responded by bringing in players like Kevin Greene and John L. Williams, those signings failed to quiet “the sky is falling” mantra mouthed by fans and the press.

  • The Steelers also made two curious moves.

First they extended Greg Lloyd’s contract, a year before he was set to become free agency. Then they did the same thing same thing for Dermontti Dawson, prompting on one fan to rip Rooney on an AOL message board:

Someone needs to sit Dan Rooney down and EXPLAIN to him that the whole point of free agency is to get better by signing OTHER TEAMS players instead of wasting time signing your OWN PLAYERS.

Had social media existed then, this post would have certainly secured hundreds of Retweets and Facebook likes. Fans in those days weren’t any more shy about castigating Dan Rooney as “cheap” than they are today about criticizing Art Rooney II for being too patient with Mike Tomlin.

Today, resigning your own players before they reach free agency standard NFL practice. The Steelers showed the way, and the rest of the NFL copied. It is easy to see why.

Since that summer, the Steelers have suffered just 3 losing seasons, been to the playoffs 17 times, won 13 AFC Central or AFC North titles, played in 8 conference championships, won 4 AFC Championships and taken Lombardi’s back to Pittsburgh following wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Sure, the Patriots have more hardware, albeit some of it is tainted, and the Cowboys have one more Lombardi, but those are the only two franchises that can remotely touch the Steelers.

  • But the COVID-19 crisis is making it impossible for the Steelers to do one of the things they do best.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was conventional wisdom that starters such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner wouldn’t see contract extensions, in part due to salary cap considerations. When it became clear that COVID-19 wouldn’t “go away” before the NFL season, serious talk of extensions ended for most players, but some in the press still held out hope for a new deal for Cam Heyward.

  • Public comments by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert now even seem to rule that out.

Cam Heyward isn’t the only starter the Steelers would normally be targeting for training camp extension. Bud Dupree’s asking price might be too steep, but starters like Matt Feiler and could be starters such as Zach Banner would be obvious candidates.

And while the smart move for a player like Mike Hilton would be to wait to test the open market, Cam Sutton is exactly the sort of under the radar player the Steelers would typical target for a 2nd contract heading into his fourth year.

But next year the NFL’s salary cap could and likely will drop to $175 million dollars. Per Jim Wexell’s calculations on Steel City Insider, “the Steelers have 40 players signed for 2021 at a cost of $197 million.”

Those types of numbers point to painful cuts and difficult departures as opposed to contract extensions designed to prop Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window open.

The Rooneys have adpated the “Steelers Way” over time. For a long time, Dan Rooney balked at renegotiating contracts. Yet, when he renegotiated Kordell Stewart’s contract in the spring of 1999 he quipped that maybe you to things in 1999 that you didn’t do in 1933.

For a long time, the Steelers resisted the practice restructuring  contracts to free salary cap space. Since Art Rooney II took over the reigns from his father, contract restructures have become a Steelers staple.

COVID-19 figures to give the Art Rooney II’s adaptation skills a far stiffer test.

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James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself and See How Petty His Feud with Mike Tomlin Has Become

COVID-19 is radically transforming our world. Not even the NFL is immune. Yet, Coronavirus can’t touch James Harrison’s status as the “gift that keeps on giving” to Pittsburgh Steelers bloggers.

Seriously. Just when you think there’s nothing left to add James Harrison’s story, a new chapter emerges. No disrespect to Antonio Brown, but James Harrison out does him when it comes to controversy. Heck, Harrison might give Terry Bradshaw a run for his money at this rate.

Football news has been slow during the pandemic, but Steelers Nation can count on James Harrison to speed it up. And that’s actually a real shame. For James Harrison.

James Harrison, Mike Tomlin, Feud, Steelers vs Seahawks

James Harrison and Mike Tomlin after Steelers ’15 loss to Seahawks. Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

And so it was that James Harrison went on Willie Colon’s Going Deep Podcast talking about a wide range of topics. From a journalistic standpoint, Harrison’s interview with Colon was revealing.

He reaffirmed his love for Dick LeBeau. He contrasted how players partied heavily the Bill Cowher era as compared to the atmosphere on Mike Tomlin’s watch. He left no doubt that Kevin Colbert stood shoulder to shoulder with him in 2010 when Roger Goodell unfairly scapegoated him for hits to the head. He shed light on a previously unreported clash with Bruce Arians that started when he bumped into Ben Roethlisberger.

Our knowledge about the inner workings of the Steelers of the 00’s and the ‘10’s is richer for Harrison’s chat with Colon. Then, after referencing his $75,000 fine  Roger Goodell slapped on him for his legal hit of  Mohamed Massaquoi he dropped this bomb:

And I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right? the G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that. I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.

Of course James Harrison was implying that Mike Tomlin was paying the fine for him. Harrison knew what he was doing would set off a firestorm. That was his intention all along.

And that’s the problem.

James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself

Reaction has been swift to Harrison’s bomb. Art Rooney II issued an unequivocal denial. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise declared that the exchange “Never Happened.” Harrison himself partially walked back comments, clarifying that Mike Tomlin never paid him to hurt anyone.

  • This came after Sean Peyton suggested the Steelers should face some sort of Bountygate investigation similar to what he was subjected to.

Hum. It seems like Harrison is confronting the law of unintended consequences, doesn’t it? He wanted to poke his former coach. He wanted to make some mischief? But get him and the organization into real trouble? Not so much.

Two years into his definitive retirement from the NFL, three things are clear about James Harrison:

  1. He has a knack for creating controversy
  2. He knows it.
  3. He still holds a grudge against Mike Tomlin.

The end between Harrison and the Steelers was a train wreck. As Art Rooney II immediately confessed, there was blame to go around. But Harrison’s situation was hardly unique. Both Franco Harris and Rod Woodson left Pittsburgh with bruised egos and hard feelings.

  • But both men moved on and ultimately reconciled with their first NFL franchise.
Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Whether James Harrison reconciles with the Steelers is his choice. Regardless, he would do well follow Rod Woodson’s lead. Even when blood was bad in the ‘90’s, Woodson never resorted to taking petty potshots of the kind at Harrison is taking. (Even if Woodson was on the receiving end of some of those from Tom Donahoe.)

James Harrison again insisted to Colon that he’d been promised more playing time and made no bones about mailing it in once when he didn’t get it. Even promises were made, Harrison must take responsibility for his own actions.

Yes, Harrison could still contribute in 2017. But rookie T.J. Watt was better than Harrison. Faking injuries, sleeping through meetings or going home when deactivated is no way to prove you deserve to play.

  • As the late Myron Cope argued, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to its linebacking legacy.

James Harrison has earned his place alongside Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and other Steelers linebacking legends. His continued cheap shots won’t change that.

But how James Harrison transformed himself from a practice squad bubble baby into a an NFL Defensive Player of the Year who made game a changing play in Super Bowl XLIII was always part of his mystique.

Now he’s tarnishing that mystique. James Harrison needs to get over himself and see just how petty his one-sided feud with Mike Tomlin has become.

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How Steelers Signing of Stefen Wisniewski Returns Pittsburgh to Its Free Agency Roots

The Cronoa Vrius (or CORVID-19 if you prefer) has turned our world upside down. The NHL and NBA have stopped cold while MLB hasn’t even started. The NFL off season is proceeding, albeit in an unusual fashion, but at least one of the Steelers free agent signings brings things “back to normal,” at least for fans who have long memories.

Given their limited salary cap space, the Steelers have perhaps been a little more active the expected, signing Derek Watt and Eric Ebron and traded for Chris Wormley. All of these moves are in character with recent practices and match with team needs.

But the Steelers signing of guard Stefen Wisniewski at once breaks from Tomlin-era tradition and brings the Steelers back to their free agency roots.

Stefen Wisniewski

The Steelers 2020 free agent Stefen Wisniewski. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

How Stefen Wisniewski Brings Steelers Back to Free Agency Roots

It is fitting that Western Pennsylvania native Stefen Wisniewski restores what was once a Steelers tradition. The Penn State grad returns to Pittsburgh with 134 NFL games, 103 starts and two Super Bowl Rings under his belt. He’s played for the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and, most recently, the Kansas City Chiefs, where he started in the Super Bowl.

  • In other words, Stefen Wisniewski gives the Steelers starter-capable offensive lineman who can play guard or center.

And that is exactly the type of free agency signing that has been rare under Kevin Colbert and rarer on Mike Tomln’s watch. Sure, the Steelers signed Ryan Harris in 2016 and Justin Hartwig in 2008. One of Mike Tomlin’s first personnel moves was to bring in Sean Mahan, but he didn’t work out.

  • That about exhausts the list of starter capable free agent lineman signed during the Tomlin era.
  • Their combined start total stands at 48.

During the 1990’s however, spring arrivals of veteran starter/starter-capable offensive lineman was a staple of free agency. More importantly, these stayed and played.

When it comes to free agency, the 1990’s are best remembered for the free agents that the team lost, as opposed to the ones that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe signed. Dan Rooney didn’t believe in building through free agency, and in those pre-Heinz Field days, the Steelers didn’t have the money to compete.

  • Yet, throughout the 1990’s, the Steelers brought in a steady stream of free agent offensive lineman.

The trend started in 1992 when the Steelers signed Duval Love as a Plan B Free Agent to replace Terry Long, Love stayed for 3 seasons, staring 48 games. Todd Kalis arrived in 1994 as a defacto replacement for Carlton Haselrig. Kalis made 11 starts in 1 season in Pittsburgh, and was replaced by Tom Newberry in 1995, who started 15 regular season games and called it quits after Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers replaced him with, Will Wolford arrived in 1996, and remained one of the team’s best lineman until he retired after the 1998 season, after making 45 starts.

  • Tom Myslinski also arrived with Wolford in 1996, and he started 13 games over the next two seasons.

The trend started to lose steam at the end of the decade, when the Steelers (at Jerome Bettis’ behest) signed Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown. Both had God-awful seasons in 1999. Gandy rebounded to turn in two honest efforts in ’00 and ’01, while Brown was done with football after ’99. Still, the two mean started a combine 74 games.

Kevin Colbert arrived in 2000, and one of his first moves was to sign Rich Tylski who immediately improved the line, making 25 starts over two years. A year later Colbert replaced Dermontti Dawson with Jeff Hartings. Hartings made 89 starts, but since his arrival starter capable offensive line signings have been rare in Pittsburgh.

By bringing Stefen Wisniewski back to Pittsburgh, the Steelers are returning to their free agency roots.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Extend Kevin Colbert’s Contract through the 2021 NFL Draft

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the 2020 off season is a foot, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted little time in getting their 2nd biggest off season question answered when they extended Vice President and General Manager Kevin Colbert’s contract through the 2021 NFL Draft.

Traditionally the Steelers have announced contract extension for front office staff shortly before training camp. Last season the Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract but they did not extend Kevin Colbert’s contract as Art Rooney II announced that Colbert prefers to renew on a year-by-year basis.

While most observers expected Kevin Colbert to return to the Steelers, there have been rumors that he could bolt to the Carolina Panthers, whose owner David Tepper was a former Steelers minority owner.

All of that talk is for naught, as Kevin Colbert is staying put in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert Authors 20 Years of Unparalleled Excellence in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh native, Kevin Colbert’s return to his home city in February 2000 came as a bit of a surprise. The Steelers had endured two tumultuous seasons, finishing 7-9 in 1998 after suffering a 5 game losing streak, followed by a 6-10 finish that saw the Steelers lose 7 of their last 8.

While failures in the draft and free agency fueled this decline, a feud between Hall of Famer Bill Cowher and then Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe provided a nasty backstory to the on the field implosion. Dan Rooney had to choose between the two, and he chose Bill Cowher.

  • The Steelers took an aggressive approach to replacing Donahoe, interviewing several up and coming names around the league, but Dan Rooney settled on Kevin Colbert.

Some commentators panned the move, questioning the decision to fly in people from around the league, only to hire the guy who’d graduated from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic – the same school that the Rooneys and Tom Donahoe had attended.

  • Since then, Kevin Colbert has authored an unparalleled record of excellence.

During Kevin Colbert’s two decades overseeing the front office Kevin Colbert the Steelers have only suffered one losing season, made the playoffs 12 times, earned 9 AFC Central or AFC North titles, won three AFC Championships and of course won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert has done this by excelling on first round draft picks – Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns stand has is only two misses – made prudent free agent signings securing talents like James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Steven Nelson traded up to bring in stars like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and had uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents by finding gems such as James Harrison and Willie Parker.

With Kevin Colbert locked down for another year, Steelers Nation’s attention now turns to the biggest question of the off season – that of Ben Roethlisberger’s prognosis for recovery from his elbow injury. Per reports, Roethlisberger is scheduled to have his elbow examined in late February.

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Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships

People forget but controversy shrouded Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Kevin Colbert in February 2000.

The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.

As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)

But defying the conventional wisdom turned out to be the wise move, as it was with some many of the key decisions Dan Rooney made while running the Steelers.

  • Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”

The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.

Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.

Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.

  • While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.

This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.

  • And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.

That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.

Why where the Steelers of the ‘90’s contenders while the Steelers of the 00’s were Champions in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII?

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.

  • Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.

He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.

  • Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.

But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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