´ Steel Curtain Rising: June 2008

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Steelers Cut Najeh Davenport – Backfield Winnowing Begins

Training camp remains 29 days away, but the process of thinning out the glut at back up running back has begun. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review first reported that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Najeh Davenport, after unsuccessful attempts to trade the reserve running back.

The Steelers picked up Davenport in September 2006, after it became clear that Duce Stanley was unable to serve as an effective complement to Willie Parker.

At 6-1, 245 pounds and arriving with a 4.9 yards per carry average, Najeh Davenport tantalized…. Although he did have an injury history, he appeared capable of filling big back void created by Jerome Bettis' retirement and Stanley’s decline.

While Davenport’s did put in some solid performances and his overall numbers were respectable, he failed to deliver at key moments. The coaches opted not to use him in a goal-line situation against New England, and overall he was unable to help the team move the chains when the Steelers needed to kill the clock in crucial games.

It became clear after Willie Parker got hurt in St. Louis that Davenport would never grow beyond a role player. As a starter against Baltimore in the season finale and in the playoffs against Jacksonville, Davenport totaled 52 yards on 28 carries.

The signing of Mewelde Moore and the drafting of Rashaeed Mendenhall apparently made Davenport expendable.

Davenport was due to make one million dollars this year, and his departure gives the much needed Steelers salary cap room as they enter negotiations with their draft class.

This move also signals a vote of confidence in Gary Russell, an young back with tremendous potential. All major press reports indicated that the Steelers prefered to keep Russell over Davenport.

The Steelers also waived two other players, and must shed two more to reach the NFL's 80 man roster limit prior to convening training camp in Latrobe on July 27th.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Talent Evaluators

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that compares Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh. Part I, Noll vs. Walsh – By the Numbers, looked at the two men’s records. This section analyses how the two men stack up as talent evaluators.

On the surface this might seem like an easy win for Noll.

After all, Noll had the final word in the draft room, and nine of his players have been enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. In fact Donnie Shell and L.C. Greenwood should but don’t get serious consideration simply because many voters feel there are “too many Steelers,” in Canton.

Bill Walsh has five players to date, counting Jerry Rice.

Six of Noll’s players landed on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team, whereas Walsh is represented by three.

Had Noll retired in 1980, this post would simply declare him the winner end here. Alas, it is not so simple.

Noll of course knew how to evaluate talent, the man picked a Hall of Famer in each of his first four drafts, and one of his Super Bowl teams was comprised of players that had never played for another team.

Chinks in the Emperor's Armor

But analysis of Noll’s record also reveals some serious flaws.

When Noll joined the Steelers, the NFL draft was held almost immediately after the Super Bowl (in fact, as Dan Rooney recounts, Noll selected Joe Greene two days after taking the job in 1969.)

In his 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette explains that the Steelers circumvented this short time-frame by having Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley do the scouting and assembling the draft boards with Noll making the picks based on their conclusions.

In 1977, the NFL moved the draft from January to March/April, to give teams more time to prepare. While extra time might have seemed like a blessing for the Steelers, it ultimately gave Noll the opportunity to micro-manage the scouting process.

As Art Rooney, Jr. explains in Ruadnaid, Noll insisted on involving his assistants more deeply in the scouting process, and some of those assistant coaches were not up to the job.

The Steelers drafting took a nose dive as a result. Pittsburgh closed the 70’s taking first round picks such as Ron Johnson and Greg Hawthorne and began the 80’s with picks like Mark Malone, Keith Gray, and Walter Abercrombie.

At first blush, it might appear that the Steelers simply suffered from picking late. But picks like Darryl Sims and John Reinstra show that better draft position did not lead to improved results.

Bill Walsh, Master Talent Evaluator

Bill Walsh, like Chuck Noll, had to build his team from the ground up. And the record shows that he did it faster than Noll, winning a Super Bowl in his third season. It’s also a huge credit Bill Walsh that he continued stocking his teams with Pro Bowl quality talent, despite high draft picks, placing no less that 44 Pro Bowl appearances by his players during his tenure.

One might reasonably argue that just as Shell and Greenwood Hall of Fame prospects suffer from the “too many Steelers syndrome,” perhaps some of the 49’s of the 80’s are unjustly discarded as being “products of the system.”

Picking Assistant Coaches

Any analysis of talent evaluation skills must also consider coaching choices.

Noll stocked his early staffs with top-caliber coaches, like Bud Carson, George Perles, Woody Widenhofer, Dan Radakovich, Tom Moore and Dick Hoak. Of the entire group, only Carson became an NFL head coach, compiling an 11-13-1 mark in Cleveland between 1989 and 1990.

When these men left Pittsburgh for other opportunities, Noll rarely selected replacements of equal mettle.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is again instructive, where Ed Bouchette contrasts Noll’s approach to evaluating players and assistant coaches. Noll he explained, obsessed over a potential draft pick, always seeking additional data, but his method of selecting assistant coaches was almost haphazard in comparison.

The extent and the depth of “the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree” is often exaggerated, but Walsh clearly knew how to pick lieutenants.

Not only did Walsh disciples spread forth and multiply through the NFL coaching ranks, many succeeded in making names for themselves. To take an extremely conservative sample, three Walsh protégées, George Siefret, Dennis Green, and Mike Holmgren, passed the elusive 100 win mark, made 5 Super Bowl appearances, and hold 3 Super Bowl Rings.

When all is said and done, both Noll and Walsh had a keen eye for talent, but Walsh’s was perhaps a little sharper.

Edge: Walsh.

Click here to read Part IV of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius

When Bill Walsh passed away in September 2007, he took hs rightful place alongside departed coaching legends like Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, and Tom Landry.

When commentators rushed to assess Walsh's place among other coaching legends, his name was rarely matched against of Chuck Noll’s.


The stock response is, “...Sure, Noll was good... but you know, Walsh made a much deeper imprint on the game….”

Bill Walsh was great by any and all measures. His legacy, in terms of game plan design and coaching cadre, is on display every Sunday for all to see, and this will continue for a long, long time.

But what is the true relation between a “legacy,” and sheer coaching greatness? To what extent can you differentiate the two? How do you separate a man’s impact on the game from his on-the field coaching ability?

These are difficult questions to answer, but if you peel away aura that accompanies “the Bill Walsh coaching tree” and the proliferation of “the West Coast Offense,” Walsh retains his greatness, but becomes much more of a mortal.

The Conventional Wisdom both inside and outside of Steelers Nation will probably always rank Walsh higher than Noll. But Steel Curtain Rising revels in challenging the conventional wisdom, and we argue that when measured as a mortal, the lofty perch the Walsh occupies doesn’t necessarily overlook Chuck Noll.

What follows is a series of posts that compare The Emperor who led the team of the ‘70’s, to “the Genius” who led the team of the 80’s. Noll vs. Walsh -- By the Numbers quantifies the competition. Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluation examines the mens’ respective abilities as talent evaluators. Noll vs. Walsh – What Makes a Legacy? traces the impact both men had on the sport beyond the actual games that they were involved in.

Finally, we wrap it up with Noll vs. Walsh -- Head to Head. Enjoy. "By the numbers" follows immedately below, with the others scattered out throughout the blog. Enjoy, and feel free to jump into the debate in the comment section, just keep it civil.

Click here to read Part II of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh -- By The Numbers

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that will compare Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.

Any comparison begins with the numbers. How we interpret numbers might be subjective, but numbers themselves do not lie.

Regular Season Victories:

Bill Walsh - 92-59-1 (.603)
Chuck Noll – 193-148-1 (.566)

This is an interesting stat. Walsh does have a better winning percentage, but Noll won more games than Walsh. One hundred and one more to be exact. To give you an idea of the proportions involved, Pro Football reference lists 436 NFL head coaches. Of that number, less than thirty cracked the 100 win mark. One hundred win provides pretty wide margin. Edge: Noll.

Post Season Victories
Bill Walsh 10-4 (.714)
Chuck Noll 16-8 (.667)

Again, Walsh holds the better winning percentage, but Noll again beats him when it comes to the raw numbers. Playoff victories are a scarce commodity (ask Marty Schottenhimer). Noll’s higher playoff victory total trumps Walsh’s better winning percentage. Edge: Noll.

Playoff Appearances and Division Titles

Bill Walsh 7 playoff appearances, 6 division titles
Chuck Noll 12 playoff appearances, 9 division titles

Case is pretty clear here. Noll brought teams to the playoffs almost twice as many times as Walsh, and brought home three more division titles. To that you can add the fact that the Bengals, Browns, and Oilers of the 70's gave the Steelers far stiffer challenges than anything the 49er's faced from the Falcons, Saints, and Rams of the 80's. Edge: Noll.

Super Bowls

Bill Walsh 3
Chuck Noll 4

These are the cold, hard facts. Chuck Noll brought home more hardware for the trophy case than did Bill Walsh. 49ers partisans like to argue that credit for Super Bowl XXIV rightfully belongs to Bill Walsh and not George Seifert, because the 49ers surely would have won that year had Walsh not retired. That’s not only plausible, it’s extremely likely.

Alas, as Yoda would say, overwhelming probability does not reality equal.

The fact is that is that Walsh didn’t coach four Super Bowl teams.

Chuck Noll did.

Edge: Noll.

The decision to weight total wins heavier than winning percentage is certainly debatable. But to avoid repetition, we’ll hold off discussion on that until the final section “Walsh vs. Noll, Head to Head.” In the mean time, check back in a few days for our next post: Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluators, followed by Noll vs. Walsh -- What Makes a Legacy?

Click here to read Part III of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

Time for Steelers Nation to Get Out the Vote

ESPN is conducting a poll to determine what the greatest franchise in pro sports is.

We all know the answer, or else you wouldn't be reading this.

So now its time to vote.

Currently the Steelers are ranked.... get this, 6th. We're behind teams like the LA Lakers and the Dallas Cowboys!

Fortunately, everyone here can do something about it. Vote!

Here is the link:


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tomlin Reveals Willingness to Adapt in 2008 Offseason

With the end of OTA’s, the Steelers enter the only portion of the year which can credibility called “the off season.” When quizzed about what his players had shown him during OTA’s, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin quickly to indicated out that little can be learned from “football in shorts.”

While that may be true of the players, the same can not be said for the coach. This off season revealed a lot about Mike Tolmin, and its time to take a look at what Steelers Nation has learned about their standard bearer.

Mike Tomlin is not emotionally vested in the decisions he’s made.

Personnel provides the perfect example. Tomlin’s two signature personnel moves during his first year were the acquisition of Adrian Rossum and the decision to sign Sean Mahan to start at center. Mahan was woefully inadequate at center, and Rossum was average at best as a returner.

Rossum was among the first cut after the season, and Pittsburgh’s second free agent acquisition sent Sean Mahan from being a starter to merely “having the chance to compete” at guard.

Special teams is another area with Tomlin’s dispassionate decision making was display. Tomlin’s credo since day one has been that special teams is 1/3 of the game and should be treated as such. To that end he used two draft picks on special teams players and the team devoted a record amount of practice time to special teams.

Special teams were of course one of the team’s Achilles heels during the 2007 campaign. Whereas Bill Cowher would have fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky in the blink of an eye, Tomlin stood by his man (a decsion which Steel Curtin Rising took issue with), declaring that the base of the problem lie in Pittsburgh’s lack of special team aces.

But he has gone beyond that. He’s now drastically cut back on special team practices, banking on scarcity to create a sense of urgency. It remains to be seen if this approach will bear fruit, but special teams does come down to attitude and “want to,” so this shift in strategy is certainly plausible.

Tomlin has also shown himself to be a man who is flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. An apostle of building through the draft, Tomlin moved quickly when Justin Hartwig unexpectedly became available to shore up the center position.

Outside of signing Mewelde Moore, Pittsburgh made few other free agent signings, but they did entertain a parade free agent safeties, tight ends, and lineman, thus making good on Tomlin’s pledge to “leave no stone unturned” in his quest to better the Steelers.

Finally, Tomlin confirmed that he is a fundamentalist. He began the off season by pointedly observing that the Steelers needed to get “younger and bigger” on both lines. Yet, the Steelers stuck to their board and resisted any urge to reach during the 2008 draft. The quality of their draft will remain unknown for years to come, but the Steelers never blinked as they watched lineman leave the board in droves during rounds one and two.

During the 2007 Steelers Nation learned little about Tomlin beyond the fact that he said the right things at the appropriate times and nurture good relations with the press. The 2008 off season has shown us that, at the very least, Mike Tomlin is a man who is willing to adapt.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Judging Free Agent Decisions: Don't Use a 20/20 Lense

Ed Bouchette’s article analogizing between the Penguins soon-to-come taste of life under a salary cap to how the Steelers have managed the cap since 1993 hit the nail on the head.

A salary cap forces teams to answer tough questions. Who is essential? Who we can win without? Who gives us the best bang for our buck?

In chronicling the Steelers free agency history, Bouchette offered the signing of Duce Stanley and the departure of Mike Vrabel as examples of mistakes.

That Bouchette was echoing conventional wisdom does not invalidate the underlying question: Is it fair to charge the Black and Gold brain trust with errors for both of these free agent moves?

The answer is no, that’s not a fair assessment.

Duce Stanley arrived to shore up the Steelers ability to impose its will by rushing. He signed a 5 year 14 million dollar deal with a 4 million dollar signing bonus, played in 19 games starting 8 of those, including the playoffs, and gained 1058 yards. Those yards came in 2004 and 2005, as he only took the field for a single down in 2006 before getting cut at mid-season.

Viewed solely from the bottom line, the Steelers paid 5.6 million to get 529 yards rushing per season, and then essentially gave Stanley another 2.8 for playing a single down during another season.

Signing Stanley was still the right move in spite of those lopsided numbers.

Stanley reestablished the run in Pittsburgh by banging out 4.6 yards per carry for 700 yards during the first seven games of 2004. This effort kept Bettis fresh, paving the way for the Bus to log 941 yards in just six starts when Stanly got hurt. Stanley was essential to the Steelers division playoff victory. Not only did he relieve Bettis during a crucial moment in the game, but the tandem of Stanley and Bettis hammered the Jets into submission on a day when Big Ben looked every bit the rookie he was.

Duce also delivered in 2005, despite only managing 148 yards on 38 carries in five apperances. Midway through the season the Steelers traveled to Lambeau field with Jerome Bettis and Ben Roethlisberger out of the line up. Going 16-9-1 for 65 yards, Charlie Batch looked very much like a quarterback who had not started since 2001. Stanley saved the day running for 76 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

As Bill Cowher said the day of Stanley’s release: Stanley doesn’t play that game, the Steelers don’t win. Without that win, there is no magical eight game winning streak, no playoffs, no Super Bowl.

Stanley was a costly investment, but Duce paid timely dividends. I’d sign him again in a heart beat.

As the only outside linebacker to catch touchdown passes in a Super Bowl, Mike Vrabel has doubtlessly fueled his share of buyers remorse in the Steelers front office.

The fact that Vrable was a 1st All-Pro in 2007 speaks for itself (certainly, you’d take him over Clark Haggans), but for all his success, is Vrabel really “the one that got away?”

Mike Prisuta once pointed out that Vrabel did whatever Pittsburgh asked of him. He gained weight. He lost weight. He switched positions. Yet the Steelers failed to find a place for him.

True enough. But one of the reasons for that was that Vrabel was plagued by several nagging injuries that limited his playing time in Pittsburgh. The year he reached free agency, the two incumbent starters at OLB, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon, registered 10 and 13.5 sacks respectively.

Porter went on to become a mainstay of the Steelers defense during this decade. While Gildon did fade fast after his 30th birthday, he posted double digit sack numbers in 2001, and made his third straight Pro Bowl in 2002 while collecting 9 sacks.

Its good that Vrabel blossomed, and it is a shame he wasn’t wearing Black and Gold when it happened.

In 20/20 hindsight you’d like to say, “We really should have found a way to make a place for him.” But the truth that luxury doesn’t exist the salary cap age. The Steelers chose the two players who were performing over a man who, at the time, was a perpetual “up and comer.”

They made the best choice they could with the information that had at the time, and that is only way to make and measure of free agent decisions.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Steel Curtain Now Permanently at Half Strength: Dwight White 1949-2008

2008 is not shaping up to be a kind year to the Steel Curtain. In January, Ernie Holmes was taken from us, and then Myron Cope passed away, silencing Steelers Nation’s definitive voice. Sadly, Dwight White joined them today.

Nature sometimes has a way with working its ironies. In his 2002 autobiography, Double Yoi, Myron Cope dedicated an entire chapter, “Half of the Steel Curtain,” to Holmes and White. He argued that while Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood received their just accolades, Holmes and White were too often overlooked. Whether it be because of Divine will or a random act, all three were called away from Steelers Nation in a span of less than six months.

This author is a testament to Cope’s contention. Growing up in 70’s suburban Maryland in a household where sports held a low priority, I knew very little of White and Holmes.

I of course knew about “Mean Joe Greene.” While the Steelers were busy winning their third and fourth Super Bowls, some of the other kids on Wendy Lane and I used to play “Super Steelers” pretending that the Steelers had super powers. If memory serves, Joe Greene could turn himself into a giant at will. (Lynn Swann had super speed. Franco could bust through walls. Terry Bradshaw threw exploding footballs and could hit anything he aimed for. Although I was yet to be acquainted with The X-Men at age six, Chuck Noll played a professor Xavier-like role.)

While L.C. Greenwood held no place in our parthenon of made up Super Heroes, I distinctly remember a friend preparing to go into his Five Mississippi rush in a game of Nerf football saying, “I’m L.C., I’m L.C.” and knowing immediately he was talking about L.C. Greenwood.

Like Ernie Holmes, “D. White” was just a name and a face that I knew from Steelers 50 Seasons poster that hung on my wall for so many years. I didn’t learn just how distinguished a member of the Steel Curtain that Dwight White was until I was in college.

White was one of the top story tellers of the Super Steelers. His comments on the NFL Flims tribute to Chuck Noll that appeared on the back end of the Steelers 1992 season in review are priceless.

Ray Mansfield sets the stage, recounting how John Madden capped the Raiders victory over the Miami Dolphins by proclaiming “the best two teams in football played to day, and it’s a shame that one of them had to lose….” Continuing, Mansfield explains that Noll came in the locker room the next day, with a determined look on his face, saying “They think the just won the God Damm Super Bowl… But let me tell you something, the best God-Dammed football team is sitting right here.”

White picks up the thread, remembering “At the time, that was pretty strong language for Chuck. Later on he developed the ability to rattle it off pretty well, but at the time that was pretty uncharacteristic.” White recounts how Noll’s words set the locker room on fire, reassuring that, “From that point on, we knew we were going to win…. I mean, it was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on somebody.”

The Steelers of course went on to upset the Oakland Raiders 24-13 in the AFC Championship, but the game that followed was perhaps White’s finest hour. As Myron Cope tells the story, White was stricken with phenomena the week of the Super Bowl. He’d lost 18 pounds and was so sick he was unable to lift his leg on the one day he tried to practice.

On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, White left the hospital, insisting that he be taken to the Sugar Bowl. Team Dr.’s let him warm up, figuring he would pass out. White didn’t, and insisted on starting the game.

The Vikings tested White immediately. They ran directly at White on their first three runs, and White stopped them each time, tackling Dave Osborn for a loss, no gain, and a one yard gain. Topping it all off, White scored the game’s first points, sacking Fran Tarkenton for a safety. White played the entire game, save for a few plays in the first quarter. Minnesota finished the day with 21 yards rushing on 17 attempts.

When asked about it years later by Cope, White told him’’ “‘You know what? It was kind of a blur’” He also offered “‘What I remember, though, was that our players kept asking me in the huddle, “How you feeling?” It was annoying’”

White followed up this effort by sacking Roger Starbauch three times in Super Bowl X, and registered 33.5 sacks between 1972 and 1975. White retired in 1980, and 27 years later he is still 7th on their all-time sack list.

Like many of the Super Steelers, Dwight White settled in Pittsburgh, excelling at what Chuck Noll calls “life’s work.” He worked as a stock broker, ultimately becoming the Senior Managing Director in Public Finance for Mesirow Financial. White was also active in numerous Pittsburgh charities.

Ray Mansfield was the first Super Steeler to pass away, followed by Steve Furness, Mike Webster, and Ernie Holmes. As haunting as that is, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture: According to ESPN, 38 former Steelers have died since 2000, and 17 of those were 59 or younger.

But nothing is quite is poignant as the realization that, with Dwight White’s passing, the Steel Curtain now permanently stands at half strength.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Between the Lines: Final Comment on Alan Fanaca

Welcome to Between the Lines, a new Steel Curtain Rising column. Where “Watch Tower” dissects media coverage of the Steelers, “Between the Lines” focuses comments by Steeler officials and the team’s official publication, Steelers Digest, in an attempt to read the tea leaves to discern what’s going on inside the Steelers organization.

Today’s post deals with an eyebrow raising statement Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola made in the Digest’s May edition. Our most recent Watch Tower post debated Labriola’s contention that Mendenhall’s arrival could help compensate for the Steelers (very wise) choice not to reach for an offensive lineman in the 2008 draft.

In assembling his argument, Labriola offered this snippet of insight into the Steelers offensive line woes:

“With Fanaca gone, the offensive line is without its lone star, but it also becomes a group without a dominating personality, without a player who has earned the stature of a superstar among his peers. Fanaca was never a problem in any way during his final season here, but it’s also true he never completely bought into the new regime.

“With Faneca gone, it will be easier to change some things, to teach different techniques, to coerce everyone to do it the way it’s being taught instead of the way it used to be done.” [Emphasis added.]

One of the real perks Digest readers enjoy is that you sometimes get a little peek into the inner workings of the Steelers. Labriola’s observation that Fanaca “never completely bought into the new regime” is attention grabbing.

Just what does it mean?

It’s hard to say. Labriola’s certainly not making the case for addition by subtraction. Fanaca was too good for that.

However, it’s also true that cohesion is an important component in quality offensive line play. Labriola’s observations perhaps cast offensive line coach Larry Zierlein’s comments about new blocking techniques in a new light. (For the record, Steel Curtain Rising criticized Zierlein for those remarks.)

Anyone who has ever worked in business knows that any new system requires “user buy in” for success. Without it, things flounder quickly. (Think the metric system in the US, the Susan B. Anthony dollar.)

It is too much of a stretch to think that, lineman for lineman, the net quality of the Steelers offensive line corps will improve with Fanaca’s departure. But Labriola’s revelation makes it conceivable that, as a whole, the overall quality of play of the offensive line can improve in 2008.