´ Steel Curtain Rising: February 2010

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

Friday, February 26, 2010

Steelers Resign Casey Hampton, Franchise Jeff Reed

Running your own blog can be like wielding a double edged sword. Too frequently you get ideas that you just don’t have time to write about, an undying frustration, yet there are moments where that is a blessing.

And the Steelers decision to resign Casey Hampton, which the Steelers did on Thursday to the tune of 3 years for 21 million dollars with a 6.5 million dollar signing bonus, is a perfect example.

This time 24 hours ago, yours truly was set to populate Steel Curtain Rising with an entry warning of the dangers of resigning Casey Hampton.

Now that the Steelers have resigned him, I have changed my mind.

The Steelers decision to lock Hampton down for three years carries some risk, they all do, but on the whole the made the right decision.

The Down Side to Signing Hampton

Casey Hampton is 32. And he is big. So big that his weight going into training camp caused a discipline flare up between Hampton and Mike Tomlin.

The fact is that excess weight can cause a player to get old fast, think of Levon Kirkland.

Some of my skepticism is rooted in the fact that Steel Curtain Rising heartily cheered the decision to sign James Farrior to a multi-year deal when he was in his mid-30’s. Farriors’ play dropped of last year, and he is only beginning the new contract he signed.

Beyond that, although the average age of the Steelers defensive line corps did drop from 2008 to 2009, the starting front three is aging.

It would seem that the Steelers need to commit to investing in youth. At first blush signing Hampton for 3 more years appears to be a move in the opposite direction.

Why Signing Hampton Was the Right Move

But things are not always what they appear.

The Steelers do need to invest in youth, and ironically signing Hampton might give them a better chance to do that.

Franchising Hampton would have kept him around for 2010, any other alternative would have left a gaping hole in the Steelers defense. Ensuring that Hampton stays around for 2010 is one thing, but that only post-pones the inevitable, and the Hampton has no heir apparent. (Chris Hoke is 33.)

Had the Steelers used the franchise tag on Hampton, they would have been all but forced to draft a nose tackle in the first or second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

Drafting a nose tackle capable defensive lineman might still be a good idea, but it is never wise to put yourself in a position where you’re forced to draft exclusively for need.

The Steelers 1999 draft provides the perfect example. Desperate for wide receivers, the Steelers reached to pick Troy Edwards with the 13th pick, thereby passing up no less than six future Pro Bowlers in the process.

With Hampton under contract for three more years, the Steelers have the luxury of drafting a quality offensive lineman, shut down corner, stout inside linebacker or other premium player who happens to be on the board.

Jeff Reed Gets the Franchise Tag

The other good part about signing Hampton is that it allows the Steelers to use the franchise tag on Jeff Reed. Not only can the Steelers match any offer Reed gets, but any team wanting to sign Reed will have to give up two first round draft picks – that is not going to happen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Watch Tower: Two Sides to the Terry Long Story

To those of you who have not yet checked out the PG Plus, the Post-Gazette's paid subscription section, it is well worth the four bucks a month (even if you get paid in Argentine pesos).

Although the season is two months over, and the Steelers have over six months to go before their next regular season game, Ed Bouchette is keeping his daily blog filled with lots of interesting news.

The Full Story Behind Tim Lewis' Firing

What is particularly enticing is the “behind the scenes” pieces he is throwing out there. One of the more recent articles dealt with Tim Lewis' exit when Bill Cowher fired him as defensive coordiantor in 2003.

Fans will recall that the Steelers defense played badly in 2003 -- not just the secondary, but the pass rush and the run defense.

Mike Prisuta, for so long Tribune Review's top Steelers columnist, told his readers to expect that Lewis would be the first to get the axe. When the season ended, Cowher did can some coaches, but Lewis was not among them. A few days later, Lewis was gone too. At the time Cowher explained that his decision to fire Lewis resulted from "philosophical differences" that arose in their post season meetings.

While that is basically true, Bouchette adds a whole new dimension to the story. In the interests of paying proper respect to Bouchette and the work he has done, I won't recount all of the details here. Suffice to say, the way Bouchette paints it now, Lewis created his own self-fulfilling philosophy.

The Terry Long Story

This past week Ed Bouchette delved into the Terry Long story. Bob Smizik recently wrote about the GQ article the featured Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh brain pathologist who took on the NFL over brain trauma.

Omalu, who examined the brains of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Justin Strzelczyk, all of whom played offensive line for the Steelers, and all of whom died untimely, and in the case of the latter to, violent deaths.

While praising Omalu for being a trail blazer on the issue of the long-term impact of concussions and brain trauma, Bouchette goes into, dare way say, Watch Tower mode, going at pains to share with readers that the Terry Long story has two sides.

Bouchette points out that Long, who tested positive for steroids in 1991 prior to his final year in the NFL, had been a serious steroid abuser. He goes on to say:

Long was an obvious steroids user who grew way beyond proportion and became a starting guard in the NFL. He was one of the more difficult players I ever had to deal with and seemed to fall into the category of steroids rage.
He also points out that the initial autopsy report, which diagnosed Long's death as coming from brain trauma, was wrong because Long committed suicide by drinking anti-freeze.

Steel Curtain Rising shares Bouchette’s sentiments, that the head trauma issue is a very serious one that the NFL has ignored for too long. We also salute Bouchette for stepping out and insisting that the story be reported accurately.

Speaking of Reporting....

If Bouchette’s posts on PG Plus answer a lot of questions that Steelers fans might have been having, they also raise another one.

Why are we only finding about this now?

In the case of Terry Long that answer is pretty easy. The article in GQ was published in October, and Brochette had other things to do.

At least as far as the brain trauma article is concerned. Steroids is a whole other issue. Bouchette described him as an "obvious steroid user," and says he saw Long slip into 'roid rage.

If that is the case, why didn't the Post-Gazette report on it then?

And what about Tim Lewis?

That was a fascinating story that gave fans a “fly on the wall” view of how Bill Cowher ran the Steelers. Bouchette might not have had all of the facts in front of him when Lewis got the boot, but must surmise that he came about them a long time ago.

If that is the case, why is he only sharing them with his readers now? Steel Curtain Rising intends to ask at his next on-line chat.

Interested in seeing critiques of Steelers press corps? Then click here to read Steel Curtain Rising's Watch Tower.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Noll Scales Walton’s Mountain: Good Night Chuck

Dénouement.” It is one of those words you promptly forgot after learning in junior high English class because you never used or saw again in your life (although perhaps it came up in SAT prep).

If memory serves, Mrs. Lev, our 8th grade English teacher, told us that dénouement is “the falling action,” the events that follow a story's climax.

The climax of the Steelers 1989 season came on the bobbled snap at Mile High in the playoff loss against Denver. And if Mrs. Lev’s definition is correct, then Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator in a very literal sense represented “the falling action.”

A more pedestrian label for the decision Noll made on February 14th 20 years ago is the “St. Valentine’s day disaster.”

Either description is accurate.

The Steelers, in spite of a heart-breaking playoff loss, Pittsburgh left Denver as a team and a city on the rise.

The 1989 Steelers looked ugly at times, but this was a group of players that had learned something important – they had learned how to win.

Unfortunately, Chuck Noll's choice to climb Walton's mountain would end in one gigantic fall.*

No More for Moore

Joe Walton’s road the Steelers offensive coordinator position had been paved by the exit of Tom Moore, who’d served as Noll’s first and only offensive coordinator since 1983. Prior to that, Moore had worked as receivers coach since 1977.

Accounts for the motive behind Moore’s departure differ. At the time, the word was that Moore simply decided to take it upon himself and sought change, accepting an assistant-head coach type position in Minnesota.

More recently, in PG Plus, Ed Bouchette indicated that “the front office” felt that, get this, the Steelers offense had become too run oriented under Moore, and pushed for a change.

Either way, it was a bad move for the Steelers. As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette last, November, “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Steelers Become a Finesse Offense

Hoge was making an understatement. Walton completely scrapped the Steelers play book, beginning from zero. It was a total makeover, from the playbook, to the offensive philosophy, to the entire terminology.

Noll, who had always kept a tight rein on his offense, ceded total offensive control to Walton.

Walton’s offense apparently had dozens of formations and hundreds of plays. It was said that he had a variation of a play set up for every possible context.

On paper, it worked beautifully - in practice, or more to the point, in games, it was an unmitigated disaster.

The players could not grasp the offense - most had trouble remembering the formations, let alone the plays.

Perhaps its most egregious sin was that was a passing oriented offense focused around the backs and tight ends.

Walton’s fellow coaches did not buy into it, with Joe Greene reportedly saying at one point, “I hope this isn’t our personality.”

After one early season loss against Oakland, it was reported that coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the head sets.

As with his eventual successor Kevin Gilbride (and perhaps Mike Mularkey), Walton, in hopes of landing another head coaching job, was more interested in showing off his genius to the rest of NFL than designing a system which maximized the talent of the men playing in it.

Never was that more clear than during a post-Thanksgiving match up at Three Rivers Stadium against division leader Cincinnati in early December 1990.

Walton’s Offense Found Wanting….

It was week 12 and both teams entered the game at 6-5 in a three way tie with the Houston Oilers for the division lead. All eyes of the NFL focused on Three Rivers Stadium; Myron Cope had even called for the Terrible Towel.

With so much at stake, Walton was intent on showing the NFL what he could do with his toys.

How did it work? Well, here's one indication:
  • An illegal motion penalty on Richard Bell short-circuted a critical goal line series - the penalty came after Walton called a play the Steelers had not practiced in months.

The Steelers offense featured a potent running attack that bosted Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Warren Williams and Tim Worley. The Bengals fielded one of NFL’s worst rushing offenses.

  • Walton responded by calling 40 pass plays, making the sting of a game that ended with four straight Bubby Brister incompletions thrown from inside the red zone all the more bitter.

The Bengals won that day, 16-12, and although the Steelers finished 9-7, they were out of the playoffs.

Noll Decides to Call it a Day

Things got no better in 1991, as the malaise that had inflicted the offense spread to the defense. Something seemed to change in Noll. Insiders said that by mid season he was shrugging off things that once would have driven him crazy.

He admitted that the 1991 season had been one of his most disappointing, and openly discussed his future in press conferences. The day after Christmas 1991 Noll walked into Dan Rooney’s offense had said “its time,” retiring after 23 years as the only coach in NFL history to win four Lombardi Championships.

The Emperor Vindicated?

After the 1989 season, Noll felt he had the players to win and win big. He entered both the 1990 and 1991 season talking about the Steelers “championship caliber talent.”

The mediocre results of his last two season suggested to many that Noll had lost his eye for talent, but again the chorus was wrong.

Four years after Noll’s retirement, Bill Cowher’s 1995 squad came within two Neil O’Donnell interceptions of winning Super Bowl XXX.

The core of that roster included no less than six veterans from the 1989 squad: Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Jerry Olsavasky, and Rod Woodson.

These men may have never won rings as Pittsburgh Steelers, but all were clearly championship caliber players. Once again, Chuck Noll and the 1989 Steelers proved that their critics were wrong.

Thanks for visiting. This concludes Steel Curtain Rising's series on the Steelers 1989 season. You can click here to read each article in the series.

*In the interest of giving credit to where credit is due, the title of this post borrows liberally from a chapter title in Ed Bouchette's 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

LeBeau Heads to Hall of Fame, Dermontti Dawson Forced to Wait

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s induction committee righted a major wrong today when they voted to enshrine Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau into Canton.

Pittsburgh native and Former Steelers offensive line and assistant head coach Russ Grimm was also inducted as was Ricky Jackson, who played his college ball at Pitt.

This otherwise great day for Pittsburgh football comes with an asterix however, as former Steelers Center Dermontti Dawson yet again failed to find favor with the Hall of Fame voters, despite being a perennial All Pro and anchoring some of the NFL’s best offensive lines in the 1990’s.

Way to Go LeBeau!

LeBeau played as a stand out cornerback for the Detroit Lions for 14 seasons, starting in the 1950’s. When he retired Dick LeBeau’s 62 career interceptions was number three on the league’s All-Time interceptions list. Almost 40 years later, LeBeau still holds the 8th spot on the NFL's career interception leader list.

LeBeau’s performance on the field should have been enough to earn him a spot in Canton, but he entered the Hall of Fame on a more circuitous route, being elected as a member of the Senior Committee.

There is no Assistant Coach category for the Hall of Fame, but many argued that LeBeau’s accomplishments as a defensive coordinator alone warranted induction into Canton.

Dick LeBeau is the father of the “Zone Blitz” which he first deployed as the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980’s. Later, when he joined Bill Cowher’s first staff as defensive backs coach in 1992, LeBeau worked with Cowher, Dom Capers, and Marv Lewis as they further developed the zone blitz concept and elevated it to the point where they became the standard of defensive excellence in the NFL.

If induction to the NFL Hall of Fame is to an “Individual Accomplishment” as Dan Rooney frequently insists, Dick LeBeau resume hold’s up against anyone’s. He has stood on the sidelines at the Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator 4 times, walking away victoriously twice, in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

While many came down hard on LeBeau for the breakdowns that gave Arizona the lead with just over two minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLIII, Steel Curtain Rising has steadfastly argued that Dick LeBeau in fact won the chess match in that game.

A Downer for Dermontti

The Steelers drafted Dermontti Dawson in the second round of the 1988 draft. He started at guard as a rookie, doing a one year apprenticeship as he took of the reigns from Mike Webster in 1989 and played a pivotal role in the 1989 Steelers playoff season. Dawson went on to become a pillar of offensive line excellence for the next decade.

Dawson’s peers would elect him to seven Pro Bowls and he would make 6 All Pro Teams. Despite those accomplishments, Dawson has failed to make it into the Hall of Fame even though he has been eligible for election since 2005.

He did however, take a step forward of sorts, making it to the final group of semi-finalists.

Good For Grimm Too

The Steelers and Redskins should be rivals, as any Steelers fan who grew up in or lived in the DC area will swear to. But Russ Grimm made tremendous accomplishments to the Steelers legacy at offensive line, and Steelers Nation should congratulate him on his induction.