´ Steel Curtain Rising: June 2012

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Steelers cut Troy Smith

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced yesterday via Twitter that they have cut 4th string quarterback and former Heisman trophy winner Troy Smith. The Steelers had signed Smith to a futures contract in January.

The decision to sign Smith surprised some, but was quite understandable as Bryon Leftwich, Charlie Batch, and Dennis Dixon were all unrestricted free agents heading into the off season. Both Leftwich and Batch have since resigned with the Steelers.

Smith had worked out with the team throughout the off season, including OTA’s and Minicamp.

Saved by the Bell….

Anyone who (that is anyone who works a full time job) has their own site about their favorite sports team can tell you, one of the biggest frustrations is having more ideas than you have time to write about.

Sometimes, however, that is a blessing.

I know little of Troy Smith, other than he’s bounced around the league for a few years in spite of his strong college pedigree. Yet, a recently published story on Smith in the Post-Gazette, combined with tales form PG Plus about his arm strength got me thinking that perhaps Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had brought Smith as more than insurance.

According to press reports, the Steelers actively want to groom a young signal caller to be Ben Roethlisberger’s back up. They didn’t draft a quarterback in the 2012 NFL Draft, seemingly leaving room for Troy Smith to win a job in camp.

Or so my article was about to argue.  Sometimes being too busy to write is a blessing.

Daylight for Dennis Dixon….?

Smith’s departure brings the number of experienced quarterbacks on the Steelers roster to 3. They traditionally bring four to camp to keep everyone fresh.

Dennis Dixon, the team’s 5th round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft had expected (or at least hoped) to cash in during free agency.

The first two rounds of free agency are over and the draft has come and gone and no one has called Dennis Dixon’s number.

This amounts to pure speculation on the part of Steel Curtain Rising, but one has to wonder if letting Smith go opens up a slot for the team to give Dennis Dixon a chance to win a spot in camp.

That prospect is not entirely likely, as Dixon was unhappy with his role last year and made noises about being traded, but the possibility remains.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2012 Free Agent Focus.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Which of the Steelers 2012 Draft Picks Will Fail?

IF you’ve found this page in June our July of 2012, you might be head scratching over the current poll because the Pittsburgh Steelers2012 Draft Class is being met with tremendous fanfare. An overwhelming number of fans in a previous poll were ready to anoint David DeCastro as the next Alan Faneca.

Fortune shined the Steelers favor, allowing them draft the best players available without needing to reach. 
  • Or so the tale goes.
Truthfully, having David DeCastro slip to them in the first round was likely an incredible stroke of luck for the Steelers. And, prior to his positive drug test, Mike Adams had been pegged as a sure first rounder.

There’s no doubt that the Steelers 2012 Draft Class is a group brimming with potential. 
  • But with every draft class the challenge lines in transforming that potential into to production.
In other words in when the Steelers convene camp in Latrobe a month from now reality will begin to set in.
  • And that reality dictates that some of these draft day superstars will fail in the NFL.
As pointed out here recently, many of the same things begin said about the Steelers 2012 draft class were also being said about Pittsburgh’s 2008 draftees (click here for the article.)

Kevin Colbert leads one of the finest scouting efforts in the NFL. Colbert’s record in the first round is the envy of the league (click here for a pick-by-pick breakdown of Kevin Colbert’s first round success.)

Yet my quick, back of the envelop calculations reveal that even Colbert has only picked average 2.5 quality contributors per draft. 

Rebecca Rollett, writing on Behind the Steel Curtain, has done a more exhaustive study of Colbert’s early, middle, and late round picks and, while her conclusions are slightly more generous than mine, they show that Kevin Colbert is ahead of his peers. (Full disclosure: I also write for Behind the Steel Curtain.) 
  • So be it. It’s likely that Colbert has drafted a couple of three studs in waiting.
But that doesn't change the simple fact that some of these men simply won’t make the transition to life in the NFL.

I don’t say this to be a naysayer, but rather inject a little dose of reality into a conversation where many are already ranking the Steelers 2012 Draft along side the Steelers historic 1974 Draft.

No one would be happier if the 1974 prediction comes to bear because that would likely mean more Super Bowls in the Steelers future.

But basic math tells us that a 1974 repeat, or a even a near repeat is not likely. And that means that some of Aprils “Can’t Miss” prospects will. 
  • Who will fall through the cracks?
Will David DeCastro prove to be the new Huey Richardson? Might Mike Adams prove to be a Ricky Williams soul mate? Could Alameda Ta’amu eat himself out of the league?

I don’t pretend to know, but I do offer you the chance to make your voice heard.

Take a moment to vote in the poll above or better yet, offer your reasons behind your vote in the comment section.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Steelers Say Goodbye as Mewelde Moore Signs with Colts

The Pittsburgh Steelers said good bye to reserve running back Mewelde Moore, who will rejoin Bruce Arians at the Indianapolis Colts.

Moore arrived in Pittsburgh in 2008 with little fan fare, the news of Moore's signing breaking on the same day that Ben Roethlisberger signed his 100 million dollar extension.

Moore never became a star with the Steelers, but he was an invaluable back up and effective third down back.

Mewelde Moore passed through training camp and the beginning of the 2008 campaign largely ignored by the press if not the coaches.

But Moore played a crucial role when injuries felled Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Carey Davis. Moore started in the all-important mid-season show down with Jacksonville that year and helped breath life into Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard” philosophy by running the ball with authority.
  • Moore played extensively during the rest of 2008, and was one of that Super Bowl season's unsung heroes.
And that’s how his career in Pittsburgh will be remembered. Moore never got a lot of fanfare, but he always gave it his all whenever he stepped on the field.

Caught in the Backfield Glut

With Rashard Mendenhall still rehabbing his ACL and likely to start the season the PUP, Isaac Redman is poised to enter 2012 as the Steelers starter. 

Behind Redman the Steelers have quantity depth but the quality of the depth remains an unknown. Jonathan Dwyer looked good in his only start vs. Tennessee, but he’s had chronic off season conditioning issues and hasn’t been tested extensively.

Barron Batch was a training camp hero last summer in Latrobe before injuring his ACL and, while his potential is real, much remains for him to prove.

Chris Rainey, the Steelers 5th round pick from the 2012 NFL Draft, offers alluring potential but, then again, can’t we say that about every draft pick this time of the year?

John Clay also figures to be in the mix.

With David Johnson moving to full back, the Steelers will likely carry four pure running backs on their roster. Redman and Rainey are locks to make the team, with Dwyer and Batch holding down the other two spots – assuming that Rashard Mendenhall starts the year on the PUP.
  • Steelers coaches liked Moore, with Kriby Wilson likening him to “an old familiar suit case."
While the Steelers made little or no effort to sign Mewelde Moore, word was that he might become a training camp addition, depending on how the competition at the back up spot played out.
  • For good for or for ill, that Indianapolis has now taken that option off of the table.
Best of luck Mewelde, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you great success in Hoosier country – as long as that success comes not at the expense of the Steelers….

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Watch the Steelers vs. the Raiders in the 1975 AFC Championship

Missed seeing Bradshaw, Lambert, Franco, Greene, Swann, Blount and Stallworth in their primes?
(Scroll down for the video.)

Fortunately those you too young to remember or those who remember but were too young to appreciate get a second chance thanks to Dan Gigler’s Blog ‘n Gold over at the Post Gazette.

Gigler’s Blog and Gold, long a supporter of this site, is a veritable trove of treasures from Steelers Nation. Dan’s schedule for updating the site is irregular, but when he does update it he always delivers.

This time he’s out done himself by securing a copy of the 1975 AFC Championship game between the Steelers and the Raiders.
You can watch a commercial free, edited version of the game here (available as of 6/17/12):

Folks, this has been up since October 2011 but its unlikely the NFL’s lawyers will allow YouTube to keep this up for much longer. So watch it while you can, it’s a good investment of an hour.

Steelers vs. the Raiders – a Legendary Feud that Defined a Decade

The Patriots and Colts of the ‘00’s can have their rivalry. Compared to the Steelers vs. the Raiders, theirs is a high school popularity between opposing pretty boys who fear dirtying their hands.
  • The Steelers and the Raiders fought a grown up fight. And they played for keeps.
No one ever uttered the words “criminal element” following a Patriots-Colts match up.

This game featured the first of several illegal George Atkinson close line tackles of Lynn Swann  that prompted Chuck Noll to level the "criminal element" charge.
  • The Steelers and Raiders dueled in many an epic battle in the ‘70’s but this game perhaps more than any other defines the rivalry.
Winter is bitterly cold in Pittsburgh and the Steelers had tarpped and heated the surface of Three Rivers Stadium the night before the game. But winds whipped in off of Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio tore open the tarp, creating slick spots throughout the field, but especially on the sidelines.

Al Davis had (allegedly) watered down the field in Oakland to give his slower running backs an advantage. Davis reflexively assumed that all NFL owners were as unscrupulous as he, and accused Dan Rooney of intentionally icing down the field to stifle his sideline passing game.

The Californian Davis failed to realize this game was simply played as January football is meant to be played: in an open air stadium in single-digit temperatures in front of over 50,000 rabid fans.

Both Ken Stabler and Terry Bradshaw made some impressive throws to give Dave Casper and John Stallworth breakout moments.
  • But defense defined this game.   
Monte Johnson and Jack Tatum notched three interceptions for the Raiders, while Mike Wagner had two picks, including one that was downright Troy Polamaluesque. 

Chuck Noll declared that the game featured some of the hardest hitting he had ever seen. He was right, there were 9 fumbles in this game, including three recovered by Jack Lambert.

Breaking Down the 1975 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers vs. the Raiders

While the editing on this video does make for some disjointed viewing at times, watching the raw, NBC footage allows you to enjoy the flavor of the moment in a way that NFL Films, for however much they’ve immortalized key moments in the game, misses.

Seeing the original Steel Curtain Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood play snap-by-snap in front of greats such as  Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Mel Blount lets you understand just how great they were.

It gives you a chance to appreciate things that don’t show up on the stat sheet nor make it into highlight reels, such as the way the RayMansfield, Mike Webster, and Sammy Davis kept Terry Bradshaw clean.
  • The video also offers some important reminders. Yes, the Hall of Fame contingent of the Super Steelers made them great, but they were only a necessary, and not a sufficient element in the Championship runs.
Watch the AFC Championship game video and you’ll see players like J.T. Thomas and Glen Edwards make fumble forcing hits or guys like Larry Brown and Frank Lewis coming up with key hits.
  • It’s also good to see guys like Franco Harris get stuffed, repeatedly by the Raiders defense.
That might sound strange, but it’s true. Franco had a hard day against the Raiders and his partly 79 yards on 27 carries shows that.

For most of the day, John Madden’s defense left nowhere for Franco to run. Nowhere at all until he ripped off 25 yard burst that ended in the end zone with Pittsburgh clinging to a 3-0 lead early in the 4th quarter.

Seeing Franco struggle then soar underscores the oft forgotten fact that the Super Steelers weren’t gods – instead they great athletes blessed with the On the Field Presence necessary to step it up and make plays when the game was on the line.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tomczak to be Pittsburgh (Power) Offensive Coordinator

Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak is returning to coach offense in Pittsburgh. No, he’s not joining Todd Haley's staff, but will rather join as the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Power, the Steel City’s arena football team.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe brought Mike Tomczak to Pittsburgh in 1993 where he played as a back up, and occasional starter, from 1993 to 1999. Tomczak cut his teeth in Chicago as a starter/backup for  Mike Ditka and then played for several teams before arriving in Pittsburgh.

In fact, Tomczak can boast to his grandchildren that he was the only AFC Central quarterback to defeat the Steelers during Cowher’s inaugural season.

The name “Mike Tomczak” generally draws ire in Steelers Nation, but he did stabilized the backup slot during Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart’s starting tenures.

Tomczak's Shining Moment as a Steeler
His brightest moment came in 1994, Bill Cowher opted to sit Neil O’Donnell due to nagging injuries. With Tomczak starting, the Steelers won two crucial AFC match ups vs. Miami and Los Angeles.

How Tomczak won those games was more important, however. Entering 1994, Eric Green still looked like he might redefine the tight end position. But as the year wore on it became clear that Green wasn’t going to reach his potential. O’Donnell insisted on forcing the ball to Green anyway.

History will remember Tomczak serving as the successful “game manager” in those two contests, but his real contribution was to show O’Donnell he had weapons in the form of Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson.

For those unacquainted with those names, Thigpen, Mills, Hastings, and Johnson were the “Young Money” of their day. It’s true that neither Hastings nor Johnson ever lived up to their promise, and injuries hampered Thigpen and Mills development.

Nonetheless, the Steelers passing offense was at its most potent in 1994 when Green was on the bench and the four wide outs were in the game. The tendency that would carry over into 1995 and ultimately Super Bowl XXX, with the 5 wide receivers and the Kordell Stewart as “Slash” phenomenon, all began with Tomczak’s two starts.

Good Luck Mike

Tomczak in many ways seems like a natural coach. He served as sideline confidant to Jim McMahon and Jim Harbaugh in Chicago, helping them weather the “Ditka’s in Your Face Syndrome.” He also served as a mentor, for whatever good it did, to Kordell Stewart.

Many thought that when Tomczak retired Bill Cowher would bring him back as a quarterback’s coach, and Tomczak always seemed interested in coaching.

Well, he never got to join Cowher’s staff, but he will get a taste of coaching pro football in Pittsburgh.
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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Understanding the Rise, Fall, Resurrection and Ultimate Undoing of Kordell Stewart

Kordell Stewart has officially retired as a Pittsburgh Steeler. That’s a strange thing to say for someone who threw his last pass for the Steelers in December 2002 and left the NFL in 2005.

Yet this is a fitting ending.

Few, if any Steelers had as long and strange of a trip as Kordell Stewart. Steel Curtain Rising takes this opportunity to offer a look back at the oft entertaining, always controversial quarterback who made “Slash” a household word in Steelers Nation.

Pittsburgh selected Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL draft. With Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, and Jim Miller ahead of him everyone expected Stewart simply stand in street clothes clipboard in hand on the sideline.

Steelers lost Rod Woodson and Neil O’Donnell in the 1995 opener. By mid-season back to back losses to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals had sent the Steelers reeling.

Bill Cowher made changes. John L. Williams and John Jackson returned to the lineup. Carnell Lake shifted from safety to corner. Erric Pegram started in place of Bam Morris.

And, on a third and long situation, Kordell Stewart lined up under center. 16 yards later he’d converted a key third down, and a Steelers rally began that only ended in Super Bowl XXX.

Stewart’s role grew. Already used as a decoy in multiple receiver sets, during the next week vs. Chicago he got his first catch – for 27 yards.

A week later, he zig zagged through the backfield throwing his first pass, a 2 yard touchdown to Ernie Mills vs. the Cleveland Browns.

The next week he tore through the Cincinnati secondary for an amazing 71 yard touchdown vs. the Bengals that put the Steelers ahead for good. How impressive was this catch? Take a look (available as of 5/2/12):

And so went 1995 for the Steelers. Kordell Stewart only ran 15 times, only caught 14 balls, only threw 7 passes with one touchdown in each category.
  • Modest but sufficient stats for Kordell Stewart and the “Slash” phenomena take Steelers Nation in force. 
He could do no wrong. But that would change….

Many expected Kordell Stewart to size the reigns in the 3 way quarterback derby Bill Cowher convened at Latrobe in the summer of ‘96.

Kordell failed to distinguish himself and after quickly benching Jim Miller, Cowher turned to Mike Tomczak. Stewart remained “Slash” and if he improved at receiver, he often seemed hesitant and tentative under center where he’d previously been cocky and confident.

After stabilizing the team during early and mid-season, Mike Tomczak began to find the limits of his abilities. As injuries mounted and the playoffs loomed Cowher sought for a weapon to compensate.
With the Steleers behind late in the first half Kordell came into the game and immediately put the team ahead with an electrifying 80 touchdown scramble.

Kordell stayed in, but couldn’t complete passes. Any passes, unless you count 2 interceptions. The defense kept it close, and on the final drive Kordell found his rhythm and was an end zone drop away from a successful comeback.

Cowher employed a similar strategy for the playoffs. Vs. New England in Fog Bowl II he was an utter disaster throwing 10 passes with no completions…..

Bill Cowher named Kordell Stewart his starter for the 1997 season and the roller coaster ride was on.

Statistically Kordell’s play in 1997 failed to impress. But he did something more important than put up pretty stats – he won, often in dramatic fashion.

Week 5 vs. Baltimore gave an early example. I sat in the stands at Memorial Stadium and Kordell looked cluelessly threw three interceptions, one worse then the next. With the Baltimore up 24-7 at the half, Ravens fans joked that “Kordell is our most valuable player.”
  • But a different Kordell rallied Pittsburgh to victory in the second half, throwing three touchdown passes and scoring another on a 70 yard scramble.
Week 15 vs. the Broncos told a similar tale.

As John Elway was toasting Donnell Wolford, Kordell was erratic and threw an interception that Denver quickly turned into a touchdown. A side line reporter revealed that Bill Cowher told Mike Tomzack and Mike Quinn to “talk to Kordell and get him to calm down.”
  • Kordell didn’t calm down.
Instead he exploded to throw to touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen and rushing for two more as the Steelers won.

A week later in New England, Kordell was at it again.

A late Drew Beldsoe interception gave the Steelers a chance to tie a game they’d never led. Kordell helped convert a 4th down on this drive, threw a touchdown and then completed a pass for a successful 2 point conversion which tied the game. Pittsburgh won, and secured a bye in the playoffs.

Although the 1997 playoffs ended with the Kordell’s 3 interception loss vs. the Broncos in the AFC Championship, the sky seemed to be the limit for Kordell. 1998 and 1999 revealed Kordell’s limits to be much closer to the ground….

1998 and 1999 were dark times for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While the Steelers wisely refused to overpay to free agents Yancey Thigpen, John Jackson, and Carnell Lake, their draft picks and free agent replacements proved woefully inadequate.
  • The line couldn’t block for Jerome Bettis
  • Receivers couldn’t get open
  • The secondary became a sieve (anyone remember Travis Davis?)
Below this lay a simmering feud between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe.

Most of this was lost, however, on Steelers Nation.
  • For many, the Steelers problems boiled down to two words:  Kordell Stewart.
Stewart indeed struggled mightily.

Ray Sherman was clueless when it came to using Kordell’s athleticism, and Kevin Gilbride sought to transform him into a pure pocket passer.

At times Kordell looked beyond lost. The long ball, which had been his specialty, disappeared completely. Check down passes of 6 or 7 yards routinely landed at players ankles.

Stewart resisted taking responsibility. He got benched in Tampa. He cried. He finished 1999 as a wide receiver, with Cowher banning him from quarterbacks meetings.

Things got ugly.
  • Kordell received death threats
  • Fans poured beer on him
  • He began playing better on the road than at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Racist comments circulated
  • Rumors about his personal life surfaced
No shortage existed of people ready to assure you “My buddy’s the cop” who found Kordell in some supposedly unsavory and illegal situation.

Further complicating the situation was the huge contract that the Steelers, in a show of confidence, had given Kordell following the 1998 season.

Salary cap realities tied the Steelers to Stewart.

With the 8th pick in the 2000 draft the Steelers had their choice of quarterbacks. Yet Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher optedagainst selecting Chad Pennington.

Instead they brought in Kent Graham who won the job in preseason. The Steelers nonetheless started the 2000 season 0-3 and things seemed to go from bad to worse when Graham injured himself on a late Friday afternoon.

The Steelers were heading to Jacksonville, where once again Kordell would rise from the ashes.
Kordell did it again the next week vs. New York and two weeks later replaced an ineffective Kent Graham. He led comeback victories vs. Cincinnati and came off the injury cart a week later to rally the team vs. Oakland.

The Steelers were eliminated on tie breakers during the season’s final week that year, but had recovered their mojo. Many players can claim credit for that, but perhaps none more than Kordell.

The 2001 Steelers took the NFL by surprise, finishing 13-3. Kordell had a Pro Bowl year and was voted team MVP, having picked up the slack when Bettis fell injured late in the season.

The Steelers made it to another AFC Championship and they lost again with Kordell throwing another 3 interceptions.

But the loss was not his fault. The Patriots offense shredded the Steelers defense in the first half, while their defense stuffed the Steelers running game. Steelers special teams gave up two touchdowns and that simply proved to be too much for Stewart to overcome.

Kordell Stewart’s first and second passes of the 2002 season were intercepted and quickly converted into points by the New England Patriots in what would become known as the “Dread the Spread” game.

The next week vs. Oakland Kordell played better but was still unable to lead a comeback.

The following week Stewart again struggled as Pittsburgh found itself locked must win situation vs. the Cleveland Browns. Late in the 4th quarter Cowher needed a spark and sent in Tommy Maddox and the Steelers won.
  • After the game Cowher seemed to indicate that Stewart would start the next week, but he shifted course, naming Maddox as “the starter.”
A few weeks later when the Steelers played the Colts and the game was broadcast on ESPN Deportes reporter Raul Allegre dropped a bomb, telling his Latin American audience:
Hablé con Bill Cowher sobre Kordell Stewart, y él me dijo que no quisiera cambiar a su mariscal, pero sentí que tendría que hacerlo, porque Kordell Stewart había perdido la confianza del resto de los miembros del equipo.
In a nutshell, Cowher told Allegre that he didn’t want tobench Kordell but felt he had to because Kordell had lost the confidence of the rest of the locker room.
  • And therein lies the key to the rise and fall of Kordell Stewart:  Confidence.
Success in the NFL at quarterback involves many factors, but none are perhaps more important than confidence and mental toughness.

Ben Roethlisberger once remarked that the true test of toughess for a quarterback was the ability to shrug off throwing 3 interceptions in a playoff game and comeback to play well enough to give your team a chance to win.

Kordell Stewart lost whatever swagger he had as a swashbuckling Slash that allowed him to lead numerous comebacks.

To tap an overused metaphor on this site, when Kordell could rely on instinct and athleticism, he defied gravity with a uncanny cartoon character like ability. 
  • But twin sets of triplet interception AFC Championship performances forced Stewart to look down. And like the Road Runner, Kordell fell.
Most quarterbacks are finished when they lose their confidence.

Kordell, after enduring a particularly cruel two-year purgatory, rebuilt his confidence and earned a second chance to knock on heaven’s door, only to fall short a second time.

Bill Cowher couldn’t afford to give him a third chance because the only thing that allowed Kordell to return to relying on instinct, was removal of the pressure of the starting job.

If you want proof, consider that when Tommy Maddox got injured in 2002, Kordell Stewart played some of his best football ever, nearly rallying the team to victory in Tennessee, and going 22-26-236-0-1 with another forty yards rushing the next week vs. Cincinnati.
  • Those were arguable his best two games as a passer.
He followed a similar pattern in Chicago, playing his best when coming off the bench.

As someone whose heart was rooting for Kordell even when his head said he was done, I wished him success after Pittsburgh, and thought he’d enjoy a successful run as a backup.

That was not to be. Kordell held a clipboard for two years in Baltimore, but threw no passes. As late as 2009 or 2010 Steelers Digest reported that Stewart held out hope that his phone might ring.
  • It never did.
So he decided to seek closure in the place where his long, strange NFL odyssey began, and by his account he found it. Good for you Kordell. Good luck and Godspeed in retirement.

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