´ Steel Curtain Rising: July 2012

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Steelers Sign Antonio Brown, Make Statement to Mike Wallace

One thing that experience has taught me is that this is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than Wallace and it’s bigger than me.” Mike Tomlin on Mike Wallace’s hold out

While Mike Tomlin’s comments on Mike Wallace’s holdout were clear and fairly strong, they did not go much beyond standard Pittsburgh Steelers head coach boiler plate for contract disputes.

  • Actions, of course speak louder than words.
It’s easy for a coach to talk about focusing on "The guys who want to be here" but it’s another for an entire franchise to put its foot down. And make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers put their foot down by giving Antonio Brown a five year contract extension that will keep him with the team through 2017.

Since Mike Wallace became a restricted free agent this off season, Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II have said all the right things about resigning him.

This is true despite credible reports that some of the Steelers Brain Trust had reservations about Wallace. The drop off in Wallace’s production during the second half of 2011 was troubling just as the drop off in the 2010 playoffs raised yellow flags.

But both Ed Bouchette and Len Pasqurelli wrote about people in the Steelers organization having worries about the role that attitude played in his drop off.
  • Then came the rumors that Wallace expects to be paid Larry Fitzgerald like money.
The Steelers commenced training camp and Wallace no showed. Add in the fact that Wallace’s is holding out against the advice of his agent Bus Cook, a man who has a history of orchestrating hold outs.
  • Connect the dots and the pattern you get is not a pleasant one for Steelers Nation.
Make no mistake, the Steelers negotiated in good faith. While character and locker room chemistry are important to the Steelers, senior management knows Wallace is one of the rare NFL players who truly is a threat to go all the way anytime he gets the ball in his hands.

That alone makes him valuable. And even when Wallace is dropping passes or letting defensive backs make uncontested plays on under thrown balls, he’s still stretching the field for Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Health Miller.

The Steelers stood ready to give Wallace real money in a long-term deal. And they made good on that intention. Except Antonio Brown’s name was on that contract, not Mike Wallace’s.

There are franchises in pro sports that allow themselves to be defined by a single player or personality. The Pittsburgh Steelers are not one of them.

The Steelers are a far weaker team without Mike Wallace in the line up. But the statement the Steelers made in signing Antonio Brown is that the organization will not be dictated to by one player, no matter how valuable.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Steelers 2012 Training Camp Imperative: Develop Talent

Finally, it is time to strap on the pads.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 training camp has commenced. Players have completed the run test. Now real football can begin.

The advent of free agency and the internet have transformed NFL football into a year-round phenomena. While all those free agent trackers, mock drafts, mini-camps and OTA’s are great for providing fans with their continuous fix of NFL football, in the end they're all meaningless.
  • Lump free agent signings and draft choices in that category too.
Yes, that’s right. By themselves those decisions represent nothing more than potential and opportunity costs.

As Steelers standard bearer Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, “I am not a fan of football in shorts.”

Since 1967, before anyone in Pittsburgh had even heard the name “Chuck Noll,” the fields of St. Vincent’s have served as the crucible where men have alternatively made or broken their dreams.

This summer promises to be no different for the 85 plus young men who come to Latrobe seeking to realize or extend their shot at membership in the elite few who can say they played in the NFL.

But there is a difference for the franchise, an important difference:
  • Developing the current draft class is more important now than it has been in previous summers.
Training Camp Reveals You a Lot, Often Times Quickly

Training camp doesn't provide a perfect guide by any means.

Thaddeus Gibson drew rave reviews in the summer of ’10 only to be gone by October

But if every camp has its flash in the pan, each camp also confirms the rise or decline of half dozen or so rookies. Exchanging pre-draft hype for shoulder pads and three point stances  tends to have that effect.

Huey Richardson broke his nose in non-contact drills during his rookie camp and found himself dispatched to the Redskins in a fire-sale trade one summer later.

In contrast, Joe Greene showed up late and overweight his first summer at St. Vincents, yet tossed veteran Ray Mansfield aside like a rag doll and crushed the on coming back in Chuck Noll’s infamous “Oklahoma drill.”

Four summers later, Ray Mansfield himself watched rookie Mike Webster excel in the same drill, and told the coaches and he thought he’d just met his successor.

Players have moments like these over the next three weeks. The Steelers however, need more players to have Greene and Mansfield moments as opposed to Richardson moments.

Why This Camp Is Different for the Steelers

Developing young talent is of course an important goal in every camp. But this year is different for the Steelers. Understanding why requires both looking back and forward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers recent run of success has made them the envy of just about every NFL team save for perhaps New England and New York. They’ve switched coaches, restructured ownership, battled off season issues, held their offensive line together with bubble gum and duct tape for seemingly seasons on end.
  • Yet they continue to win.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should rightfully be proud of that achievement.

But that very accomplishment has obscured an inconvenient truth.

The Steelers have had some bad drafts of late.

A team need not turn in a grade ‘A’ draft every year to remain a contender. But it can only afford so many mistakes.
A team seldom suffers an immediate impact from a bad draft. Instead, the impact surfaces in succeeding years. The consequences might remain obscured to the untrained eye.

Think the Steelers brought back Randle El and Larry Foote out of sentimentality or signed Will Allen in 2010 simply to take advantage of the uncapped year?

A poor draft can also have a ripple effect on draft conducted a few years in the future. Attentive readers will remember that Steel Curtain Rising began 2010 training camp with a similar column.

I don't like recycling columns, but the point was valid then is even more valid today.

Consider this - If Tony Hills had developed even a competent tackle, maybe the Steelers use this year’s second round pick to shore up an aging safety corps.

Yes, this summer is different for the Steelers, and they themselves implicitly acknowledge that.

Mike Tomlin himself has said that David DeCastro and Mike Adams must prove themselves as 2 of the team’s top five lineman to start.
  • That’s the policy of a head coach who wins Super Bowls.
But make no mistake about it. The Steelers are counting on DeCastro starting almost immediately and Mike Adams starting shortly there after. And while they might not be “counting” on Alameda Ta’amu this year, their short term plans for him are clear.
  • The Steelers have never a rookie class figure so prominently into their plans for an upcoming season.
While it’s certainly conceivable that the Steelers can climb the Stairway to Seven without immediate contributions from their 2012 draft class, the imperative goes beyond this season.

The Steelers top three play makers, arguably, are James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger. All three are on the wrong side of 30.

The big 3-0 isn’t quite the milestone that screams “decline” that it was a generation ago thanks to advanced training and nutrition techniques. But it does indicate that these men have logged more seasons in the past than they will in the future.
  • And the Steelers Super Bowl window is held open on the shoulders of these men.
The Steelers coaches probably can’t do anything extra to ensure that David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Sean Spence, Alameda Ta’amu, ChrisRainey, Toney Clemons, David Paulson, Terrence Fredrick, and Kelvin Beachum realize their potential. These coaches will play their normal role of nurture while the “nature” side of player development runs its course. 

It’s a deliberate process, but one that remains decidedly and art and not a science, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have more than usual riding on its outcome.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers Reup for 3 Years

The Pittsburgh Steelers are less than 24 hours away from convening training camp at St. Vincents College in Latrobe and almost as if on cue came the announcement that they had extended the contract of head coach Mike Tomlin.

The move will keep Tomlin on the Steelers sidelines through the 2016 season.

The Steelers policy has been to extend their head coach when he has two years remaining on his contract. The Steelers did just that two years ago, although at the time Joe Starkey of the Tribune Review noted that the extension was for 2 years plus an option, a departure from their standing operating procedure of offering straight three year extensions.

The Steelers move in 2010 was somewhat logical, as the team had suffered a mighty post-Super Bowl hangover during the 2009 season.

Since then Tomlin should, and apparently has, erased any doubts. In 2010, the Steelers became the first NFL team to begin its season with its starting quarterback serving a suspensionPittsburgh landed in Super Bowl XLV nonetheless.

The Steelers fortunes during the 2011 season weren’t quite so rosy, but Tomlin kept the team in contention despite roster ravaged by injury.

No Surprises This Time

There was little serious doubt that the Steelers would renew Mike Tomlin this time around. The only naysayer was Ron Cook of the Post Gazette, who suggested that Tomlin might resent Art Rooney II forcing him to fire Bruce Arians so much that he would refuse an extension.

Today it became clear why Cook could offer no reporting to back up his claim.

Although financial terms were released with the deal, one would figure that the contract extension would include a hefty increase for Tomlin. If this is true then it also dispels the notion that the Rooneys would refuse to pay top dollar for a quality head coach.

The bottom line is that Mike Tomlin is happy coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Steelers are happy to have him. That’s a win for both sides in addition to a win for Steelers Nation.

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Steelers Sign David DeCastro

Just days before convening training camp in at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania the Pittsburgh Steelers came to terms with David DeCastro their number one pick from the 2012 NFL Draft.

DeCastro signed a 4 year deal which includes an 5th option year at the end.

The news comes as no surprise, but is nonetheless welcome. Although Doug Legursky or Ramon Foster might be "officially" penciled on the depth chart to begin training camp at right guard, the Steelers are clearly counting on DeCastro as their starter. For that to occur he needs to begin camp on time, which now will happen.

The Steelers also signed undrafted rookie free agent offensive tackle Bridger Buche who was a two year starter at Eastern Michigan.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Steelers Cut Jonathan Scott

One day after resigning veteran offensive tackle Max Starks the Steelers made another move by cutting reserve tackle Jonathan Scott.

Johnathan Scott was part of the Steelers 2010 Free Agent Signing Spree that included the returns of Antwann Randel El and Larry Foote. Scott brought on to be a back up but injuries forced him into the starting line up.

Scott struggled, mightily at times, during the regular season, but stepped up his game impressively during the playoffs and Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers thought so highly of his progress that he began the 2011 season as the starter.

That changed fast, however, as he was unable to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side, and the team quickly moved to bring back Max Starks. Scott continued to receive action however, as repeated injuries forced the Steelers to play musical chairs on offensive line.

The Steelers likely waived Scott now, a week before training camp, to give him a chance to sign on elsewhere. The move also potentially opens up a roster spot for either Chris Scott, the Steelers 5th pick from the 2010 NFL Draft and/or Kyle Jolly, an undrafted rookie Free Agent who from 2010 who has spent the last two years on the practice squad. Trai Essex, who can play tackle, also remains on their roster.

Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review reported that the move will save the Steelers 1.7 million dollars against the salary cap - funds that could be used towards a long-term deal with restricted free agent Mike Wallace.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Steelers Send Message With Decision to Resign Max Starks

The Steelers sent a message in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft: 
  • The era of “Plug and Patch” offensive line building in Pittsburgh is over.
Mike Tomlin’s offensive staff quickly confirmed this move after drafting DavidDiCastro and Mike Adams when they called Willie Colon to inform him that theoft-rumored shift to guard was going to become real.

The Steelers shifted Colon because they’re projecting Mike Adams to start at right tackle.

Today in resigning Max Starks the Steelers sent another unequivocal message: 
  • You have to earn your role as a starter when you’re a Pittsburgh Steeler
The latter message was just as important as the former. Mike Adams brings more than his fair share of baggage to the NFL – Adams knocked himself off the Steelers draft board with a positive drug test at the NFL scouting combine.

Adams worked himself back into the Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert’s good graces, and they rewarded him by giving him a chance.

But when news of Colon’s shift to guard was accompanied by confirmation that Marcus Gilbert would remain at right tackle the idea that the Steelers braintrust might be giving Adam’s more than a chance wasn’t so outlandish.

Afterall, the only two people he’d have to beat out were Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott – both mean whose track record at the left tackle position is checkered – to be charitable.

But with Max Starks on the roster, the Steelers have brought in a veteran whom Adams will have to push himself to beat. They’re also giving themselves the luxury of allowing Adams to grow into the position.

Steelers Sign Starks - an Annual Off Season Rite

Perhaps when I launched Steel Curtain Rising in January of 2008 I it never occurred to me to  write up a batch of generic articles to cover typical, recurring, events.

One such story could have been "Steelers Resign Max Starks." 

That would have come in handy as hardly a year has passed without Max Starks putting ink to paper with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That four year contract got cut short, however as Starks injured his neck during 2010 and had to finish the season on IR.

The Steelers "Resign Max Stark" yarn took an unexpected twist in 2011 as Starks, after weighing in at over 400 pounds at Ben Roethlisberger's wedding, was cutas soon as the lockout ended.

When WillieColon went down after the Debacle in Baltimore, many fans expected the Steelers to rush to the Red Phone to resign Starks (or perhaps Flozell Adams who actually offered his services to the Steelers -- for a price.)
That plan lasted all of 3 games when it became crystal clear that Jonathan Scott was not a 16 game starter at left tackle. Discretion is that better part of valor, and the Steelers turned to Max Starks, initially thinking he would provide depth, but Starks started immediately -- and the Steelers offensive line improved as a result.

Starks appears to be happy with the Steelers, Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review indicated that Atlanta was interested in signing him, despite the fact that the Steelers never seemed to have made up their collective mind on him.

However rumor is that Starks was never high on Bruce Arians list, and that of course is a moot point now. Welcome back to Steelers Nation Max (again).

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steelers Not Among iPad Early Adopters in NFL

Training camp is still a few weeks away, but this might be the last summer that a familiar NFL ritual plays out in St. Vincents.

What every player dreads all summer long in Latrobe is a knock at the door from “The Turk.” Who knows who plays the role of “The Turk” today.

That’s not what’s important. It’s the news he brings.

The knock at the door is usually followed by the grim phrase:  “Coach wants to see you. And bring your play book.”  The later part of that phrase tells all – your days as a Steeler are over.

Some unfortunate few will hear that dreaded phrase this summer, but they might be the last.

No, the Steelers are not planning on holding camp elsewhere.

But as NFL.com recently profiled, tablet computer technology is sweeping the NFL, simultaneously replacing the traditional pen and ink playbook and radically alerting the experience of film study.

As the article details, every NFL team is experimenting with the iPad with several teams discarding dead tree editions of the playbook.

The Steelers, as reported by Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain, are not one of them. The Steelers will make film and plays available for iPads, but they’re not making them mandatory.

Avoiding “Putting on the Dog?” Not so Fast

Why aren’t the Steelers early adopters? There’s no way to be sure.

Art Rooney Sr. always admonished against “Putting on the dog,” his way of reminding the boys to be modest, translating his credo in to practical advice such as “Don’t get a Cadillac, get a Buick instead.”

Dan Rooney is a traditionalist when it comes to the game and its presentation. In 1998 when a Jacksonville Jaguars team mascot and mocked the Steelers huddle Rooney loudly complained, going as far as to say, “It’s a shame we didn’t have Lambert or Lloyd with us. They’d have put him in the hospital.” 

When the Jacksonville beat reporter protested “But its only entertainment” Rooney’s report was “At Three Rivers Stadium our entertainment is in between the lines.”

But it would be a mistake to insist that the Steelers resist technology.

In fact, as part of the BLESTO scouting combine, the Steelers were one of the first teams to use computers in the scouting and evaluation of players. In fact, former Steelers defensive back, long-time BLESTO head, and soon to be Hall of Famer Jack Butler starred in a Sperry Rand commercial touting its computer’s role in the NFL draft.

Down Side to Technology

Traditionalists like Art Rooney Jr., who ran the Steelers scouting department in the 70’s, were “OK” with using computers, but were smart enough not to become slaves to them.

As he details in his biography/autobiography Ruanaidh, that self-same BLESTO computer didn’t think that Mike Webster could cut it in the NFL.

Even when it factored in intangibles like attitude and football intelligence, Webster simply lacked the measurables, or so that Sperry Rand algorithm concluded.

Fortunately Dick Haley, Tim Rooney, Art Jr. and Chuck Noll took the time to look at tape on Webster, who of course became a Hall of Famer.

The smart money says that the Steelers will fully embrace tablet technology. But they’ll leave it to others to work out the kinks.

So it might be a few summers before the phrase “Coach wants to see you, and bring your iPad” are uttered in the halls of St. Vincents.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Watch Tower: Calling Out Mike Florio, Revisiting Mike Tomlin and Kordell Stewart, and Taking Our Own Medicine

NBC Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio attracts attention to himself. Last month Florio drew the ire of Steelers Nation by taking Mike Tomlin’s William and Mary Hall of Fame induction speech and twisting it so far out of context they it was unrecognizable.

Fellow scribe Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain immediately pounced as did Steelers Depot and Dan Gigler of the Post Gazette’s Blog ‘N Gold. 
Then I watch Tomlin’s speech (click here for the full video) and now I question whether or not Coolong was harsh enough.

But the purpose of Watch Tower’s critical eye is to analyze and understand what drives the coverage that the Steelers get in the press. 
  • So the Watch Tower went right to the source:  Mike Florio himself.
I sent Florio a message, asking if he’d read the full text of Tomlin’s speech or viewed it (Florio quoted passage, citing Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column).

I inquired if he weighed the context of Tomlin’s and if he’d sought comment or clarification from Tomlin or the team. One imagines that Burt Lauren, Steelers Communications director, would take Florio’s call. Finally, I asked Florio if he really did want to insulate that Tomlin condoned attempts to injure players.

The response from Florio?

  • Despite repeated attempts, Florio chose not to respond.
The professional press criticizes bloggers, often rightly, for hiding behind anonymity as they poison the well of public discourse.

But the fact that Florio put his name beside his attacks fails to make him any better.

He could have responded to my inquiry in several ways. He could have defended his work, offered a mea culpa or even dismissed the question with a hearty “who the hell are you?”

Instead, he chose silence.
  • And for that, the Watch Tower calls out Florio as a coward.
If you’re going to make scandalous charges about one of the classiest individuals in the NFL Mike, then man up stand behind what you write.

Kordell the Best Between Bradshaw and Ben?

Kordell Stewart surprised Steelers Nation yet again with his “retirement.” Stewart generated more controversy than perhaps any man to wear the Black and Gold and his decision to call it quits 10 years after leaving the team drew a variety of responses.

None were more puzzling, however, than Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette.

Reflecting on Stewart’s career Cook concluded, “He was the Steelers' best quarterback between four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw and two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger.”

Two paragraphs later Cook doubled down:
Stewart once predicted he would make the Hall of Fame. He fell considerably short, but he was better than everyone on this list: Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley, Scott Campbell, Bubby Brister, Steve Bono, Todd Blackledge, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox. They are the other Steelers quarterbacks who followed Bradshaw and preceded Roethlisberger.
  • Cook makes a bold claim.
The Watch Tower takes no issue with Cook’s opinion, he’s entitled to it and there’s an argument to be made to support. But successfully making such an argument requires marshaling evidence that Kordell was better than Neil O’Donnell at least, and perhaps Tommy Maddox.

Cook doesn’t do that. He probably didn’t have the column space, but his piece would have been far more interesting if he had.

Mike Tomlin’s Contract

Earlier this year he suggested that Tomlin might resent Art Rooney II’s forcing him to fire Bruce Arians so much that he’d decline to renew his contract. Regular readers will remember that the Watch Tower took issue with Cook then for not backing his analysis up with any reporting.

Cook mentioned the Arians firing, but took a different direction and in doing so raised the possibility that Steelers Nation will get an answer to a long-unanswered question.

Cook reasons that market dynamics dictate a significant raise for Tomlin, in the range of what it Bill Cowher could have commanded in 2006.
  • Many believe that Cowher simply because the Steelers would not pay premium dollar for a head coach.
Personally I’ve always felt that the Steelers probably would have met his price had he indicated that his future was in Pittsburgh. But we never got to find out because Kaye Cowher was already in the family’s newly purchased home in North Carolina, hence the Rooneys declined to open their check books.  

If Cook is right we could find out just how ready the Rooneys are to pay top dollar for a coach in a few weeks.

Love for Troy Smith, No Love for Mewelde Moore

The Steelers lost Mewelde Moore when he signed with theColts and decided to part ways with Troy Smith. You’d figure that Moore’s departure would merit more attention than Smith.

That was not the case, at least in Pittsburgh’s to leading dailies. News, let alone a story, about Mewelde Moore’s departure was no where to be found on either website save for a brief mention in Seth Rorabagh’s “Morning Links” column on PG Plus. 
  • In contrast, Smith's departure drew short stories in both the Tribune Review and Post Gazette.
 Moore’s departure was widely forecast, but he was an unsung hero in the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl season and deserved more of a send off. Nonetheless, the lack of coverage was fitting as in 2008 the press largely ignored Mewelde Moore until injuries forced him into the line up (click here for that story.)

Steel Curtain Rising Takes Its Own Medicine

The Watch Tower bright lights do not discriminate, not even when it comes to its home site.

When news broke that the Steelers planned to keep Marcus Gilbert at right tackle I jumped to the conclusion that meant they were therefore were by default (given that they won’t be so dense as to start Jonathan Scott or Trai Essex there) handing the job to second round pick Mike Adams. 
  • As it turns out, Marcus Gilbert did see time at LT during OTA’s and word also circulated that the team might give Max Starks a look.
Two pitfalls of the internet are haste in getting “content” on a page can lead to sloppy judgment and that nothing generates hits like a negative headline.

So be it. Yours truly fell prey to both of those and I duly accept my comeuppance.

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