I'm old enough to recall the time when fans trudged into old Pitt Stadium fully expecting the home team to lose, but hoping against hope that they'd somehow manage an upset win so that our beer would taste better and our Monday morning drive into the Smoky City wasn't quite so gloomy. But the Black and Gold teams of the 50s and 60s almost invariably found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, so normally we'd walk glumly out of Pitt Stadium to the muffled drone of "same old Steelers!"
In those days of utter futility, all sorts of theories abounded for why the team didn't win. Some suspected a plot by the monied interests of New York or Chicago to deprive Pittsburgh of the players we needed to compete on a level field. And despite his iconic status today, Arthur Rooney, Sr. was widely perceived in those days as a likable gent who had the bad habit of being too loyal to some pretty awful football coaches that he persisted in hiring.
Probably the most notable fallout of Rooney's loyalty was former head coach Walt Kiesling's release of all-world QB John Unitas before the young QB ever had so much as a single opportunity to demonstrate his skills in the Steelers' training camp. This epic gaffe was made all the worse by the fact that Johnny U was a local Pittsburgh boy who went on to stardom with the Baltimore Colts.
The Steelers never won anything for four decades mainly because they continued to repeat the same foolish errors year after year. The old Steelers never developed any sort of consistent, definable system that might have elevated them to the winner's circle. For too many years, future NFL stars failed to attract the notice of Steeler coaches and made their escapes to greener pastures. And the only time the Steelers ever would dismiss a head coach in those days was when everyone in the city of Pittsburgh, from cab drivers to Franciscan nuns, had called for the coach's head on a platter. So to characterize the culture of the old Steelers, its principal trait was a failure to analyze or re-evaluate practices which clearly were not succeeding.
Steeler Coach Mike Tomlin already has earned substantial loyalty from the Rooneys, as well as from Steeler Nation at large. At the same time, we've seen hints in recent seasons that some of the same uncritical assumptions that once prevented the Steelers from winning may have reared their ugly heads again. Just to cite the most obvious example, consider the Steelers' draft record during the past six years. The fact already has been duly noted on BTSC that the 2008 Steeler draft was an utter wipeout from which not a single contributing player remains on the team. Three of our top-5 draft picks in 2008 are out of pro football entirely and one is playing in the CFL. Only #1 pick Rashard Mendenhall still has an NFL contract these days.
Moving to the 2009 draft, only our #1 pick Ziggy Hood and our #7 pick David Johnson are still on the roster today. Remember all the ridicule for "Frank the Tank" Summers? Well guess who's now starting at fullback for the Buffalo Bills? Shades of the John Kuhn debacle perhaps? Mike Wallace is gone to the Dolphins and Keenan Lewis is in New Orleans. Perhaps worst of all, #3 pick Kraig Urbik, who we never thought could play a lick, is now a starting offensive tackle for the Bills. But of course why would the Steelers ever need a starting- caliber tackle anyway?
The 2010 draft was an improvement but it still gives some cause for reflection. We drafted Maurkice Pouncey #1, Emmanuel Sanders #3, and the Jonathan Dwyer/Antonio Brown duo in the sixth round. That's looking pretty good so far but, lest we forget, we used our #2 pick for Jason Worilds who hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. We also picked offensive tackle Chris Scott in the 5th round and who do you think is currently starting at OT for the Carolina Panthers? Just another pesky tackle guy we didn't need.
In 2011, we drafted Cam Heyward #1 and he's just now starting to look like he was worth the choice. At #2, though, Marcus Gilbert is doing a very poor imitation of Kraig Urbik or even Chris Scott for that matter. Our #3 pick Curtis Brown, #4 pick Cortez Allen and #5 pick Chris Carter are mostly guys who have given the appearance of possibly being useful someday.
Last year's draft yielded players in the top-3 positions who originally looked like they might make long-term contributions to the team. #1 pick David DeCastro, regardless of his detractors, is developing steadily into an irresistable force at guard. As for our #2 pick Mike Adams, not so much. #3 pick Sean Spence is hoping to play football again someday after suffering a horrific injury. Once-promising picks #4 and #5 (Ta'amu and Rainey) each suffered from personality disorders otherwise known as "Grow-up Jagoff" Disease. Our #7 pick David Paulson is looking like he has no business trying to block anyone in the NFL and our lowly #9 pick Kelvin Beachum is still showing some surprising moxie for a guy chosen so far down.
The 2013 draft appears to have garnered a future star at LB in the form of Jarvis Jones. But after our #1 pick, things get cloudy in a hurry. #2 pick Le'Veon Bell is all about great potential but he hasn't been healthy enough yet for us to truly evaluate. Marcus Wheaton and Shamarko Thomas also are looking like they might be regular starters pretty soon.
So there you have it folks, six years of Steeler drafts and not really a heckuva lot to show for it. In fact, a good argument can be made that some of the players we overlooked, plus those we let go to other teams, probably are just as good as any of the keepers we've drafted in recent years.
Then, of course, there's the infamous list of top-5 draft picks since 2008 whose NFL careers have never gone anywhere. Here they are:
1) Limas Sweed (WR): at last report, this #2 pick had gone AWOL from Saskatchewan in the CFL.
2) Bruce Davis (LB): A #3 pick at LB, he's now playing for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.
4) Thad Gibson (LB): Once a #4 pick but now out of the NFL.
5) Tony Hills (OT): Another #4 pick who's out of the NFL.
6) Joe Burnett (CB): A #5 pick now playing in the CFL
One distinction that really screams at us is the difference between the caliber of our core players today and those who helped us win our Lombardi trophies. Where is the franchise RB that the Steelers once relied on in Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis? As good a player as he might be, will the name of Maurkice Pouncey ever be mentioned in the same category as Mike Webster or Dermonti Dawson? Will #1 pick Ziggy Hood ever be compared to Aaron Smith, L.C. Greenwood or even Dwight White? At this point, one can only hope.
Big Ben, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown might be the only three players we've got at the offensive skill positions who someday will be considered on a par with the likes of Bradshaw, Harris, Bettis, Swann, Stallworth and Hines Ward. That's simply not enough horses folks.
This begs the question of whether the Steelers organization has allowed itself to slip back into the same kind of malaise that once produced four fruitless decades of pro football in the Burgh. But perhaps this isn't the right question to ask. Perhaps the Steelers' current problems are more the reflection of an NFL that continues to become increasingly mediocre with each passing year. Maybe it's simply impossible for any organization to field a superior pro football team for more than a year or two with the impact of free agency, the salary cap, collective bargaining for millionaire athletes, rule changes and what have you. And if the Cincinnati Bengals should somehow win their first-ever Super Bowl title next February, this would essentially confirm the latter theory of raging mediocrity.
But whatever the reason might be for the Steelers' current woes, the solution seems to be elusive. Just when we think we've got a healthy and improved team to start the 2013 season, all the wheels fall off of our buggy in weeks #1 and #2. I'm having a nightmare that, fast- forwarding to 10 years from now, I hear once again the familiar drone of "same old Steelers" as I show up at the senior center for my Monday morning coffee. Someone please pinch me and tell me that it's only a bad dream!