Answering the question "do the Steelers need a tall receiver" isn't simple

Gregory Shamus

That would seem to be the common wisdom, but is it the right question?

Ben Roethelisberger has been asking for a tall receiver for his entire career. He lobbied for the team to keep Plaxico Burress when the wide receiver went into free agency after the 2004 season, and he was disappointed. We can certainly understand why.  The '04 Steelers campaign was one of the more impressive regular season performances in the history of the American Conference, and the Ben to Plax connection was a big part of that success.

However, the Steelers have managed to do quite well subsequently without the benefit of a big wideout. In 2005 they won the Super Bowl with their top three receivers being Hines Ward, Antwan Randle El and Cedric Wilson. In 2008 they won their sixth Lombardi with the group being Santonio Holmes, Ward and Nate Washington. None of these players could be remotely categorized as 'tall' receivers. Yet many insist that the team's future success hinges upon being serious about obtaining a tall wide receiver. Why? I'm not questioning whether the team wouldn't be better off with the addition of a great, tall receiver. But the emphasis should be on "great", regardless of size, as opposed to assuming "tall" is naturally better.

Limas Sweed.

I could end this piece right here couldn't I? And let's be clear. Without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, based upon how most of us evaluate these things, that is, the measurables, you take Sweed 100 out of 100 times. The problem with Sweed was largely about things you cannot measure. This is true about a lot of things in life; college admissions, job offers, marriages. Lots of things look good on the front end based upon the measurables; height, weight, 40 times, SAT scores, how one looks in swim wear or conducts themselves in an interview. Its not that measurements don't have some value, they most certainly do, but like all statistics it comes down to the interpretation. In academia, there is the ongoing problem of people believing that because they read about something, that they know how to actually do something; that if you have a grasp of, say, business theory, then you might think you actually know how to run a business in real terms. Fans and media think if they read up enough, watch the combine and pro days, participate in enough mock drafts that they know as much or more than GMs and head coaches. Not to say that bench pressing numbers and SAT scores don't matter, but how is the issue.

Last year the concern was that upon losing Mike Wallace the Steelers were in perilous waters having to rely upon Antonio Brown as their number one receiver. Why? Too small. Whatever concerns there are about Brown now, his size does not appear to be in the forefront. Prejudice along the lines of body type and style of play has been ongoing for years. The most obvious recent example was on display at the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning is what we like to call the prototypical NFL quarterback; a tall, stand still in the pocket kind of guy. Ben, an unconventional quarterback, castigated by many, including many in Steelers Nation for his style of play (why can't he be more like Peyton and Brady?), nonetheless, inexplicably has more Super Bowl appearances and victories than Peyton. Peyton's younger brother has more championships than Peyton. Then there's Russell Wilson, whom 32 teams passed on several times, just like 32 teams passed on AB five times. And, admit it, again without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight most of you would stampede over Wilson trying to get to JeMarcus Russell or some such. This is nothing new. Fran Tarkenton played his way into the Hall of Fame while critics insisted that he was incapable of doing so because he was too small. I imagine some passed on Drew Brees for similar reasons.

Bringing it back to the Steelers. The knock on James Harrison was that he was too short. I'm sure a lot of people thought that another Kent State linebacker, Jack Lambert was a little too light in the ass to be an effective middle linebacker in the NFL. Randy Grossman as a tight end? Be serious. Casey Hampton had to be too fat. Joe Greene's bench pressing numbers might have been a disappointment.

Some of the factors are beyond the ability to accurately measure, at least not at the level of outsiders, such as heart and maturation. Who could have predicted the fate of Jonathan Dwyer or Rashard Mendenhall as opposed to Kelvin Beachum? But even the measures that we place so much faith upon can be questioned. Take the vaunted 40 yard dash. Recently a delegation of Steelers leadership, including Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Joey Porter went to the Notre Dame pro day. They were interested in evaluating defensive players based not upon their 40s, but their 10 yard splits. This actually makes so much more sense. Excluding defensive backs, in a game situation if you are a defensive lineman or linebacker and you have to run 40 yards in a straight line, then something has just gone horribly, horribly wrong. One of the things that made Joe Greene such a problem to contend with was his quickness off the snap. If you can cover the first five to ten yards with explosive quickness, there won't be an 40 yard sprints required.

What the Steelers need are good, preferably great receivers regardless of size. If you just want tall, Plaxico is still available. And at least we have a much better idea of what he is capable of doing.

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