I don't know if you have heard, but this off season for the Pittsburgh Steelers has gotten off to a rather tumultuous start. No need to revisit all the hoopla of the last few weeks as it has no bearing on this article. I will say that there has been alot of speculation concerning what the Steelers roster will look like going into next season, especially at the wide receiver positions. That got me reminiscing about all the great receivers who have donned a Steelers uniform.
This years tandem of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith Schuster was the best in the league, but not the best tandem in team history. That distinction still belongs to Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
When I started to identify the most underrated receivers in team history my mind immediately recalled the 1995 Super Bowl team and their impressive receiver group. They were a diverse collection of talent and they went five deep. That is what made them so special, their depth. There hasn't been a team since that could match it.
The group was lead by Pro Bowl stud Yancey Thigpen. Thigpen was the complete package, everything you could want in a receiver. He possessed size, speed, strength, and a excellent set of hands. He could over power a defender who attempted to jam him on his release, and he had enough speed to make them pay on the deep ball. Thigpen had a lot in common with Louis Lipps, another talented Steelers receiver who played about a decade earlier. The only thing that hindered them from ranking even higher on the list of Steelers greats was the shoddy play of their quarterbacks. I would have loved to have seen them play with a QB the caliber of Bradshaw or Ben.
The other starting receiver was a more fluid situation. It could change from week to week, often based on the opponent and the corresponding game plan. If the team was going to utilize a run heavy scheme, per usual, they would start youngster Charles Johnson due to his superior blocking skills. If the game plan called for a more aerial attack, they would start KR specialist Ernie Mills for his ability to stretch the field.
Charles Johnson was the Steelers first round pick in 1994 from Colorado and obviously was expected to be the next Steelers great. While that plan never came to fruition, he was a solid professional who developed into a well rounded receiver. He was the poster child for a player who could do a lot of things well, but no one thing great. Although he was never quite able to justify that first round selection, he was a tough and durable competitor. High character teammate as well. Made more than his share of clutch catches during his Steelers career.
Ernie Mills was a former third round selection in 1991 out of Florida who had been a classic underachiever up till the 1995 season. He had always flashed more potential than production, but that season he found his groove. He displayed a nose for the football, a knack for getting over the top of the defense, and a tendency to find himself open in the endzone. Ernie caught 8 touchdowns on only 39 receptions. That was by far the best season of his career and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Steelers. He never approached those numbers again in his career, but he was a difference maker that season.
The fourth receiver on the Steelers depth chart was a third round selection in 1993 out of Georgia named Andre Hastings. He was a possession receiver who did his best work out of the slot. He was an accomplished route runner who excelled on third downs. Not blessed with great speed, he was a shifty runner who racked up yards after the catch. This ability also allowed him to be a effective punt returner. He could have been a WR2 on alot of teams at that time, especially those who relied on a more aerial attack, and he would go on to prove just that later in his career. That season he was the consummate professional and always produced when called upon. His contributions that season should not be overlooked.
That is an impressive group of receivers right there, but what makes this group really stand out as the greatest group in Steelers history, maybe league history, is the player who didn't even want to be a receiver. A player so physically talented he could excel at multiple positions on the football field, even if he had never played the positions before in his collegiate career. His name was Kordell Stewart, but everybody called him Slash. He had been drafted in the second round of the 1995 draft out of Colorado as a QB. He had made it known he only wanted to play QB, but consented to being utilized as a multi purpose weapon to attack opposing defense due to his intense desire to see the field. Slash took the NFL by storm. Slash wasn't just a great athlete playing QB. He had a great throwing arm, the size and running ability of a RB, and the speed and agility of a WR. The threat of his mere presence on the field scared defensive coordinators to death and opened up the complete playbook for the Steelers. Slash would eventually give way to Kordell as the Steelers honored their promise to play him at QB, but I have often wondered what would have happened if he would have stayed at WR, or as the one and only Slash.
As we are all too aware, that 1995 season ended in utter disappointment for our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers and all of Steelers Nation. I will forever hold a certain level of disdain for one Mr. Neil O'Donnell and picture him in my mind sitting in a secluded cabin somewhere deep in the woods, laughing fiendishly, all the while tossing obscene amounts of money into the air he received from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. I apologize for getting off point, forgive me. The pain is real, brothers and sisters.
I believe the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers assembly of wide receivers is the best in team history and is underrated and underappreciated. They may just be the best group ever. What do you think? If not, who do you think was better?