Throughout NFL history, there has been no franchise steadier than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and much of that is due to the front office. There was a gap between the four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s and the two others in the 2000s, but no other team has consistently fielded competitive rosters like the Steelers.
While ranking current general managers is a normal exercise, ranking the best general managers in NFL history is a totally different animal. However, Sam Robinson of Yardbarker decided to rank the top 20 general managers of all-time. However, this list was not purely made of GMs. Robinson described this list as the ranking of “pure front office execs who assembled quality rosters.”
The first name on the list was none other than Tom Donahoe. Here is what Robinson had to say.
Though the Steelers made multiple playoff brackets in the 1980s, they were in decline by the decade’s end. Promoted to Steelers front office boss in 1991, Donahoe hired Bill Cowher to succeed Chuck Noll weeks into his tenure. The Steelers made the next six playoff brackets and went to three AFC title games and Super Bowl XXX during Donahoe’s nine-year stay. Donahoe’s Kevin Greene signing ignited the “Blitzburgh” defense, and acquisitions of Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca set up Steeler run games well into the aughts. Donahoe did not duplicate his success with the Bills, but the Steelers have not looked back.
This may be a surprise to some, although the hiring of Bill Cowher and signing of Kevin Greene were two of the best moves in the history of the organization. Robinson's entire list seemed to be favorable toward guys that put their respective franchises in good position for future success, and Donahoe is a perfect example of that.
Coming in sixth on the list was current Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. Here is Robinson's explanation.
In power with multiple titles since 2000, Colbert has been a steady hand for the modern Steelers. Usually swiping left on free agency, the Steeler boss has extended essential players and done well to replace the others. Landing Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger in consecutive drafts, Colbert also continued an unrivaled wide receiver assembly line. The Steelers tabbing a 34-year-old Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher became a defining modern-era hire, and the Colbert-Tomlin partnership has two Super Bowl berths and zero losing seasons. The Colbert-era Steelers endured letdowns and an Antonio Brown meltdown, but they remain a top-tier franchise.
Any time current NFL general managers are ranked, Kevin Colbert is almost always ranked inside the top ten and quite frequently the top five. If you have been around the site for any period of time, however, you probably know that I am not the biggest fan of Kevin Colbert. I acknowledge that building a team that has had sustained success is not easy to do in the NFL, but there are very few elite general managers in the NFL, and I have just never been of the mindset that Colbert was one of them.
The drafting of Troy Polomalu and Ben Roethlisberger made the Steelers a Super Bowl caliber team, and Kevin Colbert deserves credit for both moves. Colbert built a championship roster and is a big reason why the Steelers were able to win two Super Bowls in the 2000s. However, one could argue that although Colbert built talented rosters in the 2010s, he missed on several opportunities that could have led the Steelers to a couple more Super Bowls.
In 2016, the Steelers had four main holes: cornerback, safety, nose tackle, and tight end. Other than those positions, this roster was ready to win a super bowl. After Heath Miller retired, Colbert knew that the tight end position needed to be addressed. With only a few legitimate options in the draft class, Colbert went the route of free agency and signed Ladarius Green to a 4 year, $20 million contract. This did not work out at all, but a strong receiving corps led by Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant made the Steelers less reliant on the tight end position.
Everyone knew the Steelers had their eyes set on William Jackson III in the 2016 NFL Draft, but even though the Bengals took Jackson one pick ahead of the Steelers, Colbert knew that this position still had to be addressed. The secondary was one of the worst in the NFL at the time, and a young corner was exactly what the Steelers needed. When Jackson was taken, most Steelers fans expected the pick to be either Mackenzie Alexander or Xavien Howard if the team chose to take a cornerback. Nevertheless, Colbert selected Artie Burns, an athletic corner from Miami who brought a lot of upside but clearly lacked polish. While Burns showed flashes during his rookie season, he was never able to sustain success for any period of time.
Almost everyone in the NFL Draft community loved Javon Hargrave’s fit with the Steelers, and grabbing him the the third round was an absolute steal. Despite being undersized, his explosiveness and physicality made him a weapon on all three downs as an interior defensive lineman. Sean Davis was never an excellent option at safety, but he was serviceable for a couple seasons next to Mike Mitchell, another player that Colbert probably regrets paying. At the end of the day, the Steelers were able to fill a major hole that offseason with Javon Hargrave, but Kevin Colbert had a golden opportunity to turn a talented roster into a Super Bowl caliber roster, and he was unable to do it.
The Steelers do not generally make splash signings in free agency, but the biggest moves the organization has made in recent memory have not panned out. Ladarius Green, Mike Mitchell, and Donte Moncrief are the first names that come to mind, but Steven Nelson could also be put into that category. Nelson had a fantastic season in 2019 but struggled mightily in 2020. Part of it may have been due to injuries and a season filled with COVID pauses, but either way, Nelson did not live up to the 3 year, $25 million deal that he and the Steelers agreed to in 2019. After seemingly wanting even more money than what he was getting with the Steelers, he was released by the team and is still on the open market. The rest of the NFL does not seem to be too high on Nelson either, as there has been very little interest in the former Steelers cornerback since his release.
While I have scratched my head at some of the moves that Kevin Colbert has made in the past five years, I respect the longevity and success he has brought to the Steelers. Building two Super Bowl teams in the same decade is deserving of high praise. Grabbing T.J. Watt at the end of the first round was an excellent decision, and acquiring quality receivers such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool on day two prove Colbert’s eye for talent at that position. However, the sixth-greatest general manager of all time is too high for me.
Coming in at eighteen on the list was another Steeler, Dick Haley. The Director of Player Personnel for the Steelers for nearly twenty years was partially responsible for the talented Steelers teams in the 1970s. Here is what Robinson had to say about him.
A brilliant talent evaluator who ran the Steelers’ drafts for 20 years, Haley was essential in forming one of the NFL’s defining nuclei. The Steelers’ 1974 draft changed the game, with Haley’s haul including four Hall of Famers — Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster — that helped the Joe Greene- and Terry Bradshaw-led team to four Super Bowl titles. Haley drafted numerous other Steel Curtain-era starters, including Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Franco Harris, and landed Rod Woodson in 1987. With no free agency in this era, draft czars were vital. Haley has a strong case as a Hall of Fame contributor.
Since this list is simply based on those who assembled talented rosters, I am honestly surprised that Haley is not higher. The Steelers’ 1974 draft class is truly the greatest of all-time, and with no free agency, drafting was even more important than it is today. While his son’s stint as offensive coordinator for the Steelers was underwhelming, Dick Haley is one of the most underrated front office minds in NFL history. I felt as if he should have been ranked higher than eighteenth.
No matter where you may rank these three men, you will likely agree that that the Steelers have had more front office stability than most teams throughout NFL history, and that is an amazing accomplishment.
But what do you think of these rankings? Were Donahoe, Colbert, and Haley ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think deserves to be considered the greatest general manager of all-time? Be sure to light up the comment section with your thoughts on this topic and all things Pittsburgh Steelers, and stay tuned to BTSC for all the news you need as we approach the 2021 NFL season!