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To understand Keith Butler's future, look to Steelers past

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What does the future hold for Steelers new defensive coordinator Keith Butler? To give Steelers Nation an idea, BTSC looks to Pittsburgh's past, including a pivotal figure at the center of a disappointing Steelers AFC Championship loss....

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What's does the future hold for Keith Butler? Pittsburgh's past offers some clues.
What's does the future hold for Keith Butler? Pittsburgh's past offers some clues.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has settled. Dick LeBeau is out and Keith Butler is in. LeBeau supporters (of which I am one) must now accept that Dick LeBeau's legacy is now part of Pittsburgh's past, and that it's in everyone's interests for Keith Butler to succeed.

  • But what exactly does the future hold for the Steelers new defensive coordinator?

No one has a crystal ball, but a look to Steelers history provides what should be significant a clue into how things will evolve with Keith Butler....

...Because the Steelers found themselves in a very similar situation on the opposite side of the ball as LeBeau was just wrapping up his maiden season as defensive coordinator.

Of Ron Erhardt and Chain Gailey

Depending on who you believe, Mike Shanahan was Bill Cowher's first choice to fill the offensive coordinator slot when Dan Rooney hired The Chin in 1992.

But, as Ed Bouchette reported in Dawn of a New Steel Age, Shanahan had an agent - not common for assistant coaches at the time - and the Steelers didn't like that. More importantly, Shanahan was also interviewing for the 49er's vacant offensive coordinator job, and Cowher pointedly asked that Shanahan he would take the job if offered.

  • When Shanahan waffled, Cowher didn't waver in moving on to his next choice.

And that choice was Ron Erhardt, formerly of Bill Parcell's staff, who'd found his role reduced under Ray Handley, Parcell's successor with the Giants.

The two men didn't know each other, so Cowher's call came out of the blue. It didn't matter. When asked what his philosophy was, Ron Erhardt made no bones about it:

  • Throw to score, run to win

In 1992 this translated to handing the ball to Barry Foster on first and second downs and, when in doubt, on third down too. On occasions, when passing was absolutely necessary, the game plan usually meant throwing the ball to Eric Green.

That made sense too. Neither Dwight Stone nor Jeff Graham, the Steelers two starting wide outs, were legit number one receivers. In contrast, Green was a 300 pound tight end who should have redefined the position the way Ron Gronkowski is today.

Things continued much the same in 1993, until Foster got hurt. Leroy Thompson was decent as a backup, but he was no Foster. The Steelers compensated by trying, per Neil O'Donnell's own admission, to force the ball to Greene.

Injuries and attitude issues plagued Foster in 1994, but rookie Bam Morris was more than able to pick up the slack, but during the early part of the season, the passing game still focused on Greene - despite the fact that Graham was in Chicago and Stone relegated to the 5th wide receiver slot.

  • At mid-season things got interesting.

O'Donnell mysteriously found himself benched for injury reasons that were never quite clear. Mike Tomczak started and won two games as the Steelers discovered that they had receivers named Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings who could and did catch the ball.

  • But the Steelers hadn't just picked up new wide receivers in 1994 ,they'd also picked up a new wide receivers coach named Chan Gailey.

Actually, of the Steelers receiving quartet, only Charles Johnson was new in 1994. Whether it was because of Gailey's influence or simply the natural course of player development, the simple fact is that by the end of 1994 the Steelers best passing offense featured 4 wide receiver sets and Green on the bench.

1994 was only the warm up, as 1995 brought the arrival of Kordell Stewart and the entire "Slash Phenomenon" which included heretofore unheard of empty backfields and 5 wide receiver sets.

The innovation arrived just in time, as Barry Foster was gone and Bam Morris seemed hell-bent on blowing his signing bonus up his nose. As BTSC scribe Bryan DeArdo recounted, backup running back Erric Pegram was one of the season's legit unsung heroes. But if Pegram doesn't get his just due, the truth still remains that the wide outs gave the Steelers offense their primary weapons. Dan Rooney even went as far to say that Thigpen, Mills, Johnson and Hastings were the best foursome the Steelers had ever had at the position.

All of that offensive fire power was impressive, but ultimately it wasn't enough to overcome two Neil O'Donnell to Larry Brown interceptions in Super Bowl XXX.

The loss disappointed, but it seemed like the Steelers had finally found a formula for success on offense to complement Dick LeBeau's defense. But appearances can be deceiving....

"Thanks. But We're Moving In a Different Direction"

Steelers Nation got little time to mourn Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl loss. The engines had barley cooled on the Steelers jet back from Arizona when the headline broke, "Pittsburgh Fires Its Offensive Coordinator."

Just days after the Super Bowl, Bill Cowher walked down to Erhardt's office and told him they were moving in a different direction, naming Chan Gailey as his successor.

Erhardt was not happy. He reminded reporters that when Bill Parcells had tried to hire him in 1993 the Steelers blocked the move, saying they'd planned to keep him in Pittsburgh for "years and years." (As Ed Bouchette revealed in 2012, the Steelers actually had a handshake agreement with Erhardt that he would step aside after the 1995 season.)

Butler Will Share Gailey's Fate, If All Goes Well

Chan Gailey's one of the more interesting figures in Steelers history, having orchestrated one offense quarterbacked by Mike Tomczak to an AFC Central title, and having taken another one led by Kordell Stewart to the AFC Championship.

Some Steelers fans will never forgive Gailey, of course, for throwing the ball twice in goal line situations, only to see Kordell throw interceptions.

But regardless, and regardless his head coaching record, Gailey left a tremendous impression on Bill Cowher. Cowher recommended Gailey as his replacement to the Rooneys as his replacement, and also recommended him for the Bills coaching vacancy. He also impressed Jerry Jones, who hired Gailey as his head coach after the Steelers loss in the AFC Championship game.

  • If all goes well, the same thing will happen with Keith Butler.

No, that's not a misprint nor is it a subtle dig made by a self-outed LeBeau supporter. The hope here is that Keith Butler is every bit the super star in waiting that Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and, for all we know, LeBeau himself, expect him to be.

  • But the simple fact is that good coordinators are the top candidates to get head coaching jobs.

That's the way it should be, and it's certainly not an argument for why LeBeau should have stayed. Quite to the contrary - while the Steelers did lose Gailey after only two years, Erhardt himself only coached for two more seasons before hanging up.

So here's to Keith Butler's success. Past Steelers defenensive coordinators have taken 2-3 seasons to graduate to the head coaching ranks. Let's hope Butler can mold a defense that helps bring home Lombardi number 7 in that time.