Franco Harris first coined the term “Steelers Wing” during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1990 and it turned out to be even more prophetic than he imagined. Since the induction of Joe Greene, no team can rival the magnitude of players, coaches, and contributors who have played a major role in Pittsburgh Steelers lore who have joined the hallowed ranks of NFL legends now immortalized in Canton.
The question to Steeler Nation of who will be next has been buzzing and, in this installment, we will review the case for Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert.
When Kevin Colbert first arrived in Pittsburgh in 2000 as the replacement for the departing Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations, it came with more controversy than fanfare. Dan Rooney had to make a decision between Donahoe and head coach Bill Cowher as their relationship deteriorated to a point a change had to be made. At the time, there was arguably more support for Donahoe, but it is safe to say that looking back after two decades, Mr. Rooney made the right decision.
In 2010, Colbert was officially named General Manager (the first in franchise history) and in 2016, he was promoted to Vice President status and it’s not hard to see why. Under his stewardship, the Steelers advanced to three Super Bowls with two Lombardi trophies. As of entering 2021, the Steelers have an NFL best 17 consecutive non-losing seasons (2nd closest is 9), and it puts them within reach of the NFL record of 21 (Dallas Cowboys). Over Colbert’s 20 years, the Steelers amassed the 2nd best record (217-117-2) including 10 Division Titles with three Wild Card berths (with oft Division winning totals of 10,11 and 12 wins). Perhaps what made Colbert so special was his willingness to go against decades of Steelers tradition to trade up in the 1st round, directly impacting the 27-year wait of gaining “One for the thumb.” Thus far, only one player drafted/acquired under Colbert has been named to the Hall of Fame: Troy Polamalu. But there are more on the way, particularly Ben Roethlisberger.
In 2014, the Hall of Fame voting bylaws changed to include a contributor category defined as an individual who has “made outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching” will automatically be included among the annual list of finalists for election. This opened the door to consideration that was not available, most notably to Bill Nunn. Ensuing inductees as a result of this change opened the door to include other great non-owner GMs: Bill Polian, Ron Wolf, and Bobby Beathard. This really creates an opportunity for the quiet Colbert to make a case when only Jim Finks and Tex Schramm accomplished this previously.
Comparing against the baseline of the three GMs mentioned, how does Colbert compare?
Ron Wolf – 3x Super Bowl Champion, albeit two rings came while as a Scout of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. He was highly considered enough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hire him as Vice President of Football Operations, where he helped build an expansion team from an 0-26 start to reach the NFC Championship in 1979. But it would be his time as GM of the Green Bay Packers where he acquired Hall of Famers Brett Favre through trade and Reggie White through free agency. He brought the downtrodden Packers to prominence and they appeared to be the next NFL dynasty when they reached back-to-back Super Bowls, but the team managed to only win one and the team never approached the same level through his tenure when he retired in 2001.
Bill Polian – 1x Super Bowl Champion and the architect of the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s, the only team to reach four consecutive Super Bowls, although Polian was fired after the third. He built a roster around previously drafted Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith and made the steal of the 1988 NFL Draft in Hall of Famer, Thurman Thomas. But Polian achieved his greatest success when he was hired by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 and drafted Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning. No team in the NFL had more wins from 2000-2010 (115-45-0) with seven consecutive seasons of 12 wins or more. Despite all that success, his teams won one of only six Super Bowls and arguably gave up a 16-0 season.
Bobby Beathard – 4x Super Bowl Champion, two as Director of Player Personnel for the Miami Dolphins and two as GM the Washington Redskins. In both cases, he was overshadowed by legendary coaches in Don Shula and Joe Gibbs. Beathard was a true wheeler and dealer as GM, often moving 1st round picks for veterans and it worked under his judgment. Although he left Washington after 1988, many of his acquisitions were part of their 3rd Super Bowl and took over as GM for the San Diego Chargers who reached their only Super Bowl in 1994.
Colbert has been quiet and under the radar, but has a run of success equal to or better than the contributors that have gone in since the contributor status. 2021 was an interesting and particularly aggressive off-season and could determine how quickly Colbert goes in, but given the standard, Colbert is already a lock.
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