In this retrospective series, we’ll use 20/20 hindsight to play General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers to review past drafts – focusing primarily on top 2-3 selections – and personnel decisions year-by-year and redraft or implement trades based on the Steelers roster at the time.
General rule: Any “redrafted” pick will generally fall within a 15-pick range and trade propositions being realistic and attainable.
Steelers situation and needs:
- The 2000 Steelers had a very unique season – recovering from an 0-3 start to going into Week 17 with needing a win vs. the San Diego Chargers and losses by the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts to qualify for the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens defeated the Jets for the 1:00 pm game, but the Colts played a Minnesota Vikings team that were locked into the #2 seed and rested their starters after the 1st quarter.
- Both games started at 4:15 pm EST, and while the Steelers easily took care of their end by defeating the Chargers 34-21, there was not much of a need for scoreboard watching. Peyton Manning had little difficulty out-dueling former Steeler and backup Vikings QB Bubby Brister – who finished 9/18 for 78 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT and a QB rating of 38.7 on a 31-10 win.
- The Steelers finished the season 9-7, but beyond the 9-4 recovery from the 0-3 start, the NFL sent the Steelers three official letters of apology for missed calls that impacted the outcomes of three games.
- Occurrence #1 – Week 2: With 0:14 seconds left in a 23-20 game vs. the Cleveland Browns, QB Kent Graham was sacked on the Cleveland 8-yard line. Per the NFL Senior Director of Officiating Jerry Seeman, the clock was not stopped for the required five seconds and thus the Steelers were unable to kick the potential game tying 31-yard FG.
- Occurrence #2 – Week 4: The NFL informed the Steelers that referee Walt Coleman was incorrect in not reversing a Steelers challenge (costing the Steelers a timeout) in which Hines Ward should have been credited with an 18-yard TD. Jason Gildon sacked former Steelers and Tennessee Titans QB Neil O’Donnell to knock him out of the game (probably the worst big play of his career), and forced the “injured” Steve McNair to enter the game. McNair easily drove the Titans to score in only four plays to take a 23-20 lead with 1:31 left. The Steelers could have used the extra timeout as they drove to the Titans 32, but Kris Brown was short on a 50-yard FG.
- Occurrence #3 – Week 11: The most egregious of the missed calls, the Steelers held a 23-13 lead with 3:47 in the 4th quarter vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. They wouldn’t touch the ball again. The Eagles were able to score a TD (aided by a questionable unnecessary roughness call on Lee Flowers), they attempted an onside kick and were penalized for touching the ball before it went 10 yards. On the ensuing play, they committed another blatant violation of the 10-yard onside kick rule, as Hines Ward was clearly blocked before the ball went 10 yards. This would have forced them back 10 yards and a kickoff from the 15-yard line. Instead the Eagles gained possession, kicked a game-tying FG with 0:01 seconds on the clock to tie the game, won the OT coin flip and kicked a FG to win — all when they never should have had the ball.
- The Steelers were the last team to beat the Super Bowl Champion Ravens, who would go on an 11-game winning streak including playoffs. The Titans were the #1 seed in the AFC, and though they swept the Steelers – both games came down to a last second FG.
- Kordell Stewart arguably had the best game of his career vs. the Oakland Raiders (who finished 12-4 with the #2 seed). Stewart threw a TD to put the Steelers up 7-0 when he was knocked out of the game and thought done for the day. You’d probably never believe the crowd reaction and how loud it got when seeing him back in to start the 2nd half and leading the Steelers back with 2 more TDs to win 21-20.
- The 2000 Steelers began showing signs of the talent that would carry the franchise through the rest of the decade, with three rookie starters and four additional starters in their 2nd or 3rd year.
Kevin Colbert isn’t your father’s Steelers General Manager
Reviewing 2001: 1st Round – #19 Overall; 2nd Round – #39 Overall
There were a lot of trade rumors circulating about the Steelers 2000 draft; while the Steelers ultimately didn’t pull the trigger on any of those deals, it was a different story in 2001. The franchise that had made only four trades involving a 1st or 2nd round pick since Chuck Noll took over in 1969 were active on April 21, 2001.
The Steelers had drafted WRs in the 1st round the previous 2 years and had a promising young WR in Hines Ward, and with Kordell Stewart having a very positive finish to 2000, began to look to shore up the defense. It was rumored Bill Cowher was very high on DT Marcus Stroud and LB Dan Morgan. However, both players were gone by the Steelers #16 pick. After having seven 3rd round picks in the previous 3 years, the Steelers were stripped of 3rd round pick due to a salary cap violation involving Will Wolford in 1998.
But it didn’t stop Kevin Colbert from being creative. The Steelers traded down three spots with the New York Jets, from #16 to #19 and still landed the player they had next on their board in Casey Hampton. The 2001 draft was a successful one for DTs and while Hampton did not quite get the same acclaim as other NTs, he was the best defensive lineman taken by the Steelers since Joe Greene. Hampton initially rotated with 2000 3rd round DT Kendrick Clancy to start the season at NT, thus shifting Kimo von Oelhoffen to a more natural DE. By Week 5, Hampton had won the starting role for the rest of 2001 and was the anchor of the front three for the rest of the decade. He was never named All-Pro as his job was to take up blockers and free the LBs to make the headline plays. It didn’t stop “Big Snack” from being one of the best DL of the decade. He was named to five Pro Bowls and was named team co-MVP in 2005 along with Hines Ward. Although not renowned for his pass rushing ability, his bull rush sack on Matt Hasselbeck in Super Bowl XL thwarted the Seattle Seahawks drive and ultimately led to the game shifting interception by Ike Taylor.
The Steelers acquired a 4th (#111) and 6th (#181) to move down three spots in the 1st round. Colbert then packaged the #50 pick and the #112 pick to move up 12 spots to #39 and address the LB need Cowher was also seeking with Kendrell Bell. Bell was not meant to start as a rookie, with Super Bowl XXXIV “hero” LB Mike Jones signed as a placeholder and mentor, but that dynamic changed quickly in training camp. Cowher wanted to see how Bell would do in a goal line situation so he motioned Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis to put Bell in. Bell established himself immediately with an eye-opening hit on Jerome Bettis.
Tim Lewis, per the Pittsburgh Post Gazette – Joe Starkey
“Well, J.B. tries to go over the top, and Kendrell turns his ass backwards, which nobody ever did. I look over at Kendrell, and he’s like a race horse after the Kentucky Derby — snorting, nostrils flaring, eyes the size of silver dollars. He couldn’t talk.”
“Cowher’s watching all this and he says ‘Did you see that Timmy? Leave him in there from now on.'”
Jerome Bettis, per the Pittsburgh Post Gazette – Joe Starkey:
“I remember it well. My fullback went the wrong way. That left me and Kendrell in the hole together. There was a whole lot of contact. No one stops me like that. I knew right then we had a player.”
Bell wasn’t sitting and learning from Jones as per the original plan. Joey Porter christened Bell with the nickname “Contact” as Cowher recognized Bell’s explosiveness and power was too much to sit and learn. Still, they also recognized his range – so the coaches limited him to only two defensive calls as a starter: the “Mac Gun” and “Mac Knife.” In layman’s terms, run fast and find the man with the football. Needless to say, it was successful: registering 82 tackles, 23 TFL, 9 sacks en route to winning 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year and named 2nd Team All-Pro.
Bell’s star shone so bright in those early years, it’s hard to believe how fast it vanished. He was still productive, but injuries to his knee, groin and shoulder plagued him through 2002/2003 seasons and by 2004, he was limited to three games before he needed to have season-ending surgery.
Kendrell Bell, about leaving the Steelers in free agency in 2005, per Ron Lippock:
“It was hard. I really didn’t want to go. Murphy’s law kicked in. After my shoulder surgery I finally got to the point where I could put weight on it. But then against the Raiders I hurt my groin. It was a sports hernia. Imagine, struggling with a shoulder injury than a groin injury all in your last year of your contract. I was like, are you kidding me? It’s scary as a player in that final contract year. That opportunity to make large money all fell apart.”
“I didn’t help myself either. It was mentally challenging. Everyone is pulling at you to make decisions. As a young guy, I didn’t have the perspective I have now. I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh but I was so out of it mentally. I checked out. It wasn’t a money thing. I was just overwhelmed. Whatever my agent said, I just said whatever.”
“I finally got back on the field after groin surgery. We were playing Cincinnati and I blitzed and an offensive lineman tripped and fell on my back and my groin popped again. I jogged off the field and sat down on the sideline. I almost fainted. Ben came up and asked if I was alright and I said I was straight, but that wrapped up the season after that.”
The Steelers still offered Bell the same contract, even after the surgery, but Bell declined. His agent arranged a tryout with the New York Giants and Tim Lewis was there, but he couldn’t pass the physical. Doctors told him he had the shoulder of a 70-year old. When he did get a 7-year offer worth a reported $5M a year with a $10M signing bonus from the Kansas City Chiefs, it has been reflected on as one of the worst FA signings in their franchise history. Bell stated that he “couldn’t even raise his left arm” in 2005 and “leaving Pittsburgh was a decision he regretted, the money wasn’t worth it compared to the culture”. The Steelers of course, moved on.
Steelers Draft Grade A+
The Steelers strike gold again in free agency.
When talking the best free agent signings in Pittsburgh Steelers history, the name Jeff Hartings is definitely at the top of the list. The former first round pick of the Detroit Lions might not have been “drafted” by the Steelers, but the 23rd pick of the 1996 NFL Draft more than made up for the Jamain Stephens debacle. Hartings was a guard that moved over to center – which meant he had big shoes to fill in replacing Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. Hartings was recognized 2nd Team All-Pro in 2001, 1st Team All-Pro in 2005 and named to the Pro Bowl for 2004/2005. It can be argued that the 2005 Steelers offensive line was the best the Steelers ever fielded, so it’s safe to say that Hartings did well in holding up the Steelers tradition of great centers.
Jeff Hartings, Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades – Ron Lippock
“I just wanted to stay focused on what I was doing and I didn’t worry about others on the team. I didn’t compare myself to others. I just wanted to do the best job I could and play the best I could. If I wasn’t good enough, well my career is over then. That’s up to me. I definitely feel like some players don’t help others – especially the younger guys who were insecure about their jobs. Detroit was the same as Pittsburgh in terms of players helping one another. It’s an individual thing, not a team or culture thing. Pittsburgh had the better focus on winning and the overall culture of professionalism – in the community and on the field. In Detroit it was more about personal success and money then about winning.”
- Most famous for “The Tackle” that ended Super Bowl XXXIV, Mike Jones was brought in to fill a role, that ultimately was not needed through no fault of his own. The 31-year old LB was at the back end of his career and remained a Steeler for only one season. But he held no regrets about his time in Pittsburgh.
Mike Jones, per Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades – Ron Lippock
“It was never difficult playing the role of mentor to the young guys. All of them, Joey, Kendrell Bell, Clark Haggans wanted to win and play at the highest level. We had a great group of linebackers. The group was in transition, Jason and Earl were transitioning to more a leadership roles and the young guys were excited about taking their game to next level. With a group like that, subtle things were all they needed. With Kendrell, he sat next to me his entire rookie season. It was exciting watching him develop.”
Steelers Free Agency Grade: A+
Steelers overall 2001 offseason Grade: A+
- Bell’s career may have been short, but it was memorable. Big Snack was just a beast in the middle as no one could run on the Steelers during his prime.
- When talking the best free agent signings ever, Hartings is a top 5. He kept 5th rounder Chukky Okobi from breaking into the lineup, but Okobi never left the team feeling like it had a weakness for a reserve center.
- QB Tommy Maddox was signed as a free agent fresh off selling insurance and winning the XFL MVP, and he would soon be the starter and the best passing QB the Steelers had seen in 2 decades.
- Free agency SS Mike Logan would eventually become a solid backup for the Steelers by 2004.
Redrafting 2001: No Mulligans Needed
Despite his improvement in 2000 and even having a Pro Bowl season in 2001 (also earned three more MVP votes that Ben Roethlisberger ever has) – I was still not sold on Kordell Stewart and was literally praying for Drew Brees. Hindsight proves the Steelers right on target here, as Brees was awful in his first 3 seasons (most people forget that fact) and we ended up with Big Ben. That being said, trading back and still landing the best NT in franchise history, trading up in the 2nd for the DROY and finding a free agent just coming off his rookie 5th year option in Hartings, the Steelers 2001 offseason was near perfect. There was a weakness in the secondary, particularly at safety and it is regretful that Scott Shields didn’t keep working at his craft.
Bell was dynamic in his short-term time in the sun. Injuries really took their toll on him and he admitted to not handling it well, regretting his decision to leave. Perhaps best served by taking extended time to truly get healthy – it’s a tough situation to be in as his position was snagged up quickly. If you really wanted to get picky, OT Matt Light would have been a great pick at #48, but that is real 20/20 hindsight as the Steelers OT situation was pretty strong at the time: Marvel Smith was just entering his 2nd season and Wayne Gandy was under contract through 2002.
Ironically – the two other defensive players that Bill Cowher was high on: Dan Morgan was an instant hit for the Carolina Panthers and was dominant through, when injuries to his Achilles began to slow him down and he retired, tried a comeback, but ultimately retired for good after 2007. Marcus Stroud also hit the NFL ground running and was a 3x Pro Bowl selection for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003-2005. His career hit a major road bump when he was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and anabolic steroids. It would seem that while Hampton did not achieve the same heights, he held the greatest longevity.
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