The Pittsburgh Steelers All ‘Bust’ Team: Offense
by Ivan Cole
Roxanna Firehall’s “All Good Guys” team has been a source of inspiration for another category of all-time team. This is one person’s view of at least some of the most prominent ‘busts’ in team history. First, some ground rules.
‘Bust’ vs. Bust
This is not a listing of real busts. You won’t be finding Alonzo Jackson or Limas Sweed listed here. That would be boring and frankly, depressing and not a little bit negative. No, the ‘Bust’ team is a listing of players who were written off by the fans, media or even some within the Steelers organization itself. Each went on to enjoy a level of success playing the game. There are a few other practical parameters that I will be observing.
To make this list a player has to meet one or more of the following criteria—be declared a failure before ever putting on a uniform or playing in a game, take longer to develop than deemed appropriate, be dismissed as being too fragile, rejected over personal conduct issues or declared washed up prematurely.
A bias will be given to the Super Bowl era, and the latter portion of that time at that. Not only does that allow for a more inclusive conversation where multiple generations of fans can weigh in, but also the presence of social media and multiple media outlets allows us a better picture of what the evolving input on players has been.
This is for fun so if you disagree or have your own thoughts, please chime in. Let’s begin with the head man.
3. Bill Cowher. Young defensive assistant that no one ever heard of was hired over a more popular candidate with local ties (Joe Greene). Got the team into the playoffs each of the first six years of his tenure and made it to the Super Bowl the fourth year. But, of course, he did it with Chuck Noll’s players.
2. Mike Tomlin. Young defensive assistant that no one ever heard of was hired over a more popular candidate with local ties (Russ Grimm). Got team into the playoffs in four of the first five years of his tenure, including two Super Bowl appearances. But, of course, he did it with Bill Cowher’s players.
1. Chuck Noll. Young defensive assistant that no one ever heard of was hired over a more popular candidate with local ties (Joe Paterno). Got team into the playoffs in eight out of the first eleven years of his tenure, including four Super Bowl appearances and championships. But, of course, he did it with some of Bill Austin’s players.
2. Willie Parker.
This free agent running back couldn’t even score playing time on his college team. He first got significant notice during a meaningless end of the season game in Buffalo during the 2004 season.
His big break came at the beginning of the 2005 season when he was thrust into the starting lineup in the season opener against Tennessee due to injuries to Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Fast Willie would play in two Super Bowls during his six year career and had the longest run in Super Bowl history.
1. Rocky Bleier.
No telling what today’s fans would have to say about this bum. Drafted in the 16th round in 1968, he ended up going to Vietnam, getting half of his foot shot off, and that soft touch Art Rooney Sr. carried him for years. He didn’t break into the starting lineup until his 6th season, at the age of 28. Far too long and far too old. He had a 1000 yard season at age 30. He hung around for 12 seasons, playing until he was 34!
2. Maurkice Pouncey.
Considered too fragile and a “thug”, some believed that the team might be able to get a third round draft choice for him. A steal.
1. Mike Webster.
Declared by the local press as being too small to be able to make it in the NFL, Webster somehow managed to hang around for 16 years and is in the HOF.
Honorable Mention: Max Starks
2. Willie Colon.
This is a special one for me. In the early years of the career of this 4th round draft pick from Hofstra I would have gleefully served as the president of the “Willie Colon Sucks” club. I felt that early in his career he was a swinging gate at right tackle that was going to get Ben Roethlisberger killed. It was in the case of Colon where I got religion about making premature judgments of players.
Willie’s greatest moment in my estimation is when he ‘pancaked’ (I am sorely tempted to use another word that begins with a ‘p’, but out of respect for Rebecca…) our good friend from the Bengals Vontaze Burfict. Would love to have him back for the Cincinnati game in December to relive old times.
1. Kelvin Beachum.
When this 7th round draft pick survived the final cuts of the 2012 training camp, many fans were absolutely livid. Popular thinking was that he was a complete and total bust. His retention was cited as yet another reason to fire Tomlin, Colbert, anybody.
Honorable mention: Ramon Foster
2. Darnell Stapleton.
This free agent center from Rutgers stepped into the breach and capably held down the right guard position during the Steelers’ 2008 championship run.
1. Chris Kemoeatu.
The more you learn about the back story of this young man and the physical challenges and other difficulties he was saddled with, the more it places his career in a different light.
1 Randy Grossman.
Scott Garske. That was the name of the tight end that the Steelers drafted in 1974. Remember him? Grossman wasn’t drafted then, and at that time they had 17 rounds. Given the fact that at his peak, Randy went about 6’2” and 218 pounds, that could be understandable. He was a member of the team’s first four Super Bowl championship teams. Caught a touchdown pass for the team’s first score in Super Bowl X. And he was a starter in what may still be, arguably, the greatest championship match up ever; Super Bowl XIII.
The stakes for that game was not just the league championship for the 1978 season but the dominant team of the Seventies. Both head coaches, both quarterbacks, both starting running backs and numerous other players on both teams ended up in the Hall of Fame.
2. Nate Washington.
Fans couldn’t wait to show this guy the door. Now in his 11th,season, he has played in a starting role for the Titans, and now the Texans.
1. Emmanuel Sanders.
I think this is a great example of how once an idea takes hold in the minds of a critical mass of people it becomes difficult to dislodge. You may recall that the two dogs, one bone challenge originated between Sanders and Antonio Brown. You may also recall that Sanders won that competition, leading to Brown not being able to earn a helmet on game day for much of the 2010 season. If you, like me, had to opportunity to observe the two players in training camp you wouldn’t find much difference between them on a performance level.
But fans soured on Sanders for a variety of reasons. He struggled with a foot injury and the death of his mother one year, had a flirtation with the hated Patriots when he was restricted free agent, and had an important drop of a pass against the Ravens.
Probably the most honest (but unflattering) reason fans wanted him gone was that it was decided he was unpopular. They just didn’t like him. The given reason would likely be that he is a flawed player. So flawed that he made the Pro Bowl playing for Denver last year.
3. Ben Roethlisberger.
Starting in 2010 a segment of the Steelers fan base decided that the controversy surrounding Ben’s personal conduct made it impossible to continue to support him, and they were agitating for the team to seek a trade. I’m uncertain as to how many fans continue to hold that view, or were ever serious.
More recently, due to both Ben’s injury history and the odometer factor (he passed the benchmark age of 30) it was decided by some that Ben’s best days were behind him and that we should be thinking to move on sooner rather than later. You would think this would be thoroughly discredited by now, but with Steelers fans you never know.
2. Charlie Batch.
2007 was the first year I began hearing the noise that Batch was too old to be playing. The 2nd round draft pick out of Eastern Michigan who also spent four years as a starter for the Detroit Lions was also hit with the ‘fragile’ label when sidelined with injuries for a couple of consecutive seasons.
With Ben facing a possible 6 game suspension at the beginning of the 2010 season, the team found themselves in an enviable and blessed position, in that they had three additional quarterbacks that most fans were, more or less, comfortable with leading the team until Roethlisberger returned. However, in the minds of just about everyone, Batch was at the bottom of the list and the odd man out as the number four.
It appeared that even head coach Mike Tomlin had written Batch off, as he got virtually no reps during training camp and the pre-season games. But injuries to both Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon paved the way for Batch, who helped lead the Steelers to a 3-1 start and eventually a trip to Dallas to play in the Super Bowl.
This did not deter a vocal group of fans, who continued to lobby that Batch was far too old and insufficiently gifted to be of much use to the team. The final statement of the argument was a game Batch started against what would eventually be the 2012 Champion Ravens, where he capped a gritty performance with a game winning drive.
Since then I believe it is fair to say that we have experienced some karma and have been humbled on this issue.
1. Terry Bradshaw.
Bradshaw did not have the confidence of the fan base or many of his teammates and coaches in the early portion of his career. It is worth noting that in Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl season, Bradshaw’s fifth, that the team started three different quarterbacks. None of those changes was due to injury. It was a matter of good fortune that a full-fledged quarterback controversy didn’t ensue. It wasn’t until the 1975 season that Terry secured his leadership of the team.