Asked and Answered: July 20

Bob Labriola

Let’s get to it:

ALFRED RENSHAW FROM BENWOOD, WV: Would I be wrong in assuming our offense went as far as our receivers could take us last year, and it will be the same this year? Even if our run game is successful, it will come down to whether we can move the chains on third downs. It scares me that we will again be depending on the hands of Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson.

ANSWER: With the way offense is played in today’s NFL, no matter how effective a team’s running game happens to be, winning and losing most often is going to come down to third down conversions and red zone efficiency. And those kinds of plays usually are passing plays, and so if you choose to point to the receivers as being critical to a team’s success there, that’s OK, but you just as easily could point to the quarterback and the pass protection. As for 2020 in particular, Eric Ebron was charged with seven dropped passes, and Diontae Johnson was charged with between 13 and 16 depending upon whether you choose to believe Pro Football Reference (13 drops) or Pro Football Network (16 drops).

BURTON HARRIS FROM GREENSBURG, PA: With the Steelers $15 million dollars under the salary cap, what position of need do you think the team should address first?

ANSWER: Contract extensions for T.J. Watt and/or Minkah Fitzpatrick.

LOGAN ROSA FROM WEST MIFFLIN, PA: When, in your opinion, can we expect contract extensions for T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick?

ANSWER: Both of those deals are going to be big-money, complicated negotiations, and predicting when those kinds of things get finalized is never a high-percentage endeavor. My hope would be that the Steelers get something done with one of those two players before the start of the 2021 regular season. It’s not mandatory it happens that way, but it would simplify things for the team moving forward if one of those significant moves is completed this summer.

KEVIN MCKINNEY FROM HIGHWOOD, IL: What was the Steelers’ rationale for having training camp at Heinz Field again this year? Last year made sense, and this year seems like a precaution again but with vaccinations readily available and being widely taken, is Heinz Field an advantage over Saint Vincent?

ANSWER: The Steelers will have training camp at Heinz Field because the NFL rejected their plan to have it at Saint Vincent College. The team’s preference was to return to Latrobe this summer, but NFL rules required every team wanting to hold its training camp at an off-site to submit a plan to the league about how it planned to adhere to the COVID protocols in place for the 2021 season. The Steelers submitted their plan, which was OK with the college, but the NFL rejected it. That’s why the Steelers are back at Heinz Field for a second straight summer.

ROBBY DUFF FROM FORT WORTH, TX: If the NFL denied the Steelers the opportunity to hold training camp at St. Vincent in Latrobe, why are the Dallas Cowboys allowed to hold training camp in Oxnard, California?

ANSWER: I cannot speak to the specific reasons why the NFL approved the Cowboys holding their training camp in Oxnard and refused to approve the Steelers’ plan for Saint Vincent College, but I will offer this as a guess: The Steelers training camp would have been on a college campus with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,607, with dormitories, a cafeteria, and locker rooms/showers suited to that enrollment. The Cowboys’ base of operations in Oxnard is the Marriott Residence Inn Oxnard at River Ridge. According to the Residence Inn’s website, “Our hotel boasts over 12,000 square feet of event space and can host up to 750 guests in our largest venue, the River Ridge Ballroom. Enjoy apartment-like living …” The venue also boasts 10 event rooms containing 18,371 square feet of event space.

The Cowboys’ headquarters can offer much more space for players and staff to socially distance in every aspect of daily life, from sleeping arrangements to meals to meetings. And since the Cowboys have been holding their training camp there since 2001, they have had plenty of time to tailor the practice facilities to accommodate the needs of an NFL team. The Steelers have been holding their training camp at Saint Vincent College for more than 50 years, and the team has built new dormitories, financed remodeling done to the fields and some of the athletic facilities used during the annual stay on campus, but all of that work was done within the parameters of what at its core is a private Benedictine College with fewer than 1,700 students that competes athletically in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, which is part of NCAA Division III.

In this era of COVID-19 and its many variants, space is more important than charm.

VAUGHN DAVIS FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Whatever happened to Jim Smith? I think the Steelers were the first team to deploy three quality wide receivers at the same time.

ANSWER: Jim Smith was an All-State receiver at Eisenhower High School in Illinois, who then went on to Michigan where he finished his career there with 73 catches for 1,687 yards and 14 touchdowns. Smith was selected in the third round of the 1977 NFL Draft by the Steelers and was a part of the teams that won Super Bowl XIII and XIV. After six seasons with the Steelers, Smith signed with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL to one of the richest contracts in that league’s short history. When the league folded in 1985, Smith played one more season in the NFL with the Los Angeles Raiders before beginning a 26-year career in the automobile industry. I can’t say whether the Steelers were the first NFL team to utilize a three-receiver-set, but I am confident Smith signed that USFL contract at least in part because he knew he wasn’t going to take a starting job from either Lynn Swann or John Stallworth.

CHUCK CARTER FROM MESA, AZ: Who chooses the participants for the annual Hall of Fame Game, and what are the criteria for that choice?

ANSWER: The NFL selects the teams that play in the Hall of Fame Game, and the reasoning behind the annual decision has changed over time. It used to be a situation where the league at least made some attempt to rotate the assignment of an extra preseason game among all of the teams, but that no longer is the case. In an apparent effort to maximize exposure for Hall of Fame Weekend, the NFL now considers which teams will be represented in the inductions that highlight the weekend and then does what it can to pair of couple of those teams in the game. For example, this summer the Steelers will have five members of its franchise inducted during the two-day ceremonies – Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca, Bill Cowher, Donnie Shell, and Bill Nunn – and so the Hall of Fame is hoping a bunch of Steelers fans might be enticed to travel to Canton for the game and then stay in town for the ceremonies to make a long weekend of it. The idea is to generate fan interest for the combined goal of maximizing tourist dollars and entertainment value for those watching the events on television.

ED HENRY FROM ROSWELL, NM: With some rebuilding on offense, especially on the offensive line, are there any potential free agents who could be of some help and make an immediate impact or do the Steelers feel that they can go with what they have and be productive enough to sustain a running game now that we have a back who has the potential to be great?

ANSWER: I believe the Steelers are willing to go into the 2021 regular season with the personnel already on the 90-man roster in terms of front-line players. In other words, I don’t expect them to do any shopping at this point for players who would be expected to step into the starting lineup. There is the possibility that the team could be interested in a move or moves to reinforce depth. But things could change based on what unfolds once training camp begins and the coaches get a look at the players in pads.

DANIELLE SHEPARD FROM CROSBY, MN: What’s your opinion on signing a proven offensive tackle like Mitchell Schwartz?

ANSWER: Mitchell Schwartz is now 32 years old, and after missing a large hunk of the 2020 regular season with a back injury, he announced in late February 2021 that he was going to have surgery on his back. Schwartz has played nine NFL seasons with 134 starts and almost 9,400 snaps on his body, and that was before his back injury and subsequent surgery. That’s not to mean Schwartz is done as an NFL player, but those are factors a team will consider before signing him. As explained in the above answer, I think the Steelers currently believe Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner can handle the starting offensive tackle jobs, but there could be some interest in strengthening the depth. Another factor to consider is how Schwartz views himself at this stage of his career – as a backup at a low salary on a short-term deal, or as a long-time starter who deserves to be compensated accordingly. I don’t think the Steelers are interested right now in adding a big-money contract for a thirtysomething offensive lineman.

DOUGLAS KELLAR FROM WARREN, OH: In a recent Steelers.com installment of “What’s in a number,” I realized even though I’ve been a diehard Steelers fan for over 45 years, I never heard of any of the other No. 90s listed besides Steve McLendon and T.J. Watt. Am I just old and forgetful, or has No. 90 never been great for Steelers players?

ANSWER: I’ll allow you to decide for yourself regarding your age and memory, but jersey numbers in the 90s don’t typically have a long history with NFL teams. In fact, even though the Steelers entered the NFL for the 1933 season, only three players wore No. 90 before the 1970s, and John Howle, Leon Jamison, and Dick Lasse never would be described as household names. By my highly unscientific evaluation, the third-best player to wear No. 90 for the Steelers, after T.J. Watt and Steve McLendon, was Travis Kirschke, a reserve defensive lineman who played on the teams that won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

GEORGE WALKER FROM ELLENWOOD, GA: I read that Pressley Harvin III almost signed a contract as an undrafted free agent before getting the phone call from the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft. What happens if a player actually did sign a free agent contract and was drafted by a team that wasn’t aware of this information? Also are drafted players guaranteed a minimum salary even if they are taken in the sixth or seventh rounds?

ANSWER: In terms of undrafted rookie contracts, nothing can be official until the draft is completely over. A player might agree to sign as an undrafted rookie with a particular team before the draft ends, but that agreement isn’t binding, and any signed papers with a team wouldn’t be approved by the NFL if a player ends up getting drafted by a different team. Any rookie who makes a 53-man roster has to be paid a salary in an amount that’s at least as large as the NFL minimum for a player of his level of experience, as determined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. When it comes to getting paid the NFL minimum salary, it matters not where the rookie was drafted, or even if he was drafted at all.

MIKE MASSIE FROM WAYNESVILLE, NC: I’m a big fan of Joe Haden. I know he’s getting older, and his high level of play will decline, but do you think there’s any chance that Joe might consider sliding over to safety and play a few more years like Rod Woodson did? After Woodson made the move from cornerback to safety, he still made splash plays with interceptions, I don’t see why Haden couldn’t do that, provided he wants to. That way the Steelers could put a young talent on the outside who could learn from Haden.

ANSWER: I have no idea whether Joe Haden has any interest in a position switch to prolong his career, but looking at the Steelers’ situation at safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the free safety, and I don’t see Haden as having the body type to be able to play strong safety in the NFL.

MARC ORLANDO FROM THESSALON, ONTARIO, CANADA: Do you believe that Joe Greene was the best defensive tackle to play the game? If so why, and if not, who do you feel was a better player? I often attempt to speak to the impact that he had on the Steelers and the game as a whole but lack the knowledge (given the fact that I was born after he retired) that you would have on the topic.

ANSWER: All I know is that if I were in charge of putting together an all-time team and had the choice to add any defensive tackle who ever played in the NFL, I would pick Joe Greene. There may be others who might choose a different player based on statistics or other criteria, but football is a team game and the object is to build a championship team. I believe Joe Greene would help get me there.

CHRIS FACKLER FROM BENSALEM, PA: With training camp around the corner, I know my question will be answered soon, however, I would like your highly educated opinion. I have always liked Vince Williams’ leadership with the defense, but last year, I really became a fan of Robert Spillane’s style of play. Who do you want to see start opposite Devin Bush?

ANSWER: You may perceive this as ducking your question, but I don’t go into these types of competitions with a preference based on which of the two players I like better. The player I “want” to start alongside Devin Bush at inside linebacker is the one who makes the defense better, and therefore by extension, makes the team better.

ANDREW MARCSOK FROM TORRINGTON, CT: As part of an answer to a question in a previous installment of Asked and Answered, you mentioned that the Steelers finished the 1963 season with a 7-4-3 record, meaning they tied three times in that one regular season. Was there no overtime back then? Is this the most ties in a season that a team has ever had?

ANSWER: In NFL history, there have been four teams that finished a season with more than three ties: in 1924, the Chicago Bears finished 6-1-4; in 1929, the Frankfort Yellow Jackets finished 10-4-5, and the Orange Tornadoes finished 3-5-4; and in 1932, the Bears finished 7-1-6, with those six ties being the record for most by one team in a single season. The NFL didn’t implement regular season overtime until the 1974 season, and the Steelers were involved in the first game that finished in a tie after that rule was passed. On Sept. 22, 1974, the Steelers and Broncos played to a 35-35 tie in Mile High Stadium.

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