Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: April 26

Let's get to it:

STEVE SINGLETON FROM COLUMBIA, SC:
On April 23, Bennie Cunningham died at the age of 63 after a long battle with cancer. Please tell my fellow Steelers fans about our hometown hero, who might best be known for a flea flicker in overtime from Terry Bradshaw.

ANSWER: Bennie Cunningham, the first African-American All-America in Clemson history and a first-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1976, died on Monday, April 23 after a long bout with cancer. He was 63.

When the NFL liberalized the rules in the late 1970s to benefit the passing attack, Bennie Cunningham was in the right place at the right time. Cunningham caught 202 passes for 2,879 yards with 20 touchdowns during his 10-year career with the Steelers, and he earned two Super Bowl rings during that time as well.

"Bennie Cunningham was one of our greatest players, arguably the greatest tight end in our history and ACC history," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney told The Associated Press. "He set the standard for players at that position. But more importantly was the way he represented Clemson as a professional athlete and in his life after football. With his passing, the Clemson football program remembers him and his family with highest regard today."

Cunningham, at 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, was one of the bigger tight ends in the NFL during his playing career, and because he played for Chuck Noll's Steelers, he had to be able to handle the blocking assignments associated with the position. The Steelers were still a run-first team when they used the final pick of the first round (28th overall) of the 1976 NFL Draft on him, but by the time he was a third-year pro and a full-time starter on a Super Bowl championship team, the Steelers had transformed their offense into a big-play, down-the-field passing attack.

As a rookie, Cunningham was part of an offense that attempted an average of 19.8 passes per game, but by 1979 that number had risen to 29.5 pass attempts per game. His best season was in 1981 when he finished with a career-high 41 receptions for 574 yards with three touchdowns, and there was an incident that occurred during one offseason that was memorable as well.

While listed at 254 pounds, Cunningham sometimes had issues with gaining weight over the course of an offseason, and at the time he played NFL teams didn't have offseason programs. There was just a single three-day minicamp between the end of the previous season and the date when players reported to training camp. During one of those minicamps, Cunningham reported at a weight Chuck Noll decided was way too heavy, and Noll told Cunningham that if he didn't get down to his proper playing weight by the time camp opened he would be switched from tight end to offensive tackle. Giving credence to Noll's threat was the fact the team already had moved tight end Larry Brown from tight end to offensive tackle, and suitably motivated, Cunningham reported to Saint Vincent College at the proper weight and stayed at tight end.

As for the play referenced in the question, Cunningham caught a touchdown pass off a reverse to defeat the Cleveland Browns, 15-9, in overtime at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1978 regular season.

After his playing days, Cunningham returned to Clemson, where he earned undergraduate and masters degrees in secondary education, which he put to use as a guidance counselor at West-Oak High School in Westminster, South Carolina.

MATT POWNALL FROM FORT MYERS, FL:
I understand Martavis Bryant wanting out at Pittsburgh if his end goal is to be a No. 1 wide receiver, because you can't beat Antonio Brown. Is 2018 Bryant's fourth year on his rookie contract, and if so, can the Steelers exercise a fifth-year option if they like what they see this year?

ANSWER: The 2018 season will be the fourth and final one on the contract Martavis Bryant signed as a rookie, but the fifth-year option is only available for teams to exercise on first-round draft picks. Bryant was a fourth-round pick.

STEVE WEINTRAUB FROM FT. WASHINGTON, MD:
I'm pretty sure that Ben Roethlisberger is the only player on the current roster to have a Super Bowl ring (he has two) won as a member of the Steelers. Does any other player on the team have a ring while playing elsewhere?

ANSWER: Morgan Burnett was a rookie on the Packers team that won Super Bowl XLV.

TIM SCHUCKERS FROM BIG RUN, PA:
Has another team signed Eli Rodgers? If not any chance the Steelers re-sign him?

ANSWER: Eli Rogers currently is without a contract, and that's likely to be the case until his surgically-repaired knee heals enough to allow him to pass an NFL physical.

GLENN KRANTZ FROM LOWER BURRELL, PA:
Do you remember Cannonball Butler? I think in the 1960s the Steelers also had cheerleaders at Pitt Stadium. Is that correct?

ANSWER: Jim "Cannonball" Butler came to the Steelers in 1965 as a 14th-round draft choice from Edward Waters College, which is in Jacksonville. In his three seasons with the Steelers, Butler, a 5-foot-9, 194-pound running back, amassed 182 carries for 515 yards (2.8 average) and two touchdowns to go along with 17 receptions for 233 yards (13.7 average) and another two touchdowns. His Steelers highlight came in 1966 when he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

Butler would go on to have his best NFL years with the Atlanta Falcons. During his four seasons in Atlanta that followed his time in Pittsburgh, Butler played in 53 games over four seasons and rushed for 2,250 yards (3.7 average) and added another 718 yards in receptions (10.5 average) and scored 12 total touchdowns. His finest season was in 1969 with Atlanta when Butler was voted to the Pro Bowl after totaling 952 yards from scrimmage (655 rushing and 297 receiving) and scoring five touchdowns.

And yes, from 1961-69 the Pittsburgh Steelerettes – all full-time students from Robert Morris College – entertained fans during the team's games at Pitt Stadium.

KENNETH FAITH FROM MARLTON, NJ:
With all the success the Giants and now the Eagles have had slowing down the Patriots would it be a good idea to try to find a stud defensive lineman to help the rest of our linemen stay fresh?

ANSWER: The games against the New York Giants you reference happened in Super Bowls, one of which was played 10 years ago, and so let's focus on Super Bowl LII in which the Eagles beat the Patriots, because that happened just a couple of months ago.

Let's begin with an examination of how the Eagles "slowed down" the Patriots: Tom Brady passed for 505 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 115.4; New England finished with 613 total net yards of offense and averaged 5.1 yards per rush; the Patriots scored four touchdowns, converted 50 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns and 100 percent of their goal-to-go situations into touchdowns. New England also converted 50 percent on third downs and 100 percent on fourth downs. Hardly "slowed down."

The difference in Super Bowl LII was the same thing that was the difference in the Steelers game against New England in December 2017: the interpretation of the "catch rule" and how it was enforced by Al Riveron in New York. Today, Jesse James' play would have been ruled a touchdown, just as the touchdown passes to Alshon Jeffrey and Zach Ertz were ruled in that Super Bowl.

If the rule was properly enforced at Heinz Field the way it was during the Super Bowl – i.e., unless there is indisputable visual evidence to the contrary, the call on the field is to stand – the Steelers win that regular season game in December and enter the playoffs as the AFC's No. 1 seed and open the postseason with a home game against Tennessee.

DOCK MARK FROM MT PLEASANT, PA:
When the Steelers travel to away games who pays their travel, room and board expenses and are they reimbursed? Second, much was made of the Steelers having five primetime games again this year. Do the players, coaches, and other personnel get extra pay or bonus' for playing in these games or on holidays?

ANSWER: NFL teams are responsible for all expenses related to traveling to games, and there is nothing extra for games played in primetime or on holidays.

JOHN NOH FROM CAMPBELL, CA:
When the Steelers host players for pre-draft meetings, who picks up the travel tab?

ANSWER: The team picks up those expenses.

MARCUS ROGERS FROM FISHERS, IN:
I see that a few players have changed their numbers. Do you know the reason for these changes, and does the NFL need to approve such changes?

ANSWER: There were five veterans who changed jersey numbers since the end of the 2017 season. Cam Sutton from No. 34 to No. 20; Sean Davis from No. 28 to No. 21; Stevan Ridley from No. 38 to No. 22; Joe Haden from No. 21 to No. 23; and Mike Hilton from No. 31 to No. 28.

The first step in this kind of process is to make sure the team has the jersey numbers available. Once that happens, then the player must commit to reimbursing the NFL for all of the jerseys in stock with the individual's previous number. For example, Joe Haden had to be willing to pay for all of the No. 21 Steelers jerseys the NFL had in stock at the end of the 2017 season, and that also holds true for every other veteran player interested in changing his number. Once those two requirements are met – the availability of the new number, and the reimbursement for old jerseys in stock, the NFL approves the number change.

RICHARD LASKOWSKI FROM BAYVILLE, NJ:
Having James Conner and Fitz Toussaint, and having re-signed Stevan Ridley, do you think after the draft when more teams will cut quality players, the Steelers rescind the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell?

ANSWER: In what universe does that make any sense at all?


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