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Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: Jan. 30

Let's get to it:

MICHAEL TARKKA FROM MARSHVILLE, NC: What made the Steelers retire Ernie Stautner's No. 70 jersey? We hear a lot about Joe Greene's No. 75 and my favorite Franco Harris' No. 32, but not so much about No. 70.
ANSWER: Ernie Stautner came to the Steelers from Boston College as a second-round pick (22nd overall) in the 1950 NFL Draft. Born in Bavaria, Germany, Stautner came to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old, and he saw combat during World War II as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps before being discharged in 1946 and then attending college. An undersized defensive tackle at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Stautner compensated with quickness, strength, and an on-field demeanor that reflected his background as a combat Marine during World War II. "Basically, the tradition of the Steelers is rock'em, sock'em football," Stautner once said. "I was proud of that when I played for the Steelers." He played 14 NFL seasons on Steelers teams that posted only 4 winning records, and yet he was an interior defensive lineman who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (Class of 1969). Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Jim Parker, who went against Stautner whenever the Steelers faced the Baltimore Colts said, "That man ain't human. He's too strong to be human ... He's the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming head first. Swinging those forearms wears you down. That animal used to stick his head in my belly and drive me into the backfield so hard that, when I picked myself up and looked around, there was a path chopped through the field like a farmer had run a plow over it."

Sacks were not a recognized statistic during Stautner's career, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of his prowess in that area. Dan Rooney once told this story: "What made him was his strength. This was a time players didn't have (weight-room) strength. I remember we were playing the Giants at Forbes Field one time and it was a very close game, and they were moving the ball. He sacked the quarterback three times in a row."

Stautner made his first Pro Bowl in 1953 and his ninth in 1962, and even though playing in the middle of an NFL line of scrimmage during the 1950s and 1960s was not for the faint of heart, he played through all kinds of injuries. Of a possible 174 regular season games during his 14-year career, lists him as playing in 173 of those. He once started 137 regular season games in a row. The season after Stautner finished playing, the Steelers retired his No. 70 on Oct.25, 1964 as part of the game vs. Philadelphia at Pitt Stadium. That the Steelers lost that day, 34-10, to an Eagles team that would finish 6-8 forecast the tough times the franchise would face until Chuck Noll was hired in 1969.

JEFF BANKOVICH FROM ELIZABETH TOWNSHIP, PA: Why would the Steelers interview Thomas Brown from the Carolina Panthers for the offensive coordinator position with Carolina's past record? Doesn't make sense to me. Are the Steelers interviewing everyone, or what?
ANSWER: Let's go back to late January 1991. Bill Cowher had been hired by the Steelers to follow Chuck Noll as the head coach, and he was in the process of assembling his initial staff of assistants. One of the guys he interviewed had been the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that had finished the 1991 season 3-13 and in last place in the AFC Central Division. During that 3-13 season, among the 28 teams in the NFL at the time, the Bengals defense ranked 28th in points allowed, 28th in yards allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, and 27th in passing touchdowns allowed. Nine different times over the 16-game season, that Bengals defense allowed 30-plus points. What was Cowher even thinking when he chose to interview that guy? Betcha that wouldn't have made any sense to you, either. Know who that guy was? Dick LeBeau, who ultimately was hired to coach the defensive backs, and one of the things he brought with him was the idea and the framework for the zone-blitz scheme that was installed and became a huge part of the Steelers defensive success moving forward. Sometimes during the interview process, it's smart to do some listening instead of just talking, and while I'm not advocating for Thomas Brown to be hired, there is absolutely no downside to interviewing him and people like him.

DAMIEN FRANK FROM QUINCY, MA: In last Thursday's Asked and Answered you posted a list of the Steelers' upcoming unrestricted free agents. Who would be the top 3 UFAs you would pursue signing?
ANSWER: Assuming that these contracts can be negotiated at reasonable rates, the top 3 to try to re-sign are Mason Rudolph, Miles Killebrew, and Markus Golden, in my opinion. 

DAVID BOGNAR FROM GERMANTOWN, WI: If Cam Heyward wins the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, would an honor like that help his Hall of Fame chances? Does character matter, or is it a hall of numbers? Do you think he will get elected into the Hall of Fame?
ANSWER: The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is a prestigious honor that would be a positive component of an overall career resume. My personal opinion is that Cam Heyward is worthy of being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his accomplishments on the field, and then the kind of leader and person he is represents the cherry on top. I hope he gets elected.

KELLY J. RASMUSSEN FROM SPRINGVILLE, UT: Just a shout-out to T.J. Watt for becoming the all-time sack leader for the Steelers during the 2023 season. How far away is T.J. from being the all-time sack leader in NFL history?
ANSWER: T.J. Watt finished the 2023 season with 96.5 career sacks. The NFL's all-time leader in sacks is Bruce Smith with 200, followed by Reggie White with 198, and Kevin Greene is third with 160. The leader among active players in career sacks is Von Miller with 123.5, and he ranks 19th on the NFL's all-time list.

TOMAS HERNANDEZ FROM BAYAMON, PUERTO RICO: I notice many people stating that we are in need of a cornerback, but it seems that many of them ignore that in 2023 we drafted two cornerbacks – Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr., and Trice lost the entire season due to an injury. Do you have any information on the severity of this young man's injury? Could we expect to have him ready by minicamp?
ANSWER: Cory Trice Jr. missed all but two games of Purdue's 2021 season because of a knee injury, and he was placed on the Steelers injured reserve list on Aug. 2, 2023, with another knee injury that Coach Mike Tomlin called "significant" at the time. While Trice was showing some potential during the offseason program and the first few days of training camp, it should be remembered he was a seventh-round pick (241st overall) and in a preview about 2023 draft prospects, wrote about him, "He is physical in coverage but lacks the same temperament in run support. His size and strength help impede the early stages of a route and smother possession throws underneath. He's a decent athlete but lacks ideal fluidity and speed to recover when beaten, so press and zone coverages are where he should live. While there are limitations, there is also room for technical growth to make him a better pro."

Maybe Trice is able to come back from a second knee injury to carve out a career for himself in the NFL, or maybe whatever edge he seemed to have will be lost because of that second knee injury. Rushing him back won't happen, and then it becomes an issue of whether Trice's inexperience will allow him to walk the fine line between rehabilitating an injury and not falling behind with the on-the-field stuff because of that rehabilitation. From the team's standpoint, I believe it would be overly optimistic to view Trice this offseason as a potential starter opposite Joey Porter Jr., or even as someone who can play significant regular season snaps in 2024.

THAD SPREG FROM MAKAKILO, HI: In your opinion, after Johnny Unitas, which Steelers player went on to have the greatest career with another team?
ANSWER: Just off the top of my head, I would say Len Dawson, a quarterback from Purdue who was a first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 1957 NFL Draft. During his career post-Steelers, which included two seasons with the Cleveland Browns and then 14 seasons with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise of the American Football League, Dawson was voted to 7 Pro Bowls, 2 first-team All-Pro teams; he was a three-time AFL champion, the MVP of Super Bowl IV, and the 1973 winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Dawson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1987.

JOHN THOMPSON FROM CONNEAUT, OH: This is a follow-up question from the Jan. 25 edition of Asked and Answered regarding Jaylen Warren's potential restricted free agency. As a restricted free agent, since Warren entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie, would that mean the Steelers would receive no compensation if another team signed him?
ANSWER: First of all, in restricted free agency the original team has the right to match any contract offer such a player might get from any other team, and depending upon the amount of the tender the Steelers extend to Jaylen Warren as a restricted free agent, they could get compensation if he signs with another team. The numbers haven't been finalized yet, but it's believed that a $6.5 million tender on a 1-year contract would get the original team a No. 1 pick as compensation if the player signs with another team; a $4.6 million tender on a 1-year contract would get the original team a No. 2 pick as compensation; and a $2.9 million tender on a 1-year contract would only allow the original team the right of first refusal on any offer the player received from another team.

NICK MITCHELL FROM GLEN-LYON, PA: How many times have the Steelers had the last pick in the NFL Draft, a.k.a., Mr. Irrelevant?
ANSWER: In the Super Bowl era, the Steelers had the final pick of the NFL Draft four times. In 1975 (after winning Super Bowl IX), the Steelers selected Nebraska guard Stan Hegener and he did not make the team; in 1976 (after winning Super Bowl X), they selected Dayton wide receiver Kevin Kirk and he did not make the team; in 1979 (after winning Super Bowl XIII), they selected Northwestern State wide receiver Mike Almond, and he did not make the team; and in 1980 (after winning Super Bowl XIV), they selected Florida A&A guard Tyrone McGriff, who played in 36 NFL regular season games, including 10 starts, during a three-year career with the Steelers. The whole concept of Mr. Irrelevant didn't begin until the 1979 NFL Draft, and Almond was the first winner of the Lowsman Trophy, which is given annually to Mr. Irrelevant.