LATROBE, Pa. – Let's get to it:
BRIAN SAGE FROM BELLFLOWER, CA:
I keep reading about what training camp was back when and what training camp is now. Can you explain the differences of how training camp has changed?
ANSWER: From the perspective of former players, the biggest differences are the length of training camps, the number of practices in pads, and the hitting contained within those practices. There were times in the mid-1970s when the Steelers played SIX or SEVEN preseason games, and so, for example in 1976, with that regular season beginning on Sept. 12, that meant the Steelers first of seven preseason games that summer was played around July 23-24. That meant training camp probably started at least two weeks before that, which meant reporting to Saint Vincent College around July 9-10, if not earlier. I remember Dick Hoak telling me once that one summer during the 1970s the team was in Latrobe shortly after the Fourth of July. And back in those days, Chuck Noll would have two-a-days for the first couple of weeks, at least, and there was hitting in both of those sessions. Today, there can be only one padded practice per day, the players must be given a day off every week, and camps cannot begin any earlier than 15 days before the team's first preseason game. In terms of aesthetics, the dormitories housing the players were without air conditioning, and having a phone in the room was considered a luxury. On the flip side, players back then used to come to training camp to get into shape, where nowadays the veteran players are already in shape as soon as they step onto campus.
ROBERT VANDERGRIFF FROM FAYETTEVILLE, NC:
I'm traveling to Latrobe in a week to go to training camp. What do you personally think will be the biggest position/role battle to watch for this year?
ANSWER: The left tackle competition between Alejandro Villanueva and Ryan Harris should be interesting. I also will be paying attention to whether Ben Roethlisberger seems to develop an early rapport with any of the new receivers. And I'll also be looking for sparks from the young additions to the defensive backfield. There are certain to be other issues that crop up, and then based on those issues other players may be thrown into the spotlight, but as camp is about to begin those are three worth monitoring.
JIM MOONEY FROM ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, VA:
The favorite player of my youth – I'm 87 – was "Bullet" Bill Dudley. Did he play both offense and defense in that era?
ANSWER: In his three seasons with the Steelers that spanned World War II, Bill Dudley played 26 games and during those he finished with 15 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. He returned one of those interceptions 80 yards for a touchdown. Also in those 26 games for the Steelers, Dudley rushed for 1,504 yards (averaged 4.1 per carry), caught five passes for 133 yards, and scored 11 offensive touchdowns. He also averaged 13.0 yards per punt return and 23.0 yards per kickoff return. I saw Bill Dudley at a function the Steelers had in 2007 as part of the franchise's 75th Season celebration, and he looked to be in better shape than many of the guys who were much younger than him. He was 85 at the time.
HENRY WILHOIT FROM LONDON, KY:
I read the question about emergency quarterbacks, and everything you said was valid. Let me tell you, just for the sake of telling, that in 1965, the Baltimore Colts quarterbacks were Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo. In the 12th game of the year, Unitas was hurt in game against the Bears, and he was replaced by Cuozzo. The next week Cuozzo was hurt against the Packers. He finished the game, but was not available for the season finale with the Rams. In the event that Cuozzo could get hurt, Don Shula taught running back Tom Matte a few fundamental plays and then was forced to use him at quarterback. Now I know that at least most teams carry three quarterbacks now, but back then they didn't, and it put the Colts in a tough situation. By the way, the Colts won that game.
ANSWER: Growing up, I became a big fan of Johnny Unitas, and I was 10 for the 1965 NFL season, and so I remember the scenario you describe. Unitas was injured against the Bears, and then Gary Cuozzo separated his shoulder in a regular season loss to the Packers. Halfback Tom Matte did take over at quarterback for the regular season finale, which was against the Los Angeles Rams. The Colts won that game, 20-17, despite having just 57 passing yards, and the victory sent the Colts into a one-game playoff vs. the Packers for the Western Conference title and a berth in the NFL Championship Game against the Eastern Conference's Cleveland Browns.
Matte, a jack-of-all-trades offensive player at Ohio State under Woody Hayes, rushed for 99 yards and threw two passes (both incomplete) in Baltimore's win over the Rams (it was veteran quarterback Ed Brown who accounted for those 57 passing yards). Against the Packers in the one-game playoff, Matte completed 5-of-12 for 40 yards with no interceptions and carried the ball 17 times for 57 yards. The Colts' only touchdown that day came on a fumble return by linebacker Don Shinnick, and they lost, 13-10, in overtime. The Packers went on to win the NFL Championship over the Browns.
Matte played one more game at quarterback – against the Cowboys two weeks later in the Playoff Bowl, which at the time was a nothing game matching the second-place teams in each conference, and he passed for 162 yards and two touchdowns in Baltimore's 35-3 win.
Take a look at Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger's first training camp at Saint Vincent College
RAYMOND GATTER FROM TOLEDO, OH:
Are you forgetting Tony Dungy being the emergency quarterback for the Steelers vs. the Oilers in October 1977?
ANSWER: Here are the details regarding that instance: Terry Bradshaw broke his wrist in the first quarter. Backup Mike Kruczek separated a shoulder on the final play of the third quarter. And because the Steelers had only two quarterbacks on their roster for that Oct. 9 game in Houston – after having cut No. 3 quarterback Neil Graff during training camp – Chuck Noll had to turn to rookie safety Tony Dungy.
Dungy quarterbacked the Steelers through the fourth quarter of a 27-10 loss to the Oilers, and after finishing 3-for-8 for 43 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumbled snap, he became the only modern-ear NFL player to finish the same game having thrown an interception and made an interception.
The teams in the emergency quarterback situations described in these two questions were coached by Don Shula for the Colts, and by Noll for the Steelers. And those instances happened 51 years ago for the Colts, and 39 years ago for the Steelers. Two of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, and neither man spent any practice time "preparing" an emergency quarterback. Just saying.
BRIAN O'DONNELL FROM LEXINGTON, KY:
With the recent Steelers' focus on defensive backs, I've heard the term "loose hips" and "quick hips" for the first time. I understand the basic idea, especially for cornerbacks, but I was wondering if this is something that can be taught?
ANSWER: Technique can be taught to maximize the skill, but the athlete has to have the skill to start with. For example, the best defensive backs coach of all time couldn't teach me to have quick hips.
MAYT SIMON FROM FARLEY, IA:
I'm in an argument with a friend over Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. Obviously both are arguably the greatest in the game now, but I was just interested in your opinion as to who you think is the overall greater receiver.
ANSWER: I don't get to see enough of Julio Jones to know much about him beyond his statistics, but I am very comfortable with picking Antonio Brown, for everything from his production to his work ethic. And Brown gives the added dimension of being a guy who can catch a punt and bring it back for a touchdown.
TIM DRAHOVSKY FROM DUNEDIN, FL:
Do you not think it would make sense for the Steelers and Ryan Fitzpatrick to consider hooking up on a one-year deal? The Steelers desperately need a backup, and Fitzpatrick isn't getting anywhere with the Jets in talks. Wouldn't he love sticking it to the Jets while getting the opportunity to be an injury away from being a star for a few games and get a Super Bowl ring, which would earn him a huge payday next summer?
ANSWER: What if Ben Roethlisberger starts every game in 2016? That would mean Ryan Fitzpatrick accepted a low-level one-year contract to be a backup and then didn't get to play any games. Fitzpatrick sees himself as a starter, and he sees himself as deserving of being a high-salaried starter. There's no way he takes the kind of deal you're offering.**
ROBERTO VAQUERO FROM MONTEMORELOS, MEXICO:
The Steelers used to have the problem of having too many good outside linebackers, so why are they so thin and mediocre at the position now? Bill Cowher used to match excellent and productive tandems.
ANSWER: The simple answer to this one is that more teams now are looking for those kinds of athletes, either to play in their versions of the 3-4, or to be used as situational pass rushers. More teams looking at the same guys lessens the chances of getting one or more in the draft.
DENNIS COGSWELL FROM WILLIAMSBURG, VA:
The Steelers took a big public relations risk last year when they signed Mike Vick. He filled a role and even won a game. It was a good decision. With Le'Veon Bell possibly facing a four-game suspension, why not give Ray Rice a tryout as a backup to Le'Veon Bell for the first four games? What keeps the Steelers from looking in this direction?
ANSWER: In my mind, the situations are completely different. Last season, with Bruce Gradkowski needing surgery and Landry Jones a complete unknown, the Steelers signed Mike Vick at a position where a team cannot win without competent play. Running back is neither as difficult nor as critical as quarterback. A running back could end up with fewer than 10 touches in a game and his team still could win, and so having an experienced option there is less critical than it would be at quarterback. And finally, Ray Rice was looking like he was done in 2013 when he averaged just 3.1 per carry, while Vick had played well in a victory over the Steelers in 2014.
JOHN DELGUZZO FROM SWANSBORO, NC:
The Steelers have the ball on the opponents 2-yard line. The defense is called for offside, so the ball is moved half the distance to the goal. The defense is called offside again, so the ball is moved half the distance. If the offside trend were to continue, would the offense be awarded a touchdown?
ANSWER: No. Take a second and do the arithmetic. No matter how miniscule the number/distance might be, halving it doesn't get you over the goal line.
MIKE MASSIE FROM WAYNESVILLE, NC:
NFL cheerleaders don't make much money, and you can't tell me the Rooneys have been in business all these years and can't afford a cheerleader squad. It's 2016. Why don't they step up and have one?
ANSWER: So you think the reason the Steelers don't have cheerleaders is because of the money? You're delusional. NFL franchises make money on cheerleaders. The Steelers lose money because they don't have cheerleaders.
DILLAN SILBERNAGEL FROM SLIDELL, LA:
People in my household say I should like the Saints, but I don't. I love the Steelers. Is it wrong to like the Steelers even though they are not my home team?
ANSWER: Depends on who's paying the mortgage.