Let's get to it:
JOHN THOMPSON FROM CONNEAUT, OH: During the pandemic quarantine I've re-watched most of the games from the Steelers' 1989 season and was startled by the actual talent of Bubby Brister. Why didn't he have a long run as the Steelers' quarterback?
ANSWER: This is not a popular opinion among Steelers fans, but my opinion is that Bubby Brister was the best quarterback the Steelers had during the time between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. That may come across to some as damning Brister with faint praise, but if I were coaching the team at that time I would have preferred Brister over David Woodley, Mark Malone, Todd Blackledge, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. I didn't mention Jim Miller, because he was a starter for exactly one half of one game, and so it's as though he doesn't really belong on the list with the rest of those guys.
Brister was a good athlete, good enough to be drafted in the fourth round out of high school by the Detroit Tigers, and he played one year of minor league baseball (1981) before going to Tulane to play football. He transferred to Northeast Louisiana after Tulane hired Wally English to be its head coach and he made his son, Jon, the starting quarterback. Brister had a strong arm, was mobile enough, was a team guy, and was liked by his teammates. Brister also earned the respect of Tom Moore, the Steelers offensive coordinator at the time and the guy who truly developed Peyton Manning as a young player in Indianapolis (as opposed to the guy who often gets/takes credit for developing Peyton Manning as a young player in Indianapolis). But what turned out to be the beginning of the end for Brister was when Moore left the Steelers for the offensive coordinator job in Minnesota after the 1989 season, and Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton to replace him. For whatever reason, Noll allowed Walton to do a complete revamp of the offensive playbook, complete with all new terminology, which had a negative impact on a team that the previous season had come within a dropped pass of an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Walton's offense didn't work and the players couldn't master it, but he refused to change or simplify it, and the 1989 Steelers team that looked to be on the verge missed the playoffs in both 1990 and 1991. Bill Cowher was hired in 1992 and named O'Donnell the starter following a training camp competition, and Brister bounced around, from Philadelphia to the New York Jets before finding a home in Denver as John Elway's backup. In the Broncos' 1997-98 back-to-back championship seasons, Brister was 4-0 as a starter in place of the injured Elway, and he retired from the NFL with two Super Bowl rings.
RICH TURNER FROM YOUNGSTOWN, OH: What would you consider the biggest Steelers-Browns game in the history of the rivalry?
ANSWER: The Cleveland Browns became part of the NFL for the 1950 season, and since then they have played the Steelers at least twice a season every year since. Even during the years when work stoppages forced the NFL to cancel some games, the Steelers and Browns always found themselves having their home-and-home series uninterrupted. On two occasions, the Steelers and Browns played three times in a season – 1994 and 2002 – and the third meeting in each of those seasons came in the playoffs. In 1994, it was in an AFC Divisional Round game at Three Rivers Stadium, and in 2002 it was in a Wild Card Game at Heinz Field. In each of those two games, the winner advanced and the loser went home, so by definition the biggest games in the rivalry were those two playoff games. For the record, the Steelers won both.
NICHOLAS MOSES FROM SIMI VALLEY, CA: Do you believe JuJu Smith-Schuster will be with the Steelers beyond this coming season?
ANSWER: I do.
LARRY TARTER FROM BRASELTON, GA: Just discussing at lunch that Ben Roethlisberger went to a small college Miami (Ohio). It raised the question of how did he end up there instead of at a major university?
ANSWER: In interviews, Ben Roethlisberger has talked about being recruited by Ohio State and Duke, but he said that he decided to go to Miami (Ohio) because Coach Terry Hoeppner offered him a scholarship first.
BOB STEPHENSON FROM MYRTLE BEACH, SC: Most NFL head coaches have at least some NFL playing experience. However, Mike Tomlin does not. Can you give us a little information on his playing career?
ANSWER: Your basic premise for this question is inaccurate. There are 11 NFL head coaches with NFL playing experience, which represents less than 50 percent, which falls short of "most." Mike Tomlin played wide receiver at William & Mary, and he was a second-team All-Yankee Conference selection as a senior. Among the other NFL coaches with no NFL playing experience are Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Pete Carroll.
JUSTIN WHITE FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: In your opinion, what do the Steelers need to improve on in the red zone. It seems the last two years we have always had struggles getting touchdowns and instead settling for field goals. This is always, always the case when it comes to playing critical games, (vs. New England and Baltimore). Love reading your columns.
ANSWER: Don't know how much love you'll have after you read my answer, and let me begin by pointing out this is another question with a false basic premise. In 2019, the problem with the Steelers red zone offense was the absence of Ben Roethlisberger. In 2018, the Steelers led the NFL in red zone offense by converting 73.5 percent of their trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line into touchdowns. Led. The. NFL. Kansas City was second with a 71.8 percent success rate. In 2018, the Steelers played three "critical games" – two vs. the Ravens and one vs. the Patriots. In those three games, the Steelers were a combined 5-for-8 in the red zone (0-for-1 in a loss to the Ravens; 3-for-4 in a win over the Ravens; and 2-for-3 in a win over the Patriots). Additionally, in those three games, the Ravens' and Patriots' offenses combined to convert 2-for-12 in the red zone.
DONALD STITZENBERG FROM WEEHAWKEN, NJ: I really enjoyed your answer to the question about the Steelers' 63-7 win over the Giants in 1952. I was 12 at the time and just starting my love of the Steelers that lasts to today. I was wondering who was the Steelers center at that time? (Yes, I could look it up on the internet but hearing from you is much more interesting and entertaining). Thanks for keeping us engaged with the Steelers as we plow through these difficult times.
ANSWER: The Steelers starting center in 1952 was a third-year pro named Bill Walsh. And no, not that Bill Walsh.
ISRAEL PICKHOLTZ FROM ASHKELON, ISRAEL: How important is Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper to his NFL legacy? Will it be part of the presentation when he comes up for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Or is this something that just Steelers fans appreciate?
ANSWER: You are referring to Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper late in the fourth quarter of the 2005 AFC Divisional Round win over the Colts in Indianapolis. It's my opinion that tackle was what allowed Bill Cowher to win a Super Bowl and therefore get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it also preserved Jerome Bettis' legacy to allow him to get into the Hall of Fame. To me, what that play showed definitively is that beyond being a great quarterback, Roethlisberger also is a superior athlete, even among professionals. I remember making the case in the press box in the RCA Dome that day to many Peyton Manning apologists about who was the better quarterback in that game. Do you think anyone with a shred of football intelligence believes for a second that Manning could make that tackle in the open field to save the game that day? Me neither.
HERMAN KANE FROM NEW YORK, NY: Ernie Stautner had a great Hall of Fame career with the Steelers and was a very successful assistant coach for many years with the Cowboys. Did he ever work for the Steelers in any capacity after he retired as a player?
ANSWER: In 1963, which was his final season in uniform, Ernie Stautner served as a player-coach for the Steelers, and he handled the defensive line. In 1964, his first year in retirement, he returned as the Steelers' defensive line coach. In 1965, Stautner took a coaching job with the Washington Redskins.
GUILLERMO LUJAN FROM CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO: Who would be your top Steelers to have worn No. 82?
ANSWER: In order, from the top: John Stallworth (1974-87); Antwaan Randle El (2002-05, 10); and Yancey Thigpen (1992-97).
ISAAC TASSIE FROM GREENVILLE, SC: Is there a particular camp battle that excites you personally? And thank you for dealing with all these crazy questions.
ANSWER: When I think of training camp battles, what comes to my mind is a situation where two or more players are fighting for a roster spot with the loser(s) getting cut. By that definition, the training camp battle I will be watching will be the one for the No. 3 quarterback spot, with the contestants being Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, and J.T. Barrett. With that said, I also will point out I don't think the battle for the No. 3 quarterback job will have any bearing on the outcome of the Steelers' 2020 season. It will be interesting, but not meaningful.
GLAUCIO CAFALCHIO FROM TAUBATÉ, BRAZIL: I've been watching football long enough to know that offseason analysts just can't predict anything that will happen until players really take the field. However, with this great defense and with Ben Roethlisberger coming back, it's impossible not to be hyped over the possibility of winning the seventh ring.
Do you believe this season Steelers have their best team since 2011?
ANSWER: Whether the 2020 Steelers become a championship contender will be determined over the course of the regular season, but in response to your question I want to throw in the 2016 team as one that grew into a contender down the homestretch of that season. Those Steelers fell to 4-5 after a loss to Dallas at Heinz Field, and then they rebounded to win seven straight, including a last-second victory over Baltimore on Christmas Day at Heinz Field, to clinch the AFC North title. In the Wild Card Round, the Steelers avenged a regular season loss in Miami by dominating the Dolphins, and in the Divisional Round they went to Arrowhead Stadium and upset the Chiefs. During those two playoff games, Le'Veon Bell rushed for 337 yards (5.7 average) and scored four total touchdowns, and it seemed as though the Steelers would face New England for the AFC Championship with their full complement of offensive weapons. But Bell was injured early in the game at Gillette Stadium, and the Steelers' run was over. The 2020 Steelers have a better defense than the 2016 edition, but that team looked to have enough to get to the Super Bowl before Bell was sidelined.