Let's get to it:
DAVE ADAMS FROM CHILLICOTHE, OH: In your opinion, why do you think Hines Ward is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? He is the Steelers leading receiver in most statistical categories.
ANSWER: I want to start with this: I believe Hines Ward is a Hall of Fame caliber player, and if I had a vote I would vote for him – but I don't so I cannot. There are a few things working against Ward, in my opinion, as far as being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – and it's important to understand and accept that it is an election. The explosion of passing statistics in the NFL after rules were passed that liberalized the ability of teams to throw the ball and the protections implemented for both quarterbacks and wide receivers in terms of how defenses are permitted to play against them has had a watering down effect on what used to be considered statistical milestones. Once upon a time, a receiver with 1,000 career catches was considered a lock for the Hall of Fame, and while Ward has exactly 1,000, there are four HOF eligible receivers with more who have not been elected – Anquan Boldin, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, and Steve Smith Sr. Ward ranks 27th on the NFL's all-time list for receiving yards, and there are nine HOF eligible receivers with more than his 12,083 yards – Smith, Wayne, Johnson, Boldin, Henry Ellard, Torry Holt, Irving Fryar, Brandon Marshall, and Jimmy Smith. Sometimes voters want a player to be the best of his era at his position, and for various reasons, Ward never rose to that level. And finally, I believe there is Steelers fatigue among Hall of Fame selectors in that so many of the franchise's players, coaches, and contributors have been elected recently that they want to see other franchises get recognized.
NICK MOSES FROM SIMI VALLEY, CA: Are there any unsigned inside linebackers out there who the Steelers might take a look at?
ANSWER: None worth considering realistically at this point, especially after Coach Mike Tomlin indicated on Tuesday that the guys on the practice squad will get the first opportunity because they have been working with the team and therefore have a better understanding of the defense and how it's supposed to be played.
JOHN NOH FROM SAN JOSE, CA: I see that Jaylen Warren was spared another fine this week. Thank goodness that the young man actually can take some of his wages home this week. My question is whether the team can help out in instances like this (a guy making the minimum) with spot bonuses or other redemption methods?
ANSWER: Not without running afoul of salary cap regulations.
BILL FRAZIER FROM NORTHFIELD, IL: Does the NFL player prohibition against gambling extend to their playing fantasy football?
ANSWER: Yes, it does.
CRAIG DUMNICH FROM AVONDALE, PA: Can you win your division if you're not in first place by beating everyone in your division?
ANSWER: In determining the winner of a division, the first "tiebreaker" is the teams' records. So if there is an AFC North team that finishes with an 11-6 record and all six losses came to teams within the division, and there are no other team that finish the season 12-5 or better, then the 11-6 team wins the AFC North even though it didn't win a single game against a division opponent.
MIKE WILLIAMS FROM WASHINGTON, MO: Took your advice and went to the Hall of Honor Museum this weekend before attending our first Steelers game. In typical Steelers fashion, it was top-notch and is well worth the visit if you are a football fan. Thanks for sharing the recommendation and how to get tickets.
ANSWER: I'm happy you enjoyed the experience.
RON PAINTER FROM LONG POND, PA: With the injuries to the inside linebacker group is there a possibility that either T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith could be moved to the inside and Nick Herbig could start at one of their outside linebacker spots?
ANSWER: No. There is not a realistic possibility of that happening.
DENNIS TRAPNELL FROM UNIONTOWN, PA: I was listening to Monday Night Football, and the announcer said that now all unsuccessful fourth down attempts are automatically reviewed, like all scores and turnovers. Am I being cynical, or does the league want as many stoppages as is possible? If all the plays that are valuable enough to warrant a coach's challenge no longer require one, I guess that frees them up for fewer momentous occasions, thus more annoying ads to dilute the enjoyment of watching the game. Will they think of more situations to automatically review?
ANSWER: My preference would be thinking of ways to find and train better officials.
GREG BLUMER FROM GANDER, NEWFOUNDLAND, CANADA: This seems to be the year the AFC North has four of the strongest teams in all the NFL, with all four teams being above the .500 mark halfway through the season. I noticed on the team standings that all four teams are 4-1 in their last 5 games. That is pretty amazing, especially in 2023. I think this is impossible to determine, but do you recall when this division has been this competitive from top to bottom?
ANSWER: When the NFL and the AFL merged in 1970, the Steelers were in the AFC Central Division along with Cincinnati, Cleveland, and the Houston Oilers. When Jacksonville joined the NFL for the 1995 season, the Jaguars were added to the AFC Central, which then contained 5 teams. Then the Browns moved to Baltimore, and so the Ravens replaced Cleveland in the AFC Central, and when the Oilers moved to Tennessee, then the Titans replaced Houston in the division. Then when the Browns returned to the NFL for the 1999 season, the AFC Central Division contained 6 teams – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. Then when the Houston Texans were admitted to the NFL for the 2022 season, the divisions were realigned and the newly-created/named AFC North contained Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Without a lot of research and comparisons and trying to factor in the varying numbers of teams in the division, I'm going to identify 1975 as the best season in the history of the AFC Central/AFC North. In 1975, the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers, who would go on to repeat at the end of that season, finished 12-2; Cincinnati finished second at 11-3, with two of its losses to Pittsburgh; and Houston finished 10-4, with two of its losses to Pittsburgh. In those days, only four teams per conference qualified for the playoffs – three division winners and one Wild Card – and so the Oilers didn't get into the postseason despite a 10-4 record that included two losses to the best team in football that season. The following are a few interesting factoids about the 2023 AFC North:
• Before 2021, when the NFL expanded the postseason, a maximum of three teams from the same division could mathematically qualify for the playoffs. In 2023, the AFC North could be the first division to earn four entries.
• Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are tied for the NFL lead with plus-10 turnover margins. They're also among four NFL teams with 18 takeaways, tied for the most in the league. Cincinnati's defense leads the NFL with a 3.974-percent interception rate (12 interceptions, 302 opponent pass attempts). Baltimore's defense is allowing 15.7 points per game, fewest in the league. Cleveland's defense is allowing 242.7 yards per game, also fewest in the NFL.
• Baltimore (15.7), Cleveland (18.9), Pittsburgh (20.2) and Cincinnati (21.3) are each allowing less than 22 points per game this season. The last time four teams from the same NFL division finished a season each allowing 21 points or less per contest was the AFC North in 2011.
STEVE SEFNER FROM COLUMBUS, OH: A question was asked in the Nov. 14 Asked and Answered if the Steelers ever drafted/signed a Heisman Trophy winner. That got me thinking about Gordie Lockbaum out of Holy Cross. I remember in 1986 he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and in 1987 he finished third. The Steelers selected him in the ninth round of the 1988 NFL Draft. The college football world was buzzing over him. Do you recall what happened to him during camp and preseason that he didn't make the team?
ANSWER: Gordie Lockbaum played both ways – running back and cornerback – for Holy Cross, a Division I-AA program at the time, and placed fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 1986 (University of Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde won it that year) and third in 1987 (Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown won it that year).
Lockbaum became a media darling for being a highly productive two-way player and a genuine student-athlete. During those two seasons when Lockbaum placed in the Heisman balloting, he totaled 44 touchdowns and 4,214 all-purpose yards as a running back who also returned kicks and punts; he also led the Crusaders with four interceptions as a sophomore. He was the Division I-AA Player of the Year in 1987 and a two-time All-America selection. In his final game, he caught 15 passes, which is still a school record, to help Holy Cross defeat Villanova and improve to 11-0 in a nationally televised game on ESPN. It was a nice story and it captivated college football fans, but in a lot of ways Lockbaum was more a media creation that a legitimate contender for an award designed to recognize the best player in college football.
And yes, the Steelers did spend a ninth-round pick on Lockbaum (drafts were 12 rounds back in those days), but once he arrived at training camp and shared the same field with NFL players it quickly became apparent he lacked the skills to compete at the highest level. The Steelers cut him in 1988, and Buffalo gave him a shot in 1989 but ended up cutting him as well. With his NFL dreams over, Lockbaum settled in Worcester and used his economics degree to catch on with the Sullivan Group insurance firm. Today, he's a vice president with that same company.