Labriola On

Labriola on forcing the issue

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It was a different era with a different coach under different circumstances. But the issue back then was similar to an issue the Steelers will be facing this summer:

• How to pick three from a group of four that includes three returning veterans and a rookie who was added via a premium draft pick.

• The year was 1995, and the Steelers were coming off a hugely successful regular season that was spoiled by a very disappointing loss in the playoffs. Back then, it was a 12-4 regular season that saw the birth of Blitzburgh, but then that high was obliterated from memory by a stunning loss at home in the AFC Championship Game to a San Diego team that came into town as a 9-point underdog.

• During the 1995 NFL Draft, the Steelers used their first-round pick on Mark Bruener, a tight end from the University of Washington tabbed to replace Eric Green, who had left for the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. Then on the second round, the Steelers picked Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart.

• Stewart joined a depth chart at quarterback that included returning starter Neil O'Donnell, veteran backup Mike Tomczak, and second-year pro Jim Miller, who had been the Steelers' first pick in the sixth round of the 1994 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, Miller had come to the NFL with 36 games worth of experience at Michigan State, during which he completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 5,037 yards, with 17 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions, which would have given him a 73.8 passer rating by NFL standards.

• Clearly not great statistics – especially the number of interceptions – which likely is why Miller lasted until the sixth round, but he had nice size, a decent arm, and he had played a lot of football and started a bunch of games in the Big 10 Conference.

• Still, Miller was coming to a team with two established NFL veterans above him on the depth chart, and so he was an afterthought as a rookie, and he was given a redshirt season because Coach Bill Cowher made him inactive for every game during the regular season and the postseason.

• In the 1995 offseason, Miller was allocated to the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League, and he posted middling statistics there. He completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 236 yards, with one touchdown and one interception in three starts, during which the Galaxy finished 2-1. To this point in his fledgling NFL career, Miller had cast himself as "just a guy," and as a result seemed to be a lock as the odd-man out once the team reconvened for training camp in 1995, because NFL teams just don't keep four quarterbacks on a regular season roster.

• But as so often is the case, things on the field didn't work out as cleanly as they seemed to be on paper. Miller came to Saint Vincent College that summer and had the look of a quarterback who belonged. He was obviously better than he had been as a rookie, and in Latrobe as a second-year pro he looked better than he had in Germany when he was playing with personnel far inferior to what the Steelers had.

• All of a sudden, what seemed so clear cut, wasn't. And then as the days went by, Miller looked more and more like a player accomplished enough to force the Steelers to make a decision.

• Miller had a decent preseason, not great, made some plays for a Steelers team that finished with a 1-3 summer. In the team's only preseason victory – 31-10 over the Bills in Buffalo – Miller completed 8-of-16 for 113 yards, plus a 32-yard touchdown. In the other games, he was less than special, but so were the rest of the Steelers because this was a veteran team preparing itself for the regular season and another run at a Super Bowl, and therefore completely disinterested in August football.

• On top of a solid training camp and a decent preseason, Miller also was in the middle of a situation where reality intruded on the Steelers' roster decisions, and that reality intruded to his benefit. With free agency still a very new concept in the NFL, teams were navigating their new business model gingerly. The Steelers had arrived in Latrobe with two of the four quarterbacks on their roster entering the final years on their contracts, which meant two of the most critical pieces of their roster were on the precipice of unrestricted free agency.

• And because those two guys – O'Donnell and Tomczak – were the ones at the top of the depth chart, and because in 1995 the idea of building a championship team via free agency was seen as more viable than it is today, the Steelers had to look at the future as they made their decisions about the present.

• That's what they ended up doing, but only because Miller approached the situation aggressively and then performed in the face of it. He essentially forced their hand. And when the time came for the Steelers to reveal their roster for the 1995 regular season, it contained four quarterbacks even though for each day of the previous several months no one believed that had a chance of happening.

• Will history repeat itself in 2018? If it does, it will be because a player answered the challenge and forced the issue.