Labriola On

Labriola on the new alphas, Troy, Ike

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Within days early in 2012, following a 2011 NFL season that ended for the Steelers with an overtime loss in Denver in the Wild Card Round, the team lost James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, and Chris Hoke. One calendar year later, it was Casey Hampton. One year after that, it was Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, and Ike Taylor.
  • That's a lot of talent, a lot of leadership, a lot of Super Bowl rings to be subtracted from a depth chart and a locker room within a relatively short time.
  • OK, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward. It's your turn. It's your team.
  • Granted, it's still Ben Roethlisberger's team in the way that it always is in the case of a franchise quarterback, and it's still Mike Tomlin's team as is always the case with the head coach. That's different. That's always going to be different. But there's another level of interaction in a locker room, and that was where guys such as Jerome Bettis and James Farrior and Casey Hampton and Ike Taylor did a lot of good work for a lot of years.
  • With this new generation, it's best it starts with the alphas. With this group, among the younger generation, that means it starts with Pouncey and Heyward.
  • Troy Polamalu's career was celebrated for days after he announced his retirement, and the manner in which he chose to make his decision known was classic Troy. He called Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney first, and then Polamalu called Jim Wexell, who is the member of the media he trusts the most. No one else. No media tour. No victory laps. No attempt at any self-promotion.
  • That was in keeping with Polamalu's personality, and I fully expect him to disappear from the NFL scene almost immediately and rather completely. That's because while Polamalu had a spiritual relationship with football, he came to detest the machinations of the NFL. Remember the "pansy league" reference?
  • Nah, I think Troy Polamalu is finished with the NFL in terms of staying close to the game the way so many ex-players are trying to do these days.
  • Three words I'm confident we'll never hear come out of Polamalu's mouth: "Back to you, J.B."
  • On the most recent episode of "Agree to Disagree," one of the issues was presented this way: "After Mel and Rod, it's Ike."
  • Both Mike Prisuta and I agreed, that in Steelers history the best cornerbacks to wear the uniform were Mel Blount and Rod Woodson, but after those two Hall of Famers, the next guy in line is Ike Taylor.
  • That's when I realized what was missing from the explanation of the category was this caveat: in the modern era, with that describing the NFL since Super Bowl I at the end of the 1966 season. I realized what had been missing because a fan of the show pointed out we hadn't even considered Jack Butler.
  • Starting in 1951, Butler played nine seasons with the Steelers, which came out to 103 games, before a severe knee injury ended his career seven games into the 1959 season. Where Butler was at his best – far better than even Polamalu – came in the area of taking the ball away from the offense.
  • With 52 career interceptions when he retired after the 1959 season, Butler ranked No. 2 on the NFL's all-time list behind Emlen Tunnell, and he also had 10 fumble recoveries. Butler's interception percentage is 50.5 (52 in 103 games), the best of any player in the Hall of Fame. Add in the fumble recoveries, and whenever Jack Butler took the field for a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, 60.2 percent of the time he finished with at least one takeaway.
  • Butler returned the first of his 52 career interceptions for a 52-yard touchdown, and among the Hall of Fame quarterbacks he victimized during his career were Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, and Norm Van Brocklin, In 1957, Butler either intercepted a pass, forced a fumble, or recovered a fumble in 10 of the 12 games, and for his career he had nine multiple interception games.
  • Despite being a part of the same era as Unitas, Butler and the other cornerbacks of the 1950s played in an era of run-first, run-second offense, an era where coaching staffs did not include offensive coordinators, an era where there was no such thing as a two-minute offense until Unitas invented it on the way to leading the Baltimore Colts to the 1958 NFL Championship. It was an era when passing the ball was infrequent and pass offenses were simplistic.
  • Butler was a great player for the Steelers, he is a Hall of Fame cornerback, he was as physical a cornerback as any in franchise history including Mel Blount, and his knack for taking the football away was uncanny. But it was the 1950s.
  • Discriminating against the 1950s with respect to cornerback play seems to be in contradiction to the belief that John Unitas is the greatest quarterback in NFL history – which I do – but the difference comes in Unitas largely having invented the position as its played today.
  • Beyond the two-minute offense, Unitas also was the first quarterback who made major use of a running back (Lenny Moore) and tight end (John Mackey) in the pass offense. He also served as the Colts offensive coordinator, in terms of being the guy who formulated a game plan after studying film of the opponent and then calling all of the plays during the game.
  • Anyway, for me it's Ike Taylor after Mel Blount and Rod Woodson in the pecking order for modern era Steelers cornerbacks.
  • None of this changes the fact Ike Taylor had a great career and contributed to a lot of winning by a team doing most of that winning thanks to the play of its defense.
  • About cornerbacks, someone once told me he didn't want the guy who was in good position and was competitive when the ball was in the air; he said he wanted the other guy who had convinced the quarterback to throw the ball at his teammate in the first place.
  • Ike Taylor did a lot of convincing the quarterback to throw the ball somewhere else.
  • He also started 11 playoff games at cornerback for the Steelers. In those 11 games, Taylor had one sack, three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, and one forced fumble. Very respectable statistics, and more importantly, the Steelers were 10-1 in those games. Remember, playoff games.
  • A cornerback cannot carry a team to a 10-1 record in playoff games, but a team cannot go 10-1 in the playoffs with a cornerback who stinks.
  • Maybe in the 1950s. Not today.
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