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Steelers Rivals: Bengals LB Reggie Williams

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Our Steelers Rivals interview series continues with former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams. Williams played for the Bengals from 1976-89, winning the Whizzer White NFL Man of the Year Award in 1985, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1986 and the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award in 1987.

First, can you walk me through your post-NFL time? What have you been doing since you retired?

I’m in the middle of writing a book now so I can only tell you so much! I played 14 years for the Bengals and made it to two Super Bowls and lost both to the same team. When I retired, I became a Cincinnati City Councilman. I continues on that ride until I became the GM for the World League of American Football’s New Jersey Knights team. That league set the seed for football in London, but it folded after two years,

But then Tom Steague, the head of the Super Bowl, reached out to me after Super Bowl XXVII. That was right after the Rodney King riots. They hired me as the Director of Community Relations to help insulate the NFL from the criticism of the the white NFL owners coming in to the city leaving nothing behind when the game was over. I had the idea of creating the NFL Youth Education Trust, which was a safe place for at-risk kids in Compton. It was going to be in the same corner where the riots actually started, I went with Jim Brown and to negotiate the idea with the Bloods and Crips there,

We had success raising money for the venture when I was in a room and Michael Eisner from Disney came up to me and asked what I would do with all of that land Disney had to create a sports business with Disney. This is when they just bought the Mighty Ducks. That’s when I became the Director of Sports Development for Disney and we launched Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, the Walt Disney World Speedway, and Walt Disney World Golf.

I also read you’e had a number of physical issues you are dealing with?

Well, I’m on my fourth knee replacement. With all that good news is the other realities as well. I’ve had over 28 operations – including an aorta dissection and embolization.

What are some of the rivalry memories of your playing time that stand out most to you?

Well, let me start by telling you this. Earl Campbell in an interview said that the toughest guy he faced – the hardest hitter – was me. The announcer asked him if the toughest guys were the Steel Curtain, and said it was me. That was the greatest compliment I’ve had.

That was someone who played against all of those Hall of Fame Steelers, someone on the field who knew what it was like. Guys like me and Ken Riley, we were so underrated. I had more sacks and interceptions than Robert Brazille but he’s the one voted into the Hall of Fame.

As for stories, I think it starts with this. When I was a rookie in 1976, Three Rivers Stadium was the hallmark of stadiums. This was before the Terrible Towel was official, but everybody had their own homemade towels and brought in their own banners, a different club for different players all throughout the stands. The roars when players were announce and the banners whipping in the wind, making those snapping sounds like a whip. This was the home of world champions.

That was my first game in Pittsburgh. As a rookie I had one of my all-time plays. I blitzed Terry Bradshaw and Rocky Bleier was there standing, waiting to block me. But he never faced me before. I was much bigger and taller than he was. I had all the respect in the world for Rocky — a Vietnam vet who had those huge injuries in the war. I just couldn’t put my elbow to his chest and run trough him, So, I jumped over him. I did a 360 degree jump over him and landed on my leg as my teammate Bo Harris was closing in on Bradshaw. I helped cement the sack. People were shocked. No one had seen that before. I’ve never seen it before or since then.

How did the coaches get along?

Oh one good story — this was the year Noll broke his arm right the day before the game against us. This was in 1977. It was the coldest game in Bengals’ history at the time.

When Noll got off the bus the day before the game, he slipped on the ice and fell and broke his arm. They had to rush him to the hospital. This was the night before the game. The next day was game day, and that morning our head coach, Bill “Tiger” Johnson did something he had never done before. The stadium was shaped in such a way that the sunlight warmed one side of the stadium and the shade hit the other side — normally our side. But he decided to switch sides so we had the sunlight. It was like a 20 degree difference.

Well when Noll came onto the field before the game and found out he was pissed – he was cursing up a storm. I was out on the field running laps counter-clockwise, like I usually do. Then I see Bill come out and Noll starts running up to him, screaming at him. Then George Perles steps between them and starts yelling too, and all of the Steel Curtain guys are right behind him. So Tiger is surrounded by all of these guys – it looked like he was going to get the crap beat out of him! So I ran into the group and just yelled in Perles’ face: “Let’s just play the game now!”

Everyone was shocked! It was such a ludicrous moment. Tiger just walked away and that was that.

What happened afterwards?

Well, the first series for our defense, I recovered a fumble in the bottom of a huge pileup. It took a long time for everyone to get off of the pile. and by the time everyone did the Steelers’ defense was on the field. I got up and tossed the ball nonchalantly to Joe Greene and took off to the sideline. Well, he wound up and fired the ball at me – it was a perfect throw that hit me in the back of the helmet and bounced in the air – probably 20 yards away! He got flagged for it. I’m surprised I didn’t get a concussion!

And you tossed the ball to him because?

Oh I admit it – I did it to taunt him. We won the game by seven points and scored a touchdown that drive – so that seven points was a deciding factor in the game.

It’s funny because at Super Bowl LII, I had a chance to really speak with and get to know Joe. All of the Walter Payton Man of the Year winners were invited and he and I talked for a while. He was really concerned about my knee – very friendly and respectful.

Any guys you faced on those Steelers teams that were the biggest personal rivals for you?

Franco Harris was the person for me. He was taller on the field than he looks. One Monday Night game at Three Rivers. Franco ran through a gaping hole on a draw play up the middle. I had dropped into a zone and saw him running, so I ran at him like a missile and thought I had him dead to rights. But he did a little twist and turn and I missed him but ran into Jim LeClair who was running behind him. We were both knocked out.

When I came to I thought Franco had run me over. I was laying on the field and half of my body wouldn’t move and the other as in pain. But all I kept thinking was that I would never have the chance to hit Franco again! The doctor then told me had to check on the other player. Soon after I was able to get up. But it was funny that all I thought of was not being able to hit Franco again. Jimmy told me that was the hardest he was ever hit.

Was that the hardest you were hit?

The second hardest.

When we played we had this stupid vet rule that said you could never let a rookie score standing up. I’m not sure where this rule started from. Well, we were playing Houston and they were on our one yard line and Alonzo Highsmith was carrying the ball and had a big fullback blocking for him. We knew there was no way we could stop them from scoring but I at least wanted to get him on the ground. I had to drive the fullback into Highsmith. I did it but ended up breaking my orbital bone an had to get rushed to the hospital.

What do you think made the rivalry so great between the Bengals and Steelers then?

It was such a good rivalry. We used to say that when it was Steelers week, nothing before it mattered any more. I think it all came from Paul Brown and his rivalry with the Steelers when he was in Cleveland. He was angry when he was fired from Cleveland and brought that anger to Cincinnati. He looked at that Steelers game as one that we had to boost up our intensity to prove ourselves.

I spoke to Tony McGee who said you were one of the most intense Bengals on those teams. What made you such an intense player?

I was a psych major at Dartmouth. My senior essay was on what it would take for me to make it in the NFL as an Ivy League linebacker. I knew it wasn’t just about physical size. I wasn’t as big as many guys. It was about psychological issues, too. The reality is, a lot of the teams I faced had players who were on steroids. As an opponent, I took umbrage against those guys. I tried to match up to those guys psychologically to match their strength.

This was the era when you could clothesline people, hit them low or high. You had to be a warrior. When I got there as a rookie, the strength coach I ended up having with me throughout my career gave me a book instead of having me work out on my first day. That book was The Book of Five Rings – the Way of the Warrior. I approached the game that way, as a Samurai warrior.

Lastly – what do you think of the rivalry between the two teams today?

It’s gotten nasty, unfortunately. I think a lot of the blame is on the Bengals, but I also think the hit on Carson Palmer was dirty. I think [Kimo von Oelhoffen] could have let up and made the play without having to make that kind of hit. It’s unfortunate when you have your star quarterback hurt like that, and he was never the same after that.

I think during my time it was a good rivalry. It was clean but intense. Not what it’s become lately. I think now you have a dwindling fan base that is trying to find satisfaction by being antagonistic to rivals. If it were me I’d get rid of the “Who Dey.” Who dey now is everybody on the Bengals! The reality is, you have to win. And that’s something the Bengals haven’t done lately. That’s all there is to it.

Ron Lippock is the author of Steelers Takeaways and has interviewed over 650 past and present Steelers players, coaches and personnel. You can purchase his book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Steelers-Takeaways-Memories-Through-Decades/dp/1681570076

Steelers

Steelers Sign another from XFL, DE/LB Dewayne Hendrix

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The Steelers have signed former Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, Steelers Now has confirmed. The news of Hendrix’s signing was first reported by NFL Draft Diamonds.

Hendrix, 24, was most recently with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins last season.

In five games with St. Louis, Hendrix made four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring from Tennessee, Hendrix finished his Panthers career with 50 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He played in 25 games total for Pitt from 2016-18 and made 24 starts.

Hendrix missed the 2016 season with a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the first series of the game. He sat out 2015 at Pitt after playing in seven games with the Volunteers as a true freshman.

At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Hendrix played defensive end at Pitt, but could be more suited to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He’s essentially the same height and weight as starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.

Hendrix is the fifth XFL alum the Steelers have signed, joining long snapper and linebacker Christian Kuntz, defensive end Cavon Walker, tackle Jarron Jones and safety Tyree Kinnel.

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Analysis

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Steelers

What Eric Ebron Can Bring to the Steelers

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When the Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million dollar deal, these kinds of performances probably helped convince them to make the offer.

The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end shows fantastic body control, great feet, and a penchant for making combat catches over multiple defenders. What’s not to like?

Over the past two seasons, the former 1st round pick of the Detroit Lions is 8th in receptions (97) and yards (1125) and first in touchdowns (17) amongst all tight ends.

Now the bad news. The kind of things you don’t see in highlight videos.

Ebron is last in the NFL over the last two seasons in catch percentage at just 59.9% (50 receptions minimum). That’s 10 points lower than Steelers starter Vance McDonald over the same time period. In 2019 with the Colts, Ebron took a major step back–which can be somewhat excused with Andrew Luck’s retirement–starting only two games. Ebron also had his receptions and yards halved from 2018, 66 to 31 and 750 to 375.

Obviously the Steelers are hoping to get the 2018 version of Ebron that racked up 14 touchdowns and 44 first downs and was sixth in the league in receptions and fifth in yards.

If Ebron can rediscover his red zone magic and thrive with a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger they could have a dynamic pair of tight ends between he and Vance McDonald.

A big if, but a healthy McDonald and a revitalized Ebron would give the Steelers a receiving tight end combination in the top echelon of the league at a cap hit of under $10,000,000 dollars.

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