It’s hard to imagine a wilder set of realistic circumstances than the one that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receivers group went through last season. It started with their top player forcing his way out of town via trade, and culminated in the team’s franchise quarterback suffering a season-ending injury after six quarters of play. Their backups had never thrown an NFL pass before.
In between and surrounding those events saw the injury and eventual release of the free agent wide receiver who was signed and brought in that offseason with the intention of starting. Most tragic of all was the sudden passing of Darryl Drake, a longtime veteran wide receivers coach who was entering his second season with the team.
As hard as a blow that was to deal with, the presence of Ray Sherman, who knew Drake and happened to be in training camp during the time of his death, serving as an observer, helped not just the wide receiver group but the whole team get through that tragedy, both emotionally and pragmatically.
He signed on to be the interim wide receivers coach for the 2019 season, and while the group’s numbers were nothing to speak of, that could hardly be blamed on him given the perfect storm of obstacles thrown in their way, as mentioned above.
One wide receiver who was able to flourish somewhat was second-year wide receiver James Washington, who had a very disappointing rookie season. He would finish the year with 44 receptions and three touchdowns, leading the team with 735 receiving yards.
“It helped us a lot”, he told Teresa Varley of the team’s website about having Sherman around. “Him and Coach Drake were good buddies. It was almost like Coach Drake was here at times. No one will ever replace him. But Ray shed a lot of light on us from when he was coaching Jerry Rice and those guys, their work ethic and how they approached the game. As young guys we were absorbing all of that. We want to be great like them too. Anything he said to us, we were always listening”.
Sherman, who was already retired, or perhaps semi-retired, at the time, has since moved on. The Steelers will have their fourth different wide receivers coach in as many seasons in 2020 following the hiring of Ike Hilliard after several seasons in Washington.
Hilliard will be tasked with guiding this young group of core 23-year-old wide receivers, including Washington, 2019 rookie Diontae Johnson, and of course JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was a Pro Bowler in 2018.
He represents a change from the Drakes and Shermans and Richard Manns that the Steelers have come to know at the wide receiver coaching position. He is 43 and comes from a younger generation of thinking, yet he already has over a decade’s worth of experience.