The old saying is to make the roster, you better impress the special teams coach. After all, he’s the one who decides which 51st, 52nd, and 53rd guy gets to make the roster. Keith Butler seemed to say as much in his Zoom call yesterday.
Danny Smith is here to tell you that’s wrong.
Make no mistake. His voice is heard. But Smith isn’t in charge. And he knows those decisions are left up to the Steelers’ “Big Three:” Owner Art Rooney II, General Manager Kevin Colbert, and Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
Like only he can, talking with reporters Wednesday, Smith broke down the roster dynamic in blunt terms.
“I appreciate Keith Butler saying that, but when it comes down to cut down date, if it don’t come from a Rooney, a Colbert, or Tomlin, it don’t mean a damn thing. It don’t mean a damn thing. If Mr. Rooney said that, or Mike Tomlin said that, or Kevin Colbert said that, I’d have a parade down Fifth Avenue. Keith Butler said that I appreciate that Buss, but that don’t help me.”
The bottom line is Tomlin, Colbert, and Rooney are the ones in charge of formulating the roster. It’s the coordinators and position coaches’ job to make the most of the players they’re given. But Smith did say he’s allowed to offer his input on player evaluation and what he thinks the team should do as it sets its 53.
“I do have a say like everybody has a say and those three make the decision, to be very honest with you, But yes, we do value that here. It is very important here. It’s not a lip service here in any way, shape or form. And I like that. And I’m proud of that. And I respect this organization for doing it that way.”
There’s no question special teams is the path for most players even if Smith himself isn’t selecting the roster. Make a great play in the return or coverage game and Tomlin, Colbert, and Rooney will take notice. So many of the Steelers’ great players had that journey. Donnie Shell spent the first three years of his career cutting his teeth on special teams. Hines Ward did that early in his career. Same with James Harrison. Heck, remember a rookie Antonio Brown’s kickoff return TD? On the ensuing kickoff, he was chasing down the kick returner. If you’re not a Day One or Day Two pick, you better provide value on special teams. If you’re not starting on offense or defense, you better be starting on special teams. Or else it’ll be hard to crack the 53.
Smith continued to praise the Steelers for their system of letting coaches have input and then allowing the decision-makers to have final say.
“Not everybody does, I’ve been on five teams. I’ve had great experiences at all. But not every team operates like that. But yes, I get an opportunity to say my peace. They make the decision.”
Players like Tre Norwood, along with the host of UDFA defensive backs, will be among the guys fighting for those final roster spots. Those who perform well on special teams will earn Smith’s recommendation and in all likelihood, Tomlin, Colbert, and Rooney’s selection.