How much does Maurkice Pouncey mean to the Pittsburgh Steelers?
One woman’s face said it all.
When Pouncey went down after David DeCastro’s wayward block in last year’s season opener, it was an emotional punch to the gut for the Steelers and their fans.
Pouncey was taken off the field on a flatbed cart, and even the driver couldn’t detach herself from the gloom and doom of the moment. Stadium workers usually just blend in. TV cameras don’t find them the way they find players and fans. But it was impossible not to notice the expression of the woman steering this vehicle.
She seemed affected by the severity of Pouncey’s injury and aware of the dark cloud it cast upon the Steelers’ 2013 season.
If the scene that afternoon at Heinz Field wasn’t enough to crystallize Pouncey’s importance, the Steelers made it clear in writing last week, signing him to a six-year, $48 million contract.
They can scratch his name off their list of contract worries.
Pouncey is one of the reasons the center position has not been a worry in Pittsburgh for most of the last half century.
He’ll now be a fixture there just like Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings before him.
The Steelers’ lineage at center is similar to what the Boston Red Sox had in left field for nearly five decades, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice. Hall of Famers all.
Pouncey’s career is on a Hall of Fame pace. He’s the only center in the history of the NFL to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. If he makes the Hall of Fame, he’ll join Webster and Dawson and surely be remembered as fondly as both of them.
But the Hall of Fame is a lofty and unfair criteria. Right now it’s enough of an accomplishment for Pouncey just to participate in every spring practice after what turned out to be a torn ACL last September.
Pouncey doesn’t need a bust in Canton to take his place among the pantheon of Steelers centers. Still, his work is far from done.
He’s got a long way to go to match the number of Pro Bowl honors Webster and Dawson achieved. Webster was a nine-time Pro Bowler and Dawson and seven-timer.
Craig Wolfley, a Steelers offensive lineman from 1980 to 1989, was teammates with both Webster and Dawson.
“Maurkice reflects characteristics of all of the great Steelers centers who came before him,” Wolfley said in an e-mail. “Very athletic like Dermontti, just not as strong. Not as strong or durable as Webby, who was a block of granite many opponents ‘broke’ themselves on, but a better athlete and more explosive than Mike. … Maurkice has superior ability to get to the second-level guys and downfield like (Dawson).”
Pouncey already has surpassed Hartings’ two Pro Bowls. But Hartings has something that Pouncey doesn’t: a Super Bowl ring.
Webster won four Super Bowl rings. Dawson never won a ring but played in Super Bowl XXX, which the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
Pouncey would have played in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers, but he was injured in the AFC championship game. That brings up a trait that Pouncey must gain to reach the stratosphere of great Steelers centers. He needs to be more durable.
DeCastro’s errant dive to the knee would have ended anyone’s season. Pouncey can’t be faulted for that. But it is a little bothersome that he has yet to go through an entire season without missing a game. He played all 16 regular-season games as a rookie in 2010 and the Steelers returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence. But Pouncey was knocked out of the conference championship game. He missed two games in 2011 and one game in 2012 before sitting out all but the first few plays of last season.
Pouncey must put together an ironman streak to be comparable to his predecessors at the position. Webster played in 177 straight games, Dawson 170 and Mansfield 168. Hartings didn’t have the longevity of the other three. He was a Steeler for six seasons after playing five seasons for the Lions. But even Hartings played in 66 straight games, including playoffs. Pouncey has never appeared in more than 18 games in a row and has missed the Steelers’ last two postseason games.
Of course the Steelers haven’t played in a postseason game since 2011. They need a healthy Pouncey to get back to the playoffs. It also wouldn’t hurt if their offensive line became a strength. It really hasn’t been since 2005, the year the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. They won another championship three years later in spite of their offensive line, during the forgettable Sean Mahan/Justin Hartwig interlude that bridged Hartings and Pouncey.
Although he can’t do it by himself, Pouncey must be part of a stalwart offensive line to ultimately be mentioned in the same breath as Webster, Dawson and Hartings. As he plays out his new contract, Pouncey has to help the Steelers develop a more powerful running game and keep Ben Roethlisberger upright.
Webster opened holes for Franco Harris. Even during the mediocrity of the 1980s, offensive line was one of the Steelers’ few bright spots. The Steelers maintained a smash-mouth, ground-and-pound reputation with Dawson at center in the 1990s. Hartings’ Pro Bowl seasons fueled a 15-1 campaign in 2004 and the Steelers’ fifth title in 2005.
If the Steelers didn’t think Pouncey had the leadership ability to bring the offensive line to those heights again, they’d have let him become a free agent.
“Maurkice is a coach out there on the line the way Webby and Jeff were,” Wolfley said.
That’s pretty impressive for a guy who won’t turn 25 until July 24, a day before training camp opens. The Steelers’ malaise of recent seasons makes it easy to forget the impact Pouncey made as a 21-year-old rookie. The Steelers slumped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 2009. The next year, Pouncey won the starting job right away and put his stamp on a conference-championship season.
The Steelers might not have made Super Bowl XLV without Pouncey. If he actually suits up for a Super Bowl at some point in his career, it would cement his legacy.
For now, it would be nice if the Steelers can just get back to the playoffs. Since winning their last Super Bowl, they haven’t been to the playoffs without Pouncey.