Colbert Steelers' key guy behind the scenes
By John Harris
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. — Kevin Colbert is the best NFL general manager you've never heard of.
That's because Colbert isn't a general manager, per se. He's the Steelers director of football operations.
Same responsibilities as a GM but with a less glamorous title.
Colbert is so good that the Detroit Lions haven't had a winning record since he left as their pro scouting director following the 1999 season.
In Colbert's 10 seasons with Detroit, the Lions went to the playoffs five times with records of 12-4, 10-6, 9-7, 10-6 and 9-7.
That's right, the same sorry Lions who went 0-16 in 2008.
Of Detroit's 10 first-round draft picks since Colbert's getaway - including a total of six top-10 selections - only four are still with the Lions, and two are out of the league.
Since Colbert returned to his hometown in 2000, the Steelers have reached two Super Bowls, including Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, four AFC Championship Games and won five AFC North titles.
Six of the nine Steelers first-round draft picks under Colbert — Ben Roethlisberger, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes and Kendall Simmons — were in the 2008 opening-day lineup against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
The average draft position of those players is 20, late first-round material at best. Yet, they are key components for what in four days could become the NFL's best team.
The other three first-round picks are receiver Plaxico Burress, who signed with the New York Giants when his original contract ran out and caught the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII, backup linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who had five sacks in the regular season, and running back Rashard Mendenhall, who missed most of his rookie season with a broken shoulder but is expected to make a full recovery next season.
Colbert has won more Super Bowls than Arizona general manager Rod Graves, and San Diego general manager A.J. Smith. He's won as many Super Bowls as Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome and New York Giants senior vice president and general manager Jerry Reese.
And the best title the Steelers can come up with for Colbert is director of football operations?
"I don't worry about that at all," Colbert said Tuesday during Super Bowl XLIII Media Day festivities at Raymond James Stadium about why he doesn't think he's had many interviews with other teams to be their general manager.
"I'm pretty satisfied and happy just having a winning experience here in Pittsburgh and hope that we can continue," he said. "We've won the ultimate game, and now we're in the ultimate game again. So hopefully we can win it. If we're able to do that, that's satisfaction in and of itself."
Ironically, Colbert, who attended North Catholic High School and graduated from Robert Morris, implemented the same scouting system he learned under Ron Hughes in Detroit. Hughes became the Steelers' college scouting coordinator in 2003.
"Ronnie taught us a system they had developed in Detroit of evaluation, of organization, of draft development. I was working with him for 10 years, and when I came to Pittsburgh, we followed the same system that we used there," Colbert said. "We added a few things here and there, but basically it's Ron's system that we continue to work under today."
The working dynamic between Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin is critical in the overall process of making personnel decisions and selecting the best players.
Colbert maintained a close, personal relationship with former coach Bill Cowher when they weren't making personnel decisions. Colbert and Cowher played racquetball together.
Colbert and Tomlin have a different working relationship that so far has been no less productive.
"Coach Cowher and I were very close. We worked well together. (Racquetball) was fun with Bill because it was a good release for him," Colbert said. "Mike's very much the same way. He's competitive. Just not on the racquetball court. He's done a great job. He's putting his touches on it. Bringing his new ideas. I don't think a hire would have been made (if Tomlin wasn't a comfortable fit)."
Added Tomlin: "Kevin's impact is immeasurable. We have an awesome working relationship, because we have one very important thing in common. We don't care who gets the credit, and all we want to do is win."
John Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org