Heath Miller Was the Perfect Pittsburgh Steeler

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 19, 2016

Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (56) and free safety K'Waun Williams (36) tackle Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83) after he made a catch in an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

In 11 NFL seasons, tight end Heath Miller never topped 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Miller never hit double digits in touchdown grabs. He didn't generate headlines like Rob Gronkowski. Didn't revolutionize his position like Tony Gonzalez.

Odds are Miller won't be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

However, upon learning of Miller's retirement Friday, one thought struck me almost immediately.

He was the perfect Pittsburgh Steeler. As hard-nosed and blue collar as the city where he played.

The team's website announced the news Friday afternoon, with team president Art Rooney II thanking Miller for helping bring a pair of Lombardi trophies to the Steel City:

Heath Miller informed us earlier today of his decision to retire after an exceptional 11-year career in Pittsburgh. Since he was drafted in the first round in 2005, Heath has been an amazing player on the field and an outstanding contributor in our community. On behalf of the entire Steelers organization and Steelers Nation around the world, I would like to congratulate and thank Heath of his many contributions to the Steelers. The chants of "HEEATH" will be missed at Heinz Field and around the entire NFL. Heath is the most accomplished tight end in team history and his efforts will not soon be forgotten. We wish his entire family the best in his retirement, and we thank them for being part of the Steelers for 11 great years.

The low-key announcement, as Steelers public-relations spokesman Burt Lauten pointed out, was vintage Miller:

Miller did, however, issue a statement:

Today, I informed the Steelers of my plans to retire. I realize how extremely fortunate and grateful I am to have spent my entire career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. I would like to thank the Rooney Family, Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, James Daniel and the rest of the Steelers organization for giving me the opportunity to live out my childhood dream. I will always cherish and value the special bonds that I formed with my teammates. It was truly an honor for me to take the field with them. I am also appreciative of my entire family and all of the coaches who helped me along the way. Additionally, I want to thank Steelers Nation, the best fans in the NFL!

There may not be a player and team who seemed more destined for one another in the past 15 years. As NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah remembered, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome had no doubt who the Steelers were going to take in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft:

And the 2004 Mackey Award winner as college football's top tight end didn't disappoint. Miller reeled in 39 passes for 459 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, beginning a run of consistency and durability that lasted until, well, Friday.

In 11 seasons, Miller topped 40 receptions nine times. Eclipsed 500 receiving yards nine times. And hauled in at least five touchdown passes five times. Over those years, Miller became a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger, who told Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last September just how much Miller meant to him and the team:

I'll tell you how much he means to me. I made him promise that he'll let me know ahead of time when he's done. I need a whole year to know it's his last year. I don't want him to come to me the last game and say, 'This is it for me.' I want to enjoy my last ride with him. I made him promise me. ...

It's such a comfort to know that I can miss when I throw it to him and the worst that will happen is an incompletion. Heath doesn't make mistakes. As a quarterback, when you're back there and things are panicking and you don't know what's going to happen, I know my guy is going to be right there and he's going to make something happen. ...

All receivers say they are open every play. Heath never says he's open. I have to go back and watch film. I'll be like, 'Heath, you were open.' He'll say, 'Yeah, but I didn't want you to think about it.' That's why I say he's the most selfless guy and teammate I've ever had. Jerricho [Cotchery] was very similar. I feel so lucky to have him.

There was no word as to whether Miller honored that promise, but knowing him, it's a safe bet Big Ben got a call before the team did. Just as it was a safe bet that if it were 3rd-and-7, Roethlisberger would look to No. 83 to move the sticks.

Only Hines Ward caught more passes in team history than Miller's 592. That places him sixth among every tight end who ever laced them up.

Miller ranks fourth among all Steelers pass-catchers in both receiving yards and touchdowns. And as James Palmer of NFL.com tweeted, when it comes to tight ends, the Steelers' record book might as well be known as the Book of Heath:

In fact, about the only team record Miller doesn't have among tight ends is dropped passes. Because as Roethlisberger told Cook, Miller was apoplectic about dropping the rock.

"We laugh when he drops a pass because he thinks it's the end of the world," Roethlisberger said. "I'm talking about just warming up."

Miller's abilities as a receiver only tell part of the story. Yes, Miller may not have been an uber-athletic field-stretcher a la Jimmy Graham, but he also wasn't afraid to trade helmet paint with defenders. Miller ranked as a top-five tight end in run blocking four times since Pro Football Focus started grading players in 2007—including as recently as 2014.

Miller wasn't a "move" tight end who lined up out wide as often as not. Or an in-line tight end who played with his hand in the dirt. He was both. He was neither.

He was whatever the team needed him to be.

Given his physicality, Miller was also remarkably durable. Of a possible 176 regular-season games over his 11 years in the league, Miller played in 168. He never missed more than two games in a season, including after a nasty ACL tear at the end of the 2012 campaign.

If it wasn't a great career, it was certainly a very good one. One that head coach Mike Tomlin told the team's site he's sad to see end:

It's been an honor and a pleasure to coach Heath, to watch him grow and evolve and perform. There are great benefits and blessings that come with being some place as long as I have been here. It also creates unique relationships and feelings and experiences that make events such as his retirement difficult. It would be selfish of me to view it in any other way other than a great deal of admiration and appreciation for having an opportunity to work with Heath for nine of the 11 years he has done it.

However, the truest gauge of Miller's value to the Steelers can best be summed up by the team's fans. Whether it was a three-yard gain or 23, if Miller touched the ball in a game, Heinz Field would erupt in unison...


The same would happen in Cincinnati. And Cleveland. And San Diego. Wherever Miller went, his fans followed.

Maybe that's because player and fans shared the same mentality. Keep your mouth shut. Your eyes focused on the task at hand. Put your head down, lean your shoulder into it and get to work.

No, Miller may not get a bronze bust and a hideous coat in Canton. He might just have settle for a pair of rings, the knowledge that he played his tail off in the NFL for over a decade and certain enshrinement in the Steelers' Ring of Honor.

And on that day not too far from now, when Miller's name is unveiled next to blue-collar heroes like Jerome Bettis and Jack Lambert, maybe the tight end will finally take a bow.

Just don't count on it. After all...

That isn't how things are done in Pittsburgh.


Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.


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