Steelers Lounge Generational Grudge Match: Heath Miller vs. Eric Green

In which we take two players from different generations and throw them into an imaginary ring for you to decide the winner. This is the first such installment, and it’s a battle of tight ends with Heath Miller going up against Eric Green.

If you frequent sports talk radio in Pittsburgh there’s a good chance you’ve heard somebody, at one time or another, complain about how the Steelers don’t throw to their tight ends enough. And hey, maybe when their options at the position were Jay Reimersma, Mark Bruener (great blocker, you have to give him that) or Jerame Tuman that was very well true. But sandwiched around a stretch where they lacked elite pass-catching talent at the position the Steelers boasted two impact players in Eric Green and Heath Miller, both of whom created matchup problems for opposing defenses (and in the case of Miller, still does).

But which one would you rather have on your team? The argument for Green  is that he was consistently better compared to his peers at the tight end position than Miller has been. He also played a larger role in the Steelers passing game. Green played five seasons with the Steelers and in four of those years finished in the top-nine among tight ends in both receptions and yards, including his best season in 1993 where he finished with 63 catches (fourth among all tight ends) and 942 yards (second).

Miller, by comparison, has finished in the top-10 among tight ends in receptions and yards (admittedly not the best way to measure this) just once. Green was also the No. 1 option in the passing game for the Steelers during the ’93 and ’94 seasons, leading the team in receiving yards each year, while also leading the team in receptions in ’93. This, however, can be a little unfair to Miller.

For one, I think Miller is facing better competition across the league. Every team in the NFL has a playmaker (some, like New England, have more than one) and there’s simply more talent at the position right now as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago. The other factor is that Green was the go-to guy for two main reasons. First: because he was good enough, obviously. Just how much of an impact was Green capable of making? Consider his rookie season, which began after he held out through the season opener and ultimately missed the first four games. Without him in the lineup the Steelers were 1-3 and didn’t score a single offensive touchdown (the only game they won was because of a defensive touchdown and a special teams touchdown). With him they went 8-4 and he hauled in seven of the teams 20 passing touchdowns. No other player had more than three. In an article that appeared in an issue of Sports Illustrated, Joe Greene, who was the Steelers defensive line coach in 1990, said that “Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year.”

The other reason he was relied on so much: the Steelers wide receivers weren’t anywhere near as good as they are now. He needed to be the go-to guy. Where Miller has had to compete with players like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes for catches, Green was accompanied by the likes of Charles Johnson, Dwight Stone and Jeff Graham, a rather large disparity in  surrounding talent.

Still, there’s something to be said for being the leading receiver on a playoff caliber team like Green was. There’s also something to be said for being a key cog in a machine that’s played in three Super Bowls — winning two — like Miller has been. Turning to more advanced metrics, Football Outsiders tracks DVOA all the way back to the 1992 season, and we see that Green finished in the top-10 among tight ends twice: 1993 and 1994. He only played seven games in 1992 due to a suspension, catching just 14 passes.

Miller has finished in the top-10 three times (first in 2007, fifth in 2005 and eighth in 2008) and also 17th (2006), 12th (2009) and 27th (2010). Looking at Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value we see that Miller’s average season comes in at 7.4, compared to 6.5 for Green (though, his average is hurt by his shortened 1992 season).

Green was an extremely productive player, and a freak athletically when you consider he was usually pushing three bills in the weight department. He also carried plenty of baggage (two different holdouts and a suspension). Miller, on the other hand, is also a tremendous athlete and extremely productive, but is rarely in the spotlight outside of making plays on the field. He’s never a distraction and keeps his nose clean. Cast your vote now.

(Next up will be a battle of insane outside linebackers: James Harrison vs. Greg Lloyd)

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  • Anonymous

    I think tight end is the position where statistics fail you the most, even complex ones like AV and DVOA. With an offensive lineman there aren’t many stats people actually look at. With a receiver, the stats are illuminating. With a tight end, the only stats people seem to notice are the receiving ones, but receiving is about 25% of a tight end’s job. So the stats trick you into judging a player based on a quarter of his work.

  • http://www.greymatterresearch.com Ron Sellers

    Nearly impossible to compare stats. Stats are influenced by the OC and the offensive philosophy of the team, the surrounding talent, the QB, the quality of the D, the situation throughout the league, additional offensive options, etc.

    Green was a very good player who excelled as a receiver, and the team featured him. Miller is more of a complementary player on a team with a lot of weapons.

    I voted for Miller for a couple of reasons. First, he is a much better blocker, which is key (particularly for the Steelers). Second, he is a locker room leader, not a pain in the neck who left the team after five seasons and wasn’t much missed. Notice how Green never really did anything after he left the Steelers? Put Miller on the Falcons or the Chargers as the starting TE and watch him catch 80 balls every year. Green was a more statistically productive receiver and arguably a better athlete, but Miller is the much better player and teammate, and far more consistent. Heath Miller all the way.

  • ROb D

    I like both players..Green was a terrific receiver and just physically huge/dominant for his time and era. Heath is the better blocker and while not the physical speciman that EG was, I think he’s a smarter player with softer hands. I don’t think EG would have liked sharing the ball with the likes of Santonio, Hines, Wallace and Co. which Heath has done with the grace of a consummate professional.

    Green seemed to be all about “me” for the most part, which I don’t really have a problem with as long as when you take the field, you play hard. Near the end of his career with the STeelers, I don’t think he did that. He was a big talent and I enjoyed his play over the years but I would take Heath over him in a heartbeat.

    (How are my SL friends doing ? Have been busy at work and planning a move to boot. I have the Super Bowl on my PVR and haven’t had the guts to watch it again. I was philosophical about the loss right afterwards but I confess it’s like a toothache now..kinda PO’d that they blew a chance to win 3 in this era. I have confidence there will be others though)

  • Oakleafmold

    Miller is the obvious choice. He brings the complete game, blocking like a road grader and pulling in balls like he’s a black hole. Throw the ball at him as much as Bubby threw it at Green, and Miller would have exciting numbers, too. A recent ESPN ranking failed to include Miller among the NFL’s top tight ends, putting him below one hit wonders like Marcades Lewis and Brandon Pettigrew. Both those guys have a lot of promise, of course, but it’s interesting to note that the top five are dominated by guys who get a lot of catches (Witten, Gates, and Dallas Clark) but who–let’s face it–block like a bunch of drag queens in stiletto heels. One commenter over at ESPN pointed out that NFL ratings, more often than not, have more to do with fantasy football numbers than real-time impact.