CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thinking last night? Putting Stefan Logan back into the game after his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers? To run an end-around play in the second quarter, return a kickoff to start the third quarter and play some at wide receiver in the second half? You've got to be kidding. Did Tomlin send Ben Roethlisberger back in on a night when the only real objective was to get the stars out of this truly meaningless, final exhibition game healthy? Troy Polamalu?
Of course not.
Tomlin is awfully lucky Logan didn't break a leg or pull a hamstring. So are the Steelers, who beat the Panthers, 21-10.
Who ever would have guessed that any of us would be worried about Logan's health at this late stage of the NFL preseason?
OK, the comparisons to Big Ben and Polamalu are a wild exaggeration. Please, hold the e-mails. No one is suggesting Logan will be as valuable to the Steelers this season. But that doesn't change the fact that he earned -- absolutely earned -- the right to play a key role for the defending Super Bowl champions as the kickoff and punt returner. You'll see plenty of him when the curtain goes up on the regular season Thursday night and the Steelers say hello to the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field. If there were any lingering doubts about that before last night -- and there shouldn't have been -- they were eliminated when he lugged the pig all the way to the house for that touchdown.
Logan is, simply, the greatest story of this exhibition season.
"That's the beauty of the National Football League," Tomlin said. "There are a lot of stories of guys seizing the moment, an opportunity. It's a beautiful thing. I'm happy for him."
It's amazing, really. When Logan signed as a long-shot free agent from the Canadian Football League in mid-February, hardly anyone in Pittsburgh noticed. We still were basking in the Super Bowl win against the Arizona Cardinals (no one wanted that party to end), were worried about Penguins coach Michel Therrien keeping his job (he didn't) and were wondering if Pitt could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament (the Panthers did). Stefan Who?
Now we know.
It's Stefan Logan, thank you very much.
Perhaps we should call him Mr. Logan after the way he took his opportunity and ran with it.
"I don't make those decisions," Tomlin said of which players make his team and which ones don't. "They make the decisions for me. He was determined to make the decision for me. I appreciate it."
What's really cool about that is Logan appears -- I use that word because he still hasn't returned a kick in an NFL game that counts -- to have strengthened one of two Steelers weaknesses from their magical Super Bowl season. (The return of healthy punter Daniel Sepulveda takes care of the other.) They really didn't have much of a kickoff return man -- Gary Russell, Najeh Davenport, etc. -- and weren't at all interested in having rising-star wide receiver Santonio Holmes running back punts again. The sad truth? They really haven't had any kind of a return game since Antwaan Randle El left after the 2005 Super Bowl season.
Rookie draft choices Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett got first cracks at the jobs. Wallace did OK as a kickoff return man, Burnett not so well as the punt returner because of fumbles in each of the first two exhibition games.
Logan, meanwhile, merely was lights out.
It didn't start that way. Logan had trouble catching the ball early in training camp, which is why he didn't get to return any kicks in the exhibition opener against the Cardinals. It didn't help him that he's a man without a position -- not a running back or a wide receiver, exactly -- although he looked pretty good when he ran 14 yards on that end-around and 13 yards on a reverse in the third quarter.
When Tomlin finally gave Logan his shot as the return man in the second exhibition game against the Washington Redskins, this much seemed certain: It would be his only shot if he failed.
You know what happened next.
"I wanted to make a point," Logan said. "I wanted to stand out. When your number is called, you've got to make a play. When I heard 41 called, I got so excited."
I'm not sure the Redskins still have tackled Logan. That night, he had kickoff returns of 60 and 45 yards and punt returns of 18 and 15 yards.
You bet that opened Tomlin's eyes. But he still wanted to see more. Logan showed it to him in the third exhibition game against the Buffalo Bills with punt returns of 17, 13 and 27 yards.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, Mr. Logan!
That 80-yard return last night was a nice bonus, wasn't it?
I'm just glad the man got out of the game in one piece along with Roethlisberger, Polamalu and the other stars.
You want to know a little secret?
So is Tomlin.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .