“Dénouement.” It is one of those words you promptly forgot after learning in junior high English class because you never used or saw again in your life (although perhaps it came up in SAT prep).
If memory serves, Mrs. Lev, our 8th grade English teacher, told us that dénouement is “the falling action,” the events that follow a story’s climax.
The climax of the Steelers 1989 season came on the bobbled snap at Mile High in the playoff loss against Denver. And if Mrs. Lev’s definition is correct, then Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator in a very literal sense represented “the falling action.”
A more pedestrian label for the decision Noll made on February 14th 20 years ago is the “St. Valentine’s day disaster.”
Either description is accurate.
The Steelers, in spite of a heart-breaking playoff loss, Pittsburgh left Denver as a team and a city on the rise.
The 1989 Steelers looked ugly at times, but this was a group of players that had learned something important – they had learned how to win.
Unfortunately, Chuck Noll’s choice to climb Walton’s mountain would end in one gigantic fall.*
No More for Moore
Joe Walton’s road the Steelers offensive coordinator position had been paved by the exit of Tom Moore, who’d served as Noll’s first and only offensive coordinator since 1983. Prior to that, Moore had worked as receivers coach since 1977.
Accounts for the motive behind Moore’s departure differ. At the time, the word was that Moore simply decided to take it upon himself and sought change, accepting an assistant-head coach type position in Minnesota.
More recently, in PG Plus, Ed Bouchette indicated that “the front office” felt that, get this, the Steelers offense had become too run oriented under Moore, and pushed for a change.
Either way, it was a bad move for the Steelers. As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette last, November, “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”
Steelers Become a Finesse Offense
Hoge was making an understatement. Walton completely scrapped the Steelers play book, beginning from zero. It was a total makeover, from the playbook, to the offensive philosophy, to the entire terminology.
Noll, who had always kept a tight rein on his offense, ceded total offensive control to Walton.
Walton’s offense apparently had dozens of formations and hundreds of plays. It was said that he had a variation of a play set up for every possible context.
On paper, it worked beautifully – in practice, or more to the point, in games, it was an unmitigated disaster.
The players could not grasp the offense – most had trouble remembering the formations, let alone the plays.
Perhaps its most egregious sin was that was a passing oriented offense focused around the backs and tight ends.
Walton’s fellow coaches did not buy into it, with Joe Greene reportedly saying at one point, “I hope this isn’t our personality.”
After one early season loss against Oakland, it was reported that coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the head sets.
As with his eventual successor Kevin Gilbride (and perhaps Mike Mularkey), Walton, in hopes of landing another head coaching job, was more interested in showing off his genius to the rest of NFL than designing a system which maximized the talent of the men playing in it.
Never was that more clear than during a post-Thanksgiving match up at Three Rivers Stadium against division leader Cincinnati in early December 1990.
Walton’s Offense Found Wanting….
It was week 12 and both teams entered the game at 6-5 in a three way tie with the Houston Oilers for the division lead. All eyes of the NFL focused on Three Rivers Stadium; Myron Cope had even called for the Terrible Towel.
With so much at stake, Walton was intent on showing the NFL what he could do with his toys.
How did it work? Well, here’s one indication:
- An illegal motion penalty on Richard Bell short-circuted a critical goal line series – the penalty came after Walton called a play the Steelers had not practiced in months.
The Steelers offense featured a potent running attack that bosted Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Warren Williams and Tim Worley. The Bengals fielded one of NFL’s worst rushing offenses.
- Walton responded by calling 40 pass plays, making the sting of a game that ended with four straight Bubby Brister incompletions thrown from inside the red zone all the more bitter.
The Bengals won that day, 16-12, and although the Steelers finished 9-7, they were out of the playoffs.
Noll Decides to Call it a Day
Things got no better in 1991, as the malaise that had inflicted the offense spread to the defense. Something seemed to change in Noll. Insiders said that by mid season he was shrugging off things that once would have driven him crazy.
He admitted that the 1991 season had been one of his most disappointing, and openly discussed his future in press conferences. The day after Christmas 1991 Noll walked into Dan Rooney’s offense had said “its time,” retiring after 23 years as the only coach in NFL history to win four Lombardi Championships.
The Emperor Vindicated?
After the 1989 season, Noll felt he had the players to win and win big. He entered both the 1990 and 1991 season talking about the Steelers “championship caliber talent.”
The mediocre results of his last two season suggested to many that Noll had lost his eye for talent, but again the chorus was wrong.
Four years after Noll’s retirement, Bill Cowher’s 1995 squad came within two Neil O’Donnell interceptions of winning Super Bowl XXX.
These men may have never won rings as Pittsburgh Steelers, but all were clearly championship caliber players. Once again, Chuck Noll and the 1989 Steelers proved that their critics were wrong.
*In the interest of giving credit to where credit is due, the title of this post borrows liberally from a chapter title in Ed Bouchette’s 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age.