Martavis Bryant‘s return to the Steelers this week following a four game suspension brings up two critical questions as Pittsburgh prepares to face the San Diego Chargers:
- How much can Martavis Bryant help Michael Vick?
- And can a big-play receiver really help a struggling quarterback?
The latter question rarely gets the discussion it deserves. When a star running back’s performance slips, the smart observer first looks to the performance of the offensive line playing in front of him. Jerome Bettis production dip in 1998 and 1999 came in direct proportion to the decline of the Steelers offensive line. When the line got better, so did Jerome Bettis.
- Decrypting the link between quality quarterbacks and quality receivers is far more challenging.
Steelers Hall of Famer John Stallworth’s best seasons came not when he was catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather when he was catching them from Mark Malone and David Woodley. Yet no one ever said, “Imagine how bad Woodley and Malone would have been had they not had John Stallworth and Louis Lipps.”
- On the flip side, every football fan knows Dan Marino as Hall of Famer, but who under 40 remembers the names Mark Duper and Mark Clayton?
Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t propose to answer the larger question here, but we do suggest that Steelers history supplies an example of a big play receiver giving a struggling quarterback a boost when both he and his offense needed it the most.
The Other Steelers 1st Round Pick Named Green…
To find that example you need to go back to Chuck Noll’s foray up Walton’s Mountain in 1990. Lost in the afterglow of the 1989 Steelers story book season is the fact that the 1989 Steelers offense finished last in the league in total offense. Chuck Noll sought to rectify that by hiring Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator.
- Noll’s decision was a disaster.
The Steelers offense struggled. During preseason sheer chaos reigned when the Steelers had the ball. Things failed to improve when the games started, as the 1990 Steelers went the entire first month of the season without scoring an offensive touchdown. No one on the Steelers offense was happy with Joe Walton’s system, but none complained more loudly or struggled more than quarterback Bubby Brister.
- Things changed for the better in October, and they changed thanks to the arrival of one man.
That one man would be first round draft pick Eric Green. When Bryant’s suspension began, Steel Curtain Rising offered Eric Green’s substance abuse troubles as a cautionary tale for the young wide receiver. Today we remember Green’s sensational rookie year and the difference he made to a Steelers offense that could do nothing but struggle.
Green had held out throughout training camp and threatened to hold out the entire year. Green finally reported, but didn’t work himself into the offense until week 5. The results speak for themselves:
The 1990 Steelers fielded two different offenses one with Eric Green and one without it. It is almost fair to say that Bubby Brister was a different quarterback with Eric Green in the lineup. That’s not 100% accurate, but he completed 10% more of his passes, threw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, and threw for 60 more yards per game.
- Of course the analogy of the 1990 Steelers and the 2015 Steelers is very imperfect.
built to run, even if Walton favored the pass. And unlike Eric Green, Martavis Bryant is fortifying an already strong receiving trio of Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
It’s also right to acknowledge that while Eric Green did provide a big boost, he was no panacea for Joe Walton’s offense. The unit still struggled at critical times, and Brister never mastered it. Still, the historical symmetry between Green’s insertion into the 1990 Steelers offense and Bryant’s return to the 2015 Steelers offers a final, enticing parallel.
Eric Green’s rookie breakout game came in week five just as Byrant’s return comes on week five, and the Pittsburgh Steelers opponent in week five of 2015 is none other than the San Diego Chargers, just as it was in 1990….