Steve Bono’s Steelers Career: From Striker Replacement Stud to Proverbial “What If?”

You’ll have to forgive me, but the only memory I have of former quarterback Steve Bono’s Steelers career is from my aunt through marriage.

We were watching some game in 1988 (since the Steelers finished 5-11 that year, it was no doubt a loss), and Steve Bono was standing next to starting quarterback Bubby Brister, when my aunt said, “Those guys are good looking.”

Steve Bono, Steve Bono's Steelers career, steelers strike replacement quarterback, steelers 1987 players strike, 1987 players strike

Steve Bono quaterbacks the Steelers to a win over Atlanta during the 1987 players strike. Photo Credit Spokeo via Plant Steelers

That’s it, that’s the only memory I have of the one-time scab, who once went 2-1 for the Steelers during the 1987 NFL players strike, before eventually departing for the 49ers and a few other NFL organizations during his 14-year NFL career that included stints with seven different organizations.

  • But since this is a Steelers site, you probably want to know about Bono’s time in Pittsburgh.

It was brief.

Bono was a sixth round pick of the Vikings in the 1985 NFL Draft, but did little of not in Minnesota before arriving in Pittsburgh as a free-agent signing in 1987.

  • However, with the veteran Mark Malone entrenched as the starter and

Bubby Brister, the team’s third round pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, as Mark Malone’s backup and starter-in-waiting, there wasn’t much for Steve Bono to be for the Steelers other than their third-string quarterback, which he was during the first two games of the 1987 campaign.

  • However, the NFLPA elected to go on strike after two games, just like the union had done five years earlier.

But, unlike  the 1982 strike that resulted in a loss of nine regular season games, NFL owners decided to use replacement players to offset the ’87 work stoppage.

While Steve Bono wasn’t exactly “scab,” having been around for two years without a real career break, he crossed the picket line and wound up starting all three games for the the Steelers strike replacement quarterback during the duration of the ’87 strike.

  • Pittsburgh went 2-1 during the three-week replacement player era, and Steve Bono completed 34-74 passes for 438 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Decent enough numbers, considering most of his replacement teammates were guys who were and would be (say it with me) bagging groceries once the strike ended, which it did after those three games. (OK, Hall of Famer’s John Stallworth and Mike Webster crossed the picket line too.)

Bono didn’t appear in any other games after the regulars returned in ’87 and only made two appearances for that infamous 5-11 ’88 squad, completing 10 of 35 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions as Todd Blackledge ultimately edged him out at backup quarterback.

Rick Strom,

Rick Strom during the Steelers 1992 season. Photo Credit: FinalShot

Perhaps mercifully (for him, not Pittsburgh), Steve Bono was allowed to walk after the ’88 season as the Steelers opted to hand their third string quarterbacking clipboard to Rick Strom. Bono did well for himself, as he signed a deal with the 49ers to be their third-string quarterback behind Joe Montana and Steve Young.

  • History tells us that was a thankless and impossible task if one wanted playing time.

But, in addition to earning two Super Bowl rings as an apprentice in both 1988 and 1989, Bono found his way into the starting lineup in 1991, thanks to back issues for Montana and multiple injuries suffered by Young.

  • Steve Bono started six games in ’91 for the 49ers, and won five games, while completing 141 of 237 passes for 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.

In his book, My Life Behind the Spiral, Young, a future Hall of Famer, talks about the frustrations of dealing with injuries, as he watched Bono lead an admittedly talented 49ers team to many victories in his absence. The fact that some of the more 49er fans claimed that Bono should be starting over Young undoubtedly contributed to his frustration.

Steve Young ultimately reclaimed his starting job, and Steve Bono resumed his role as backup QB and remained in San Francisco through the 1993 season before signing with the Chiefs for the 1994 campaign.

In Kansas City, Bono started 31 games in three seasons (Montana was with KC by then and was the Chiefs starter through ’94) and won 21 of them–including 13 in 1995–while passing for 6,489 yards, 37 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Steelers quarterbacks 1990's

Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart

Unfortunately for Bono, he could never quite get his Chiefs over the hump and played out his career as a journeyman backup for the Packers, Rams and Panthers, before leaving the game following the 1999 season.

  • True, Bono was never anything special, but could he have bested the likes of Brister and, ultimately, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh?

It’s hard to say.

After all, Steve Bono had the benefit of playing behind legends the caliber of Montana and Young while with the 49ers and absorbing their wisdom. And what about his coaches in San Francisco? In head coach Bill Walsh and quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, well, can you think of two better offensive minds?

It’s easy to say Bono may have beaten out passers such as Brister and O’Donnell in Pittsburgh, but the fact is, the Steelers didn’t have anywhere near the level of talent the 49ers had in the late-80’s and early-90’s.

Besides, Bubby Brister was pretty darn talented in his own right, and as for O’Donnell, well, it’s hard to top three division championships, two AFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance.

Perhaps it is safe to conclude that, Steve Bono was probably a safer “game manager” than either the Bubster or Slash, but he also lacked Brister’s rifle arm and Kordell’s big play potential. And Bono would have been an upgrade at backup quarterback over Mike Tomczak.

  • At the end of  the day, Steve Bono was just a foot-note in Steelers history.

Could he have been more than that?

Steelers Nation is left to wonder.

 

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius

When Bill Walsh passed away in September 2007, he took hs rightful place alongside departed coaching legends like Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, and Tom Landry.

When commentators rushed to assess Walsh’s place among other coaching legends, his name was rarely matched against of Chuck Noll’s.

Why?

The stock response is, “…Sure, Noll was good… but you know, Walsh made a much deeper imprint on the game….”

Bill Walsh was great by any and all measures. His legacy, in terms of game plan design and coaching cadre, is on display every Sunday for all to see, and this will continue for a long, long time.

But what is the true relation between a “legacy,” and sheer coaching greatness? To what extent can you differentiate the two? How do you separate a man’s impact on the game from his on-the field coaching ability?

These are difficult questions to answer, but if you peel away aura that accompanies “the Bill Walsh coaching tree” and the proliferation of “the West Coast Offense,” Walsh retains his greatness, but becomes much more of a mortal.

The Conventional Wisdom both inside and outside of Steelers Nation will probably always rank Walsh higher than Noll. But Steel Curtain Rising revels in challenging the conventional wisdom, and we argue that when measured as a mortal, the lofty perch the Walsh occupies doesn’t necessarily overlook Chuck Noll.

What follows is a series of posts that compare The Emperor who led the team of the ‘70’s, to “the Genius” who led the team of the 80’s. Noll vs. Walsh — By the Numbers quantifies the competition. Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluation examines the mens’ respective abilities as talent evaluators. Noll vs. Walsh – What Makes a Legacy? traces the impact both men had on the sport beyond the actual games that they were involved in.

Finally, we wrap it up with Noll vs. Walsh — Head to Head. Enjoy. “By the numbers” follows immedately below, with the others scattered out throughout the blog. Enjoy, and feel free to jump into the debate in the comment section, just keep it civil.

Click here to read Part II of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh — By The Numbers

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that will compare Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.

Any comparison begins with the numbers. How we interpret numbers might be subjective, but numbers themselves do not lie.

Regular Season Victories:

Bill Walsh – 92-59-1 (.603)
Chuck Noll – 193-148-1 (.566)

This is an interesting stat. Walsh does have a better winning percentage, but Noll won more games than Walsh. One hundred and one more to be exact. To give you an idea of the proportions involved, Pro Football reference lists 436 NFL head coaches. Of that number, less than thirty cracked the 100 win mark. One hundred win provides pretty wide margin. Edge: Noll.

Post Season Victories
Bill Walsh 10-4 (.714)
Chuck Noll 16-8 (.667)

Again, Walsh holds the better winning percentage, but Noll again beats him when it comes to the raw numbers. Playoff victories are a scarce commodity (ask Marty Schottenhimer). Noll’s higher playoff victory total trumps Walsh’s better winning percentage. Edge: Noll.

Playoff Appearances and Division Titles

Bill Walsh 7 playoff appearances, 6 division titles
Chuck Noll 12 playoff appearances, 9 division titles

Case is pretty clear here. Noll brought teams to the playoffs almost twice as many times as Walsh, and brought home three more division titles. To that you can add the fact that the Bengals, Browns, and Oilers of the 70’s gave the Steelers far stiffer challenges than anything the 49er’s faced from the Falcons, Saints, and Rams of the 80’s. Edge: Noll.

Super Bowls

Bill Walsh 3
Chuck Noll 4

These are the cold, hard facts. Chuck Noll brought home more hardware for the trophy case than did Bill Walsh. 49ers partisans like to argue that credit for Super Bowl XXIV rightfully belongs to Bill Walsh and not George Seifert, because the 49ers surely would have won that year had Walsh not retired. That’s not only plausible, it’s extremely likely.

Alas, as Yoda would say, overwhelming probability does not reality equal.

The fact is that is that Walsh didn’t coach four Super Bowl teams.

Chuck Noll did.

Edge: Noll.

The decision to weight total wins heavier than winning percentage is certainly debatable. But to avoid repetition, we’ll hold off discussion on that until the final section “Walsh vs. Noll, Head to Head.” In the mean time, check back in a few days for our next post: Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluators, followed by Noll vs. Walsh — What Makes a Legacy?

Click here to read Part III of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh — Vote in our Trivia Poll

Welcome! Google Analytics tells me that more and more of you are visting by the week — While you’re here we invite you to vote in our trivia poll.

This poll is intended to jump start a debate on who was better — Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh.

The conventional wisdom, even within much of Steelers Nation, is of course that Bill Walsh was the better of the two.

But Steel Curtain Rising revels in challenging the conventional wisdom, hence the poll, which is a run up to a forthcoming article. Please take a moment to vote.

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