Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Remembering Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career – The Unlucky Soul Tapped to Replace Franco Harris

When the Pittsburgh Steelers made running back Walter Abercrombie the 12th overall selection of the 1982 NFL Draft, he left Baylor as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,665 yards over four seasons.  What did the use of such a lofty draft selection of a running back with such a prolific collegiate career really mean? Here’s the simple English translation:

  • There was no way Walter Abercrombie was coming to Pittsburgh to be anything other than Franco Harris‘ eventual replacement.

When Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career began, Franco Harris had been the Steelers workhorse at running back for 10-full seasons, was 32 years old and, while nobody knew it at the  time, had two seasons of tread left on his tires. (The Steelers cut Franco Harris prior to the 1984 campaign during a contract dispute. He then signed with the Seahawks in Week 2 but Seattle cut Franco halfway through the season after he gained just 170 yards. Franco Harris never played again.)

Unfortunately, much like a lot of things involving the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980s, Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career never came close to matching Franco Harris’ or recapturing the magic No. 32 was a part of in the previous decade, when he helped lead the team to four Super Bowl titles.

As the AP pointed out in a story published on October 31, 1984 shortly after the Seahawks cut Harris, Franco retired from the NFL with the most career 1,000-yard  seasons (eight) and rushing attempts (2,949).

  • Therefore, Abercrombie wasn’t just trying to fill some big shoes; he was tasked to fill, perhaps, the biggest shoes on the team, other than the cowboy boots left behind by Terry Bradshaw.

Not only did Abercrombie fail to fill Harris’ shoes, he was never the team’s leading-rusher in any given year. In six seasons with the Steelers, Abercrombie rushed for 3,343 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he often took a backseat to big, bruising fullback Frank Pollard, a 1980 11th round pick out of Baylor, ironically enough, who was Pittsburgh’s leading-rusher in the ’80s with 3,989 yards. 

Indeed, early in the Steelers 1986 season, Chuck Noll did something he was not wont to do – he picked up Earnest Jackson off of waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jackson actually ended up getting two more carries than Abercrombie, despite starting 3 fewer games.

However, Abercrombie was a decent-to-great receiver out of the backfield, and caught 139 passes during his career–including 47 for 395 yards in 1986. You can see some of Walter Abercrombie’s receiving exploits for yourself (available as of 7/15/16):

In-fact, Abercrombie had such good hands there were some fans who clamored for him to move to receiver (and not necessarily out of love), so Rich Erenberg, a ninth round pick out of Colgate in 1984, could get a chance to start at tailback.

After six years in Pittsburgh, Abercrombie, bothered by knee injuries and with younger players like Merril Hoge on the rise, was released prior to the 1988 season and finished up his career with the Philadelphia Eagles one year later.

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers Career Highlights

No, Abercrombie couldn’t replace Franco, and he clearly wasn’t a fan-favorite, but as he indicated to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he understood what he was up against:

“It didn’t bother me,” Abercrombie said of not living up to fan expectations. “I had some big shoes to fill, and there wasn’t any way I was going to make the fans forget about Franco.”

Abercrombie did have some decent years, however. He rushed for 851 yards in 1985. One year later, he added another 877 yards on the ground, which, coupled with those aforementioned 395 receiving yards, gave him 1,272 yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, Abercrombie’s two best years coincided with back-to-back losing seasons, which hadn’t occurred during Chuck Noll‘s regime since 1970 and 1971– not so coincidentally the last two years before Harris arrived on the scene in 1972.

But Abercrombie did have some crucial performances for the Steelers in high stakes situations. As the aforementioned Post-Gazette article pointed out, No. 34 rushed for 75 yards and added another 18 receiving yards in a Steelers 24-17 upset of the Broncos in a 1984 divisional playoff game at Mile High Stadium.

Walter Abercrombie, Sports Illustrated, Steelers, Broncos, Steelers upset Broncos Mile High, 1984

Steelers Walter Abercrombie in 1984 AFC Divisional Playoff upset of Denver; Photo Credit Sports Illustrated

Abercrombie acquitted himself so well in that playoff game, that he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  However, two weeks earlier, in the final regular season game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Raiders in Los Angeles on December 16, 1984, Abercrombie had perhaps the best day of his career–and right when the Steelers needed it most.

When the Steelers (8-7) took the field at 4 p.m. EST, they did so with the knowledge that they needed to win in-order to capture the AFC Central Division title. Earlier in the day, the Bengals wiped out the Bills, 52-21, to finish at 8-8. Cincinnati held the tiebreaker, and a Steelers loss would mean missing the postseason for the third time in five years.

Thankfully, Abercrombie came through with 111 yards on the ground and another 72 through the air–including a 59-yard catch-and-run late in the game that set-up Pollard’s one-yard touchdown plunge.

  • Pittsburgh won, 13-7, and advanced to Denver where Abercrombie and Co. pulled off the incredible playoff upset two weeks later.

Today, Abercrombie remains Baylor’s all-time leading rusher, and he’s also heavily involved with his alma mater; since 2004, he’s acted as executive director of the Baylor “B” Association.

“I had one of the best collegiate football experiences a player could have,” said Abercrombie, in a story published by Baylor Lariot in May.  “Aside from the individual honors I earned as a player, I had outstanding coaches and dedicated teammates. Also, we won a conference championship and went to two bowl games.”

According to a 1997 Sports Illustrated article featuring Abercrombie, when he came into the NFL in 1982, he was part of a rookie group of running backs that had the potential to be the best in the history of the draft (think the 1983 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks that produced Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and of course Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason, and Todd Blackledge.)

Unfortunately, other than the legendary Marcus Allen, ’82’s class of running backs failed to live up to the hype. Said Abercrombie in ’97: “You have a window of opportunity for greatness. I didn’t step through that.”

Walter Abercrombie’s Steelers career may have fallen short of filling the shoes left by Franco Harris, and he certainly didn’t leave behind much of a Steelers legacy. But the love and respect he has at Baylor shows that, well, maybe a Steelers legacy isn’t the only one that matters.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Remembering Steelers Punter Harry Newsome, Punter Extraordinaire and Former Rookie of the Year

It’s safe to say you probably don’t remember Harry Newsome, who punted for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1985-1989. I don’t blame you. After all, who remembers punters? Other than Josh Miller and Daniel Sepulveda, can you name another guy who has punted for the team over the last 15 years or so?

Heck, at least when it comes to Pittsburgh, there’s no correlation between the Steelers enjoying quality punting and successful seasons (yes, remember Steelers Nation, Mitch Berger owns a Super Bowl ring for Super Bowl XLIII.)

If placekickers are the redheaded stepchildren of professional football, punters are the dishwashers. Oh, it’s not that washing dishes is a horrible job or anything, but nobody goes to a restaurant to see a dishwasher; they go to eat food off of the dishes.

  • Chances are, if a person sees the dishwasher, it’s because they are helping him or her wash dishes as punishment for failure to pay a tab.

Which bring us back to Harry Newsome. If you’re looking for information on him, that might he difficult to find. Even his Wikipedia page is short and includes a disclaimer about lack of references and sources. 

But I can assure you, Newsome was a really good punter during his time in Pittsburgh.

steelers, steelers punters, harry newsome

The t-shirt says it all….

In-fact, in 1985, the year the Steelers drafted him in the eighth round out of Wake Forest, Newsome won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, an annual honor handed out to the team’s rookie of the year. Yes, along side the names of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Louis Lipps and Carnell Lake as Steelers rookie of the year award winners, you’ll also see Harry Newsome’s.

Of course, given that ’85 would also mark the Steelers first losing season in 14 years and usher in a period of turmoil for the franchise, perhaps it was an indictment of head coach Chuck Noll’s post-Super Bowl struggles with regards to the draft that a punter was his top rookie.

Newsome was around to be named the rookie of the year after beating out Craig Colquitt, who was the team’s punter for seven seasons and played in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

Newsome averaged 39.6 yards per punt in ’85 and got better from there.

The only true “where are they now” kind of story I could find on Newsome is courtesy of a Bleacher Report article written in 2009. 

Sadly, the name of the article is Year of Hell, and it focuses on the record-setting six blocked punts Newsome endured in 1988, the year the Steelers finished 5-11 (after which Chuck Noll FINALLY relented and hired a full time special teams coach.)

As the author pointed out in the story, Noll had little time for special teams during his career (all one has to do is watch highlights of those famous ’70s Super Bowls to see one special teams mistake after another–especially by kicker Roy Gerela and punter Bobby Walden–to know that was true), and in ’88, Newsome had to deal with four, count’em, four long-snappers.

“A good time of snapping the ball, handling the punt, then getting it away was 6.7 to 6.8 seconds,” related Newsome in ’09:

The handle  time of the punter himself should be somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 seconds. I spent my time in Pittsburgh always trying to hurry my punts because the ball took so long to get to me. I even went from a three step punter to two steps. It didn’t help because the extra tenths of seconds on the snap, along with protection problems, left us often exposed. It would amp up the opponents even more knowing this.

As a bit of a cruel paradox, while Newsome was setting the Steelers record for punts blocked in ’88, he was also one of the few bright spots on the team, as he led the league with an average of 45.4 yards per punt.

In-fact, in Week 15, when the 4-10 Steelers traveled to face the 4-10 Chargers, the NBC announcer opened up the broadcast by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The two best punters in the league are set to square-off this afternoon…..” You see, San Diego’s punter, Ralf Mojsiejenko, was hot on Newsome’s tail but ultimately finished with an average of 44.1 for the season.

Newsome would go on to play one more season in Pittsburgh, before leaving as a Plan B Free Agent after the 1989 Steelers storybook season. During his five years with the Steelers, Newsome averaged a respectable 41.4 yards per punt.

But he also had an incredible 12 punts blocked, and when he suffered two more during his four seasons with the Vikings, the sum-total of 14 tied him with Herman Weaver for an NFL record that still stands to this day.

In researching that aforementioned Bleacher Report article, I was mildly surprised to find out Newsome, who was a great athlete in his youth, was Pittsburgh’s emergency quarterback in-addition to the holder on field goals. This came in handy in 1986, when, following a botched field goal snap, Newsome threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Preston Gothard in a game against the Bears.

There’s another surprising Harry Newsome factoid:  Newsome had the longest punt in the history of Three Rivers Stadium when he booted one 84 yards in December of 1992 as a member of the Vikings.

In a lot of ways, a punter’s legacy is defined by the team he plays for. Harry Newsome’s career in Pittsburgh is a forgotten one, largely because of the struggles of the Steelers in the mid-to-late ’80s.

But not everything is blocked from memory (pardon the pun).

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Throwback Thursday: Mark Malone’s 5 Touchdown Game vs. the Colts in 1985

Three Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks have thrown for at least five touchdowns in a game. Terry Bradshaw is obviously one of them. Ben Roethlisberger is another (Big Ben in fact has done it four times). But who was the third?

Surely someone like the legendary Bobby Layne, right? And if it wasn’t him, certainly it was Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart or maybe even a gunslinger like Tommy Maddox, right? Nope.

Try Mark Malone.

mark malone, steelers, 5 touchdowns, former steelers quarterbacks

Former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone in 1986; Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

  • Yes, you read correctly, Mark Malone once threw 5 touchdown passes in game.

Mark Malone, who played for the Steelers for eight years in the 1980s and was the team’s primary starting quarterback from  mid-way through the ’84 campaign until the Steelers traded Malone to the Chargers (for an 8th round pick) following the ’87 season, was never a fan-favorite based the fact that he had to replace a future Hall of Famer and, obviously, his poor career stats.

Malone Not Alone in  Succeeding the Blond Bomber…

Malone was the Steelers first round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, just months after they won Super Bowl XIV, their 4th championship in six years behind the legendary Terry Bradshaw.  Was Malone, a magnificent athlete who passed for 3,388 yards and rushed for another 1,344 during his three years at Arizona State,  going to be groomed as the heir apparent to the Blond Bomber?

  • It didn’t necessarily seem so at the time.

As Malone explained to New York Times in January of 1985 as he prepared to face Miami in the 1984 AFC Championship game, how could he ever replace Bradshaw, who was just 31 years old when the youngster was drafted?

When I was drafted by the Steelers, friends back home in San Diego asked, ‘How will you ever get a chance to play with Bradshaw there?

But, again, Malone was so physically gifted that when Lynn Swann was injured heading into a Week 10 match-up in Seattle during the ’81 season, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll asked him to play wide-receiver. While Malone only caught one pass, it went for a 90-yard touchdown (a franchise record that stood for years).

  • Unfortunately for Malone, he injured his knee in the game against the Seahawks that would require surgery in the offseason and force him to miss all of 1982.

Even after Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season and Cliff Stoudt departed for the USFL, the Steelers acquired David Woodley from the Dolphins prior to the 1984 campaign, and he ultimately beat-out Malone for the starting job.

But, David Woodley wasn’t up to the job, and Malone became the permanent starter in the second half of the season, as he led the ’84 Steelers to five victories, a 9-7 record and Chuck Noll’s last AFC Central Division title.

Among  those victories was an upset over the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in Week 7 (San Francisco’s only loss in ’84 and the 1st of two Noll/Malone wins over Walsh/Montana) and a 52-24 thrashing of the Chargers in Week 13 at old Three Rivers Stadium; in the blow-out win, Malone passed for 253 yards and four touchdowns and, according to his Wikipedia page, became the first quarterback in team history to complete over 80 percent of his passes in a game (18 of 22).

  • Other notable performances during the ’84 campaign occurred in the postseason.

Mark Malone helped the Steelers become the first road team to win a playoff game in Denver, after a 24-17 victory over the Broncos in the divisional round.  One week later, he threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, as Pittsburgh fell to the Dolphins, 45-28, in the AFC Championship game in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

1985 Steelers Appeared Poised for Greatness

While Mark Malone didn’t make anyone forget about Terry Bradshaw during the second half of the ’84 season, he certainly did enough to earn the starting nod moving forward, providing the perfect backdrop for Mark Malone’s shining moment.

  • To understand this, you’ve got to understand the context in which the Steelers started the 1985 season.

The 85 Steelers were a new team with a mostly revamped roster that included an exciting, young receiver named Louis Lipps, 1984’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.  And this retooled roster had renewed Pittsburgh’s enthusiasm with three-straight playoff-appearances and provided objective evidence that the Steel Curtain was poised to rise again.

  • Pittsburgh opened the ’85 campaign at home against the Colts on September 8.

Malone, coming off several impressive performances the year before, had the game of his life in-front of a sell-out crowd, completing 21 of 30 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns, as he tied Bradshaw’s single-game record just one year after he retired.

To add to Malone’s career-day, he also scored on a one-yard touchdown run giving him a hand in 6 touchdowns in a 45-3 blow-out victory.

  • According to the young quarterback, whom the Colts defenders failed to sack all day, it was a total team effort.

As Malone clarified to the UPI after the game:

I thought I had a good game. But as I’ve said in the past–and I think it’s extremely important–when two receivers run good routes and those guys in front are giving you time and you’re running the ball, well, you’re going to have good days.

Those two receivers Malone was referring to were Lipps, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and  three touchdowns, and the legendary John Stallworth, who also tallied a score. Chuck Noll’s Steelers had struggled in the early 80’s, but Malone’s 5 touchdown game on opening day vs. the Colts, Pittsburgh appeared poised to dominate the second half of the decade.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers finished 7-9 and suffered their first losing season since 1971; as for Malone, he only played in 10 games in ’85 due to an injury.

Malone started a combined 26 games over the next two seasons, but the playoff-less trend continued, as Pittsburgh failed to quality in 1986 and again in 1987. Whatever scorn the fans initially felt for the embattled quarterback intensified during these years, as he threw  just 21 touchdown passes to a whopping 37 interceptions.

Those fans, and many reporters, who hardly criticized Mark Malone during his time in Pittsburgh certainly had Just Cause. In eight seasons with the Steelers, Malone had 60 touchdown passes to 81 interceptions and a passer-rating of 50.2.

  • In fact, in his final season as a starter, Malone had 46.4 passer rating (yes, that forty six point four)

Malone, who has had long-lasting success as a sportscaster and sports personality after retiring, never had a career even approaching that of a decent NFL quarterback.

But on opening day of the 1985 regular season Mark Malone authored in one of the most underrated quarterback performances in Pittsburgh Steelers history. For that he should be proud.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Honoring Steelers Linebacker David Little – An Underapperciated Part of Pittsburgh’s Linebacker Legacy

When David Little began his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1981, he arrived on the scene one year after his older brother, Larry Little, a future Hall of Fame guard who played 14 years for both the Chargers and Dolphins, ended his.

  • Talk about a lot to live up to for the younger Little, a middle linebacker and Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Florida.

Speaking of future Hall of Famers, the Steelers still employed nine of them during Little’s rookie season. One of those future enshrines was Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh’s fierce, cranky and toothless middle linebacker. In only his eighth year in the NFL and still in his late-20s, the perennial Pro Bowler figured to rule the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium for many more years to come.

  • Didn’t seem like there’d be much of a future as a starter for Little, especially considering his rather middle-of-the-road draft-status.

Even after the Steelers switched to a 3-4 alignment in 1982 (three down linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers), it didn’t create a starting spot for Little. Instead, veteran Loren Toews started every game at left inside linebacker in ’82 and again in 1983, while the consistent and reliable Lambert manned the right inside spot.

Things forever changed for Little in 1984, after the legendary Lambert suffered a turf toe injury and only started three games.

"David

David Little helps Mel Blount bring down Marcus Allen

In Lambert’s place and along side Super Bowl veteran Robin Cole, Little started 13 games in ’84 and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 86, according to a UPI story published about Little in January of ’85, just prior to Pittsburgh’s match-up against the Dolphins for the right to go to Super Bowl XXIX.

“When you play Lambert’s position, your job is to make big plays,” Little told sports writer Dave Raffo, some 31 years ago.

In-fact, the Steelers defense made many big plays with Little starting in-place of Lambert, finishing fifth in both total yards and takeaways in ’84, as Pittsburgh advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

As the story pointed out, Lambert was activated prior to the game against the Dolphins, but head coach Chuck Noll perhaps left no doubt as to who would start: “He’s a special player,” Noll said of Lambert. “But David Little has done an outstanding job in his place.”

Little started the conference title game in Miami, which turned out to be a 45-28 loss, and would continue to start for the remainder of his career, after Jack Lambert retired following the ’84 campaign.

  • Over the next eight seasons, Little was a model of consistency, starting an additional 112 games.

The NFL really didn’t keep track of tackles during Little’s playing days, but according to an article from The Pittsburgh Press published in 1990, Little, who made his first Pro Bowl that season, was the same tackling machine as Lambert, as he led the team in that category five of the previous six seasons–including four in a row up to that point.

  • It may have taken awhile for Little to earn his first Pro Bowl honor, but they say the ultimate respect a player receives is from his teammates.

Future Hall of Famer, and Little’s 1988 co-Steelers MVP, Rod Woodson, positively beamed when asked about Little finally making the Pro Bowl:

He’s been playing here for 10 years and playing well for 10 years,” He’s finally getting recognized, and everybody’s  really happy for David. I mean really, really happy.

Little played two more years and lasted through Bill Cowher‘s first season as head coach. However, despite the free agent departure of Hardy Nickerson, Cowher released Little during training camp in 1993 in-large part because of the development of second-year players Jerry Olsavsky and  Levon Kirkland.

Levon Kirkland, who much like Little, would go on to be a mainstay at the inside linebacker spot for many years. Because of his size (275 pounds) and almost unreal athleticism, Kirkland became a star at inside linebacker and made two Pro Bowls during his time with the Steelers.

  • As for Little, he never played again and retired into relative obscurity after 12 NFL seasons.

Sadly, on March 17, 2005, Little died in a weightlifting accident at his home in Florida. He was 46.

David Little may not have been as famous as his older brother or the Hall of Fame legend he replaced at inside linebacker for the Steelers. In-fact, he probably didn’t even quite enjoy the notoriety of his successor Levon Kirkland.

But David Little upheld the standard of excellence that is the Steelers linebacker legacy and had the respect of his teammates and a career to be proud of.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Terry Bradshaw’s Last Pass: Calvin Sweeney’s Under Apperciated Role in Steelers History

Coming to the Steelers as  their fourth round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, Calvin Sweeney, a receiver out of USC, had to be at least a little conscious of the glass-ceiling at the position he would try to play professionally.

Calvin Sweeney, Terry Bradshaw's last pass

Steelers wide receiver Calvin Sweeney.

With Lynn Swann, a fellow USC graduate, and John Stallworth having long-since established themselves as one of the top-receiver duos in the NFL, just making the Steelers’ squad was going to be a difficult task.

But if the youngster did make Pittsburgh’s squad, at least he could  get in on the championship success that saw the organization win four Super Bowls in the previous six years, right?

Sadly, while Sweeney came to Pittsburgh already knowing he would be the low man on the receiver dept chart, he also arrived on the scene just as the Super Bowl days were coming to an end.

  • Like Tunch Ilkin, Calvin Sweeney was “Too Late for Super Bowls, Too Early for Free Agency”

However, as Sweeney told the Steelers site, SteelerAddicts, in an interview from 2007, Pittsburgh was a class organization that quickly made a great impression on him, and even the superstars such as two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Terry Bradshaw were down-to-Earth and accommodating:

My rookie year, the team was leaving for a preseason game. I had surgery on my foot and Terry Bradshaw asked me what are you going to do this weekend? I told him I would stay around St. Vincent. He knew my girlfriend was in Arlington, Virginia visiting her parents. He told me to take his car and go see her. I didn’t know anything about Arlington and he told me it was just a few hours down the road. He just got a new Lincoln Continental. He gave me the keys and I went to see my girlfriend. That was my first impression. He was such a good guy. Everyone on the team were great guys.

Speaking of class, there was nobody classier than Art Rooney Sr., the team founder, who made an impression on the rookie Sweeney right away.

As Sweeney explained in an interview he did with Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin in 2012: 

When Art Rooney Sr. brought the four of us  top picks in to meet the press and coaches. He came up to me and asked me my name. I told him “Calvin”. He said, ‘Calvin?’ That’s not a good Irish name. I’ll call you Mikey.’ And he never called me Calvin again. He’d come up to me in practice and say, ‘Hey Mikey–how are you doing?’

In an eight-year career in Pittsburgh, Sweeney caught just 113 passes for 1,775 yards and seven touchdowns. However, in 1983, due to retirement (Swann hung up his cleats following the ’82 season) and injury (Stallworth only played in four games), Sweeney had a career-year, as he led the team in receptions (39), receiving yards (577) and touchdowns (five) while starting all 16 games.

  • Of course, the highlight of Sweeney’s ’83 season (and perhaps the thing that he’s most remembered for) was Terry Bradshaw’s last pass.

Bradshaw had been out the entire ’83 season up to that point, recovering from offseason elbow surgery. However, in a Week 15 match-up against the Jets at Shea Stadium – in the last game at that historic venue – Terry Bradshaw made his regular season debut. After giving Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead thanks to a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity in the first quarter, Bradshaw put the Steelers ahead, 14-0, with a 10-yard strike to Sweeney in the second quarter.

Here’s Sweeney’s description of Terry Bradshaw’s last pass and the aftermath, courtesy of SteelerAddicts:

I didn’t know if was [Bradshaw’s] final one then. We set up a play where I lined up close to Bennie Cunningham. Bradshaw came out of the pocket and just jumped and threw it and I caught it. He grabbed his elbow then and  tried to shake it off. We went to the sideline and he said I am through, my arm is killing me. We thought it would be a few weeks. Cliff Stoudt came in and played. Next thing I knew Brad said I can’t go anymore.

Sweeney would go on to play four more years and was out of football following the strike-shortened ’87 season.

As per his Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin interview from 2012, Sweeney, 61, is working in management for UPS, a company he began with as a delivery driver, immediately after his playing days ended.

Calvin Sweeney may not have had a great career, but he certainly seemed to enjoy his time in Pittsburgh and in catching Terry Bradshaw’s last pass he played an under appreciated role in Steelers history. And he appears to embody the same class as the team founder who called him “Mikey” and the Hall of Fame quarterback who loaned him his new car and honored him with his final pass.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Remembering Weegie Thompson – One Tough 1980’s Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver

When I was a kid, my grandfather would rattle off obscure names of former Pittsburgh Steelers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. These players obviously weren’t stars, but to him, they were favorites that he had a soft-spot in his heart for.

  • Perhaps today, there are 40-somethings who grew up in the 1980s, telling their kids about this former Steelers receiver named Weegie Thompson.
weegie thompson, steelers, wide receiver,

Weegie Thompson Steelers wide out 1984-89

Willis “Weegie” Thompson played his college football at Florida St., before arriving in Pittsburgh as a fourth round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.  During a three-year college career, Thompson caught just 41 passes for 711 yards and five touchdowns.

  • But 31 of those catches, 502 of those yards and three of those touchdowns occurred during his final year, which probably helped his draft-status immensely.

It also didn’t hurt that Thompson stood at 6′ 6″ and weighed 212 pounds–measurables that would equal the playing field for most unheralded college receivers looking to make it at the pro level.

Thompson was part of the same class that produced Louis Lipps. After a rookie season that included 17 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns, playing behind both Lipps and the legendary John Stallworth, it may have looked like the future was bright for the young Thompson.

  • Unfortunately for Thompson, he never broke through to the top of the depth chart and never caught more than 17 passes in any given season.

Thompson went on to play just six seasons with the Steelers, before getting on with his life’s work following the 1989 Steelers story book season. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out in a story about Thompson in 2003, maybe if he had played 15 years later, he would have been utilized as more of a downfield weapon, instead of primarily as a blocker for the always conservative Chuck Noll.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's

Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Steelers wide receivers Louis Lipss and Weegie Thompson

But as Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then, he had few regrets about his career:

I don’t dwell on it. I was proud to be a member of the Steelers and of the time I spent in Pittsburgh. I played hard and performed to the best of my abilities when I was there. I gave it my best and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

However, while Thompson had a rather obscure career that included just 79 receptions for 1,377 yards and 11 touchdowns, thanks to his abilities as a blocker, he was able to gain lasting respect from one of the all-time greats, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.

Thompson’s play during the Steelers’ famous upset victory over San Francisco in Week 7 of the 1984 season (the only loss by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers that year and perhaps Noll’s most impressive post-’70s regular season victory) is mentioned in a SFGate article about Lott from 2000.

What follows is a snippet of the article, along with a quote from Lott:

Call it respect–for yourself, for others. It had meaning to Lott. You earned his respect by playing hard and tough, and within the rules. He still fairly gushes when he talks about a journeyman Pittsburgh wide receiver named Weegie Thompson. In Thompson’s rookie season, 1984, the Steelers were the only team to beat the 49ers. One reason they did was by assigning Thompson to block Lott on every play. 

“He blocked my butt all day–and fair,” Lott remembered. “Every play, he came after me. And I respect the hell out of Weegie Thompson to this day. He’s one of the toughest guys I ever played against.”

Some NFL players go on to have Hall of Fame careers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth), some are borderline (Hines Ward). Others have good careers that may have been better in different eras or under different circumstances (Buddy Dial, Roy Jefferson and Louis Lipps), while some never reach their full potential (Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and maybe Martavis Bryant).

But there are countless NFL players who play for a while and end their careers with no legacy.

  • Football doesn’t define them; it’s something they did for a part of their lives.

Weegie Thompson was that kind of football player, but he still left enough of an impression on fans and even peers playing for rivals to be proud of his time with the Steelers and the NFL.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

The Emperor’s Last Hurrah – the 1989 Steelers Defeat Oilers 26-23 in the Playoffs

Noll and His Nemisis

On evening of December 31st 1989 Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers played Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers for the AFC Wild Card, in the Houston Astrodome.

  • The only thing missing was the steel cage.

Chuck Noll was a model of serenity. Jerry Glanville was flamboyant for the sake of flamboyance.

Noll represented everything honorable about the game, even criticizing his players in court once for being part of the NFL’s “criminal element.”

Glanville served as Noll’s anti-hero. Glanville encouraged dirty play, drawing an angry rebuke from Noll on the floor of the Astrodome.

The Oilers had humiliated the 1989 Steelers in the Astrodome to the tune of 27-0. With the benefit of a fourth time out, Houston won the second match up at Three Rivers Stadium.

The date was December 31st. 1989.

It was New Year’s eve, it was the final NFL game of the 1980’s, the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers were again playing in the “House of Pain.”

And this time it was for all of the marbles.

Missing Opportunities and Making Opportunities

Houston won the toss and drove straight down the field until the Pittsburgh defense stopped them at the 40. From there, Jerry Glanville attempted a 55 yard field goal which fell short.

Unable to take advantage, the Steelers were forced to punt the ball back. But the Oilers did very little and Glanville sent out Greg Montgomery to punt.

Untouched, rookie Jerry Olsavsky stormed through the middle of the Houston line and blocked the punt with Pittsburgh recovering at the Houston 23. The Steelers advanced to the Oiler’s 9 yard line, until their drive stalled at 4th and 1.

  • Chuck Noll went for it.

At the snap Brister pitched the ball to Tim Worley who forced linebacker Robert Lyles to miss and ran untouched until the one where he plowed through Pro-Bowl safety Bubba McDowell for the game’s first score.

With 2:36 remaining in the first quarter, Chuck Noll’s delivered a message:

  • Pittsburgh’s playing to win.

Field Goal Kicking Derby

Houston’s responsed agressively, driving 96 yards to the Pittsburgh 3, but there Rod Rust defense, a Mike Munchack penalty and a Haywood Jefferies drop in the end zone
forced the Oilers to settle for 3.

The Oilers defense struck next, stripping the ball from Tim Worley and regaining possession at Pittsburgh’s 41. Moon drove his team to the Steelers 17 yard line only to see Jerry Glanville lose his nerve when Rust’s defense forced 4th and 1; another Tony Zendejas field goal made it 7-6.

  • Merril Hoge helped Pittsburgh increase its lead late in the first half when transformed a draw play into a 49 yard scamper by breaking two tackles and evading a third.

The Steelers advanced to the Houston 9, but two plays only yielded a single yard. With 1:57 left, facing a 4th and 1, Chuck Noll opted to kick, giving Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead.

Houston narrowed the score in the third quarter, again relying on the leg of Tony Zendejas after a short drive, making the score 10-9.

The Steelers answered in kind later in the third quarter, making the score 13-9 on another Gary Anderson field goal, this one for thirty yards which capped a 7 play 30 yard drive.

Pittsburgh got the ball back quickly, and after a nine play 33 yard drive, Gary Anderson booted in a 48 yard field goal – one that split the uprights with about ten yards to spare….

Three Touchdown Fourth Quarter

The Oilers might have been down 16-9 in the fourth quarter, but they were not out, as Glanville turned the game over to Warren Moon and his quartet of Pro-Bowl caliber receivers.

  • They rewarded their coach by tying the score on a 10 play 80 yard drive that ended with a 18 yard touchdown pass to Ernest Givens at 16-16.

After a three and out and 25 yard punt by Harry Newsome (eat your heart out Mitch Berger), Moon and his receivers went to work again, this time with a 5 play 38 yard drive that ended with 9 yard touchdown to Ernest Givens, giving Houston a 23-16 lead.

Merril Hoge Responds to the Call

With 5:16 to go, the Steelers started their final drive in regulation from their own 18. Bubby Brister declared to Merril Hoge “Its time to find out what we’re made of.”

And find out they did.

Brister hit Louis Lipps for 10 yards, and then Tim Worley ran 7 more.

  • Brister hit Hoge for another 3 yards and another first down.
  • Then Worely gashed Houston for another 11 yards.

Brister handed off to Hoge, who darted to his right and handed it to Dwight StoneTom Moore went to his bag of tricks – and the Oilers gave up another 22 yards on Stone’s reverse.

  • Worley ran for six more.
  • Hoge ran for another six

A Houston offsides penalty brought the Steelers to the Oilers 12 yard line as the two minute warning loomed.

  • A three yard pass to Worley brought the Steelers to the 9.
  • Merril Hoge lowered his helmet for more 8 yards.

Noll called Hoge’s number again, and Number 33 bowled through the line for a 1 yard touchdown to tie the game at 23-23, with 46 seconds left in regulation.

 

An Overtime for the Ages

The Steelers won the toss in overtime, but failed to capitalize on offense, and another horrendously poor punt gave the Oilers the ball at the Pittsburgh 45. The Steelers story book season, it appeared, was about to end.

For the entire game the Oilers had been running right. But on their first play in OT, tight end Chris Verhulst lined up next to the tackle, a tendency the Steelers defense knew signaled run to the left.

David Little screamed “Ohio!” warning of the impending run.

The ball was snapped. Warren Moon handed off to Lorenzo White.

Gerg Lloyd filled the gap at tackle, forcing White to the Outside…

  • …Out of nowhere Rod Woodson rocketed into Lorenzo White.

As he told Sport’s Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, “This is a sell out game. If you don’t sell your body now and go flying at someone you’ll never do it.”

  • As Woodson throttled White high, Tim Johnson hit him low, the ball popped lose, and Woodson recovered, and returned it to the Houston 46.

The Steelers looked to Number 33 again, and Merril Hoge again answered in the affirmative, dragging Houston safety Jeff Donaldson for the last five, for a first down. Hoge then added three more, taking it to the Houston 33.

Third down brought the Steelers nothing.

It was Gary Anderson’s time.

Gary Anderson Kicks One For His Father

As Chuck Noll said, “thank God we’re in a dome” — Anderson had not attempted a 50 yarder the whole season.

Houston called a time out. Tunch Ilkin approached Anderson and confided “I wouldn’t want anyone out here kicking this but you.”

Anderson dedicated the kick to his father, the man who’d taught him how to coach, who was in San Diego, suffering from a rare lung disease.

gary anderson, 1989 steelers, steelers vs. oilers, steelers win overtime astrodome

Gary Anderson boots the OT winner for the 1989 Steelers over the Oilers at the Astrodome; Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Brian Blankenship snapped to Harry Newsome, Anderson’s foot hit the ball clean and the kick was off.

  • The ball sailed 50 yards across the Astrodome, splitting the uprights with at least 5 yards to spare.

The Steelers had defeated the Oilers 26-23 to win the AFC Wild Card Game.

Repercussions…

Knocked out of the playoffs and having dropped three straight, a dejected Jerry Glanville trudged toward the locker room with his head hung low – with a security escort by his side.

Glanville hid behind injuries to explain the loss – Houston owner Bud Adams wasn’t buying however, and fired Jerry Glanville a few days later.

… and After Glow

Meanwhile the Steelers sidelines erupted, as teammates circled to embrace Gary Anderson. The normally stoic Chuck Noll threw off his head gear and ran over to pat Anderson on the helmet.

  • Noll later confided “It was a very emotional thing for this team. It was a gut check.”

The fact that they’d pulled this off despite their horrendous start was lost on no one. When asked how the 1989 Steelers pulled off this feat, Joe Greene’s explanation was simple and concise “They believe.”

Believe they did. And in the process, the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers delivered the Emperor Chuck Noll one Last Hurrah!

Thanks for visiting. To check out the entire series on the 1989 Steelers, click here and scroll down.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Head to Head

[The final post an a series analyzing the legacies of Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.]

The 49ers owned the 1980’s. The Steelers were slightly over .500 during the decade.

Critics argue that the Steelers struggles in the 80’s prove that Chuck Noll won in the 70’s “only because he had the players.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Talent deficiencies, not coaching deficiencies, lay at the root of the Steelers woes in the 80’s. If Noll is largely responsibility for that drop in talent, then he wins praise for his ability to coach that talent.

What other coach could win playoff games with the likes of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister?
Dynasty vs. Dynasty

Comparing dynasties from different eras is fun but futile. Think of Steelers of the 70’s vs. the 49er’s of the 80’s debate. The Pittsburgh Steelers were superior, but proving that is impossible.

Players from different eras have training methods and their relative athletic abilities vary too much. Many Steelers from the 70’s took off seson jobs just to make ends meet. In the 80’s, that was no longer necessary.

Fortunately, hypotheticals are unnecessary when it comes to evaluating pure coaching talent.

Both Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh coached during the 80’s. In fact, the two men squared off on opposing sidelines three times, and the results are revealing:

  • 1981 49er’s beat Steelers 17-14
  • 1984 Steelers beat 49ers 20-17
  • 1987 Steelers beat 49ers 30-17

Chuck Noll’s 1981 Steelers team still had loads of Super Bowl veterans. And if many of these men were past their primes, many others were still playing at a pretty high level. The 1981 squad was Walsh’s first Super Bowl team, so credit Bill Walsh’s coaching for that win.

Fair enough, but Chuck Noll deserves far more credit for the his victories in the next two meetings.

joe montana, 1984 49ers, steelers 49ers history, mark malone, chuck noll, bill walsh

Joe Montana dominated in the 1980’s, but he couldn’t beat Chuck Noll and Mark Malone; Photo Credit: Men’s Fitness

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh vs. Mark Malone and Chuck Noll

When the two teams played in 1984, only a handful of Super Bowl veterans remained. Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie manned the backfield. Greenwood, Holmes, Greene, and White had given way to the likes of Keith Willis, Keith Gray, and Edmund Nelson. David Little and Bryan Hinkle occupied spots once taken by Lambert and Ham. And of course, Mark Malone stood under center.

Despite a vastly inferior roster, Noll and the Steelers carried the day, handing the 15-1 Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49er’s their only loss.

A similar scene repeated itself on opening day 1987, when only Dwayne Woodruff, John Stalworth, and Mike Webster remained from the glory years. This was a 49ers team that not only had Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, but also Michael Carter, Roger Craig, and of course, Jerry Rice.

Malone was still the Steelers signal caller. In fact, he started all 12 non-strike games despite a 46.5 passer rating (no misprint, that’s forty six point five.)

Yet once again, the duo of Noll and Malone prevailed over the tandem of Walsh and Montana.

One Victory Might Equal “On Any Given Sunday,” but What About Two…?

The “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon might explain one victory, but winning two out of three? Indeed, the ballyhooed “West Coast Offense” never managed more than 17 points against in three tries against Chuck Noll’s defenses.

When it came facing off on opposing sidelines, the most important measure by far, Noll holds a small, but significant edge over Walsh.

So Who Was Better, Noll or Walsh?

When all is said and done, there’s a compelling case for Chuck Noll. He won more games and more championships. He also vanquished Walsh twice, and with Steeler teams that whose talent was far inferior to their 49er counterparts. There’s a reason why we call him the Emperor.

Ultimately, the answer comes down to what you decide.

But in the spirit of the blogsphere, I’ll close this series of posts with a question.

  • Chuck Noll and Mark Malone beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana — twice.

Does anybody think Bill Walsh could have beaten Chuck Noll with Mark Malone as his quarterback?

* Bill Walsh himself responded to the question on the Sports Reporters once, conceding that Pittsburgh would win if 70’s rules were used, but the 49’ers would prevail if 80’s rules were used. He’s probably right.

Click here to return to the main article of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh series. To display all article under the tag, click here.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!