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Steelers offense under Joe Walton in the early 1990s was a true model of inconsistency

For all the talk of inefficient Steelers offenses in recent years, none were as bad as the 1990 and 1991 units under offensive coordinator Joe Walton--including the 1990 team that failed to score an offensive touchdown for a month.


The subject of offensive productivity has been at the forefront for the Steelers since early in Bruce Arians' tenure as offensive coordinator. During his five years as game-planner, Pittsburgh continuously ranked in the middle of the pack or worse in scoring--including the 2011 season, Arians' last at the helm, when the offense ranked 21st in scoring at just over 20 points per game.

A season ago, under new OC Todd Haley, there wasn't much improvement in terms of scoring, as the offense averaged an even 21 points per game and finished 22nd in that very bottom line offensive statistic.

Now that Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have had a season to get to know each other and what makes the other tick (and ticked off), will the offense improve this season and get back on the very efficient track it seemed to be on before it was derailed by the SC joint sprain Roethlisberger suffered in Week 10 of 2012? It was the kind of track that had Roethlisberger possibly headed for the best year of his career (and maybe an MVP candidate) with 16 touchdown passes to only four INTs through nine games.

It remains to be seen if the offense will improve in 2013, of course. But no matter how inconsistent we may think the offense has been the past half-decade or so under Arians and Haley, it was nothing like the inconsistencies of Joe Walton's two seasons as OC in Pittsburgh--including the 1990 unit that failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first four games of his career with the Steelers.

During the first 13 games of the 1989 season, Pittsburgh's offense was pretty horrible, only averaging 232 yards and 14.8 points per game--including three shutouts. However, over the last five games, including the postseason, the offense came on and averaged 334 yards and 24.2 points per game.

After the season, Tom Moore, the team's long-time assistant and OC for seven seasons, was given his walking papers by head coach Chuck Noll. Walton, the Jets former head coach ('83-'89) and Redskins offensive coordinator ('78-'80), was brought into the fold in '90. Walton came to town with a very complicated offensive system that differed from the basic and straight-ahead style of Moore.

Prior to the magical playoff run to end the '89 season, there were calls for a more dynamic and imaginative offense. However, after the way the unit seemed to gel down the stretch with Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps, Merril Hoge and even rookie running back Tim Worley leading the way, fans and the media were a bit more hesitant to change and wanted to keep the '89 momentum going into the '90 campaign. That offseason, there was even a picture in one of the local newspapers featuring those players along with a quote from Brister that read: "I call it. They haul it."

I remember reading something from Noll regarding the shake-up in the face of the offense's obvious improvement to end the previous year, and to paraphrase, he said, "The best time to change is when things are going well and not when they're going poorly."

The players certainly weren't on board with Noll's sentiments. Here's a quote from Hoge, courtesy of Steel Curtain Rising:

"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."

To further illustrate how hard Walton's offense was for the players to grasp, the unit averaged just 175 yards a game during the touchdown drought to open the season and could only generate four Gary Anderson fields in the Steelers 1-3 start (Pittsburgh actually managed to win in Week 2, thanks to a D.J. Johnson pick-six and a Rod Woodson punt return for a touchdown in a 20-9 victory over the Oilers).

In all fairness to Walton, the offense did begin to come around starting in Week 5 and averaged just over 21 points a game the rest of the season--including four games of 30-plus points (the '89 offense only reached that mark two times in 18 games).

But it wasn't enough to make up for the disastrous start, as Pittsburgh missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Overall, the team scored 292 points that season--or a shade over 18 points a game--and ranked 20th in scoring. While it may have been an improvement over the 265 in Moore's last season in-which his offense ranked 24th in scoring, it wasn't much of one.

Walton's sophomore 1991 campaign produced the exact same amount of points as the '90 unit. After the season, Noll stepped down as head coach, and Walton became a foot-note in franchise history as the Emperor's last OC.

What does this all have to do with today and Haley? Not much--Haley's new offense is flowing through one of the best quarterbacks in the game, while Walton had the Bubster and Neil O'Donnell to work with--but the past can often act as a reference point for how present-day situations may play out.

Times have changed a lot since 1991--sophisticated offenses are usually the rule and not the exception these days--but the Walton experiment is a lesson for us all to heed: While change may often be necessary, it doesn't always mean it will be for the better.

If the Steelers are going to recapture some postseason glory in the coming years, Haley, Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense will have to do their best to not repeat history.