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Problems and Probabilities of Playing "What IF" with the Steelers and Dan Marino

Not drafting Dan Marino was one dumb draft decision. But would "One for the Thumb" have come to Pittsburgh 20 years sooner had the Steelers pulled the trigger on the hometown hero? Answering "Yes" is at once probable and problematic....

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If only Marino had thrown footballs instead of baseballs in the Black and Gold...
If only Marino had thrown footballs instead of baseballs in the Black and Gold...
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

ESPN's Ashley 'Fox is wrong. The NFL Draft does actually live up to the hype. A simple name shout grants a young man the opportunity live a dream born the moment he first touched a Nerf football. It doesn't stop there. Franchises share equally, if unevenly, in the spectacle of the draft: The few secure championships while the many squander them away.

  • This is true of each draft, every year.

From a purely objective view point, the NFL Draft is a two-sided coin: Men either grow into NFL or they don't; teams win either win or lose by their draft classes. And while every position (except possibly for kickers) plays a role in determining the later outcome, none are more important that the quarterback.

Correctly choosing a franchise quarterback can cement contender status for a decade or more (see Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger.) Missing on a franchise quarterback can condemn a team to mediocrity for even longer (see Mark Malone.) In that light, quarterbacks introduce a subjective third element into the equation: What could have been?

And in Pittsburgh Steelers draft lore, there is no bigger "What could have been?" than Chuck Noll's fateful 1983 decision to give Dan Marino a pass and select Gabe Rivera instead.

The question has been discussed relentlessly in Steelers Nation since then. And so it should. Earlier this year Bryan DeArdo opined that the Pittsburgh Steelers "One for the Thumb," "Six Pack," and maybe even "Stairway to Seven" would have come sooner had Noll not wiffed on that all important choice.

If you haven't read his article, please go and do so now. It is excellent, and serves as a perfect testament to the sentiments of an age when Steelers Nation depended on dreams rather than relied on reality. With that said, if you think about the question critically, you'll discover that playing "What if" game when it comes to Marino can be as perilous as it is plausible....

Yes Not Drafting Marino Was a Mistake

Let's clarify something now. Dan Marino was a Pittsburgh boy, son of the same soil that spawned Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and Joe Montana. He was a Central Catholic graduate and who polished his skills at Pitt. Marino's star rose just as the sun was setting on the Super Steelers. A more natural fit than Marino could not have been found.

  • Not drafting Marino was a huge mistake.

The Steelers should have taken him at 21, and Dan Rooney should have never confessed to the coaches that John Clayton suggested trading Cliff Stoudt and their second to Miami for the Dolphin's 27th to give Pittsburgh a section shot at Marino. (Word is Noll loved the idea, but balked at it when Rooney admitted it had come from a reporter.)

Fortnatley the franchise learned its lesson. Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola summed up Ben Roethlisberger's heroic Super Bowl XLIII drive succinctly: "This is why you draft a quarterback."

Not drafting Marino might not be as bad as the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth, the Portland Trailblazers drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, or no NHL team drafting Gretzky, but it was a pretty dam big mistake.

How big? Well, let's begin answering that question by taking up the "Pittsburgh drafts Marino = more Steelers Super Bowls Sooner" equation at its most plausible points.

The Reverse Bell Curve: Peak I

A realistic assessment of whether Marino coming to the Steelers would have resulted in more Super Bowls sooner will look like a reverse bell curve with the highest probability of "Yes" coming at the beginning and end of Marino's career.

  • This is because it is at each end where reality and imagination most closely match.

Let's take this in reverse order.

Two Neil O'Donnell interceptions doomed the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. O'Donnell then bolted for New York while Jimmy Johnson arrived in Miami.

The internet was in its infancy then, but rumors circulated that Johnson seriously considered parting ways with Marino to cleaning house as start from zero as he had in Dallas. Only Johnson knows if he honestly considered doing that, but had he done so, you know that Pittsburgh would have entered the Marino sweepstakes.

  • This is certain, because Bill Cowher admitted to speaking with Marino about playing a final year in Pittsburgh when his contract expired in Miami in 1999.

As it was, the Steelers were left to see Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart to vie for the starting quarterbacking role.

Mike Tomczak won and guided the Steelers to a 10-6 record and an AFC Central Championship.

One need not stretch the imagination much to figure that if you plug Marino into that team, the Steelers certainly equal and probably better that 10-6 mark. A couple more wins improve the Steelers playoff position, Fog Bowl II never happens, and it's not too hard to imagine the Steelers in Super Bowl XXXI.

The following year Kordell Stewart did take the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but he also threw two picks in goal line situations. In spite of that, the Steelers almost won that game. Does anyone think Marino makes such costly mistakes twice? Of course not, and the Steelers likely go to Super Bowl XXXII for a rematch with Green Bay.

This hypothetical is still valid even if honestly forces one to accept that after giving up whatever they would have had to give up to get Marino, the Steelers might not have been able to deal for Jerome Bettis. (Although to be fair, St. Louis gave the Bus away in a fire sale, so it is possible the Steelers bag both.)

  • But hold the "Getting Marino means no Bettis" thought however, while we take a moment to look at the reverse bell curve's other peak.

The Reverse Bell Curve: Peak II

The 1983 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 10-6 with Cliff Stoudt as their quarterback. After opening the season at 2-2 the Pittsburgh went on a seven game winning streak, followed by a loss to Minnesota, followed by the Thanksgiving Day massacre. As Myron Cope once wrote, it took the last throws left in Terry Bradshaw's arm to get the Steelers to their 10th victory vs. the New York Jets.

  • Two weeks later the Los Angeles Raiders clobbered the Steelers 38-10 on New Years day in the AFC Divisional playoff game.

Could Dan Marino have done better? Possibly. In Miami he unseated incumbent Super Bowl Starter David Woodley and led the Dolphins to a loss to vs. Seattle in the other AFC Division playoff game.

But for argument's sake, let's assume that the Raiders still beat the Steelers the playoffs. If that happens the Steelers keep the same draft position, and likely still draft Louis Lipps.

That's important, because by 1984 most of the Super Steelers had moved on to "Life's work." Jack Lambert only played in one game in ‘84. Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw were gone, as was the entire Steel Curtain, Bennie Cunningham, and so many other stars. 1984 was supposed expose Chuck Noll as a coach who only won because "he had the players."

Instead the Steelers played their way to a 9-7 record that was good enough for the AFC Central crown, and followed that feat by knocking off John Elway at Mile High in the playoffs, only to lose to... Dan Marino's Dolphins in the AFC Championship.

Those 1984 Steelers certainly would have been better with Dan Marino as their signal caller. Heck, playing opposite Louis LippsJohn Stallworth had his best season ever. Imagine what he could have done with Marino throwing to him instead of Mark Malone and David Woodley? If the hair isn't standing up on you neck, then you don't bleed Black and Gold.

And imagine if Marino is playing for rather than against the Steelers in that self-same AFC Championship game?

Victory there would have brought Pittsburgh up against Joe Montana and Bill Walsh's 49ers. Doubtlessly that would have been tough, but if the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone could beat Montana-Walsh twice in the 80's, it's not hard to fathom Noll-Marino beating Walsh-Montana in the Super Bowl....

The Bottom End of the Bell Curve

As has been demonstrated, if you plug Dan Marino onto the Pittsburgh Steelers roster in '83-'84 or '96-'97 the idea of him bringing more Super Bowls to Pittsburgh is very plausible.

Outside of that, it becomes far more complicated. Our own Tony Defeo hinted at that in a piece from March 2013 when he asked "...can you picture Harvey Clayton holding up a Super Bowl trophy? What about Weegie Thompson or Walter Abercrombie?"

  • Defeo's got a point, but one that needs to be developed in a little different direction.

In the NFL, every action impacts other decisions.

And that what makes the "What ifing" during the middle part of Dan Marino's career hazy, at best.

Chuck Noll's 1987 team finished 8-7, his 1989 team shocked the NFL in story book fashion, and his 1990 team teased and tantalized to the extreme before imploding. Look at those rosters, and you'll see the likes of Hardy Nickerson, Merrill Hoge, Carnell LakeGreg LloydRod Woodson and other players who Chuck Noll (rightly in my view) qualified as "championship caliber talent."

It's tempting to simply plug Marino in there and let your imagination run wild. But the sober truth is that had Marino already been a Steeler, most if not many of those other players wouldn't have been.

  • There are two reasons for this.

The first comes down to simple math.

The Steelers followed up on the Cinderella success of their '84 predecessors by going 7-9 in ‘85 and 6-10 in 1986. The NFL wasn't as pass happy in the mid-80's as it is now, but quarterbacks were still difference makers. Super Bowl title in '84 or not, Marino's presence alone certainly adds a couple of three more Steelers victories in each of those seasons.

Keep that in mind, because it was that self-same 6-10 record that earned the Steelers the 10th pick in 1987 draft. That was the pick they used to select Rod Woodson. Before the draft no one was mocking Woodson to the Steelers. Chuck Noll didn't even bother to scout Woodson because he thought there was ZERO chance Woodson would be there at number ten.

If you add two or three victories to the '86 Steelers record, as Marino probably does, and they're drafting 14th or 15th - no way Woodson falls that far. That also means the Steelers are picking 3-4 picks later in each round a draft that netted them Everett, Nickerson, Lloyd, and Hoge.

  • Now carry that logic forward and apply it to the '88 and '89 drafts, where the Steelers found players like John Jackson, Dermontti Dawson, Carnell Lake, and Jerry Olsavsky.

Some of those players probably find their way to the Steelers. But that's not certain. A more likely possibility is that Marino's presence keeps the mid-80's Steelers just good enough to contend but unable to draft low enough to be champions.

  • It's essentially what happened in Miami, and there's an additional reason to think it would have happened in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers draft juggernaut of the early and mid-1970's worked like this. Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn and the scouts assembled the draft boards, and Chuck Noll made final picks based on that information. It worked like a charm when the draft was held shortly after the Super Bowl. But moving the draft gave Noll the chance to micro manage the process.

There were other factors at work to be sure, but the end result was a severe decline in the quality of the Steelers drafting starting in about 1979. Those draft misfires worsened as the Steelers moved into the 80's and the tension between Art Jr. and Chuck Noll grew in proportion.

  • By 1986 Dan Rooney had had enough.

His response was to fire his brother as head of scouting (and those who think that Rooney is a softie or not demanding might keep this in mind.)

This entire affair was documented in Ed Bouchette's Dawn of a New Steel Age, Art Rooney, Jr.'s Ruanaidh, and elsewhere. Bouchette for one, discounted the impact of the firing, concluding it failed.

Well, record shows that Noll drafted Hall of Famers in each of the next two drafts in addition to the other Pro Bowl caliber players mentioned above. It seems like some sort of move was necessary.

But that begs the question, would Marino's presence have served to have papered over those differences between coaching and scouting, and kept the Steelers stumbling somewhere between mediocrity and respectability?
There's no way to know.

But it does raise enough doubt to let us know that answering the "What if Pittsburgh had drafted Marino" question is far more complex than commonly assumed.