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All-Time Pittsburgh Steelers ‘What-Ifs’, Part 3

The Era where “Nothing Happened” - 1980-1984

Houston Oilers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Louis Lipps, one of the brightest stars of a cold, dark period in Steelers history

This is the continuation of a series of “What If” articles on Steelers history.

1933-69: The Winter of Our Discontent: HERE.
1970-79: The Golden Age: HERE
2010-15: Heartbreak, part 1: HERE
2015-19: Heartbreak, part 2: HERE.

The 90s and the 2000s are yet to come, but this one asks questions about the great transition of the 1980s, with the NFL’s rule changes and the Steelers mass retirements. We think of the 80s as a lost era for the Steelers, but there was more happening than you’d think. Time for some rocky roads...

Part 3: The Era where “Nothing Happened” - 1980-84

1979/80 drafts: What if Steelers didn’t draft Mark Malone?
1984: What if Franco didn’t hold out?
1984: What if they found a way past Dan Marino in the AFC Championship game?


1979/80 drafts: What if Steelers don’t draft Mark Malone?

Mark Malone finds a receiver
The Steelers’ real mistake was thinking Tom Selleck could play quarterback just because he was good on Magnum P.I.
Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Situation:

The worst part of the end of the Steelers decade of dominance was how badly they struggled to replace their retiring all-stars. Nowhere was that more obvious than when they drafted Arizona State’s Mark Malone in the first round of the 1980 draft, pegging him as the heir to Terry Bradshaw.

If you know Malone’s career, you know he started a few seasons, but did not replace Bradshaw. If you don’t know Malone’s career, here’s a link. Talking about it will make me sad.

My guess at what happens:

I know what you’re expecting. You’re thinking about 1983 and hometown hero Dan Marino, who was still available when the Steelers chose that year, and surely would have won a million Super Bowls in Pittsburgh.

Yes, that’s possible, but it’s also been discussed ad nauseum, so I’m going off-script. I’m not merely wondering about passing on Malone; I’m interested in why. In my universe they don’t draft Malone as Bradshaw’s successor in 1980 because they already took care of that in 1979, drafting another hometown product – Pittsburgh native and life-long Steelers fan, Joe Montana.

Montana was ultimately chosen #82 by San Francisco, the end of round 3. I’m trying to avoid 20/20 hindsight, so I’m not wild about bumping him up two rounds. But Montana was the fourth quarterback drafted in 1979; the three passers taken before him were all off the board by the time the Steelers made their first selection. If Pittsburgh wanted a QB, he was the next man up.

It’s fair to wonder if Montana would’ve fit with the Steelers. It’s true, he wasn’t a deep bomber like Bradshaw, after all. But the “Mel Blount rule” took effect in 1978, allowing for timing patterns that weren’t possible in the 70s, and offensive strategies were about to change to reflect that. Meanwhile, the 1979 Steelers were drafting for the future – they were defending champs, and would win another title that year, and they were starting the defending NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in Bradshaw. Instead of searching for a day 1 starter who could run Bradshaw’s offense, they could afford to invest in a smart, accurate kid, and develop him alongside the new rules. One might ask how Montana would’ve developed without Bill Walsh? Well, Peyton Manning did alright playing his first dozen years under offensive coordinator Tom Moore (Steelers coach and coordinator 1977-89), so I’d say Joe’s in good hands.

Taking Montana means giving up their actual 1979 first rounder, running back Greg Hawthorne (career rushing yards: 527). So that’s not a huge loss. Pittsburgh coveted runners though, drafting four between 1979-82, including two first-rounders. If they grab Montana in 1979, they’re definitely getting a back in 1980. So who’s available at #28? Joe Cribbs, for one (taken #29 by Buffalo). Cribbs is largely forgotten today, but he went over 1000 yards and made Pro Bowls in three of his first four seasons. Taking him at 28 instead of 29 is not overdrafting; this is remarkably plausible.

So, repercussions? Taking Montana and Cribbs probably doesn’t manufacture another 70s run. But I can imagine another Lombardi in the trophy case. We think of this era as a lost decade, but the Steelers made the playoffs three straight seasons in the early 80s, reaching the AFC Championship Game in 1984. Their defense was still often among the league’s best, but their offense was mediocre at best. (A telling stat: from 1982-84, Pittsburgh’s defense was 3rd in the NFL at forcing INTs; their offense ranked 20th in throwing them.) John Stallworth and Mike Webster were still making Pro Bowls in the 80s, and Louis Lipps became a sensation mid-decade as well. Imagine what a difference a Pro Bowl quarterback and a bell-cow runner might have made.

Bonus repercussions: whichever QB the 49ers wind up with (Malone?) they’ll still be good – but probably not championship-level as early as 1981. Does that mean Danny White and the Cowboys get to Super Bowl XVI, with no “The Catch” to keep them out? Does Dallas beat Cincinnati and extend their 70s era success? Or do the Bengals emerge with a Lombardi that year and change their whole franchise narrative? Do the Steelers and Cowboys reignite their rivalry through the early 80s, with Montana and White replacing Bradshaw and Staubach? The mind boggles…


1984: What if Franco didn’t hold out?

Seattle Seahawks
36 years later, this still looks like a bad photoshop, and not a real picture.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Situation:

A 34-year old running back holding out for a raise seems absurd today, but in 1984, that’s what Franco Harris did. He and Walter Payton were in the final sprint toward Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record (Franco needed 362 yards for pay-dirt; Payton 687), so maybe he figured this P.R. was worth the extra cash. Whatever the case, he learned the same lesson Mike Merriweather learned four years later, and Rod Woodson learned a decade after that: the Rooneys run a family business, but sometimes that family is the Corleones.

Despite Franco’s 1000 yard season in 1983, the Steelers waived him on the eve of the 1984 season (UPI reported it on August 20). It was so late in the year that they didn’t have time to take him off the cover of their 1984 media guide.

Harris signed with the Seattle Seahawks, but never found his place there, rushing for only 170 yards all season, as Payton made All Pro and surpassed Brown’s record in week 6. Franco retired quietly at the end of that year, a Seahawk 192 yards short of Jim Brown.

My guess at what happens:

I think everything, on both ends, would have been better if the two sides could have worked this out.

Harris didn’t want to leave the Steelers (he once said, “I had 12 great years in Pittsburgh, and that one doesn’t matter”). And the team was planning a huge celebration for his rushing record. Franco loved Pittsburgh (the city and the team) and Pittsburgh loved him. More importantly, though, if #32 had stayed in Pittsburgh, he could have helped lift the Steelers offense as both a runner and emotional leader.

Steelers were scrappy in 1984, but they were hard to trust. They could run, finishing 6th in the NFL in rushing, behind Frank Pollard (851 yards) and Walter Abercrombie (610 yards), but they couldn’t control ballgames. Let’s assume that, even though Franco still had some gas left in the tank, Pollard probably passed him on the depth chart. I maintain Harris would be a crucial leader – a mentor, a high-quality reliever, and an emotional center. Something like Jerome Bettis in 2004 and 2005.

The 1984 Steelers finished 9-7, with four of those losses coming by a combined nine points. Little changes can go a long way in a season like that. It’s easy to imagine a couple of those games flipping with a little more experience and veteran leadership. But Pittsburgh won the AFC Central anyway, and even upset the Broncos in round 1, before getting overwhelmed by Dan Marino and the Dolphins, 45-28, in the conference title game.

Would Franco have made the difference against the Dolphins? Probably not. It’s possible that his playoff experience would have helped, that he’d have allowed the Steelers to control the clock and keep Marino cold, or even that he’d have broken off an important gain Pollard and Abercrombie couldn’t. (Maybe he could have caught a deflected pass on 4th down and run 60 yards to the end zone?) But I’m not sure he’d be worth 17 points.

At the very least, though, he should have broken Brown’s record first (even if Payton passed him a week later). He should have been a part of that playoff team, the last for Stallworth, Webster, and Donnie Shell. And he should have retired a Steeler.


1984: What if the Steelers found a way to stop Dan Marino in the 1984 AFC Championship game?

Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers
Every pass, a dagger through a Steelers fan’s heart
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Situation:

Yup, we’re staying with these guys. As we’ve already established, the 1984 Steelers were maddeningly inconsistent. Stallworth had his best statistical season, and Shell his second best; Mike Merriweather set the team sack record that stood for 24 years; Louis Lipps was NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year; and the defense snagged 31 interceptions. But all that talent bumbled through the regular season, winning the AFC Central with the worst record of any playoff team (9-7).

Then they staged a dramatic comeback at Mile High Stadium in the Divisional Playoffs, upsetting John Elway and the 13-3 Broncos, before the magic ran out against Dan Marino down in Miami. The Dolphins, of course, would be stifled in the Super Bowl, losing 38-16 to the San Francisco 49ers, who’d finished the regular season 15-1. and become the first team in NFL history to amass 18 wins in a single season.

My guess at what happens:

I have no idea how the Steelers could top Marino, so I’m not going to suggest anything. Maybe he gets the flu. I don’t know. I’m more interested in what happens next. Because beating the Dolphins would pit the 9-7 Steelers against the 15-1 Niners in one of the greatest David/Goliath Super Bowl of all time.

It’s easy to imagine the Steelers getting mauled in SBXIX, but slow that roll, because here’s the thing: the one loss for those 15-1 (eventually 18-1) 49ers came at home in week 7, against none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 1984 Steelers were better than their record. In the previous entry, I noted that they’d suffered four losses by a combined nine points. Very little has to change for those scores to flip and that team to hit the playoffs at 12-4 or 13-3, carrying a mid-season win over San Francisco in their pockets. And that looks like a very different Super Bowl matchup, doesn’t it?

How did the Steelers beat the 49ers at Halloween? The same way the 1990 and 2007 New York Giants famously won Super Bowls over Buffalo and New England. They hit hard, tackled well, and played supremely disciplined on defense; then they bled the clock on offense, keeping Montana’s West Coast timing attack cold for long stretches.

Tom Moore only called 19 pass plays all game, but dialed up 47 rushes. (Square that against the Niners, who, discounting three Montana scrambles, ran the ball just 17 times.) As a result, despite committing 11 penalties, the Steelers wound up with a 10 minute time-of-possession advantage. When Stallworth tied the game at 17 with three minutes left, instead of a classic Joe Montana comeback, the Niners were slightly off. Early in that drive, Bryan Hinkle stepped in front of a pass and returned the INT 43 yards, setting up Gary Anderson for the game-winning points.

Could the Steelers have pulled it off again? Stranger things have happened. I know one thing: there’s no coach in history I’d trust to prepare a team for the Super Bowl better than Chuck Noll. I won’t venture a guess at the score, but you can probably tell I favor the underdog.

Perhaps the bigger question: do we really want to live in a world in which Mark Malone is a Super Bowl champion? To that I say, you better believe it!


More on the way. Stay tuned...