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All-Time Pittsburgh Steelers ‘What-Ifs,’ Part 4

The Great Bounce - 1985-1992

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Is it just me, or do the block numbers and black shoes just look cooler?

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
1980-84: The Era where “Nothing Happened”: HERE
2010-15: Heartbreak, part 1: HERE
2016-19: Heartbreak, part 2: HERE.

In this edition, a period we don’t talk about much: that seven-year stretch in the late 80s where the Steelers made just one playoff appearance, before suddenly becoming one of the AFC’s most consistent winners again.

Part 4: The Great Bounce - 1985-92

1988: What if Chuck Noll retired when he wanted to?
1989: What if Mark Stock made that catch against Denver?
1992: What if Rooneys hired Dave Wannstadt instead of Bill Cowher?


1988: What if Chuck Noll retired when he wanted to?

Steelers Chuck Noll
Eh, I suppose I’ll come back in ‘89, but only if I can pull off the best coaching job of my career...
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Situation:

The 1980s were a frustrating decade for the Steelers, and 1988 was probably the low point. Chuck Noll’s young team had had started the year 2-10 and finished 5-11 (their worst record since 1969), missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. There was reason for hope — the team had lost six games by one score or less, and even finished with a 3-1 flourish — but Noll was tired. He was already the most successful Super Bowl coach of all time, and a guaranteed Hall of Famer. It seemed like a good time to get on with his life’s work. He told Dan Rooney he wanted to retire.

Rooney convinced him to sign on for one more three-year contract, which would keep the Emperor in a headset until 1991. But what if Noll had stuck to his guns and walked away? Who would have replaced him?

My guess at what happens:

Dan Rooney only conducted three head coaching hires in his 45 years running the team. Those three (Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin) seem different, but they had remarkably similar profiles:

— all three were in their mid-30s, defensive-minded, and taking their first head coaching positions.
— none had been great players, but all had coached in big games and learned under respected mentors (Noll, with Paul Brown and Sid Gillman; Cowher with Marty Schottenheimer; Tomlin with Tony Dungy).
— all three were no nonsense men; believers in fundamentals, rather than hot new innovations and schemes (like a Sean McVay or Chip Kelly).

So who was available in 1989 by that profile?

I’m sure first name most of you are thinking of is Bill Belichick, and that’s not a bad call. Belichick was 36 that year, three years removed from the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl (under Bill Parcells), and already thought of as an excellent defensive mind. He’d also be hired by Cleveland for his first H.C. position in two years, so the timing isn’t bad. Belichick’s charisma (ahem) may have hurt him with some owners, but the Steelers wouldn’t care. (How many fiery halftime speeches did Noll deliver?) And even today, Belichick glows a bit when he talks about the 70s Steelers (as does Parcells); replacing Chuck Noll would probably be a life-highlight for him. I can see this happening.

Then again, in 1991, when Noll really did hang up the whistle, the Steelers went out and hired his polar opposite — a fiery meathead who not-so-secretly wished he was still playing gunner on punt returns. It’s possible they wanted to shake things up and bring a little more energy into the building.

So who could have brought electricity to Three Rivers? Well, Pete Carroll for one. Carroll was 37 in 1989 — enthusiastic, likeable, defensive-minded, and a few years from getting his first shot. When people talk about Carroll, you’d think all he does is pump his fist and chew gum, but his best teams are built like classic champions: power-rushing on offense, with hard-hitting, sound-tackling, fundamentals-heavy defenses. This is a decent fit.

The drawback on Carroll is that he was still a secondary coach in 1989, having never served as an NFL coordinator. Carroll’s Vikings were 1988’s #1 pass defense, but jumping from position coach to head coach is a big leap. It’s easy to imagine Pete being hired for the exact same reasons Cowher was tapped three years later, but maybe not yet.

What if they went off-script and grabbed an offensive mind? 40-year old Mike Holmgren could be poached off Bill Walsh’s staff.

How about a retread coach for once? Marty Schottenheimer (45) was briefly unemployed after four straight playoff runs in Cleveland (though the Chiefs snapped him up fairly quick).

What if they were willing to ride with an older fella? The Bengals had just lost a heartbreaking Super Bowl in 1988 under a 51-year old defensive coordinator named Dick Lebeau...

There was also a guy in-house that would have made an intriguing candidate. Noll’s defensive coordinator from 1984-88 was a rising star who would go on to build a powerhouse in Tampa Bay by reimagining the Steel Curtain for the “live ball” era. Tony Dungy was 33, a defensive mind, and a high character man who’d been around greatness (the Steelers) and coached under a legend (Noll). Would a Dungy-led Steelers team have drafted Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch, to team up with Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Gregg Lloyd? Could anyone have ever scored on them? (Also, with the Rooneys’ record on civil rights, it seems like they’d be proud to place Dungy alongside Art Shell as the NFL’s first modern African American head coaches.)

This one’s too good to be true, of course. One agreement Noll and Rooney made in 1989 was that Dungy — whose defense ranked dead last in points and yards in 1988 — be demoted to defensive back’s coach in 1989. Dungy resigned instead, then took the same job with Schottenheimer in Kansas City (where he worked with a hard-chinned special teams coach you might recognize). So, it seems unlikely that the Steelers would promote him to head man instead. (Post Script: only two years later, under Dave Brazil, that same Steelers D was #1 in the NFL in yards and #3 in points. So maybe Dungy really wasn’t ready for the big leap yet...)

Where did we land on this one? I’ve lost track. I guess I liked Carroll. And Belichik could have been okay. Hmm. It’s starting to look like three more years of Chuck Noll was the best result after all.


1989: What if Mark Stock made that catch against the Broncos?

Bubby Brister
When you go by “Bubby” you’d better be tough as nails...

Situation:

After Rooney convinced Noll to return, the Steelers opened the 1989 season with a 51-0 home loss to the Cleveland Browns and a 41-10 pounding at Cincinnati. If you’re doing the math, that’s 92-10 against two division opponents. Many wondered if the Steelers would win a single game all year, and it was only week two. Chuck Noll (never a stand-up comic) quipped, “the Super Bowl champion had better come out of our division; otherwise we’re in for a long season.”

And then he righted the ship.

The Steelers were inconsistent all season (two steps forward, two steps back), but they closed the year with a 5-1 run, to reach 9-7, even beating the Browns in Cleveland in their week 6 rematch. After a dozen breaks fell their way in the season’s final week, they grabbed the AFC’s last playoff spot. (Words can’t describe how unlikely this seemed three months earlier.)

In the Wild Card round, they faced Jerry Glanville’s Oilers, in “the House of Pain.” Noll detested Glanville, and Houston had swept the Steelers that year by a combined 50-16. But on New Years Eve (the last NFL game in the 1980s) the Steelers played inspired. Merrill Hoge rushed for 100 yards, the defense wouldn’t break, and a late touchdown (with 46 seconds left) sent the game to overtime. There, third year cornerback Rod Woodson (who’d been hospitalized that week with a fever and nearly missed the game) forced and recovered a Houston fumble near midfield. Four plays later, Gary Anderson nailed a 50 yard field goal for the win (his first 50+ attempt all season, because of course it was). Jerry Glanville was fired a few days later.

On the field, postgame, Bubby Brister told Chris Berman (on a live mic), “I’m happy as sh*t!” These guys were awesome.

That sent the Pittsburgh to Mile High against the top seeded Broncos — who had, of course, pounded the Steelers in the regular season, 34-7. Again, the Steelers stood up to the bullies and led 23-17 with three minutes to go. A signature John Elway comeback put the Broncos up 24-23 just before the two minute warning, but the Steelers had the ball. They needed probably 40-45 yards for another long Anderson game-winner. On first down, Brister rolled right and hit rookie Mark Stock dead in the numbers, twenty yards downfield. It would put the Steelers near midfield, at the two-minute warning, close enough to taste the win.

And he dropped it.

The remaining downs went nowhere, and ultimately a low snap from a Chuck Lanza (Dermonti Dawson had left the game with an injury) ended the game. Denver went on to beat Cleveland in the AFC Championship round for the third time in four years, before losing to San Francisco 55-10 in the worst blowout in Super Bowl history.

One day I’ll write a whole essay about these Steelers (they’re my favorite team of all time). But for now, let’s just recognize that they did more than they should have, and somehow were in position to take this game. Until Mark Stock dropped that damned ball. (Wanna feel bad? Here’s the play.)

My guess at what happens:

If Stock catches that pass, I think the Steelers win. They only need 25 yards for the game-winner, with two minutes and a timeout to burn.

That puts them in Cleveland for a rubber match against the Browns. The Steelers previous two playoff opponents had run a 3-0 record against them in the regular season, winning by an average of 27-7. Then Pittsburgh had come into their houses and punched them both in the mouth. They’d already done that to Cleveland in week 6; I think the Steelers win this one in a walk. And now we’re back to another David/Goliath Super Bowl against the 49ers. (How does that keep happening?)

Pittsburgh didn’t beat SF in 1989 like they did in 1984, but they were a better team than they looked. For one thing, the Steelers’ 9-7 record includes a 1-5 mark in the AFC Central — one of those rare divisions where every club finished over .500. (Remember Noll’s quip from week 2? He wasn’t far off.) The Steelers went 8-2 outside of their division (and one of those was that loss to the Broncos that they nearly avenged in the playoffs). This was a good team in a deceptively powerful division, who was peaking at the exact right time.

Statistically the 1989 Steelers look pretty rough, but it’s a tale of two seasons. In the opening 10 weeks, they were 4-6, losing by an average score of 12–24, and allowing 125 more yards per game on defense than their offense could muster. Through the final eight weeks, counting playoffs, they went 6-2, posting an average win of 24–16 (and that counts the Broncos playoff as a loss; win that and we’re talking 7-1). In this eight-game blitz, their rushing yards rose by 67ypg and turnovers were cut in half. The next year, they’d field the top defense in football, and it was rounding into form during these playoffs.

In short, this one has “possible amazing upset” written all over it. The odds are against it, but the odds were against these guys every week. And, as I asked in the last essay, is there any coach you’d rather have prepping your team for a Super Bowl than Chuck Noll?

Would they win? Who knows, but I wouldn’t count them out.


1992: What if Rooneys hired Dave Wannstadt?

Dave Wannstedt
Mustache? Check. Chin? Check. Okay, it’s either this guy or Cowher.

Situation:

When Noll finally called it a career in 1992 the Steelers narrowed their search for his replacement down to two local-bred, mustachiod defensive coordinators. You know the one they chose, Kansas City special teams coach and D.C., Bill Cowher. The other finalist was Dallas Cowboys D.C. Dave Wannstadt.

Wannestadt ultimately had two head coaching gigs, with Chicago (1993-98) and then Miami (2000-04), before a six-year stint as head man at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a mediocre coach, compiling a record of 82-87 (.485), with three playoff appearances (2-3 record) in eleven years. Cowher, meanwhile, ran up a record of 149-90-1 (.623) in fifteen years, with a 12-9 playoff mark (1-1 in Super Bowls).

My guess at what happens:

There are two ways to look at this, I think.

On one hand, I want to give Wannestadt some slack because he didn’t have the benefit of the Steelers’ organizational stability and patience. Not every team gives you a full cupboard and space to build a winner. Plus, while his time with the Bears was unremarkable, Wannestadt’s Dolphins tenure is somewhat impressive. He coached the first Dolphins team without Dan Marino (made more difficult by Jimmy Johnson’s sudden resignation), and guided them to the playoffs in his first two seasons. In fact, he had winning records in his first four years with the Dolphins. Then, following a 1-8 start in year five, he was fired. Given that the Steelers are more likely to ride through slumps with their coaches, it’s easy to imagine Wannestadt finding some longer term success in Pittsburgh.

On the other hand, Wannestadt seems to have found success only when paired with Johnson. He was hired onto Johnson’s staff at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami, before Johnson tapped him for a position with the Dallas Cowboys. His first non-J.J. job was in Chicago, where the listless Bears ran a .417 winning percentage, with one playoff appearance, in six seasons. Even his more relatively successful Dolphins tenure followed Johnson.

I don’t recall Jimmy Johnson ever coaching the Steelers, so the prognosis doesn’t look good for Wannestadt. I’m going to step out on a limb here, in the year Cowher was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and say that the Steelers chose the better of the two candidates.


Next up: The new blood of the 1990s...