There seems to be a quirky symmetry that in the same year Ben Roethlisberger retires and the Steelers begin that elusive quest of finding a new team leader at the most important position in football, former Pittsburgh Steeler Lenny Dawson also dies.
The Steelers drafted Lenny Dawson with the fifth overall pick in 1957. In what can only be seen as odd today, he barely saw the field for three seasons in Pittsburgh even with that high draft capital. You couldn’t even imagine that happening in today’s NFL. To add more oddity, Dawson was a bartender for a short period at a small bar my father owned at the time in Pittsburgh. It certainly was a different age and a different pay scale. Can you picture Mason Rudolph slinging beers on the South Side just to make ends meet while still playing with the team? Not even Duck Hodges!
Dawson’s stay in Pittsburgh was preceded by Johnny Unitas, who was cut in his first season by Pittsburgh and flourished even more than Dawson. Yes, cut. Loveable losers, as they were known, indeed.
Lenny Dawson became a Hall of Famer with the Kansas City Chiefs whereas Johnny Unitas was long considered perhaps the greatest quarterback ever until Joe Montana arrived on the scene in the 1980s. It’s interesting to imagine the number of titles the Steelers could have achieved had they played Dawson and Unitas.
And, if we are going down that rabbit hole, it’s fun (or sad) to imagine the number of championships had the Steelers not passed on Dan Marino. “What if” is a fruitless game – but add all that superior quarterback play together and one can only wonder.
The drafting of Terry Bradshaw followed the Dawson/Unitas blunders by just a short time, and he transformed that loser tag into a Golden Age for the Steelers that continued, with some hiccups (more on that in a moment), until the day Big Ben retired. Of course, there were other integral parts to that transformation – Chuck Noll, that defense, that legendary scouting/drafting — but make no mistake, you can’t become a dynasty without a high caliber quarterback at the helm.
Like Dawson and Unitas, Bradshaw was high caliber.
The Steelers almost blew it again with Bradshaw, however, as the Blonde Bomber floundered at first and the team flirted with Joe Gilliam for a brief time. It’s not hard to imagine — with their history — the team bungling that situation. Perhaps, in the end, the lessons of the Dawson and Unitas debacles were learned. Or, maybe Gilliam just imploded, saving a Noll mistake. It probably was a combination of both Noll’s wisdom and Gilliam’s personal issues.
It just goes to show how fragile choosing, and developing, a quarterback can be. Of the 32 starters presently in the league, less than half of them you would say are good or better.
Now, with Mitch Trubisky named the opening day starter and Kenny Pickett the man in waiting, the Pittsburgh Steelers hope they can navigate the quarterback situation to find a long-term answer and not go through the revolving door that occurred between the Bradshaw and Roethlisberger reigns.
Will Trubisky turn out to be the Steelers version of Len Dawson or Johnny Unitas? The Trubisky journey is certainly Dawson-esque. The former number one pick was dropped for dead by the Chicago Bears who then spent a year with the Buffalo Bills before landing with the Steelers. Dawson, similarly, went through two teams (Pittsburgh and Cleveland) before finally starring for Kansas City.
Scary close, huh? The Steelers can only hope.
Unlike Dawson, though, Trubisky had a chance with his first team, and failed. He did, though, make the playoffs a few times and was a pro bowler. Still, he will need to take off and never look back or else Kenny Pickett will get his shot and maybe become a University of Pittsburgh karma fix for the Marino blunder. Just another weird way that the Pittsburgh quarterback past seems cosmically linked to the Pittsburgh quarterback future.
If they fail, then the Steelers could just fall into the quarterback dread zone that was 1983 through 2004. A period (particularly in the 1990s) where the Steelers many times just seemed to lack a consistent quarterback, let alone a high caliber quarterback, to stack some more trophies.
Cliff Stoudt, David Woodley, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Kent Graham, Mike Tomczak, Tommy Maddox, and Kordell Stewart, etc.
Of the list, the best were probably O’Donnell and Stewart, and that tells you everything about the mediocrity the Steelers went through. The Steelers made no Unitas/Dawson mistake with any of these guys. Each was fully vetted giving them enough rope to hang their futures.
Just keep your fingers crossed that Trubisky and Pickett are given more of the Bradshaw treatment and not the Dawson/Unitas gloss over. So often today, quarterbacks are branded after a year or less as a success or failure. The Steelers offensive line won’t do them any favors in the grading process if the preseason is any indication.
If there is anything to be learned from Steeler quarterback past, it would be to remain patient as you evaluate the position. Today, the Steelers are known to have extreme patience at all levels of the organization.
That said, this has become an impatient league and next year’s quarterback class looks promising. With potential shiny new toys to draft next year, the Steelers might need to ascertain quickly whether they have their Lenny Dawson or not.