The 1989 NFL Draft was one of great-importance to the Steelers. Coming off a disastrous 5-11 campaign the year before (the worst record for the franchise since 1969), Pittsburgh entered the draft, armed with two first round picks--the seventh selection that was earned on merit and the Vikings selection (24th, overall) that was acquired in the trade of hold-out linebacker, Mike Merriweather.
In the weeks leading-up to the draft, it was no secret Pittsburgh was interested in selecting Tim Worley, the sensational All-SEC running back out of Georgia, with it's first pick. But as the draft grew near, speculation focused on Michigan St. receiver Andre Rison and the team perhaps picking him, instead. In-case you don't remember, when the Steelers were on the clock that day, they used up most of their allotted 15 minutes to make their selection. Rumor has it, there was a pretty intense discussion about who should be the pick--Worley or Rison.
Worley turned out to be the pick, and, at the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. The Steelers were in-need of a franchise player (or two or three), and what better position to focus-on for the always run-oriented Chuck Noll than running back?
After some unsuccessful attempts to move up from the 24th spot to acquire Rison, whose star had fallen out of the top 10 and was heading toward the latter part of the first round (Rison was eventually selected by the Colts with the 22nd pick), the Steelers settled on Tom Ricketts, the left tackle out of PITT, as their second choice in the first round.
Getting back to the selection of Worley. Again, it seemed like a sound choice, and after a rookie year that saw him rattle off 770 yards on the ground, the future looked bright enough for both the young back and a Steelers team that surprisingly overcame a horrid 0-2 start to the '89 season (Pittsburgh lost its first two games by a combined score of 92-10) to sneak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record and advanced to the divisional round after a New Year's Eve upset of the Oilers in the AFC wild card game.
Despite the momentum that was established down-the-stretch of the '89 campaign, Noll decided to change offensive coordinators in the off-season and hired Joe Walton, a man with a sophisticated and tight end-oriented attack.
With all of that as the backdrop, why would the Steelers, who had the 17th pick, even consider drafting another running back in the 1990 NFL Draft? Heck, with the Cowboys in-need of a running back and Florida's Emmitt Smith still available, why not parlay that into a bounty of an extra pick or two by trading down four spots? After all, Eric Green, the humongous tight end out of Liberty, would surely still be there at 21, which he was. Pittsburgh did just that, and years before the likes of Rob Gronkowski would terrorize both linebackers and defensive backs, alike, Green was the selection and soon emerged as a unique weapon in '90, as the 6'5, 280 lb target pulled in 34 receptions and seven touchdowns while starting only six games.
As things turned out, unfortunately, Worley never came close to realizing his potential in the NFL (neither did Ricketts, for that matter) as a drug problem soon reared it's ugly head, and he was out of the NFL within five seasons. As for Rison, he went on to post 743 receptions for over 10,000 yards in a career than spanned 12 seasons. Green, meanwhile, was a decent enough tight end during his five years in Pittsburgh, but he didn't prove to be the Gronk of his day.
And, of course, everyone knows about Smith's career, a career that would eventually finish with him at the top of the running back mountain, with 18,355 career rushing yards. Had the Steelers gone with Rison or someone else in '89, it's certainly logical enough to assume they would have selected Smith the following year, given the choice.
Fortunately, unlike the decision to pass on Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh didn't have to wait two-decades to find a franchise player at the running back position.
During the 1996 NFL Draft, the Steelers acquired Jerome Bettis from the Rams for a second round pick, and as it turned out, he was the perfect running back for Pittsburgh--his blue collar approach to running the football took fans on a journey that eventually saw The Bus accumulate 10,751 yards bruising yards during 10 of his 13 seasons, as he retired a Super Bowl champion and the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher.
Bettis may be the most iconic and popular Steeler player since the glory days of the 1970's, and it's hard to imagine his story not being part of the organization's deep history. This coming August, Bettis figures to be the most popular member of the 2015 Hall of Fame class, as thousands of Steelers faithful will surely travel to Canton, Ohio, to cheer on and celebrate his enshrinement.
Sometimes, things happen for a reason.