Best of Asked and Answered: Friday, June 5

Let's get to it:

JOHN THOMPSON FROM CONNEAUT, OH: During the pandemic quarantine I've re-watched most of the games from the Steelers' 1989 season and was startled by the actual talent of Bubby Brister. Why didn't he have a long run as the Steelers' quarterback?
ANSWER: This is not a popular opinion among Steelers fans, but my opinion is that Bubby Brister was the best quarterback the Steelers had during the time between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. That may come across to some as damning Brister with faint praise, but if I were coaching the team at that time I would have preferred Brister over David Woodley, Mark Malone, Todd Blackledge, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. I didn't mention Jim Miller, because he was a starter for exactly one half of one game, and so it's as though he doesn't really belong on the list with the rest of those guys.

Brister was a good athlete, good enough to be drafted in the fourth round out of high school by the Detroit Tigers, and he played one year of minor league baseball (1981) before going to Tulane to play football. He transferred to Northeast Louisiana after Tulane hired Wally English to be its head coach and he made his son, Jon, the starting quarterback. Brister had a strong arm, was mobile enough, was a team guy, and was liked by his teammates. Brister also earned the respect of Tom Moore, the Steelers offensive coordinator at the time and the guy who truly developed Peyton Manning as a young player in Indianapolis (as opposed to the guy who often gets/takes credit for developing Peyton Manning as a young player in Indianapolis). But what turned out to be the beginning of the end for Brister was when Moore left the Steelers for the offensive coordinator job in Minnesota after the 1989 season, and Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton to replace him. For whatever reason, Noll allowed Walton to do a complete revamp of the offensive playbook, complete with all new terminology, which had a negative impact on a team that the previous season had come within a dropped pass of an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Walton's offense didn't work and the players couldn't master it, but he refused to change or simplify it, and the 1989 Steelers team that looked to be on the verge missed the playoffs in both 1990 and 1991. Bill Cowher was hired in 1992 and named O'Donnell the starter following a training camp competition, and Brister bounced around, from Philadelphia to the New York Jets before finding a home in Denver as John Elway's backup. In the Broncos' 1997-98 back-to-back championship seasons, Brister was 4-0 as a starter in place of the injured Elway, and he retired from the NFL with two Super Bowl rings.

LARRY TARTER FROM BRASELTON, GA: Just discussing at lunch that Ben Roethlisberger went to a small college Miami (Ohio). It raised the question of how did he end up there instead of at a major university?
ANSWER: In interviews, Ben Roethlisberger has talked about being recruited by Ohio State and Duke, but he said that he decided to go to Miami (Ohio) because Coach Terry Hoeppner offered him a scholarship first.

BOB STEPHENSON FROM MYRTLE BEACH, SC: Most NFL head coaches have at least some NFL playing experience. However, Mike Tomlin does not. Can you give us a little information on his playing career?
ANSWER: Your basic premise for this question is inaccurate. There are 11 NFL head coaches with NFL playing experience, which represents less than 50 percent, which falls short of "most." Mike Tomlin played wide receiver at William & Mary, and he was a second-team All-Yankee Conference selection as a senior. Among the other NFL coaches with no NFL playing experience are Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Pete Carroll.

ISRAEL PICKHOLTZ FROM ASHKELON, ISRAEL: How important is Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper to his NFL legacy? Will it be part of the presentation when he comes up for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Or is this something that just Steelers fans appreciate?
ANSWER: You are referring to Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper late in the fourth quarter of the 2005 AFC Divisional Round win over the Colts in Indianapolis. It's my opinion that tackle was what allowed Bill Cowher to win a Super Bowl and therefore get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it also preserved Jerome Bettis' legacy to allow him to get into the Hall of Fame. To me, what that play showed definitively is that beyond being a great quarterback, Roethlisberger also is a superior athlete, even among professionals. I remember making the case in the press box in the RCA Dome that day to many Peyton Manning apologists about who was the better quarterback in that game. Do you think anyone with a shred of football intelligence believes for a second that Manning could make that tackle in the open field to save the game that day? Me neither.

STEVEN LINDSEY FROM MATTESON, IL: As the date for the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities gets closer, I was thinking about the Steelers already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As for linebackers, do you think any team ever fielded a better group of starting linebackers than the early Super Bowl teams that had Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell? I can't recall any other team starting two Hall of Fame linebackers at the same time.
ANSWER: I'm not going to claim my research on this issue covers the entire history of the National Football League, but in the Super Bowl era, but off the top of my head the late-1960s Green Bay Packers (Dave Robinson and Ray Nitschke) had two Hall of Fame linebackers starting at the same time, as did the early 1970s Kansas City Chiefs (Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell), as well as the mid-1980s New York Giants (Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson). Since the Giants played a 3-4 defense, they aligned four linebackers at the same time, and so maybe you would disqualify their group from this discussion. I admit to being biased in favor of the Steelers' trio of linebackers, and part of the argument I would make for Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Andy Russell being the best threesome would have to do with the way they changed the game in terms of linebackers being excellent in coverage. Ham averaged one-third of a takeaway per game, with 32 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries during his career; Lambert was very close behind at .31 takeaways per game, with 28 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries during his career; and Russell, who played much of his career before passing became so prevalent in the NFL, had 18 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries in his career.

TOM HOLOWELL FROM CUYAHOGA FALLS, OH: What do you think of Jaylen Samuels' chance to make the team in 2020?
ANSWER: I wouldn't put Jaylen Samuels in the category of a lock to make the 53-man roster, but I also believe he has shown himself to be a player who belongs in the NFL. It's going to be an interesting competition for the spots behind James Conner on the depth chart this summer, and I believe Samuels, Benny Snell, Kerrith Whyte, and rookie Anthony McFarland all have a chance. As often is the case during the training camp/preseason process, the guys who are most able to avoid injuries to stay on the practice field and give themselves a chance to improve will have a decided edge.

HERMAN KANE FROM NEW YORK NY: I have been a fan of the Steelers since the early 1950s. I have a recollection that the Steelers defeated the New York Giants, 63-7, in a game around that time. As the Giants were generally a much stronger team than the Steelers in the 1950s, can you explain the lopsided win by the Steelers?
ANSWER: That 63-7 victory by the Steelers over the New York Giants happened on Dec. 1, 1952 at Forbes Field. For an account of that game, I will reference a story written by Bob Barnett, which was reprinted courtesy of Professional Football Researchers Association:

"You might argue that the Steelers weren't actually that bad back in 1952 despite going into the Giants game with a 3-6 record. They had lost twice to the co-conference leading Cleveland Browns by one point each time, and had lost three other games by a total of 15 points. In fact, they might just as easily have been 8-1 – except they were losers.

"The Steelers were a tough, physical team with a defense led by ends Bill McPeak and George Tarasovic, tackle Ernie Stautner and safety Jack Butler. The offense was led by quarterback Jim Finks, halfbacks Ray Mathews and Lynn Chandnois, fullbacks Ed Modzelewski and Fran Rogel, along with veteran end Elbie Nickel.

"Going into the game with the Steelers, the Giants had a 6-3 record and were in a three-way tie with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the Eastern Division. Interestingly enough, that weekend's games matched the three top teams in the division vs. the three bottom teams. It was Cleveland vs. Washington, Philadelphia vs. the Chicago Cardinals, and the Steelers vs. the Giants.

"The Giants' defense was loaded, with tackles Al DeRogatis and Arnie Weinmeister, cornerback Em Tunnell, and someone named Tom Landry also was in the secondary. The offense, which had been the team's weak link, featured the NFL's leading ground gainer in fullback Ed Price, plus halfback Kyle Rote and quarterback Charlie Conerly.

"Despite their overall strength as a team, injuries had been a problem for the Giants that season, and Conerly was a questionable starter for the Steelers game with a bruised shoulder. Rookie halfback Frank Gifford remained behind in New York to nurse a leg injury."

Chandnois returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, and he scored another touchdown on a short run to up the Steelers' lead to 14-0. In the second quarter, Finks threw touchdown passes of 21 yards to Nickel and 42 yards to Mathews to make it 28-0 at halftime. Going into the fourth quarter, the Steelers held a 35-7 lead and then added four more touchdowns, including one on a 60-yard pass to Dick Hensley (Finks' fourth of the day) and a blocked punt that was returned for a score.

Back to Barnett: "The 63-7 final score clearly reflected the devastation of the Giants. Not only were the Steelers an offensive machine that day, but the defense also intercepted seven passes, recovered two fumbles, scored on a blocked punt, and crushed the Giants physically. At a press conference on Monday, Giants' coach Steve Owen confessed he would have problems fielding a team for the next game because of injuries inflicted by the Steelers."

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