Labriola On

Labriola on why 2018 isn't a repeat of 1983

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It has become a familiar refrain for those in favor of the Steelers spending a first-round pick in this draft on a quarterback the team doesn't  need right now. It goes something like, "Well, they didn't think they needed a quarterback in 1983 because they had Terry Bradshaw, so they passed on Dan Marino, and then they stunk at quarterback for the next 20 years."

• All of that is true, but it omits a key fact. The reason the Steelers didn't pick Marino had little to do with Marino and more to do with what they believed they had in Bradshaw, or at least what they thought they had in Bradshaw before March 3.

• According to a story by United Press International that appeared on March 23, 1983 and carried the dateline, Shreveport, La., "Pittsburgh Steelers' star quarterback Terry Bradshaw underwent surgery on his throwing arm under an alias, officials said Tuesday. Charles Boyd, Doctor's Hospital administrator, said the four-time Super Bowl quarterback was admitted March 3 under the name Thomas Brady."

• The irony of Bradshaw choosing that particular pseudonym notwithstanding, his decision to have a Shreveport orthopedist perform surgery on a 35-year-old man's elbow, a 35-year-old man whose livelihood is totally dependent on said elbow, shows a frightening lack of judgment.

• If Bradshaw wanted to have the surgery, if he believed the surgery was necessary, either for him to continue playing or for him to have a certain quality of life moving forward, that's OK. But getting it done in Shreveport under an assumed name, instead of having the best elbow man in America do it – say, Dr. James Andrews, or maybe Dr. Frank Jobe, the guy who invented what is known today as "Tommy John surgery" makes no sense. And did this choice of hospital/surgeon accelerate the arrival of the end of Bradshaw's career?

• But nevertheless, "Thomas Brady" chose to have the procedure done in Shreveport, and he was released from Doctor's Hospital two days after the surgery with the prognosis that he could start throwing a football in late June.

• Late June became July, which became August, which became the start of the regular season, which became the penultimate game of the regular season, on Dec. 10 against the New York Jets in the final NFL game ever played at Shea Stadium.

• Needing a win to clinch a playoff spot, Bradshaw started the final game of his Hall of Fame career and completed 5-of-7 for 77 yards and two touchdowns before being pulled because his surgically-repaired right elbow wouldn't allow him to continue. The Steelers went on to win, 34-7, and qualified for the playoffs where they were blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Divisional Round.

• And there you have it. The relatively simple matter of their starting quarterback checking himself into a small-town hospital under an assumed name to have surgery done on his throwing elbow less than two months before the date of the draft is the reason why this isn't the same situation as the Steelers faced in 1983.

• Moving on …

• When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's a simple matter to identify the best draft class in franchise history. Picking four Hall of Fame players – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster – over the first five rounds cements the 1974 Draft as the best in Steelers history, and because no other NFL team ever has added more than two Hall of Fame players via a single draft class, this also deserves recognition as the best draft in league history.

• One interesting side note to the Steelers' haul back in 1974 was that they picked four Hall of Fame players over the first five rounds even though they had no third-round pick. That pick had been traded to the Oakland Raiders back in 1973 for veteran defensive tackle Tom Keating, who played one season in Pittsburgh as a reserve.

• That trade – of a future draft pick for a veteran rent-a-player – would turn out to be the final one of Noll's tenure with the Steelers. That was because during that 1974 draft, Noll had coveted Stallworth, but the Steelers knew they had to pick Swann in the first round because he was a product of the high-profile USC football program, and Lambert was the choice in the second round because wide receivers were still supporting actors on offenses built primarily around the running game.

• That meant Noll had to sweat out an entire round of a draft, a round of a draft in which the Steelers didn't have a selection, before he'd get a chance to pick the player he had wanted most. During that wait for the opportunity to pick Stallworth, Noll vowed, never again. And never again would the Steelers trade away a future draft pick, the way previous coach Buddy Parker had done so routinely year after year during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

• Anyway, that's an abridged history of the best draft in franchise history, and now let's look at the Steelers' drafts this century. And since General Manager Kevin Colbert was hired in advance of the 2000 NFL Draft, that coincides with an examination of how the Steelers have fared during the time he has headed up the personnel department.

• Using the traditional rule of thumb that it takes three football seasons to have the best chance to evaluate a particular draft class, the groups eligible for this most unscientific exercise will be the ones spanning 2000-15. And it's going to be done with the understanding that no single individual has total authority over which player gets picked when, and that many of the decisions are hammered out in the days leading up to the draft so that when the Steelers are on the clock virtually all of the heavy lifting has been done.

• During the specified time frame, the Steelers have made three trades to move about in the first round of a particular draft, and each time it proved to be a success. In 2001, the Steelers traded back from 16th overall to 19th overall and still got the guy they wanted: Texas nose tackle Casey Hampton. The trade was with the New York Jets, who wanted to move up to pick wide receiver Santana Moss.

• The Steelers then used some of the draft capital they got for making that move and packaged it to move up in the second round to pick Georgia linebacker Kendrell Bell, who finished 2001 tied with Joey Porter for second on the team with nine sacks and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

• The next time the Steelers moved was in 2003, and this one saved the day. Looking at a situation where they likely were going to choose between Penn State running back Larry Johnson and Florida State linebacker Alonzo Jackson if they stayed at No. 27 overall in the first round, the Steelers gave up third- and sixth-round picks to the Chiefs to move up to No. 16 overall where they were able to select USC safety Troy Polamalu.

• The third time came in 2006, and that was another time the Steelers moved up in the first round, this time from No. 32 overall to No. 25 overall to pick the top wide receiver prospect in that particular pool: Ohio State's Santonio Holmes. The cost for the move involved the Steelers second-round pick, which typically would be considered a steep price, but the player they added became the Super Bowl MVP a couple of seasons later.

• The team's best Day 3 picks (Rounds 4-7) during this era included (in no particular order): Antonio Brown, 195th overall in 2010; Brett Keisel, 242nd overall in 2002; Clark Haggans, 137th overall in 2000; William Gay, 170th overall in 2007; Kelvin Beachum, 248th overall in 2012; and Vince Williams, 206th overall in 2013.

• In the first-round bust category, at the top of the list are Jarvis Jones and possibly Ziggy Hood, but overall the Steelers have hit on their No. 1 picks during this period. Of the 16 No. 1 picks made from 2000-15, nine were voted to at least one Pro Bowl, and four of those nine were voted first-team All-Pro at least once. There was one NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, one Defensive Player of the Year, and one Super Bowl MVP.

• There have been some anomalies, too. Such as the Steelers' penchant for identifying wide receivers – Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Brown, and Martavis Bryant – and their struggles in finding cornerbacks – Hank Poteat, Ricardo Colclough, Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Terry Hawthorne, Shaquille Richardson, and Doran Grant.

• The Steelers are a team that believes in the draft as its primary method of roster-building, and over the 16 seasons in question, the team won eight division titles, made 11 appearances in the playoffs, won three AFC Championships and two Lombardi Trophies, and finished with a losing record just once.

• And in compiling that record, they have drafted in the top 10 once, in the top 15 five times, 20th or lower eight times, and 30th or lower five times.

• The NFL Draft is serious business, and it's a difficult enough business without your starting quarterback checking into a small-town hospital under an assumed name to have his throwing elbow cut open, unbeknownst to you, six weeks before you have to decide whether to draft his replacement.

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