Asked and Answered

The best of Asked and Answered: June 23

With Bob Labriola enjoying a summer break, we've gone through recent editions of Asked & Answered and selected a few memorable questions…and answers.

Bob returns to his normal schedule in July.

Let's get to it:

June 4, 2020
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.

*June 2, 2020
FELIX MCGUIRE FROM PHOENIX, AZ: When will the Steelers jazz up their uniforms like all the other teams? *
ANSWER: My fervent hope that the answer to that one is "NEVER!"

May 26, 2020
DAVID HAYES FROM HARTSELLE, AL: Since the great run of the 1970s, how many times since then have the Steelers missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons? What is the longest playoff drought? Keep the humor coming.

ANSWER: The Steelers final Super Bowl championship during the 1970s came at the conclusion of the 1979 season. In 1980 and 1981, the team didn't make the playoffs. In 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988, the team didn't make the playoffs. In 1990 and 1991, the team didn't make the playoffs. All of those teams were coached by Chuck Noll. During the Bill Cowher era, when it comes to more than one playoff-less season in a row, the Steelers didn't make the playoffs in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007, and when it comes to more than one playoff-less season in s a row, the Steelers didn't make the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, and they didn't make the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. To summarize by coach, the longest post 1970s playoff drought was four seasons under Noll, three seasons under Cowher, and two seasons under Tomlin.

May 14, 2020
BRIAN DUFF FROM SEATTLE, WA: The Steelers still have more than $5 million in cap space, which I'm not used to seeing from this organization so close to the start of the season. What are your thoughts about the best way to utilize this money? Should we save it in case of an emergency during the season or should we look to reinforce any particular position?

ANSWER: I have no direct knowledge of the Steelers' amount of space under their salary cap, although lists it at $5.7 million, and so we'll go with that for the purposes of this question. A couple of things to consider right off the bat: Right now, only the top 51 salaries count on a team's cap, and come the start of the regular season, all 53 players plus practice squad guys must fit under the cap. So if those two additional players are making the NFL minimum, that's an additional $1.2 million charge to the cap. Then the practice squad, which can be 12 players this season at $8,100 per week over 17 weeks. That's another $1.65 million, which could turn out to be more because during each week of the upcoming regular season, two players from the practice squad can be elevated to the active roster each week, and a team deciding to take advantage of that will have to pay those guys a regular game check, which would be $35,882.35 per guy instead of the normal practice squad rate of $8,100 per guy. And the Steelers also like to keep a $2-$3 million cushion on their cap for in-season injury replacements. Oh, and the signing of the draft picks also has to come out of that $5.7 million. I'm not going to do all of the arithmetic, because there are too many variables, but while you might look at the Steelers as having money to spend, I see them having to create more cap space just to do the normal things that will be cropping up on the horizon.

May 5, 2020
JAMES BURFORD FROM LAWTON, OK: If memory serves me correctly, we had 38 takeaways last season. Do you have any idea how many times we were able to score on those possessions?

ANSWER: The Steelers did finish the 2019 season with 38 takeaways, and those resulted in 12 touchdowns and 10 field goals. If you count the PATs after all of those touchdowns, the grand total works out to 114 points off turnovers. I believe it's also worth noting that five other takeaways iced the outcome of victories.

April 23, 2020
FRANK RIZZO FROM TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA: Joe Greene was the first Steelers player to have his number retired. I know there are a bunch of numbers out of circulation, but what jersey number do you think is retired next, and what's the timeline on that?

ANSWER: Actually, Ernie Stautner was the first Steelers player to have his jersey retired, and No. 70 officially went out of circulation on Oct. 25, 1964. Joe Greene was the second Steelers player to have his jersey retired, and there is no timetable for a third. My personal opinion is that I hope there isn't a third.

April 16, 2020
DARYL TOWTON FROM LONDON, ONTARIO, CANADA: With three Steelers (Bill Cowher, Troy Polamalu, Donnie Shell) set to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, I was wondering who among the Steelers already inducted were elected on their first year of eligibility?

ANSWER: That list, in alphabetical order: Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, Troy Polamalu, and Rod Woodson.

April 9, 2020
GIO CALABRO FROM EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, NJ: You recently answered a question regarding two-way players, and although it's not exactly the same situation it made me recall that backup quarterbacks used to be the holder for the placekicker, but that job seems to have gone to the punter. Why/when did this change?

ANSWER: Why it changed has to do with efficiency at practice. Coaches want all of the quarterbacks either working with the offense or watching the offense work throughout the entire practice, and at the same time specialists also are working on their technique off to the side. Since the backup quarterback couldn't be doing two things at once, and the coaches decided it was more important having a player in that role concentrating on the offense, punters became the preferred holders for the placekickers.

March 7, 2020
JAMES A. MOONEY FROM ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, IL: I am 91 years old and seem to recall that in the early years of college and professional football there were many two-way players. When did that era end? Didn't "Bullet" Bill Dudley play on both offense and defense for the Pittsburgh pro football team?

ANSWER: It wasn't until 1950 that the NFL adopted a "free substitution rule," which opened the doors to two-platoon football, which then evolved in numerous sub-packages and specialized personnel groupings that now sees teams regularly shuttle multiple players on and off the field before every snap of the ball. As for Bill Dudley, in 1946 while playing for the Steelers, Dudley led the NFL in rushing attempts (146); rushing yards (604); offensive touches, which was described as rushing attempts plus receptions (150); punt returns (27); punt return yards (385); punt return average (14.3); interceptions (10); and interception return yards (242). And for good measure, Dudley also was 12-for-14 on PATs and 2-for-7 on field goals. As late as 1955, the Steelers required their No. 3 quarterback to be able to play a position on defense, and so it came to be that Vic Eaton won that No. 3 job behind Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda because he could play safety, and so Coach Walt Kiesling cut John Unitas.