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How the Steelers Drowned Two 1st Round Busts in a Lake: Redrafting 1989

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How the Steelers Drowned Two 1st Round Busts in a Lake: Redrafting 1989

In this retrospective series, we’ll use 20/20 hindsight to play General Manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers to review past drafts – focusing primarily on top 2-3 selections – and personnel decisions year-by-year and redraft or implement trades based on the Steelers roster at the time.

General rule:  Any “redrafted” pick will generally fall within a 15-pick range and trade propositions being realistic and attainable.


Steelers situation and needs: 

  • Although the Steelers were technically coming off their worst season record wise (5-11) since finishing 1-13 in 1969, there was some feeling of optimism.
  • The Steelers had 11 new starters with 2 years or less of NFL experience, spearheaded by future Hall of Famers  Dermontti Dawson and Rod Woodson – they won 3 of their final 4 games (although 20/20 hindsight suggests that was not the best thing for them).
  • Following the season – Dan Rooney was considering firing Chuck Noll and if not for an intervention of DL Coach Joe Greene, it might have passed.  Instead, a compromise was reached and 4 assistant coaches were fired, and DC Tony Dungy was asked to be retained but as DB Coach.  He declined and took the DB Coach position with the Kansas City Chiefs and their 1st year DC Bill Cowher.
  • A major shift in the front office began:  while Dick Haley was still Director of Player Personnel, Tom Donahoe was elevated to Director of Pro Personnel and Development as the 20-year de facto GM of the Steelers began training his replacement.
  • For only the 2nd time in franchise history, the Steelers would have 2 picks in the 1st round.  All-Pro OLB Mike Merriweather held out the entire 1988 season and was traded for the #24 pick in the 1st round.



When a dream pick turns into a nightmare.

1988 Steelers Draft: 1st Round – #7 Overall; #24 Overall;  2nd Round – #34 Overall

The Steelers had the #7 pick – the highest pick since they took Terry Bradshaw in 1970 – and used it on SEC Player of the Year, RB Tim Worley from Georgia.  Worley brought the promise of an all-around RB the team had arguably not seen the likes of before.  And he delivered, but in all the wrong ways.  He fumbled 3 times in his debut against the Cleveland Browns, with two in the first quarter that directly led to the Browns taking a 17-0 lead en route to the most embarrassing loss in Steelers history (51-0.)  Worley would improve as the year went on, showing brief glimpses of his talent as he led the team in rushing, but the 3 fumbles on opening day caught the league’s attention and he would finish the season with 9 fumbles vs. 5 TDs.

Worley was really outshined by Merrill Hoge overall on the year and especially in the playoffs.  Winning those 3 games down the stretch hurt — 4 Hall of Famers went in the top 6 picks before Worley.  In a great story for Worley, he turned his life around, but the beginning of his career was clearly plagued by drug use and it destroyed any chance he had at a promising career.

Tim Worley, per Biblical Reporter:

When I look back, I was prepared to play the game of football. You didn’t even have to pay me; I loved it. But I wasn’t prepared for the things that came off the field, the business side of things. Even before I stepped into the NFL, I started experimenting with drinking and using drugs occasionally. It started escalating when I got into the NFL. I just didn’t know who I was. The things off the field became more important to me than the things on the field. I didn’t know how to separate myself from being in a program mentality in college, to being an NFL employee.

With the #24 pick, the Steelers went back to the OL and local Pittsburgh OT Tom Ricketts, who made Worley look like a gem of a pick by comparison.  The OT was shifted to OG and his career in Pittsburgh ended as 1/3 former first round picks cut by Bill Cowher when he cleaned house in 1992.

To save the Steelers 1989 draft from being a complete debacle, DB Carnell Lake was drafted #34 overall and is among the top 5 best DBs in Steelers history.  He was certainly the least appreciated for how good he was playing next to Rod Woodson – but how he transitioned from SS to CB and still made All-Pro speaks volumes to how great this guy was.  Lake was the precursor to what Troy Polamalu would be in the Dick LeBeau “Blitzburgh” scheme and remains the last Steelers player drafted by the team to be named to the Pro Bowl as a CB.

Grade: B-

  • The Steelers 1989 draft gave them saving gems – most notably Lake- but also Jerrol Williams, D.J. Johnson, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig.



Redrafting 1989: Worley’s pain reaches before and after

The Steelers final victories left them out on chances to draft Derrick Thomas or Deion Sanders.  Also right after him, the Steelers could have truly sealed up their secondary with Donnell Woolford to play alongside Woodson.  The high investment in Worley led the Steelers to move back in the draft and allow the Dallas Cowboys to take Emmitt Smith, perhaps the blow that cost them the most, albeit indirectly. 6x All-Pro Steve Wisnewski was sitting right there for the Steelers to grab at #24 instead of Ricketts – and obviously the transition from Haley to Donahoe was a necessary one.


Comments or thoughts?  Please leave below.


PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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