The Pittsburgh Steelers are NFL royalty and have been since the 1970’s. The Steelers have had three head coaches in 50 plus years, and both Art Rooney and Dan Rooney are two of the most beloved owners in the history of the NFL. However, the Steelers are one of the league’s original franchises and can trace their history all the way back to the 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates. During the first 39 years of their existence, the Black and Gold made the playoffs exactly one time. The franchise was a cross between the modern day Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions without the playoff success.
In 1955, Pittsburgh in the 9th round of the NFL Draft took a chance on a young signal caller, John Constantine Unitas. Unitas was the captain of the 3-6 Louisville Cardinals. He would come to training camp as the 4th quarterback on the roster to compete with veterans Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda occupying the top two spots on the depth chart. He would enter a training camp battle with Vic Eaton to become the 3rd string quarterback for what would become the 4-8 Pittsburgh Steelers. Unitas did not get much of an opportunity from Walt Kiesling, the head coach of the Steelers and Steagles from 1939-43 and 1954 to 1956. Kiesling, who went 30-45-5 leading Pittsburgh, demonstrated the depth of his football knowledge when he did not allow Unitas to attempt a pass in the team’s two preseason games. Ultimately, he lost out on the 3rd string job because Eaton was kept to be the Steelers punter. Art Rooney’s own family, notably his son Tim Rooney, wrote his father a letter saying, ‘John Unitas is the best quarterback in camp.’ Art Rooney, answered by postcard from Aqueduct racetrack: “Don’t be a wise guy. I pay my coaches a lot of money to make those decisions.”
Kiesling later offered the feeble excuse that ‘all the other teams passed on him during waivers’ when asked about Unitas. Art Rooney would continue to let Kiesling have a hand in deciding who could play quarterback until his untimely death in 1962.
The Steelers’ Search for a New Quarterback
On November 26, 1957, the Steelers were back in the quarterback market and selected with the 5th pick overall the pride of the Purdue Boilermakers, Len Dawson. Walt Kiesling became the first advisory coach in Steelers history to help first year head coach Buddy Parker who despite having Dawson (a future Hall of Famer, future league MVP and Super Bowl champion), quarterback Earl Morrall, and a future AFL Player of the Year in Jack Kemp available to play quarterback, could only lead Pittsburgh to a 6-6 record. The Steelers were such a disaster at evaluating talent at the position during this period, that all three of these players would be off the roster in three years cutting each in successive seasons. Jack Kemp was gone in 1958, Morrall left in 1959 and Dawson would be gone by 1960.
On October 6th, 1958, Buddy Parker, who had coached in Detroit, convinced the team to bring in 3x NFL Champion and a third future Hall of Fame quarterback in four seasons for the Steelers, Bobby Layne. Layne could not get the moribund franchise to the postseason, but in his five seasons at the helm, the Steelers were a very respectable 27-19-2 in his 48 starts and he only had one losing season as the Steelers quarterback. During that period, Layne started for Pittsburgh, Unitas won two of his eventual four championships and the first of two league MVP’s in a 17-year career that saw him retire with virtually every passing record in the book. Len Dawson would not get to start until 1962, Bobby Layne’s final season, and he led the AFL’s Dallas Texans to an 11-3 record and the AFL Championship. Dawson would later go on to win Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings. Bobby Layne was a great quarterback, but looking back, you have to wonder what if the Steelers hadn’t picked the Hall of Famer at the tail end of his career.
Modern Steeler fans refer to the gap between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger as a drought, and how passing on Dan Marino was the biggest mistake in franchise history. In the space of seven years, Earl Morrall, Jack Kemp, Johnny Unitas, and Len Dawson were discarded by Pittsburgh and all went onto win championships. Bobby Layne retired without bringing the Steelers to the playoffs. I wonder what fans would say if that had happened in the Super Bowl era? Would it supplant the Dan Marino debacle as the biggest mistake in franchise history? More importantly, would the Steelers still be the most stable franchise in sports?
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Comment below or follow me on twitter @thebubbasq.