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:
- The season started off with a 51-0 and a 41-10 loss — the large part of media and fans wrote the Steelers off and already scouting at the #1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft.
- Chuck Noll won the Maxwell Club Coach of the Year (and arguably had his best year as a coach) to guide a team that started 0-2 into the playoffs.
- The Steelers 1989 turnaround was the stuff of unimaginable joy as they were on the cusp of advancing past the Denver Broncos to beat the Cleveland Browns for the right to likely get slaughtered in a Super Bowl vs. a San Francisco 49ers team that was hitting on every cylinder.
- The youth movement in Pittsburgh had taken hold, with Greg Lloyd assuming Mike Merriweather‘s old position at OLB and he simply upgraded it. The Steelers were beginning to form a very formidable defense.
- Under the radar, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake approached Dan Rooney about the meals that the Steelers organization were preparing and quickly the menu went from pizza and other junk food to that of nutritional value.
- QB Bubby Brister had a lackluster statistical season (9 TDs, 10 INTs – 2,365 yards and 73.1 QB rating) but he was energetic and brought an infectious optimism – but there were just as many doubts as there was optimism.
- 1989 was he first year Chuck Noll utilized the shotgun on offense. Just imagine Ben Roethlisberger without the shotgun!
Interesting facts about the 1989 Playoff Run:
- When Noll accomplished that feat of starting 0-2 and reaching the playoffs, it was at a time before the playoffs expanded the following year and had only 5 teams qualify.
- The 1989 Steelers were one of only 3 teams to make the playoffs from 1970-1989 starting off 0-2.
- The Steelers finished in what was effectively a tie for 1st place and might have won the AFC Central outright had the referee not mistakenly handed the Houston Oilers an additional time out that directly led to a TD in the Steelers only loss (23-16) in the final 6 games.
- To qualify for the playoffs, the Steelers needed to win their final two games and a perfect storm surrounding 6 other teams winning/losing to qualify. As improbable at it was — it happened.
- If you have never seen the two playoff games vs. Houston Oilers and Denver Broncos, you will never see a RB run as hard and with more determination than Merrill Hoge in both games. You will also see Rod Woodson not just end the Oilers drive (they needed maybe 20 yards for a game winning FG) – he made the tackle for loss, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and advanced it to set up the Steelers game winner in OT.
The Steelers make a trade the rest of the NFL wished they did not.
1990 Steelers Draft: 1st Round – #21 Overall; 2nd Round – #43 Overall
Chuck Noll made a very strange hire at OC in 1990, hiring Joe Walton (with his highly complex offense) to bring the Steelers archaic scheme in line with the rest of an evolving league. The problem was it was too complex and the Steelers struggled to perform under it, leading to the classic Three Rivers Stadium sign: “J_E. Where’s the ‘O’?”
To underscore how bad it was, the Steelers did not score an offensive TD until Week 5.
The Steelers made a trade in the 1st round for the 1st time since the 1960s, moving back from #17 to #21 as they felt the player they wanted – TE Eric Green – would still be there. Walton really wanted to emphasize the TE into his scheme. They picked up an extra 3rd round pick by trading in the process. This is normally a trade I would endorse fully, get an extra 3rd and keep the player you targeted. However, the trade gave the Dallas Cowboys the ability to leap frog the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons (both of whom took RBs Darrell Thompson and Steve Broussard respectively) and land Emmitt Smith. The Cowboys likely do not have a dynasty without this trade and the Steelers likely have a Super Bowl XXX Championship.
To add insult to injury, Green held out all of training camp and did not sign until after Week 1. When he finally did play, he did make an immediate impact — he was on the receiving end of the Steelers first 2 TDs on the year. Green had outstanding talent and was versatile: lining up at TE, H-Back, WR and even RB. Starting only 6 games, he caught more than a 3rd of QB Bubby Brister‘s 20 TD passes.
DL Coach Joe Greene would later say:
“Without Eric Green, we might not have scored a touchdown last year.”
Green would be a 2x Pro Bowl TE for the Steelers, but still found a way to not live up to his potential, yet would demand top money from the Steelers turning down a $10 million offer and leave for the Miami Dolphins for $12 million — where he would last 1 season before being cut. The Green pick/trade was ultimately a bad thing in the long run both ways, especially the trade – but mainly because of how it benefitted Dallas.
The Steelers finally went back to the defensive line to try to find a pass rusher and came away with DE Kenny Davidson, who was no more successful than the 1980’s DE’s drafted before him (career high of 2.5 in 1993).
- The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on QB Neil O’Donnell and while he would lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1995, it turned out badly.
- The 3rd round pick acquired by the trade with the Cowboys was Craig Veasey, a DT that would be gone from the team by 1992 – giving the Steelers little value from the trade.
- RB Barry Foster was a steal in the 5th round and would tie Eric Dickerson’s single season record of 12 100-yard games in 1992, but that was the peak of his career. Although letting the kickoff go like it was a punt was a low-light.
- Justin Strzelcyzyk was a steal at OT in round 11 and would be a strong OT for the Steelers for most of the decade.
Redrafting 1990: Okay with pick more than the trade.
Green could have been a great player with the Steelers if not for the attitude. Yes Emmitt Smith is sitting there and probably is the best pick for the Steelers, who still just invested in RB Tim Worley one year before and still had high hopes on. More than anything, I wish Smith would have not gone to the Cowboys so we wouldn’t have to hear about that annoying team. Add the fact the Steelers would have Jerome Bettis in a few years and my heart says I love Bettis in a Steelers uniform more than Smith.
The 2nd round is tough, with Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett, the best player available was SS Leroy Butler. I suppose the tough part is knowing the DL had a shot at undrafted Hall of Famers DE John Randle and 6th round TE Shannon Sharpe instead of the lower production they got, but that is real 20/20 hindsight.
Comments or thoughts – should the Steelers have taken Emmitt Smith? Leave them below.