The Big Ben Project: Part 3: The Bridge Between Terry and Ben – The 84-03ers

By Jeremy Hritz

Post-1980s/Terry Bradshaw Steelers is characterized by instability, volatility, and false senses of security at the quarterback position, as a bounty of names earned starts with mixed results. Following the dynastic output of Bradshaw and the steadiness he provided, the Steelers entered a period of non-franchise QB play, though throughout that time frame, the search and hope for the next Bradshaw was always a goal. 

From 1984-2003, the Steelers had 12 players claim the title of starting quarterback. Mathematically over those 19 years, the Steelers statistically had a new starting signal caller every 1.5 years, each with varying levels of success and narratives to accompany their stint with the team. For comparative purposes, Bradshaw was with the team for 14 years, while Big Ben is entering his 18th year with the Steelers. When looking at the 84-03 span through this context, the struggles and frustrations of the organization are self-evident, and while many of those teams in that era were playoff caliber, they were never able to get over the proverbial hump until Roethlisberger arrived from on high. 

So who were the starting quarterbacks during that era, and what were their contributions? Some were memorable, many were forgettable, and they color the tapestry of lead men of the 84-03’ers.

The Cast of Characters

Mark Malone (1980 – 1987)

In addition to a majestic mustache, Mark Malone was drafted with hope and optimism at number 28 overall in the first round of the 1980 draft, with the thinking he would be the successor to Bradshaw. His best record as a starter came in 1984, leading the team to the postseason and finishing with a 6-3 record as a starter. Malone led the team to a playoff victory against the Denver Broncos, and then losing in the AFC Championship against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, 45-28. That would be the last playoff experience for Malone in Pittsburgh, as his career continued with abysmal completion percentages (50.9) and an equally as bad touchdown to interception ratio. He was traded by the Steelers to the Chargers before playing his final season with the New York Jets. 

Uniquely, Malone also moonlighted as a receiver, and until Mike Wallace came along, he held the record for the longest TD reception of 90 yards. 

David Woodley (1984 – 1986)

David Woodley was with the Steelers from 1984 through 1986 and started 13 games, going 7-6 in those contests. The team traded for Woodley to compete against Malone, and traded starts with the first-round draft pick. In 1986, Woodley would lose the starting job to Malone which prompted him to retire from the Steelers before being traded again, this time to the Green Bay Packers in 1987. In his tenure with the Steelers, he completed 179/339 passes for 2630 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, with a QB rating of 66.4.

Scott Campbell (1984 – 1986)

Campbell was a 7th round draft choice, pick 191, of the Steelers in the 1984 NFL Draft, out of Purdue. From Hershey, Pennsylvania, Campbell played with Pittsburgh from 1984-1986, starting 2 games, losing both, and finishing with a stat line of 51/115, 721 yards, 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. After his time with the Steelers, he went on to play with the Atlanta Falcons.

Bubby Brister (1986 – 1992)

Many people probably recall Bubby Brister’s humorous personality and propensity of speaking without a filter. Drafted in the 3rd round by the Steelers out of Northeast Louisiana (he grew up in Louisiana as well), many people were quick to make a connection between Brister and the great Bradshaw. Unfortunately, the similarities ended with hometown and southern drawl, as Brister could not replicate the success that the original TB12 produced. 

Brister played with the Steelers from 1986 through 1992, achieving a record of 28 wins and 29 losses, 1207/2212 for 10,104 yards, 51 touchdowns to 57 interceptions. He led the Steelers to a post-season win against the Houston Oilers in a 1989 AFC Wildcard Game, but then dropped the following week’s contest against John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Brister would go on to play for the Eagles, Jets, Broncos, Vikings, and Chiefs. 

Steve Bono (1987 – 1988)

Steve Bono, a Norristown, Pennsylvania native, signed with the Steelers for the 1987 season. His primary claim to notoriety is that he served as the backup quarterback to both Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, and in 1991, in the absence of both players due to injury, he led the team to a 5-1 record, something attributable to the talent of the 49ers, and not the skill of Bono. 

Bono spent two years with the Steelers, achieving a 2-1 record as a starter, with a stat line of 44/109 for 548 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. When the 1988 season concluded, the Steelers let Bono leave for free agency, and it marked the end of his brief stint with the team. 

Todd Blackledge (1988 – 1989)

Todd Blackledge, a Penn State alum, was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs 7th overall in the famed 1983 NFL Draft. He was picked after John Elway, but before Dan Marino. Despite notching Marino in draft order, his career in no way rivaled the Miami Dolphins legend. Blackledge spent 5 years with the Chiefs before moving on to Pittsburgh, afterwards which he retired at 28 years old. 

In Pittsburgh, Blackledge went 2-3 as a starter, throwing for 776 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, pedestrian to say the least. He primarily backed up Bubby Brister and absorbed the starting role as a result of injury. 

Neil O’Donnell (1990 – 1995)

Ahhhh, the great Neil O’Donnell. 

Something tells me that while some of the quarterbacks you have read about from the 80s and 90s you were unaware of, you do, sadly and painfully, remember the name Neil O’Donnell, and his Super Bowl-dream killing two interceptions in the Super Bowl 30 against the Dallas Cowboys. Most egregious about the picks is that they both appeared to be thrown directly to the defender, Larry Brown, which set up short fields and subsequent touchdowns, imploding the Steelers opportunity for their 5th ring, as they dropped the contest 27-17. Still to this day, there are questions as to what could have happened in the event O’Donnell had not thrown those interceptions.

It was not surprising that following that 1995 season, the Steelers did not renew his contract, and O’Donnell went on to sign with the atrocious New York Jets for 5 years, $25 million dollars, which was upper-market money for a QB at that time. How did O’Donnell respond? With an 0-6 start, and an extension of the Jets misery as being one of the league’s absolute worst teams.

Overall, O’Donnell’s stats with the Steelers are respectable, with a 39-22 overall record, including a 3-4 record in the postseason, highlighted (or low-lighted) by the Super Bowl appearance. He threw for 12,867 yards, 68 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions. You have to wonder if O’Donnell would not have thrown those interceptions and had the Steelers won that game, would his contract have been extended, and would there have been stability at the quarterback position? It’s a worthy discussion, even though it’s a hypothetical, and one that is playing out in some other alternative reality. 

Mike Tomczak (1993 – 1999)

Mike Tomczak was an undrafted rookie free agent who began his career with the Chicago Bears, followed by a stint with the Green Bay Packers before signing on with the Steelers. An Ohio State alum, Tomczak was with the Steelers for 7 seasons, and led the team to the postseason in 1996 when the team posted a 10-6 record which was largely the result of the rushing performance of Jerome Bettis. 

Tomzcak’s emergence in Pittsburgh coincided with Kordell Stewart’s arrival, and he served more as a reliever, insurance QB in the event of injury or poor play by Stewart. When his career with the Steelers wrapped up, he produced a 15-12 record as a starter, with 56.1% completion percentage, 6649 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions. His starting record in the postseason was 1-1, and his 4 interceptions in those contests don’t leave much up to the imagination as to why those Steelers teams faltered.

Jim Miller (1994 – 1996)

Jim Miller, currently a host for Sirius XM’s NFL Radio, was a 6th round draft pick of the Steelers in 1994, being selected 178th overall, and his time with the team was marred with injuries. In only 2 seasons with the team, he started 1 game, which was a loss, and compiled a stat line of 45/81, 520, 2 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. From there, Miller moved on to the Bears where he enjoyed much more success, including enjoying an 11-2 record as a starter in 2001. 

Kordell Stewart (1995 – 2002)

Kordell Stewart may have been the closest the Steelers ever got to reclaiming the concept of a franchise quarterback, though statistically, his numbers do not support such a claim. But never was there a more polarizing player on the team, as many fans held him in high regard and wanted him to succeed, while another part of the fanbase wanted nothing more than for him to fail and for the Stewart experiment to be over. Regardless of where someone’s fandom rests in perspective to Stewart, he innovated for the Steelers offense, earning the nickname “Slash,” and showcased his abilities to not only throw, but also catch the football, run, and even punt. 

The organization attempted to fit the unorthodox style and game of Stewart into a traditional quarterback framework without adapting the system to his unique talents; unfortunately, as a result, he never could overcome his limitations to fit the conventional mold. Had he been given the flexibility to play his style of quarterback for the Steelers, there is curiosity if he could have been more effective than he was. 

Despite his challenges and uncertainty of how to best utilize his talents, Stewart did have a successful career with the Steelers and did lead some great teams within inches of a Super Bowl. 

When the dust settled on his career in Pittsburgh, Stewart was 1190/2107, 13,328 yards, 70 touchdowns, and 72 interceptions, with a career passer rating of 72.3. He also rushed for 2561 yards, with 5.2 yards per carry, adding an element of escapability that made him difficult to defend. His record in the playoff speaks to why he could never fully entrench himself as the full time starter with the full support of the fanbase and the organization, going 2-2 and throwing 8 interceptions in comparison to his 2 touchdowns. 

Were Stewart’s shortcomings due to the way he was developed and managed by the Steelers coaching staff? Would there have been a different outcome if an offense was adapted to his style of play? These questions will never be answered, but one thing is for certain: Stewart brought the excitement (and disappointment) during his tenure with the Steelers. 

Kent Graham (2000)

Kent Graham only spent one year with the team in 2000, when he was signed for $5.1 million dollars to serve as Kordell Stewart’s backup. Surprisingly, Graham was given an opportunity as a starter in 2000, but it was resulted is a poor 0-3 showing. After being injured, Graham was never cemented as the exclusive starter, and split time with Stewart. In the end, Graham finished the season with a 2-3 record as a starter, a dreadful 44.7% completion percentage, 878 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Following his year with the Steelers, he moved on to the Washington Football Team where he spent 1 year before retiring. 

Tommy Maddox (2001-2005)

And finally, the era post-Bradshaw, pre-Ben ends with Tommy Maddox, a player whom was drafted in the first-round by the Denver Broncos with the hope he would be the successor to franchise quarterback following John Elway. 

It never materialized. 

Maddox spent only 2 seasons with the Broncos before bouncing around to several teams including the Rams, the Giants, and even the now-defunct XFL, in which he led his team to the inaugural championship and the game’s MVP award. It was after that in 2001 that the Steelers signed Maddox, and he experienced mild success with the team. His best season occurred in 2002 where he threw for 2836 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, leading the team to a postseason berth, and enjoying a starting record of 7-3-1 after supplanting Kordell Stewart.

That success was short-lived, as the following season, Maddox started all 16 games and went 6-10 as a starter, positioning the Steelers to select none other than Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. Maddox was upset due to the selection of Roethlisberger, and his time as the starter would abruptly end in Baltimore after he was injured, and the first sentences of the story of Big Ben began to be written. 

While Maddox is the cap on the extensive and lackluster history of Steelers quarterbacks in between Bradshaw and Ben, he will forever be known as the bridge to what was to become another golden era in Steelers football, one featuring a lanky, awkward kid from Findlay, Ohio. 

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