The best Steelers quarterbacks NOT named Terry or Ben
We all love the NFL, and with the Super Bowl now behind us and the NFL Draft to look forward to, we may not have any NFL picks for this week, but betting on the draft, fantasy football, and even the XFL is still an option for avid football betting fans.
Despite the small tidbits to look forward to, we have hit that part of the year where we start to look back on some previous seasons. For the Steelers, we’re still uncertain that Kenny Pickett will become a franchise quarterback: but we do know it’s now his job to lose. In thinking of Pickett’s path in Pittsburgh, many fans will quickly try to associate his name with legends, such as Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger.
However, the Steelers have had more than those two quarterbacks throughout their history. That got myself and Brian E. Roach to talking on a recent SCU Podcast about who the other guys were, and just how good or bad were they?
To be fair, we wanted to keep this conversation to the modern era NFL, which would be after the 1970 merger. That means sorry Bobby Layne, you missed the cut; but your 9,030 passing yards in five seasons between 1958 to 1962 still rank sixth all-time in franchise history.
In saying that, it makes you wonder: who are the best Steelers quarterbacks aside from the infamous two? Let’s shine the limelight on these other players.
The only first round pick used on a quarterback between Bradshaw’s selection in 1970 – the first year of our cutoff point – and Roethlisberger’s selection in 2004, is widely associated with the dark days of the 1980s era Steelers.
Taken with the 28th overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, Malone would see little action for several years.
Even in 1983, when Bradshaw played his only and final game of his career, Cliff Stoudt was called upon as a more senior player to fill the role as the Steelers starter. Stoudt would struggle, throwing 21 interceptions in ’83 and giving way to Malone as the starter in ’84. That year is either remembered or forgotten by Steelers fans, as Malone was serviceable enough to lead Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game, only to fall to a Dan Marino led Miami Dolphins squad in that game.
Marino is the “one who got away” as the Steelers overlooked him in the previous year’s draft, opting for “Mean” Joe Greene‘s replacement in Texas Tech’s Gabe Rivera. That move was seen as a missed opportunity for Chuck Noll‘s 80’s teams, who would flounder following the exit in ’84 and fail to make the postseason for the next four years, after they moved on from Malone.
In seven seasons with the Steelers, Malone would start 46 games, finishing with a 21-24 record as a starter, throwing for 8,582 yards, 54 touchdowns and 68 interceptions.
Malone’s successor, Bubby Brister, also makes this list.
Chosen in the third round of the 1986 NFL Draft, Brister would start in two miserable games in his rookie season, losing both while completing only 35% of his 60 pass attempts for 291 yards. It wouldn’t be until the 1988 season that the team would turn to him, though he would alternate with another 1983 first round pick, Todd Blackledge, who was also chosen before Marino but by the Kansas City Chiefs, and also Steve Bono, who would later go on to have a long-term NFL career as well.
With Blackledge and Bono not the answers, Brister would go on to be the Steelers starter until he was supplanted by new head coach Bill Cowher‘s choice in 1992. During his time in Pittsburgh Brister would lead the team to the playoffs in 1989 and would make 57 starts. He would throw for 10,104 yards, 51 touchdowns and 57 interceptions, despite having an early career streak of not throwing a pick (which was then a team record).
Cowher’s choice to replace Brister was none other than Neil O’Donnell, who played for the Steelers from 1991 until 1995. This era was an important transition in the history of the franchise as Chuck Noll passed the torch to Bill Cowher in 1992. O’Donnell, a third round pick in 1990 by Noll, would win the job after eight starts in ’91, and lead the Steelers back to the playoffs in 1992, also earning Pro Bowl honors despite what would now be considered a pedestrian 13 touchdown season. (He also threw 9 interceptions that year!)
Despite how many feel about O’Donnell, his tenure was mostly successful. He would lead the Steelers to five-straight playoff appearances and earn a free agent contract which was double that of the next highest paid Steelers at the time, Rod Woodson.
However, he is also infamously known for losing to the San Diego Chargers in the 1994 AFC Championship game, and throwing three interceptions in a Super Bowl XXX loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
After the Super Bowl loss, O’Donnell left the Steelers for the Jets in 1995, despite Pittsburgh coming within a million dollars of New York’s offer. He never again achieved the same heights he did with the Steelers, where he remains 4th all-time for passing touchdowns and passing yards in the franchise’s history 68 and 12,867 respectively. His 39 interceptions in 61 starts is also a respectable number, posting a 39-22 record during his tenure.
Finally, we have Kordell Stewart, otherwise known as “Slash”, a nickname he gained when Cowher decided to use him as a wide receiver during his rookie season. That year, coincided with O’Donnell’s last, where the Steelers rostered four different quarterbacks including the aforementioned two, plus Mike Tomczak and Jim Miller. Thus, for Stewart to get on the field, he utilized his athleticism to catch passes instead of throw them.
His NFL odds were off the charts for his time, as Stewart stupefied defenses who never knew what he would do. He managed to catch 14 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown, which aided the Steelers in their Super Bowl XXX appearance. His stint as a receiver would continue into 1996, when the team opted for Miller as the Week 1 starter, then handed the job to Tomczak from that point forward.
As a gadget player, Stewart would accumulate 528 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns on 31 receptions in ’95 and ’96.
His elusiveness also contributed to the run game, where Stewart ran for 257 yards and 6 touchdowns during his first two seasons. It was a near split, as his 54 carries and 31 catches out shadowed his 37 pass attempts, but that would all change in due time, as Tomczak left a divisonal playoff game against New England with a 35.1 QB rating after going 16-29 for 110 yards and 2 interceptions. (Stewart would finish 0-10 in relief.)
“Slash” won the starting job in 1997, leading the team to an 11-5 record and eventually getting revenge in an ugly 7-6 win over the Patriots, in which Stewart had the Steelers only score following a 40-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Ahead of his time by many factors, Stewart would be often criticized for poor playoff performances, including a three interception effort in losing to John Elway‘s Denver Broncos to finish 1997, and another three-pick playoff loss to the Patriots at the conclusion of the 2001 season.
Between those seasons Stewart would battle to be the franchise quarterback, losing and regaining his job to Kent Graham, and despite being the team’s MVP, and earning a Pro Bowl selection in ’01, he would be supplanted by Tommy Maddox in 2002. Stewart would sign with the Chicago Bears the following offseason, finishing his turbulent Steelers tenure third all-time in passing (13,328 yards) with 70 touchdowns to 72 interceptions and a 46-29 record as a starting quarterback.
Honorable Mention: Tommy Maddox
Another first round draft pick, turned bust, from the Denver Broncos in 1992, Maddox would revive his career after having last played in the NFL for the New York Giants in 1995 by winning the MVP award of the short-lived XFL in 2000.
Backing up Stewart in 2001, Maddox would become the starter in 2002 and 2003. He would play a total of five seasons in Pittsburgh, but was quickly supplanted when Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004. Maddox would finish his NFL career entirely after the 2005 season with the Steelers, finishing with 7,139 yards, 42 touchdowns and 40 interceptions in the Steel City.