Wexell: Bigger losses than Plax

Bill Cowher is the top dog and the reporters under his spell in Pittsburgh are the show ponies. Yesterday they came together to put on the most excruciating and dull press conference of all time. And that's saying something.

Perhaps the bye had something to do with it; perhaps not. But the bye did give us a chance to watch the most excruciating and dull NFL card of all time this past Sunday.

The highlight of the day was not the San Diego-New England game, which the NFL refused to feed to the Pittsburgh market, but instead the New York Giants' blowout of the St. Louis Rams. And that's saying everything.

The Giants-Rams game was interesting only because former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress – the most polarizing figure to Steelers fans since Kordell Stewart – caught 76 passes for 814 yards and 12 touchdowns. Or something like that.

In the wake of this yawner, Steelers fans stirred. The poop was flung between the pro-Plax and anti-Plax factions, with one of the more astute subscribers to the wildly popular web site – Steel City Sports.com – offering an opinion that the refusal of the Steelers to re-sign Burress this past off-season, and instead extend the contract of wide receiver Hines Ward, was the organization's greatest personnel blunder since the release of a rookie named John Unitas back in 1955.

The claim smelled more like the continuation of an old argument instead of a rational statement by a normally rational fan, but it did provide us a chance to come out of the Cowher dog-and-pony show with the only interesting column of the day.

So following is a list of the great personnel blunders of a once thunderously blunderous organization. In honor of Plaxico Burress, we'll title this top-five list: What Have The Pittsburgh Steelers Done For Me Lately?

No. 5 – Sid Luckman

The Steelers finished the 1938 season 2-9 under coach Johnny Blood and had the second pick of the 1939 draft. The Steelers were contacted by Bears owner George Halas, who was looking for a quarterback to run his new T-formation offense. The Steelers ran the single-wing, and would until 1952, so they weren't interested in Columbia All-American Sid Luckman.

Halas traded two players and a draft pick (the history books are blank on the names) to the Steelers, who in turn drafted Luckman and sent him to Chicago. There, Luckman changed the face of football. In 1940 he led the Bears to a 73-0 win over the Redskins in the championship game. He also won rings in 1941, 1943 and 1946 and was named to the Hall of Fame in 1965.

Luckman finished his 12-year career with 14,896 yards passing and 137 touchdowns, which are still Bears records.

No. 4 – Len Dawson

In 1957, Buddy Parker was hired as coach and he wanted some quarterbacks. So he traded two future No. 1 picks to San Francisco for Earl Morrall, picked up Jack Kemp off the scrap heap and grabbed Len Dawson with the fifth pick of the draft.

Dawson was a three-time Big 10 passing champ at Purdue and was coveted by Cleveland coach Paul Brown, who'd just endured his first season without Otto Graham and also his first losing season. But the Steelers grabbed Dawson, and the Browns had to settle for running back Jim Brown with the seventh pick.

Dawson was impressive in the 1957 preseason, but Parker didn't care much for rookies. He didn't care much for Morrall, either, and traded him and three draft picks to Detroit in 1958 for Bobby Layne.

Kemp, by the way, was cut on the sideline during a 1958 exhibition game after disobeying a Parker order to punt out of bounds. Dawson, though, remained, and in three years with the Steelers threw only 17 passes. He and Gern Nagler were traded to Cleveland at the end of the 1959 season for halfback Preston Carpenter and defensive back Lowe Wren.

In Cleveland, Dawson sat the bench for two years behind Milt Plum. Dawson was contacted by former Purdue assistant Hank Stram, who was with the fledgling Dallas Texans, and was convinced to ask Brown for his release. Dawson cleared waivers and the rest became AFL history.

No. 3 – The 1964 Draft

Parker continued to bankrupt the organization of draft picks into the mid 1960s, and his maneuverings in and around the 1964 draft explain much of the franchise's free fall through the end of the decade.

With the 10th pick of the 1964 draft, the Steelers selected Pitt All-American flanker Paul Martha. With the 11th pick, the Browns selected Ohio State track and football All-American Paul Warfield.

Since Parker wanted more depth at wide receiver, he traded the Steelers' first pick of the 1965 draft to get back the 1964 second-round pick he'd previously traded to the Chicago Bears. So the Steelers drafted another local boy, Clairton High and Notre Dame receiver Jim Kelly. With the pick traded by the Steelers, the Bears drafted a guy by the name of Dick Butkus in 1965.

But Parker wasn't done wrecking the franchise. Since he had s-o-o-o-o-o much depth at receiver, Parker traded 27-year-old Buddy Dial, the team's leading receiver from 1960 to 1963 (and the guy blasted by the end zone cannon in the famous film clip) to the Dallas Cowboys for the rights to just-drafted defensive tackle Scott Appleton, the 1963 Outland Trophy winner. Appleton, of course, signed with the AFL's Houston Oilers instead of the Steelers.

So, if you're keeping score at home, the Steelers got Paul Martha (34 career receptions) and Jim Kelly (1 career kickoff return for 12 yards) for Pro Bowler Buddy Dial and Hall of Famers Paul Warfield and Dick Butkus. Little wonder Chuck Noll's Steelers went 1-13 in 1969.

No. 2 – Dan Marino

In the brilliant book "Tales From Behind The Steel Curtain", 1970s dynasty architect Art Rooney Jr. went into detail about why he passed on arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Pitt All-American Dan Marino, in the 1983 draft. Rooney was emphatic that it had nothing to do with Marino's rumored drug use as a senior in college.

"Noll loved Marino," Rooney said. "We had (Terry) Bradshaw, of course, and we'd drafted (Mark) Malone in the first round in 1980, but what most people didn't know is that our other back-up, Cliff Stoudt, was the fair-haired boy of the organization."

Rooney said that even though the Steelers were well-stocked at quarterback, their choice in 1983 came down to Marino, Dave Rimington and Gabe Rivera.

"We crossed Rimington off first because Chuck said he had bad knees and he was right," Rooney said. "Then Chuck said, ‘This team was built with defense,' you know with Joe Greene being the first pick and all, and that, ‘we can do it again.' So we took Rivera. I said fine, since I wasn't real passionate about drafting Marino."

So the blame rests with Noll, the top man in the Steelers' chain of command, but Rooney deserves blame as well for not challenging him.

"My dad never forgave me," Rooney said. "He wouldn't hear anything about Chuck having the last word. … Even in his last year my dad would see me and he'd say, ‘You should've taken Marino!'"

No. 1 – Johnny Unitas

Unitas is another local boy who got away, but the Steelers had to work overtime to mess this one up.

A two-time All-City quarterback (instead of Dan Rooney) at St. Justin's in Pittsburgh, Unitas went off to Louisville and became a starter as a freshman. An academic scandal crippled the team before Unitas's junior year, so, according to another brilliant book, "America's Game", the little buzz Unitas had generated his first two years dissipated with the team's dismal performance. So Unitas, who'd been told by the Browns they'd draft him in the late rounds, was instead chosen by the Steelers in the ninth round in 1955.

Unitas was joined at training camp in Olean, N.Y., by returning starter Jim Finks, back-up Ted Marchibroda and 11th-round pick Vic Eaton.

Steelers coach Walt "The Dumbest Man in the Hall of Fame" Kiesling didn't like Unitas's mechanics, or his intelligence, or his field vision. Kiesling also wanted Eaton around as a back-up punter to Marchibroda, since Pro Bowler Pat Brady's career ended abruptly that preseason because of an injury.

The Chief was off betting horse races throughout the month of August and left his son Danny to oversee camp. Dan and his 15-year-old brother Timmy were impressed by Unitas's passing ability but dumbstruck at how Kiesling ignored him. So Tim Rooney wrote an impassioned letter to his father, who wrote back and asked: "Why don't you leave the coaching to the coaches?"

It's a time-honored Steelers tradition that the coaches run the show, and so this coach cut Unitas three weeks before the start of the season.

The Chief did wire Paul Brown to let him know about the talented Unitas, but Brown had enticed Otto Graham to come back for one last season.

Unitas had no choice but to play semipro ball for the Bloomfield Rams at $6 per game. Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank received an anonymous letter about the semipro whiz and the Colts signed Unitas in February of 1956. He not only transformed the Colts, Unitas transformed the league, and in a way, the nation.

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