This will be the first in a series of 14 articles providing the best of the best players to ever put on a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform for every position on the field. What better place to start than at the field general on offense: the quarterback.
When you speak of Steelers’ quarterbacks, most often either the names Roethlisberger or Bradshaw will be the first mentioned. However, there have been other men who played the position quite well and even brought Pittsburgh to the brink of a Super Bowl triumph or AFC title.
Kordell Stewart:“Slash” as he was known, was very popular at the start of his career in Pittsburgh. But as his performances waned, so did his popularity. Stewart insisted on being an NFL quarterback and never lost confidence that he could start despite losing his job with Bill Cowher and the encouragement that he should stay with the team as a part-time quarterback/wide receiver/running back.
Playing other positions gave Stewart his monicker Slash, but in the end, it cost him a longer career with his refusals to accept that role. As Slash, Stewart was probably the most exciting athletic quarterback in Steelers’ history. In 1997, he did get Pittsburgh to the AFC title game only to lose to Denver. Still, there remains fond memories of Stewart and plays he made during his tenure in Black and Gold.
Neil O’Donnell: The predecessor to Slash was the University of Maryland product who despite a solid career in Pittsburgh will forever be remembered for being the “goat” in Super Bowl XXX. With two awful interceptions thrown at the Dallas Cowboys in that NFL title game, “O’Dummy” as he would become known to some Steelers fans will never be forgiven by many members of Steelers Nation.
Aside from those two major gaffes in Super Bowl XXX, O’Donnell was actually a very good quarterback who played with outstanding efficiency. His poor performance in 1996 against Dallas was out of character for #14. A season before, he and Cowher had Steelers faithful scratching their heads in the AFC title game against San Diego when with a chance to win that game on a first and goal, instead of running Barry Foster for a possible go ahead touchdown, O’Donnell tried to force passes into the end zone for a winning score to no avail.
Tommy Maddox: “Tommy Gun.” That was the nickname attributed to the gun slinging Maddox who’s career was one filled with ups and downs. Thought to be the successor to John Elway in Denver, the Broncos weren’t satisfied with the play of Maddox.
As a first round 1992 draft pick-turned bust in Denver, the Broncos traded the young quarterback after just two seasons to the Los Angeles Rams. Maddox spent just one season there before beginning a streak around the NFL and other football leagues that landed him on the rosters of the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. After a three-year lapse of not playing football (1997-2000, and selling insurance for a living), Tommy Gun was signed by the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena Football League (AFL).
Maddox’s career was short in the AFL, just the 2000 season. With the creation of the one-year fiasco by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon called the XFL, Maddox led the Los Angeles Xtreme to that league’s only title. But the Pittsburgh Steelers liked what they saw in Maddox and signed him to a deal in 2001.
Maddox had his longest tenure on any team he had previously played for spending five seasons in Black and Gold. With the Steelers, Maddox was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2002. He was also a backup when Pittsburgh finally got their “One for the Thumb” Super Bowl title in 2006. Maddox unseated Stewart as the starter in 2002 and held the job until he suffered a scary neck injury in 2004 giving way to the rookie Ben Roethlisberger who has never looked back nor lost his starting quarterback job since.
Maddox will probably be best remembered for the playoff game against the Cleveland Browns in 2002 during the wild card round. After falling behind 24-7, Tommy Gun went to the air and led Pittsburgh to an incredible 36-33 victory behind his 404 yards passing, hitting on 38 of 55 pass attempts. In the process he also threw three touchdown passes.
Mark Malone: While he may not be considered an all-time great, Mark Malone may go down as the least favorite Steelers quarterback ever. Unfortunate for Malone is that he was the field general for Pittsburgh at a time when the team was going through a down period having trouble winning games.
Drafted in the first round with the 28th overall pick in 1980, Malone who played at Arizona State would remain with the team until 1987 when he became a San Diego Charger for one season and then retired with the New York Jets after just one season in 1989. But for his career, Malone would finish with just 10,175 yards passing with 60 touchdowns thrown but tossed 81 interceptions.
The highlight of Malone’s career had to be the record he set at that time for the longest touchdown reception ever for a Pittsburgh Steelers player, a 90-yard reception from the hands of Terry Bradshaw which has since been broken by Mike Wallace.
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Bubby Brister: Brister may be the only “Bubby” to ever quarterback an NFL team. Like Malone before him, Brister did not get the experience to taste playing in a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh. The big difference between Malone and Brister however is that Brister was the better player.
Brister played seven solid seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and lucky for Brister, he was a backup to John Elway when the Denver Broncos won successive Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. In high school, Brister was simply known as Bubba, but that would evolve into the name he is now commonly known as.
Mike Tomczak: Unlike the other quarterbacks already mentioned, with the exception of Maddox, Tomczak was not a Pittsburgh Steeler originally. Instead, his career began with the Chicago Bears in 1985 where he played six seasons before heading to Green Bay, Cleveland, and then Pittsburgh in 1993.
Tomczak would finish his career with the Detroit Lions in 2000 but never made the regular season roster there. He was the quarterback of record in 1996 when the Steelers and Tennessee Titans set the record in Three Rivers Stadium for most combined points ever as Tennessee outlasted Pittsburgh 47-36. Tomczak was also very well liked in the ‘Burgh.
Bobby Layne: Finally there is Bobby Layne. While the Hall of Famer earned his way into the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio based mostly on his career with the Detroit Lions, he did finish his career in Pittsburgh retiring after nearly five solid seasons. In those seasons as a Steeler, he passed for 6,959 yards. That included 66 touchdown passes.
As a player in Detroit, Layne had the reputation of being a hard partying man off the field that included a drunk driving arrest. In his final season with Detroit, the then head coach, George Wilson caused a quarterback controversy in 1958 stating that he was not satisfied with the play of his two quarterbacks Layne and Tobin Rote. Unbeknownst to Layne, he was informed that he was traded to the Steelers. In response to the trade, Layne reportedly told the media: “ The Lions will not win for 50 years.”
That story has never been substantiated but whether it is true or not, Detroit would establish the worst won/loss percentage for any team in the NFL over those next 50 years.
“The Lions will not win for 50 years” Bobby Layne
The Detroit Lions have yet to make a Super Bowl appearance joining only the Cleveland Browns, and the Jacksonville Jaguars as teams not making a Super Bowl. An interesting twist to that story that must be added but not related to Layne or the Steelers is the fact that while Detroit has returned to winning ways behind the quarterbacking of Matthew Stafford, Stafford ironically graduated from the same high school as Bobby Layne and grew up in a house on the same street where Layne was raised.
Layne’s only opportunity for a bit of revenge on his own team came twice when the Steelers and Lions met on November 8, 1959 and again on September 16, 1962. In that first meeting the game finished in a 10-10 tie. Layne was responsible for kicking a 29-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh its first points of the game and then threw a fourth quarter 20-yard touchdown pass to Tom Tracy to knot the final score. In the second meeting, the outcome was much different. Detroit destroyed the Steelers on the road 45-7 as Layne threw for just 76 yards.