This is an interesting experiment of a book about the 1988 season of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a disaster of a season if there ever was one. The author, a New Yorker who is a former professor and now a free lance writer, set out to write a book about an NFL team starting out from the bottom and working its way to the top and he both liked the city and people of Pittsburgh and the team had been pretty mediocre the past three or four years, and by all accounts, they were poised for a resurrection in 1988, so he landed with the Steelers. And that’s where it begins.
First, he introduces some interesting local Pittsburghers, including a Japanese immigrant who stands out in the city and an ethnic blue collar worker, the exact type of man the city is known for. He becomes friends with the latter, enjoying his company over that of his grown son’s because the older man loves football while the younger man simply loves watching “winning” football. Right there, you know Toperoff isn’t a football fan, never has been. He’s a journalist, plain and simple. He likes the game but could care less about the outcome.
He then goes to the Steelers’ headquarters and admires the beautiful and intimidating presentation of four Super Bowl trophies, evidence of ghosts of the recent past, of Hall of Famers, of having to live up to that tradition. It’s imposing.
He meets the coaches, Chuck Noll, who came to Pittsburgh in 1969 and led the team to four Super Bowl wins, now in a down cycle. He meets Mean Joe Greene, a defensive line coach now, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, future Colts head coach. They have big plans for the season.
He then starts writing about the players, about how they’re the youngest team in the league, have a lot of unproven players, no real leaders, hope people will step up. How Pro Bowl linebacker Mike Merriweather is doing the unthinkable and holding out for a new, better contract and how that’s impacting the team. How Merriweather held out the whole season and was traded the next year to the Vikings. How Pittsburgh’s top defensive lineman got injured in the first preseason practice, out for the year. How last year’s top rookie and a hot shot defensive back broke his wrist, but has to play the season anyway due to lack of players and is totally ineffective. How one of the better offensive linemen is sidelined by bad ulcers. How their top draft pick is inexplicably some no name defensive end from some small school in Kentucky who predicts he’ll get 18-20 sacks that year — and gets one and a half. How their starting quarterback is a loudmouth, splashy, overconfident braggart with a big arm from Louisiana, reminding everyone of Terry Bradshaw of course, but he’s had only two NFL starts and has a lot to prove. And on and on it goes.
Toperoff also introduces us to the local media, the local TV analysts, who he doesn’t spend much time with, and the two dozen or so newspaper reporters who go to each game, travel with the team, yet remain objective and, when necessary, quite critical. He spends a lot of time with them and writing about them in this book. Sometimes a bit too much.
The Steelers go 3-1 in the preseason and everybody feels pretty good, even with all of the injuries. Then they play their first game of the season and win it, so things remain good. Their second game is with defending Super Bowl champion Washington, whom they beat in the preseason, but this time, they make all sorts of mistakes and essentially give the game away, losing just barely. It’s a hard pill to swallow. They do the same thing in the third game, getting something like seven offsides penalties and two blocked punts. In fact, they set an NFL record in blocked punts that year. It was unbelievable how many of their punts got blocked, how their players couldn’t block the opposing players at all, how many blocked punts got turning into winning touchdowns. And then things really fell apart. They started getting their asses kicked. It was brutal. All sorts of stupid penalties, turnovers, mistakes, special teams screw ups, missed tackles. You name it, they did it. They got killed. They started their season 1-6, something not seen in Pittsburgh since the 1960s and it was shocking. People were shell shocked and were trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Were the players that bad? Was it the injuries? Had the “game passed by” Coach Noll? A lot of people thought it had and as a life time Steeler fan who remembers those awful years, I recall thinking exactly that as Noll led his last few teams to awful records by not changing with the times, by not adapting, by rigidly sticking with his 70s-era football that no longer worked in the new pass-happy NFL. He was the only coach in the NFL who didn’t use the shotgun with his quarterback. He refused to. Absolutely refused to. And he ran the ball. That’s all he did. With poor runners and a poor offensive line, that’s hard to do. When your quarterback is getting beat up because he can’t play out of the shotgun, it’s time to make some changes. So, for the eighth game, Noll shook some things up, threw in some trick plays, loosened the reigns, if you will, and they won. So, in the first half of their season, they went 2-6. Pretty bad.
After getting that second win, they went back to losing. The mistakes reappeared. The penalties mounted. The turnovers occurred, the punts were blocked, the stupid fights occurred, resulting in unsportsmanlike penalties, etc. And it became apparent to most that these football players had no leadership and were uncoachable. They didn’t learn what their coaches taught them, or tried to teach them. They kept making the same stupid mistakes. It was unreal. Speaking of uncoachable, the author got some things wrong and some things right. This book was published right after that season, so hind sight is 20/20, but he wrote repeatedly about how recent first round draft pick, Rod Woodson, a super fast and mega-talented defensive back from Purdue was talented, yes, but made mistake after mistake and couldn’t adapt to the NFL-caliber competition, how he was most likely going to wind up a bust. Of course, Woodson went on to snag a Super Bowl ring and is in the NFL Hall of Fame. So too, he raved about then-guard, soon to be center, Dermonti Dawson, a recent draft pick from Kentucky who started the season injured, but then came on and learned a lot as the season progressed and showed a lot of promise. He predicted a long NFL future for him. Like Woodson, Dawson has a Super Bowl ring and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
The Steelers went on to lose four straight games, so that their record stood at 2-10. People started whispering that they should throw their remaining four games so they could get the number one draft pick, rumored to be UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman. Chuck Noll would have none of it. The Steelers came back and won three of their last four to finish with a 5-11 record. The season nearly broke Noll’s spirit. Three of his assistant coaches were fired, two defensive coaches and the special teams coach. The new owner, Dan Rooney, was most unpleased.
The book ends with the next NFL draft. The Steelers were drafting seventh. They were guaranteed to get a good pick. The Steelers chose Georgia running back Tim Worley, a super college running back with size and speed, sure to be their featured back for the next decade. That was a long time ago, but as I recall, he was largely a bust and lasted just a few short years, accomplishing next to nothing. Like most of the other draft picks of that era. If I remember right, Noll went on to coach three more unmemorable years before retiring with most Pittsburgh fans breathing a sigh of relief. Bill Cowher took over as coach and had the team back in the Super Bowl within a few years, barely losing to Dallas, before several years later, winning the team’s fifth of six Super Bowl titles.
The book is interesting, but it’s kind of unfocused and all over the place. It’s obviously a “human interest” piece and somewhat scattered, neither a true football book, nor a coaching book, nor a journalism book, nor a real social studies book, perhaps a study on the people and mindset of Pittsburgh football fans, but it rambles and doesn’t spend much time on the actual games themselves. Which I found a bit disappointing. A lot of time is spent shooting the breeze with the other reporters. I guess that’s where the info is, certainly not with the players, right? It’s not a bad book, but it’s not a great book at all. It’s written with an interesting premise, but I’m not sure what it actually accomplishes. What did it set out to do? Did it succeed? Did it even deserve to be written and published? I’m not sure. If you’re a longtime Steelers fan, you might find this interesting. If not, then simply don’t read it. Not recommended.