Len Dawson as a Steelers backup QB
The Steelers’ backup quarterback situation wouldn’t make any NFL coach comfortable.
Bruce Gradkowski, who never got off the bench last season, played well against Eagles’ backups on Thursday, going 8-of-11 for 105 yards and two touchdowns, but he didn’t come in until the game had long since been decided. And he was coming off a rough outing against the Bills (7-of-13, 47 yards, 1 interception).
Landry Jones didn’t play in Philadelphia, but he was erratic and ineffective against the Giants and Bills – 13-of-26 for 127 yards, 0 touchdowns and one interception. And this was after a 2013 season in which he never saw the playing field after playing the entire preseason game at Carolina.
There’s a saying in the NFL that a team is only as good as its backup quarterback – and, if that’s the case, the Steelers have cause for concern. Still, imagine what the St. Louis Rams are going through after losing Sam Bradford for the season with a torn ACL, and are looking at going through the season with the much-traveled Shaun Hill – who’s with his fourth team – at quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger played every snap last season, but the Steelers discovered during both the 2011 and 2012 seasons how valuable he is to them. He was hurt during the second half of both seasons, and the Steelers weren’t the same team in either year after he came back.
A backup quarterback can rally a season but, more often than not, it seems he can ruin one.
So imagine this – more than 50 years ago, the Steelers had not one but TWO future Hall of Fame quarterbacks as backups, yet had no idea what to do with either of them. So they did nothing.
Imagine today if the Steelers owned the valuable No. 5 overall pick in the NFL Draft and drafted one of college football’s best quarterbacks.
And then never let him off the bench for one season. Two seasons. Three seasons.
That’s exactly what they did with Len Dawson, a first-round pick in 1957 who went on to throw exactly 17 passes and one TD pass for them through the 1959 season.
“It was a different era,” Dawson said.
It certainly was. Today, there would be so much pressure to play such a high pick, there is no possible way he could languish on a bench for three seasons.
“I didn’t even know I was drafted by Pittsburgh until the next day or two,” Dawson said. “Because they didn’t have the extravaganza like they have in New York.”
There wasn’t much of one awaiting him in Pittsburgh, either. Certainly nothing like that which followed the drafting of Roethlisberger in 2004.
“Walt Kiesling was the coach and he had some health problems, and Buddy Parker had won the NFL championship in Detroit in 1956 — and Art Rooney hired him,” Dawson said. “And Buddy Parker never played rookies, particularly at the quarterback position.”
After the Steelers expended a first-round pick on Dawson, from Purdue, they traded two first-round picks on 49ers quarterback Earl Morrall – meaning they used up three first-round picks to get Morrall and Dawson. Then, only two games into the 1958 season, they traded Morrall to the Lions for Parker’s starting quarterback there, Bobby Layne.
All the while, Len Dawson sat. And sat. And sat.
“I didn’t get the opportunity, and if you don’t get the opportunity, you’re not going to be successful,” Dawson said.
Dawson didn’t get much of one after going to the Browns in 1960, throwing only 28 passes in two seasons. No wonder he jumped to the AFL in 1962, where he went on to throw for 28,507 yards and 237 TDs for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs – and become a Pro Football Hall of Fame member.
Could Dawson have had that career in Pittsburgh?
“I don’t know,” he said of not playing. “You’ll have to ask the Rooneys.”
One Rooney – team founder Art Rooney Sr. – had to answer more than a few questions from sons Dan and Art Jr. after the Steelers drafted a former St. Justin’s High and Louisville quarterback named Johnny Unitas in 1955.
Both Rooney sons were convinced early in training camp that Unitas had the best arm of any Steelers quarterback. (Coincidentally, Unitas had beaten out Dan Rooney to be the all-city Catholic first-team quarterback a few years before.)
But coach Walt Kiesling somehow determined that Unitas wasn’t equipped to run an NFL style offense, and didn’t give him any practice reps. Kiesling was determined to keep Jim Finks, a future NFL general manager who started every game that season, and future NFL head coach Ted Marchibroda as a backup. It’s hard to imagine even a rookie QB having worse numbers than Finks that season – 47 percent completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and 26 interceptions in 12 starts.
The Steelers cut Unitas before the season started, much to the chagrin of Art Jr., who wrote a lengthy letter to his father pleading that the Steelers kept him. But the senior Rooney said Kiesling was in charge of the roster, and that was that.
Unitas didn’t hook on with another NFL team, and he spent that fall playing for the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game.
A year later, a Bloomfield Rams teammate received a tryout from the Baltimore Colts, and Unitas went along — and was subsequently signed. Within three years, he was the NFL MVP – and the Steelers still were plodding along with a 6-5-1 record after having traded for Layne.
Even today, Unitas is referred to as the best quarterback in NFL history by some analysts – and Dawson is considered to be one of the key players who helped establish the AFL, allowed it to catch up to the NFL in talent and, by the end of the 1960s, merge with the NFL.
If nothing else, Art Rooney Jr. established his player evaluation skills with his assessment of Unitas, and he went on to become a pivotal figure – leading the exceptional drafts of the 1970s – who helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls during the 1970s.
Even if Unitas and Dawson were long since gone, lost to two of the worst player personnel decisions in the Steelers’ 81-year history.