The news from Pittsburgh is that the raffish Steelers are being transformed into a disciplined team that drinks its Ovaltine and says its prayers in plenty of time for the 11 o'clock curfew, and there is a certain sadness in the thought, as there might be if a rowdy old burlesque house were razed to make way for a supermarket. The man responsible for the Steelers' uncharacteristic restraint is the new coach, Bill Austin, who formerly cracked an assistant's whip for the league's toughest boss, Vince Lombardi, at Green Bay. But the Steelers will be no more than disciplined losers this season. What Austin got was just about the most terrible team in modern NFL football. Until he can find more able hands, Pittsburgh will be a tight ship with no visible helmsman and alarming noises in the engine room.
Who's to steer the Steelers? The quarterbacks—to begin with the worst of the team's manifold problems—have been young and overeager. In camp only one, rookie John Stofa, appeared to have the arm to throw deep accurately. All have been slow in reading defenses, hesitant about switching to audibles, unintimidating as runners and tardy setting up for throwing. Nor has any of them assumed command of the team as a quarterback must. Bill Nelsen, with only one full season of experience, is on a shaky deck as No. 1; he is indecisive and his sense of timing—his judgment of that fleeting moment when a receiver is breaking clear—is faulty. Tommy Wade looks no better. Stofa was given a long look but was released, and last week the Steelers picked up the No. 3 Green Bay quarterback, Ron Smith.
If someone can get the ball to them, however, the receivers are O.K. Five outside receivers are now or potentially of the caliber of ex-Steelers Jimmy Orr and Buddy Dial: Gary Ballman, Roy Jefferson, Paul Martha (after a laborious apprenticeship), Jerry Simmons and rookie J. R. Wilburn. They are saying that Jefferson, a second-year man, can become a superstar, so sure are his hands, so fluid his moves, so remarkable his speed. The tight ends, sophomore John Hilton and rookie Tony Jeter, are powerful and fast, if green.
But even if the Steelers do get the ball to the receivers, who's to run to vary the attack? John Henry Johnson is gone, and Austin may have to depend upon those plodding veterans, Dick Hoak and Mike Lind, as his starters. Oldtimer Clarence Peaks has shed 20 of his 238 pounds and may be useful, but No. I draft-choice Dick Leftridge has been put behind schedule by an infection. Some mild hope centers on youngsters Jim Butler and Willie Asbury.
And who's to block for them? Oldsters Ray Lemek, Mike Sandusky, Art Hunter and Charlie Bradshaw have worn out; so the interior line will be made up of rookie Pat Killorin at center, rookie Larry Gagner and veteran Mike Magac at guard and Lloyd Voss, acquired from the Packers, and veteran Dan James at tackle. This may be as weak an offensive line as there is in the NFL.
At least the defense is respectable. The line includes two strong ends, John Baker and Ben McGee. The tackles will come from a sturdy but cumbersome trio of Riley Gunnels, Chuck Hinton and Ken Kortas. These men are punishing to run against but a trifle slow on the pass rush. Baker and McGee will get there, but the tackles will be important strides too late.
The Steeler linebackers are better than average. Gene Breen returns in the middle with Andy Russell, back from a two-year Army hitch and in top condition, and John Campbell or Rod Breedlove at the corners. Rookie Dave Tobey is a spare linebacker/ center. The defensive backs are also sound. Corner Man Brady Keys can cover any receiver man to man. Bob Hohn, the second-year man playing opposite him, is coming along well, and the veteran Willie Daniel is available. Deep are Clendon Thomas, a fast man. with an interception three years ago before he was shifted, against his will, to tight end, and Jim Bradshaw. Speedball Marv Woodson can be used in an emergency, as can Martha and Simmons from the offensive platoon.
For the first time since 1957 the Steelers have been ordered to work on fundamentals—timing, footwork, blocking and tackling. The overweights have been de-plumped, the receivers are running strict pass patterns for a change and all are managing to live with that strictly enforced 11 p.m. curfew.
Austin prefers instinctive reactions and quickness to mere size and demands blockers who crack and hit rather than drive and steer. Where the departed Buddy Parker fostered rivalry between the offensive and defensive platoons, Austin is promoting a feeling of unity and team spirit. The players definitely prefer it Austin's way. The rest of the football world always chuckled over the anecdotes trickling out of Dante's, the team hangout, as the town's swinging losers took refreshment, but the stories never seemed very funny to the suffering Pittsburgh fans. As they knew, pro football came to consider the town as the end of the line. Players traded to the Steelers were widely and publicly pitied—by other players and by themselves. Management persisted in the risky practice of trading off draft choices to the point of folly. As recently as 1964 there was enough strength left in the team to make it a rough opponent—it gave the proud Giants some lovely bruises—but then the erosion accelerated. It would seem that the Austin era is beginning none too soon.
The most optimistic Steeler fans concede that the team will be out of the Eastern race early but insist that, improving steadily, it will develop into a fairly effective force by November. There is talk of a late-season spurt to as high as third place. But if morale fails during the inevitable shuffles that Austin will make, Pittsburgh may again reside near the bottom of the division.