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Open Season in Pittsburgh

Steeler quarterback Mark Malone took his share of shots—and more—in a grim 1986 campaign

When Mark Malone was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the last player in the first round of the 1980 draft, it was assumed that turning him into an NFL quarterback would be a long-term project. At 6'4", 222 pounds, with 4.4 speed on grass, Malone had been a sidearming option quarterback at Arizona State, but he ran almost as much as he threw. His versatility gave him a rare fallback position as a pro. "What made Mark so valuable were his great physical tools," says Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll. "We knew he could always play for us someplace."

Someplace turned out to be wide receiver. "In training camp back in '81," recalls Malone, "Chuck asked me if I wanted to run some routes at wideout. I had developed bursitis in my elbow, so I couldn't throw anyway." While running a pattern over the middle against the Giants in the preseason, Malone took a clean shot on his right knee that would eventually take its toll. However, it didn't keep him from running onto the field in Seattle later that season, a starter for the first time in the NFL. Replacing the injured Lynn Swann, Malone took a short hitch from Terry Bradshaw and went 90 yards down the sideline, untouched, for the longest pass reception in Steeler history.

But gone forever were the carefree days of the gifted kid who had a choice of football, basketball or training for the Olympic decathlon. Gone were the blazing speed and the freedom to run easily from potential tacklers. Gone, too, was the fallback position. Malone underwent knee surgery at the end of the '81 season. A bulky Namath-style knee brace would be his companion for the rest of his NFL days. Malone would play quarterback or nothing.

He sat out the strike-shortened '82 season, recuperating. In 1983 he backed up Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt. He also learned an indelible lesson about playing quarterback in Pittsburgh, a city whose fans had been spoiled by four Super Bowl titles in a six-year period in the '70s. "I thought Cliff did a pretty good job running the club when Bradshaw had arm trouble," says Malone. "The team was 9-2 at one point, but we ended up losing four in a row. Still, we made the playoffs. The media and the fans absolutely crucified Cliff. I saw what that did to him, and I vowed to never let them get to me that way."

When Stoudt jumped to the USFL in '84 and Bradshaw retired, it seemed Malone would be the heir apparent. Not so. The Steelers got David Woodley from Miami, a well-tested but erratic quarterback who became available after the Dolphins drafted Dan Marino. Concussions knocked Woodley out of enough games to permit Malone to showcase his improving skills. He started nine of the last 10 1984 regular-season games and led Pittsburgh to a playoff against Denver. The Steelers upset the Broncos 24-17 as Malone completed 17 of 28 passes for 224 yards.

In the AFC Championship Game against Miami in the Orange Bowl, he could hardly have played better—312 yards and three touchdown passes. Marino, however, was gaudy—421 yards, four TD throws. The Dolphins won 45-28, but Malone knew he belonged in the NFL.

After eight games of the '85 season, he was the seventh-rated quarterback in the conference, completing 117 of 233 passes for 1,428 yards and 13 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. Then, on a broken play against Cincinnati on Oct. 27, he scrambled right and was clobbered. "My foot was planted when they hit me," says Malone. "My toe got mashed real good." He kissed that year goodbye. "I had never played an entire season as a pro quarterback," he says. "You need that for a sense of continuity, to feel the position develop."

Two days after the '85 season, Noll named Malone his first-string quarterback for 1986. The vote of confidence was sweet, but it had a sour underside—it would be the make-or-break year for Malone. There would be no margin for error.

Week No. 1, Sept. 7
Pittsburgh at Seattle

Worried about his protection from a makeshift line that is missing three starters, Malone takes short drops and hurries most of his passes. He ends up completing just 9 of 27 passes and throwing three interceptions, the last of which is returned for a Seattle touchdown. Noll likes to call statistics "the history of a football game." For the Steelers and Malone, history reads 30-0. "Was Mark healthy?" is one of the first questions Noll is asked at the press conference in the locker room doorway. The answer seems slightly sarcastic: "As healthy as he's going to be."

Beads of water sit on Malone's sculpted shoulders, a towel slants across his waist. It's media time—"win or lose," he says, "I hate that half hour after a game with a passion"—and Malone draws the largest crowd. His gray-green eyes do not avoid the TV cameras; his voice is unwavering. He remains composed and patient, even with questions that challenge his competence.

"Yes, maybe I was a little too tentative, trying to throw too quickly to compensate for the inexperienced line," he tells the press. "But I thought I threw pretty well. I just can't say it was all me, as though I was throwing errant passes all over the place." But Malone did play poorly. There were errant passes all over the place. (Weeks later he'll admit that privately.) The memory of how the media hounded Stoudt is strong.

Malone has decided to be cooperative to a point, but there will be no mea culpas. He knows what's in store next week—a Monday night game at home on national television. "Sure they're going to boo me," he says. "And you guys are going to tear me apart. Heck, it's still a free country."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Bruce Keidan, one of the writers most critical of Malone, sidles over when the crowd breaks up, his manner sympathetic: "Do you realize, Mark, that you've thrown more interceptions in the league than TDs? Is that statistic misleading?" Malone's eyes flare briefly, but he takes a deep breath and says, "I don't even know what that question means. What am I supposed to say?"

Week No. 2, Sept. 15
Denver (1-0) at Pittsburgh (0-1)

In the parking lots around Three Rivers Stadium large men are hoisting beers, and their women are barbecuing burgers and ribs. The Steeler quarterback is being barbecued as well. Young rowdies circle the stadium and chant anti-Malone obscenities. When he runs out for the first series, Three Rivers quivers with boos. Three downs later, after a 10-yard sack, it's worse.

When he's trying too hard, Malone admits, "I press. I get wound up tighter than an eight-day clock." That's when he either throws the ball into the ground or behind the receiver. He has eight straight incompletions. Frank Gifford tells America, "That pass takes a very confident quarterback. He's a shaken quarterback." The halftime score is 7-0 in favor of the Broncos.

In the third quarter Malone starts throwing more confidently and moving the team. He has finally reached the state he describes as "the mystery of being in a groove under hostile circumstances." This is what he loves about football.

Four points behind, midway through the fourth quarter, Malone calls a power play that will send David Hughes into the five-hole at the Denver 35. Hughes fumbles, and the Broncos recover and go on to win 21-10. As Malone runs under the stands, a punk wearing a black Steeler jersey with Bradshaw's 12 pours a soda on him.

At the press conference Noll supports Malone. "No question, Mark played better in the second half," he says. "He moved this team. He called his own game in the second half, so if that's what makes him comfortable, we'll go with that. What's necessary is to hang with him because he can do the job." It's hard to tell whether Noll believes what he says or is merely protecting his quarterback from the group he refers to as "lampreys."

Next day, while soaking his elbow in ice water and spitting tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup, Malone looks dreadful. "Couldn't sleep," he says. "Three, maybe three and a half hours all night. Just laid there. What if we have a different first half, what if the fumble doesn't happen. On that play, I looked over to Chuck. He rolled his hands, meaning, 'It's you.' So I put on the power play. You saw the result, so you can't help think, what if." Malone's breath is close to a sigh. "One thing I've learned from Chuck, though, is to try to avoid extremes, to not get too high or too low."

When the talk turns to motivation, it also turns to money. "You can't really play this game well only for money," says Malone, who has a base salary of $450,000. "But there's a fine line there. You know that if you do well, you can double your contract. By the same token, there are only about 1,500 of us doing what we do professionally. And every year they bring in all those younger people who want to replace us. Tell me that isn't pressure. In addition, everyone in this room knows what you're making. If you don't perform, they resent it.

"The pressure to produce is so extreme," he adds, "that when we got married I asked Mary Ellen to quit her job as a bank teller. I'm not a chauvinist. I just couldn't afford coming home from a bad day and having her tell me all about her bad day at work. The marriage probably couldn't survive that. That's why Mary Ellen is so important to me. She doesn't really know football, but she is close enough and willing to listen. It's hard to find anyone who cares enough about you in this world."

Week No. 3, Sept. 21
Pittsburgh (0-2) at Minnesota (1-1)

Malone is trailing 7-0 before he takes a snap. Twice he comes out of the pocket and throws on the run, Arizona State-style—first a 37-yarder to Louis Lipps and then 18 yards to Walter Abercrombie to tie the score. Malone's ineptitude appears to be a thing of the past, but looks are deceiving. He throws into coverage for a first-half interception and has two more passes picked off in the second half. With the Vikings leading 31-7, Noll calls on backup quarterback Scott Campbell.

After the game Steeler strong safety Donnie Shell, who has participated in four Super Bowl victories, is furious. To a TV interviewer he says, "How do I feel? I'm teed off." John Stallworth, who also has four Super Bowl rings, shakes his head and says, "Times are baaad." Noll warns, "The danger we have to avoid now is finger-pointing. We're in this together." He handles all questions about Malone with a terse "Mark's our quarterback."

Pittsburgh fans take exception. Just after the Denver game; WPXI-TV, the NBC affiliate in town, ran a quarterback popularity poll. Malone got 17% of the votes, while Campbell pulled 43% and rookie Bubby Brister 40%. What really has to hurt Malone is that he does a weekly pregame show for WPXI. Sam Nover, the station's sports director, justifies the poll as "journalistically valid. But I'd never do it more than once. That would be unfair."

For a man who has thrown one touchdown pass and eight interceptions in three defeats, Malone remains remarkably reasonable with the media. Privately he admits, "I'd really like to pull a [Steve] Carlton at this point, but if I suddenly refuse to talk to them, it'll look as though I can't stand the heat."

Week No. 4, Sept. 28
Pittsburgh (0-3) at Houston (1-2)

Malone's first pass is well behind backup wide receiver Weegie Thompson. His second is intercepted. Thanks to the defense, the score is only 10-3 Oilers at the half. Then it happens. Malone connects on three long passes, the last to Calvin Sweeney for the tying touchdown. Later, at his own 20 with the score 13-13, Malone takes the snap, spins and apparently hands off to Abercrombie, who's running left. Abercrombie hesitates ever so slightly. Seems he doesn't have the ball. Malone has it on his hip. The quarterback has turned the right corner and is gliding over the stripes. It's a 45-yard run, and it sets up the go-ahead field goal.

The Oilers tie the game with 48 seconds to go. Then, in overtime Malone runs the same bootleg 11 yards to the other side. Abercrombie runs the final three yards for the winning touchdown.

The bootleg decision was resourceful and courageous. Malone is asked to talk about it over and over. "I called a 37-trap," he says. "The whole game their WIL [wide-side linebacker] had been following the play to the other side real fast and flat, more on first down than on second. Houston's backers historically start jumping and snorting. I'm eye-balling him as I start my spin, and he's coming across good. That's when I made the decision to pull the ball."

On the plane Malone says, "The other day I saw this [newspaper] article that said Pittsburgh might be the worst team in the league. No way that's true. Heck, we're basically the same team that went to the AFC Championship Game two years ago. We've got so many key guys hurt. Still, if everyone gets just a little better...." He holds two fingers half an inch apart. Malone feels he has let some very good people down. Whom exactly? "The Rooneys. Chuck. My teammates." Some people have been letting Malone down, too. He will not name names, but he will say, "I've got a few receivers out there who aren't running proper routes. Lots of mental lapses."

Week No. 5, Oct. 5
Cleveland (2-2) at Pittsburgh (1-3)

Daring player introductions All-Pro center Mike Webster, who is returning to the Steeler lineup, receives an emotional ovation, and Malone receives the customary boos. But there are cheers as well, and except for an early interception on a fly to Lipps, Malone throws sharper passes than in any previous game. Webster makes an enormous difference, helping his linemates with blocking assignments and playing like a whirlwind himself. The crisp blocking improves the running game, as does the addition of Earnest Jackson, a 1,000-yard rusher in '84 and '85 whom Philadelphia released two weeks earlier. Malone finds Rich Erenberg for the go-ahead touchdown late in the second quarter.

The Browns, however, are ahead 27-24 with 4:50 on the clock. Malone must move the Steelers at least into field goal range. The game's make-or-break drive in Malone's make-or-break season is completely in his hands. Starting on his own 20, he mixes short passes with runs up the middle behind Webster to reach the Cleveland 35 with 1:38 to play.

Malone makes a daring call—an option play, much like the bread-and-butter stuff he ran in college. But Sam Clancy, the defensive end, does not bite on the fake up the middle, and he smacks Malone's arm just as he's about to pitch to Jackson. The ball comes loose but bounces crazily up to Jackson, who runs a few uncertain steps before fumbling himself. Cleveland recovers and wins 27-24.

On a yellow sheet of paper taped to the wall of Malone's cubicle, printed in his precise hand, are the words CONCENTRATION, CONFIDENCE, POSITIVE ATTITUDE, EXECUTION. Malone comes out of the trainer's room, where he has had his throwing hand X-rayed. His thumb struck a helmet on an incomplete pass in the third quarter.

Again, Malone is polite and positive with the media. "Listen, we can sit here and argue and complain, but calls and breaks are things you have no control over," he says. "I think we're making progress. There were some encouraging signs out there." But the digging is relentless, and Malone finally becomes upset: "Look, if you're looking for me to give you any s——on this team, you won't get it."

The locker room empties. The equipment men are picking up strewn socks and tape and are vacuuming the carpet. Malone buttons up his wool shirt with his left hand. Erenberg wanders over and says, "How's the hand?"

"Not bad. You?"

"They gave me a shot." Then the running back moves toward the door and shouts at the ceiling: "Goddam it! I don't care anymore!"

The following day Malone's thumb has swollen to almost twice its normal size. Nonetheless, he insists he'll be ready for Cincinnati the following Monday night. "They say there's no fracture," he says. "I'll soak it a lot and try to take my mind off it."

Week No. 6, Oct. 13
Pittsburgh (1-4) at Cincinnati (3-2)

Brister will start. Malone is bitterly disappointed. "I believe I deserved to start even though I didn't take all the snaps during the week," he says. "I busted my ass to show Chuck I could play. The decision disturbed and confused me. I had been praised considerably by Chuck after the Cleveland game." Malone is also upset with how he was told—at the 5 p.m. pregame meeting by offensive coordinator Tom Moore.

Playing in a driving rain, Brister completes only three of 14 passes in the first half. He has a respectable second half, but the Bengals hang on to win 24-22. Afterward, Malone is asked, "When will it be reasonable for the coaches to make the decision about next week's starter?"

"I don't know," he answers. "Coaches are rarely reasonable." He feels betrayed and sounds vaguely paranoid: "There are circles on the outside and circles on the inside, too. People try to drive a wedge and maybe the inner circle is influenced." The suggestion is that someone who likes Brister has Noll's ear. Malone's luck isn't all bad, though. At the National Wild Turkey Federation Banquet he wins a raffle. His prize: a $400 Browning shotgun.

Week No. 7, Oct. 19
New England (3-3) at Pittsburgh (1-5)

The announcement comes to the press box just before noon. Brister. For Malone, whose thumb is slightly improved, the line between injury and demotion has blurred in a week. Brister forces passes, doesn't look off defenders and doesn't pick up secondary receivers. The Steelers endure their worst defeat ever at Three Rivers, 34-0. But what really galls Noll is that Brister didn't always match the play with the appropriate formation and motion. Pittsburgh backs were running into each other.

Privately, Malone doesn't believe Brister hit the books hard enough in training camp and during the early weeks of the season. Publicly, Malone is kinder: "You can't blame Bubby for what happened. He's young and has a lot to learn. This just isn't the game you play in college." Whatever deficiencies Malone may have, lack of football intelligence and preparation are not among them.

Before the game WPXI-TV ran another telephone popularity poll and Brister was the overwhelming favorite. "I ran into Sam Nover at the studio," says Malone, "and he fell all over himself saying he didn't know anything about it. How could that be? He's the sports director."

Malone would like to get closer to Noll but thinks it is unlikely after all these years. "He sat down with me last Thursday to find out how the thumb felt," says Malone. "He led me to believe that I wouldn't start but said he wouldn't decide until just before the game. He has trouble relating to people one-on-one. It's a shame, but that's just the way Chuck is."

On Monday, Mark and Mary Ellen go out to the Millvale Sportsmen's Club for some trapshooting. Preston Gothard, the tight end, and Weegie Thompson join them, but after the hard game and a night of trying to forget it, their hearts aren't in it. "Jack Lambert got me interested in trapshooting," says Malone. "I had more time back when he was with the team. Now that I'm playing more, I have to study and can't find much time during the season." Malone hits 95 of 100 targets.

Week No. 8, Oct. 26
Cincinnati (5-2) at Pittsburgh (1-6)

Malone is restored to his starting role and, playing with his throwing hand heavily taped, finally makes the pass he has been hoping for all season. In the second quarter, with the ball on the Bengals' 10, Erenberg slices up the middle of the end zone. Coverage is good. Malone sidesteps a rusher and throws high for the back line. No interception is possible; the ball will be Erenberg's or no one's. This time it's Erenberg's. Pittsburgh wins 30-9, and Malone calls it "a victory for good old execution. When you're calling the right plays, running down the field and putting the points up, this is a delightful game."

Bradshaw isn't a Malone fan. "Oh, Mark's got good enough skills," he says, "but he can't carry a football team. Let's just say that he's not my kind of quarterback. And the fans here don't like his style. I get letters."

A quarterback defending himself against a Bradshaw criticism in Pittsburgh doesn't have much chance, but Malone tries: "Terry was one of the best quarterbacks ever to play this game. But he had tremendous players around him, and they were as responsible for the success as he was. Even now, I believe we're only four or five players away from being a Super Bowl contender."

Week No. 9, Nov. 2
Green Bay (1-7) at Pittsburgh (2-6)

The talk all week on local sports shows and in the press has been of great comebacks in NFL history. They're talking playoffs for the Steelers. Yes, the schedule looks a little softer for the next few weeks—but playoffs?

The Steelers win 27-3 and Malone, who throws three touchdown passes, feels like a man who has risen from the dead. Sitting in front of his cubicle afterward he says, "We're playing better football now, for whatever reason I don't know. The playoffs? Hmmmm."

Noll says, "Getting his supporting cast back has helped Mark tremendously." Lipps, the big deep threat, has played hurt all season, but the offensive line is healthy again. The running game, with Abercrombie finally finding his legs and Jackson at his normal NFL production, gives Malone more weapons and less pressure.

Malone is building a sprawling house on 30 wooded acres in Pittsburgh's North Hills. On the road he carries two sets of plans—game and house. "It's the one excess I've allowed myself," he says.

Mary Ellen defends the excess: "Mark has never lived in a true house before. It's always been apartments. This will be our home." Mary Ellen says the word reverently, because both she and Mark grew up in unstable households, and their parents went through wrenching divorces. She understands Mark's needs: home, safety, warmth, children.

While their dream house has been under construction, the Malones have been living with Mary Ellen's sister Sharon Baker and her husband, Chris. All four of them are crammed into a $60,000 suburban starter home. So much for the life-styles of Pittsburgh's rich and famous.

Week No. 10, Nov. 9
Pittsburgh (3-6) at Buffalo (2-7)

The first play of the game, a draw up the middle that goes for 10 yards, is an omen. The Steelers are offside. Says Malone later, "That play was supposed to go on the first sound. Just after we got to the line, one of their 'backers yelled 'move,' and our guys jumped." It is the first of 15 Steeler penalties, all of them genus Stupiditas.

Down 16-12 late in the game, Malone moves the Steelers from their 20 to the Bills' 29. With time running out, he throws for Sweeney in the end zone, but the ball floats in the gusting wind and is picked off. Noll takes a nice serving of blame. "I gave the team two weeks in a row without pads, trying to get ready for a surge," he says. "Never have done that before, and we were flat." He won't do that again.

Though not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the Steelers are finished. The shuttle-bus driver at the Pittsburgh airport summarizes the season: "First the boys dug a hole. Then they jumped in it. Now they've pulled dirt down on themselves."

Week No. 11, Nov. 16
Houston (2-8) at Pittsburgh (3-7)

The day is cold and dreary. Almost 9,000 ticket holders find something else to do. The Steelers play one half of excellent offense and superb defense throughout to make the 21-10 halftime score the final.

After the game Malone unstraps his pads, pulls off his pants, releases his knee and elbow braces and tears the tape off his hand. He takes full responsibility for the indifferently played second half. "We fumbled on the first play," he says. "That set the tone. A couple of times I made some bad throws. I need to get better."

Week No. 12, Nov. 23
Pittsburgh (4-7) at Cleveland (7-4)

The playoff-elimination throw is a Bernie Kosar sidearm special under good defensive pressure at 6:37 of overtime. Webster Slaughter makes a fine catch behind the coverage and runs it in to give the Browns a 37-31 victory. Malone silently tips the clubhouse man $5 and makes his way through screaming girls to the team bus.

Although he's drinking beer and revealing his childhood scars on the bus back to Pittsburgh. Malone is a tougher dude than his laid-back demeanor suggests. He has struggled through this season with dignity. But he had been severely tested in the football kiln of coach Frank Kush at Arizona Slate. "The physical beating was tough at ASU," says Malone. "But the mental brutality was worse. I was at the airport with my bags packed once, but I went back." The NFL won't break Malone.

Later he talks about the impressive Mike Tyson KO of Trevor Berbick. "The thing that really got to me was what Tyson was saying about the difference between the hero and the coward." says Malone. "They both feel the same things, but the hero overcomes his fear and even masters it. Man, I understand that. For me, the great fear isn't playing poorly. It's being injured badly. Every football player feels that fear and overcomes it."

Week No. 13, Nov. 30
Pittsburgh (4-8) at Chicago (10-2)

Compress Malone's season into one play. Late third quarter. Steelers ahead 10-3. First-and-goal at the Bears' 10. Malone must come away with at least three points, forcing Chicago to generate two fourth-quarter drives to win. Without quarterback Jim McMahon that is unlikely. Malone's protection holds up well. Webster has held off William Perry, who slides indifferently along the line with his arms upstretched. Focused on Sweeney, who has broken free over the middle, Malone never sees the sliding Fridge. The tipped ball goes to linebacker Mike Singletary. Malone rails at the fates as he runs off the field. Later he'll say. "The fat——quit after he was blocked at the line—he's not the player he was last year—and still he gets the tip."

Using Walter Payton almost exclusively, the Bears drive 96 yards to tie the score and then win in overtime with a field goal. Earlier in the game, Chicago linebacker Otis Wilson gave Lipps a concussion with a forearm shiver. The league will suspend Wilson for one game. Malone says. "I can't understand why a team that good resorts to cheap shots and running their mouths the way they do."

Week No. 14, Dec. 7
Detroit (5-8) at Pittsburgh (4-9)

Even though he has greatly reduced the number of his interceptions—he has thrown only four in the six games since his return—Malone tosses his worst one in two months with the Steelers driving to break a 10-10 tie late in the first half. When the Lions score a touchdown early in the third quarter, a gruff voice in the press box mockingly says. "Do not despair, boys, Malone will lead us back." If Malone is finally going to self-destruct, here's the perfect situation. But his longest completion of the season, 48 yards to Lipps, sets up the tying touchdown. A 39-yard pass to Lipps puts the Steelers in front 24-17. They win 27-17. The occasion may not have been particularly meaningful, but at least Malone has risen to it.

On his way out of the locker room, Malone is asked what this game means. "Means I can go buck hunting in peace," he says. Only one Monday is left in the Pennsylvania buck season. He has never bagged one. After that Monday, he still hasn't.

Week No. 15, Dec. 13
Pittsburgh (5-9) at the Jets (10-4)

In a 45-24 Steeler victory, Malone completes 16 of 27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. He has one pass intercepted. The numbers reflect how well he has been playing since his return in Week 8. His teammates award him a game ball. Malone likes to compare a quarterback's mind to a computer, his function to a high-tech programmer and troubleshooter—the Mr. Spock of a professional team. His jargon is chock-full of "progressions and options" and "peripherals." So what was the breakdown early in the year? "One of those friggin' microchips screwing me up," says Malone.

How, precisely, has he repaired it? He hasn't. Then how come the turnaround? Says Malone, "I started realizing I was playing for my football life."

Now it's the doe season and the next morning, for 2½ bitingly cold hours. Malone crouches behind a log waiting for his quarry. The day is brilliant, but his body is stiff, the result of too much beer last night and seven years of professional football.

"She came through the woods and went up on a rise," he says later. "I had a quarter angle on her. Pretty decent size. She glanced toward me. I hit her in the lower neck. Real clean kill."

Mary Ellen has developed an interest in shooting. She'll spend an occasional afternoon at the Millvale Sportsmen's Club trapshooting with the boys. But as for hunting deer, she says she'll pass. "She thinks they're all Bambi," says Malone.

Week No. 16, Dec. 21
Kansas City (9-6) at Pittsburgh (6-9)

If the Chiefs win, they will go to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. If the Steelers win, they will match last year's 7-9 record. But not all 7-9s are created equal. Last season ended on a downswing. This one could finish on an upbeat. The momentum of half a season of good football would be nice to ride into training camp.

At the end of the game Pittsburgh has an overwhelming advantage in total offense (515 yards to 171), as well as first downs (28 to 8), plays run (84 to 47) and possession time (34:58 to 25:02). Malone throws for 351 yards. But the Chiefs win the game 24-19. A blocked punt, a blocked field goal—both run back for touchdowns—and a 97-yard kickoff return give Kansas City all the points it needs. For all his yardage, Malone can't get the ball into the end zone. Rather, he can't get it caught in the end zone. Three potential touchdown passes end in tantalizing drops.

The next day most of the cubicles in the Three Rivers locker room have been emptied. Jackson is packing. Malone goes over and says, "Jack-legs, you be sure to come back ready to play. It'll be a different story."

Jackson tugs on the bill of his cap and is gone.

Malone tells Stallworth, "I'll call you next week. I've got some people lobbying me to make sure you're going to play next fall," Webster and Shell have announced they'll return. Stallworth smiles, but he won't tip his hand about next year.

Sitting on a stool in front of his locker, Malone lets the wisdom forged in adversity come through: "It would be nice to think that whatever we attained toward the end of the season will be there automatically in training camp. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. I'll have to start from scratch again. At least, though, we'll know what we're capable of when we're tested. But nothing's certain. Nothing."



Malone went into the woods to hunt for deer—and relief from football.



Mark wishes that he and coach Noll could get a little closer.



In Malone's opinion, Brister paid dearly for not studying hard enough.



Despite a strong finish to his so-so season, Malone wound up rated no better than 25th among NFL quarterbacks.



Even being a cohost didn't help Malone in WPXI's quarterback poll.



Architect Don Gmitter helped Mark and Mary Ellen design a home for 30 acres.



...and cast him in the role of home-building spectator.



A bum thumb benched him...



On the opening day of deer season, Malone had better luck shuffling his cards than shooting his rifle.



Thanks to two TD passes and some supersneaking, Malone tiptoed past Detroit.



In the Astrodome he celebrated one of his 15 TD passes.



Despite his roller-coaster year, Malone was remarkably even-tempered with the press—even when he was tempted "to pull a Carlton."