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."
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."