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.