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?"