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 2� 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.