Pittsburgh, often a contender but never a champion, puts no great store in high-priced draft choices. That may not make perfect sense, but there is a reason. Down through the years the Steelers have gotten stuck with many a draft lemon. So now Buddy Parker, the Steelers' ingenious coach, tries to fill his player needs with sleepers, discards and trades. He has been surprisingly successful. But at the most important position, quarterback, Parker's touch has failed, and had he not traded away his top draft rights Parker could have landed a Craig Morton or a Jerry Rhome in the college lottery. Thus the Steelers open the season once again with Ed Brown, who ranked 14th among the NFL passers in 1964 and had the highest percentage of interceptions of anyone but New York's crippled Y. A. Tittle. At the end of last year Parker indicated that as far as he was concerned Brown was through. In defense of his record Brown says, "We didn't have the receivers." Brown has something there. Parker had given up Buddy Dial, an excellent end, for the draft rights to Tackle Scott Appleton, who thereupon signed with Houston, and had sent Red Mack to Philadelphia and Tight End Pres Carpenter to Washington. He was sure that Flanker Paul Martha and Tight End Jim Kelly would excel in their first year in the pros. Kelly did but was injured early on. Martha flopped. Brown was left with only one decent receiver, Flanker Gary Ballman, until halfway through the season when Clendon Thomas was switched from defensive halfback to offensive end. As good as Ballman was—and he was very good indeed, the best in the league at making extra yardage after catching the ball—he could not make Brown a successful passer by himself. " Brown," says a defensive lineman, "must have been riveted to pilings sunk into the surf. He never moved." This was a considerable problem, because rushers often poured through the middle of the Steeler line. In an attempt to stop the flood, the Steelers have picked up Center Art Hunter in a trade with the Rams and installed a 250-pound rookie, Bob Nichols of Stanford, at guard.
Last year's pass-receiving emergency was not wholly bleak. It led to the discovery of Thomas as an offensive end. He was an immediate success. Ultimately he averaged 19.6 yards a catch—and he may never find his way back to the defensive unit. Having learned the price of haste with Martha last year, Parker will be more leisurely about breaking in Roy Jefferson, the Steelers' second draft choice—they traded away their first draft choice—as backup man for Thomas. At tight end, Kelly is healthy again after a knee injury; he is an able blocker and excellent receiver. Overall, the Steelers' passing game will be better but scarcely overpowering. Brown cannot last much longer. Before the season is very old he may have to give way to Bill Nelsen, who has had very little on-the-field experience. Nelsen was a rollout passer at Southern Cal, but he has learned to throw from the pocket. His major weakness is indecision in picking out the secondary receiver. He won't learn how on the bench.
"We've been the kind of team that plugs along," says the candid Parker. Cannonball (please call me Jim) Butler could be the man to add some zip to the running game. Butler, a stocky sprinter from Edward Waters College ( Jacksonville) has all the dodges of an artful runner. Although a little small at 5 feet 10, 195 pounds, he seems to be tough enough to take the pros' pounding. Parker would like to pair him off with John Henry Johnson, the Steelers' power runner, who at 35 gained more than 1,000 yards last year.
Defense is usually the better half of the Pittsburgh game. The Steelers hit and hurt, even when they appear to be badly handicapped. In midseason last year they beat Cleveland without using a single linebacker; they did not have any well enough to play. Ben McGee and Chuck Hinton, two not-so-gentle giants who normally play end and tackle, were shoved into the lineup, and suddenly the linebacking was O.K. and the opposition was in trouble. The veteran Myron Pottios is a superb but brittle linebacker; he has already been injured in an exhibition game and may not be ready for the season opener. This year the Steelers have come up with two man-mountain tackles—285-pound Frank Molden from Jackson State College and Ken Kortas, a 300-pound first-draft choice of the Cardinals who came to Pittsburgh for Quarterback Terry Nofsinger. Brady Keyes, Jim Bradshaw and Willie Daniel return in the secondary.
Given adequate quarterbacking, the Steelers could take fourth place. Without it they will be keeping company with the Giants at the bottom of the heap.