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A TURN FOR THE WORSE
Less than two months after the Jets fired Joe Walton as their coach last Dec. 26, he was hired as offensive coordinator for the up-and-coming Steelers. He couldn't have been happier. The move meant leaving the back pages of New York City tabloids for the backwoods of his beloved western Pennsylvania. He would be near his hometown of Beaver Falls. What's more, his son, Frank, would be attending Pitt on a football scholarship.
But all has not gone well for Walton, not by a long shot. On Sunday, as he jogged off the field and into the tunnel leading to the Steelers' locker room at Three Rivers Stadium, a group of fans in the end zone seats peppered him with the chant he grew to hate as the Jets' coach: "Joe must go!"
The Steelers were 1-3 after losing 28-6 to the Dolphins, but, worse, the Pittsburgh offense—the new Walton offense—had failed to score a touchdown for the fourth week in a row. An hour after this latest debacle, Walton sat in his office, chewing on an unlighted cigar. He chewed on it so much and so hard that he had to pull out another one. Three minutes later, the second cigar looked like the first. "Damn!" Walton said to the wall. "I wish we could do something!"
The Pittsburgh offense has had the ball 46 times this year, but it has penetrated the opponent's 30-yard line only eight times. The Steelers' two touchdowns have been scored by the defense and the special teams. Total output by the offense for the season: 18 points on six field goals. Walton is taking the heat for this. Quarterback Bubby Brister has publicly complained about the complexities of the new attack, which has more passing plays and more formations than the Steelers are used to, plus all new terminology and a new system for calling audibles. Brister says it gives him no freedom to improvise. Mistake-prone Tim Worley, who might be a terrific running back some day, has been benched for long stretches and last week asked for a trade.
Walton's biggest crime seems to be that he doesn't relate to today's player very well. Although he discarded a number of his new plays and formations a week before the regular season began, he still gave the players too much to learn in too little time.
In a larger sense, Walton's woes are symptomatic of many coaches' difficulties with athletes. ESPN analyst Joe Theismann, who was the Redskins' quarterback when Walton was Washington's offensive coordinator, is still a Walton fan. "Athletes today feel like they have a say," Theismann says. "Although these guys are making beaucoup bucks, this isn't a democracy. The coach says, 'Go out and do it,' you do it."
Privately, some in the Steeler front office think Brister should be doing exactly that. Coach Chuck Noll supports Walton. "We're on the course we're on, and it's that way for the year," Noll said Monday. "Maybe we're trying to do too much. That's one of the things we have to address. We have overestimated the ability of our people to assimilate what we're trying to do."
Against Miami, Pittsburgh did not make a first down for the first 29 minutes, and Brister could be heard yelling at his linemen to give him better protection. He still thinks the offense is too restrictive, but he's not talking about it anymore. "It doesn't matter what I think we should do," said Brister after throwing three interceptions and being replaced by Rick Strom in the fourth quarter. "I'm not going to give you anything to write about. I don't know——."
Walton has tried to get the offense on track by calling more trap plays, which traditionally have been a Pittsburgh strength. However, the Steelers are running even those plays poorly. "I don't think it's the system anymore," Walton said. "We're just not making any plays. Maybe in the beginning, it's possible it was too much. But not now."