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In a Game of Quarterback Controversies, At Least One Losing Streak Will End

October 19, 1986|ALAN ROBINSON | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Steve Grogan passed for a career-high 401 yards last week, but it wasn't enough to keep some New England Patriots fans from hoping that Tony Eason would return at quarterback.

Bubby Brister completed only 12 of 33 passes and didn't throw for a single touchdown in his first NFL game, but he so impressed Pittsburgh fans that he was the overwhelming winner in a TV station's quarterback popularity poll.

No wonder there are quarterback controversies in Pittsburgh and Boston.

The Patriots (3-3) and the slumping Steelers (1-5) will be trying to reverse losing streaks today at Three Rivers Stadium and find answers to their quarterback dilemmas.

The Patriots have lost three of four since a 2-0 start; the Steelers have won only twice in their last 11 regular season games. Both have lost their last two games.

Because the Patriots are the defending American Conference champions and the Steelers are the NFL's only four-time Super Bowl winners, it's understandable why Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone said "The natives are getting restless."

"The fans in this town are tough on a loser," he said.

Steelers Coach Chuck Noll, whose team is off to the worst start in 17 years, was expected to choose Malone over Brister, if only because of experience. Malone has made 25 career starts, Brister only one.

"We're keeping everybody in suspense. We're going to give both of them work and then choose before the game," Noll said.

Malone sat out the Steelers' 24-22 Monday night loss to the Cincinnati Bengals with a strained right thumb. Brister said he was "getting vibes" that Malone would start, although the veteran's 40.5 quarterback rating is the lowest in the NFL.

"I know I can play well," Malone said. "I was disappointed I didn't play last week, I'd put a lot of hard work into getting ready for the game. But the decision isn't mine."

New England Coach Raymond Berry spent the week wrestling with the dilemma of whether Grogan, a 12-year veteran, or Eason should start. Grogan was expected to get the call if only because he completed 23 of 42 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots' 31-24 loss to the New York Jets.

Eason has the NFL's best quarterback rating, 107.9, but has a painful rib injury.

"This is the decision that has bothered me the most," Berry said. "Our trainers think Eason can play. But it's a contact sport and I assume the Steelers will be hitting our quarterbacks occasionally. I don't want to see two weeks of good healing time go down the drain with one shot in the ribs."

Noll and Berry have plenty of problems to contend with other than their quarterbacks.

With top runner Craig James on the shelf with a sprained knee ligament, New England doesn't have a back available who's gained more than 179 yards this season.

Tony Collins is the Patriots' second leading rusher but has averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. Mosi Tatupu, James' backup, has 36 yards on 18 carries for a 2.0 average.

James, who has 392 rushing yards, is disappointed he probably won't play.

"If I was a rookie, I'd probably try to push it, but that would be an ignorant thing to do," he said. "If this was the Super Bowl I'd be playing. It's not that I'm holding back, it's just that I want to be smart. There are 10 games to go."

You don't have to remind Noll of that. The Steelers haven't had a worse start since 1969, when they finished 1-13 in his rookie season.

The Steelers have had an inconsistent running game (only one back is averaging more than four yards per carry) and an riddled defensive secondary has allowed 12 passing touchdowns.

The Steelers have thrown only four scoring passes.

"It's not my concern what their record is or who their quarterback is," Berry said. "When I look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first thing I see is the head coach. You don't need to think too much past that. I told our guys they'd better buckle their chin straps up when they play the Steelers."

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