Bryan Hinkle. Blake Wingle. Chris Kolodziejski. Scoop Gillespie. And so on, all the way through Weegie Thompson and Tunch Ilkin. If the Pittsburgh Steelers fail to win a whole lot more games than they lose this season, their roster surely will be the most distinctive in the National Football League.
"We have to introduce each other in the huddle from time to time," said center Mike Webster, referring to the 29 players with fewer than three years of pro experience. Some teams win with familiar names; some win with no names; the Steelers are hoping to hang their hard hats on a collection of strange names.
It was the 6-foot-6 Thompson, for instance, who plucked the ball from the air over the outstretched arms of a New York Jets cornerback Thursday night, the three-yard touchdown pass putting the Steelers ahead for good. Linebacker Hinkle led the defense with nine tackles and five assists. And blockers Wingle and Ilkin helped open holes for the equally obscure Rich Erenberg in the second half.
The Steelers are quietly going about being quite good once again. So dominant were they in the '70s, with four Super Bowl titles, that their winning 16 of 25 regular-season games and popping back into the playoffs the last two years have been mostly under-appreciated.
They have gotten more attention for breaking up than for getting put back together. Not that everyone is even close to certain how Chuck Noll's rebuilding scheme works. Gambling now and then on defense and being stunningly dull on offense was effective against the jittery Jets.
In truth, the Jets worked against themselves much of the game. Good fortune was blindsided whenever possible. A drive that fetched first and 10 at the Pittsburgh 11-yard line ended with Pat Leahy coaxing a 52-yard field goal over the cross bar; Pat Ryan's fumble immediately followed Greg Buttle's interception.
A Jets offensive lineman, Reggie McElroy, had the stat of the game: four holding penalties. This with rules that all but make that impossible. Coach Joe Walton could be seen alternately scowling and suffering silently, surely wondering what he has done to deserve such as having his best quarterback confined to playing defense -- in a coat and tie.
The Jets' offseason shakeup included finding a new home, Giants Stadium, and shipping several veterans elsewhere. Richard Todd was dispatched to New Orleans and the seldom-seen Ken O'Brien given his position as starting quarterback. Unfortunately, O'Brien has been unable to practice for weeks, he and defensive end Mark Gastineau being defendants in an assault trial.
Lack of practice has not caused Gastineau's level of play to deteriorate. In two games, he has six sacks. But his job does not demand nearly the timing with so many teammates and devotion to detail as O'Brien's. Between Walton's second choice at quarterback, Ryan, and linemen vulnerable to blitzing, the Jets' offense too often may resemble a prop plane: sputtering along on the legs of Freeman McNeil and getting shot down all too frequently.
"He's gonna be a good football player," Walton said of poor McElroy, who held everything but his poise after being fingered for that fourth squeeze. "He needs time, and we're gonna give it to him."
In the third year since faltering to .500, the Steelers have steadily climbed back to prominence. It helps that their division, the AFC Central, might be weaker than the Big Eight; it does not help that their best offensive players might be in the least vital positions.
"We've got the skill people," said Webster, naming receivers John Stallworth and rookie Louis Lipps. "The key is the line (largely retooled from the one that escorted Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier). And the key to the line is attitude, consistency and work habits. We've got everything now except consistency."
Positive consistency at quarterback is what the Steelers need more than anything. They discovered that their newest quarterback face, David Woodley, also is a tough one. The acquisition from Miami came back from a concussion suffered against Kansas City four days earlier to complete 14 of 25 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
Once Woodley realized the first fierce blow had not knocked his mind silly, the rest was a snap.
"They told me I'd play unless something happened during the week," Woodley said. "Like headaches or dizziness. That wasn't so scary. It would have been had they said I'd play no matter what. But that first hit was a doozy, on the third play I think.
"Everything turned out all right."
If the Steelers can stay brutal and basic "and a little more error-free," Noll said, they will be "a good football team." His standards are a bit higher than most coaches'.