LATROBE, PA., AUG. 15 -- Chuck Noll's offense of the '80s was identical to his offense of the '70s, which was the same as Vince Lombardi's offense of the '60s. Now, as the '90s dawn with trendsetters unveiling manic run-and-shoot and or no-huddle offenses, Noll is installing the dink-and-dash offense Joe Walton ran with the Washington Redskins in the '70s and the New York Jets in the '80s.
If you understand all that, you are ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who enter Friday night's exhibition against the Redskins more than a bit confused by the most radical changes in Noll's 22 seasons as coach. Blocking was so ragged and missed assignments were so common during the final practice last week that quarterback Bubby Brister said he probably would have been killed if it were a real game.
Then, in the Steelers' preseason opener, a 30-14 victory over the New England Patriots in Montreal, their three quarterbacks were a paltry 13 of 35 for 144 yards, with one interception returned for a touchdown and four others dropped.
"Obviously, we're not playoff-caliber right now," Noll said.
"We've got a long way to go to get this offense down," Brister said.
This offense is as different from last year's as "night and day," tight end Mike Mularkey said. "But they need change here."
Change was almost imperative. The 1989 Steelers finished last in the league in six offensive categories, perhaps more because they were mind-numbingly predictable than because they lacked talent. A simplistic offense had worked well in the '70s, when Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were executing it and the Steel Curtain was reinforcing it. By the '80s, however, the superstars were gone and so was the element of surprise. AFC Central rivals went 5-1 against the Steelers last year and veterans such as Cleveland linebacker Clay Matthews knew the offense better than Mularkey, who had joined the Steelers in March.
"I'd go up to the line of scrimmage and line up across from Clay Matthews, and if I didn't know where we were going, I'd ask him," Mularkey said. "He knew. We were so predictable, he'd be calling out our plays. Everybody knew them.
"They were yelling where the ball was going in the playoffs too. Every time I lined up on the right side, we ran. Every time I lined up on the left side, I was pretty much going out for a pass. Or blocking for a pass. You knew it was a pass play."
"We were too predictable," Brister said. "We were a right-handed team. We were always throwing to the right. I hate to say that, but everybody knows it."
So the offense finished last in total yards and passing yards, gain per play and gain per pass play, first downs and third-down conversions. That the Steelers finished 9-7 and squeezed into the playoffs was a tribute to their special teams, defense and determination.
"Everybody knows if we're 28th in offense again, we're probably not likely to make it," Brister said. "We were very fortunate to make it last year. But with coach Walton here, with us getting a couple of new weapons and a new system, with me staying healthy, with our line playing together, I'm looking for a big year for myself and the team."
They may or may not be good, but they definitely are different. Noll's offense changed little from his arrival in 1969 to the exit of offensive coordinator Tom Moore in 1990. Moore, a yes man and proud of it, did little to tinker with Noll's system.
The Steelers almost always used a standard formation -- two receivers, two backs, one tight end -- and very little motion. They ran on first and second down. They passed deep on third down unless no one was open, when they would dump it off underneath to a back. They ignored the tight end -- and sometimes one wide receiver too.
But Walton, a Redskins assistant from 1974 through 1980 and a Jets coordinator or head coach from 1981 through 1989, replaced Moore and immediately said he would spread passes to everyone. He did little with the Steelers' running game but totally rewrote the passing game.
Walton believes in the ball-control passing game popularized by Bill Walsh and the 49ers. The quarterbacks are dropping back three or five steps instead of the Steelers' traditional seven, and doing sprintouts, rollouts and half-rollouts.
Walton adores all kinds of formations, especially those involving tight ends. Never more than a glorified tackle before, the starting tight end often will be joined by a second and sometimes a third or even fourth tight end. The second tight end can replace either a back or a wide receiver.
In one of Walton's more bizarre formations, a tight end lines up in the backfield, creating a full-house backfield as if it were a wishbone, then goes in motion to the slot, then goes in motion across the field . . . all to set up a run in the opposite direction.
This is designed to create at least momentary confusion among opponents. But for now, it has the Steelers more than a bit baffled.