Of all the Steelers non-Super Bowl seasons their 1989 playoff run was the most special.
Pittsburgh’s 1989 season ended with the Steelers in the once-unthinkable spot of playing a divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos. During the game, NBC's Dick Enberg and Bill Walsh reported Chuck Noll had told them that the '89 draft was a prime reason for the Steelers surprising success.
Another commentator agreed, comparing the ‘89 draft to the Steelers 1974 draft.
With 20 years hindsight, the idea that the 1989 draft even deserves mention with the 1974 Hall of Fame haul draft is laughable.
- But in January 1990, the idea was far from outlandish.
9 months after the fact it looked like the Steelers had had a very, very good draft. The 1989 draft certainly delivered Pittsburgh a few prize gems, but a lot of fools gold accompanied those precious stones.
The 1989 Draft – The First Six
It is supposed to happen this way. The first six picks of the 1989 draft were: Troy Aikman, Tony Mandarich, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deon Sanders, and Borerick Thomas.
Three are already Hall of Famers, with Deon Sanders soon to follow. Four busts in Canton heavily outweigh the other 2 busts on the field.
The Steelers were drafting seventh, their highest position since 1971. Dare they dream of making it five Hall of Famers?
The 1989 Draft – The Steelers Picks
1. Tim Worley, Running Back, Georgia
1b. Tom Ricketts, Offensive Tackle, Pitt
2. Carnell Lake, Strong Saftey, UCLA
3. Derek Hill, Wide Receiver, Arizona
4. Jorrell Williams, Outside Linebacker, Purdue
5. David Arnold, Cornerback, Michigan
6. Mark Stock, Wide Receiver, Virginia Military Institute
7. David Johnson, Cornerback, Kentucky
8. Chris Asbeck, Nose Tackle, University of Cincinnati
9. A.J. Jenkins, Defensive End, Cal State Fullerton
10. Jerry Olsavsky, Inside Linebacker, Pitt
11. Brian Slater, Wide Reciever, Washington
12. Carlton Haselrig, Nose Tackle (later moved to Offensive Guard), Pitt-Johnstown (wrestling team)
The Outright Busts
Chris Asbeck and Brian Slatter got cut in training camp. David Arnold played some special teams in 1989 and then was out of football.
The Fools Gold
Modern-era Pittsburgh has never had a running back taken higher. Not Franco, not Rocky, not, Hoge, not Foster, not Bettis, not Mendenhall.
Tim Worley was supposed to be that good. Ken Beatrice, long time WMAL/WTEM Washington-area sports radio voice, used to say “If I had my choice between Worley, Barry Sanders, and Bobby Humphrey, I would take Worley every time. Worley is simply the superior athlete.”
Things did not start smoothly for Tim Worley. He fumbled three times in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, and was generally ineffective early in the season.
Fools Gold Glitter: Worley exploded at the end of the season, cranking out two one hundred yard games and totaling 770 yards, and made a respectable showing in the 1989 playoffs.
Alas, Not Gold… But Brass: Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose. He ran afoul of Chuck Noll in ‘90 and Noll cut his playing time drastically. Drug suspensions followed in 1991 and 1992. He came back strong in 1993, but the Steelers had had enough and traded him to Chicago, where he played one more year.
To this day, Tom Ricketts holds the distinction of being the Steelers only number 1b. first round draft pick, thanks to the Mike Merriweather trade.
Pyrite Promises: Rickets cracked the starting lineup on opening day as injuries forced Chuck Noll to have Ricketts swap positions with guard John Rinestra. Both men played their new positions played well under such trying circumstances.
From Illusion to Disillusion: That was Rickett’s high point, he never matured into a full time starter, peaking at eight starts in 1991. By then, he had eaten himself out of the league, moving on to play in Indy and Kansas City.
Pittsburgh had high hopes that Derek Hill would do for Louis Lipps what Lipps had done for John Stallworth.
The Mirage's Gleam: As a rookie, Hill was poised to realize his promise, starting eight games, catching 28 balls for 433 yards. Sound pedestrian? Well, that dwarfs Limas Sweed’s 2008 production.
Reality Check: Hill had issues. Starting 3 more games in 1990, he caught three fewer balls, and no touchdowns. He left after 1990 as a Plan B free agent, and was out of football by opening day 1991.
As a rookie, Jerroll Willams gave every indication that he was a fourth round steal.
The Leprechaun’s Allure: Thrust unexpectedly into the starting line up in week three, Williams made an immediate impact with 5 tackles and two sacks. Williams contributed heavily as a part-time player throughout the rest of the year and in ‘90 and led the team in sacks in ‘91 despite not starting.
Fool's Gold, or Just a Fool?: Jerrol Williams’ failure to start puzzled. After making the first team under Bill Cowher and playing well, he immedately bolted as a free agent complaining that stars like Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson denied him the spotlight he needed to showcase his talents. He "showcased" in San Diego, Kansas City, and Baltimore over the next four years, never starting more than six games in a year.
The Chimera’s Cadence: Mark Stock played in 8 games, made four catches averaging 18.7 yards per catch, plus two grabs for 37 yards in the playoffs….
Crashing Down to Earth: …But Mark Stock was most famous for the catch he didn’t make, dropping a go ahead touchdown pass against Denver in the waning moments the divisional playoffs.
He got cut in training camp the following year. But then Stock’s career took an interesting turn, 1990 saw him serve in Operation Desert Storm, he played for the Washington Redskins in 1993 and then Indianapolis Colts in 1996. In between, he also played for the World League of American Football and the CFL.
Visiting the Potemkin Village: Jenkins played in all sixteen games as a rookie, and began working himself into the lineup during his second year, netting two sacks by mid-season.
Rough Break: Alas, A.J. Jenkins also got injured at mid-season, and he was out of football by 1991.
From Coal to Diamond to Lead - Carlton Haselrig
We can only describe Haselrig by mixing our mineral and metal metaphors. You cannot impossible label this man as a bust or write off his accomplishments as flashes of fools gold. Haselrig never played football in college, wrestling at Pitt-Johnstown and winning multiple NCAA Divison II and Division I titles. Drafted in the 12th round, he played on the Steelers practice squad as a nose tackle before moving to guard in 1990.
Starting by 1991, he made the Pro Bowl in 1992. Substance abuse problems began in 1993, which caused him to miss the entire 1994 season. Dick Haley brought him to the Jets in 1995, but Haselrig was out of football after that.
David DJ Johnson
Not to be confused with the man the Steelers picked this year, David Johnson (not yet known as “DJ”) played sparingly at first, saw his playing time increase as the year continued, and established himself as a full-time starter beginning in 1990.
Starting opposite of Rod Woodson, Johnson was a frequent target, but Johnson more than held his own. He picked off one pass as a rookie and tied for second place in special teams tackles. In his next year he intercepted two passes for 60 yards and returned one for a touchdown. He would net nine more in his next three seasons as a starter, and never failed to turn in more than 50 tackles a season.
- In an early 1990 Sunday night game against Houston, Johnson returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown, providing a much needed boost during a one-month stretch where the offense failed to score a touchdown.
- The pick of Johnson paid handsome gains in his last game regular season game as a Steelers. Defending a 16 to 9 lead, Johnson hung tough in the end zone, defending several would-be Vinny Testaverde touchdown passes.
Not big enough, not strong enough, not fast enough. Simply good enough.
The NFL may have had a more accomplished 10th round draft pick, but I would have no idea who that person is (well, OK L.C. Greenwood would be one, and now that I just checked, Merrill Hoge was also a 10th round pick. My Bad.) Olsavsky started eight games as a rookie in 1989 due to injuries to Hardy Nickerson. Made the first team of the UPI’s 1989 All Rookie Team.
All of that would suffice to make an inspirational underdog story, but there’s more.
The Steelers 1990 media guide described Olsavsky this way:
An exteremly intelligent player who is rarely out of position. He makes up for relative lack of size with hustle and anticipation.
Yes, Jerry O. had an on the field presence that put him in the right place at opportune moments. He made the most of those opportunities.
Pancaking the Nigerian Nightmare - With Pittsburgh defending its goal line and protecting a narrow lead, 221 lb. Jerry O was all that stood between the 260 lb. NFL leading rusher “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye and the Chief's go ahead touchdown.
- Olsavsky blew Okoye off the goal line and stopping him cold on 4th down.
Drawing First Blood in “the House of Pain” (aka the Astrodome) - In their first playoff game in five years, the Steelers struck first against Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers.
- Jerry O set it up when he secured the 1980’s final blocked punt to set up Tim Worley’s 9 yard score.
Rising from the Dead - October 24, 1993 - Pittsburgh totally dominated the Browns in Cleveland Stadium, yet still fell to Eric Metcalf. But it was also the day that Jerry Olsavsky, in his first full year as a starter, blew out all four ligaments in his knee. He had one repaired and three more replaced with ligaments from a cadaver.
- 14 months later, Jerry O was back on the roster.
Stepping up in 1995 - When Jerry O returned in 1995, many chalked it up to sentimentality. But Chad Brown had one of those infamous “high ankle sprains” early in 1995.
- Olsavsky started four games, but took plenty of snaps and helped shore up a defense forced to compensate for the loss of Rod Woodson.
Filling the Void Left in the Absence of Lloyd - A year later, Greg Lloyd’s injury forced Chad Brown to move to outside linebacker, and Jerry O was ready to step up again.
- Olsavsky started 14 games at inside linebacker making solo 46 tackles, recording half a sack, forcing one fumble and intercepting a pass.
Carnell Lake may not have garnered the ink and attention that Woodson and Lloyd did, but Lake’s contributions were every bit as important to the dominance of Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of the 1990’s.
After playing linebacker at UCLA, Lake made the transition to Strong Safety and started as a rookie, and becoming a mainstay for the defense for a decade. Lake started 15 games as a rookie, finishing as the 6th leading tackler in the regular season, making one sack, defending 13 passes, recovering 5 fumbles, forcing two fumbles, and intercepting one pass.
For an encore, Lake led the team in solo and total tackles in the 1989 post season.
Living Up to his Namesake – Torrential rains had transformed large parts of Joe Robbie Stadium into swamp land, so it is fitting that the man named Lake was the MVP.
- Lake struck early, nailing Dan Marino and injuring his shoulder. We don’t applaud injury, but Mario was forced to stand and watch as the Steelers erupted for 24 points in the second and third quarters.
- Lake also paved the way for the Steelers second touchdown when he recovered a fumble when he lateral to Dwayne Woodruff who returned it 21 yards for a touchdown.
Saving the Season I – It was 1995, and things were not going according to plan. Stopped three yards shy of a trip to the Super Bowl, the Steelers were coming apart at the seams. The Steelers had lost Rod Woodson for the year on opening day. Dieon Figures was playing, but still recovering from a gun shot wound.
The Steelers had dropped one to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, and then followed it up by losing to Cincinnati at home, as Jeff Blake, looking more like Kurt Warner, torched Alvoid Mayes for touchdown after touchdown.
Bill Cowher knew he had to shake up the team, and shake it up in a big way. He moved Lake, a man who had only ever played corner for a few series during the 1991 preseason, to cornerback.
- While Lake may not have transformed himself into a true shut down corner, his selflessness is what began the turn around for the Steelers.
The Steelers went on to win 8 out of 9 and came within two Neil O'Donnell interceptions of upsetting the Dallas Cowboy's in Super Bowl XXX.
Saving the Season II – It was 1997, and the Steelers had just lost their top three cornerbacks to free agency. Chad Scott was holding his own as a rookie, but when Donell Wolford wasn’t getting beaten, he was getting burnt.
- Shortly before a week 14 show down with the Denver Broncos, Lake again put the team ahead of himself and moved to corner.
The defense improved, and the Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship, coming a few untimely interceptions away from a Super Bowl.
The Steelers 1989 Draft, 20 Years Later
Looking back, the Steelers 1989 draft turns the old adage of “it takes 5 years to judge a draft” on its head. Normally that maxim serves to cool the jets of overly reactionary fans who’re ready to declare a high round draft pick a bust before his rookie year is over.
Pick-for-pick the 1989 draft class did more to help the team win in the present than in the future. By 1993 Lake, Haselrig, and Johnson were the group’s only starters, with Jerry O on IR. But Johnson was to leave in free agency, and Haselrig’s substance abuse issues were getting the best of him.
At the end of the day, Lake was the only true diamond in the group, with Jerry O and David Johnson as sapphires and rubies, and the rest turned out to be little more than fools gold.