Share & Comment:

I was on hand to witness the first shotgun snap in Steelers history

If you’re close to my age, you likely recall the 1980s and how the shotgun snap was pretty common around the NFL.

You probably also remember how it wasn’t so common with the Steelers. In fact, it wasn’t used at all through the 1988 campaign. As I now view that shotgun-less era through my 2020s lens, it just seems bizarre and almost surreal. A football team not using a shotgun snap as late as the 1988 season would be like an offense not throwing a pass over the middle in many games over the course of a few years in this day and age. It would be like using dial-up for your Internet connection. It would be like owning a rotary phone. It would be like using a beeper. It would be like smoking on an airplane.

You get the message.

While he often gets credited as being the greatest head coach in Steelers history, Chuck Noll certainly had his flaws. Not using the shotgun for the majority of his career was one of them.

That brings me to August 12, 1989.

The Steelers were kicking off their preseason with a matchup against the Washington Redskins at old Three Rivers Stadium. I went to the game with my grandparents and uncle. I do not recall how we managed to snag four tickets to a Steelers game. We were working class (poor), so attending live sporting events that didn’t involve the Pittsburgh Pirates was pretty rare for us in those days.

Anyway, the big news leading up to this exhibition game was that Pittsburgh would use a shotgun snap for the first time in recorded history (or at least under Noll).

The media spent a good bit of training camp talking about the Steelers’ decision to adopt the shotgun. Why did they finally decide to get with the times just a year or two before Seattle would invade America with its grunge rock sound? I’m not sure. It could have had something to do with how dreadful the organization had become, starting in the mid-80s when any remnants of the 1970s Super Bowl dynasty had vanished once and for all.

As the Steelers prepared for their 1989 campaign, it’s important to put things in the proper context and tell you that the decision to go to the shotgun was more an experiment and not yet permanent. “We had a few bad snaps today, which we expected to have,” said Noll that summer courtesy of an archived article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “For the most part, we’ll see how it goes.”

That’s right, Noll wasn’t quite ready to throw away his VHS tapes in favor of DVDs. He was still prepared to ditch the remote and walk across the living room to change the channel. He was hanging on to this old leisure suit just in case.

That brings me back to that first preseason game against Washington. My family and I were walking through the concourse at TRS when an older African American man approached my grandfather and said, “How about that now!” or “What do you know about that?” or whatever older men said to one another in the 1980s. It was a guy who worked with my grandfather at Peabody High School years earlier, and they chatted for a few minutes.

Why did I bring that up? Because it was a preseason game from 35 years ago, and it’s one of the few things I vividly recall.

OK, enough of the suspense. When did Pittsburgh execute its first-ever shotgun snap (unofficially, since it was the preseason)? Very early in the first quarter, like the first series. Bubby Brister, the opinionated and boisterous quarterback from Louisiana, became the first player in team history (or maybe just under Noll) to step back into the shotgun formation. Dermontti Dawson, the future Hall of Fame center, prepared to snap it to Walter Andrew. Dawson wasn’t an established center yet, however. No, instead, he was a second-year player who spent eight games at guard during his rookie season.

So, how did the first shotgun snap during the Noll regime go?

Not well. Dawson air-mailed that sucker over Brister’s head, a la James Harrison that time he filled in as an emergency snapper on the punt team during a game against the Giants in 2008.

The crowd gasped in unison as Brister chased down Dawson’s errant snap. I don’t remember if he recovered it or not (it was preseason, so it’s almost impossible to look up), but I do know that it happened.

Again, I was there.

As for the rest of the game, I don’t recall much. For whatever reason, I thought the Steelers won that day, but they lost by a score of 21-14. That means that by age 17, I had already accepted that preseason football wasn’t life or death (as opposed to regular-season football). Mike Mularkey, a tight end the Steelers signed during the offseason, did some things of note in the game. He would spend the final three years with Pittsburgh before re-joining the organization as a coach in the mid-’90s. Mularkey was named the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2001 and held that role for three seasons, which means he missed social media and being the most despised man in town by about five years.

Why am I bringing up Mularkey? Because, much like using the shotgun snap, there was a time in Pittsburgh when focusing all of your energy on the offensive coordinator was simply unheard of.

So, did Noll permanently adopt the shotgun snap that year? Spoiler alert: Yes.

The Steelers officially used the shotgun snap for the first time in a Week 1 matchup against the Browns at TRS. Pittsburgh lost 51-0, but it wasn’t because of the shotgun snap.

Dawson obviously became a stud of a center–the best in the game for many years–while Noll and Brister eventually gave way to Bill Cowher and Neil O’Donnell.

Dawson’s first air-mail shotgun snap wasn’t his most famous. No, that occurred many years later when he did the same thing in the first half of Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys. O’Donnell, who is still under investigation for throwing that game, decided to run after Dawson’s errant snap and recovered it before his Dallas co-conspirators could get their mitts on it.

I wasn’t at Super Bowl XXX to witness that shotgun snap. But I was there for the first (and totally unofficial) one on August 12, 1989.

Great memories.



Sign up below for the latest news, stories and podcasts from our affiliates

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.