Brister finds scoring tough, fans tougher


PITTSBURGH -- Bubby Brister has seen the film of Sunday' Eagles-Cowboys game. He watched Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman get splattered across the screen 11 times.

It is a gruesome sight, especially if you happen to be the quarterback preparing to face the Eagles next. It is enough to make some men turn all pale and jittery, but not Bubby Brister.

This is one quarterback who doesn't get intimidated. Today at Veterans Stadium, Brister will be there with the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, sleeves rolled up, ready to rumble.

"I may not be one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the NFL, but I'm one of the toughest SOBs in the league," Brister said recently, "and that's important to me."

Keep in mind, this is a quarterback who has volunteered (seriously) to play on the Steelers' special teams. This is a 6-3, 215-pounder who once punched out a mouthy 290-pound defensive lineman in the locker room.

So if the Eagles expect to find Brister cowering in their path today, they are in for a surprise.

As far as Brister is concerned, the fall of Troy is history. Today is a whole new day and he is looking forward to it.

"[The Eagles] have a great defense, one of the better ones I'll probably ever face," Brister said, "but we can't lie down and cry about it. We've got to go out and play.

"This will be a good test for us. We'll find out where we are as a team."

Where the Steelers are at the moment is somewhere in the middle of the NFL pack. They are 2-1, but their loss to Buffalo was embarrassing (52-34), and last Sunday's win over New England (20-6) was lackluster.

The Steelers and Eagles are in similar situations: They still don't know whether they are contenders or pretenders. Chances are, one team will be exposed today. That's what makes the matchup so fascinating.

It is a huge game for Brister, who has come under fire from the Pittsburgh fans in this, his sixth season with the Steelers. Brister was booed at home last Sunday as he was completing 22 of 29 pass attempts in the win over the Patriots.

Thursday, Brister shrugged off questions about the booing, saying, "The crowd hasn't been that bad. You [media] guys make more of it than there really is."

But the truth is the jeering has rankled the emotional Brister, particularly the cheer that went up when he suffered a concussion in the league opener, a 26-20 win over San Diego. He was replaced by backup Neil O'Donnell, who threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dwight Stones.

The next day, Brister blistered the fans, saying: "I know Terry Bradshaw, and Terry Bradshaw hates everybody in Pittsburgh. I never did understand why he felt so bitter about things, but now I can see sort of what he feels like."

Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl triumphs, quickly refuted Brister's statement.

"I've got no problem with the Pittsburgh fans," Bradshaw said. "Bubby has never heard me say I hated the fans. He doesn't know me well enough to make that kind of statement."

Brister responded: "The only reason I said that is because [Bradshaw] kept saying he would never come back here and all that stuff . . . He said it a million times, so I don't see why he's saying he never said it."

Back and forth it went, point and counterpoint, each one making headlines and stoking the talk-show fires.

The fact is Brister and Bradshaw are a lot alike. Each one came from a small college in Louisiana; each one took over a run-down Steelers team; each one took his lumps from the fans and didn't like it one bit.

Bradshaw finally gained acceptance by winning. Brister still is working on it and, at 29, his patience is wearing thin.

Can the Steelers win it all with Bubby at quarterback? That's a fair question.

Brister has started 50 regular-season games for the Steelers and won fewer than half (24). He has more interceptions (46) than touchdown passes (42) in his career. He still tends to play in streaks, very hot or very cold.

Brister was ice cold during the preseason, and the Pittsburgh fans called for coach Chuck Noll to turn over the offense to O'Donnell, the second-year pro from Maryland. Noll said he never considered it, and pointed out the Steelers won nine games each of the last two seasons with Brister at quarterback.

"People get jaded, I guess," Noll said sarcastically. "They know Terry [Bradshaw] was perfect and Jim Finks [former Steelers quarterback] was perfect and Ted Marchibroda [former Steelers and offensive coordinator in Buffalo] is perfect now.

"I don't know, maybe it's your fault," Noll told reporters this week. "Get out the message that Bubby is playing well. People will believe what they hear, I guess. But he's playing pretty well, I'm telling you that."

Pretty well, yes, but not great.

In three games, the Steelers have been inside the other team's 20-yard line 11 times and scored just two touchdowns (along with six field goals). That's not championship production. It's not even close.

Brister has to shoulder some of the blame. Sunday, for example, he botched a handoff to fullback Barry Foster, resulting in a fumble, and he overthrew tight end Eric Green, who was open on a third-down play near the New England goal line.

Brister put up some nice numbers (the 22 completions were a career high), but his inability to make the big play kept the game close into the fourth quarter. The Steelers finally nailed it down by recovering a blocked punt in the Patriots' end zone.

This is the second year of the Joe Walton offense in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are still working the kinks out of the system. Walton has simplified things at Brister's request -- there is less trickery and terminology this season -- in the hopes of getting crisper execution.

"We're better off than we were a year ago," Brister said. "This time last year, we still didn't have a touchdown [on offense]. We didn't score until the fifth week. We're more basic now. We're doing OK, but we could be sharper.

"We made too many mistakes against New England. We can't make that many mistakes and win against the Eagles."

In Brister's defense, he hasn't been surrounded with a lot of talent since joining the Steelers in 1986. He had one quality wide receiver, Louis Lipps, and Lipps is on the downside of his career. The running backs have been ordinary, the line has been spotty and the coaching [with Walton's arrival] in flux.

Brister has done his best to keep things together, and he has hung tough through some difficult times. But he's still won only one postseason game, and that's how quarterbacks are measured in the NFL, especially in those cities that have a Super Bowl trophy on the mantel.

In other words, just being a tough SOB isn't good enough. You have to be a tough SOB who wins championships. For Bubby Brister, that challenge remains.

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