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Tony Dungy Reveals Lesson Learned in Steelers Passing on Dan Marino



Dan Marino

The biggest draft miss by the Pittsburgh Steelers in franchise history is widely considered to be Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft. It’s the ultimate “what if” story. Every team has draft misses, but when it’s a player in your own backyard. It hurts even more.

Instead of selecting the hometown kid and Pitt product, the Steelers drafted defensive tackle Gabriel Rivera out of Texas Tech at 21st overall. Head coach Chuck Noll wanted to rebuild the Steel Curtain and thought Rivera could be the centerpiece. Unfortunately. Rivera was tragically paralyzed in a car wreck on Oct. 20, 1983. Driving while drunk, he crossed into another lane and collided with another vehicle.

A recurring elbow injury ended Terry Bradshaw’s Hall of Fame career on December 10th in Shea Stadium. It was the only game that he played in 1983. Marino would have been the perfect replacement, and most likely would have led the Steelers to a couple Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. Instead, he starred in Miami for 17 years, reaching one Super Bowl but ended up on the losing end to the San Francisco 49ers in 1984.

While it wasn’t the sole reason, the miss on Marino most likely played a factor in the Steelers selecting Kenny Pickett at 20th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Pickett experiment, of course, was an epic failure.

“It’s something for me to be able to say that we drafted somebody who broke all of Dan Marino’s records in college,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said after drafting Pickett. “It’s pretty special.”

Tony Dungy, who was a defensive backs coach with the Steelers in 1983, recently revealed the important lesson that he learned from the Steelers passing on Marino 41 years ago.

“Let me take you guys back to 1983, I’m a young coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s a very good quarterback draft. Very similar to this year — John Elway, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, and this guy named Dan Marino. Dan Marino is in our hometown, we’ve seen him for four years. Everybody in the building thinks he’s special. The owner (Art Rooney Sr.) loves Dan Marino. But we’ve got Terry Bradshaw, so ah it doesn’t make sense take a quarterback when you’ve already got Bradshaw. We passed on him. He goes to Miami and plays lights out from Day 1. Plays for a long time. It was 20 years the Steelers were trying to draft a quarterback after that until they got Ben Roethlisberger. And I learned that lesson there, and that’s what Bill Polian said, “Don’t pass up special, if you think it’s special and you got a chance to take it, take it,'” Dungy said recently on NBC’s FNIA Podcast.

Marino nearly signed with the Steelers for his final season of football after 17 years with the Dolphins, but decided to walk away from the game instead. He talked about the decision on the Sports Seriously podcast in September of 2022.

Marino had the option of his contract declined by the Dolphins in the 2000 offseason, and the team, under new head coach Dave Wannstedt, was looking for a younger player as a starting quarterback, eventually settling on Jay Fiedler.

That left Marino free to talk with other teams, and he did, fielding offers from the Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ultimately, he decided to retire and step away from the game.

“I definitely thought about it,” Marino said. “To be honest with you, I played 17 years with the Dolphins. They were kind of going in a new direction, had a new coach. I had offers to go play other places and really thought about it. Maybe would’ve had a chance to win a championship like Matthew (Stafford) has done and other guys are trying to do in other places. After I thought about it for a long time, it just didn’t feel right. So I just decided I’ll just be a Dolphin for life. It worked out great, but I will tell you that I did think about that, yes.”

Marino said that the two main teams were the Vikings and Steelers. Minnesota had a strong team, going 10-6 in 1999 with Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. They needed someone to bridge the gap until they felt 1999 first-round pick Duante Culpepper was ready.

The Steelers were looking to move away from Kordell Stewart after a disastrous 6-10 1999 season. The team was also still run by the same Rooney family that passed on Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft and certainly would have loved to correct that error.

“Minnesota was interested in me for what would have been my 18th season,” Marino said. “The Pittsburgh Steelers talked to me. Those two were the main teams. Maybe go home and play for the Steelers for a couple of years. But it was one of those things where I’d already put my heart and soul into Miami. So I just figured it was time.”