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Steigerwald: Which Pitt Player Had the Best NFL Career?



Photo courtesy of The Owl, 1980 Student Yearbook of the University of Pittsburgh

I happened to be watching the Cardinals-Cowboys game Monday night and I saw Larry Fitzgerald make one of his ridiculous catches for the Cardinals  in the fourth quarter and I was reminded that I have never seen anybody better at catching a football.

Not Lynn Swann or John Stallworth. Not Jerry Rice. Nobody.

I also noticed that Fitzgerald is now third on the NFL’s all time receptions list behind Rice and Tony Gonzalez.

Yesterday I was asked who I thought was the best Pitt player in NFL history. Not the best player in Pitt history. The Pitt player who had the best NFL career.

It comes down to Fitzgerald, Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett.

Those are three of the best players at their positions in NFL history.

Dorsett was by far the best player in Pitt history and it’s not close. His numbers are ridiculous. He gained 6526 yards in four years and became the leading rusher in NCAA history. Averaged 5.6 yards a carry. When he was a junior in 1975, Dorsett averaged 6.6 yards a carry. In 1976, when Pitt went undefeated and won the Mythical National Championship, he gained 2150 yards in 12 games and scored 22 touchdowns.

No college running back has ever been better.

He gained 12,739 yards for the Dallas Cowboys and was a first ballot Hall of Famer.  It says here that he is the best running back in Cowboys history – better than Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s leading rusher.

Having seen both of them play, I think if they showed up in their prime to compete for a running back spot, Smith would be Dorsett’s back up.

But Dorsett was not as good at his position as Marino and Fitzgerald were/are at theirs.

Neither were as good in college as Dorsett.

I’ve seen very few humans who could throw a football better than Marino. One was Terry Bradshaw.

At Pitt, Marino was better in his junior year than he was as a senior. That may explain why he was the fourth quarterback and the 27th player drafted in 1983.

In the 1982 season, Marino had 17 TD passes and 23 interceptions. Fans were down him and so were some in the media.

I happened to run into Lynn Swann in the Pitt Stadium press box during a game that season. (The NFL was on strike.)

Without being asked Swann told me that he couldn’t believe what a bad job Pitt’s receivers were doing. Running terrible routes. Not coming back for the ball.

Marino made every scout and head coach except Don Shula look like an idiot when he got his shot with the Miami Dolphins.

The league wasn’t nearly as pass happy then as it is now and in his second season, 1984, Marino threw for a ridiculous 5,084 yards and a just as ridiculous 48 touchdown passes. He averaged 318 yards a game, which is like averaging 418 yards per game in 2017.

Marino retired with every NFL passing record worth having, including  61,361 yards and 420 TDs.

He’s now fifth in yards just behind Tom Brady.

And if you think Tom Brady, in his prime, shows up in Miami in 1984 and beats out Marino, you are either an idiot or didn’t start watching the NFL until the 21st Century.

Marino didn’t win a Super Bowl but he was better than just about every quarterback who has.

That brings us to Larry Fitzgerald, who only played two years for Pitt. In his sophomore year, 2003, he was the best college football player in the country and should have won the Heisman Trophy. In two years he had 161 catches for 2677 yards and averaged 18.2 yards per catch.

Being third all time in receptions tells you all you need to know about what kind of a pro career Fitzgerald has had. His receiving numbers are every bit as impressive as Marino’s passing numbers.

What has to be taken into account is that in 2017 all passing numbers are inflated in the NFL. Three hundred yards passing for a quarterback is the new 200. Receivers are running around with a lot more space these days.

So, if you ask me to rank the three Hall of Famers (Fitzgerald is a lock on the first ballot), I’d have to go:

  1. Marino
  2. Fitzgerald
  3. Dorsett

And do you want to know something crazy? The second best player in Pitt history behind Dorsett just might be DE/LB Hugh Green, who went on to have a mediocre NFL career.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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