Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks didn't know what they were doing. And it looked like it.
They found new offensive coordinator Joe Walton's complex scheme -- with audibles that went on for paragraphs -- inscrutable. And the result was that the Pittsburgh defense was scoring more often than the offense.
Maryland's Neil O'Donnell was one of the baffled trio of signal-callers last year. As a rookie -- and a rookie who had held out for three weeks of training camp -- he was lost.
"We were having trouble just calling a play," said O'Donnell. "The terminology was a mouthful just saying it, let alone executing it.
"We were lucky if we knew where the primary receivers were. We didn't have any idea what the others were doing.
"Now, it's like night and day. The quarterbacks know what everybody is doing."
O'Donnell looked as if he knew what he was doing Sunday night against the Washington Redskins when he threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ron Fair that put Pittsburgh up, 13-7, in the fourth quarter of a 16-7 exhibition victory.
And the Steelers looked as if they knew what they were doing when they drafted him in the third round last year -- and tolerated a holdout much too long for a third-round choice before signing him to a three-year, $790,000 deal.
"They showed a real knowledge and awareness of what we have to get done," said Noll. Though asked about O'Donnell, he praised both quarterbacks.
O'Donnell followed starter Bubby Brister and played the entire second half, completing nine of 13 passes for 111 yards, including the touchdown drive and two others that resulted in two field goals by Gary Anderson.
"I wasn't really nervous once I got out there," said O'Donnell, who did not even take a practice snap with the first team last year. "Bubby came over and calmed me down."
O'Donnell represents a significant investment for the Steelers -- teams don't draft quarterbacks in the third round to have them run the scout team and sit on the bench behind a free agent like teammate Rick Strom.
At 6 feet 3, 231 pounds and the second-leading passer in Maryland history with 4,989 yards and 26 touchdowns, O'Donnell was a favorite of Noll's before the draft and was quickly dubbed "Robo-quarterback" by reporters for his big-arm, stand-in-the-pocket style.
And so O'Donnell was scheduled to play most or all of the second half of the exhibition opener while Noll and Walton assessed his progress. "We need to know where he is," Walton had said.
But Strom suffered a torn cartilage in his rib cage in pre-game warm-ups and will be out for at least a week, perhaps two. That, combined with O'Donnell's performance Sunday, goes a long way toward establishing him as Brister's backup.
Now O'Donnell must show what he learned in three months of daily classroom sessions with Walton during the off-season.
"All three quarterbacks would meet with Coach Walton almost every day. We watched all the old game tapes, we went through the whole playbook and watched what happened on the film," said O'Donnell. "It is true what they say. The more you say it, the more you see it, the more we talked about it, the easier it became."
The Steelers offense before Walton was so predictable that it finished last in the league in 1989. His design includes two- and three- tight end sets, tight ends and wide receivers lining up in the backfield, formations changing on every down and plenty of PTC motion. But the players were so confused by it that the Pittsburgh offense finished 22nd out of 28 teams last year.
"Once you know this offense, you really can't get yourself into much trouble," said O'Donnell. "You have a layoff [an alternative play] no matter what the defense gives you. And we have five or six different formations for every play. The defense can't cover everyone and you could see from the films they were guessing."
O'Donnell must supplant Strom behind Brister if he expects to master Walton's offense and succeed. Second-team quarterbacks get only a handful of practice snaps. Third-stringers get none. O'Donnell ran the opposition's offense against the Steelers defense in practice last year and he was in uniform for only three games.
"He is getting better and better each day," Walton said. "But there are still some things he has to sharpen up on."
O'Donnell said: "It's too bad what happened to Rick, but I'm excited about the opportunity. I have a good feel, but I definitely think there is room for improvement.
"A lot of people called and said they thought I looked confident and comfortable out there [Sunday night]," O'Donnell said. "This is just the beginning."