When the 1982 NFL schedule was unveiled, it was revealed that the year's Monday Night Football slate would begin with a battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. Excited fans couldn't help but to recall the teams' recent battle for supremacy.
Throughout the 1970's, the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers developed a rivalry predicated on starkly contrasting identities and mutual hatred. The two franchises couldn't have been any more different.
The "Men of Steel" were classified as a blue collar outfit, predicated on intimidation and physicality. The Black and Gold viewed the Cowboys' white collar pizazz and self-aggrandizing style as strong reason for their ire. After all, what team referred to itself as "America's Team?"
Dallas had every reason to feel slighted by the perception placed on them by Pittsburgh. Despite the nickname cast upon them by masses of fans playing off of the team's success, the Cowboys were as rough and tumble as any other team in the NFL, feeling rightfully that they were the equal of their proud Pennsylvanian rival.
As one example, Cowboys fans felt their "Doomsday Defense" was every bit the imposing equal of the "Steel Curtain".
It was in the late 70's that Chuck Noll and Tom Landry had tooled together magnificent rosters worthy of being labeled as the team of the decade. Yet, there could only be one.
The rivalry reached a crescendo in Super Bowl XIII. Labeled at the time as “the greatest Super Bowl ever” by many, the game featured more Hall of Fame talent than any contest in NFL history. Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, and Franco Harris pitted their pride against the likes of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, and Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson.
Ultimately, the Steelers won 35-31, securing their mantle as the team of the decade. The loss hit many members of the Dallas team hard, demonstrated by Roger Staubach when he said before Super Bowl XLV, “You know we did beat the Steelers. My guy Troy Aikman beat them (in Super Bowl XXX).” Clearly, the loss lingers.
One season later, the Steelers won their fourth Lombardi Trophy, completing an NFL dynasty. In the process, they beat the Cowboys once again. During the game, L.C. Greenwood had a violent collision with Staubach, a hit that the former Dallas great attributed as a major contribution to his early retirement.
While both teams won championships in the decade, the Cowboys continued to resent the Steelers for their two key Super Bowl wins over the proud franchise. Conversely, the Steelers felt scorned by the “America’s Team” label, chomping at the bit with any opportunity to further diminish the Dallas image.
By 1982, both Noll and Landry remained with their organizations. Pieces of the former Super Bowl winners remained, but both teams were changing.
In Pittsburgh, Bradshaw, Harris, John Stallworth, and Jack Ham were journeying through the final days of their careers. Men like Dwight White, Joe Greene, and Greenwood had left football, and the Men of Steel had missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons following their last Super Bowl win. The Black and Gold hoped 1982 would bring a renewal of fortune.
With so many members of their defensive front gone from the "Steel Curtain", the team decided to switch defensive philosophies at the start of the new season.
Indeed, Monday, September 13, 1982 would see the Steelers unveil their 3-4 defense for the first time, a tradition that continues through the current day.
The Dallas Cowboys still had the “man with the funny hat” patrolling their sidelines, but they were led by a quarterback named Danny White. Under White’s leadership, the star-studded franchise continued to make deep playoff runs, a streak that would continue in 1982.
It would be the same year that the Cowboys would lose their third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game, this time to the rival Redskins. They had lost to the Eagles two years earlier, and Dwight Clark’s “Catch” gave the 49ers a key win over Dallas just months earlier.
With Joe Montana’s high touchdown pass still haunting their memories, Landry’s Cowboys opened their 1982 schedule as a team on a mission to take the next step toward the ultimate goal. The Steelers, with aging veterans amidst new, unproven faces, simply desired to get back on track.
Playing at Texas Stadium, of which D.D. Lewis once said, “Texas Stadium has a hole in its roof so God can watch his favorite team play,” the Cowboys were the clear favorites to end a four game losing streak to the Steelers. On paper, they seemed the superior squad, and they apparently had the side of divine intervention working for them.
How else could one explain the phenomenal streaks at stake against the hated Steelers that night?
Dallas had won:
a) 17 consecutive home games
b) all 18 games at Texas Stadium in which Danny White started at quarterback
c) 17 consecutive season openers
Adding to these trends was White's performance, finishing the opener against the Steelers with nearly 350 yards and four touchdown passes.
With history and talent seemingly in favor of the Cowboys, a primetime audience was about to be taught that streaks were made to be broken and stats don't mean a thing when coupled with miscues.
The contest began inauspiciously for Dallas from the onset. After driving deep inside of Steelers' territory, Danny White botched a handoff to Tony Dorsett at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, and linebacker David Little recovered the football.
Bradshaw took over under center. Due to elbow problems that would nag him throughout the season, the quarterback's career was numbered. This Monday Night Football opener would prove to be one of his final shining career moments. Against an opponent fitting of a divine day for an all-important trio, the quarterback would share one of his great games with the epic performances of Harris and John Stallworth.
Covering 80 yards on their first possession, Bradshaw found Stallworth for an eight yard touchdown to begin the scoring. Gary Anderson wasn't able to kick the extra point after a botched hold, but Pittsburgh led 6-0.
As if the first quarter was made as for throwbacks to the decade-long rivalry of the 70's, Danny White answered by finding famous Dallas receiver Drew Pearson, who victimized the Steelers on Super Sundays past, giving the Cowboys a 7-6 lead.
If the opening stanza was a tribute to legends, the second act was made for new faces. Bradshaw threw his second touchdown, a seven yard connection with Jim Smith. The 13-7 lead was short-lived as Danny White answered with a 12-yard pass to Doug Cosbie.
At halftime, Dallas led 14-13. The Steelers had benefited from a critical turnover and a return to form a a passer past his glory days. Fans waited for the bottom to fall out, expecting Dallas to turn up the heat in the second half.
In the third quarter, the Cowboys did a great job of turning up the heat full throttle... on themselves! Three damning mistakes by Dallas made for a "Doomsday in the Dome" of a completely different nature. Well, I guess there was a hole in the roof...but you get the idea!
Christening their new 3-4 defensive scheme, the Steelers stopped the Cowboys' first possession. White, who also served as the team's punter, had the option provided to him by Tom Landry to use his legs to pick up a first down if the opportunity ever presented itself.
Receiving the long snap, White began to step forward hesitantly, considering the fake. Opting out of the trick play, the punter placed the ball before his leg to kick, but the delay prevented him from getting the kick off.
Keith Willis blocked the punt. Bradshaw threw deep to Stallworth, who was open on play action all night due to the hard running of Harris, who finished the game with 103 yards. Once again, corner Dennis Thurman was torched by Stallworth, and a blatant pass interference call gave the Steelers a first down inches from the goal line.
Frank Pollard blasted into the end zone, giving the Steelers a 20-14 lead. To preserve their record-setting opening day winning streak, the Cowboys would have to respond.
Unfortunately, White the perplexed punter, handed off the mistake making duties to his own gaffing gunslinger. Under center, White threw interceptions on his next two drives, both resulting in Steelers points. The picks were snagged by Rick Woods and Jack Ham.
The first interception led to Bradshaw's third touchdown of the evening, finding Jim Smith to secure a 27-14 lead.
Then an Anderson field goal following the second turnover by White gave the 'Burgh a commanding 30-14 advantage.
The stunned fans at Texas Stadium witnessed 17 unanswered Steelers points off of three monumental Dallas miscues. Ultimately, Anderson would hit a 43-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter.
With a 20-0 scoring run to begin the second half, the "Men of Steel" led by 19 points. To maintain their proud streaks (home winning streak, undefeated at home with White under center, opening day winning streak), Dallas would need a furious rally.
The Cowboys, a perennial playoff contender and preseason favorite of many to win the Super Bowl, were not going to go away quietly—and they sure didn't!
After responding like champions to reclaim a lead in the first half, the Cowboys rekindled their winning spirit and began to play to the form most fans expected heading into the contest. Beginning their season 0-1 would do nothing to get the taste of four straight losses to Pittsburgh out of their mouth, from the excruciating playoff loss, in the final seconds, to Joe Montana and the 49ers.
With pride on the line, Dallas began a relentless comeback attempt. Purging his mistakes from the third quarter from his game, fourth quarter Danny White was a machine.
First, he hit Tony Hill with a 45-yard scoring pass to cut the deficit to 33-21.
The defense made a critical stop, and White wasted no time in systematically moving the ball down the field, wasting no time or pass attempts. Gunning the football with authority, Dallas marched to the five yard line before White hit Billy Joe DuPree for six points with just under six minutes remaining.
With his fourth touchdown of the night, White was bringing the corpse of the Cowboys back from the dead. Dallas was suddenly within striking distance of a stunning comeback victory. The Pittsburgh lead was merely 33-28.
It was a night of seeming rebirth for Bradshaw, who finished 17-of-28 for 246 yards and three scores. Franco Harris's 103 yards were only bettered by Stallworth, whose 137 receiving yards conjured images of his magnificent deep catches in Super Bowl XIV (31-19 win over the Rams).
Yet, for a night of excitement in the "Steel City" that saw such great performances from cemented legends, Danny White's four touchdowns and hot hand threatened all of it, and fans in the Steelers were quite anxious about the potentially great night being wasted.
Three future Hall of Fame players had put on a Texas-sized performance against all odds up until that point. With 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, they would embark on a Texas-sized drive to secure a Black and Gold victory. At a time before the two-point conversion, a field goal would clinch a huge season opening win and fifth straight Pittsburgh win over Dallas.
Which Steelers performance was most impressive?
Bradshaw hit Greg Hawthrone for a 22-yard gain while Franco Harris burst through the line for sizable chunks of yardage, refusing to be denied of the promising opportunity to beat "America's Team."
"Emperor Chaz" watched from the sidelines with a grin as Gary Anderson belted a 40-yard field goal with seconds remaining, giving Pittsburgh a vital two score lead.
It was a night for threes and zeroes.
Three Dallas miscues that three key performances by legendary Steelers—among the final great games of the careers of each—propelled Pittsburgh to a 1-0 start to the season.
As for zero, Dallas's remarkable streaks had a new number attached to them: zilch, nada, nil, none.
A proud, historic and amazing set of feats came to an end in Dallas, and the Cowboys surely hated that it had to coincide with another loss to the "Steel City", a team responsible for so many of the franchise's nightmares in recent seasons. It was Dallas's first home loss since the 1979 playoffs. Wasted was a magnificent performance by Danny White, but four turnovers will tend to pull defeat from the jaws of victory, won't it?
The Cowboys would go on to lose a third straight NFC Championship Game in Washington. Joe Theismann and the Redskins would win the Super Bowl in what would become a strike-shortened season.
Ultimately, the Steelers would return to the playoffs in 1982, losing to the San Diego Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium. It would be their last home playoff appearance until 1992-93.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era. For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!
Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember. In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...
The Forgotten Classics!
Please enjoy these previous installments:
Vol. 14: Cowboy Collapses; 2004 & 2008, vs. Dallas Cowboys