Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Steelers vs. Giants and Browns, 1964

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Steelers vs. Giants and Browns, 1964

For most reading these words, the Black and Gold of 1964 weren't your Pittsburgh Steelers, at least not the successful empire with which you offer your fanaticism today. They were your grandfather's, if not great-grandfather's, Pittsburgh Steelers.

And, before Chuck Noll, that typically didn't translate to many happy Sundays.

Before his dynasty of the 70s, Art Rooney, the saintly fellow with the cigar about his visage and coaster-thick lenses, was known as a "lovable loser."  In fact, the Pittsburgh Steelers had only played in one playoff game before the "Immaculate Reception," a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947.

How long ago had that been? To put it in perspective, the preceding game pitted the Steelers against the Boston Yanks

Players are often measured by numbers, while teams are judged on two letters, namely "W" and "L" with an infrequent "T" occasionally—and quite oddly in today's game—thrown into the mix. In that regard, the Steelers may have been lackluster alphabetically.

Nevertheless, the fans' loyalty to their gridiron "gaffe gang" was undying. No matter the scoreboard, the fans in the Steel City have always been winners ("W!"). Loving their team in even the worst of times, Steelers Country had humbling roots, filled with many losing seasons for the franchise. To hear people recall the early days seems like a recap in complete and utter futility. Yet, the people of Pittsburgh weren't always treated to bad football prior to the 70s, despite the dominant perception of even the most loyal, educated fans. 

A few winning seasons were sprinkled onto the sullied Sunday sundae.

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In fact, the 1960s began with great promise, with a set of winning seasons understandably lost in an illustrious history that is now dominated by much bigger successes. Coach Buddy Parker oversaw a unit that finished with a 9-5 record in '62, following the rare winning campaign with another (7-4-3) in '63. 

Now winning, fans were even more easily able to delight in the talents of John Henry Johnson, their own eventual Hall of Fame running back whose illustrious career was quite simply given an unfortunate chronological placement in team history. An easy way to determine the depth and knowledge of a Steelers fan is to ask them to name their top running backs in team history and acknowledge each candidate before ranking them.

If J.H.J. isn't at least in the selection process, that fan could use a further appreciation for team history.

With high expectations in 1964, Parker was hoping to finally lead his club to the playoffs. Unfortunately, a mere five-win season ended the team's winning stretch. They wouldn't have a winning campaign again until the arrival of "Emperor Chaz."  However, they didn't end the '64 campaign without getting in a few good licks on some stiff competition.

In regards to the fondness of the memories held by those blessed enough to have experienced the era, two games stand out over the rest: a win over the Giants, who had lost the NFL Championship Game one year earlier, and victory over the Browns, the eventual 1964 NFL champions.

New York came to Pitt Stadium in Week 2 to face a squad hungry for revenge. Months earlier, the Steelers missed out on the playoffs and a potential championship when they lost to the Giants in the last game, 33-17. While Pittsburgh had beaten the Giants 31-0 earlier in the season, the mesmerizing Tittle did not play.

In the season-ending contest,Tittle, who had led the Giants to three straight championship games (all losses), riddled the Steelers. With numbers of a likeness to the modern day, Tittle's 308 yards and three touchdowns helped deliver a caveman-style beatdown on Pittsburgh—big bat and all.

The angry Steelers had lost their opener to Deacon Jones and the L.A. Rams—a 26-14 loss in California that saw quarterback Ed Brown complete only 9-of-28 attempts with two interceptions. Even more disconcerting was the lack of a run game against the stout Rams defensive front, and J.H.J. could only accumulate 44 rushing yards.

The offense's performance would not make great strides against New York. However, the defense would make a huge play against the legendary passer, changing the game's momentum and the entire tide of the Giants team.

An interception touchdown and two-yard scoring run had the Giants ahead 14-0 after the first quarter.  Deep in his own end, the defending league MVP Tittle dropped back, hoping to lead the team to a commanding 21-0 advantage.

Instead, Y.A.'s career—at least its competitive phase—would essentially end with one brutalizing hit.

Defensive end John Baker came unimpeded off the line of scrimmage, nailing Tittle in the midsection just as he released his grip of the football in the passing motion.

The ball fluttered into the air. Tackle Chuck Hinton snagged the pigskin and delivered momentum in spades to Pitt Stadium, cutting the Giants' edge to 14-6 after a missed extra point. 

The defense, which included Pro Bowlers Charlie Bradshaw (Hinton's adjacent tackle) and linebacker Myron Pottios, celebrated. The Giants' sideline was in shock, but the look of dejection was not conjured exclusively by the stunning score.

Instead, the image of a collapsed hero, battered and bloodied, on his knees in the end zone was symbolic of the immediate decline of a proud team and quarterback. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Morris Berman captured an image that will endure endlessly in sports lore.  Tittle is on his knees, his helmet ripped off and blood dribbling down his bald head, seemingly staring into space.

It's a caption that begs for introspection. It speaks to a man at his most vulnerable point. After struggling through '64 with career-threatening injuries and affected play, Tittle (with a whisper in his ear from his wife) would call it quits and retire after the season. He admits (see the link) that the devastating hit from Baker made him gun-shy in the pocket for the remainder of his few leftover playing days, rendering him fearful of another vicious shot.

The image, which can be seen displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is aptly titled "Fallen Giant."

In the moment, the proud man forced himself up off the end-zone grass, ready to make the effort in spite of his medical circumstance to rally his teammates and respond. 

Instead, with passes skipping off the ground short of their targets and leaving Tittle's arm prematurely with the first sense of trouble, Y.A. looked like something he had not displayed ever before in his playing days: done.

He suffered a cracked sternum, concussion and separation of rib cage from muscle. And, for crying out loud, the poor guy lost his helmet during the hit. 

That moment, which was beautifully captured as a poignant snapshot in time, serves as a defining bookend for the imminent twilight of Tittle's career.

To end the first half, Johnson caught his only pass of the game, a two-yard touchdown to pull Pittsburgh within one point of New York, 14-13.

After halftime, the Giants wisely pulled Tittle from the contest, and backup Gary Wood's effort—though admirable—simply would not be enough. Wood would finish 7-of-18 with an interception, remarkably similar to Tittle's 7-of-16 performance, also including the aforementioned pick.

Rushing touchdowns were exchanged by Pittsburgh quarterback Ed Brown and Giants runner Dick James, who led all rushers in the game with 67 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Brown gave the excited Steelers fans an encore performance, scooting past the pylon for a one-yard scrambling score, and Pittsburgh led 27-21. 

James and Wood did all they could to rally the G-Men. Instead of touchdowns, two promising drives fell short of the goal line, resulting in a pair of field goal attempts.

While Don Chandler's 21-yard field goal cut the score to 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter, his second effort from 37 yards went wide in the final moments. The Giants were unable to tie the score, losing 27-24.

Symbolic of Tittle's fall from grace, the Giants finished 1964 with a 2-10-2 record.

The 1-1 Steelers had momentum. Three weeks later, they still carried a .500 record. Not only did the Black and Gold hope to improve their mark to a more golden standard, they wanted to erase the black eye given to them by Cleveland. 

While the Steelers had begun to occasionally defeat the Browns, including a trio of narrow wins in the early decade, the 50s and 60s mostly saw Cleveland taking a cleaver into the pitied Pittsburgh. It wasn't unusual for the Browns to win big.

Think of the 60s as the current year, 2012, but swap the team's current success rates!

If Pittsburgh had any hope to defeat a championship Browns squad, two things would have to happen.

First, the defense would have to contain bruising runner Jim Brown.

Secondly, John Henry Johnson would have to shake off his early season funk and run effectively. To that point, Johnson had yet to crack 60 yards in any of the team's first four games. He was surely a veteran at 35 years old, but the Steelers needed his dependable motor to start running!

Making matters worse was that the team would be traveling to Municipal Stadium—their own personal House of Horrors.

At least Pittsburgh would be avoiding automatic Otto Graham by little more than a decade, and that seemed to be the only silver lining in a game pitted as a mismatch. Graham had led the Browns to 10 straight championship games, including seasons from both the AAFC and the NFL.

Cleveland, every bit as strong as their reputation in '64, would go on to win the NFL championship, obliterating Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, 27-0. Steelers fans should know the name Unitas—the illustrious quarterback that the Black and Gold selected in the 1955 NFL draft, only to dispatched. 

With a horseshoe on his head instead of hypocycloids, Unitas made one hell of a career!

Conversely, Ed Brown wasn't exactly the quarterbacking envy of teams, even in the early 60s. On this day, he did avoid mistakes, completing an impressive 9-of-11 attempts with no turnovers.

The formula for a huge upset was simple: Brown allowed J.H.J. to have a career game from behind him, then stood on the sidelines to admire one of the team's greatest defensive performances ever.

With steady winds blowing on the crisp October night, the Saturday crowd at Municipal Stadium was not treated to a delightful start. Instead, they witnessed a frightful one!

Pittsburgh opened play with a field goal—a result that would seem merciful in retrospect following a night of complete Black and Gold domination.

Next, a defense that included corners Brady Keys and Dick Haley, tackles Chuck Hinton and Charlie Bradshaw and Pro Bowl linebacker Myron Pottios, began the game of their lives.

The Browns quickly went three-and-out. 

John Henry Johnson began his brutalizing assault. Glances and blows by defenders off his legs and shoulders were repeated as J.H.J. (Jack Hammer Johnny?) smashed away at Browns defenders, which included Pro Bowlers Jim Houston (LB), Dick Modzelewski (T) and Bill Glass (DE).

From the Cleveland 33-yard line, a punishing Johnson run up the middle and over defenders, including Modzelewski, ended with a touchdown.

Pittsburgh led 10-0. Against an opponent of such high caliber, the stunning start was a surprise to many, including Steel City locals. The question remained:

When will the bubble burst?

Instead of any bubbles, the Browns hogs, along both the offensive and defensive fronts, did the bursting.

Another lackluster Cleveland drive ended in three plays. Five more Pittsburgh plays followed, capped by a 45-yard touchdown run by Johnson on a physical jaunt off the left side. Nearing the end zone, he raced against the Cleveland secondary toward the pylon, which he sprinted past for the score.

With Pittsburgh ahead 16-0, Cleveland hoped to at least secure their 16th YARD of the contest.  Without a single first down, the Browns were completely idle. 

The running game was going nowhere for Cleveland, and Jim Brown was entirely bottled up. Browns quarterback Frank Ryan would have to muster up the momentum for his squad, an endeavor in which he succeeded in the second quarter.

Aside from Jim Brown out of the backfield, Ryan's two main targets were wide receivers Paul Warfield (52 rec, 920 yds, nine TD) and Gary Collins (35 rec, 544 yds, eight TD). The latter was the recipient on an 18-yard scoring strike, and Cleveland only trailed 16-7 at intermission in a game that could have been far worse.

With only five first downs, most expected the Ohioans' offense to pick up the pace after halftime, but the Steelers defense stopped Cleveland's opening threat. Then, a bruising run attack made sure their offense wouldn't get another redemptive chance until after the issue was nearly settled.

Pittsburgh embarked on an 80-yard touchdown march on their first possession of the second half, chewing up seven precious minutes of game clock. With nearly all of the third quarter elapsed, J.H.J. drove a pile of humanity into the end zone from the four-yard line.

The scoreboard read: Steelers 23, Browns 7. In 1964, with no two-point conversion to aid the miraculous, this truly meant Cleveland trailed by three scores. 

The miraculous comeback, amazing half-time adjustment and wicked vengeance predicated by many at intermission never came for the Browns offense. And, just as in the first half, the Cleveland defense realized just how great an effective John Henry Johnson could be. 

Pittsburgh won, and the score held at 23-7. The Steelers outrushed the Browns 354-96.

Johnson finished with 30 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns. It was a team record for running yards in one game, eclipsing his own mark of 182 yards in 1960. Likewise, the total tally set the high mark for rushing yards to that point in the 1964 NFL season, overtaking the Vikings' Tommy Mason's early season effort by a difference of a whopping 63 yards.

Conversely, the great Jim Brown went nowhere. While he had another legendary campaign, featuring 1,446 rushing yards and over five yards per attempt, the popularly (and accurately) heralded "best running back in NFL history" could only muster 59 yards, though he did provide 77 receiving yards. 

He was responsible for 136 yards of the team's 217-yard total in the game. So, while he was ineffective, he was still the most effective Browns player, further illustrating the great night had by the Pittsburgh defense. 

It was a sneak preview of coming attractions, but better days certainly weren't immediate ones. The team wouldn't have a winning season again until 1972—a pivotal, keystone year in franchise history. In 1964, the team only won two more games despite their 3-2 start.

Still, in those days, fans took exhilaration where it could be found, and it was available on two wonderful, albeit rare, games. Five times, and particularly twice, the beloved "Chief" could stand poised with his stogy, proudly admiring the view of one helluva' win.

For Cleveland, the raw loss was not a preview of anything in store for them in the coming months. In fact, the loss served as a mere aberration. A trip to Pittsburgh saw a 30-17 win for the eventual champs, anchored by Jim Brown's 149 rushing yards.

Dick Hoak, who contributed 23 rushing yards in the Pittsburgh win, spoke to Pittsburgh's first effort. In the book From Black to Gold by author Tim Gleason, Hoak is quoted as follows:

"Our linebackers were all hurt. We couldn't even field enough of them. We came up with a gimmick defense that featured five defensive linemen and two linebackers. Our linemen played great. The Browns couldn't figure out how to attack us."

Whether this is true or not can be debated. If it is a credible explanation, perhaps, the rest of the NFL should have adopted the game plan.  

After all, Cleveland would end the season with 27 unanswered second-half points in an NFL championship beat down of Baltimore (Colts).

So, in a manner of speaking, the fans up by the shores of Lake Erie can always take some solace in the spanking administered by the Browns on the city that would eventually seize the original franchise, whose namesake remains in Cleveland.

Still, that was a long time ago.

Back then, a Steelers blowout over Cleveland was described as a fluke or miracle. Today, Pittsburgh beatings of the Browns have a new descriptor—semiannual.

 

****************************************************************************

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. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, @ New England Patriots

Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, @ Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, @ New York Giants

Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 & 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns

Vol. 5: A Rivalry Remembered; 2000, vs. Oakland Raiders

Vol. 6: Wild Win in the Windy City; 1995, @ Chicago Bears

Vol. 7: Eighteen Wins, One Loss; 1984, @ San Francisco 49ers


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