The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1980's were a team in transition. No longer were the Black and Gold as dominant as yesteryear, during an era that yielded four Lombardi Trophies and possibly the most dominant dynasty in NFL history.
Nevertheless, the "lost decade" for the modern Steelers was still a winning 10-year stretch, but clearly, it was a time of confusion for fans. Expectations were still high, but the results no longer satisfied a town now labelled "The City of Champions."
Who could blame anyone for being confused? After all, the team was a hodgepodge of legendary icons from those Super Bowl winning teams along with fresh, young faces looking to help the franchise turn the corner into a force for the 80's.
Faces that reflected the wonder years included Mike Webster, still dominant at the keystone position of the offensive line.
Likewise, John Stallworth, who was returning in 1984 despite a popularly predicted retirement following a season lost to injury in '83, led the AFC in yards and reception during his comeback campaign. In doing so, he became the all-time leading pass catcher and touchdown receiver in team history.
And, perhaps most notably, Jack Lambert was continuing to cool opponents "you know what's" off as a dominant wrecking ball and frenetic force at linebacker...
That is, until an opening day injury hindered the rest of his career. A severe and recurring turf toe effectively ended his playing days. Fans watched as the current nine-consecutive season Pro Bowl selection hobbled off the field during a sad 34-24 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs
The question on everyone's mind was universal: Who is going to step up to fill the void?
Thankfully, those "new" Steelers faces mentioned above rallied and performed, bolstering the Steelers to a top-10 scoring offense and defense and anchoring the team to a winning record and eventual trip to the AFC Championship Game.
If fans around the NFL were stunned by the eventual AFC Central-winning 1984 Steelers, the players in the locker room certainly were not surprised.
Among the fresh faces that assisted in keeping the Steelers in the winning frame of mind were David Little, the protege to Jack Lambert.
Likewise, Mike Merriweather, a ferocious young linebacker, joined Robin Cole as Pro Bowl selections at the position.
Additionally, a trio of first-round draft picks would, at least momentarily in the case of one, prove their worthiness.
Mark Malone, the team's top selection in 1980, took over for a struggling David Woodley, rallying a 3-4 Steelers squad to the postseason.
Walter Abercrombie, top pick from '82, averaged four yards per carry and ran well in a number of key spots.
And, sensational rookie and top pick Louis Lipps averaged 19 yards per catch with nine touchdowns in easily earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
At no point did the three top selections referenced above ever come together in one game with such staggering force as they did in a critical contest on November 25, 1984.
The 6-6 Steelers were easily on the precipice of either complete collapse or a division championship, pending where momentum would take them. The schedule-makers gave them the San Diego Chargers, and the matchup and result would breed confidence leading to the latter fate.
The Chargers still featured a potent offense that evoked fear in secondaries and entire defenses around the NFL. They featured the AFC's top runner to that point of '84 in Earnest Jackson, a pair of deadly receivers in Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, dangerous and declining Kellen Winslow and...
Well, everybody knows about the strong arm of Dan Fouts, as well as the take-no-prisoners attitude of the quarterback whose training camp t-shirt read "M.F.I.C." For the sake of the children, I will not elaborate on the meaning!
Under coach Don Coryell, the Chargers were a high-scoring outfit known as "Air Coryell."
Everyone in the league knew beating San Diego, whose winning ways had been lost in the previous two seasons due to a slight decline in scoring and utter futility defensively, meant staying ahead of its capable offense.
Thankfully, everyone in the league also knew about the worst secondary in the NFL... and that included the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On a pivotal turning point day for the '84 Steelers, confidence would be bred, victory will be had and records would be set!
Right off the bat, Pittsburgh linebacker Mike Merriweather made an impact, recovering a Chargers fumble and setting up the only points of the first quarter. With the league's best place-kicker rocketing footballs from his foot in the Steel City, Pittsburgh became a place where plays like Gary Anderson's opening 55-yard field goal became expected.
The Steelers defense established to the Chargers early that the running game was not a viable option. Keith Willis, Edmund Nelson, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle and Merriweather—among others—were the AFC's best run defense, and leading AFC rusher Earnest Jackson was running into the equivalent of a brick wall. He finished with 10 rushes for 23 yards.
With the run attack completely enveloped, the Steelers secondary could focus its assault on the vaunted Chargers passing game. By game's end, the unit would turn San Diego's aerial assault into an "aerial insult," intercepting San Diego passers (more on that later) four times.
Early in the second quarter, the Chargers shifted a coverage to take John Stallworth, who would finish with arguably the finest regular season game of his career, out of a play. With so much attention on the deadly dynasty receiver, Mark Malone spotted his stud rookie, Louie Lipps, running open down the middle of the field.
Lipps' diving score gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead.
Next came the first of those four Chargers interceptions, the only one accredited to Dan Fouts. Almost predictably, Mike Merriweather dropped into coverage, confusing Fouts and forcing the turnover.
The Steelers offense retook possession, and they continued to do everything that the Chargers could not accomplish.
The offensive line dominated the San Diego defensive front, shifting and maneuvering them like the bottom-feeding defensive unit that they were. Men named Webster, Ilkin, Wolfley and Long opened gaping holes for Pittsburgh runners, who rushed for 202 yards.
The running effort included a career-high total for rookie Walter Abercrombie, whose 19 attempts for 109 yards led the team.
While Abercrombie had the most rushing yards, Frank Pollard, who finished with an impressive 79 yards himself, scored two rushing touchdowns. In both instances, Pollard got into the end zone behind the domineering center Mike Webster, effective trap blocking, and a bulldozer fullback.
Anthony Corley cracked helmets in the A-gap, allowing Pollard to burst over the goal line. Anderson's extra point gave Pittsburgh a 17-0 lead.
After Lipps' initial score, the Steelers passing game found its receivers open with utter frequency. Unable to shadow Stallworth exclusively, the Chargers secondary became listless.
Already ahead 17-3, Mark Malone's 30-yard touchdown strike to a wide open Stallworth gave the Black and Gold a commanding 24-3 lead. Chargers corners Gill Byrd and John Turner were burnt on both of the first two Steelers passing scores, and their woes were not finished.
Trailing by 17 points, matters worsened for San Diego when Dan Fouts was nailed in the backfield by Merriweather and defensive end Keith Gary. A groin injury forced the most viable hope for a Chargers comeback from the game.
If this was the tipping point where the Steelers were about to put the game away, fate had an ironic and far different idea in mind...
If San Diego could play either quarterback on their best day in their prime, who should they choose?
Pittsburgh's offense was forced off the field in a rare success on the afternoon for San Diego's defense, and the Steelers were forced to punt with 21 seconds left in the first half. The results would be disastrous.
Lionel James shifted his way through the wave of humanity, returning the punt 58 yards for San Diego's only touchdown before halftime. The stunned Three Rivers Stadium crowd, more than ready to hit the concession stands and restrooms with a three-touchdown advantage, watched in disbelief as the Chargers gained momentum that the team had in no way earned through 29 minutes, 50 seconds of first-half play.
If the shock had worn after halftime, the unwelcome feeling would quickly reappear throughout the venue. On the third play of the third quarter, backup quarterback Ed Luther temporarily took on the form of his mentor, Dan Fouts. Whereas Fouts had no first-half success, Luther found Wes Chandler deep down the middle of the field, burning the Pittsburgh secondary for a 63-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, within a 90-second span of game time, the 24-3 Steelers lead dwindled to 24-17. It was anybody's game on the scoreboard.
Offensive tackle Ray Snell reflected on his thoughts of the game's vital tipping point, speaking about the San Diego offense:
"It's amazing what that offense can do with the football. I was thinking, 'Damn, how many points do we need for these son-of-a-guns to be out of the game?'"
Who could blame anyone for such apprehensions?
Only months earlier, in the 1982-83 Divisional Playoffs, the Chargers completely unraveled early in the game, allowing the Steelers to score after a muffed opening kickoff. By the end of the first quarter, Pittsburgh led 14-3 before a raucous Three Rivers Stadium. Early in the fourth, Pittsburgh's edge remained 11 points, 28-17.
Terry Bradshaw was still the quarterback, many of the dynastic faces from the 70's remained, and there was still hope in the Steel City that the heyday of that roster wasn't over.
However, the roof caved in at the end of the game. Dan Fouts threw a pair of touchdowns to end the Steelers' season, and the Chargers won, 31-28. It was the type of home letdown in the postseason that "those Steelers" hadn't allowed before.
It was a sign of a changing in the guard.
Luckily for the stunned fans in attendance, history was not going to repeat itself on this day. The Black and Gold were about to showcase that the contest was never "anybody's game" in reality. And frankly, Ed Luther- despite flashes of aplomb- was about to demonstrate that he was no Dan Fouts.
The Steelers immediately responded to San Diego's "charge" with muscle, engineering an eight-play, 73-yard drive. The start of the march came on the ground, causing the Chargers to creep toward the line of scrimmage. Abercrombie's consistent gains brought the Steelers past midfield.
Then, with the secondary wide open, "Hot Lipps" hauled in a 43-yard pass from Malone, who would finished 18-for-22 on the afternoon. The superb completion percentage set a Steelers record at the time, eclipsing the record 81.3 percent rate established by Terry Bradshaw against the '75 Oilers.
The long hook-up between first-round picks set up a two-yard touchdown plunge by Frank Pollard, once again set up behind superb blocking. Mike Webster paved the way, and Pollard followed fullback Elton Veals into the end zone. Pittsburgh led 31-17.
Next up, a rookie and a veteran took turns dismantling any hope of a San Diego comeback.
On a pair of third-quarter possessions, the Chargers were victimized by rookie Steelers corner Chris Brown. First, Brown intercepted Luther for the first pick of his career, returning the pick 31 yards. Next, he deflected another pass in the secondary that found the waiting arms of free safety Eric Williams.
The turnover set up two possessions that ended the competitive phase of the game.
With a chance to reclaim the points lost around intermission, and then some, the Steelers would show that classic killer instinct that had been lost in Pittsburgh in recent days. And, who better to be the engineer of a back-breaking set of touchdowns than John Stallworth, whose heroics had secured the Steelers latest Super Bowl win over the Rams?
First, Stallworth forced a 46-yard pass interference penalty on Lucious Smith, setting up 1st-and-goal.
Next came the first of two devastating touchdowns.
The score came as the Steelers were in the midst of calling a trap run. Malone was told by his receiver that he could beat corner Gill Byrd on a hook play.
The result was no contest, and Stallworth's second touchdown from five yards gave Pittsburgh an impressive 38-17 lead.
Next, as the third quarter approached its waning seconds, Mark Malone and the offense drove toward another touchdown, but an untimely sack-penalty combo forced the unit into long down and distance from 45-yards out.
Malone felt the offense needed to pick up sufficient yardage for a field-goal attempt. Stallworth insisted on a streak down the left sideline.
After consultation between coach Chuck Noll and Malone, it was time to go deep.
This time, Stallworth torched the other San Diego corner, beating John Turner deep down the left sideline for a wide-open touchdown bomb.
Headed to the fourth quarter, the stunned Chargers—who played as poorly as a team can for the final 14 minutes of the stanza—were suddenly completely buried. From a miraculous rally to a complete meltdown, San Diego was now feeling the same sting that Steelers Country experienced after halftime.
The only difference? Now, the game was over.
If San Diego took any solace from the rest of the second half, it was in the accomplishments of Charlie Joiner. Joiner caught six passes after halftime, needing four to surpass the Washington Redskins' Charley Taylor as the leading pass receiver in league history at the time.
Joiner's 651 career receptions became an NFL record on that cold, windy November day at Three Rivers Stadium.
It was also Joiner who capped scoring. After a Malone rushing touchdown made the score a 52-17 laugher, Joiner's 25-yard pass from Ed Luther made the final 52-24.
Ed Luther finished 21-for-32, with 256 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
The game was a circus affair, featuring 51 first downs, nearly 900 combined yards and a multitude of big plays. Thankfully, most of the excitement benefited the Steelers, whose five forced turnovers were the difference in the game. Conversely, Pittsburgh had no giveaways.
The 52 points scored were a record in the Chuck Noll era, eclipsing a 51-35 final score from a 1979 victory over the hated Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers used the confidence bred from their most decisive win in years to win two of their final three contests and clinch the AFC Central Division Championship.
The team engineered an upset win in the Divisional Playoffs at Denver, preventing an expected Marino vs. Elway showdown in the AFC Championship. However, turnovers killed the Steelers, who succumbed to record-setting Marino in the AFC title tile, 45-28.
Oddly enough, in 1987, the San Diego Chargers sought after a quarterback to replace the legendary Dan Fouts. Whether they were influenced by their 1984 beatdown is debatable, but the franchise acquired none other than Mark Malone!!
Malone, who was brought in by the Steelers as a possible heir apparent to Terry Bradshaw, fought through injuries and played inconsistently in San Diego. Ultimately, despite flashes of brilliance, he failed to replace either legendary signal-caller.
Still, in my opinion...he's one hell of a sportscaster on ESPN! And, can anybody other than Burt Reynolds sport the mustache with so much machismo?
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!
Periodically throughout 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. For links to volumes 1-9, please check out my writer's profile!
Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, at New England
Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, at Dallas Cowboys
Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, at New York Giants
Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 and 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns
Vol. 5: A Rivalry Remembered; 2000, vs. Oakland Raiders
Vol. 6: Wild Win in the Windy City; 1995, at Chicago Bears
Vol. 7: Eighteen Wins, One Loss; 1984, at San Francisco 49ers
Vol. 8: Falling Giants; 1964, vs. New York Giants and at Cleveland Browns
Vol. 9: Elvis (Grbac) Has Left the Building; 2002, vs. Baltimore Ravens