Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Colts vs. Steelers, 1975

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Colts vs. Steelers, 1975
Image courtesy of steelers.com

December 27, 1975 was a notable day in the Steel City for a few historic reasons, the most exhilarating of which was the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers playoff win over the Baltimore Colts.

Other reasons included a playoff record that still stands...

And, well... I guess one could say that a hero was born. So to speak.

On the day listed as 27-Dec-75, Steeler Nation met arguably its most iconic creation, a little yellow piece of cloth that would grow from its infancy into a team staple that is not absent from the home of any true Steelers fan.

The moon...

The Great Wall...

The White House...

The Eiffel Tower...

What do these places all have in common?  Many would say the Terrible Towel has encountered them.

They would be wrong.

The correct answer is: They've all encountered the Terrible Towel!

When sportscaster and beloved team enthusiast (Yoi! That may be understating it profoundly!) Myron Cope was asked to conjure up a gimmick, he replied to the requesting parties, "I'm not a gimmick guy!"

Image courtesy of louisianasportstalk.com

As it turned out, Cope was speaking to bosses at WTAE. Vice President and General Manager, Ted J. Atkins and President of Sales, Larry Garrett replied to Cope bluntly, stating their belief that such a creation would be great fodder for his upcoming contract renewal.

Suddenly, Cope was a gimmick guy.

The towel was to be unveiled during the Divisional Playoffs. The 12-2 defending champs were preparing to host the Baltimore Colts, who had rallied from a 1-4 start to win the Eastern Division and make the playoffs. 

Ted Marchibroda, who began his career one year earlier, started with a 3-16 record before winning his final nine games of the 1975 regular season.

With a surprisingly tough, even "Cinderalla," opponent headed to town, many fans wondered if the new "gimmick" would be viewed as a jinx if the team lost.

Likewise, many players weren't keen on the newest members of the Steelers family. Andy Russell let Cope know his feelings, stating, "We're not a gimmick team. We've never been a gimmick team."

Little did Russell, one of the towel's biggest critics, know that the birth of the Terrible Towel would ironically coincide with the most memorable play of his career. If Myron Cope's brain child didn't have the proper promotion behind it, supporting the commentator's claims of its supernatural powers, it was soon going to get a heavy dose of fertilizer!

The Colts, a squad who hadn't thrown in the towel despite a tough start, were in the midst of a fast, unlikely rise to contention. They were on such a roll that, allegedly, famous broadcaster Howard Cosell picked the team as a dark horse to go to Super Bowl X. 

According to linebacker Stan White:

"Howard Cosell picked us as his dark horse to get to the Super Bowl! We were on such a roll, we really thought we would win."

Quarterback Bert Jones had a career year, wide receiver Glenn Doughty was one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the game and versatile back Lydell Mitchell was dangerous in all elements of the game, a rarity for a time dominated by conventional straight-forward running backs.  The offense ranked second in the NFL in scoring. Don McCauley and Mitchell combined for 21 rushing touchdowns along with five more scores in the passing game.

In addition to a dangerous offense, the Baltimore defense improved as the season went along. Beyond Stan White and his eight interceptions, players such as corners Lloyd Mumphord and Nelson Munsey, linebackers Tom MacLeod and the legendary Mike Curtis, safety Jackie Wallace and lone Pro-Bowler John Dutton helped solidify a unit that ranked 10th in points surrendered.

Nevertheless, to move on to the AFC Championship Game, the Colts would have to win at Three Rivers Stadium, which was the equivalent of being baptized in fire in the 70's. In fact, the venue was nicknamed "The Blast Furnace," and the team only lost one playoff game at their home during the decade.

When you have players like L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth...well, we all know the names. And, to finish that sentence, it's no coincidence teams struggled.

In addition to the cast of characters on the other side of the line of scrimmage, Baltimore would have to overcome a spooky force throughout the stands.

Today, fans know that T.J. Houshmandzadeh, LenDale White and many others have felt the wrath of a disrespected T.T. (Terrible Towel, for short...if you're cool, that is!)

However, it didn't take years for the body of evidence to build in support of T.T.'s terrible tampering with the opposition.

In fact, it only took four plays.

Bert Jones dropped back to pass, but supreme coverage forced him to step up into the pocket, away from pressure coming from the outside and around the tackles. Unfortunately, he didn't account for the stunt of Jack Ham, who drilled Jones just as corner J.T. Thomas made it into the backfield.

Thomas's cleat came down on Jones' right arm, which swelled like a tennis ball about the elbow. Jones, barely able to lift the limb, was taken from the game. 

Immediately, one of the most proficient passing attacks was rendered obsolete, and backup Marty Domres was going to prove Jones' worth.

In all, Domres would complete two passes across three quarters of work, largely due to the decision of head coach Ted Marchibroda to defer aggressiveness in favor of a conservative offensive approach. While Marchibroda was the AP, Sporting News and UPI AFC Coach of the Year, the fatal injury gave him little choice but to adjust his game plan drastically.

With Lydell Mitchell and the running attack rendered anemic, it was no wonder the Colts could not generate offense throughout the game. In all, they gained 154 yards.

The total was a lone yard greater than the then-AFC playoff record performance of Franco Harris, who ran for a hard-earned 153 yards.

While he only completed two passes, four of Domres' throws were caught. Translation: two fatal interceptions on eleven attempts accurately reflected the inability of Domres to lead the offense.

The first interception came early in the first quarter, courtesy of linebacker Jack Ham.

Terry Bradshaw connected with Frank Lewis on the critical play of a subsequent 61-yard response. The 34-yard reception by Lewis was an amazing one-handed grab that set the Steelers up for their first score of the game.

Franco Harris popped pads with defensive tackle Mike Barnes before bouncing off of the would-be tackler and getting into the end zone. 

Pittsburgh led 7-0. They had injured the opposition's field general. They were shutting down the Colts' running attack. They had gotten into the head of Baltimore by forcing an early turnover. And, they had the swagger of the defending champions.

If this was to translate into a scoreboard advantage as well, the football gods were not hearing any of it for three quarters.

Ahead by a touchdown in the second quarter, Terry Bradshaw—who had foregone the passing game in favor of Harris' dominating attack—attempted a rare pass. He finished the day 8-for-13, but the "Blonde Bomber" was about to accidentally detonate that bomb in his own huddle.

Punter David Lee was called into action 9 times. Image courtesy of sportsworldcards.com.

Firing down the middle, Brad was intercepted by Colts corner Lloyd Mumphard, and the Baltimore bandit who had just stolen the game's momentum headed down the sideline before being halted after a 58-yard return.

With Baltimore's hesitation to pass, the Steelers figured they would settle for a run attempt so close to the goal line. Instead, Domres faked the handoff, and the defense was completely fooled.

Glenn Doughty's five yard touchdown reception tied the score. Suddenly, a one-sided affair was a tied game, and the Colts—courtesy of a couple of timely sacks—did not allow the Black and Gold another point before intermission.

Halftime saw the teams deadlocked with a touchdown to each side. The score could not have been less indicative of the performances.

If Bradshaw felt isolated after the critical interception, he was about to gain company.

Franco Harris, who rumbled for nice yardage all game long, fumbled the football at the Pittsburgh 19-yard line. The Colts recovered.

Though they could not assert themselves offensively in any way, shape or form, a chip shot field goal gave the underdogs the lead, 10-7.

The defending champions appeared spell-bound, almost apathetic. The Colts, courtesy of Bert Jones' untimely injury, had reverted back to their previous form: A hard-luck loser barely capable of winning a game. Yet, a series of Pittsburgh miscues and a few timely (and incredibly sporadic) plays had given Baltimore the lead.

Image courtesy of wylieonessportscards.ecrater.com

In fact, the Steelers would have five turnovers in the game, not looking like the dominant 12-2 champs that had waged war on the NFL in '75.

Somebody needed to step and seize back the momentum.

And, couldn't one have just predicted it would be the defense to reclaim the swagger?

The offense stalled, unable to net a simple first down, exiting the field to a mild series of boo's and appearing aimless in doing so.

Then, Domres' dropped back for his own rare pass. Lloyd Mumphard had changed the tide of the game, but Mel Blount was about to return the favor.

With Roger Carr taken out of the game at wideout and Lydell Mitchell unable to get open intermediately, the Colts were looking to Glenn Doughty for any type of momentum in the passing game.

Mel Blount served notice: not in my territory!

Blount intercepted Domres, returning the football 20 yards and establishing an immediate goal-to-go situation for an offense that needed some cheap, quick fuel. 

Former wounded soldier Rocky Bleier, who came back from a serious leg injury in Vietnam to become one of the great backs in team history, blasted through the line and scampered into the end zone. Just like that, all was right with the world. Strange "yellow flags" (as my grandfather believed at the time when watching the game) suddenly twirled once again, and Pittsburgh led 14-10.

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Next up, L.C. Greenwood had one of his most disruptive drives as a Steeler, getting into the backfield, into the face of Domres and into a zone. His gold shoes showed up everywhere on the field, and it seemed as though he and the football were magnetically attracted throughout the game.

The Colts, whose offensive woes were no longer being hidden by Pittsburgh breakdowns, were forced to punt. Baltimore's David Lee punted nine times, more than twice the attempts of the Steelers' Bobby Walden. 

He saved his worst effort at a time that best broke Baltimore's spirit. The shanked special teams effort gave the Steelers more ideal field position, and the offense continued to accept gifts.

This time, Terry Bradshaw showed off athleticism that is not as well-revered historically as it should be, avoiding tacklers and shiftily maneuvering for a two-yard score.

Suddenly, with the Colts trailing 21-10, Baltimore knew something had to change and quickly, or their season would be over.

Enter: Bert Jones.

If Jones' arm was bum, it was not apparent in the fourth quarter. Jones valiantly came off the bench and began a rallying strike, driving the Colts into Steelers territory on a march that featured more completed passes than his counterpart accomplished all game.

As Baltimore approached midfield, it was Glenn Doughty who had the best of the defense this time, hauling in a 58-yard pass that seemingly set Baltimore up for a deficit-cutting T.D. After all, the ball was at the 3-yard line.

Instead of a set-up for a gap-closer, the long strike merely positioned...HISTORY.

Jack Ham got to Jones, who fumbled the football. The pigskin bounced on the turf and began to wobble backwards. 

Next would come the play that ranked no. 7 on a countdown of the greatest Three Rivers Stadium moments on the team website.

Andy Russell scooped it up. Thus began the play that Sports Illustrated would describe as the "longest, slowest touchdown ever witnessed."

Russell, reflecting back on the NFL playoff record 93-yard fumble return, fondly remembers the chastising and jesting that came from teammates during the play:

"That play has been a source of embarrassment for me for years. There have been so many jokes. Ray Mansfield was the one that said NBC cut to a commercial during the return and came back to catch me score the touchdown. Nonetheless, it was a memorable play in my career."

On the play, Bert Jones nearly caught up to Russell...three times! Unfortunately, the Steelers' defenders were prepared to put the game away, and their effective blocking prevented anyone from catching Russell, including Jones. The quarterback was blocked each of the trio of times he attempted to bring down the returner.

The famous touchdown return capped Pittsburgh's three touchdown response in the second half, and the Steelers won 28-10. 

Many credited the blocking for the huge play, citing the defense's aggressiveness and execution as being symbolic of the desire to win.

Lisa Benz, a local Steelers fan, accredited a different source. She wrote Myron Cope, explaining her interpretation of the play...with a poem!

"He ran ninety-three
like a bat out of hell,
And no one could see
How he rambled so well.
'It was easy,' said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
'I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!'"

I can only imagine that Cope wholeheartedly agreed with this perspective. The towel was indeed poised to strike! The Steelers went on to win their second consecutive world championship over the Dallas Cowboys. 

"Yoi and double yoi!" A dynasty was being born.

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

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 1-10, please check out my writer's profile!

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

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

Vol. 10: Jerry G. and Emperor C.; 1988 and 1989, at Houston Oilers

Vol. 11: "We Dey!"; 2006 at Cincinnati Bengals

Vol. 12: Buffaloed Bills; 1974 and 1996, vs. Buffalo Bills

Vol. 13: Marino vs. Tomczak; 1994, vs. Miami Dolphins

Vol. 14: Cowboy Collapses; 2004 and 2008, vs. Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 15: First Rounders and the Fifty-Two; 1984, vs. San Diego Chargers

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