Pittsburgh Steelers 80th Anniversary: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 4)
The Pittsburgh Steelers have created a bond with their fans through eight decades of Steel City football. Through thick and thin, warm memories enrich the past for those who have journeyed with the Black and Gold, and the rich annual tradition reached a supreme milestone in 2012, the team's 80th anniversary.
Over time, the "Steelers way," as it is known, has become defined by a number of adjectives that are associated with the heartbeat of a loyal, blue-collar community:
Though the NFL is changing into a more pass-oriented game, the labels above will continue to serve as virtues in the mind of the franchise and its fans, helping to characterize the uniqueness that makes the Steelers brand so grand.
Even during the early losing seasons, the team and fans still took pride in helping the opposition remember who they played for days beyond the game. Yet, the last four decades has added another word to the above list, one that serves as an adjective and verb, catapulting the status of a team that was once dubbed "lovable losers" into the pantheon of greatness: winning.
Today's young fans, like those adolescents blessed to grow up in the '70s, are fortunate to enjoy one of the most exciting and successful eras in team history, and the Black and Gold hope that their 80th season continues their modern wave of rampant success, one week and one victory at a time.
As this campaign unfolds, take time to savor each moment, but also take a moment to look back on the wonderful history that 2012 serves to build upon. As a knowledge of the team's past only helps to enrich the experience for the team's best fans, this series takes a look back at 80 grand seasons of pigskin, a passage of time that includes:
...and 46 Super Bowls! It's hard for young fans today to imagine an NFL without "Super Sunday," but the Black and Gold played on the gridiron for 33 seasons before the National Football League held its first title tilt against the American Football League, then dubbed the NFL-AFL World Championship game. Since then, the two leagues merged in 1970, the Super Bowl earned its lofty status in American culture and the Pittsburgh Steelers played in (eight, tied with Dallas) and won (six) more of those contests then any other franchise.
Throughout the 2012 season, this series will take a look back at every season of Steelers football. From 1933 to 2012 (in no particular order), each of the 16 volumes will showcase five seasons from the rich tradition until every campaign has been remembered. Honoring the team's 80th anniversary, we will be looking back at the key memories that defined every year, whether a single play, a remarkable player, a legendary game or a timeless theme.
After honoring all 79 past seasons of Steelers football, the series will culminate with an inside look at the one chapter that has yet to reveal itself: the upcoming 2012 campaign!
If you missed the first two volumes, you can access them below:
Volume 1: 1933, 1955, 1969, 1992 and 2004
Volume 2: 1943, 1964, 1970, 1994 and 2010
Volume 3: 1940, 1957, 1974, 1988, and 2001
1934: The Inspirational Uniform and the Disappointment of McNally
Despite a rocky beginning for the Steelers franchise, one element of the 1934 season that will be vividly recalled in 2012 were the jerseys. The "80th Anniversary" uniforms, which the Steelers will wear this season in honor of the franchise milestone, are inspired from the team's '34 look.
Failing to build any momentum in an inaugural 1933 season that featured eight single-digit scoring outputs, four offensive shutouts, and the lowest-ranked defense in the game, Art Rooney decided to make a coaching change.
In place of Forrest "Jap" Douds was Albert "Luby" DiMeolo, who was rumored to be in the running for the team's head job in '33, only to be passed over.
In the second season, the franchise had fielded two head coaches, and that number would continue to grow at an almost annual pace throughout the decade. 1934 proved to be no exception, as the horrendously bad Pirates finished with a 2-10 record.
The defense allowed 206 points in 12 games, a woeful total for the time, while the offense—despite dramatically improving their turnover penchant (40 interceptions) from a year earlier—was shut out six times and scored in double digits only twice.
Naturally, DiMeolo would not return in '35.
By comparison, the Detroit Lions, one of the league's better squads, outscored opponents 238-59. Additionally, the Green Bay Packers were an average team in '34, though they were an outfit building toward imminent championships. Certainly, they fielded talent far superior to the players Art Rooney had at his disposal.
This is why the city became so excited when it was discovered that one of the Packers' standout players, All-Pro Hall of Famer Johnny "Blood" McNally (lower right in caption) was bringing his talents to the Steel City! At the time, McNally sported a huge frame for a receiver. At 6'1" and 188 lbs, his combination of stature and speed along with reliable hands, made "Blood" known for his production in the passing game.
In one year as a Pirate, the anticipation of McNally's arrival proved to be unnecessary, as he finished the campaign with three runs for just as many yards along with a single measly catch.
In all, "Blood" produced a total of 13 offensive yards.
McNally would return as a player-coach for the Steelers at the end of the decade, but this was only after a return to the soon-to-be champion Packers.
1960: Welcoming the Cowboys and John Henry Johnson
After three consecutive non-losing seasons from 1957-59, the latter two of which were Hall of Fame player Bobby Layne's first two campaigns as the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh (more on that in a later volume), the Steelers proved unable to take that one extra step toward excellence. It was a haunting habit in the first half of the franchise's existence, much of which was spent on the cusp of contention.
Though the team finished the first season of an eventful and vibrant decade with a 5-6-1 record, two events from that year would later prove to be historic.
The first was the acquisition of John Henry Johnson. Before becoming a Steeler, he was a key cog in the 49ers' "Million Dollar Backfield,” which included future Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny, Y. A. Tittle and Joe Perry. Afterwards, Johnson endured two trades, the first placing him in Detroit. The next exchange put J.H.J. in the 'Burgh, where he had his best seasons.
He is a Steelers Hall of Famer and unarguably one of the most underrated running backs in NFL history. Many fans are stunned to learn that he retired fourth in all-time rushing, trailing only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Joe Perry.
The second big Steelers happening of 1960 was a christening, as the Men of Steel traveled to Texas to take on an expansion team that would quickly become one of the NFL's most popular franchises.
Today, Forbes magazine recognizes the Dallas Cowboys as football's most valuable franchise.
Indeed, the two teams that would become fierce Super Bowl combatants first met over a half-decade before the advent of Super Sunday. In an exciting opening game of the '60 season, Bobby Layne and Eddie LeBaron, Dallas' signal-caller, staged an epic shootout that ended in a Steelers comeback victory.
Two first quarter touchdown passes from LeBaron to tight ends Jim Doran and Fred Dugan spotted Dallas a 14-0 advantage. Beyond the 75-yard touchdown that served as the first score in Cowboys history, Jim Doran would be the franchise's first Pro Bowl player.
Layne would get the Steelers back into the game on the strength of his arm, firing two touchdown passes to Preston Carpenter and Jimmy Orr, respectively. Despite tying the game in the second half, a 56-yard touchdown strike from LeBaron to Doran gave Dallas a 28-21 lead in the final stanza.
Refusing to fall to the first-year franchise, Layne took control via the passing game. With the running game all but stagnant, Bobby fired two more scores. Preston Carpenter was the recipient of a 49-yard strike, and Tom Tracy caught the winning 65-yard score.
In a back-and-forth aerial affair, Pittsburgh christened the Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl, winning 35-28.
1972: The Immaculate Reception
The Steelers dynasty began winning championships in 1974-75. Their era of glory should have begun two years earlier in 1972. In fact, the winning era of Steelers football, namely the second half or latter forty years, began in '72. It was a year of hard work, an earned turnaround and an enormous miracle
The defense finished fifth in the NFL in points surrendered, and their penchant for gathering up turnovers—including 28 interceptions (team leader Jack Ham had seven picks)—allowed a developing, inconsistent offense some leeway.
Terry Bradshaw's dozen touchdowns matched his dozen INTs, though top targets Lynn Swann and John Stallworth would not arrive until the "immaculate" (there's that word again!) 1974 NFL Draft class. Franco Harris buoyed the offense, eclipsing 1,000 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Fan excitement grew as the 11-3 Steelers entered the playoffs for the first time in seemingly forever, doing so playing their best football in years and harboring momentum.
Steelers Country was ready for the intensity of playoff football in their newly christened Three Rivers Stadium. When Kenny Stabler scored on a long touchdown run on a broken play, Pittsburgh suddenly trailed 7-6 with little time left.
Then, it happened...the play.
Grandfathers still tell grandchildren about the greatest play they have ever seen by the greatest dynasty they have ever seen.
The only difference between then and now is that at the time, they simply didn't know about that "dynasty" part just yet. In fact, if you look closely enough at an elder recapping the story, provided you are too young to have experienced it yourself, you may well see the flash of glee reflecting from his eyes.
From hearing Myron's call of "Yoi and double yoi!" during the radio broadcast to carrying on with other fans at the local sports bar, any loyalist present for the most iconic moment in team history will remember exactly where they were for...
The Immaculate Reception!
Many are those who can almost hear the full call by Steelers radio announcer Jack Fleming:
Hang onto your hats! Here come the Steelers out of the huddle. Terry Bradshaw at the controls. Twenty-two seconds remaining, and this crowd is standing. Bradshaw, back and looking again. Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it down field, and there's a collision! It's caught out of the air! The ball is pulled in by Franco Harris!! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh!! Harris is going!! 5 seconds left on the clock!! Franco Harris pulled in the football, I don't even know where he came from!!
Bradshaw rolled right, unleashed a desperate heave over the middle toward Frenchy Fuqua, Jack Tatum collided with the intended target, the ball flied backwards in a directly opposed direction to Tatum's momentum (physics, anyone?), and Franco snagged the pigskin before it hits the ground.
Harris ran to paydirt as the Oakland Raiders cried foul, but the play stood as called. The controversy sparked a new rivalry and began a new era in Steelers football.
If finally winning games served as the foundation for bigger things ahead, this classic contest, which rests in disdain for Al Davis and John Madden, served as the first post for a house of champions.
The exciting Steelers, built on the image of Chuck Noll, were supremely talented, welcoming in a level of excitement to a city that had previously only known the thrill of the World Series pennants.
While the season ended one week later (on the same day that Roberto Clemente passed) in a mistake-riddled 21-17 home loss to the eventual undefeated Miami Dolphins, the up-and-comers served notice to the rest of the NFL that a young new challenger to the throne was rising in Western Pennsylvania, a region where the local football team hadn't ever matched the local homegrown talent.
1979: Capping the Greatest Dynasty in NFL History
The proud defending champions were an NFL dynasty, winners of three of the previous five Lombardi Trophies. By 1979, rules changes allowed great talents such as Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to explode onto the scene, alongside the exciting "Blonde Bomber," Terry Bradshaw.
Despite rule changes serving as a handicap for defenses, greats like Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, L.C. Greenwood and Mel Blount continued to dominate. The "Steel Curtain" was still among the best defenses in football.
With time, however, the Steelers dynasty was beginning to see the downward trend of its sheer dominance. Not helping was the erratic play of Terry Bradshaw, whose offensive potency could be equally measured by offensive impotency at random times.
For example, the Steelers lost to the San Diego Chargers, 35-7, in a contest that saw the gunslinger throw five interceptions.
Despite the inconsistency, Pittsburgh's offense led the NFL in scoring. The defense dropped to fifth in points allowed, a ranking that would be gladly embraced by most NFL squads, but which was like an underachievement for the great "Steel Curtain."
Thinking of greatness in terms of "shades of gray," the '79 Steelers were still dark grey, but the color depth was just a bit less saturated than it had been during previous seasons.
Despite the slight statistical decline, the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers still had enough gas left in the tank for one more great run.
After defeating the Dolphins and Oilers in the AFC playoffs, Bradshaw and company trailed to the surprising L.A. Rams, 9-7 in the regular season, heading into the fourth quarter.
Down 19-17, the Blonde Bomber began an aerial assault with receiver John Stallworth. The clutch receiver hauled in two gorgeous bombs over the deep middle.
Years of Swann seeing the "Super spotlight" meant that it was Stallworth's turn to be the hero, and he was. While his two touchdowns in Super Bowl XIII were all the difference, these two critical Super Bowl XIV receptions were his time to shine in the clutch, and they serve as the two most memorable moments of his underrated career.
Serving as an ending for one of football's great dynasties, the 70s Steelers put the final stroke on their masterpiece with a 31-19 win.
1998: The Coin Toss
Heading into Thanksgiving 1998, the Steelers were in the midst of six consecutive playoff-qualifying seasons. With a 13-3 second half lead and 7-4 record, it appeared that Bill Cowher, tied for the record with six straight postseason appearances to start a head coaching career, would take sole possession of first place in that category.
In addition to sporting a 10-point edge, the defense was superb against Barry Sanders, holding the elusive back to 33 yards on 20 attempts. Despite the apparent advantages, things were about to change.
The bottom dropped out. Pittsburgh struggled to score points after Will Blackwell's touchdown catch gave them their biggest lead. Likewise, they suddenly couldn't stop the surging Lions after halftime, whose offense went from anemic to effective in an instant.
Forced into overtime, the Black and Gold were suddenly thrown into a heated controversy, and a lack of focus on the game itself cost them dearly. Not only did the Steelers fall to Charlie Batch and crew, they also lost focus on the game itself. It would cost them dearly not just in the game—but for the rest of a tentative season.
Or, is it just "Tails!"
There is a common belief held by Steelers fans that official Phil Luckett cost the team a win in Detroit after he "misheard" Jerome Bettis's call of "tails" during the overtime coin toss.
It seems simple enough. One pre-selected player calls heads or tails while the coin is in the air, and they have the option to receive the football if they guess correctly.
The coin toss came up tails, and for a moment, the Steelers breathed a sigh of relief...until Luckett announced Detroit had won the toss.
A confused Bettis pled his case to no avail, and the Steelers lost at the Silverdome on Thanksgiving, 19-16. For those that point to the game as the source that sent Pittsburgh into a tailspin, their assessment may have validity, but the team's tenuous focus was the real blameworthy cause of their freefall in the standings.
In fact, they were fortunate to even get to overtime.
The team's lone touchdown came on a deflection of a Kordell Stewart pass that landed perfectly into the arms of Will Blackwell for a 24-yard scamper into the end zone. The offense, despite 22 first downs, was woefully inefficient.
It was a microcosm of the entire year for Kordell Stewart.
Fallen from grace to a 7-7 record, the Steelers capped the campaign with a 25-24 home defeat (and implosion) against the 3-13 Bengals before being embarrassed in the finale of Monday Night Football in Jacksonville, 21-3. The loss resulted in Pittsburgh's first losing season since 1991.