Pittsburgh Steelers: 80 Years, 80 Memories (Vol. 5)
The Pittsburgh Steelers began their 80th season in auspicious fashion, losing three of their first five games before regaining their footing and responding with four consecutive victories. With a 6-3 record and the archrival Baltimore Ravens next on the team's docket, things suddenly seemed to be going swimmingly for the Black and Gold.
Not so fast.
A freak rib injury that literally threatened to pierce franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's aorta has many fans crossing their fingers, hoping that 2012 is not a season on the brink. However, as the four most recent and more lucrative decades in team history have taught legions of fans in Steelers Country, what's a great season without a little adversity?
From the tragic death of coach Jock Sutherland following a surprising near-championship season in 1947 to any of the dozens of far less serious injuries and distractions, the road to glory isn't always as glorious as its end destination.
Still, like the light at the end of the tunnel, realizing the end result isn't always the warmest prize. In fact, many players speak to the fact that the "journey" is the warmest of memories one takes with them after their playing days. It isn't the ease of the voyage that makes ultimate victory so satisfying; it's overcoming the challenges that any NFL season presents.
Across the last 40 years, Pittsburgh has been blessed to end six of its journeys with a shiny, silver Lombardi Trophy. Many fans dub these seasons from 1972-date (the season of the "Immaculate Reception") as the "Golden Years," 40 seasons of unparalleled success and a passage of time that includes:
...and 26 playoff-qualifying seasons! Nearly 75 percent of all postseasons in the last four decades have included the Men of Steel. And all the more impressively, the Black and Gold have had only seven losing seasons in all of that time, a stark contrast from 25 sub-.500 campaigns in their first forty years!
From the Steelers' first 40 years (let's call them the "feeble 40") to the fantastic 40, 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 showcasing five journeys from the rich tradition of pro football in the Steel City.
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 four 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
Volume 4: 1934, 1960, 1972, 1979 and 1998
1936: One Win Away
The September 27, 1973 edition of The Beaver Times included a headline that read "Steelers After Third Straight Win in Houston."
Three days later, the Men of Steel dismantled the Oilers, 36-7, albeit in a sloppy game that featured many turnovers.
Indeed, in the year following a certain reception dubbed as being immaculate (and boy, it was!), it was becoming more clear that Chuck Noll's vision for the team was taking its stronghold and success was around the corner.
However, more interestingly, a footnote above the aforementioned headline stated, "They Haven't Won First Three Since 1936."
After three paltry seasons to begin their franchise history, the former Pittsburgh Pirates entered year four with the same head coach as the previous for the first time. And the start of '36 was stunning.
Despite scoring a total of 30 points in the first three weeks, a physical defense held the Boston Redskins, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants (finally, a familiar name!) to 13 points, thus starting with three wins.
Joe Bach and his surprising Pirates, along with quarterback Ed Matesic and runners Bull Karcis and Warren Heller, maintained a winning record through nine games, going 6-3. They led the Eastern Division. Even more shockingly, the team would have only needed one more victory to secure a spot playing for the NFL Championship.
Naturally, as things would tend to go for 40 years, the bottom dropped out. In their final three games, the Black and Gold lost by a combined 72-9 score. Their final game came with an opportunity to still earn their title shot.
Against the Boston Redskins at Fenway Park (yes, that Fenway Park), who the Pirates defeated 10-0 to open the season, Pittsburgh fell 30-0.
The team fell to 6-6, costing Joe Bach his job and resulting in the fourth head coach in five seasons, this time, Johnny "Blood" McNally.
1944: Card-Pitt Becomes the 'Carpets'
After merging with the Eagles as a roster necessity due to the enlistment of athletes into World War II, the '44 Steelers combined with the Chicago Cardinals. However, unlike the '43 "Steagles," who finished 5-4-1, the merger of the Cardinals and Steelers proved disastrous.
Personally, I'd have loved if they merged Cardinals and Steelers into "Cardeelers" or "Car Dealers."
Heh...heh...OK, joke didn't land.
In any case, these "car dealers" were serving up lemons, and sour ones at that. Combined with the winless '43 Cardinals, Pittsburgh and Chicago had no chance in a ridiculously strong Western Division that included great teams like the Bears and Packers.
Despite the valiant running of John Grigas, former member of the Boston Yanks, for 610 yards, the ballclub was hapless. Wait...did I just say valiant? Maybe not. Consider:
The eventual 0-10 "Card-Pitt" squad was so egregiously awful that Grigas, in addition to Johnny Butler and Eberle Shultz, was fined $200 by the coaches for "indifferent play." This was in response to the team's lackluster effort against George Halas' Chicago Bears, a predictable 34-7 loss. Later in the year, the team lost to the Bears again, 49-7.
In two games against the eventual champion Green Bay Packers, Don Hutson caught four touchdown passes (remember, this was 1944!) from Irv Comp, much to the pleasure of head coach Curly Lambeau.
Indeed, this team was so terrible that it earned the moniker of the "Carpets," walked all over. The nickname was a play on the combination "Card-Pitt" or "Car-Pitts."
1952: Ousting the Single Wing and Destroying the Giants
In 1952, Joe Bach returned as Steelers head coach, having coached the 1935-36 Pirates. He was the first coach to ever have a non-losing season with the franchise, and this certainly had some influence on Art Rooney's decision to bring him back.
After all, the talent-anemic '36 squad was within a single win of the championship game, but it was clear that the team needed a change in philosophy. The Steelers' methods were antiquated.
As such, Bach chose to scrap the single-wing offensive formation, making the Steelers the last team to abandon the approach that made the saying "Hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle!" so famous.
Over the course of 1952 and '53, the team transitioned from the single wing and into the much more modern T-formation.
The Steelers finished 5-7 in that '52 season. Nevertheless, the franchise had one huge reason to celebrate. After all, beyond just a transition in offensive philosophy, one particular contest on November 30, 1952 stunned the masses of NFL fans.
Coach Steve Owen's New York Giants were among the league's greatest teams, ranked with the Cleveland Browns as the best teams of the Eastern Division. In fact, Otto Graham's revolutionary passing offense in Ohio inspired Owen to develop a new style of defense, labelled the "umbrella," to handicap players back into the defensive backfield in order to aid against pass while still successfully stopping the run.
The Steelers hung 63 points on New York, a team record for scoring output. They defeated the Giants 63-7, another milestone for margin of victory that ranks tops in franchise history to-date. Fans should have felt a change in the tides whenever an opening kickoff touchdown was nullified due to penalty, only for the Steelers to return the subsequent kickoff for a score as well!
After his kickoff touchdown, Lynn Chandnois added seven more points on the ground before quarterback Jim Finks launched not one...not two...not three...but four touchdown passes sandwiched around a lonely Giants score from the arm of Tom Landry made the score 42-7.
New York had replaced starting passer Charlie Connerly, and who could blame it? Though Connerly failed to sustain any offense; his running backs didn't help. Again...who could blame even them?
Ernie Stautner harassed the New York backfield, stuffing runners left and right. The Giants finished with 15 rushing yards, less than a yard per attempt.
A punt block touchdown increased the deficit, this before Jerry Kerkorian came in as a replacement for Finks to fire his own touchdown.
Capping the beatdown, Ed Modzelewski scored a touchdown along with a lineup that consisted of Steelers backups, and the Giants left the field with their heads hung following a demonstrative 63-7 beating.
1976: Historic Defensive Domination
The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers spent two-and-a-half months playing brutally dominant football. If the team of the 70s was indeed the best football unit ever assembled, the '76 season was its crowning jewel, even if it didn't end with the type of real jewelry the team was becoming accustomed to earning.
The Steelers were the toast of the town by the mid-1970s. The Pirates and Steelers were championship ball clubs and the Steel City was dubbed "City of Champions."
Consecutive Super Bowl wins put forever to rest the notion that Art Rooney's franchise was a competitive afterthought, erasing the notion of the owner as a lovable loser.
Like their fine owner, Mr. Art Rooney, the Steelers name demanded respect. The new Steelers were an aggressive unit, executing with machine-like strength and precision, and nobody would be allowed to take them lightly.
Jack Lambert had proven his stance on the matter months earlier, tossing Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys to the ground during a Super Bowl altercation regarding a missed field goal by Roy Gerela.
After that second straight Super Sunday victory, the Steelers took some time off from title winning, only to come back strong and win two more Lombardi Trophies in '78 and '79.
However, the best Steelers team ever was sandwiched between "back-to-back bread," those two sets of Super Bowl seasons.
The newly-intimidating crew began their second straight championship defense season in 1976 with a contest against a team they had frustrated in two straight AFC Championship Games, the Oakland Raiders
John Madden and his swashbuckling (or is it knee-buckling?) band of bullies erased a late 28-14 deficit in a comeback victory that seemed to starve the Steelers' swagger.
This strike at their ego may have been a factor for their 1-4 start, begging the question, where were the great Steelers?
Where was the Blonde Bomber? Did the defense disappear?
As if returning after faking their own death, the Steelers were back and better than ever effective the fifth game of the '76 season.
A 23-6 win over the "Bungles" in Week 6 seemed more of a necessity than a springboard. Yet following the victory, a similar result seemed to take place for consecutive weeks.
Shutout, shutout, shutout.
The Steel Curtain finally closed, turning the opposition's wonderful chorus from earlier weeks into the proverbial fat lady choking on her own flat note.
The defense of 1976 was the greatest NFL defense ever (yeah, I said it), applauded for surrendering only 28 points in the final nine games.
The play of the unit is made more impressive when factoring out a 32-16 win over the Houston Oilers in Week 11.
Aside from that contest, the team held seven straight opponents to either zero points or a lone field goal, including five shutouts. It held eight enemy offenses touchdown-less. It didn't allow an offensive touchdown for 22 consecutive quarters during the stretch.
It was the greatest run of statistical dominance in the history of the franchise and the most dominant defensive stretch in NFL history.
The excellence continued into the start of the playoffs, where the team destroyed Bert Jones and the top seed, Baltimore. The 40-14 blowout saw a disproportion in two distinct categories:
First downs: 29-12
Yet there was a price paid. Running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured in the blowout win and unable to play the next week in Oakland. Even with their efforts, the team may have still lost to a determined effort by the vengeful Raiders and coach John Madden.
The day was December 26, 1976. It was the day that the finest team in Pittsburgh Steelers history lost its final game, 24-7, to the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders.
1997: Kordell Turns Quarterback During Season of Comebacks
All week, the anticipation was building.
"They're not the same team they used to be!"
Fans said the same things: "It's time to do what should have been done two years ago [in Super Bowl XXX]. It's time to beat the Cowboys."
Kordell Stewart took the reins for opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. The electrifying athlete promised to make 1997 an exciting season at the very least.
Cowboys 37, Steelers 7.
The Steelers offense was entirely out of sync, ineffective on a day where the defense met a Cowboys team executing with the precision of their pristine dynasty.
The next week, local talent Gus Frerotte brought the Redskins to Three Rivers Stadium. A late touchdown rally resulted in a 14-13 Steelers win, but the team looked disheveled. In fact, if not for Frerotte's three interceptions (two in the red zone), Pittsburgh would have likely begun the season 0-3.
After all, a loss in Jacksonville hurt as much as any loss during the season. The team began to play with confidence. The offense gained a rhythm in the second half, Jerome Bettis was running with 1996 power and the Jaguars were being pushed off the snap on most plays late in the game. A blocked field goal prevented Pittsburgh from defeating its rising young rival in the AFC Central.
Weeks of struggling finally ended for Stewart in Baltimore. After falling behind 21-0 and 24-7, the training wheels came off of the athletic quarterback and the motor was placed back on him.
With a mix of great plays in both the passing game and via Stewart's abilities as a runner, the Steelers executed the largest comeback in franchise history. The 42-34 win over the Ravens catapulted them to a 3-2 record, behind only Jacksonville in the division.
With the team finally blending together and gaining momentum, the rest of 1997 was filled with some of the most exciting contests Steelers fans have ever witnessed.
After wins over the Colts and Bengals, the team welcomed Jacksonville to Three Rivers Stadium. Both teams shared an identical 5-2 record, setting up a game for the ages. Ultimately, the contest would decide the division winner. After trailing 10-0, the Steelers rallied to force overtime. In the extra quarter, Jerome Bettis rumbled into the end zone off of a well-designed shovel pass from Stewart.
Fans exalted as the Steelers surpassed the hated Jaguars in the standings. After an abysmal start, the season of doom was becoming a classic.
Another overtime victory improved the team's record to 9-4 late in the season, a win over Jake Plummer and the Arizona Cardinals. From the desert heat to the Pennsylvania cold, the Steelers traveled back to Three Rivers for a date with Denver.
Quarterback John Elway's rocket arm had fans on the edge of their seat, but his receivers dropped passes with frequency. After taking a 21-7 lead, Denver lost its edge as Stewart hit Yancy Thigpen on two scoring strikes in the second quarter. Pittsburgh dominated the second half in another emotional comeback victory.
It would pale in comparison to the events that unfolded at Foxboro Stadium one week later.
With a bye week in the AFC playoffs likely on the line, the New England Patriots hosted the Steelers. In a weekly tradition, Pittsburgh fell behind 14-0 and fought back valiantly. Undaunted, a strange pass from Drew Bledsoe was caught by an unintended receiver, Dave Meggett, for a 49-yard touchdown.
This made the score 21-13 in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots got the ball back with a chance to run down the clock. Oddly, Pete Carroll and company decided to pass.
The result was the "Immaculate Interception" that put Kevin Henry into Steelers fame. With time winding down, Bledsoe attempted a pass into the flat that was intercepted by the aforementioned defender in athletic fashion. The turnover set up Kordell Stewart's offense.
The quarterback hit Mark Bruener with a one-yard touchdown pass and followed with a two-point conversion to Yancy Thigpen. The stunned crowd watched the game go into overtime, where the Steelers won 24-21.
The impact of the events was huge, as New England traveled to Three Rivers Stadium for a Divisional Playoff with the Steelers. On the cold turf, Drew Bledsoe and the Pats offense were held in check all game, an edgy 7-6 victory.
The dream ended one week later, as Kordell Stewart's dream season faded into the obscurity that results from bad decisions and delusions of grandeur. Throwing into double and triple coverage for the rest of his career, Stewart rarely saw his success of 1997 replicated, falling short in the biggest games with predictability.
For one season, Slash's balance of athleticism and timely playmaking proved to be the catalyst for a Steelers team that probably should have beaten the Denver Broncos and played in the Super Bowl.
For its abundance of classic games, multitude of comebacks, magnificent stories, gut-wrenching finishes and overall success, 1997 was the most entertaining non-championship season in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.