Pittsburgh Steelers: The Luck of the Black and Gold
As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
That is certainly the case. In fact, the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most successful franchises in sports history, have experienced their share of luck over the years.
The NFL’s only six-time Super Bowl champion, Pittsburgh has experienced its share of luck in important playoff games during its Super Bowl runs in the ‘70s, ‘90s and 2000s.
This is not to diminish the accomplishments of the organization. Led by the Rooney family, the Steelers have been arguably the NFL’s most successful team of all-time, if not the last 40 years.
“Mean” Joe Greene. Jack Ham. Lynn Swan. Franco Harris. Jack Lambert. Terry Bradshaw. Mike Webster. John Stallworth. This list of legends that played on these teams is simply remarkable.
But through the years, luck has certainly been on their side at opportune times.
Will luck be on their side this Sunday when the face the upstart New York Jets?
1972: The Immaculate Reception
While this play, which propelled the Steelers to victory over the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs, did not lead to a Super Bowl victory for Pittsburgh, it could be argued that it helped to spark the beginning of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers leading 6-0, Raiders backup quarterback Kenny Stabler, in for Daryle Lamonica, scrambled and ran for a 30-yard touchdown, giving the Raiders their first lead with 1:13 remaining in the game.
What happened next is arguably the single-most memorable play in NFL history.
On fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line and less than a minute remaining, Bradshaw dropped back and threw for running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The ball, which hit Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who leveled Fuqua on the play, fluttered in the air just long enough for running back Franco Harris to catch it and race down the sidelines for the touchdown, giving the Steelers a miraculous victory. Whether the ball actually hit Fuqua, which would have nullified the play, will be debated for years to come. Only a few people know the real truth.
There is a rumor that the officials were going to overturn the play but feared for their safety and were not convinced that they could be protected should they in fact overturn the call.
I guess we’ll never know the truth.
Maybe it’s better that way.
1978: Jackie Smith's Dropped Touchdown Pass In Super Bowl XIII
Down 21-14 in the third quarter, the Cowboys had the ball on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, facing a third-and-3. Quarterback Roger Staubach dropped back to pass and found tight end Jackie Smith wide open in the middle of the end zone, only to see the five-time Pro Bowler and future Hall-of-Famer drop a sure touchdown.
As Verne Lundquist, then the Cowboys radio play-by-play man described it, “Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone... caught! Touchdown... DROPPED! Dropped in the end zone, Jackie Smith all by himself. Aw, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America!!”
Dallas would have to settle for a field goal, cutting the lead to 21-17, and losing out on four points.
The Steelers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one on a Franco Harris run and the other on a pass from Bradshaw to Swann, extending their lead to 35-17.
The Cowboys would make a run late in the game, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 35-31, but failed to recover an onside kick with less than a minute remaining.
I think we can all agree that it is unfortunate what has become of Smith’s legacy. He will always be remembered for that critical dropped pass, even though he was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro Team five consecutive times (1966-70) in his career.
Fortunately for Smith, he was voted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
1979: Mike Renfro's Nullified Touchdown Catch in The AFC Championship Game
Trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter, the Houston Oilers had the ball on the Pittsburgh 6-yard line with an opportunity to tie the game. Quarterback Dan Pastorini hit wide receiver Mike Renfro in the back of the end for what appeared to be a touchdown. The officials ruled, however, that Renfro did not have control of the ball before going out of bounds.
Instant replay, which was not being used at the time by the NFL, showed that Renfro did in fact get both feet down with possession of the ball.
The Oilers had to settle for a field goal, cutting the score to 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. Ten unanswered points in fourth quarter by the Steelers put the game away, earning them a return trip to the Super Bowl.
To advance to the AFC Championship game, Houston, after defeating Denver 13-7 at home in the Wild Card Round, upset top-seeded San Diego on the road, holding off the Chargers 17-14.
It was the sixth game played in the last two years in the heated rivalry between the teams. Both members of the AFC Central, they played each other twice in the regular season, as well as in the AFC Championship Game the previous year, where Pittsburgh won handily 34-5. In both seasons, the Steelers would Super Bowl Champions, defeating Dallas 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII and the L.A. Rams 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV.
1979: The Controversial Pass Interference Penalty Called On Rams DB Pat Thomas
With the Steelers leading 24-19 late in the fourth quarter and facing a second-and-10 from the Rams 22-yard line, Bradshaw faked a handoff and threw into the end zone for wide receiver Jim Smith, who went up for the pass with Rams defensive back Pat Thomas before it fell incomplete.
The back judge threw a flag, citing Thomas for pass interference, placing the ball at the 1-yard line and giving Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs. Thomas, so mad because of the call, took off his helmet and threw it to the ground.
Replays showed slight contact between Smith and Thomas, but there was no legitimate reason for a flag thrown on the play.
After failing to punch it in on first- and second-down, the Steelers moved ahead 31-19 when Franco Harris scored on a 1-yard run, making it a two-possession game with 1:43 to play.
Two critical deep passes from Bradshaw to Stallworth were the difference in the game. Early in the fourth quarter, trailing 19-17 and facing a third-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 27-yard line, Bradshaw hit Stallworth deep down the middle of the field, the ball barely reaching beyond the outstretch hands of Rams defensive back Rod Perry before Stallworth took it in for the touchdown. It was deja vu later in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh facing a third-and-7 in its own territory when Bradshaw hit Stallworth deep again, this time for a 45-yard reception, setting up the Steelers to close out the game.
1995: Kordell Stewart’s touchdown reception in the AFC Championship Game
With less than a minute remaining in the second quarter, the Steelers, who were trailing the Colts 6-3, faced a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell looked around, scrambled and found rookie wide receiver/quarterback Kordell Stewart in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Steelers the lead. However, replays showed that Stewart stepped out of bounds on the play before catching the touchdown pass, which would have nullified the call, but the officials did not see it and the Steelers caught a huge break.
Some have argued that Stewart was forced out of bounds, but it certainly appears on the replay that he stepped out of bounds primarily under his own power.
The four-point differential from that touchdown to a possible field goal was the difference as the Steelers survived a late Hail Mary pass from Jim Harbaugh that was nearly caught by wide receiver Aaron Bailey, defeating Indianapolis 20-16 and ending the Colts’ Cinderella run.
It was an emotional win for Pittsburgh, who, just the year before, came up short of Super Bowl XXIX in a 17-13 loss to the San Diego Chargers in the 1994 AFC Championship Game, failing to convert on a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line late in the game.
1995: Ernie Mills’ Catch to Set Up the Go-Ahead Score in the AFC Championship
Pittsburgh, which had converted on a fourth down on the previous play, set themselves up for the game-winning touchdown when O’Donnell his wide receiver Ernie Mills at the 1-yard line just before going out of bounds. However, replays show that Mills, after getting both feet in bounds, lost control of the ball after he fell to the ground. The official, however, did not appear to see the ball come loose, and marked it at the 1-yard line. Whether or not the official would have ruled the pass incomplete is debatable.
Running back Bam Morris scored from one yard out two plays later, giving the Steelers the lead for good with just under two minutes to play.
It was fitting that Mills would make the critical reception to set up the touchdown. Three plays before his critical reception, on a second-and-3 from the Indianapolis 48-yard line, O’Donnell looked for Mills on a quick slant, only to see Colts linebacker Quintin Coryatt step in front of the pass and get his hands on it. But at the last second, Mills knocked it out of Coryatt’s hands, forcing an incomplete pass. Had Coryatt intercepted the pass, he would have had a clear path to end zone, likely punching Indianapolis’ ticket to the Super Bowl.
2005: The Pass Interference Call on Seahawks Wide Receiver Darrell Jackson
With the game scoreless, the Seahawks were driving and had a first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16-yard line, looking to take the early lead. On the ensuing play, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit wide receiver Darrell Jackson over the middle for a touchdown, making it 6-0 Seattle.
Or so we thought.
Just before catching the pass, Jackson had put his hands on the chest of free safety Chris Hope, with there being minimal contact between the two and no real advantage being gained from what Jackson had done. Yet, after catching the touchdown pass, Hope looked at the referee, who then threw a flag, negating the touchdown. With the penalty backing them up ten yards, Seattle’s drive would stall and they’d be forced to settle for a field goal, making it 3-0 instead of 7-0.
It would be just one of several critical opportunities the Seahawks would miss out on in Super Bowl XL.
This, one of four questionable calls by the officials that desperately cost the Seahawks in the game, prompting lead official Bill Leavy to later admit to his crew’s mistakes.
“It was a tough thing for me,” said Leavy. “I impacted the game, and, as an official, you never want to do that.”
2005: Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown run in Super Bowl XL.
The Steelers, trailing 3-0, had the ball on Seattle’s 3-yard line with just over three minutes remaining in the first half, giving them chance to tie or take the lead in a game in which they had been severely outplayed up until that point.
Two runs by Jerome Bettis, who is ranked fifth on the NFL’s All-Time Rushing List and was playing in what would be his final game, gained two yards, setting the Steelers up at the Seattle 1-yard line. Then, on third-and-goal, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled left, faked a pitch to Bettis and cutback, leaping for the goal-line before being met by Seattle linebacker D. D. Lewis. The official on the sideline did not initially make a call, but, after running towards Roethlisberger, ruled that the Steeler quarterback had crossed the plane and scored a touchdown. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren challenged the play, but there was not enough evidence to overturn the call.
Regardless of whether or not it was the correct call, the Seahawks blew an opportunity earlier in the drive to keep the Steelers out of the end zone.
Three plays before Roethlisberger’s touchdown run, the Steelers, after a holding penalty and a sack, faced a third-and-28 at the Seattle 40-yard line. When the play broke down, Roethlisberger ran out of the pocket, moved forward, stopping just short of the line of scrimmage and heaved the ball downfield, hitting Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward at the 3-yard line, setting up the first-and-goal.
2005: The holding call on Seattle right tackle Sean Locklear in Super Bowl XL.
Trailing 14-10 with just under 13 minutes remaining in the game, the Seahawks had a first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 19-yard line. On the ensuing play, Hasselbeck hit tight end Jerramy Stevens over the middle, setting Seattle up with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
But once again, the officials would make a very questionable call that cost the Seahawks dearly.
A flag had been thrown, calling right tackle Sean Locklear for holding Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans, thus nullifying the play and backing the Seahawks up ten yards.
It was a tough call to make, that’s for sure. Some would argue that, because holding can probably be called on every play in the NFL that this one should have been left alone. It was most certainly a questionable call, and it could not have come at a worse time for the Seahawks.
Later in the drive, facing a third-and-18, Hasselbeck threw an interception to Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor at the 5-yard line, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 29. A questionable penalty was called on Hasselbeck during the return, citing him for a 15-yard penalty for a low block.
The penalty gave the Steelers a little extra breathing room and, four plays later, they scored a 43-yard touchdown on a reverse pass from Antwaan Randel-El to wide receiver Hines Ward, giving Pittsburgh a 21-10 lead, effectively putting the game and ensuring head coach Bill Cowher of his first Super Bowl victory.
2008:The Penalty Not Called During James Harrison’s Interception Return in SB 43
Easily one of the most dramatic and exciting plays in Super Bowl history, the last play of the first half began with Arizona facing a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 2-yard line with 18 seconds remaining.
Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dialed up a blitz, forcing Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner to get rid of the ball quickly. He looked for wide receiver Anquan Boldin on a slant, only to see Pittsburgh linebacker and AP Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison step in front of the pass for an interception.
On the return, Harrison got good blocking from his teammates and managed to elude defenders, barely staying in bounds as he raced down the sidelines. At the Arizona 30-yard line, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley blatantly pushed Arizona running back Tim Hightower in the back, knocking him down, but, for some reason, no flag was thrown and Harrison made it to the end zone just before Arizona receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston tackled him. If you look at the replay, it appears that Harrison may have been stopped at the half-yard line, but, after reviewing the play, the officials reasoned that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call, which had been ruled a touchdown on the field.
The Steelers, after blowing a 20-7 fourth quarter lead, rallied in the final minutes, scoring on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining, giving the Steelers a 27-23 victory and their second championship in four years.