The Best Unexpected Results in Steelers History
This is the all-time worst moments for the Steelers—that turned out to be the best.
There is an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” The Steelers are unquestionably the best NFL franchise of the modern era (post merger).
Among the accomplishments:
- Won the most regular season games—384
- Won the most postseason games—33
- Won the most total games—417
- Best winning percentage—.611
- Most AFC Championship Game Appearances—14
- Most AFC Championship Game Wins/Super Bowl Appearances—8
- Most Super Bowl Wins—6
The Steelers reached that level by making a lot of good choices, running a class organization, conducting fair and honest business with their players and coaches and, most importantly, having the best ownership in the NFL and possibly all of sport.
But the Steelers have had a little luck on their side as well, and there have been a few instances where something happened that immediately and in the short run could be categorized as unfortunate to something that seemed like a disaster—only for it to lead to being one of the best things that could ever happen to the team.
Joe Paterno Turns Down the Head Coaching Job
Although Art Rooney was ultimately the final man making the calls for the Steelers in the 1960s, his son Dan Rooney was beginning to assume more and more responsibility for the team.
Most fans either do not remember or never knew that the Steelers had some successful seasons in the late 1950s and early 1960s under Head Coach Buddy Parker—including the team's best record in franchise history in 1962 and finishing one game from playing for the NFL Championship in 1963. But Parker's style did not agree with Dan Rooney's vision, leading to a power struggle that ultimately saw Parker resign. After impulsively hiring two head coaches, both of who failed, Art Rooney finally agreed to let Dan Rooney conduct a thorough interview process.
Chuck Noll was brought in for an interview fresh off of being Don Shula's assistant coach in Super Bowl III. Noll had played and coached under the tutelage of three coaches who would one day be in the Hall of Fame (Paul Brown, Sid Gilman and Don Shula). However, Noll was not the first choice of the Steelers, and the job was offered to Joe Paterno of Penn State.
Paterno, as we all know, turned it down and remains at Penn State to this day, and the Steelers hired Noll. While that was obviously the best choice for both men, the delay was very nearly costly. Several other teams had interest in Chuck Noll and offered him their job, including the Buffalo Bills. Fortunately for Steelers fans, the vision that Dan Rooney had is the one that Chuck Noll also believed in, leading him to accept the position with Pittsburgh. The rest is history.
The Bill Cowher vs. Tom Donahoe Feud
The Steelers of the 1990s were a team that is often forgotten for how good they were because of the multiple AFC Championship Game losses at home and the failure to win Super Bowl XXX.
The team was built between the Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe and Head Coach Bill Cowher, but by the end of the decade, the two men could no longer work together. Cowher felt he didn't have the necessary players to get over the hump; Donahoe felt the talent was there and it was the coaching the fell short. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back was the drafting of Troy Edwards in 1999 (a Donahoe call) when Cowher wanted to select Jevon Kearse.
After it was obvious things wouldn't work out, one of the two had to go. Dan Rooney elected to keep Bill Cowher and allow Tom Donahoe to resign.
The Steelers then promptly hired Kevin Colbert as his replacement as Director of Football Operations. Colbert did more than simply evaluate talent and select players in the draft. The Steelers were never known as a team that was active as far as making trades on draft day, but Colbert was willing to pull the trigger—and not just moving down in the draft but being aggressive and moving up.
In 2002, the Steelers moved up in the draft for the first time in the history of the franchise, selecting Troy Polamalu. They repeated the maneuver in 2006 to select Santonio Holmes. Without question, those moves were a huge part of the Steelers success and ability to win two Super Bowls in the decade.
In fact, the Steelers have not had a bust in the first round since Colbert took over as Director of Football Operations and have reached three Super Bowls. Donahoe had a very forgettable stint with the Buffalo Bills. Looking back, the decision of whom to keep was a highly contested one, but in hindsight it's like the decision to draft Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.
A day after Chuck Noll was hired as head coach, he selected with the fourth overall pick a defensive tackle from small North Texas State, based on some scouting he personally did while with the Baltimore Colts. Noll was extremely impressed with the dominant young defensive lineman, but the feeling (at least initially) was not mutual. Greene hated losing and no team had as long a history of losing as the Steelers. The local media wasn't impressed either, with the newspaper running a headline that said "Joe Who?"
Although Joe Greene would report late to camp due to a holdout and to a team full of cynical veterans who thought they would teach the rookie a lesson in the Oklahoma drill, those veterans would soon realize how good Greene was as he handled them and went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
In fact, his attitude was a complete breath of fresh air for the franchise. Joe Greene despised losing and his example lead to him not just being a leader to Steelers on and off the field, but through him a new standard was set not just for the Steelers of the 1970s but for the franchise overall that exists through this very day.
The Steelers would win the first game of the season, which would also be their only win. However, the cornerstone of the greatest dynasty in NFL history was laid and it would lead to a chance to have the No. 1 pick in the 1970 draft.
Going into the 1970 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the previous season with the worst record in the NFL (1-13). However, the Chicago Bears also finished with the same record. NFL rules at the time determined who would have the No. 1 overall pick via a coin flip. (It is worth noting under the current rules for determining draft order, the Steelers would have been granted the No. 1 pick based on strength of schedule).
Regardless of who had the No. 1 pick, Terry Bradshaw was by far the consensus No. 1. (The next time a QB would be entering the draft and considered by far to be the consensus at the same level would be 1983 with the QB being John Elway.)
As luck would have it, the Steelers deferred to the Bears to pick heads or tails, and the Bears chose poorly. The Steelers nabbed a rocket-armed once-in-a-lifetime QB who would lead them to four Super Bowl victories and the Hall of Fame while the Bears traded the No. 2 pick away.
A Muddy Track and a Phony Fever
Bill Nunn was one of the scouts for the Steelers during the 1970s. During that era, the ability to scout players was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. Players from smaller schools in the South were particularly difficult to get noticed. There was no series of ESPN Networks, no Internet and the technology did not exist that made it efficient to evaluate players.
The Steelers teamed up with three other franchises to form BLESTO (Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization) and traveled around to scout players. During the trip to Alabama A&M, it was a rainy day and a muddy track, hardly the ideal conditions to watch one young prospect named John Stallworth. Bill Nunn had a feeling about the young athlete, so he faked the flu and stayed behind for the sole purpose of giving Stallworth another look.
Very impressed, Nunn also obtained the only film of John Stallworth's highlights for the entire season. The film was "supposed" to be sent around the NFL, but it "mysteriously" vanished. And in the All-Star game, the coaches played Stallworth at defensive back. As a result, absolutely no one outside the Steelers organization even knew that Stallworth existed. Chuck Noll was so impressed with the talent that Stallworth possessed, that he wanted to select him in the first round. Bill Nunn talked him out of it, knowing that the rest of the league was not going to be aware of Stallworth and he would be available later.
The Steelers selected another WR in the first round (Lynn Swann), a skinny but extra tough LB from Kent State named Jack Lambert and an undersized Center from Wisconsin named Mike Webster. Four Hall-of-Famers from a single draft—and the irony is that the local media criticized the Steelers draft for not addressing the Steelers' needs.
Super Bowl MVP Goes MIA
The Steelers are normally not major players in free agency, but depending on the status of the team, they will occasionally venture into the arena to find players. Some successful signings include Kevin Greene, James Farrior and Wayne Gandy.
The 2002 Steelers were a pretty good team, however they were extremely weak in the secondary, routinely giving up first down on 3rd-and-long.
In an effort to solve the problem, the Steelers were exploring the option of signing Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jackson was close to signing, even verbally agreeing to terms while walking through the Steelers facility when he received a call from his agent. The call was to let Jackson know the Cardinals made a better financial offer and he slipped out of the team facility and didn't come back.
The spurned Steelers were left to address their need at the position in the draft and selected future Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.
A Season-Ending Loss: Part I
The Steelers opened the decade with three consecutive winning seasons (2000-2002) and won the division in 2001 and 2002, which would be the final AFC Central Championship and the inaugural AFC North Championship.
But 2003 was a huge disappointment, even though it began with an impressive 34-15 win over the (eventual division champion) Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers attempted a change in their traditional philosophy of power football and decided to go with an aerial approach behind 2002 Comeback Player of the Year QB Tommy Maddox and the impressive WR core of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El.
The change in philosophy did not work well, Tommy Maddox was not able to elevate his game, Amos Zereoue was not able to be the big play RB that the offense called for and injuries devastated the offensive line. In fact, the 2003 season was the only losing season (6-10) of the decade for the Steelers.
The season ended with a rivalry game versus the Ravens. Nothing was really on the line except pride—the Ravens had clinched the AFC North and had nothing to gain by winning. However, the two teams had a genuine rivalry and desire to beat the other. And in a battle of wills, the game went to overtime where the Ravens pulled out a 13-10 win.
It was a win the Ravens probably regret. The Jets and Bills finished with 6-10 records and had the Steelers won, they would have finished 7-9. However, the loss put them in a three-way tie and due to the strength of schedule tiebreaker, the Steelers would draft ahead of the two teams from New York state. Fortune favored the Steelers with the 2004 draft—it was one of the deepest in recent memory, had 3 legitimate franchise QB prospects and when the No. 11 pick came around, Ben Roethlisberger was available. The Buffalo Bills were coveting Roethlisberger, but Dan Rooney was not going to let the Steelers repeat the mistake made in 1983 when Dan Marino was passed over.
Roethlisberger did not get passed over, the Steelers found their franchise QB and a Super Bowl win was only a year away—along with consistent domination over the Ravens.
A Season-Ending Loss Part II
The 2003 season finale and loss versus the Ravens resulted in the Steelers being in position to select Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft. But acquiring Big Ben wasn't the only thing the Steelers gained from that game.
Jamal Lewis was seeking not only a 2,000-yard season, but had a legitimate opportunity to set the single season rushing record held by Eric Dickerson. Lewis entered the game with 1,952 yards and needed 154 yards to etch his name into history and the Ravens were highly motivated as a team to help him achieve it. Lewis had a quality outing, rushing 27 times for 114 yards, but the Steelers were equally as motivated to keep him from making history.
While the Ravens had the AFC North Division clinched and the Steelers had nothing to play for outside of pride, the game was still highly contested and the Steelers defense played their hearts out.
Unknown to anyone at the time, Dick LeBeau was watching the game. He was most recently the assistant head coach of the Buffalo Bills under Gregg Williams. Williams was fired following the 2003 season and Dick LeBeau was temporarily a man without a team.
The Bills hired former Steelers Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularky to be their new Head Coach and former Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe was the Bills General Manager and they had very high interest in hiring LeBeau. However, Bill Cowher let go of Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis and also offered LeBeau the position of Defensive Coordinator (a position he held with Pittsburgh previously from 1995-1996).
LeBeau selected the Steelers because of how impressed he was with the defensive effort he saw in that season finale versus the Ravens, believing he could do some special things with the unit.
And so, with that one game, the Buffalo Bills lost both the chance to draft a franchise QB and one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time.
Tommy Maddox Goes Down
Once again, a game against the Ravens changed the Steelers forever. In 2004, Bill Cowher promised a return to the Steelers fundamental core and running game. The Steelers were going for a championship and planned on getting there by running the ball in old school fashion.
The 2004 season began with a season opening win versus the Raiders with a last second win, but the following week versus the Ravens, the Steelers season looked to be hanging on a thread. Veteran backup QB Charlie Batch was already injured in training camp. Due to the impressive performance by Ben Roethlisberger in training camp, the Steelers decided not to pursue a veteran to back up Tommy Maddox. And against the Ravens, Maddox was hit and injured by Gary Baxter, tearing ligaments in his elbow that would keep him out six weeks.
Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger was thrust into the starting lineup, but not everybody was excited. Veteran Co-Captain Alan Faneca was asked by local media if he was excited to see the highly touted rookie play, and his response was less than encouraging.
No one could possibly know that the Steelers would not lose another game the rest of the regular season, Roethlisberger would win the Rookie of the Year and would guide the team to their first championship in 25 years the next season. The irony is that the Steelers have the arch-enemy Ravens to thank for another "unlucky break" that led to a magnificent result.
Bam Morris Gets Arrested
In 1992, the Steelers ran Barry Foster to an AFC Central Championship and into the playoffs. Foster would be the main cog again in 1993 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. In the 1994, in order to give Foster a little help, Bam Morris was selected in the third round and he shared the backfield with Foster en route to the Steelers having the best record in the AFC.
In 1995, Foster was no longer with the Steelers, and Bam Morris was the primary running back along with Eric Pegram. Morris was showing serious power and potential, running over defenders with pure power. He had a phenomenal game in Super Bowl XXX, out-rushing Emmitt Smith. The future for Bam Morris and the Steelers looked bright, until March of 1996 when Bam Morris was arrested for felony possession of five to 10 pounds of marijuana (a more serious charge of possession of cocaine was dropped). Morris made matters worse by violating his probation and served jail time.
Morris really sabotaged his own life with the drug charges. The Steelers decided to go in a different direction and made a rare trade to acquire a running back from the Rams who the new regime did not believe in. So, essentially for the cost of a second-round pick, the Steelers acquired the man who would be the heart and soul of the franchise for the next decade in Jerome Bettis.
Joe Gilliam Does Not Seize the Opportunity
In 1974, the NFLPA went on strike during the preseason. It was a tough time for several players, among them was Joe Gilliam, a former 11th round draft pick from tiny Tennessee State in 1972. Gilliam had tremendous talent and a rocket arm. In today's NFL, he would never have lasted to the 11th round with the sheer amount of athleticism and talent Gilliam possessed.
Gilliam realized he had to cross the picket line to have a chance and he certainly made the most of it in the preseason. It was a different time in 1974 and the idea of a black QB was such a radical concept then. Terry Bradshaw was a former No. 1 overall pick and took the Steelers to their first playoff appearance since 1947, but had not completely established himself as the Steelers quarterback due to inconsistent play.
Gilliam was no slouch. It has been said to this day that no one had as fast a throwing motion as Gilliam, his arm was a rocket and the talent was certainly there. His performance in the preseason earned him the starting position in 1974, putting Bradshaw on the bench.
The Steelers did not have an offensive coordinator; the QB called his own plays. And Chuck Noll wanted his QB to call a lot more running plays that Gilliam wanted to. As Franco Harris said, "He loved to throw that ball." The problem was that Gilliam did not use good judgment, calling passing plays on short yardage situations and becoming easy to predict.
Noll continued to give Gilliam the chance to follow his game plan and run the ball with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, but Gilliam continued to try to win with his arm. In the first five games of 1974, Gilliam put up a minimum of 31 passes each game—and though the team was winning, Gilliam's methods were not helping.
After six games, only four TDs against eight INTs, Gilliam was permanently pulled from the starting QB position. Terry Bradshaw was named the starter again and the Steelers went on to win their first Super Bowl. In retrospect, the right choice was obviously made, but Gilliam took the demotion hard.
Unfortunately and tragically, he never recovered and the rest of his life was marked by substance abuse. Gilliam had the talent to succeed as a QB in the NFL, but he lacked the maturity and judgment to take advantage of the opportunity.
Ben Roethlisberger Is Suspended
In March 2010, Ben Roethlisberger found himself in the middle of a self-inflicted disaster. He was just accused for the second time in a year of sexual assault following an escapade of drinking in Midgeville, GA. Although the first incident involved no criminal charges and most people viewed it as an attempt at a money grab, this time the general public wasn't giving Big Ben the benefit of the doubt.
In the court of public opinion, stories about what happened that evening were circulating and with each time it was told, the story got more and more sensational. In the end, despite no arrest and no charges filed and all the evidence pointing towards Roethlisberger's innocence in a criminal matter, the public already formed their opinion of Big Ben and judged him to be guilty.
At that point, every story that everyone had about Ben's arrogance, being a bad teammate and behaving as if a different set of rules applied to him came out. Roethlisberger was left in a public relations nightmare and instantly became one of the least liked players in the NFL. Even legendary Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw publicly admonished Ben (assuming his guilt despite not knowing all the facts) which influenced the opinion of many.
Despite no criminal charges being brought against Ben, the NFL Commissioner suspended Ben for four to six games. Some believed race played a part (with the NFL wanting to show it was just as hard on white players as it was on black players) and others believe it was for image concerns for the NFL in general. Whatever the reason, Ben Roethlisberger was given a set of conditions to meet by Roger Goodell including counseling.
To this point in both his career and his life, Ben Roethlisberger had not faced true adversity, where he was truly challenged by life. He experienced unusual immediate success as a starter due to brilliant coaching and playing with great teammates that enabled him to be successful even when he didn't play well. Case in point, winning Super Bowl XL despite performing poorly. The moment overwhelmed Roethlisberger, but he came out a winner despite playing the worst statistical game by a winning QB in the game's history.
But the accusations, the negative publicity, the suspension and the embarrassment forced Roethlisberger to face ugly for the first time in his life. To date, he has responded as good as any person can be expected to. He surrounded himself with the right people, changed habits and took responsibility for his actions. Although there are some who will never let go of what they believe Roethlisberger did, many are simply fans of other teams that want Roethlisberger out of the picture.
The reality is that the humbling of the arrogant Roethlisberger was the best thing that could happen to him in the long run. He returned to the Steelers in 2010 as a better teammate and led the team to the Super Bowl, and even though it was not a victory, Roethlisberger accepted responsibility for the loss.
Although winning is important, there are things in life that are more important—and it seems that Roethlisberger has begun to realize that.