OAKLAND NOT A CHOKE TEAM
With the preseason behind them, the Steelers head into the 1976 season chasing a place in sporting history. The Green Bay Packers and the Miami Dolphins were the only other two teams to win back to back Super Bowls, but they failed to put in place the final piece of immortality.
The Steelers face their great rivals the Oakland Raiders in the season opener. Although for ten years, Oakland had played winning football, they had lost a Super Bowl and six conference championships; the last two against the Steelers.
“It’s a reflection on me,” insisted Oakland’s Ken Stabler. “I’m the quarterback and I’m the person everyone looks to. To get that close every year and get kicked out, over and over. It gets to you when you can’t put your finger on it.
Why do we lose? I wish I could give you a reason. One year they said it was our running game. Another year they said it was the weather. Another year they said it was one freak play. That’s all ****. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s in the stars. Hell I don’t know.
For a week to ten days after we lost, I would wake up in the morning and the first thing that would pop in my mind was Pittsburgh. Then I’d replay the game in my mind. What if I called this play? What if the weather had been different? It really eats at you. We’re not a choke team. We may have gotten that reputation, but we know what we can do.”
Pittsburgh vs Oakland
The Steelers vs the Raiders
The Rooneys vs Al Davis
Chuck Noll vs John Madden
Whichever way you look at the game, it doesn’t get any bigger and before a national TV audience, it is what football is all about.
With home field advantage, Las Vegas still made Oakland the three-point underdogs.
Before the game, Raiders Phil Villapiano commented “Every time we play Pittsburgh, something crazy happens.”
Neal Colzie, who was an Oakland rookie the previous year when they lost the Championship game to the Steelers offered, “I’ll never forget that feeling in the locker room after the game. I know how I felt and some of these guys have been going through this for several years.”
Shouldering the blame because he was burnt on two plays that gave the Steelers two fourth quarter touchdowns, Colzie added, I felt like it was all my fault. I was in the position to make the plays and I didn’t.” As with previous games, Colzie felt that the defenses would have a lot to do with the outcome.
1976 game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Oakland Raiders
As expected, both defenses dominated the opening phase of their season opener before the game erupted late into a free flowing display of offensive might.
After the Raiders took the lead in the second quarter with a Ken Stabler 30-yard touchdown pass, the Steelers tied the score in the final minute of the first half. Franco Harris caught a 39-yard pass to set up a Rocky Bleier touchdown run of 2 yards.
Midway through the third period, John Stallworth took a lateral from Franco Harris and ran the final 38 yards for a 63-yard touchdown play to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead. The Steelers intercepted Stabler four times and Jack Ham’s takeaway early in the final quarter ignited a scoring explosion.
Bradshaw’s touchdown pass of 11 yards to Theo Bell increased the Steelers lead before the Raiders replied with a scoring drive. As the rate of scoring increased, the Steelers took a 28-14 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run from Harris after a drive of 84 yards.
The Steelers defense stifled Oakland’s next series and Pittsburgh had a first down on their opponents’ 19 with less than six minutes remaining. When Harris fumbled and the Raiders recovered, Stabler began to turn the game around.
He led his team 76 yards finishing with a 10-yard touchdown pass to reduce the deficit. The Steelers were forced to punt on their next series and when the kick was partially blocked, the Raiders were gifted great field position and Stabler scored with a 2-yard touchdown run tying the game with 1:05 left.
On the Steelers next possession, Bradshaw’s pass from deep in his own half was deflected by Otis Sistrunk and intercepted by Willie Hall. Two short Oakland runs centred the ball for rookie Fred Steinfort to kick the winning 21-yard field goal and give Oakland a spectacular win.
With their come behind victory, the Raiders had cast aside the nemesis of previous years and put down their marker for the rest of the season. The Steelers, on a mission to be the first team to win three Super Bowls, had been shaken but not broken in defeat.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at the Oakland Raiders 31
Oakland Coliseum September 12th 1976; 51,371
Passing: Bradshaw 15-27-253-1TD-1 INT; Stabler 21-38-342-3TD-4INT
Rushing: Harris 18-68, Bleier 20-73, Bell 1-5, Harrison 1-2, Bradshaw 2-1
Receiving: Stallworth 6-94, Bleier 2-45, Harris 1-39, Bell 3-43, Swann 2-26, Grossman 1-6
“It was a what-if, could-have-been, should-have-been game,” said coach Noll. “The test is who’s best over fourteen games. This is just the first one. If we get all hung up on this one, we’ll dig our own graves.”
Terry Bradshaw was philosophical, “It was just a good football game. I enjoyed it. How can you complain? It was two fine teams. They won, we lost, that’s the way it goes.”
“I’ve got to give an awful lot of credit to the defense,” commented Oakland’s Ken Stabler. “They got us the ball when we needed it.”
“A lesser team would have given up,” observed Raiders coach John Madden. “I’m always shaking my head after these games. It’s nice to be shaking it about a victory this time.”
"OAKLAND CRIMINAL CHEAP SHOTS"
Following the Steelers loss to the Raiders, the Post-Gazette ran the above headline in the sports section as coach Noll attempted to protect his players.
The usually tight lipped Noll didn’t hold back when he faced the media calling Oakland, “the criminal element of the National Football League,” adding he would like to see several Raiders thrown out of football.
“It was usually directed at one receiver (Lynn Swann),” said Noll, highlighting the violence thrown at his players. “It’s criminal. They’re putting a guy’s career in jeopardy.”
The Post-Gazette elucidated by describing how Swann wobbled off the field in the final two minutes of the first half after the back of his head had stopped the forward progress of a speeding forearm; marking the second consecutive game in which Swann suffered a concussion.
Reporters suggested to Noll the Raiders used their intimidating tactics to upset the rhythm of the Steelers to disrupt their concentration. “That’s giving them too much credit,” snapped back Noll. “It’s not intellectual, it’s base.”
After January’s Super Bowl, there were some suggestions that the Steelers used intimidation to win the game, but Noll said there was no comparison. “We usually hit people straight on – not when their backs are turned. When you go for their heads when their backs are turned, that puts it in a different perspective.”
PETE ROZELLE FINES TWO RAIDERS AND TWO STEELERS
In an attempt to present the NFL as a family sport, two weeks after the game in Oakland was played, commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to punish two defensive backs from the Raiders. George Atkinson received the biggest fine of $1,500 for “the most flagrant” act the commissioner had seen in his 16 years in office. Jack Tatum was fined $750.
To look even handed, Rozelle also fined Ernie Holmes and surprisingly Chuck Noll. “I don’t consider myself a dirty player, but I don’t want to say anything about it,” Ernie Holmes told reporters. Rozelle had conveniently detected what he felt was unnecessary roughness on Holmes’ part.
“I think it was a case of, ‘Let’s find who was doing something on the Steelers,” Holmes determined. “I don’t know what I was fined for, but if Pete says I was a little too rough, then I guess I was a little too rough.
The next time we meet the Raiders, I’m going to get my money’s worth.”
Noll’s fine was for his criminal description of some Oakland players. Rozelle, ever aware of the NFL’s public image, didn’t like the use of Noll’s portrayal of the Raiders’ actions.
After Noll had made his initial comments, he clarified them by saying, “I can understand things that happen in a moment of emotion. I remember when I was playing and I was tired late in a game and was tripped. I came up ready to take a punch when I saw my own teammate had accidentally tripped me. That was an emotional reaction. But what they did was a cold, calculating deliberate thing.
When a reporter highlighted the use of the word criminal was a red flag word that would get a lot of attention, Noll simply confirmed his point that what they had done “was criminal.”
RANDY GROSSMAN – STILL A STEELER
“We were all packed and ready to go,” offered Randy Grossman as he told the Post-Gazette he wasn’t certain he would be kept by the Steelers when they made their roster cuts.
He never doubted his ability to play with the Steelers. “I came to training camp confident I was good enough to be here, but there were some variables involved.” The main variable was the addition of their number one draft pick Bennie Cunningham which meant the Steelers would be having three tight ends on the roster if they didn’t let Grossman go.
When Larry Brown was hit by injury early preseason, Grossman stepped in and impressed. Coach Noll said Grossman did an exceptional job of filling in and confirmed he didn’t care who the starter was. “We’re concerned who finishes,” Noll said. “We have to have 43 players who can contribute because it’s a long haul.”
Grossman echoed Noll’s comments, saying it didn’t matter who started. “I don’t want this to sound like I’m not fighting for a starting job. Everyone wants to play regularly. That’s every player’s goal. And it might be different if the team were in a different situation. But we’re shooting for something different this year.”
STEELERS FACE BROWNS
“We’re really fired up,” said Cleveland safety Thom Darden. “Going up against the Super Bowl champs, it’s one of the biggest games of the season. But the Steelers are going to be mad after losing last week and they have a pretty good hold on the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium.”
The Browns, in the second year of a rebuilding program under Coach Forrest Gregg, have some injury problems after their win over the New York Jets in week one, but confident was high. Gregg had made 10 changes to the starting 22 the Steelers saw in ’75.
“There’s a sort of different attitude on this team,” offered Darden. “When you start losing, you lose confidence in yourself, in the system. It’s not like that anymore.”
Terry Bradshaw shrugged off overconfidence, “The Browns look on film every bit as good as any defensive unit we’ve seen in the last couple of years.”
1976 week 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1) vs the Cleveland Browns (1-0)
The Steelers didn’t turn up for the first half of the game and fell 14-0 behind. Terry Bradshaw had a bad day, gaining only 23 yards through the air in those 30 minutes compared to his opponent Brian Sipe’s 156.
While the Steelers took a siesta during two quarters, the Browns made hay in the sunshine. After a scoreless first period, the Browns took advantage of their good field position starting on their own 44. Sipe’s 14-yard touchdown pass led the scoring and then his effective 17-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Oscar Roan as the half expired, gave the Browns a surprising 14-0 lead.
The Browns owner Art Modell was overwhelmed by it all and hoarse from yelling. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the second half,” he managed to tell reporters, “but I’ve never been prouder of a Cleveland team than I am of this one.”
Five minutes into the second half, Model had his answer. Jack Ham, playing on special teams, threw his outstretched arms into a Don Cockroft punt on their first series and sparked the Steelers revival with his block that put the ball on Cleveland’s 12. Three plays later, Bradshaw completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth and the Steelers were back in the game.
In his first start, rookie running back Mike Pruitt fumbled on the Browns next possession with Jack Lambert recovering and three more points added from Roy Gerela’s 47-yard field goal.
Pruitt’s next fumble was recovered by Steve Furness and Bradshaw guided his team on a drive of 64 yards completed by a 2-yard touchdown run from Franco Harris that gave the Steelers their first lead of the game at 17-14.
The Steelers continued to dominate in the final period as Bradshaw threw his second touchdown pass to Stallworth before running in one himself from seven yards. Those fourteen points gave the Steelers a comfortable win, but at half time it certainly didn’t look that way.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 31 vs the Cleveland Browns 14
Three Rivers Stadium September 19th 1976; 49,169
Passing: Bradshaw 7-23-77-2TD-0; Sipe 15-34-193-2TD-0
Rushing: Harris 25-118, Bleier 12-62, Bradshaw 6-32
Receiving: Grossman 2-38, Stallworth 2-19, Harris 2-10, Bleier 1-10
Asked after the game whether he gave a rousing half time talk to provoke the team into action, Coach Noll replied, “Those stirring pep talks are passe (a thing of the past.) I was proud of the way the team came back.”
Terry Bradshaw confirmed, “Chuck didn’t have to tell us anything. We just did not play football.”#
Comparing the two halves, Noll remarked, “Like two different games,” joking he would, “talk to the Cleveland writers about the first half and the Pittsburgh writers about the second half.”
“We got points from every turnover,” said Jack Ham. “That’s what turned the game around.”
1976 STEELERS FAVOURED BY SEVENTEEN AGAINST PATRIOTS
While knocking off the Dolphins 30-14 the previous week, the Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan enjoyed his finest game throwing three touchdown passes and adding a touchdown run of thirteen yards.
After being the dominate force in previous years, the Steelers pass defense had slipped to last in the conference, but it was of no apparent concern to the team. After giving up 375 total yards in each of their first two games, Coach Noll noted that statistics are misleading adding, “These things have a tendency to even out over the long haul.”
Having watched the films of the Steelers, former Cleveland player, now with the Patriots, offensive lineman Bob McKay acknowledged they still looked suspiciously like the Steelers of old. “I didn’t see much difference,” McKay offered. “They still have a helluva defensive line. “
That didn’t stop McKay from believing the Patriots offense could challenge that Steelers defense. “We’ve got a young team, but I think we’ve got a chance to go places.”
1976 game 3: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the New England Patriots
As expected, the Steelers took an early lead with Terry Bradshaw relying on a running game that drove eighty yards, finishing with Franco Harris powering in from the three. Two Pittsburgh fumbles, the first by Frenchy Fuqua and then one from Harris gave six points to New England as John Smith kicked field goals of 42 and 40 yards to reduce the Steelers lead to 7-6.
In the second quarter Jack Lambert recovered a fumble and returned it 35 yards to set up a Roy Gerela field goal of 32 yards. Rocky Bleier joined the fumblers, handing another three points to the Patriots with Smith kicking a 26-yard field goal. The kicking game continued as the half expired with Gerela adding three points for a Pittsburgh lead of 13-9.
On the Steelers first possession of the second half, Bradshaw guided his team 74 yards on 4 plays, including a 47-yard pass to Lynn Swann, completed by a 2-yd touchdown run from Harris.
New England hit back with their inspired quarterback Steve Grogan leading his team in a twelve minute burst to three touchdown drives of 63, 93 and 90 yards that gave the Patriots a 30-20 advantage as the game entered the final period.
A Patriot fumble was then recovered by Ernie Holmes and the opportunity taken by Bradshaw to connect on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Randy Grossman reducing the Steelers deficit to three points.
On the Patriots next series, an outstanding Holmes tackle forced them to punt and with 1:42 remaining, the Steelers had the chance to force overtime or a win, but a controversial intentional grounding call saw the Steelers stall. Bradshaw recovered the situation with a 32-yard completion on fourth down.
When another contentious penalty put the Steelers back, Gerela was faced with a field goal attempt in the rain of 48 yards. When the ball faded right, the Steelers suffered their second defeat of the season. The first time since 1970 the Steelers had lost two of their first three games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 27 vs the New England Patriots 30
Three Rivers Stadium September 26 1976; 47,379
Passing: Bradshaw 20-39-291-1TD-0; Grogan 13-32-257-2TD-2
Rushing: Harris 19-78, Bleier 11-49, Bradshaw 6-42, Walden 1-0
Receiving: Swann 4-97, Lewis 5-95, Grossman 7-67, Bleier 4-32
The usually stoic Coach Noll, was even more reflective, “I’m not normally gifted with a lot of words and after this one, I don’t not what to say.” Asked by a reporter if the loss made the road to the Super Bowl longer, Noll replied, “It was a long road when it started. It’s going to be the same.”
“I still think we have the best damn team in football,” offered Joe Greene.
“I’ve seen us lose and come back the following week madder than hornets,” said Bradshaw. “We’re gonna go up there to Minnesota and have a wing ding.”
Oakland 14 Houston 13
Cleveland 13 Denver 44
Green Bay 7 Cincinnati 28
STEELERS IN A SLUMP?
Having lost two of their opening three games, the Super Bowl champions were going to face a stern test in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football.
“We’ve got to win,” Terry Bradshaw projected. Insisting there was no complacency in the team, he still believed the Steelers retained their killer instinct. “I still think it’s there,” he added. “We haven’t panicked. We had it at the beginning and the end of the game last week.”
The concern in Pittsburgh centred on the 75 points in three games the defense had conceded. That’s wasn’t the form for a Super Bowl run and their next opponents were the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings. “I’d be alarmed if we continue giving up 25 points a game,” coach Noll declared.
Minnesota’s quarterback Fran Tarkenton observed, “I still see 11 All-Pro defensive players out there. I don’t think anybody has pushed them around.”
After watching film of the Patriots win over the Steelers, Tarkenton still thought the Steelers had an excellent defense, attributing the Patriots success to a few exceptionally well-executed plays by their offense.
“They’ll be the Central division champions when the season is over and people will forget they were 1-2,” Tarkenton added.
1976 game 4: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) at the Minnesota Vikings (2-0-1)
The Steelers began the game like the Super Bowl champions they were. With Fran Tarkenton out injured, his replacement Bob Lee initially struggled. Jack Lambert’s early interception put the Steelers on the Minnesota 24. Five plays later Bennie Cunningham hauled in Terry Bradshaw’s touchdown pass of one yard. Roy Gerela’s extra point attempt was deflected left.
After Bradshaw was intercepted in the second quarter, Minnesota scored a touchdown on Chuck Foreman’s 8-yard touchdown run to give them a 7-6 lead. Both teams missed field goal attempts and traded turnovers before the game moved into the final period.
With the ball on their own 27 and inches to go, the Steelers debated whether to go for it. Having decided to punt, Mike Webster snapped the ball over Bobby Walden’s head resulting in a Vikings recovery on the Steelers seven. Two Foreman runs later and Minnesota were 14-6 ahead.
Fred Cox kicked a field goal of 43 yards to complete the scoring before another Bradshaw interception saw the game pass beyond the Steelers reach.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 6 at the Minnesota Vikings 17
Metropolitan Stadium October 4th 1976; 47,809
Passing: Bradshaw 10-22-90-1TD-4; Lee 4-11-41-0TD-2
Rushing: Bleier 16-85, Bradshaw 5-47, Harris 17-34, Walden 2-7
Receiving: Swann 2-29, Harris 4-38, Cunningham 2-14, Bleier 2-9
“We’re playing like a damn semi-pro football team and I don’t know why,” said Jack Lambert. “Everything’s been said that needs to be said.”
When coach Noll was asked if he was still thinking about a third straight Super Bowl title, he replied, “You guys were the ones who were always talking about the Super Bowl. I don’t remember mentioning it.”
Cleveland 24 Cincinnati 45
New Orleans 26 Houston 31
STEELERS CONCERNS CONTINUE
Having slumped to 1-3, the question was being asked if the Steelers could still make the playoffs. The signs were not all bad as Baltimore had begun 1-4 in 1975 and still made it.
Coach Noll said the Steelers didn’t need excuses for their failures. “The team had to correct its mistakes and learn from them,” Noll offered. “The difference between 3-11 and 11-3 is not a helluva lot,” he added. “One thing just leads to another.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that Noll now faced one of the toughest tasks of his career. Having shown he can build a team from scratch, he now has to pull back together a team that had been on top. “Screaming won’t solve the problem,” Noll emphasised.
MIKE WEBSTER TOO MUCH A PRO FOOTBALL PLAYER
After the New England game, Mike Webster’s father rang him tell him that his last snap wasn’t very good. Webster junior argued and told his father he was crazy. A week later, Webster’s errant snap over the punter’s head gave up excellent field position to the Vikings who then scored a touchdown. Webster quipped that he had left the phone off the hook after that blunder.
Webster’s father had noticed that his son wasn’t looking through his legs at the punter before lifting his head and snapping it.
“I haven’t been looking all year,” admitted Webster. “I guess I got too cocky. Rad (line coach Dan Radakovich) told me I was acting too much like a pro football player.” Webster is now back to basics and taking that look. “It’s like every problem this team has. It’s easily correctable. It’s no big deal.”
Webster believes the Steelers can come back from their dismal start. “It’s a subconscious thing. I think after the last two years, we felt we were unbeatable. I think we felt all we had to do was go out there. Now we know what we have to do.”
STEELERS TRAVEL TO CLEVELAND
Because of their current slump, Terry Bradshaw felt the team were trying too hard. “Yeah, we probably are pressing,” Bradshaw told the Pittsburgh Press. “You want a win so badly, you go out there and read things into a defense that aren’t there. You over-analyse things.”
“Heck, just drop back, read the keys, and fire it,” Bradshaw is telling himself. “If a guy’s not there, throw it to somebody else.”
“You start to worry about things,” Bradshaw continued. “You go out there thinking you’re going to throw four interceptions. Heck, I might have five Sunday, but as long as we win, it’s okay.”
Caution, coach Noll tells his players breeds mistakes, cause fumbles, interceptions, etc., but Bradshaw felt that some of their mistakes against the Vikings were due to good hitting while others were due to mental mistakes.
Looking ahead to their next opponents, Bradshaw said, “Before we go anywhere, we’ve got to beat the people in our division. All I’m thinking about is Cleveland. If I was a prophet and could see the future, I’d give you the scoop. But all I know now is how bad we want to win up there.”
STEELERS LAST CHANCE SALOON?
For their next game, the Steelers travel to Cleveland in search of a win that has proven elusive since they played the Browns in Pittsburgh. As the Steelers slump continues, the game against their division rivals has become the moment of truth for the 1976 season.
“The best thing we can do now is forget what’s happened and just go out there and play our kind of football,” suggested Ray Mansfield. Speaking realistically, he added, “We have to work on getting a 2-3 record right now.”
Coach Noll’s thought were on the forthcoming game, not on what had gone before. “If you start describing or dwelling on that kind of stuff, you’ll be in the looney bin,” Noll offered. One of Noll’s favourite phrases is “basic fundamentals,” and the team need to return to their football basics if the season doesn’t evaporate around them.
The Steeler have fumbled the ball 18 times and lost 11 of those giveaways and that has contributed to their demise.
1976 game 5: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3) at the Cleveland Browns (1-3)
The Browns took the lead in the first period with Don Cockroft’s field goal from 43 yards after Jack Deloplaine fumbles on a punt return. As the Steelers appeared to be revitalised, a Greg Pruitt fumble saw Terry Bradshaw take the Steelers on a drive that finished with a 1-yard touchdown run from Franco Harris to put the Steelers ahead.
The teams exchanged field goals in the second quarter as the Steelers strived to keep their advantage before the gremlins returned.
In the third period, Browns quarterback Brian Sipe went off with a concussion.
A Cockcroft field goal attempt from 51 yards was blocked by Jack Lambert, recovered by the Steelers, fumbled at Pittsburgh’s 29 and then after a scramble, the Browns were awarded possession. Running back Pruitt came in for one play before their backup Dave Mays, a former World Football League player, came into the game.
Mays continued the drive that Cleo Miller’s 1-yard run finished to give the Browns six points to edge Cleveland 12-10 ahead after missing the extra point.
Two more Cockcroft field goals extended the Browns lead before in the final quarter Bradshaw went off on a stretcher after being slammed to the ground by Joe Jones which drew an unnecessary roughness penalty. Jack Lambert stood motionless on the sideline with his eyes fixed on his teammate with a look of disbelief and anger on his face at the same time.
Mike Kruczek came in for Bradshaw and played as well as could be expected for a rookie. Harris dropped a third down pass to bring Kruczek’s first drive to a halt before he led a 5-play scoring drive of 70 yards that he finished himself with a 22-yard touchdown run. The point after was blocked endorsing the sad state of Steelers football.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 16 at the Cleveland Browns 18
Municipal Stadium October 10th 1976; 76,411
Passing: Bradshaw 10-18-75-0TD-1; Kruczek 3-5-59-0TD-0;
Pruitt 1-1-29-0TD-0; Mays 5-9-70-0TD-0; Sipe 4-14-80-0TD-0; Cockcroft 0-1-0TD-0
Rushing: Kruczek 2-30, Bleier 8-25, Bradshaw 2-17, Harris 13-39, Walden 2-7
Receiving: Swann 3-74, Grossman 3-41, Lewis 1-6, Harris 6-13
The Browns sacked Bradshaw four times for a loss of 49 yards and outgained the Steelers 326-196 yards.
Coach Noll was philosophical in defeat. “We’ve had our share of good luck over the last few years and now it’s going the other way. The Browns beat the hell out of us in the second half.”
Jones defended his tackle that put Bradshaw out of the game. “You have to hold him because he likes to run so much.”
“Maybe we are playing too clean,” said Jack. “Teams are throwing our quarterbacks into the ground and maybe that’s what we should be doing. My philosophy is to play good, hard, aggressive football, and I’m not crying. What happened out there was uncalled for.”
Tampa 0 Cincinnati 21
Denver 3 Houston 17
Cincinnati Bengals 4-1
Houston Oilers 4-1
Cleveland Browns 2-3
Pittsburgh Steelers 1-4
GLOOM CONTINUES TO SPREAD OVER STEELERS
After three straight defeats and the signs for the rest of the season looking bleak, Art Rooney Sr. told reporters, “I feel bad, just as bad as the fans and the coaches and the players.” Having reflected on what he had said, Rooney added, “No. The coaches and players feel worse than the fans. They can forget it after a day or two, but the coaches have to live with it.”
The discouragement in Art Rooney was evident when he said, “I’ve seen it happen so many times when we had the better team and lost. That’s why it’s frustrating now. We have a Super Bowl championship team, a young team, a team that can win.”
Coach Noll told his weekly press conference, “If you want to be the champions, you have to win the close ones. We haven’t.” Returning to his back to basics doctrine, Noll added, “If you play fundamental football, winning takes care of itself. But if you worry about winning, you lose sight of the things which made you win.”
While the Steelers needed to pick themselves up, they also had to find a quarterback. Noll told reporters that Kruczek would start the next game against the Bengals, squashing any rumour than Terry Bradshaw’s injury wasn’t that bad.
Having let Terry Hanratty go and relying on just two quarterbacks on the roster, Noll confirmed that he would still do it again. “You can second guess yourself on every decision you make. You can decide to punt the ball and get a bad snap.” Regarding finding a backup, Noll said he wouldn’t go into the Bengals game without a reserve quarterback and that they had a list and were making calls.
KRUCZEK READY TO LEAD THE STEELERS AGAINST CINCINNATI
“Nobody wants to get a starting position through injury,” Mike Kruczek said. “But, being the backup, that’s the job. It’s tough to fill Terry’s shoes, but they keep you around because they’ve got confidence you have enough talent to play in the league.”
Despite the 1-4 gloom hanging over Pittsburgh’s season, Kruczek didn’t think it was finished already. “The people on this team have too much pride to let the season go down the drain,” he observed. “It isn’t down the drain now. We’ve only played five games.”
Seeing Bradshaw sprawled on the turf in Sunday’s game against Cleveland broke Kruczek up when he feared that Bradshaw might have a serious injury. Kruczek came on to show poise in leading his team on a scoring drive. “It happened so quick that I didn’t have much time to think about it,” Kruczek admitted.
Kruczek was the second quarterback taken in the draft and had shown the Steelers sufficient ability for them to let Hanratty go. He would need all his skill to lead the Steelers against the Bengals who were heading the division.
“They’ve got a tremendous team,” admitted Kruczek adding, “I’m trying to be as cool as possible. I’m not putting pressure on myself.”
STEELERS SIGN QUARTERBACK NEIL GRAFF
“I wasn’t doing anything, really. Just sightseeing,” the Steelers new backup quarterback Neil Graff (picture left) told the Pittsburgh media. “I haven’t touched a football in three weeks. I never gave any thought to the Steelers calling. I’ve never had any association with them and I didn’t know they were exposed to me.”
Chuck Noll confirmed, “He was the guy we wanted,” although maybe he was the only one available.
Graff was released by the expansion team Seattle before the regular season. Drafted originally by the Vikings in 1972, he was picked up as a free agent by the New England Patriots two years later before going to the Seahawks.
After the Steelers new starting quarterback Mike Kruczek had visited Terry Bradshaw in hospital, he said Bradshaw told him he got hit more times in the Cleveland game than he has in six years.
DIVISION LEADERS CINCINNATI NEXT
“He’s had a good week,” offered Chuck Noll. “That’s why we kept him,” added Noll on Kruczek. “We know Mike’s going to need all the help he can get,” admitted Mike Webster.
As with most games, the key to success against the Bengals will be with the quarterback. Although Terry Bradshaw had left hospital, the neck brace he was wearing indicated that he was in no position to return to the team.
Bradshaw admitted that when he was slammed into the ground during the game against the Browns, the pain was so intense he thought his neck was broken. Doctors who treated him also told him that many players would have suffered a broken neck.
Regarding the slump the Steelers were in, Andy Russell said, “The only antidote is winning.”
1976 game 6: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-4) vs the Cincinnati Bengals (4-1)
After the Bengals made it on a fourth and one early in the first quarter and finished that drive with a 22-yard field goal, it appeared the Steelers were still in decline.
Some Steeler fans may have viewed it as four points saved by a defense that finally put together their best game of the season. Protecting Mike Kruczek, the Steelers offense stayed primarily on the ground.
Franco Harris was the work horse for the Steelers, but after struggling in their first three series, he contributed two touchdowns and emerged with 41 carries setting an NFL record.
In the second quarter, the Steelers tied the game with a Roy Gerela field goal of 42 yards.
That sparked the defense with a Lambert interception that he returned 22 yards to the Bengals 38. The offense also found some life and Kruczek led his team on a touchdown drive. He threw a 19-yard completion to Lynn Swann and with five runs by Harris including his touchdown carry of 1-yard, the Steelers began to make a mark on the game.
Continuing his contribution, Lambert recovered a Cincinnati fumble enabling Pittsburgh to add a 40-yard field goal to increase their lead at halftime to 13-3.
After an interception at the end of the third period, Cincinnati kicked a field goal of 19 yards before Kruczek began a scoring drive of 66 yards. The series continued into the fourth quarter and finished with another 1-yard touchdown run from Harris.
The Steelers final drive saw them add another field goal of 30 yards to complete their first win in four games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 23 at the Cincinnati Bengals 6
Three Rivers Stadium October 17th 1976; 48,311
Passing: Kruczek 5-12-58-0TD-1; Anderson 13-31-129-0TD-2
Rushing: Harris 41-143, Kruczek 3-21, Fuqua 5-18, Bleier 6-19
Receiving: Swann 2-31, Lewis 1-17, Bleier 1-5, Pough 1-5
“The defense played as fine a game as they’ve ever played,” enthused Ray Mansfield. “If we play like we did today, we’ll win the rest of them. Nobody will beat us. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
“I was proud of the way Mike Kruczek played,” said coach Noll. “I thought he looked pretty damn good myself.”
“I hate losing more than anything,” said Jack Lambert. “Nothing makes me madder.” The Pittsburgh Press noted Lambert’s pants looked like a pig had been slaughtered on them. “It’s mine, I guess,” Jack Lambert said of the blood and then lifted a right forefinger that appeared to have stopped a bullet. “It’s no big secret that we have to win the rest of our games,” added Lambert.
Sending in the plays from the sideline to Kruczek was a big change in Noll’s normal philosophy. He didn’t believe in sending in all the plays, even when Terry Bradshaw was having problems in his early days.
Kruczek had missed the beginning of training camp due to the College All-Star game and Noll explained that the rookie hadn’t the chance to work and learn the system.
Cleveland 20 Atlanta 17
Houston 27 San Diego 30
1976 TALK AGAIN OF DIVISION TITLE
With their victory against Cincinnati, once again the talk in Pittsburgh was of winning the division. At his weekly press conference, the ever pragmatist Coach Noll reminded the media that the Steelers’ fate no longer rested in their own hands. They needed other teams to lose as well as the Steelers to win all theirs.
While fans were checking the schedule of their division rivals, Noll admitted, “If we let ourselves get emotionally involved in other team’s schedules, it can affect what we are doing. If we get help, fine. But we have enough problems just trying to win the rest of them.”
When one reporter tried to continue that line of questioning and asked for Noll’s thoughts on the following weekend’s top clash with Cincinnati at Houston, Noll bluntly replied, “How would you rather die?”
If the Steelers are going to get killed by Cincinnati or Houston, Noll couldn’t care less which team did it. “We haven’t got the luxury of looking ahead at schedules,” he added. “We have to block that all out of our minds. That’s for the fans to do. I don’t even want to get into it. That’s the fun of being a fan.”
DID THE STEELERS THINKING THEY HAD ‘ARRIVED’ PRODUCE THEIR POOR PERFORMANCES?
In answer to the question of how back to back Super Bowl winners could lose four of its first five games, often the reason given was the team thought they had arrived.
“I think it definitely could have been a factor,” offered Rocky Bleier. “You get to thinking you’re better than you are. You feel all you have to do is go out there and you’re going to win. And it’s not necessarily true.”
Randy Grossman’s take was, “You’re only a human being. You win two Super Bowls and it’s easy to let up a little. Pretty soon you think you can be good without work.” Grossman said the feeling was present as early as training camp.
“I personally don’t feel we prepared for a Super Bowl the way we prepared in the past,” Grossman added. This year it was a known quantity of what it took to get to the Super Bowl. Before it was an unknown quantity.”
“It was a lousy training camp,” Joe Greene observed. “It was very blah. There was no zip. It was completely different to the ’75 camp when everybody was saying how they knew we could defend our championship. In ’75 it was a training camp full of hope. This camp was more or less indifference.
Maybe I am as wrong as hell because I had my own (injury) problems to worry about and it was a lousy camp for me.”
Mel Blount took the opposite view saying, “I don’t think anybody on this team thought all they had to do was show up. It was a good training camp. A lot of learning took place. I can’t remember a better one.”
Mike Webster added, “I don’t think the arrival thing was much a factor. You know if you don’t produce, they’re going to get somebody else in there. Chuck is always drilling into us that you can’t just turn it on when the season starts.”
“It’s hard to say what the real reasons are,” said Lynn Swann. “Some are obvious, some are obscure, some are bizarre, but everybody here knows we have the talent to be the best.”
REGGIE HARRISON WANTS TO MOVE ON
Running back Reggie Harrison has had enough of playing special teams and is looking to be traded. “I feel I could start somewhere,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “If I didn’t feel I could play, I wouldn’t make a statement.”
Harrison had no complaints with the Steelers. “It’s a great organisation and I think they can see my point. They’ll help me find a good place. I’m just as proud as anybody of the Steeler uniform, but I’ve also got self-pride.”
Harrison just doesn’t want to play another year on special teams. He wants to become a full-time running back and with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in front of him, feels he has little chance.
“I could sit on the bench and collect the money and never say a word, but I want to play and I haven’t had the opportunity,” he added.
1976 Game 7: The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) at the New York Giants (0-6)
In the rain, both offenses struggled in the first half while the officials were working overtime with their yellow dusters. Having missed an early field goal, the Steelers closed out the last two minutes of the half with ten points.
While Mike Kruczek is still learning his trade as the Steelers quarterback, he led the drive that opened the scoring with a 29-yard completion to Ernie Pough on a third and 15. Runs from Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris complemented Kruczek’s work with Harris running it in from the one for the touchdown.
With an interception on the Giants next possession by J.T. Thomas, Roy Gerela’s field goal from 28 yards added three points as the half expired.
After a scoreless third period, a Larry Brown recovery of a Giants fumble on a punt return set the Steelers up on their opponents’ 24. Five plays later, another one yard plunge from Harris increased the Steelers lead to 17-0.
A 36-yard punt return from Jack Deloplaine set up a 28-yard field goal before Frank Lewis finished the scoring with a 16-yard reverse and the Steelers produced their first shutout in 22 games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 27 at the New York Giants 0
Giants Stadium October 24th 1976; 69,783
Passing: Kruczek 12-19-120-0-0;
Rushing: Harris 27-106-2TD, Bleier 9-54, Kruczek 1-17, Lewis 1-16-1TD, Deloplaine 4-17, Harrison 5-20
Receiving: Pough 1-29, Lewis 3-43, Bleier 3-32, Swann 1-4, Harris 4-12
Coach Noll admitted, “We were damn lucky we won with 19 penalties. We’ve got to really look at this thing if we are doing something flagrant.”
Six of the penalties were for holding and Noll suggested the reporters interview the officials. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. The thing that ticks me off is that we don’t think we hold. If we lose a game because of that, it’s a crime.”
Offensive captain Sam Davis said of the number of flags, “Whenever somebody got called for a penalty, we told them to forget it. We were trying to keep together. It’s easy to get down, but we kept coming back. That probably more than anything helped us come out of it.”
Giants Clyde Powers observed of his opponents, “They know how to get out of a hole. When things go bad, they pull together. We go our separate ways and try to play as individuals.
A NICE QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY FOR STEELERS
With the injury to Terry Bradshaw, backup Mike Kruczek led the Steelers out of the doldrums with two victories, but with Bradshaw’s recovery almost complete, the question of who would play against their next opponents was on the fans’ lips.
“I don’t make the decision, offered Noll on whether Bradshaw was fit to play. “The doctor has to say there is no risk,” although Noll indicated that he would definitely start if physically able to. The coach was keen to get Bradshaw back into action when he is able so he doesn’t get rusty.
Bradshaw thought Kruczek should start, maintaining the team should go with the hot hand. “We’ve won two in a row with Mike,” said Bradshaw. “I say stick with him.”
When Bradshaw worked his first practice in full, he showed some signs of his inactivity. “I’m a little sore and Chuck said I was trying too hard and forcing my passes,” Bradshaw explained after the workout. “I’m going to do my best to avoid any head-on collisions out there,” he added, “but I feel pretty good.”
BRADSHAW FULL OF DOUBTS
Despite his two Super Bowl wins, Bradshaw is remembered more by some neutrals for his dropped balls than the great plays that have produced Steeler victories.
While sidelined some of the veterans were giving Bradshaw a pat on the back, reminding him that he was the team’s main man. “Some of them have come up to me to encourage me,” said Bradshaw. “They want me to come back, but if I can’t, they will play for Mike.”
Because of his poor start, the veterans appeared to have more confidence in Bradshaw than he had in himself after a 1-4 record on the season. “The main thing on my mind is they’ve won two games with Mike. I’m really aware of that. I don’t want to feel like I’m the reason for losing.”
With just two days to go before their game against San Diego, Coach Noll hinted he would still be calling the plays even if Bradshaw does play. Noll is traditionally against sending plays in from the bench, but the concerns over Bradshaw coming back from a serious injury were evident.
Bradshaw had no objection if Noll did send the plays in. “I usually like to call my own game, but if we just do it for the rest of the year, it’ll be no problem… as long as he doesn’t do it next year.
STEELERS TO STICK WITH THEIR SUCCESSFUL RUNNING GAME?
With a rookie leading the team at quarterback, the Steelers had changed their game plan to an overriding running game and won back to back contests. “I’ll ride that son of a gun,” agreed Bradshaw. “I’ll run the ball,” he confirmed when he returns.
Franco Harris leads the AFC in touchdowns with nine, all on the ground.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 Regular Season part II>>>