1977 Exhibition game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the Buffalo Bills
The two team exchanged touchdowns in the first two quarters with a Buffalo team, without O.J. Simpson, striking first before Terry Bradshaw found Lynn Swann with a 15-yard scoring completion.
A 2-yard touchdown run by Buffalo’s quarterback Joe Ferguson followed in the second quarter before Bennie Cunningham pulled in Neil Graff’s pass for a Steelers 25-yard score that gave a 14-14 halftime score line.
Buffalo took a three-point lead with a 28-yard field goal going into the final period, but Pittsburgh put together two scoring drives finished by an inspired Bradshaw with a 62-yard pass to John Stallworth and then a 66-yard bomb to Ernie Pough.
The Steelers had decided to focus on their passing game during the sixty minutes and when Bradshaw was called back into the game after a rib injury to Graff, it paid off with his two touchdown throws.
Pittsburgh had taken their first lead of the game and held on with Buffalo completing the scoring with sixteen seconds left in the game on their rookie quarterback Ken Johnson’s 5-yard run.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 vs the Buffalo Bills 24
Three Rivers Stadium August 8 1977; 49,600
“I felt good, but it wasn’t the Super Bowl,” said Bradshaw before adding, “I can throw a lot crisper.”
Coach Noll wasn’t content with the win. “The negative part was our mental assignments and the mistakes we made on offense, defense and the kicking game.”
After the game, Dan Rooney walked up to Joe Greene and gave him a firm handshake. “I shake hands with you a lot of times, but this is for being captain,” Rooney said to the team’s new defensive captain. After the retirement of Andy Russell, Coach Noll named Greene as captain.
Any joy about a Steelers victory disappeared when the news arrived in Latrobe of the death of rookie Randy Frisch in an auto accident. Frisch, a defensive tackle out of Missouri, was killed and fellow rookie Dave Grinaker seriously injured.
Cliff Stoudt particularly felt the pain as he had loaned his car to Frisch to drive back to Latrobe while he stayed in Pittsburgh.
HIGH STAKES IN THE LAMBERT POKER GAME
While the rest of the team attempted to go through preseason with their focus on playing football, there was a different game being played out behind the scenes. When Joe Greene was named the defensive team captain to replace Andy Russell, the agent of Jack Lambert said the player felt hurt.
“Jack is taking this very personally now,” said Greg Lustig, Lambert’s attorney, claiming Noll and linebacker coach Woody Widenhofer phoned Lambert before the start of training camp to offer Lambert the position of captain if he came to camp.
“Unfortunately, Jack really wanted the captain’s job,” continued Lustig. “He considered it a tremendous honour. It was very important to him, but he was insulted when they tried to use it as a wedge. He took it as a cheap shot.”
Dan Rooney suggested the player’s agent, Bucky Woy, wasn’t doing a very good job of running the publicity campaign from Dallas, adding he couldn’t didn’t think the agent could do a good job of running the football from there either.
“Our position is that we want Jack back,” offered Rooney. “We think he’s a Rooney. I didn’t hear anything new in their statement that I didn’t hear in the past. I’m still very hopeful we will get him back. A lot of guys who have been out of other camps are coming in.”
Woy insisted Lambert wouldn’t play until his demands were met. “There’s nothing to negotiate,” he said. “They can pay him or trade him.”
1977 Exhibition game 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Kansas City Chiefs
Fortunately for the Steelers, this was just a preseason game. With the veterans starting, the Steelers led 14-0 after the first quarter, despite a Terry Bradshaw fumble and an interception in the end zone.
Cliff Stoudt came on during the second period supported by four other rookies and had a nightmare. He fell down once and threw three interceptions as the Chiefs came back into the game reducing their deficit to 13-14 at halftime.
Mike Kruczek was given an outing in the third quarter, but was unable to put any points on the board until the rookie linemen were pulled by the Coach Noll. Kansas took the lead in the final quarter before Kruczek, with the veteran linemen back in, was able to put an 80-yard drive together. When Laverne Smith finished it with a touchdown run of 10 yards, the Steelers were 21-20 ahead.
With just 15 seconds left, Jan Stenerud kicked a 29-field goal to hand the Chiefs the win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 at the Kansas City Chiefs 23
Arrowhead Stadium August 12 1977; 28,584
“We tried to play some young people,” said Coach Noll, “but they made too many mistakes and it killed us,” before adding, “mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.” Of Stoudt’s unfortunate performance, Noll observed, “He got his feet wet.”
“It doesn’t feel good to lose, even in preseason,” Joe Greene observed. “But some good will come out of this. We always do good after we lose.”
INJURIES HIT STEELERS DEFENSE
With the next exhibition game approaching against the Jets, the Steelers defense was falling by the wayside although defensive line coach George Perles was still upbeat. “We’ve got such good depth that we never have an excuse for playing a guy who has a minor ailment,” Perles told reporters.
Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and Steve Furness were the ailing players. Gary Dunn would be making the first start of his career after being placed on injured reserve before game six of the previous season.
“This is a coming out party for Dunn,” declared Perles. “There’s a difference between starting and just finishing up somebody else’s work. We want to find out now what will happen if we had to use him against somebody like Cincinnati. I think we can win with him.”
John Banaszak, in his third year with the team, would also have an opportunity to make an impression. “I was just battling my first two years, but now I feel I’ve got a chance to contribute as part of the front four,” Banaszak offered. “George has a good problem, if you want to call it a problem. We’ve got what amounts to a front six.”
The Steelers fourth round draft selection, Dan Audick, was claimed by the Browns after being placed on waivers. The Steelers then took him off waivers and swapped him to the Browns for an undisclosed draft pick.
They’re a better team than they were last year,” suggested Coach Noll after viewing film of the New York Jets. With Joe Namath now in Los Angeles, the Jets would display a different game plan to the team the Steelers thrashed 41-6 in the final preseason game of 1976.
1977 Exhibition game 3: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the New York Jets
Terry Bradshaw led the Steelers first string offense on three series that destroyed the Jets with three touchdowns. Completing 9 of 11 passes for 91 yards in the first quarter to produce two touchdowns that gave his team a lead they were not to relinquish. Bradshaw threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Swann (picture left) before a 16-yarder to Frank Lewis.
Rookie Neil Graff played with mainly backups in the second and third periods that produced two field goals. The Steelers took a 16-0 lead with a 40-yard attempt before the Jets Richard Todd scored their only touchdown on a one yard quarterback sneak at the end of the first half.
The patched up Steelers defense managed to restrict the Jets to that one touchdown and two field goals.
In the final quarter, Bradshaw returned to put together a 13-play series of 68 yards, completed by Reggie Harrison’s touchdown sprint of 10 yards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 26 at the New York Jets 13
East Rutherford August 20 1977; 33,409
“We made a lot of improvement and eliminated the mistakes,” ventured Coach Noll. “It was a better effort all the way down the line,” he added.
Joe Greene was also enthusiastic declaring, “We’re looking forward to a banner year. We’re gonna be the champs.”
“I really threw well,” offered Terry Bradshaw. “I was crisp. My arm felt good and I was getting rid of the ball quickly and that’s always a good sign. I had a lot of fun. It was like letting a young colt loose in the field.”
ROONEY MAKING A POINT
With the contract negotiations with Jack Lambert and his agent Bucky Woy still at stalemate, Dan Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he thought the player and Woy were confused as to what a legitimate offer was.
“I’ll never say I can’t afford a player because, oh, we are in a small stadium, or this is Pittsburgh and not New York,” Rooney added. “But the game can’t afford the sort of escalation of salary they want.”
Woy took the position that in Lambert the Steelers have the game’s finest defensive talent and should pay him accordingly. “The escalation wouldn’t stop with Jack Lambert,” suggested Rooney.
“There are guards and tackles on this football team as important as the middle linebacker. Without our front four, maybe I wouldn’t want to play middle linebacker on our football team.”
His words reflected Oakland’s Gene Upshaw’s observation, “There isn’t a team in football that hides its linebackers better than Pittsburgh. They have skinny little runts hiding behind those big defensive tackles where nobody can get at them.”
Mr. Rooney was conciliatory when stating the football business is the athletes. “We can’t get the public hating the athletes. Our business is selling football. I’d like Jack Lambert and Mel Blount to be playing football right now.
The reason we have not signed Lambert is the amount of money they want and the fact they have not budged from their original figure. Sure he is a great football player, but that does not mean we will pay wages that are not realistic.”
MIKE COLLIER CONCERNED ABOUT NFL CAREER
In his rookie season, Mike Collier returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown and rushed for a 5.9 yards average. After wasting his second year on injured reserve, Collier was now looking forward to making up for lost time, but was troubled by the current situation with the strength in depth of the Steelers running backs.
If the Steelers let him go, Collier was concerned there was little film of his potential for other teams to view because of his absence the previous season and his lack of playing time this preseason. In the Steelers three exhibition games, Collier has only rushed five times and returned one kick.
His teammates urge him not to be thinking about it, but Collier sighed, “But how can you keep from thinking about it? They are established veterans. They can go anywhere else and play.”
Collier had a chance to play against Pittsburgh’s next opponents the Patriots because of injuries, but he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the possibility.
Despite Coach Noll suggesting he had pencilled Collier in for more work against New England, Collier argued, “I don’t think I’ll play that much. This is a very important game for us. It’s time for the regulars to start going a half instead of just a quarter or a few plays.”
QUARTERBACK NEIL GRAFF TO FACE OLD TEAM
“This will be a big game,” Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan observed about the Steelers’ next exhibition game. “Once you get past the first three exhibition games, things start to get serious,” he added. With the roster cuts due, for many players it will be a huge game.
Steelers’ Neil Graff (picture left) would be reflecting on what might have been when he takes to the field for the New England game. Graff had been backup to the Patriots Jim Plunkett in 1975 and found himself promoted to their starting quarterback when Plunkett was injured.
Graff was due to start the last exhibition game and the first regular season game that year, but the Patriots went on strike cancelling the preseason game and restricting the week of practice before the season opener.
“It didn’t help my progress,” suggested Graff. “The strike came at a crucial time. There were a lot of bitter feelings. It wasn’t a good way to begin a season.” Graff was at the helm when New England lost their first two games before Plunkett returned. When Plunkett was injured again, rookie Steve Grogan was given the nod and seized the opportunity to shine.
Graff had been signed by the Steelers in October 1976 when an injury to Terry Bradshaw saw them seek insurance for the quarterback position. With the Steelers drafting Cliff Stoudt, the competition for the third-string slot would be fierce.
“I thought I came to camp at a disadvantage because they drafted a rookie quarterback,” said Graff. “They usually like to have a rookie for the third-string quarterback so they can bring him along slowly. I thought I’d have to be head and shoulders above him to beat him out and I don’t know if I’ve done that. I guess I feel guarded optimism.”
1977 Exhibition game 4: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the New England Patriots
Both teams struggled in the extreme high temperature that saw one official temporarily leave the field with mild heat prostration. A Terry Bradshaw fumble gave an early to the Patriots, but Steve Grogan handed the ball back to the Steelers when his pass was battered by Joe Greene into the hands of LC Greenwood who took his prize 15 yards into the end zone to give his team the lead.
With the Steelers defense holding their opponents at bay, Bradshaw was consistently missing his wide receivers producing just 6 completions from 18 attempts in the first half. Despite the misfiring quarterback, the Steelers managed to add a 39-yard field goal in the second quarter while keeping their opponents scoreless to take a 10-0 lead into the locker room.
The Patriots kicked a 41-yard field goal in the third period. In the final minute of the game, Grogan found tight end Russ Francis in the end zone with a 6-yard touchdown pass that tied the game 10-10. When the Steelers went three and out on their final possession, it enabled New England to take the win when John Smith kicked a field goal from 32 yards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 10 at the New England Patriots 13
Schaefer Stadium Foxboro August 28 1977; 43,779
“I knew it was going to a bad day when I couldn’t throw a spiral when warming up,” admitted Terry Bradshaw. “I threw enough ducks out there today for a duck hunter to get his limit. I embarrassed myself out there and there’s absolutely no call for it.”
“Some things out there were very good, and some things were not very good,” summed up Coach Noll. “But we’re not ticking on all cylinders by a long shot. We didn’t play very well offensively, but defensively, we played like champs I’m sure the heat had something to do with it, but it affected both teams.”
JACK LAMBERT BACK WITH THE TEAM
“It’s been a long road,” disclosed Lambert (picture left with Terry Bradshaw) when he spoke to reporters after his first day back with the Steelers. “I’m glad it’s over. It’s a load lifted off my shoulders.”
Lambert had signed a new contract that kept him in Pittsburgh for five years, but a non-disclosure clause meant the figures were unknown although his agent implied the player was Pittsburgh’s newest millionaire. Lambert suggested it would Uncle Sam would be the millionaire not him.
Despite the Steelers defensive woes with injuries, the plan was to ease Lambert back. Linebackers coach Woody Widenhofer reminded reporters about Henry Davis, who injured his neck in a Saturday game after reporting back on a Wednesday in 1974 when the players’ strike was resolved. Although it wasn’t certain the injury was a direct result of the lack of practice, but the coach wasn’t going to take a chance.
“He’s in decent shape, but he needs to be pushed and he needs a lot of contact,” observed Widenhofer on Lambert’s condition. “I still can’t believe I’m here,” enthused Lambert.
STEELERS HOST PHILADELPHIA
“I’m concerned about injuries,” Noll emphasised as thoughts turned to the next preseason game against Philadelphia. The Eagles coach Dick Vermell had a reputation for running their training as a drill instructor at a boot camp and Noll hinted there was no indication of insubordination among the troops. “It looks like they are believing,” said Noll. “They are a group of guys who are hard to knock down.”
Coach Noll also needed to address the apathetic performance of his offense against the Patriots. Terry Bradshaw was convinced that his 6 completions out of 18 attempts was due to throwing the ball with too much sidearm.
1977 Exhibition game 5: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the Philadelphia Eagles
The Steelers offense continued where they left off from their previous game - sluggishly. Fans booed them off the field at the end of a first half that saw them trailing the Eagles 0-13. For their opponents, Ron Jaworski hit Harold Carmichael with a 19-yard touchdown followed by two field goals.
Known for his conservative play calling, Coach Noll chose this preseason game to gamble in an attempt to spark his offense into life.
With a fourth down on their opponents 13, Bradshaw unfastened his chin strap and began to walk off the field believing it would be a field goal attempt, but his coach had other ideas. Noll waved Bradshaw back into the huddle and the quarterback promptly fired a 12-yard completion to Lynn Swann to give the team a first down.
Reggie Harrison’s 1-yard dive gave the Steelers the score and snapped them out of their apathy. On Pittsburgh’s next series, Bradshaw led them 73 yards in nine plays and completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth that edged them into a one point lead.
As time expired, Sid Thornton added a touchdown run of 10 yards to give the Steelers a 21-13 victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 vs the Philadelphia Eagles 13
Three Rivers Stadium September 2 1977; 49548
“It’s attitude,” said Bradshaw. “You’ve got to go out there and have a feel for the game. We’re just out there going through the motions.
When we came out there, everything was flat. The stadium was flat. Everything was flat. It could be because we have a lot of guys injured or maybe because of all the heat in New England last Sunday, but it’s not that we know this team can’t do it.”
“There were two different kinds of performances,” observed Coach Noll. “The first half was different than the second half. From our standpoint, we played better. From the Eagles standpoint, they used different people.”
Lambert, who played on special teams and for a quarter in his usual position, appreciated the fine reception he received. “It made me feel real good,” he said. “I’m a human being. Hell, everybody wants to be accepted. I expected a few boos. You can’t please everybody. Some people don’t feel you should try to do what you feel is right.
ROY GERELA HEARS THE BOOS
“I’m not bothered by it,” suggested Roy Gerela talking about the boos he received when missing a chip shot that hit the upright against Philadelphia. After explaining he slipped on the wet grass he added, “Maybe they are just getting tired of me.” “If they are, fine. Get somebody else. I can always move on.”
Picked up from waivers from Houston in 1971, Gerela said, “Maybe I make it look too easy and spoil people. Seven years is a long time for a kicker with one team.”
When the team slumped to 1-4 at the beginning of the 1976 season, Gerela also struggled before suffering calf and groin injuries. Now he’s healthy, he insisted he wouldn’t let the fans rattle him. “Kicking is hard enough without worrying about that.
They can get on me all they want. That kick against the Eagles was just one of those things. I only get a one-shot effort and it sticks in everybody’s mind. Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, everybody else – they all get second and third chances.”
MEL BLOUNT READY TO RETURN
Having expressed he would never play for the Steelers again, Mel Blount said he would return if the price was right. “I was asking for $1.3 million,” said Blount, but I’ll settle for $1.2 million, nothing less.”
Blount’s current contract still has three years to run and the Steelers organisation do not make a practice of renegotiating contracts. “Ball players don’t realise their worth,” Blount said. “They are afraid to ask. If you establish yourself as a star, you ought to be paid that way.”
The details of Jack Lambert’s contract had not been revealed, but that didn’t deter Blount from suggesting, “Lambert’s contract opened a lot of eyes.”
TONY DUNGY SURVIVES CUT
In three years, the Steelers had kept only one free agent on the roster, John Banaszak. Tony Dungy now doubled that figure to two. “Before I got here I thought I had a real good shot,” Dungy told the Pittsburgh Press. “They always make it sound like they really want you. But when I got here and saw how good everybody was, I thought I’d be gone after the first week.”
While the team were in Latrobe for training camp though, Dungy wasn’t the most popular member of the team.
He was making the transition from receiver to defensive back so spent afternoons and evening running game film through the projector and the projector interfered with the players’ television reception. “Every afternoon, right in the middle of my soap opera,” moaned J.T. Thomas.
“Everybody was getting on me,” Dungy told reporters. “Pretty soon I had to watch film early in the morning so I wouldn’t interfere with their reception.”
Coach Noll asked Dungy to switch position partly because of the absence of Blount. A former quarterback, Dungy wasn’t sure what a defensive back did. “I knew some of the coverages because of throwing against them in college, but I didn’t know anything about the techniques. You got to run fast backwards. As a quarterback, I took maybe three or four steps forward.”
“I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way in the last five or six weeks,” Dungy enthused.
Cliff Stoudt was put on waivers July 31. Despite the Packers looking for a quarterback and having shown interest in drafting Stoudt before he was taken by Pittsburgh, he was signed again by the Steelers.
For 1977, each team in the NFL had a roster of 43 complemented by a two-man taxi squad. To be assigned to the taxi squad, players had to first clear waivers.
The final exhibition game of the 1977 preseason would see the Steelers travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys and the 1976 Heisman Trophy winning Tony Dorsett, formerly of Pittsburgh University.
Two first round draft picks would face each other as Dorsett would line up against the Steelers’ Robin Cole who, for a rookie, was seeing a lot of playing time with the injury to Loren Toews.
“Robin is a bit of a nasty guy,” noted Steelers linebackers coach Woody Widenhofer. “By that, I mean he’s a clean hitter. He loves contact. He really wants to be the best. Robin is very intense. In that way, he has a very similar temperament to Lambert.
With Dorsett recovering from a bruised knee, the game would see former Steeler Preston Pearson start for Dallas.
1977 Exhibition game 6: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Dallas Cowboys
As the Steelers juggled their roster spots, they placed punter Bobby Walden on waivers and gave Terry Bradshaw his kicking duties. Maybe Bradshaw’s focus was in the wrong place as the offense spluttered to an embarrassing shutout.
Bradshaw was averaging 45 yards on his first five punts, but when his sixth was blocked setting up a Dallas touchdown and giving Bradshaw a thigh injury, Roy Gerela took over the duties.
Dallas marched all over an injury hit Steelers defense taking a 17-0 lead into the locker room at halftime before adding a further 13 points in the second half.
The Steelers passing game, shared by Bradshaw and Kruczek was non-existent, managing a measly 52 yards.
Pearson and Dorsett each managed 34 yards on 12 carries.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 0 at the Dallas Cowboys 30
Texas Stadium September 8 1977; 49,824
“You saw it as well as I did,” Noll tersely told reporters. “It was a good tail-kicking in the simplest terms.” Not offering excuses for the injuries, Noll added, “That was the sum and substance of it. We didn’t do anything well and they did everything right.”
Terry Bradshaw observed, “Chuck says you can’t just turn on the switch, but if there is a switch to be turned on, we better find it and turn it on. It’s time to open up the furnaces. It’s time to play football, not no time to be messin’ around.”
Guard Jim Clack said, “It’s tough to say whether it was injuries or what. It’s embarrassing, frustrating… you can name 100 different adjectives. The biggest thing is, I just say thank the Lord the exhibition season is over so we can get a lot of our injured people healthy, referring to the ten days before the season opener.
1977 SEASON PREDICTIONS
The Post-Gazette projected the Steelers to win the division again, but the Press picked the Bengals to end Pittsburgh’s domination, based on the number of high draft choices Cincinnati had enjoyed over the previous few years. The Bengals’ suspect defense had been strengthened the Press suggested while the Steelers were missing Mel Blount and their defensive line had been hit by injury.
Both newspapers agreed that with Steve Grogan at quarterback the improved Patriots would be contesting the AFC Championship and the Raiders would cruise to the Western division title again.
The Steelers kicker Bobby Walden combined running back with punting at the University of Georgia before continuing the two roles in the CFL with Edmonton. He then entered the NFL when the Vikings signed him in 1964 exclusively as a kicker.
The Pittsburgh Press noted that each year the veterans chuckle at Walden’s aloofness towards rookie kickers. If asked, Walden willingly gave advice to them, otherwise he pretended the competition didn’t exist and usually it didn’t.
With the Steelers, Walden has been consistently good and regularly finished among the most efficient punters in the league. In 1976, less than half his punts were returned and the Steelers were placed second in the NFL in average return yards (5.7).
“I think I could punt another two, three years,” Walden predicted, before adding, “I really do.”
In his new role as defensive captain, Joe Greene was upbeat when looking ahead at the forthcoming season following the team’s mauling in the last exhibition game in Dallas. “There’s nothing wrong with this team that can’t be corrected out there on the Tartan Turf, in chalk sessions and watching film,” Greene offered.
“I would be worried if I thought it was irreversible,” he added. “We should be at a point where we’re not making mental mistakes. Surprisingly, in the Dallas game, we made football mistakes. We’re weren’t aggressive enough and missed tackles, but the mistakes weren’t due to our scheme.”
COACH NOLL WORRIED AS THE SEASON APPROACHED?
Calling the Steelers showing in Dallas, “the bottom of the barrel in every way”, Coach Noll noted, “There were no saving graces. We were embarrassed by the whole affair.”
“I have to be worried,” he said. “Anybody would be worried,” he added before being asked if there had been anything positive in the exhibition season. “I can’t see anything right now,” Coach Noll retorted.
STEELERS 1977 SEASON BEGINS ON MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
“The 49ers will be ready for their game with the toughest team in football,” promised San Francisco coach Jack White. Having lost five of their six preseason games, White responded to the suggestion that there was something amiss with the team.
“Not a damn thing, this club is just starting to come into its own,” White reacted. “We’ve had bruises, people banged up.”
“Don’t under estimate Jim Plunkett,” the coach warned. “Plunkett had a good preseason.”
Steelers 1977 regular season begins>>>