THE EARLY BRADSHAW YEARS
The first step toward building a stronger team came again in late January through the draft. The Steelers would not be as high in the drafting order as in past years, but they knew what they wanted. "A big, strong running back," Art Rooney, Jr. said. "A real superstud who can take some of the heat off Terry Bradshaw."
Rooney wanted Franco Harris, the 6-foot 2-inch, 230-pound fullback from Penn State who ran with the sudden acceleration of a sprinter. Noll was not convinced. He had heard scouts say Harris was moody and uncoachable, a great talent who only produced on those days when the moon and stars of his heavens coincided.
Noll preferred Robert Newhouse, a stumpy 5-foot 9-inch, 205-pound product of Houston who had shown more consistency during his college career.
"I made the thing into a personal campaign," Rooney said. "I felt Harris was a far superior prospect, and I set out to convince Chuck of that. I finally made a study in which I proved that big running backs have longer and more consistent careers than the little guys. Little guys like Dickie Post and Mike Garrett might have one great year but you almost never see a little guy put two great ones back-to-back. Chuck listened to my argument for a while, and finally said, `Okay, I'll go along with you, but you'd better be right about this guy."'
For a while Art Rooney, Jr. was worried. Franco reported to camp late after a prolonged contract impasse and spent the first couple weeks jogging to get his legs in shape. The other Steelers, meanwhile, were driving hard twice a day to smooth out the timing and prepare for the regular season.
The talk around the clubhouse during those days wasn't exactly pumping Franco for rookie of the year, or even rookie of the week, for that matter. Bradshaw remembers, "I saw him in camp and said, `This is our first round draft pick and he's jogging? We're building our running game around him and he's jogging? What kind of stuff is this?"'
But a unique feeling of togetherness inspired the Steelers during their enforced retreat at St. Vincent's College. There were no small cliques or factions. It was as though they knew this could be their year to scramble out of the shadows and into the winner's circle.
"The whole camp feels the unity," said Bruce Van Dyke, the veteran offensive guard. "Two years ago we'd go for a beer and maybe there would be five or six guys in the place. Now eighty percent of the team is there, drinking together, laughing together, enjoying each other. Unity: you need it. I came into the huddle the other day and said, 'Hey, Terry, you're not your old, bright self today.' He said, `I'm not gonna smile until we win the division.' It's on everybody's mind."
The Steelers opened the regular season with a 34-28 win over the formidable Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium. The Raiders fought back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, which made it close, but Bradshaw, looking as poised as a 10-year veteran, caught the Raiders in a blitz and burned them with an audible.
Bradshaw spotted the defense playing for a run, so he checked off to a fly pattern for Shanklin. Shanklin beat cornerback Nemiah Wilson one-on-one for the 57-yard touchdown catch that wrapped up the game. "I wouldn't say we're the best necessarily," Dwight White announced. "But we can play with the best."
The winning ended abruptly the following Sunday, when the Steelers' offense fizzled against Cincinnati in a 15-10 loss. All the Bengals' points came on field goals by Horst Muhlmann. The loss infuriated Noll.
"Our defense didn't allow a single touchdown, and we still couldn't win," the coach said. "Our offense could not have beaten a Little League team today. Our special teams were lousy. Our kicking stunk. Maybe we got fat after winning the opener, I don't know. All I know is these guys better not get complacent. We won our opener in 1969, too, and I don't have to tell you what happened after that."
What happened after that, of course, was that the Steelers lost their next 16 league games.
The following Sunday the Steelers were about to lose their second straight game, but Bradshaw hit Frank Lewis with a 38-yard touchdown pass with 1:06 remaining to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 25-19. "They say Pittsburgh is gonna win its division," Cardinals head coach Bob Hollway said, "and that's how you get there, coming back and taking it away from somebody else."
"I was really proud of the guys," Bradshaw exclaimed. "They showed the mark of guys keeping their cool - guys who knew they could do it right down to the end."
"Ever since I came here," added Jack Ham, "the attitude of the people has been that we can't score when we have to. Well, today, when we needed it, we got one. This could just be the turning point for us."
But the Steelers still could not sustain any momentum. They lost the following Sunday in Dallas 17-13. It was a tough defeat for the Steelers, who stayed close only to lose on a 55-yard halfback option pass from Calvin Hill to Ron Sellers.
"Sure, it was only one play," Noll said, "but that one big play can be the difference between a championship and no championship. We worked on that halfback option all week, but when the wide stuff works as well as it did for them today, it sets up that sort of play. One of our cornerbacks, Chuck Beatty, came up too soon and was caught."
After that defeat Chuck Noll made a decision that was to influence the course of the remainder of the 1972 season. The Cowboys held the Steelers to just 130 total yards rushing, and Bradshaw was forced to pass 39 times or, as Noll said later, "about twice the number I'd like to see." Frenchy Fuqua gained just 29 yards on seven carries, Preston Pearson 51 on 11 attempts.
Noll figured it was time to give Franco Harris a chance. His only previous start had been in the second game against Cincinnati and in his own words, he had "stunk the place out." The number one draftee gained only 35 yards, fumbled twice, and in general moved around the field with the grace of a man coming down a flight of marble stairs on roller skates.
"With some people failures will make them weaker," Harris said. "But for me, it just made me stronger. I made up my mind if I ever got the chance I'd do it. I always had confidence in myself. It was just a matter of getting my mind right and bringing my potential out. A lot of people have the potential and never use it. I didn't want to end up being categorized as one of them. So after that game I thought to myself, `No more ups and downs.' I made up my mind then that I wanted to be consistent. It's funny but then I went on my streak."
Franco's streak and the Steelers' streak started simultaneously that Sunday against Houston at Three Rivers Stadium. Whether Franco started the Steelers on their way or vice versa, it's enough just to note that this was the week when the great push began.
Harris rolled through the Oilers for 115 yards on 19 carries, and the defense suffocated Houston's young quarterback, Dan Pastorini, for a 24-7 victory. The Oilers managed only seven first downs in the game (none in the opening 29 minutes) and zero yards through the air. Pastorini was 4 for 12 passing for minus six yards and was sacked five times.
Noll gave much of the credit to the instant impact of Harris. "A guy running like that, so admirably hard, has to be an inspiration to not only his offensive line but every man on the ball club," Noll said. "We've been looking for that little touch of magic to start us rolling. It could be Franco will be it."
The next week the Steelers rolled over the New England Patriots 33-3. The defensive front four, led by Mean Joe Greene and Dwight White, sacked Jim Plunkett seven times, closed his left eye, and bruised his ribs.
Defensively, the Patriots made a grave strategic mistake by attempting to cover Pittsburgh's wide receivers with the bump-and-run. Shanklin buzzed past an overmatched cornerback, Larry Carwell, for five catches, 111 yards, and a 30-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw.
"I saw their front four on film, and I knew they had a good rush," Plunkett said, "but when I saw them today in person, they looked even better. They look like they have a great defensive team, and that's coming from a guy who could only see them out of one eye. Number seventy-eight [White] took care of that in the first quarter."
The Pittsburgh defense looked so overpowering against Houston and New England, that Buffalo head coach Lou Saban decided it was useless to attack them in any of the conventional ways. In preparing for the Steelers, Saban just tossed his old playbook in the drawer and devised a new one. The Bills lined up that Sunday with two tackles on one side of center and no tight end.
The object, naturally, was to increase the blocking muscle up front for the running game of O. J. Simpson. Saban's strategy worked. The new offensive alignment bewildered the Steelers, and combined with first-quarter injuries to L. C. Greenwood and Jack Ham, it enabled the Bills to gain 323 total yards in the second half.
"I've never seen anything like that formation before," Andy Russell said. "It confused us for a while because what's usually the strong side all of a sudden is the weak side. They ran some plays that I've never seen before in football."
Buffalo cut the Steelers' lead to 17-7 on O. J.'s 94-yard touchdown run and it appeared that the Bills might take control of the game, but Mel Blount intercepted a Mike Taliaferro pass and returned it to the Bills' 18. On the next play Franco Harris rumbled into the endzone and Pittsburgh was safely in front 24-7. The Steelers won 38-21.
"That interception by Blount hurt us more than anything," Saban said. "We had some momentum after O. J.'s run the previous series, but that quick turnover and touchdown finished us."
Harris had another brilliant game, rushing for 131 yards as the Steelers braced for the most critical five weeks of their season. In the next five games, Pittsburgh was scheduled to play Cincinnati, Kansas City, Minnesota, and Cleveland twice. "This is the road to the Super Bowl," Dwight White said. "There's no turning back now. It's time to make it or break it."
The first game was against Cincinnati at Three Rivers Stadium and there was no need for Noll or any of his assistants to resort to locker room posters or Rockne-like speeches to fire up the Steelers. The whole town was alive the week before the game. Even normally unemotional players like Ham and Russell felt different vibrations as Sunday neared.
"I've been trying to approach each game in a businesslike manner this year," Ham explained. "But this week is something else. You can feel it through the whole team. We'll have a full house, and Cincinnati's coming in. We're out to avenge that beating they gave us earlier. I'll admit it: I haven't been this enthused about a football game in a long time. Normally, I'd rather just low-key it - do a steady, consistent job, just like an accountant or insurance man."
Okay, so Jack Ham doesn't sound much like a typical pro football player. He doesn't even look like one. When he first showed up for his rookie physical, Art Rooney, Jr. tried to chase him out of the Steelers' locker room. "I thought he was the delivery boy," Rooney said.
When he arrived at Three Rivers Stadium for his opening game, the security guard wouldn't let him through the players' entrance. "You expect me to believe you're one of the Steelers?" the guy smirked. But once Ham fought his way past the Rooneys and the security guards and finally made it to the playing field, there was no doubt what kind of pro prospect the former Penn State All-America was.
He intercepted nine passes in his first two seasons, won a spot on the All AFC team, and operated with the savvy of a 10-year veteran. "Jack's going to be a truly great one," Art Rooney, Jr. said, "that is, if he isn't a great one already."
Ham and the other Steelers assaulted the Bengals with emotion that turned the highly publicized showdown into a 40-17 rout. Again the Steelers took advantage of bump-and-run pass coverage. Bradshaw hitting Frank Lewis for a pair of touchdowns, the last a 34-yarder that put Pittsburgh up 33-7 with just five minutes left in the third period.
"I thought we had a good idea of what we were walking into when we came over here," Cincinnati head coach Paul Brown said, "but they were emotionally in a frenzy."
"I never saw us so fired up," Bradshaw agreed. "Not a childlike thing, either. We wanted to win this game bad and we did. We did it with class."
"I think a lot of skeptics were unwilling to
accept the truth until now," said Chuck Noll.
"What truth?" a writer asked.
"That we are one hell of a football team," Noll replied.
The next Sunday, the Steelers fell behind Kansas City in the first half as Bradshaw threw three interceptions, one of which was returned 65 yards for a touchdown by Jim Kearney. The Pittsburgh defense, as usual, was magnificent, sacking Len Dawson five times and holding Ed Podolak to 19 yards on 15 carries. The defense kept the Steelers in the game.
"We had enough opportunities to be leading twenty-eight to nothing at halftime," remarked Kansas City's coach, Hank Stram.
The offense, however, could not move against Kansas City. The winning points were set up by a pair of fumble recoveries by Ham. Roy Gerela turned one into a 49-yard field goal and the other led to Franco Harris's seven-yard touchdown in a 16-7 victory.
"This was the best we've ever played in terms of facing a good team, being behind, and still hanging in there," Russell said. "Our whole idea was to take the big play away from them, and we did. This is the fourth game this season in which our defense hasn't allowed a touchdown. I feel pretty good about that."
"We've been a team in the process of turning the corner," Joe Greene said. "Now, instead of turning that corner, we're sort of tiptoeing up and peeking around to see what it's like around there. Well, today, we got a pretty good idea and, baby, it's nice. All year I've tried to contain my optimism.
My second year with the Steelers  we won four straight exhibition games, and I said, `This is our year,' but we went nowhere. I've been gullible before, so I was afraid I'd be fooling myself again. I refused to blow my mind a second time. You get too high, and it's a long way down. But now, I'm excited about this team and the way we won today. We're playing like a playoff team. We do what has to be done to win."
The spirit of the team had spread across the Pennsylvania countryside by now. That night Jack Ham went to the evening Mass at St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church in suburban Dormont, which just happens to be Dan Rooney's parish.
In the middle of his sermon, the monsignor blurted out, "How 'bout those Steelers today? Say, is Dan Rooney here tonight?" A fellow in the rear of the church jumped up and said, "Dan's not, but here's Jack Ham, the great linebacker."
"I couldn't believe my ears," Ham said later, "everybody in the church applauded just like they were out at the stadium. I never heard applause in a church before. I didn't know how to react. I even had to stay after Mass and sign autographs."
However, the happy five-game winning trip ended in Cleveland as Don Cockcroft kicked a 26-yard field goal with 13 seconds to go, lifting the Browns to a 26-24 win and a first-place tie with the Steelers in the Central Division. "We have nobody to blame but ourselves," Bradshaw said. "Franco put us up [24-23] with that 75 yard run of his. But I guess we figured the game was in the bag and relaxed."
In the final minute, Browns quarterback Mike Phipps drove his team within field goal range by hitting passes to Fair Hooker and Frank Pitts. "We were in our prevent defense," Noll said, "and that should have stopped everything, but it didn't. It's as simple as that. On the first pass we were too deep. On the second we blew our bump-and-run coverage."
This was the time when these Steelers could have collapsed like all the previous Steelers teams had done in similar situations. The Steelers had a tough game coming up against Minnesota while the Browns were looking forward to an almost sure win over Buffalo in Cleveland.
The week after, the Steelers and Browns were scheduled to play again in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers had lost both of their games and the Browns won both of theirs, the Central Division race would have been over.
"Our choice is pretty clear cut," Bruce Van Dyke said. "We can either be champions of the division or we can be the Same Old Steelers. It's gotta be one or the other."
The Steelers made their break with the past a clean, decisive one. They pounded both Minnesota (23-10) and Cleveland. The defense allowed just one touchdown in the two games, and Franco Harris rushed for over 230 yards. Against Cleveland, he ran his streak of 100yard games to six, tying the league record held by Jim Brown.
Noll was finally ready to admit that Art Rooney, Jr. was right all along about Franco Harris. Robert Newhouse, the squat fullback Noll coveted in January, was sitting on the bench in Dallas, destined to carry the ball a mere 28 times all season.
"Too many people talk and spend their time jawing," Noll said after Harris's magnificent performance in the 30-0 lashing of Cleveland. "We used to have players around here who'd say, `OK, let's have some false chatter.' They lived off that. But actions are the thing. And Franco's basically a quiet person, both on and off the field. So his actions are the thing with him."
"When Franco came to camp after the All Star game," assistant coach Dick Hoak recalled, "we thought we had a real dud on our hands. He quit hitting when he got to camp. He didn't look good. In fact, he looked awful. He looked slow and sluggish, downright lazy. But once we started playing games, you could see him snap out of it. He's just one of those guys who is a lousy practice player."
"To me. Franco is the key man on our ball club," Joe Greene said. "We were coming on every year, getting closer and closer to the right combination. This year all we needed was that catalyst, and it turned out to be Franco. He's the man that did it for us. He could have come here four years ago and not made any difference at all, but this year, he's just what we needed to go over the top.
I know what he's given me - a lot of faith. I know that one way or the other, no matter how the game is going, Franco is gonna put points on the board. He might have only twenty-five yards in the third quarter, but I'll just keep on playing because I know that by the end he'll have one hundred yards and one touchdown anyway. He does it damn near all the time."
"I came to the Steelers with one idea," Franco said. "I wanted to prove something to myself and to other people. Up at Penn State they said I was only so-so - halfway. But I felt I hadn't reached my full potential there. I wasn't mentally right to put myself totally into it. But I came here with the attitude that I would do anything possible to help the team. I wasn't thinking of jumping right in.
I knew they already had good backs. I also had this great desire to go to the Super Bowl. I don't know why, I just did. But from the first day I was in camp, I felt good vibrations. I felt that something was happening. So I put it in my mind, 'What can I do to make the difference between winning and losing?"'
The Steelers had a one-game edge on Cleveland with just two to play, but they could not afford a letdown. They barely averted disaster in Houston the next week when illness and injuries decimated the offensive line and Bradshaw dislocated a finger on his passing hand as it plunked off the helmet of Oilers Elvin Bethea.
With Terry Hanratty still sidelined from an earlier injury, Noll was forced to insert his rookie quarterback, Joe Gilliam. "Keep it simple and don't get careless," Noll told him. Gilliam obeyed and directed a conservative, low risk offense that didn't produce any touchdowns but did bleed out three precious field goals by Roy Gerela for a 9-3 lead.
After that it was up to the defense to hold that six-point edge, and it did, with the tenacity of eleven guys clinging to the last life raft in the North Atlantic. Joe Greene was never better. On one play he broke through two blockers, hit the fullback, stripped the ball from his arms, and made the recovery himself. "The greatest play I've ever seen made by a defensive lineman," Noll said later. "I re-ran the film a dozen times, and I still don't believe it."
When the Oilers got the ball back for their final offensive series, they still had a chance to win with a touchdown. "I just couldn't let that happen," Greene said, "not after we worked so hard." So Joe Greene barged through the Houston offensive line on three of the next four plays and tackled Dan Pastorini before he could do anything with the ball.
"I never saw a defensive man so totally dominate a game," Russell said. "Joe was like a one man army. It was almost boring for the rest of us because we had nothing to do but watch. I caught myself applauding a couple times."
Greene's play earned him recognition as the NFL's defensive player of the week ("It should have been player of the decade," Russell said) and sent the Steelers into their final game in San Diego with a 10-3 record and a chance to slam the door on the rest of the division with a victory.
The Steelers flew to the West Coast early that week. While they were there Frank Sinatra drove over from Palm Springs to he inducted into Franco's Italian Army, the whooping, trooping fan club a guy named Tony Stagno assembled in the wild recesses of Three Rivers Stadium. Sinatra's presence provided an hour of laughs that helped ease the mounting anxiety, but by Sunday morning, the Steelers were face-to-face with their fate.
The ride to the stadium was an uncomfortable, stifling experience. Forty men alone with their thoughts. They had watched the first half of the Cleveland-New York Jets game at the hotel before leaving, and the Browns were clearly in charge of that one.
"I'd rather have it that way, anyhow," Andy Russell said. "If they lost, then people would say, `Hell, the Steelers backed into the championship.' After waiting forty years, this team deserves to win a title, not have it handed over."
"It was a haunting feeling," Ray Mansfield said. "I've never seen a locker room so quiet before a game. There wasn't a sound. I guess when you've been around as long as I have and you've lost so many games - big games and little games - you start looking for symptoms of defeat. I know I felt uneasy before we went on the field. I was afraid we were too tight. Myself - I wanted to throw up."
But the Steelers took the game away from San Diego. The defense, fittingly, had another exceptional day, forcing seven Chargers turnovers. The offense capitalized on enough of them for a 24-2 win. It was the seventh game of the season (and the third in a row) in which the Pittsburgh defense did not permit a touchdown.
"We shut out Cleveland [30-0], beat Houston [9-3], and beat San Diego [24-2], and none of them put the ball in the endzone against us," Joe Greene said. "Why, hell, we haven't given up a touchdown the whole month of December. When is the last time that ever happened?"
As the clock ticked off the final minutes and the Steelers had the divisional title clinched, Dwight White turned toward the press box, smiled a huge, gap-toothed smile, and shouted, "Same Old Steelers, huh? Same Old Steelers - not anymore."
The final gun sounded, and the jubilation that had been building since July exploded on the Steelers' bench. Mansfield and substitute center Jim Clack lifted Noll to their shoulders as Harris, Bradshaw, and Fuqua swarmed around, pounding the coach on the back. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride to the locker room, but Noll smiled all the way.
Art Rooney, Sr. shuffled in a few moments later and the whole celebration suddenly shifted to the venerable club president.
"It was really something," Ham recalled. "You'd expect the owner to come around and shake hands with the players, right? Well, when Mr. Rooney walked in, all the guys went over and hugged him and shook hands with him. It was like we had gone out and won this championship just for him. In a real sense, I suppose that's exactly what we did. I was happier for Mr, Rooney than I was for myself. He's been living and dying with the Steelers since before I was born."
On the five-hour charter flight back to Pittsburgh, the celebration really took hold. Picture, if you will, the Times Square scene on New Year's Eve. with unlimited champagne and no pickpockets, compressed into a DC-8 flying at 35,000 feet. That's what it was like.
"There's a picture of Ray [Mansfield] and myself on the flight," Russell said. "We're like two feet over our seats. We're just floating. You would swear we were on dope, but we hadn't even had anything to drink yet. It was just a sense of delirium - a natural high."
During the flight, Russell went to the front of the plane and presented Art Rooney, Sr. with that day's game ball and The Prez made one of the briefest, most eloquent acceptance speeches. "Thanks." he said. "I really appreciate this." It wasn't original, but it said it all.
When the plane landed in Pittsburgh, the Steelers found a crowd of 4,000 fans waiting in the 14-degree cold and 40-mile-per-hour gusts for a chance to greet Art Rooney's first championship team. Joe Greene took care of the speechmaking. "I'm just so happy," he told them, "I can't put it into words. You fans have waited so long, and you deserve it. I didn't think it would feel this good if we won but, man, it's like the Super Bowl."
The newly crowned Central Division champions had to begin preparations for that week's first-round AFC playoff game against the Western Division champion Oakland Raiders. No one summed up their feelings better than "The Count," Frenchy Fuqua, the running back who makes some of his most spectacular moves after a game when he slips into his capes, lavender knickers, and knee-high fur hoots with four inch heels.
"All I know is that right now Oakland is standing between me and twenty-five thousand dollars," Frenchy said, twirling his glass cane skillfully. "I ain't about to let that pack of gorillas keep me from that much money."
The Steelers scraped by the Raiders in the first playoff game, 13-7, thanks to Franco's miracle touchdown run with a deflected pass in the last five seconds. That moved them one step closer to the Super Bowl. Only one team now stood in the way, the Miami Dolphins, who had gone through the season unbeaten and had disposed of Cleveland the previous week 20-14.
The pregame frenzy in Pittsburgh built to almost unbearable levels, as usual. The fans, having witnessed an act of magic the previous week against Oakland, filed into Three Rivers Stadium again hoping for a second helping. "I don't know what it will take to beat an unbeaten team," Tony Stagno preached to the rest of Franco's Army, "but whatever it takes, we'll come up with it."
And so it seemed early in the game. Miami's first drive ended when free safety Glen Edwards picked off a pass by Miami's starting quarterback, Earl Morrall. The Pittsburgh offense went to work. Bradshaw, who was hospitalized almost the entire week with the flu, sent Fuqua and Harris cracking into the Miami defense repeatedly, and the Steelers drove to the Dolphins' 3-yard line.
From there, Bradshaw tried to score on a roll-out left, but he was submarined at the 1 by Miami's free safety, Jake Scott. Bradshaw's head and right shoulder hit the hard artificial turf first. The quarterback's helmet flew loose and so did the football, spinning into the end zone.
The Steelers' golden touch was still alive: guard Gerry Mullins beat Miami's Curtis Johnson to the ball and dived on it for a touchdown. The Steelers led 7-0 and throughout Pittsburgh fans sensed that theirs was a team of salvation.
There was only one grim note: Bradshaw was badly shaken by his spill. On the sideline Chuck Noll asked Bradshaw to call a play. He couldn't. "Okay, Terry," Noll told Hanratty, who had played in just two games all season, "get ready. You're going in."
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense was playing superbly. In the last five games, it had permitted only two touchdowns (one of them Ken Stabler's 30-yard run on a broken play) and for a time it appeared as if seven points might he enough. In the first quarter the Dolphins had reached midfield only once.
It was the second quarter and the defense had done its job again. It had harassed Morrall into ineffectiveness, contained Mercury Morris, and withstood the brute strength of Larry Csonka. It fourth and six, and the Dolphins' Punter, Larry Sciple, was awaiting the snap at his own 35. He took the ball and spun it to get the laces in the right position to kick. He glanced quickly right and left and saw there were no Steelers rushing him except for wide receiver Barry Pearson.
Seiple took off down the right sideline as Jim Mandich peeled back to block Pearson. The Steelers were so intent on setting up blocking for the punt return that no one ever looked back. Seiple actually ran unnoticed past Pittsburgh's Steve Furness.
With all the players on the bench screaming a warning, the Steelers finally chased Seiple out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 12. Seiple had gained 53 yards and given the Miami offense life. Two plays later, Morrall passed to Csonka, who stormed over Mel Blount for the 9-vard touchdown that tied the game.
Hanratty drove the Steelers inside the Miami 10 in the third quarter but couldn't punch it over. Gerela kicked a 14-yard field goal, and Pittsburgh led again. However, Miami head coach Don Shula made a crucial move at this point, pulling Morrall and replacing him with Bob Griese, who had missed the last two-thirds of the season with a fractured ankle. Shula was gambling that Griese, although rusty, might provide the inspiration his offense needed. He was right.
On his first third-down situation, Griese dropped back and as coolly as a guy tossing rocks into a stream, whipped a fastball toward Paul Warfield slanting across the middle. Warfield was surrounded by Russell and Blount, so the pass had to be thrown perfectly to be completed. It was thrown perfectly. Warfield gathered it in and glided 52 yards before safety Mike Wagner made the tackle.
From that moment, the Dolphins took charge. They marched 80 yards in 11 plays, including a fourth-and-1 conversion, for the go-ahead touchdown, a 2-yard run by Jim Kiick with Csonka blowing John Rowser aside. The drive might have been halted when Jack Ham intercepted, but Dwight White had jumped offside, nullifying the play.
Kiick's score put Miami in front 14-10. It rose to 21-10 in the final period when the Dolphins methodically swept 49 yards to another score, a second, short, Jim Kiick touchdown run. The drive took more than seven minutes, and time was running out.
Noll put Bradshaw back in the game with startling results. Bradshaw threw four passes and completed all of them. He hit Larry Brown for 9 yards. He hit rookie wide receiver Al Young for 25 yards. He hit Shanklin for 25. He hit Young again. This time the slender first-year man reached up and caught the ball with one hand while spinning free of Jake Scott at the goal line.
Touchdown. Delirium. Over five minute to go in the game. The Steelers were alive.
Terry Bradshaw had two more tries to duplicate the wondrous chain of events of the week before, but he failed each time. The first drive ended when Nick Buoniconti intercepted a third-down pass. The last ended when Mike Kolen intercepted Bradshaw's desperation pass. The final act had at last been played. The unhappy ending seemed to take everyone by surprise, including the Steelers.
"They won it but I'm sorry for our football team," Noll said. "I'm sorry we weren't one hundred percent, but we weren't. We had injuries, the flu, you name it. But to talk about it now sounds like sour grapes."
"The difference in the game was the big plays," Russell said. "They made them, and we didn't. The first big play was the run by Seiple. What can you say about that? It was the first time all year we didn't rush the punter, and it cost us. That was a big play because it finally got them going.
The other big play was Griese's third-down pass to Warfield. That's the one that bothers me because we were in the perfect defense to stop it, but I didn't get over there in time to close it off. It was my fault. I'll play that one over again the whole off-season. But look around the locker room. Nobody has his head hanging. We know we'll be here again."
The night before the game, Dwight White had told Joe Greene how he could hardly wait to beat Miami so that he could get to the Super Bowl, where the really big money was. White said he already had some plans for that big jackpot waiting just two wins away. Now they were sitting side-by-side in the clubhouse and the real meaning of the game whacked White between the eyes like a Larry Csonka forearm.
"Hey, Joe," White said. "You know what I was saying about the money last night? Well, forget it, man. I'm just starting to realise that money doesn't mean anything to me. I wanted to win the Super Bowl for the team, for the Steelers. I guess it took losing to make me realise it."
The 1973 football season was a great disappointment in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won eight of their first nine league games, and they intercepted more passes (37) and scored more points (347) than any other Steelers team in history. And it was a nice fringe benefit that Roy Gerela led the AFC's scorers with 123 points, including a team record 29 field goals.
But when it came down to the business of winning Super Bowl VIII, the Steelers failed. They even failed to repeat as Central Division champions, a title virtually all the forecasters had awarded them before the first chin-strap was buckled in July.
Franco Harris, the heavy-legged marvel who stirred the Steelers' burst of greatness in 1972, was slow starting his second year. He had trouble with his ribs during the early stages of training camp, then complicated matters by badly bruising his knee in the next-to-last preseason game against Green Bay.
Through the first five league games, Franco carried the ball only 19 times for 53 yards. "I've never seen Franco so depressed," one Steeler told Phil Musick of the Pittsburgh Press following a 19-7 loss to Cincinnati for which Harris was idled. "He's getting treatment on that knee every day. He's hurt bad and he's worried about it."
Real trouble developed in week five against Cincinnati when the Bengals' defense ravaged Chuck Noll's quarterbacks. Steve Chomyszak, a 270-pound tackle, flopped heavily on Bradshaw after Terry had slipped up the middle for four yards. Bradshaw left the field slowly, his right arm hanging limply around knee-level. The diagnosis: shoulder separation. He would be lost from four to six weeks.
For the second straight week, Noll had to send Hanratty into a losing game (the Bengals led 6-3), and for the third time that season, Hanratty's first pass attempt went for a touchdown. This was a 51-yard beauty to Shanklin.
However, a short time later Bergey speared Hanratty just above the belt with an elbow, and the former Notre Dame star pitched forward onto the artificial turf, groaning with pain. He was helped back to the bench, where the doctors treated him, the trainers taped him, and the coaches prayed over him.
Noll had no more quarterbacks in uniform. His third passer, Joe Gilliam, was on the inactive list. "I'm all right," Hanratty whistled through clenched teeth. "I can stay in."
After the game, the Steelers announced that Hanratty had "bruised ribs" but would start the following Monday night against Washington. Actually, Hanratty's ribs were broken, and he would have to wear a fiberglass pad under his jersey to protect the damaged area. But at this point Noll had no choice but to play him. His second-string quarterback was Gilliam, still a callow prospect with less than one full game of pro experience.
Hanratty threw a pair of first half touchdown passes - one to Shanklin and one to Preston Pearson - which put the Steelers ahead of the Redskins, but midway through the third quarter, his ribs met with Diron Talbert's helmet, and Terry took the rest of the night off.
Into the national television spotlight trotted Nashville's Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam, who promptly zipped a 46-yard touchdown pass to Barry Pearson. The score put the Steelers up 21-9 with eight minutes left in the quarter.
The Redskins clawed back to 21-16 and almost won it in the final three minutes when Billy Kilmer hit Larry Brown with a pass at the 1-yard line. Just as Brown was about to step into the endzone, Mike Wagner slammed into him, knocking the ball loose, allowing Glen Edwards to make a gamesaving interception.
The Steelers faced a must win Monday Night game in Miami against the Super Dolphins. The Bengals had won the day before, swamping Minnesota 27-0, and if Pittsburgh lost to the Dolphins, Cincinnati would have a share of the lead in the Central Division.
For this crucial showdown against the finest defense in football, Noll was down to his last - and least experienced - quarterback, Jefferson Street Joe. "I'm staying cool," Gilliam said before the game.
His words and his actions contradicted each other once the game started. Gilliam threw seven passes in the opening quarter. Four were incomplete, and three were intercepted, the first returned 27 yards for a touchdown by all-pro safety Dick Anderson. The score was 20-0 Miami, and Noll could sense the first rumblings
of an avalanche.
Reluctantly, he yanked Gilliam and inserted Bradshaw, who was on the active
list for the first time since Chomyszak used the quarterback's body for a trampoline. Terry's opening pass was short-circuited by Anderson, who slithered 38 yards for another touchdown. At halftime, the score was a preposterous 30-3.
The Steelers summoned up all their pride and forgotten emotion and came out throwing haymakers at the Dolphins in the second half. Deep in the fourth quarter, after Bradshaw had passed Pittsburgh back to within 30-24, Don Shula ordered Griese to take a rare intentional safety, thereby allowing punter Larry Seiple a 70-yard free kick that pinned the Steelers near their goal line in the closing minutes. Miami won 30-26 and it was Pittsburgh's third straight defeat, the first such dry spell since the end of 1970.
The Bengals and Steelers both finished 10-4, but Cincinnati won the division title because of an advantage in their head-to-head meetings. The Steelers became the AFC wild card team and opened the playoffs in Oakland against the Raiders.
Whether it was ennui (a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction, dullness and lack of spirits,
arising from lack of interest) or injuries no one can be sure, but the Steelers were no match for the Raiders in their playoff game.
Oakland led only 10-7 at halftime, but two third-quarter interceptions within two minutes - one returned 54 yards to a touchdown by Willie Brown - finished Pittsburgh.
The Raiders won easily 33-14 and the fans jeered the Steelers as they filed wearily to the locker room. One hung down a sign that read: "Mean Joe Greene wears pantyhose." It was a day for humiliation.
"I think the Steelers came into this game overconfident," Oakland's Marv Hubbard crowed. "They weren't ready to play us."
Without using those exact words, Chuck Noll concurred. "They beat the hell out of us," he said. "It's as simple as that. The touchdown on the intercepted pass was it as far as we were concerned."
As usual, the keenest and most honest analysis of the game came from Joe Greene, an intelligent, often introspective man who has grown beyond the easy cliches of his profession. Joe Greene sat on a stool next to his locker, puffing softly on a cigarette, his eyes adrift in curling ribbons of blue smoke.
"We lost this game somewhere a long time ago," he said. "We fooled ourselves this year. The best feeling I have about us right now is that, as a team, that special ingredient was missing. That intangible that all football players who are winners have.
If I could point out the time or really knew the reasons, then we wouldn't have lost today. We had an off-year. When we played a good team they beat us. We have some of the best damn players in the country and the best coaching staff, but we didn't play all year with the frenzy Miami put on us in the first quarter of our game there or that Oakland showed us today.
Getting the hell kicked out of us is something we'll have to think about all during the off-season. I can't think of a better way to get ready for next year."
This article is based on pages taken from "Great Teams' Great Years - the Pittsburgh Steelers,"
written by Ray Didinger published 1974, © the National Football League.
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