Gary Anderson’s Overtime Field Goal in 1989 @ Astrodome Still a Touchstone in Tough Times

In the movie Invincible, Vince Papale‘s dad, who, like his son, was going through some tough times in his life, mentioned the 1948 NFL Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals. Running back Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to clinch a 7-0 victory for Philadelphia. Vince’s father, a long-time blue-collar worker, said that touchdown served as a touchstone that got him through 30 years at the local factory.

  • After six Super Bowl titles and countless other postseason victories over the past 44 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers fans have given their own nation-wide legion of fans their own touchstones.

For some Steelers fans of course, winning the Super Bowl this year and bringing home the seventh Lombardi is the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that mattered last year, the year before that, and every other year since the franchise became the standard-bearer for championship success back in the 1970s. Playoff victories, let along mere playoff appearances, simply don’t cut it.

As a life-long Steelers fan, I’m here to tell you that, for me, personally, you can get a ton of traction out of your favorite football team simply making the playoffs. Take last year, for example. After a Week 16 loss to the lowly Ravens, Pittsburgh was on the outside, looking in at January football. The Jets controlled their own playoff destiny, while the Steelers had to not only take care of business in Cleveland, but rely on a Bills‘ team whose offseason destination included golf courses and resorts having enough motivation to knock off a division rival.

  • Lo and behold, while the Steelers were dispatching of the Browns, Rex Ryan’s charges knocked off his old team, and Pittsburgh’s postseason ticket was punched.

I called at least two family members to celebrate because it truly felt like the Steelers accomplished something special.

Twenty years ago this past January, the Steelers fell to the heavily-favored Cowboys, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX. Going into the game as a two-touchdown underdog, one would think Steelers fans might feel pride in the team’s effort. However, after falling behind 13-0 in the first half, Pittsburgh dominated the action the rest of the way and had America’s Team on the ropes. Only problem was, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell forever cemented his legacy as one of the biggest goats in Pittsburgh sports history by throwing two second half interceptions that led directly  to 14 points for Dallas.

  • To this day, when you mention the O’Donnell interceptions Steelers, fans bemoan the outcome and what could have been.

However, for me, I’ll always have fond memories of the Steelers run to the Super Bowl, after starting out the 1995 campaign 3-4 and looking totally outclassed at home by both the Vikings and Bengals in two of those four losses. That Bill Cowher inspired rebound gave me a quartet of “Steelers never forget” moments:

  • the 49-31 triumph in Cincinnati after the team fell behind 31-13 in the second half.
  • Neil O’Donnell hitting Ernie Mills for 37 yards down the right sideline to the one-yard line in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium causing  my two uncles embrace in our living room.
  • Colts’ quarterback Jim Harbaugh‘s Hail Mary pass falling to the turf in the end zone as time ran out
  • the euphoria that Sunday night when it finally sunk in that my Steelers, the team I had been watching for 15 years, was actually going to the Super Bowl.

I’ll never forget the celebratory feeling I had over the course of the next two weeks, as I took in everything about Super Bowl XXX and all things Pittsburgh and Dallas.

Was Super Bowl XXX’s ending sour? Yes. But sometimes, as Chuck Noll would likely remind us, it’s about the journey and not just the destination.

  • As a kid in the 1980s, I had very little memory of the 1970s. Therefore, those four Super Bowls and the heroes that brought them to Pittsburgh seemed almost mythical to me.
  • Thanks to NFL Films, I received a nice little education on the previous decade, and all those legends who dominated the football landscape every Sunday afternoon. But the reality for me in the ’80s was mediocre talent and mediocre records.
  • So, when I look back on Super Bowl XXX, I don’t get depressed or feel like ‘O Donnell cheated me out of a title. I cherish that time, because I never thought I’d actually witness my favorite football team play on the game’s biggest stage in-front of a world-wide audience.

And that brings me to the magical playoff-run of 1989 Steelers, when they rebounded from starts of 0-2 and 4-6 start to finish at 9-7 and make the postseason as a wildcard team. A lot of dominoes fell in Pittsburgh’s favor on Christmas Eve in Week 16, as several teams lost, while Pittsburgh defeated the lowly Buccaneers.

  • But there was one final domino that needed to fall on Christmas night: The Vikings had to knock off the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

After falling behind 19-0,  the Bengals, the defending AFC champions, had crawled back to within 22-21 and looked poised to indirectly ruin Pittsburgh’s holiday. But believe it or not, some guy named Brent Novoselsky eased  everyone’s fears when he pulled in a one-yard touchdown pass from Wade Wilson in the closing moments to make it 29-21 and clinch a postseason berth for not only the Vikings, but the Steelers, as well.

I can still see Dwayne Woodruff, Pittsburgh’s veteran cornerback, who the ABC network had been corresponding with throughout the game from a remote location, throwing his hands up in victory, after Novoselsky’s score. Speaking of hands, I can still feel the nervous tingle in mine as I watched the end of that Vikings/Bengals match-up that night.

  • Unfortunately, my Steelers playoff-clinching celebration took a bit of a backseat to family unrest during the remainder of my high school Christmas break.

For a 17-year old with no where to escape the drama, my only release was dreaming about Pittsburgh’s wildcard match-up with the hated Oilers in the Astrodome on December 31, 1989.

Gary anderson, steelers, oilers, astrodome, 1989, wild card, playoffs

Gary Anderson splitting the uprights @ the Houston Astrodome; Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

You can read the specifics of the Steelers upset victory at the Astrodome here, but after legendary kicker Gary Anderson nailed a 50-yard field goal in overtime to give the Steelers a 26-23 victory, all the tension and drama I had been feeling that week was suddenly washed away.

  • As I walked around my neighborhood that night, thoughts of family strife were non-existent.

Here we are, some 27 years later, and I still have fond memories of that season and that single moment when I jumped out of my living room chair after Gary Anderson‘s over time field goal sailed through the uprights.

Gary Anderson’s overtime game winner in 1989 at the Astrodome didn’t secure a championship for the Steelers, but it instantly turned a bad time in my life into one that I still cherish to this day.

 

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Watch Tower: Scab Referee, ’87 Strike, Todd Haley, and More…

Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has been quiet for a while, mainly because there’s a lot going on in life. No issue has dominated the news as the replacement referees have, so that’s where the Watch Tower first shines its light.

AP, ESPN Ignore the 4th Time Out Awarded to Houston vs. the 1989 Steelers

Regular readers know that the 1989 Steelers are near and dear to Steel Curtain Rising. So what could they possibly have to do with the replacement refs?

Well, the biggest news flub early on by the scab refs was the 4th Time Out they awarded to Seattle in their loss to Arizona in week 1. However, the Associated Press article that ESPN ran was more problematic:  Refs Error in Arizona Third of its Kind.

ESPN Inaccurate on 4th Time Out

The article discusses the extra timeouts the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens got in 2003 and 2009 respectively. But to read the headline and story, those were the only times such errors occurred in NFL history.

It happened at least once before, on December 3rd 1989 in Three Rivers Stadium when the Houston Oilers got an extra time out on a touchdown drive in a Oilers 23-16 victory over the Steelers. Chuck Noll protested and fired off an apology letter to the league, which admitted the error, not that much could be done about it….

Seattle Seahawks Fans Can Shut Up Now

Of course the biggest news relating to the scab refs was the highway robbery in the form of a Seahawks touchdown instead of a Packers interception.

That blow call generated a lot of Sound and Fury (not to mention a quick agreement between the NFL and its officials), but no one had a more astute observation than my good friend Tony Defeo on “Pittsburgh Best Sports Blog” where he contrasted how Seahawks fans are fine with this blow call, but still whine about Super Bowl XL.

Is there a living soul in Steeler Nation who isn’t sick of hearing the Seahawk’s unending excuse making for losing Super Bowl XL? To listen to them, you’d think that Willie Parker’s 75 yard run came on a questionable call.

As Tony succinctly  concluded, “Seahawks fans need to be very quiet now.”

It’s mildly ironic that Defeo would make such an observation, because in early August, he wrote an excellent tongue and cheek article in Behind the Steel Curtain panning the possibility that scab refs could do much worse than the regular season refs by invoking the interception that Troy Polamalu had stolen from him in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs thanks to incompetent use of instant replay.

If you don’t remember the play, check it out here, but do it while you can (available 9/29/12). With the official lockout settled, Goodell now has the time to unleash his YouTube police:


Replacement Refs, What about Replacement Players?

Whether it was editorial coincidence or editorial competition, last Sunday the Post Gazette and Tribune Review featured dueling stories recounting the 1987 players strike.

Both articles were fairly general. Both pointed out that John Stallworth caught his 500th pass from a scab quarterback. Bouchette reminded us that the Steelers refunded tickets, unlike other teams, and that for a time admitted that their sellout record had been broken, although they claim otherwise today.

Robinson went further back, discussing both the ’87 and ’82 strike, and unearthed a story of Steve Courson and Gary Dunn hearing WTAE rebroadcast a Steelers game from a previous season while in the car, and racing back to Pittsburgh thinking a deal had been reached and that they were missing a game. My, how did we live without cell phones and the internet….

Both men wrote good stories, but both left one of the juiciest quotes on the table. It was Christmas time in 1987, and I was sitting with my father and grandfather in some second story waiting room in an office off of Brownsville Road in Carrick, thumbing through the year end edition of Pittsburgh Magazine, when I saw, if memory serves, this priceless gem:

“Yeah, Malone threw one too. But he missed.”

The caption read something on the order of, “A fan recounts striking Steelers pelting Ernest Jackson’s van with Jelly doughnuts as he cross the picket line.”

Mark Malone started all 12 of the 1987 Steelers non-strike games and finished the ’87 season with a 46.7 passer rating….

Haley Holds Court

No off season topic generated as much noise as the decision to fire Bruce Arians and replace him with Todd Haley. Haley returned to Pittsburgh with a checkered past and was known as one who often had trouble working and playing well with others.

The Steelers press office has taken a very proactive approach to diffusing the issue. In PG Plus, Ed Bouchette has lamented several times that under Mike Tomlin the Steelers have been reluctant to grant media access to assistant coaches.

That has not been the case this year. By all appearances, during training camp the press had free access to Todd Haley, and he’s been interviewed regularly since the season started.

While the Watch Tower certainly does not have the time to do any sort of formal count, one is not needed to see that Haley was quoted during training camp more often than Tomlin himself.

The big issue was how would Ben Roethlisberger and Haley co-exist. There’ve been a number of attempts to extrapolate on some of the things Roethlisberger has said to indicate tension. But so far the story has gained no traction.

Part of it is because Ben has immediately shot down such talk. But keeping Haley in front of the microphones also lends a ton of credibility to Roethlisberger’s denials.

It’s still early, but score one win for the Steelers PR team.

Carson Palmer Gets the Last Laugh

This had no impact on the game itself, but both the Post Gazette’s Blog and Gold and Behind the Steel Curtain ran profiles on Carson Palmer’s past, and often miserable, experience vs. the Steelers.

The Steelers play former players all of the time, but Palmer was a little different, in that he’s the first ex AFC North QB to face off against the Steelers in another division. And of course Palmer got the last laugh in the Raider’s victory.

Steelers Problems with Stringing Three Strong Seasons Together

Prior to the season, the media never tired of reminding Steeler Nation that the Steelers have trouble putting three strong seasons in a row. Steel Curtain Rising blasted already blasted this on the merits its preseason analysis.

Its understandable that the press would mention this recent tendency, but sometimes things go too far. Case in point, in his preseason predictions, Alan Robinson mentioned this tendency twice in his 5 arguments against the Steelers winning the Super Bowl.

Ben No Longer a Game Closer? + Timmons Troubles

No one is a better come from behind artist than Ben Roethlisberger, right?

Dale Lolley points out that Ben Roethlisberger failed to rally the Steelers against Oakand, and that in the last two seasons, he’s only done that once.

While I think this is more of a coincidence than anything else, Lolley’s the first person in the Pittsburgh press corps to make this observation, and it is a story that bears watching.

Lolley also came up with some interesting stats on Lawrence Timmons.

[Woodley] was still better than Timmons, who had three tackles. In fact, after recording seven sacks and four forced fumbles in 2009, Timmons has five sacks and two forced fumbles – in the past two-plus seasons.

That hurts. Do numbers lie?

Not exactly, but for all of his splash plays in 2009, Timmons was inconsistent. In contrast, he played extremely well in 2010, even if he lacked the “Splash” plays.

However, Lolley is dead on in concluding that right now the Steelers aren’t getting their money’s worth out of Timmons.

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower.

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Tim Worley Speaks Out on Steelers.com

No team in the modern NFL era has run for more yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have never drafted a running back higher than they did when they selected Tim Worley with the number 6 overall pick in 1989.

Unfortunately, Tim Worely was to be part of the fools gold that came along with a few gems that the Steelers snatched in the 1989 NFL Draft.

Worley recovered from an awful debut vs. Cleveland to post a strong rookie season, including impressive performances in the 1989 Steelers playoff games vs. Houston and Denver.

Drugs and brushes with the law derailed Worley’s career. Teressa Varley of the Steelers Digest caught up with Tim Worley, who was quite candid about the pressures of being an NFL number one draft pick, what it was like to play for Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, and the mistakes he made on and off the field.

You can click here to check out the full interview on Steelers.com.

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The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers

The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers inspired like no other non-Super Bowl Steelers team. The pundits never gave this group a chance, while true fans always knew in their gut that this team had something special.

  • True to form the 1989 Steelers flirted with oblivion and teased championship greatness – all in one season.

Steel Curtain Rising paid homage to those men last season, chronicling their efforts week in and week out, allowing readers to discover or relive one Steelers Nation’s less frequently told stories.

  • Steel Curtain Rising now brings you entire 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers series on one page.

Each link below takes you to a story on the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers, starting with the Steelers 1989 draft and running all the way through the St. Valentine’s day disaster – aka Chuck Noll’s hire of Joe Walton in February 1990.

At anytime you can click on the 1989 Steelers tag to access all of the stories at once.*

Enjoy

The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers at a Glance:

Gems Amidst the Fools Gold: The 1989 Steelers Draft

Latrobe 1989: Prelude to the Emperor’s Last Hurrah

Why Remember the 1989 Steelers?

Browns Pulverize ’89 Steelers 51-0 on Opening Day

Bengals Trash ’89 Steelers in 41-10

Vultures Circle Three Rivers as Steelers Start 1989 Season 92-10

1989 Steelers Shock Vikings, NFL, 27-14

Barry Who? ’89 Steelers Shut Down Rookie Barry Sanders in 23-3 Victory at Detroit

So Close, Yet So Far: ’89 Steelers Tease Upset then Fall to James Brooks and the Bengals

Revenge is Best Served Brown! Steelers Grab First Win at Cleveland since 1981

Bristerless Steelers Blanked in the House of Pain, 27-0

Dramatic Goal Line Stand Seals ’89 Steelers Victory over Kansas City

Broncos Bounce Steelers 34-7 in Mile High

1989 Steelers Shut Out for the Third Time by Bears, Appear Done for Year

’89 Steelers Surge to the Playoffs Begins: Special Teams Spark Victory over San Diego

Splish, Splash, ’89 Steelers Give Miami a Bath

Pete Axehelm’s Video Tribute to the AFC Central

Oilers Get 4th Time Out, Sweep Steelers in Regular Season

Steelers Shut Out Jets – The NFL Discovers Greg Lloyd

Patriots are Road Kill on the ’89 Steelers Surge Toward Playoffs

1989 Steelers Defeat Tampa Bay Finish 9-7, Make Playoffs!

Steelers Shock the World, Upset Houston Oilers in the House of Pain

Merril Hoge Shines, But the Steelers Fall Short in Denver, 24-23

The St. Valentine’s Day Disaster: Chuck Noll Hires Joe Walton

* The Steelers 1989 Season tag displays all stories in the series, with the most recently published on top, so you’ll need scroll around.

Thanks for visting. Click here for Steel Curtain Rising’s take on what the Steelers are doing today.

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Noll Scales Walton’s Mountain: Good Night Chuck

Dénouement.” It is one of those words you promptly forgot after learning in junior high English class because you never used or saw again in your life (although perhaps it came up in SAT prep).

If memory serves, Mrs. Lev, our 8th grade English teacher, told us that dénouement is “the falling action,” the events that follow a story’s climax.

The climax of the Steelers 1989 season came on the bobbled snap at Mile High in the playoff loss against Denver. And if Mrs. Lev’s definition is correct, then Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator in a very literal sense represented “the falling action.”

A more pedestrian label for the decision Noll made on February 14th 20 years ago is the “St. Valentine’s day disaster.”

Either description is accurate.

The Steelers, in spite of a heart-breaking playoff loss, Pittsburgh left Denver as a team and a city on the rise.

The 1989 Steelers looked ugly at times, but this was a group of players that had learned something important – they had learned how to win.

Unfortunately, Chuck Noll’s choice to climb Walton’s mountain would end in one gigantic fall.*

No More for Moore

Joe Walton’s road the Steelers offensive coordinator position had been paved by the exit of Tom Moore, who’d served as Noll’s first and only offensive coordinator since 1983. Prior to that, Moore had worked as receivers coach since 1977.

Accounts for the motive behind Moore’s departure differ. At the time, the word was that Moore simply decided to take it upon himself and sought change, accepting an assistant-head coach type position in Minnesota.

More recently, in PG Plus, Ed Bouchette indicated that “the front office” felt that, get this, the Steelers offense had become too run oriented under Moore, and pushed for a change.

Either way, it was a bad move for the Steelers. As Merril Hoge told Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette last, November, “Joe Walton came in and it wasn’t a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled… we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over.”

Steelers Become a Finesse Offense

Hoge was making an understatement. Walton completely scrapped the Steelers play book, beginning from zero. It was a total makeover, from the playbook, to the offensive philosophy, to the entire terminology.

Noll, who had always kept a tight rein on his offense, ceded total offensive control to Walton.

Walton’s offense apparently had dozens of formations and hundreds of plays. It was said that he had a variation of a play set up for every possible context.

On paper, it worked beautifully – in practice, or more to the point, in games, it was an unmitigated disaster.

The players could not grasp the offense – most had trouble remembering the formations, let alone the plays.

Perhaps its most egregious sin was that was a passing oriented offense focused around the backs and tight ends.

Walton’s fellow coaches did not buy into it, with Joe Greene reportedly saying at one point, “I hope this isn’t our personality.”

After one early season loss against Oakland, it was reported that coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the head sets.

As with his eventual successor Kevin Gilbride (and perhaps Mike Mularkey), Walton, in hopes of landing another head coaching job, was more interested in showing off his genius to the rest of NFL than designing a system which maximized the talent of the men playing in it.

Never was that more clear than during a post-Thanksgiving match up at Three Rivers Stadium against division leader Cincinnati in early December 1990.

Walton’s Offense Found Wanting….

It was week 12 and both teams entered the game at 6-5 in a three way tie with the Houston Oilers for the division lead. All eyes of the NFL focused on Three Rivers Stadium; Myron Cope had even called for the Terrible Towel.

With so much at stake, Walton was intent on showing the NFL what he could do with his toys.

How did it work? Well, here’s one indication:

  • An illegal motion penalty on Richard Bell short-circuted a critical goal line series – the penalty came after Walton called a play the Steelers had not practiced in months.

The Steelers offense featured a potent running attack that bosted Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Warren Williams and Tim Worley. The Bengals fielded one of NFL’s worst rushing offenses.

  • Walton responded by calling 40 pass plays, making the sting of a game that ended with four straight Bubby Brister incompletions thrown from inside the red zone all the more bitter.

The Bengals won that day, 16-12, and although the Steelers finished 9-7, they were out of the playoffs.

Noll Decides to Call it a Day

Things got no better in 1991, as the malaise that had inflicted the offense spread to the defense. Something seemed to change in Noll. Insiders said that by mid season he was shrugging off things that once would have driven him crazy.

He admitted that the 1991 season had been one of his most disappointing, and openly discussed his future in press conferences. The day after Christmas 1991 Noll walked into Dan Rooney’s offense had said “its time,” retiring after 23 years as the only coach in NFL history to win four Lombardi Championships.

The Emperor Vindicated?

After the 1989 season, Noll felt he had the players to win and win big. He entered both the 1990 and 1991 season talking about the Steelers “championship caliber talent.”

The mediocre results of his last two season suggested to many that Noll had lost his eye for talent, but again the chorus was wrong.

Four years after Noll’s retirement, Bill Cowher’s 1995 squad came within two Neil O’Donnell interceptions of winning Super Bowl XXX.

The core of that roster included no less than six veterans from the 1989 squad: Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Jerry Olsavasky, and Rod Woodson.

These men may have never won rings as Pittsburgh Steelers, but all were clearly championship caliber players. Once again, Chuck Noll and the 1989 Steelers proved that their critics were wrong.

Thanks for visiting. This concludes Steel Curtain Rising’s series on the Steelers 1989 season. You can click here to read each article in the series.

*In the interest of giving credit to where credit is due, the title of this post borrows liberally from a chapter title in Ed Bouchette’s 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age.

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1989 Steelers Season Ends at Mile High Denver Beats Pittsburgh, 24-23

The first weekend of January 1990 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers in a place that no one expected them to be – playing in Mile High Stadium for the right to contest the AFC Championship.

  • No one, it is, except for themselves.

Steelers director of pro personnel Tom Donahoe, perhaps revealing himself to be at least a latent doubting Thomas, characterized the Steelers’ attitude this way: “These guys are amazing. They actually think they’re going to the Super Bowl, and at this point, don’t put anything past them.”*

This group of men had suffered the indignity of a 92-10 start, followed by numerous ups and downs during a stretch where the team would be shut out 3 times and the offense failed to outgain its opponent for ten straight weeks.

  • As opposed to weakening them, the entire ordeal only galvanized their resolve.

Donahoe again explained, “…the most amazing thing about these guys is how much character and guts they have. They’ve had so many opportunities to say, ‘We’re too young, we’re too, we’re too that. Let’s wait until next year.’ But they don’t want to wait until next year.”

So, when the Steelers sat at 4-6 after ten weeks and Chuck Noll proclaimed the playoffs to be his team’s target, the rest of the league smirked. The Steelers buckled their chin straps and won five of their last six, and upset the Houston Oilers in the AFC Wild Card game.

The NFL Meets Merril Hoge

With Merril Hoge leading the way, the Steelers immediately took control of the game, giving every impression that another 1984esque upset was in the making.

During Pittsburgh’s disastrous 5-11 1988 campaign, the fact that the Steelers featured a starting running back named Merril Hoge became fodder for analysts and color commentators. Steelers Nation, however, knew better.

Merril Hoge was the Hines Ward of his day – he might have lacked a little in the measurables, but he compensated for it by working harder and playing harder – on every play.

  • Never was that more apparent than when Hoge ran against Denver in the playoffs.

The 1989 Broncos had not allowed a hundred yard rusher all year, but that was about to change. The Steelers jumped to a 3 nothing lead after a 32 yard Gary Anderson field goal. Hoge had broken out for a 10 yard bust on that drive, and he was only getting started.

Hoge opened the Steelers’ second quarter Hoge by exploded on the first play from scrimmage for a 45 yard gain, the longest of his career. In total, he gained 60 yards on four carries during that drive, and capped it off with a 7 yard touchdown that put the Steelers ahead by 10.

The Broncos fought back, however, as Elway led them on a 12 play, 75 yard drive that ended with a one yard Melvin Bratton touchdown, making he score 10-7 Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were ready to yield nothing, however, as Bubby Brister took the reigns on a 12 play 77 yard drive, where he hit Mike Mularkey for 25 yards Louis Lipps for a 9 yard touchdown pass. Rookie Tim Worley also notched his own double-digit run of 19 yards on this drive, which put the Steelers in control 17-7.

Denver’s two minute offense evened the score to 17-10 at the half with a David Tredwell field goal, but Merril Hoge had already stolen the show.

  • By the time the two minute warning arrived, Hoge had already amassed 100 yards, leaving the Denver defense stupefied.

One Bronco defender was over heard saying in the huddle “that guy number 33, Hode, Hogg, whatever his name is, he’s killing us.”

Broncos defensive end Ron Holmes candidly admitted to thinking “What in the world is it with this guy?” Holmes’s sentiments were shared by Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was “amazed” that Hoge kept getting up because “we really put some licks on him,” confessing that,

At one point I even called a blitz because I knew [Hoge] had been hit hard the play before, and I didn’t think there was any way he’d run again. But darned if he didn’t. And darned if that play didn’t go for a big gain.

Chuck Noll, not one wont to lavish excessive praise, compared Hoge’s performances to Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, explaining:

Merril exemplifies this whole team. He runs with great determination. You could see it, you could feel it…. We may have had a running back make more yardage [in a playoff game], but not with a greater effort.

The biggest praise Hoge received came from the Denver locker room, where All-Pro Safety Steve Atwater declared, “It was like we were playing Jim Brown.”

Steelers Stay Ahead in Second Half, Until 2:27…

The Broncos got off to a strong start in the second half when veteran linebacker Carl Mecklenburg and Greg Kragen forced a fumble by rookie Tim Worley. From there it only took John Elway three plays to connect with wide out Michael Jackson on a 17 yard touchdown pass to tie the score 17-17.

Pittsburgh fought back immediately. The Broncos defense keyed on Hoge, limiting him to only 20 yards on 6 carries in the second half, but Number 33 found other ways to do damage.

  • Hoge caught 8 passes for 60 yards, serving as Brister’s check off receiver in a second half that saw Broncos defense turn up the heat.

The Steelers broke the tie before the end of the half with a Gary Anderson field goal on a drive where Bubby Brister completed passes of 19 yards to Hoge and 30 yards to rookie Mark Stock.

Later, on a 26 yard Thomas Everett interception return brought the Steelers to just shy of midfield, the Steelers, conceivably, could have ended it there, but could only manage 34 yards, forcing them to settle for another Gary Anderson field goal that put them up 23-17.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and it looked liked Brister and Hoge might end it, as they hooked up twice to produce a first down. Fate was not so kind to the Steelers on the next series, as Tyronne Braxton tackled Hoge one yard shy of the first down at the Denver 41.

  • Clinging to a 6 point lead , the Broncos defense had forced the Steelers to punt it back to Elway with just over seven minutes left to play….

Doing what he did best, taking advantage of defenses winded after four quarters of playing in the thin, Mile High air, John Elway led a 9 play 71 yard drive that saw him make completions of 16 and 36 yards.

The Broncos also burned close to five minutes off of the clock by the time Melvin Bratton pushed in the go ahead score from the one.

A Dropped Pass, An Errant Snap and 1 Point Separate ‘89 Steelers from Victory

Denver held a 23-24 point lead with 2:20 left.

But Bubby Brister had been a force the entire game, playing what was probably the best game of his life. And the Steelers had successfully mounted a similar drive against Houston the week before

…All they needed was 45 yards to get inside Gary Anderson’s range.

On first down Brister rocketed a perfect pass to rookie Mark Stock at the Steelers 41, who made the mistake of looking up field too soon. The ball bounced to the turf, incomplete.

  • Ron Holmes flushed Brister from the pocket as he fired downfield incomplete to Louis Lipps on second down.

On third down, Brister dropped into the shot gun, an innovation Noll had only grudgingly incorporated into the Steelers offense the summer before.

Future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson, who’d go on to be a perennial All-Pro at center, was out of the game. Chuck Lanza stood in his place. Brister was trying to hurry the play, Lanza looked back as Brister yelled ‘hut’ but the snap was too low.

Bubby was unable to recover the snap, and a Broncos safety snapped it up, allowing Elway to take a knee as time expired.

The 1989 Steelers story book season had ended.

1989 Steelers – Down, But Never Defeated

In the lingua franca of Steelers Nation, “Super Bowl” is the word for success. Yet, if ultimate success remained elusive, the 1989 Steelers were no one’s failures.

  • It was, as Ed Bouchette wrote in the Post Gazette, “A victory over expectations.”

After the game Chuck Noll simply said, “There’s not a whole lot to say, except I’m proud as heck of our football team.” Of the team’s future, Bubby Brister simply said, “we’re headed in the right direction.”

It was a view almost universally shared inside and outside the Steelers locker room, as veterans such as Ray Mansfield thought the Steelers had planted seeds for future glory with their effort at Mile High.

  • Greater glory, would of course be much farther off than anyone anticipated on that January evening.

But a victory over expectations and promising future made the Steelers 1989 season special.

*All quotes taken from Post Gazette articles available through Google Newspaper Archives.

Thanks for visiting. This is the penultimate installment in the Steelers 1989 season series. The final article will cover Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton and the subsequent aftermath. In the meantime, click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

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The Emperor’s Last Hurrah – the 1989 Steelers Defeat Oilers 26-23 in the Playoffs

Noll and His Nemisis

On evening of December 31st 1989 Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers played Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers for the AFC Wild Card, in the Houston Astrodome.

  • The only thing missing was the steel cage.

Chuck Noll was a model of serenity. Jerry Glanville was flamboyant for the sake of flamboyance.

Noll represented everything honorable about the game, even criticizing his players in court once for being part of the NFL’s “criminal element.”

Glanville served as Noll’s anti-hero. Glanville encouraged dirty play, drawing an angry rebuke from Noll on the floor of the Astrodome.

The Oilers had humiliated the 1989 Steelers in the Astrodome to the tune of 27-0. With the benefit of a fourth time out, Houston won the second match up at Three Rivers Stadium.

The date was December 31st. 1989.

It was New Year’s eve, it was the final NFL game of the 1980’s, the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers were again playing in the “House of Pain.”

And this time it was for all of the marbles.

Missing Opportunities and Making Opportunities

Houston won the toss and drove straight down the field until the Pittsburgh defense stopped them at the 40. From there, Jerry Glanville attempted a 55 yard field goal which fell short.

Unable to take advantage, the Steelers were forced to punt the ball back. But the Oilers did very little and Glanville sent out Greg Montgomery to punt.

Untouched, rookie Jerry Olsavsky stormed through the middle of the Houston line and blocked the punt with Pittsburgh recovering at the Houston 23. The Steelers advanced to the Oiler’s 9 yard line, until their drive stalled at 4th and 1.

  • Chuck Noll went for it.

At the snap Brister pitched the ball to Tim Worley who forced linebacker Robert Lyles to miss and ran untouched until the one where he plowed through Pro-Bowl safety Bubba McDowell for the game’s first score.

With 2:36 remaining in the first quarter, Chuck Noll’s delivered a message:

  • Pittsburgh’s playing to win.

Field Goal Kicking Derby

Houston’s responsed agressively, driving 96 yards to the Pittsburgh 3, but there Rod Rust defense, a Mike Munchack penalty and a Haywood Jefferies drop in the end zone
forced the Oilers to settle for 3.

The Oilers defense struck next, stripping the ball from Tim Worley and regaining possession at Pittsburgh’s 41. Moon drove his team to the Steelers 17 yard line only to see Jerry Glanville lose his nerve when Rust’s defense forced 4th and 1; another Tony Zendejas field goal made it 7-6.

  • Merril Hoge helped Pittsburgh increase its lead late in the first half when transformed a draw play into a 49 yard scamper by breaking two tackles and evading a third.

The Steelers advanced to the Houston 9, but two plays only yielded a single yard. With 1:57 left, facing a 4th and 1, Chuck Noll opted to kick, giving Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead.

Houston narrowed the score in the third quarter, again relying on the leg of Tony Zendejas after a short drive, making the score 10-9.

The Steelers answered in kind later in the third quarter, making the score 13-9 on another Gary Anderson field goal, this one for thirty yards which capped a 7 play 30 yard drive.

Pittsburgh got the ball back quickly, and after a nine play 33 yard drive, Gary Anderson booted in a 48 yard field goal – one that split the uprights with about ten yards to spare….

Three Touchdown Fourth Quarter

The Oilers might have been down 16-9 in the fourth quarter, but they were not out, as Glanville turned the game over to Warren Moon and his quartet of Pro-Bowl caliber receivers.

  • They rewarded their coach by tying the score on a 10 play 80 yard drive that ended with a 18 yard touchdown pass to Ernest Givens at 16-16.

After a three and out and 25 yard punt by Harry Newsome (eat your heart out Mitch Berger), Moon and his receivers went to work again, this time with a 5 play 38 yard drive that ended with 9 yard touchdown to Ernest Givens, giving Houston a 23-16 lead.

Merril Hoge Responds to the Call

With 5:16 to go, the Steelers started their final drive in regulation from their own 18. Bubby Brister declared to Merril Hoge “Its time to find out what we’re made of.”

And find out they did.

Brister hit Louis Lipps for 10 yards, and then Tim Worley ran 7 more.

  • Brister hit Hoge for another 3 yards and another first down.
  • Then Worely gashed Houston for another 11 yards.

Brister handed off to Hoge, who darted to his right and handed it to Dwight StoneTom Moore went to his bag of tricks – and the Oilers gave up another 22 yards on Stone’s reverse.

  • Worley ran for six more.
  • Hoge ran for another six

A Houston offsides penalty brought the Steelers to the Oilers 12 yard line as the two minute warning loomed.

  • A three yard pass to Worley brought the Steelers to the 9.
  • Merril Hoge lowered his helmet for more 8 yards.

Noll called Hoge’s number again, and Number 33 bowled through the line for a 1 yard touchdown to tie the game at 23-23, with 46 seconds left in regulation.

 

An Overtime for the Ages

The Steelers won the toss in overtime, but failed to capitalize on offense, and another horrendously poor punt gave the Oilers the ball at the Pittsburgh 45. The Steelers story book season, it appeared, was about to end.

For the entire game the Oilers had been running right. But on their first play in OT, tight end Chris Verhulst lined up next to the tackle, a tendency the Steelers defense knew signaled run to the left.

David Little screamed “Ohio!” warning of the impending run.

The ball was snapped. Warren Moon handed off to Lorenzo White.

Gerg Lloyd filled the gap at tackle, forcing White to the Outside…

  • …Out of nowhere Rod Woodson rocketed into Lorenzo White.

As he told Sport’s Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, “This is a sell out game. If you don’t sell your body now and go flying at someone you’ll never do it.”

  • As Woodson throttled White high, Tim Johnson hit him low, the ball popped lose, and Woodson recovered, and returned it to the Houston 46.

The Steelers looked to Number 33 again, and Merril Hoge again answered in the affirmative, dragging Houston safety Jeff Donaldson for the last five, for a first down. Hoge then added three more, taking it to the Houston 33.

Third down brought the Steelers nothing.

It was Gary Anderson’s time.

Gary Anderson Kicks One For His Father

As Chuck Noll said, “thank God we’re in a dome” — Anderson had not attempted a 50 yarder the whole season.

Houston called a time out. Tunch Ilkin approached Anderson and confided “I wouldn’t want anyone out here kicking this but you.”

Anderson dedicated the kick to his father, the man who’d taught him how to coach, who was in San Diego, suffering from a rare lung disease.

gary anderson, 1989 steelers, steelers vs. oilers, steelers win overtime astrodome

Gary Anderson boots the OT winner for the 1989 Steelers over the Oilers at the Astrodome; Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Brian Blankenship snapped to Harry Newsome, Anderson’s foot hit the ball clean and the kick was off.

  • The ball sailed 50 yards across the Astrodome, splitting the uprights with at least 5 yards to spare.

The Steelers had defeated the Oilers 26-23 to win the AFC Wild Card Game.

Repercussions…

Knocked out of the playoffs and having dropped three straight, a dejected Jerry Glanville trudged toward the locker room with his head hung low – with a security escort by his side.

Glanville hid behind injuries to explain the loss – Houston owner Bud Adams wasn’t buying however, and fired Jerry Glanville a few days later.

… and After Glow

Meanwhile the Steelers sidelines erupted, as teammates circled to embrace Gary Anderson. The normally stoic Chuck Noll threw off his head gear and ran over to pat Anderson on the helmet.

  • Noll later confided “It was a very emotional thing for this team. It was a gut check.”

The fact that they’d pulled this off despite their horrendous start was lost on no one. When asked how the 1989 Steelers pulled off this feat, Joe Greene’s explanation was simple and concise “They believe.”

Believe they did. And in the process, the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers delivered the Emperor Chuck Noll one Last Hurrah!

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1989 Steelers Make Playoffs, Finish 9-7 After Beating Tampa Bay 31-22

Prelude

Saturday December 23rd, 1989. With a temperature near zero three Wheaton High school wresters head home from the Lackey Tournament in Southern Maryland. Jim, an Eire transplant, is destined to place fourth in the states. Tom, an immigrant from Vietnam, is destined to win Montgomery County’s coveted Richard Monisera Award for most career points in the county tournament. The other is destined to a 5-15 record (including forfeits), but will nonetheless win the team’s most improved award.

All are Steelers fans. The Oilers-Browns game is on. If the Oilers win, the Steelers road to the playoffs is easier as the Steelers’ record would have trumped Clevelands.

Fate does not smile upon the Steelers that night. Cleveland works up a 17-3 lead at half time, only to see Houston score 20 unanswered points out of the “Red Gun” offense. But Bernie Kosar and Kevin Mack rally, to bring the final score to 24-20.

Now in addition to winning their final game, the Steelers need the Indianapolis Colts to lose to the New Orleans Saints, and the Los Angeles Raiders to lose to the New York Giants, AND the Minnesota Vikings must knock off the Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers Head to Tampa Bay

The Steelers final regular season of the 1989 season was held on Christmas Eve. The fans had their tie-breakers memorized, the Steelers were simply focused on what was necessary to win.

It would be poetic to say that the team entered and left Tampa firing on all cylinders, but that would also be incorrect.

The Steelers did, however, start strong with a 72 yard kickoff return by Rod Woodson. Bubby Brister and the Steelers offense made quick work of a short field as Tim Worley scored the first touchdown.

But Tampa answered quickly with a 7 yard pass from Joe Fergerson to Mark Carrier.

The scoring really took off in the second quarter, as Bubby Brister put the Steelers back ahead with a 79 yard touchdown pass to Louis Lipps. Tampa responded with a field goal, but Brister and Lipps were to hook up again, this time on a 12 yard touchdown pass.

Rod Woodson struck again before the end of the half, picking off one of Fergerson’s passes and setting up a Gary Anderson field goal.

Tampa got on the board first in the second half, but only with another field goal, bringing the score to 24-13. But the Steelers answered immediately, as Tim Worley scored his second touchdown giving Pittsburgh 31 points.

Things looked to get a little dicey in the final two minutes as a blocked punt gave Tampa another two, and then Joe Fergerson and Mark Carrier hooked up to give Tampa 7 more.

But the on-sides kick failed, and the Steelers ran out the clock, having defeated Tampa 31-22, and finishing the regular season 9-7.

Christmas Comes, both Early and Late

Although the New York Giants really had nothing to play for, they defeated the LA Raiders, 34-17, sending Al Davis’ boys packing for the summer. The New Orleans Saints were also playing for pride, but they devastated the Colts, to the tune of 41-6.

If the Steelers went to bed Christmas Eve knowing their playoff hopes were alive, they were forced to wait until Christmas night to see if Santa were to deliver all of the goodies on their Christmas list.

Playing the Bengals in the Metrodome, the Minnesota Vikings amassed a 22-7 half time lead. But Cincinnati fought back, making narrowing the gap to 22-21. But that was not enough, as the Vikings scored a final touchdown to win the final game of the 1989 regular season 22-29.

The 1989 Cincinnati Bengals had gone 5-1 in the AFC Central. But loss to the Vikings dropped them to 8-8 whereas the Steelers finished 9-7.

That meant that the 1989 Steelers, the same team that lost its opener 51-0, lost its second game 41-10, suffered three regular season shut outs, went ten weeks without out gaining its opponents, and set all sorts of records for futility en route to an NFL last 28th ranked offense, were going to the playoffs.

And their opponents were none other than Jerry Glanville’s Houston Oilers.

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1989 Steelers Squash Patriots, 28-10

In the late 1980’s “Dave the Predictor” of the “Harris in the Morning” show on Washington’s WCXR offered “Office Pool Picks” every Friday morning. With the internet years away and the Steelers getting little national coverage, I listened intently to the picks, hoping to gleam a shred of insight into the Steelers fortunes for the coming Sunday.

  • Although I fondly remember “Dave the Predictor,” up until that point he had gone the entire 1989 season without picking the Steelers once.

And despite the fact that the Steelers were 7-7 and the Patriots were 4-10, “Dave the Predictor” still picked New England over Pittsburgh.

WCXR’s signal certainly did not reach from the Washington area to Pittsburgh, but perhaps a fair number of Pittsburghers shared in the skepticism, as only 26,594 people braved the -12 wind chill, making it the Steelers smallest crowd on record at Three Rivers Stadium.

Banner Day for the Steelers Offense

What a shame that so few turned out, because this was the first in a series of contests between the Steelers and Patriots that marked either important milestones or turning points for the men in Black and Gold (to read more about Steelers-Patriots history, click here.)

In this case, it was the the game where the Steelers offense, much maligned through out the NFL during 1989, came alive.

Tim Worley had his second 100 yard game and scored a touchdown. Merril Hoge was close behind, adding 63 yards, and two touchdowns. Louis Lipps added 58 more and another touchdown on a 58 yard reverse.

Bubby Brister only managed 165 yards passing that day on 16 attempts, but Brister made each pass count. Hitting Mike Mularkey twice four 40 yards, and rookies Derrick Hill once for 33 yards and Mark stock another time for 23 yards.

The Steelers defense relentlessly hammered the New England Patriots as Tim Johnson, David Little, and Aaron Jones each sacked Marc Wilson. Cornerbacks Dwayne Woodruff and rookie David Johnson each nabbed interceptions.

The Steelers in fact kept New England out of the end zone until giving up a garbage yard touchdown in the game’s final two minutes.

  • It was the Steelers best day offensively, and it was also the day that the team perked its record above .500 for the first time.

That was good, but they were still last in the AFC Central, as Bud Carson’s Cleveland Browns defeated the Minnesota Vikings to improve their record to 8-6-1. Cincinnati trounced the Houston Oilers 61-7, improving their record to 8-7, but the Oilers retained a 9-6 division lead.

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’89 Steelers Shut Out Jets 13-0, Greg Lloyd Makes His Presence Known

With three games remaining in the 1989 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves dead last in the AFC Central, with a 1-5 division record. Yet unlike their 2009 successors, this 6-7 Steeler team was learning how to win games and it was a team on the rise.

The loss to the Oilers in the preceding week did nothing to alter that reality.

It goes to show you just how much mindset melds with momentum in the NFL. The fact that the Oilers had won by no small virtue of an extra time out in the first half could have broken the team, much the way the coin toss game in Detroit broke the 1998 Steelers.

But these Steelers had indeed turned the corner with Merril Hoge’s go ahead touchdown on 4th and Goal three weeks earlier against San Diego.

The Steelers were going places, and the New York Jets, who were coming off a two game winning streak of their own, had no chance of standing in the way.

On offense the Steelers set the tone early, by driving straight down the field on their opening possession. First round draft pick Tim Worley capped off the drive by ripping off a 35 yard touchdown run to open the scoring.

As it had for much of the year, the Steelers offense struggled, as the Jets defense kept them in check for the balance of the first quarter and the entire second and third quarters. Worley in fact would only add another 29 total yards to his touchdown sprint, while Hoge added 43 yards of his own.

But Tom Moore kept New York Jets defensive staff guessing, running a total of five reverses netting 49 yards for Louis Lipps and Dwight Stone.

Bubby Brister did his part, going 15 of 29, but he spread out the ball out to Lipps, Hoge, Worley, rookies Derrick Hill and Mark Stock, tight end Mike Mularkey, and Mr. “Go Out and Get Open” Rodney Carter.

The Steelers certainly did not put up pretty numbers, but they did control time of possession, and the managed to out gain their opponents for the first time since week four against Detroit.

The NFL Meets Greg Lloyd

The December 10th game against the Jets represented the year’s most dominating performance of Rod Rust’s defense, and it perhaps also marked the day that that Number 95, Just Plain Nasty, Greg Lloyd, forced the rest of the NFL to take notice of the man who was not hired for his disposition.

Whenever the Jets moved the ball, the Steelers made them pay.

Joe Walton opted to start veteran Pat Ryan that week, and Lloyd made Ryan regret that decision, sacking him on only his fourth pass attempt, and knocking him from the game with a concussion.

That only opened the hard hits, as free safety Thomas Everett throttled Jets Receiver Al Toon – in the chest — and knocked him out with a concussion. No sooner did Everett pancake Toon, and Greg Lloyd was there giving him a WWF/WWE style three count.

Consciousness about concussions in 1989 wasn’t what it is today, but if Lloyd’s 3 count was a little over zealous, number 95 was nonetheless establishing himself as a someone to be reckoned with.

Lloyd had more to do that day, ending a Jets drive with a 16 yard interception.

Dwayne Woodruff also a hauled down another pick, and Rod Woodson blocked a field goal.

Tack on Gary Anderson’s two field goals of 42 and 45 yards – this was the Meadowlands in December mind you – and the Steelers defense had turned the tables. After being the shut outee three times in 1989 season, the Steelers had shut out an opponent for the first time in 75 games, and the first time on the road since 1977.

And there’s no coincidence the Steelers accomplished that with the likes of Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd leading the way.

Foreshadowing Things To Come, in More Ways Than One

The fact that the Jets were weak opponents in no way diminished the statement that the 1989 Steelers defense had made. They were for real.

Yet, that was not all that the day foreshadowed, and not all of it was good. While the Rod Rust’s defense was holding the Jets scoreless, chants of “Joe Must Go,” echoed through the Meadowlands. “Joe” of course was Joe Walton. Joe would go, much to Pittsburgh’s peril.

Thanks for visiting. To read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire Steelers 1989 series, click here and scroll down.

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