Steel Curtain Rising Celebrates 10 Years on the Web and Says “Thank You”

While we’re missing the actual date by a little, today Steel Curtain Rising celebrates 10 years on the web! And, in a curious case of life imitating “art”, events have brought this site full circle. How?

Well, on January 6th, 2008 Steel Curtain Rising’s first article read: “Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars.” Ten years and nine days later we’d be forced to observe: “Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field.”

  • Home playoff losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the preferred way to bookend 10 years of Steelers blog, but it could actually be a good omen (see below).

They’ve been a lot of ups and a lot of downs along the way including, but not limited to Super Bowl XLII and, God willing, Ben Roethlisberger will play well enough and long enough to give the Steelers another shot at the Stairway to Seven.

Until then, let’s take stock of the last 10 years, share some highlights and, most importantly, offer some needed thank you’s.

Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl XLIII trophy, Super Bowl 43, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

Ben Roethlisberger & Tone celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with Dan and Art Rooney

Steel Curtain Rising – Genesis

While Steel Curtain Rising has only existed for 10 years, its roots dig deep into the 1990’s. At the dawn of the Bill Cowher era, I began PC screen saver marquees with “The Steel Curtain Will Rise Again.”

  • Then, during the dark days 1999, I began writing post-game email rants, as an act of catharsis.

Later, during 2000 season, I continued the practice, but decided to focus on the writing and the analysis. Some of those actually made it on to the web via Tim McMillen’sMcMillen and Wife” site, although I’m not sure they’re still there.

In 2001 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for the first time in a decade, I was reduced to watching Steelers Monday night and Sunday Night games, often times on tape delay. I continued the post-game emails, driving my wife crazy.

  • And  she was right: it was a too much work for too little return.

Yet, on a trip home after Super Bowl XL, two people independently complemented me with: “Hey, I really like your post-game write ups. Keep them coming….” A year and a half would pass before I kicked off this site, but I probably never would have had it not been for their complements.

  • So if you’ve enjoyed this site, then my cousin Jim V. and my friend Tom L. both deserve credit.

So in January 2008, on the evening of Mike Tomlin’s playoff debut, Steel Curtain Rising launched with the aim of either saying things about the Steelers that others weren’t or say so same things a little differently.

Ten Years of Steelers Blogging Highlights

Independent blogging is tough, and its tougher now than it was 10 years ago thanks to the rise of “content aggregation sites” and the corporatization of the blogging world. So be it.

But until August 2009, Steel Curtain Rising benefitted from the Tribune-Review’s old “SteelersLive Site” which included a link sharing feature that, for a good article, could net you over a 1000 page views in a single shot.

  • Thanks to that site, the profile on Greg Lloyd was this site’s most viewed article for a long, long time.

As Archie Bunker sang, “Those were the days.”

In time, on the old blogger platform, the retrospective on Steelers-Patriots history would ellipse that thanks to the magic of Google, as would the landing page for our series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the most enjoyable pieces this site has put together.

While blogger provided an easy way to get to the web, things change in the digital world. And as time passed Google showed a clear preference for independently hosted pages. So we moved to WordPress.

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

On WordPress the most popular page by far is the history of the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys (thanks to the journalist who gave me a followable link, you have no idea of the favor you did.) After that comes the piece debunking “Your Team Cheats” from a Steelers perspective. Not too far below that comes our 2015 April Fools piece announcing the faux trade of Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins.

As noted, independent blogging is challenging, and often times you need an outside push to get your stuff read. So it’s no surprise that the articles contrasting the Steelers and Redskins salary cap negotiation polices and taking Colin Cowherd to task, both of which benefited from Retweets from high profile journalists, did so well. Thanks to both of you.

ICYMI – Sleeper Steelers Stories

While this site’s high-performing articles are pieces to be proud of, they only represent a small cross section of the best work produced here.

Our aforementioned 1989 Steelers series cleaned up on the blogger site, but hasn’t fared so well on WordPress. The Myron Cope obituary, the site’s 12th article, was the first breaking news event I wrote about, and remains a source of site pride, as is Dwight White’s obituary.

  • Writing profiles on Steelers legends, both living and for those who have passed, has been a pleasure.

Yet, those pieces don’t always get the traction that you’d think the would, but site tributes to the likes of Kordell Stewart, Rod Woodson, John Stallworth, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, and of course Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney are labors of love, and worth checking out.

If there’s any one surprise in terms of page views, it was a May 2010 piece on the 2000 Steelers road upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it didn’t “go viral” it did well when published kept drawing visitors long after this sort of #TBT type story should.

Thanks You – Part I

Success results team effort and this site is no exception.

To that, thanks go out to my wife and, yes, my mom who help with editing and proofreading when time allows. The articles that have benefitted from their extra pair of eyes should be easy to spot.

  • Thanks also go out to Osvaldo in Patagonia, who migrated me from blogger, and Raghav in India who has provided SEO advice from time-to-time.

Words of appreciation are also due for Michael Bean and Neal Coolong, who gave me a chance to contribute to BTSC when it was a site on the rise, and who’ve done favors for this site large and small. Rebecca Rollett, Ivan, Homer, Clark, Bill and all of the contributors at Going Deep with the Steelers also get a well-earned “Thank You” nod here, for the same reason.

The first big Thank You goes out to Gustavo Vallegos, “El Dr. de Acero,” who started contributing articles in Spanish a few years ago and continues to do so on an occasional basis, as time allows. While dream of establishing a true, bi-lingual Steelers blog remains a way off, the truth is Gustavo’s analysis and writing is excellent, and this site is far strong for his contributions. Muchas Gracias, Gus!

  • We save the biggest shoutout for the man who’s done the most.

As a rule, big Steelers news has a knack of breaking when I’m away and/or unable to write. Tony Defeo stepped in and began helping by keeping the site updated in breaking news situations when I’m away. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

For close to two years now, Tony has been contributing to this site on a regular basis, raising the level of quality of this site across the board.

His profile on Calvin Sweeney a top-performer and must read. Likewise his piece on Larry Brown. And his work on Weegie Thompson stands as an example of blogging brilliance at its best. Thank You Tony!

Thanks to You the Readers

The biggest thank you goes you to you, the readers. For better and for worse, this site’s footprint in terms of comments and interaction has always been limited. That’s fine. But the Black and Gold faithful find this site, and if Google Analytics is any guide, visitors stay here after they arrive and they, or you, return.

It was also particularly gratifying, in the early days of 2008, before total life time visitors had even broken the 1,000 mark, to see “Steel Curtain Rising” hoping up in the referring keywords report.

  • Its been said that Google is the ultimate truth serum and that’s correct in a lot of ways.

The numbers of this site confirm it. While half of this site’s visitors come from Western Pennsylvania, the other half does not. And while the US, UK and Mexico send the lion’s share of visitors, this site has served visitors from nearly every country on the globe.

So thanks to whoever it was from Romania who kept visiting early on, thanks to whoever it was in Austria who visited this site day in and day out for several years. And thanks to the person in Nigeria who searched for Christian Okoye, found the page on the 1989 Steelers Chiefs game, and then went and viewed several dozen other pages.

In a word, thanks to each and every one of you for reading.

Jaguars Playoff Loss as a Good Omen?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are NOT in a good place right now. Instead of playing for the Super Bowl, they’re watching it at home as all sorts of negative stories permeate the press coming out of Pittsburgh.

But things didn’t seem too bright 10 years ago, after a promising season ended with the defense on the decline, and a controversial play call to the outside and a controversial special teams decision allowed the Jaguars to beat the Steelers at home twice in one season.

At that time, I made this observation, in the very first edition of the Watch Tower:

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.
But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Things didn’t feel quite as bleak in January 2008, but the arrow on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t seem to be pointing up. One year later the Steelers were Super Bowl Bound.

Yours truly is most certainly not predicting a Super Bowl next season. But then again, I wouldn’t have done so in January 2008 either….

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover and commentate on it all.

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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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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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’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.

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Oilers Get 4th Timeout, Beat ’89 Steelers 23-16

This was the one everyone had waited for. When Chuck Noll dedicated the Steelers to securing a playoff spot when they were 4-6, there was no question which of Pittsburgh’s remaining six games was the biggest.

It was their December 3rd match up with the Houston Oilers.

Chuck Noll and Jerry Glanville

If it is safe to say that in 1989 rivalry between the Steelers and Browns ran deeper and still held the most intensity, it is also safe to say that the passion on the surface for the rivalry with the Oilers was hotter.

Jerry Glanville, with his showboat tactics and overt encouragement of dirty play was the antithesis of Chuck Noll. Noll and Bud Carson might have had their differences, and you can sure bet that Carson enjoyed the post-game hand sake after defeating his former mentor 51-0 in the season opener. But Noll and Carson certainly respected one another.

Houston so thoroughly thrashed the Steelers in week 7, that the 27-0 score betrayed the lopsidedness of the contest.

In week 12, the Steelers were 6-6 and the Oilers 7-5 clinging to a narrow lead in the division. A win would knock Houston down a peg, and give Steelers another divisional win to help with those all-important tie breakers.

It was time for Pittsburgh to show the NFL they were for real.

Steelers Start Strong, But Oilers Finish on Top, with Help

And the Steelers began the game doing just that, jumping to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Gary Anderson field goal, and a Merrill Hoge touchdown.

But Houston fought back, they scored two touchdowns late in the first half, although on the latter touchdown drive an official’s error awarded Houston an extra time out.

The Steelers marched the length of the field twice in the second half, but both times were forced to settle for Gary Anderson field goals, although the latter one tied the score, late in the fourth quarter.

  • But Houston struck back, marching 80 yards to score a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining to give them the lead with 21 seconds left to go.

Houston of course would hold on to that lead, and improve their record to 8-5 while the Steelers, with three games left, were knocked back into the losing side of .500.

At 6-7 sitting in last place in the AFC Central the odds of the Steelers making the playoffs were discouraging.

But the men in Black and Gold remained undaunted.

To read the entire series on the 1989 Steelers, click here (and remember to scroll down.)

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A Video Tribute to the Old AFC Central

Steel Curtain Rising is pleased to share with youa tribute to the old AFC Central.

It aired 20 years ago today, on the occasion of the 1989 Steelers second regular season game against the rival Houston Oilers.

Narrated by the legendary Pete Axethelm, one of the men who helped put ESPN’s NFL GameDay on the map prior to his untimely death in the early 1990’s.

So sit back and take two and a half minutes to revel and reminisce about the days when division rivalries didn’t simply represent rallying points for the fans, but real blood vendetta’s for the players.

No wonder Tunch Ilkin found his way to broadcasting. Is there any better way to describe Jerry Glanville than as a “water moccasin?”

We think not.

To read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire tribute to the 1989 Steelers, click here.

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