After 50 Years, Will the Raiders Complaining about the Immaculate Reception Stop?

I just turned 50 years old, an age that, according to studies, is when people begin to grow happier.

  • I’m just an infant in this whole “50-something” experience, but I sure hope those studies are correct.

Speaking of turning 50, the Immaculate Reception, a play that many football historians consider to be the greatest and most unlikely in NFL history, will celebrate its 50th birthday on December 23.

Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris, Jimmy Warren, Steelers vs Raiders

Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. Photo Credit: Harry Cabluck, AP

To commemorate this play, the Steelers and Raiders, the protagonist and antagonist of that incredible play (or antagonist and protagonist, if you consider silver and black to be your favorite colors), will square off in a primetime affair on Christmas Eve — or 50 years plus one day after the divisional-round matchup at old Three Rivers Stadium that proved to be the grand stage for this magnificent moment on December 23, 1972.

It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this article who would need a refresher on the Immaculate Reception, but if for some reason you do, let me explain it to you: With mere seconds left in the game, and the Raiders, who were representing the City of Oakland at the time (and not Las Vegas), leading 7-6, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass on fourth and 10. After avoiding several Raiders’ pass-rushers, Bradshaw, with his howitzer of a right arm, uncorked a pass down the middle of the field that was intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua. Unfortunately, Fuqua was headed for a collision with Jack Tatum, the Raiders’ late, great safety who preferred decapitations over pass breakups. Sure enough, the two players met right as the ball was arriving. “BOOM!” to quote the late, great John Madden, the Raiders head coach at the time.

The ball went ricocheting backward, which seemed to signal the end of the play and the Steelers’ season, a surprisingly magical campaign that included 11 victories and a division title. The Steelers, who were founded in 1933 and had never won a playoff game in their four-decade history, were about to go home again without advancing in the postseason. In fact, the Chief, Art Rooney, the founder and owner, was so sure his team was S.O.S (Same Old Steelers) that he left his suite at TRS before the fourth-down play and hopped on the elevator so he could be there in the locker room to console his fellas after a heartbreaking defeat.

  • But, wait! Out of nowhere came Franco Harris on a white stallion to save the day for the Steelers.

Harris, the very-popular and productive rookie running back, snagged the backend of the football just inches before it reached the old, hard TRS astroturf and galloped down the left sideline for what looked like a miraculous game-winning touchdown with just five seconds left.

I say “looked like,” because even though delirious Steelers players and fans rushed into the end zone to celebrate with Franco, the game-day officials weren’t initially sure what to call the play. Was it a touchdown, or was it an illegal touch?

Believe it or not, there was a rule that existed back then that prohibited an offensive player from catching a pass after it had already been touched by another eligible receiver. Why did this rule exist? I’m sure the NFL had its reasons, but this rule caused the on-field officials to delay the call. In fact, the referee for the game, Ed Swearingen, reportedly called up to the head of NFL officiating at the time, Art McNally, to tell him that he didn’t think there was illegal touching on the play, a determination that McNally said he agreed with.

  • That was six points for Pittsburgh! The Steelers won the game and launched a dynasty in the process.

To reiterate, the play has gone on the become the stuff of legend. Here I am talking about it 50 years later. The NFL still thinks so much of this play that it made sure to honor it on its 50th anniversary.

The Steelers have always been happy with the Immaculate Reception, of course, and didn’t need to wait for it to turn 50 in order to appreciate it.

The Raiders, on the other hand, have never gotten over the possibility that Fuqua touched the football right before Harris did. They’ve always thrown around wild conspiracy theories about the officials and their motives in the immediate aftermath of the play. They sometimes even bring up the fact that Franco Harris may have trapped the football to the turf before pulling it in and galloping for a score.

  • Fact is, none of this stuff can be proven one way or another. (Myron Cope argued to the contrary in Doble Yoi)

I could see if there was clear evidence that the ball hit Fuqua before reaching Harris, but there isn’t. The play has been dissected a zillion times at many different angles, and nobody has ever been able to determine anything definitively. In fact, if I understand the archaic rule correctly, once the ball hit Tatum (and there’s just as much evidence that it hit him as there is of it touching Frenchy), all bets were off regarding illegal touching. As for the football hitting the turf before Franco could catch hit, again, where’s the clear-cut evidence?

And those conspiracy theories about the officials being afraid to call it an illegal play for fear of being mobbed by thousands of angry Steelers fans? That seems like a stretch.

Again, nothing about the Immaculate Reception can be proven or disproven — even 50 years after the fact–and if the Steelers were on the losing end of the officials’ ruling, they could have had just as big of an ax to grind as Oakland — if not bigger.

I don’t know why the Raiders, after 50 years, still can’t let go of a play that has always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery, especially when they went on to have so much success for the next decade and won three Super Bowls by 1983.

Instead of being bitter about a play that happened 50 years ago, the Raiders and their fans should be bitter about how far their organization has fallen over the past two decades due to incompetent ownership and/or living in the past, a la the Cowboys and Commanders.

It’s time to let go of the Immaculate Reception, Raiders.

  • You’ve moved three different times since the early-80s, which means you have no trouble moving on from cities.

It’s now time to move on from the past.

 

 

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Regardless of Result, Pittsburgh Right to Prioritize Playoffs Over Draft Picks

In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.

  • But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.

That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.

I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.

  • If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.

That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)

  • Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.

There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.

  • You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.

The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.

You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.

  • Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.

But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.

The Perils of Playing for Draft Position

Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).

Then Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Marvel Smith, and Willie Parker getting old happened. That was a problem because rebuilding around a franchise quarterback is difficult, because a franchise QB gives you a couple of three wins per season.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Switch Ben Roethlisberger for Kordell Stewart on the 1998 and 1999 Steelers squads and they probably both finish at least at 8-8 instead of 7-9 and 6-10.

  • But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.

Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?

  • Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.

Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.

The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”

That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.

Oh, and by the way, Noll also got himself his own Hall of Fame running in 1972. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Franco Harris.

As Jimmy Psihoulis assured us in the Western Pennsylvania Polka, “…Good things come to those who work and wait.”

Jimmy Pol was right. The Steelers face long odds against the Chief and face even longer odds in their quest to win Super Bowl LVI.

But they are damn right to do everything in their power to try.

Go Steelers!

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History Steelers Rookie of the Year aka Joe Greene Great Performance Award Winners

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America named Najee Harris winner of the Joe Green Great Performance award or the Steelers rookie of the year for 2021.

Anyone who wins an award named after Joe Greene is automatically in good company, but the subsequent careers of other Steelers rookies of the year are checkered. Most, though not all, turned out to be productive football players.

Some grew into the Super stars they were supposed to be, while others saw their contributions eclipsed by other members of their draft classes. Click below to drive into each group.

Joe Greene, rookie of the year, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger shakes with Joe Greene

One Year Wonders

1986, LB Anthony Henton – Who? Exactly my response. Played two years, started 4 games but did nothing of note. This ninth round pick was clearly out classed by 1986’s 2nd round pick Gerald Williams.

1987, CB Delton Hall – A second round pick who started gang busters only to fade. Started more fights than games (4) following his rookie year.

1994, RB Bam Morris – The man who made Barry Foster expendable. Did have a decent sophomore season, but got busted for drugs shortly after Super Bowl XXX.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

1999, WR Troy Edwards – Grabbed 61 balls as a rookie, but never developed after that, perhaps in part to his “I can’t race air” attitude to training.

2001, LB Kendrell Bell – Wreaked havoc as a rookie. Injuries marred his second season and after that the word was that he scoffed at learning coverages or schemes

2008, LB Patrick Bailey – Made it in 2008 due to special teams but got cut less than a year later due to the 2009 Steelers atrocious special teams.

2012, OT Mike Adams – After a handful of solid games as the starting right tackle in 2012, the Steelers tried to move him to left tackle in 2013 with disastrous results.

2016, S Sean Davis – Davis had a phenomenal rookie year and strong start to his sophomore campaigns but the rest of his career was marred by position changes and injuries.

Productive, but Still Disappointing

1985, P Harry Newsome – Really, there was nothing wrong with Newsome, but when a punter is the best pick from your draft classs, that’s a disappointment.

1990, TE Eric Green – Green’s numbers were pretty good, by any standard. But my God, this man was supposed to be Gronk before there was Gronk. Instead his final year in Pittsburgh was marked by his tendency for running out of bounds.

1991, TE Adrian Cooper – Injuries in 1991 and a Green drug suspension in 1992 allowed Cooper to flash promise. But excusing a subpar 1993 campaign because of his contract situation earned him a ticket on the first bus to Minnesota.

1995, QB Kordell Stewart – A tremendous athlete, but as a quarterback he simply could not cope with the pressures of being a starter

1997, CB Chad Scott – Started as a rookie, then missed his entire second year due to injury. Many felt he should have played safety. He earned (and deserved) a 2nd contract but was never popular with fans.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

2009, WR Mike Wallace –Roethlisberger and Wallace essentially rewrote the Steelers long passing play records in 2010, but that’s the problem. Wallace never grew beyond being a “One Trick Pony” and could never repeat his production in the playoffs.

2014, WR Martavis Bryant – He followed his stunning rookie year with a series of suspensions and “I want mines” Twitter tantrums. In between, he authored several excellent games that reminded everyone just how good he could have been.

2018, S Terrell Edmunds – It isn’t Edmunds fault that he was over drafted. And if it is true that he’s been a consistent player that has improved steadily, he still hasn’t been the play maker the Steelers needed.

Solid But Over Taken by Other Rookies

1988, RB Warren Williams – A dependable number two back, who belonged in the rotation back in the days when both the halfback and the fullback got carries. Still, he was eclipsed by both Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson

1992, FS Darren Perry – His development in training camp led the Steelers to cut Thomas Everett. Had a good career, but Leon Searcy, Joel Steed, and Levon Kirkland all grew into more prominent roles with the team

1996, FB Jon Witman – A solid full back whose running capabilities never were truly explored. Linebackers Earl Holmes and Carlos Emmons ended up being the most prominent members of the Steelers 1996 draft class

2002, OG Kendall Simmons – Stepped right up and started as a rookie, but multiple injuries and diabetes really limited his career. Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel surpassed his contribution as a member of the Steelers 2002 draft class.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

2007, P Daniel Sepulveda – After a strong rookie year injuries hit Sepulveda hard and fellow 2007 draftees Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and William Gay outshone him.

2011, OT Marcus Gilbert – Marcus Gilbert had a solid career until injuries set in, but Cam Heyward is clearly the cream of the Steelers 2011 Draft Class.

2017, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster followed up his rookie campaign with a team MVP performance in 2018 but the real star of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class is T.J. Watt.

They Budded into Super Stars

1984, WR Louis Lipps — He gave John Stallworth a second wind. Perhaps he wasn’t a “Great” receiver, coming of age during the days of Jerry Rice, but still a very, very good player.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

1989, SS Carnell Lake — One of the true gems from the Steelers 1989 draft class. Saved not one but two seasons by moving from safety to corner. An all-around great player and class-act

1993, LB Chad Brown — Brown set the mold for the super athletic inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme, and then excelled during 1996 when injuries to Greg Lloyd forced him to move outside.

1998, OG Alan Faneca – A true Hall of Famer who anchored the Steelers offensive line for a decade and threw the key block on Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL.

2000, FB Dan Kreider – Never a Pro Bowler or All-Pro, but he was the best blocking fullback of his day, giving Pittsburgh the equivalent of a 6th offensive lineman on the field.

2003, S Troy Polamalu – A Hall of Famer, a true generational talent and a rare defensive player who could and did transform the course of a game with one play.

2004, QB Ben Roethlisberger – The definition of a Hall of Famer and the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Ben did it his way from start to finish and was downright deadly in the 4th quarter.

2005, TE Heath Miller – The best tight end in Steelers history, who quietly excelled in blocking while being almost automatic as a receiver.

2006, WR Santonio Holmes – Never quite a game-changing talent, he made the catch of his life in Super Bowl XLIII, earning him MVP honors.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

2010, C Maurkice Pouncey – 9 Pro Bowls, 2 All Pro Awards 134 games and 134 starts – all after losing nearly two complete seasons to injuries.

2013, RB Le’Veon Bell – Yes, he authored an unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, but broke rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor John Henry Johnson ever touched.

2015, LB Bud Dupree – Dupree was a late bloomer, but his play opposite of T.J. Watt in 2019 and 2020 made those Steelers defenses outright lethal.

Jury Still Out

2019, LB Devin Bush – Bush had a strong rookie year and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL. Whether it was because of his ACL or something else, he did not play well in 2021.

2020, WR Chase Claypool – Chase Claypool dazzled as a rookie, but was consistent in his second season. He has the raw talent, but his attitude and commitment are open to question.

2021, RB Najee Harris – Running behind a horrendous offensive line, Harris always gave it his all and always found ways to shine.

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A Steelers Fan Salutes John Madden: He Was “What the Game of Football is All About”

My boomer brethren in Steelers Nation will blanch at this, but at one point in my youth, I thought that John Madden had been a player or coach for the Steelers.

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

John Madden interviews Joe Greene before Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Anonymous/AP via the Virginian-Pilot

John Madden, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oakland Raiders head coach, CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC broadcaster and video game entrepreneur passed away on Sunday, December 28th. Here we honor his memory and his life’s work.

Born 4 months before the Immaculate Reception, my understanding of the concept of “Steelers Rival” was the Houston Oilers. My introduction to John Madden came from watching games on CBS. So instead of being associated with the arch-rival evil Oakland Raiders, to me John Madden was simply to “Voice of the NFL.”

  • And what a voice he had.

For 22 years John Madden commentated in tandem with Pat Summerall and together they embodied the absolute best in sports television broadcasting. Summerall with his deep baritone did the play-by-play, while Madden handled the color commentary, with an emphasis on color.

Listening to Summerall, it was easy to imagine him narrating a documentary on say, the Gettysburg Address or the D-Day landings or some other hinge-of-history moment. Listening to Madden, it was easy to imagine him chowing down with truckers at a highway greasy spoon somewhere west of the Mississippi.

  • You wouldn’t think such a pairing would work, but it did – to perfection no less.

Football is a complex sport. As Andy Russell once observed, success or failure in football often comes down to subtle shifts in angles and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fans.

Russell is right which speaks precisely to John Madden’s genius. John Madden had the ability break down the complexities of any given play and explain them to the average viewer. And he could do it in the space of about 20 seconds. He did it hundreds of times each weekend for 3 decades.

But if Madden had an uncanny gift for explaining the science of the angles and alignments of football, he was never a football nerd. Far from it. He knew that the game’s art lay in the elegance that grew from overpowering your opponent in the trenches.

And that’s what Madden loved the most, the big guys, the offensive lineman, the tight ends and the fullbacks . I can remember one 49ers game in the late 80’s where Madden remarked, that if someone came down from Mars and asked to see a football player, you’d show him 49ers fullback Tom Rathman.

And I suppose that love for the working-class, blue collar ethos of the game is what led me as a naive grade schooler to assume he’d been associated with the Steelers, an assumption riddled with irony…

John Madden and the Steelers

John Madden stared down Chuck Noll during all of the franchises’ epic games in the 70’s, from the Immaculate Reception, to the 1974 AFC Championship, to the 1975 rematch at Three Rivers Stadium, and to the AFC Championship loss in 1976 suffered in the absence of both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. When John Madden retired in 1977, his record coaching against Chuck Noll and the Steelers was 6-5, a mark any of his contemporaries would have envied.

  • Yet after that, Madden seldom crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Steel City Star, during their 22-year run at CBS, Madden and Summerall never called a Steelers game. At FOX they only called three, the Steelers 1994 and 1997 opening day blowout losses to the Cowboys and the 1996 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

That shows you just how fundamental John Madden was to the game, given that my football attention is almost singularly focused on the Steelers.

John Madden did of course called Super Bowl XL and later Super Bowl XLIII, famously assuring viewers after Ben Roethlisberger’s hookup with Santonio Holmes that he got both feet in bounds, had control of the football and, most importantly, scored a touchdown.

But by that point, he was already a Living Legend and one who’d found yet another way to grow his footprint on the game on the field

John Madden Football

Without a doubt the best Christmas present I ever got as an adolescent was one that came for Christmas of 1989 – John Madden Football for the Apple II. As mentioned many here many times, although both of my parents are Pittsburghers to the core, neither are into sports.

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

Without a doubt, the BEST Christmas present I EVER got as a kid.

My big brother handled that part of my education early on, but by the mid-80’s he was off to college. So I was on my own. Watching shows like NFL PrimeTime and reading the Washington Post sports page helped.

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

Before Madden , words like “slot,” “stunt,” “weakside,” “sweep,” and “nickleback” were little more than noise uttered between the cacophony of plays. Playing John Madden Football did more than breathe life into those terms – it added a new dimension to the game. Suddenly I could not only recognize formations in real time, but I understood why coaches were making their choices. .

How many hours did I spend playing John Madden Football on the Apple IIc my parents got me to help with school work?

  • Far, far too many to count.

I do know that I played it enough to prove that the Steelers of the 70’s could whip the tails off of the 49ers of the 80’s. I played enough to build my own All Time Steelers team featuring a QB depth chart of Terry Bradshaw, Bubby Brister and Bobby Layne throwing to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner playing in front of Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Dwayne Woodruff (apologies to Jack Butler for my youthful ignorance.)

Obituary after obituary for John Madden tells of how generations of fans learned the game by playing John Madden. I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon. Countless Argentine football fans, when asked how they learned the game before the days of NFL GamePass and/or free illegal game streaming sites, would simply respond, “Madden.”

Indeed, when asked to explain the opening scene of Friday Night Lights, the one featuring Frank Winchel’s grandmother quizzing him on his playbook, I went to the book case and showed my wife the playbook that came with John Madden Football back in 1989.

What the Game of Football is All About

John Madden brought the game of football into people’s living rooms in ways few have done before or since. One anecdote suffices.

On opening day 1993 CBS carried the Bears vs the Giants as a national telecast. As the game came down to the wire, and the opposing teams lined up at the goal line for one final play, I told my roommates, “Watch. Madden is going to tell us ‘This is what the game of football is all about.’” 10 seconds later, as if he’d been listening to me, Madden declared, “This is what the game of football is all about!”

  • How fitting. Because John Madden himself is what the game of football is all about.

Thank you, John, for your contributions to the game we all love. I’m sure you and Summerall are already calling games together again now that you’re both on the other side.

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Do You Doubt Chris Boswell Would Have Beaten the Lions in OT? I Don’t

Sports fans love to talk in absolutes. Sportswriters do as well.

  • Steelers fans and reporters are certainly no different.

For example, did you know the Steelers absolutely would have defeated the Oakland Raiders in the 1976 AFC title game if not for the injuries sustained by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Also, Pittsburgh would have won many more Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s had the organization selected quarterback Dan Marino in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft.

Do you think either of the above scenarios would have actually taken place had history been different? We’ll never know, but a different history certainly wouldn’t have hurt the Steelers’ cause.

As it pertains to the Steelers of the present–or at least their most-immediately past–there is no doubt in my mind that they would have won Sunday’s game — a contest against the lowly Detroit Lions that ended in a 16-16 tie in overtime at Heinz Field – had their kicker, Chris Boswell, but given at least one chance to attempt a field goal from 50-plus yards away.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Lions

Chris Boswell would have made it in OT. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It may have seemed risky to trot Boswell out there after a 39-yard hookup to Diontae Johnson on Pittsburgh’s first possession of overtime to attempt a 59-yard field goal, but it may not have been as risky as allowing the offense to attempt to get the job done. Unfortunately, Johnson fumbled on that play (see what I mean?) and denied the Steelers and their fans the opportunity to find out.

I absolutely would have sent Boswell out to attempt a 57-yard field goal the moment Johnson was tackled at the Detroit 39-yard line on Pittsburgh’s final possession of overtime. There were mere seconds left, the Steelers had no timeouts, and any pass that ended with a tackle in bounds would have made for a frantic attempt for Boswell.

The Steelers thought otherwise and, instead, attempted one final pass, which rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth pulled in for a one-yard gain before quickly fumbling the last shot at winning right down the tubes.

  • Such a shame. Boswell is at the height of his powers right now and has never looked better.

He’s starting to nail 50-plus yard field goals like one sinks two-foot putts–consistently if you’re a good golfer. In fact, he’s six-for-six from that range in 2021 and hit one from 51-yards away late in regulation on Sunday, in the rain, in the cold, at Heinz Field.

Just six days prior, in Pittsburgh’s come-from-behind win over the Bears on Monday Night Football, Boswell, who kicked the game-winner from 40 yards out, connected on field goals of 54 and 52 yards earlier in the night, becoming the first kicker to ever hit two from 50-plus yards in the same game at Heinz Field.

Other than T.J. Watt, Boswell might be the most reliable Steeler at this point, and when you really think about it, he’s been reliable his entire career. I don’t know what was going on with Boswell in 2018 when he missed seven of 20 field-goal tries while also missing five extra points, but even with those seven field-goal misses, Boswell has made 164 field goals in 185 tries during his Steelers career.

Amazing. Furthermore, Boswell is 15 of 18 from 50-plus yards out since signing with Pittsburgh early in the 2015 campaign.

Obviously, neither Johnson nor Freiermuth intended to fumble in overtime on Sunday, so it’s hard to blame effort or even strategy–even if I do think the final pass to Freiermuth was a poor call and/or poorly executed.

It’s just a shame that Boswell wasn’t given a chance to boot home the win.

I have no doubt that he would have.

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Steelers Represented Well in The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. Troy Aikman? He Got Screwed

With the Steelers bye week upon us let’s delve into something that there simply wasn’t time for during the off season, namely The Athletic’s NFL Top 100.

The Athletic kicked off their series on July 8th with Derrick Brooks at 100 and closed it on September 8th with, you guessed it, Tom Brady at number 1.

  • Overall, the series was an interesting and ambitious effort.

And like most Steelers fans my focus was to see how well (or poorly) the Black and Gold fared. Fortunately, the Steelers did well, landing 8 players on the list:

98. Dermontti Dawson
71. Mel Blount
69. Terry Bradshaw
57. Mike Webster
52. Jack Ham
37. Jack Lambert
26. Rod Woodson
14. Joe Greene

(Technically you could argue the Steelers have 9, as Bobby Layne made the list at 89 and Layne played 5 seasons in Pittsburgh.)

Sure, one can quibble (as many did) over Troy Polamalu not making it while Ed Reed did. One could also protest Franco Harris’ absence. (Few did, even though Franco still owns several Super Bowl records and of course authored the Immaculate Reception, greatest play in the history of the sport.)

  • On the flip side, naysayers could (and did) object to Bradshaw’s inclusion.

But no matter how you cut it, the Athletic’s writers clearly give the Steelers the respect they’ve earned.

The same cannot be said, however, for Troy Aikman.

Levon Kirkland, Troy Aikman, Kevin Greene, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30,

Levon Kirkland after sacking Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A Steelers Fan Takes up for Troy Aikman? Yes.

Troy Aikman remains only one of four quarterbacks to win 3 Super Bowls having pulled off that feat in 4 years failed to make The Athletic’s NFL Top 100 list.

This is insane.

It might seem odd for a Steelers fan to take up for Troy Aikman, let alone one who insisted that the ’89 Steelers would should regret not having a shot a drafting Aikman because “we’ve got Bubby Brister.”

  • Six year later, Aikman would show that same 23 year old just how naïve his 16 year old self had been.

Against the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Troy Aikman played better than any other Dallas Cowboy on the field. As the legendary Will McDonough argued, he should have been the game MVP. True, Aikman’s Super Bowl XXX stats might not knock you on your ass.

Emmit Smith, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30

Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd tackle Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But he played a mistake free game, and he did it against the Blitzburgh defense. Sure, that Steelers secondary was stuck together with spit, duct tape and bubble gum, but that same defense made Emmitt Smith look like a mere mortal (OK, like a mere mortal except for when he was in the Red Zone – but there’s a reason why they called it the “Emmitt Zone” back then.)

  • Troy Aikman didn’t do it just once against the Steelers, but he did it two other times in the Super Bowl.

“Ah, but performance in Super Bowls only goes so far….” Frankly, I’m not sure of that. A quarterback’s success or failure to get it done on the game’s biggest stage is one of the most critical metrics of his mettle. Terry Bradshaw would have zero justification for a place on this list had he not played so well in his Super Bowls.

  • But a “Stats not Super Bowls” argument falls flat when applied to Aikman.

Dan Marino’s (No. 18) career passer rating was 86.4. Brett Favre’s (No. 22) was 86. By comparison, Troy Aikman’s was 81.6. So maybe The Athletic used a passer rating of 85 as some sort of cut off? Nope. John Elway (No. 15) was 79.9. Roger Staubach (No. 78) had a career passer rating of 83.4.

It says here that all of the other quarterbacks discussed here as well as others not mentioned deserve a spot on The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. But if they do then Troy Aikman certainly does as well.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy

We can be a better football team, I can be a better quarterback and not win 15 games…. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 games.” – Ben Roethlisberger August 2005

We would have no way of knowing it at the time, but Ben Roethlisberger was wise beyond his years. You could describe the Steelers 2004 season in many ways, but “Unplanned” might be the most accurate. After a 6-10, 2003 campaign, nothing was expected of the 2004 Steelers. And that was before they lost their starting quarterback.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 15 straight wins, until finally falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. To Bill Cowher the challenge was to keep maintain “that same look in our eye” now that expectations were high.

Expectations were high. In July none other than Art Rooney II declared “I think for the people who have been around for a while now, I think we all feel like it’s time. We’ve been close and we have to take that last step.”
In other words, “Win the Super Bowl” was the Steelers plan. Ironically, their ability to do that would hinge on their ability to improvise when things did not go as planned.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Retooled for a Run

By summer of 2005 the annual exoduses of free agents from Pittsburgh were fading from memory.

Sure the Steelers had lost free agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent, but Max Starks and Kendall Simmons were essentially upgrades. Chad Scott had gone too, but Ike Taylor was more than ready.

No one was sure, but Randle El was a proven player.

The Steelers also welcomed tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Most importantly, Jerome Bettis decided to return for one final shot at Super Bowl instead of retiring

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

When the Steelers arrived at St. Vincents Jerome Bettis passed out “Super Bowl XL Detroit: The Bus Stops” T-shirts. But all eyes were on Hines Ward’s hold out. Ward had a year on his contract. Dan Rooney did not negotiate with hold outs. He hadn’t made an exception for Franco Harris. Ward would be no different.

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward in the playoff win against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tony Tribble, AP via Al.com

But Dan Rooney felt this team had “…the closeness that brings championships” and didn’t want a money squabble poisoning camaraderie. With Jerome Bettis’s help, Rooney talked Hines Ward into reporting and delivered on his promise to treat him fairly.

Ward’s return was welcome in football terms too, because yellow flags flashed around both the Steelers running game and passing game during the 2005 preseason. The plan had been for Duce Staley to serve as the bell cow with Jerome Bettis as his backup.

  • But both Staley and Bettis had health issues during training camp. So Bill Cowher turned to Willie Parker, 2004’s preseason wonder.

Ben Roethlisberger had surprisingly struggled during the 2005 preseason, posting a 32.8 passer rating prompting Bill Cowher to confesses “I like this group of guys, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Was Willie Parker a legit starting running back? Would Roethlisberger prove to be a one-year-wonder? The Steelers were about to find out.

Season Opens as Planned, But NFL = “Not For Long….”

The 2005 Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to open the season. Willie Parker ran for 160 yards and 111 yards respectively, while Ben Roethlisberger had an average passer rating of 149.05. The Steelers would be alright with Ben and Willie.

The New England Patriots returned to Pittsburgh on week 3 left as victors yet again, after a 23-21 contest. Next the Steelers traveled to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, but it took a last second Jeff Reed field goal to get them there.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee during the game.

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

Outsiders have long questions the Steelers practice of keeping 3 quarterbacks but October 2005 would vindicate the franchise’s philosophy.

The Steelers would lose their next game as Tommy Maddox struggled all day, until finally throwing a pick six to Rashean Mathis in overtime.

Big Ben returned, and Pittsburgh rebounded for 2 more wins, but in the 2nd victory over the Ravens, but hetweaked his knee again. Worse yet, both Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis were down with injuries.

And the Steelers were traveling to Lambeau Field, one of the NFL’s most difficult venues to play in.

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

Troy Polamalu strip sacks Brett Favre. Photo Credit: John Biever, SI.com

Fortunately, Bill Cowher had flexibility at backup quarterback and started Charlie Batch started instead. He also had Duce Staley in his bullpen at running back.

  • Neither Duce nor Batch made any fantasy football owners happy that day.
  • Pittsburgh’s best“offensive” play was Troy Polamalu’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But that play, combined with just enough plays by Batch and Staley, put the Steelers over the top.

A week later, Charlie Batch did make a lot of plays in quarterbacking the Steelers to a 17-7 halftime lead, but unfortunately going into halftime he broke his finger during a QB sneak for a touchdown. Tommy Maddox struggled again, but midway through the 3rd quarter Ken Whisenhunt improvised by going to his bag of tricks, as Antwaan Randle El tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fake reverse to Hines Ward that all but iced the game.

Unfortunately, no such magic was on tap a week later as Maddox continued to struggle costing the Steelers an overtime loss, this time to the Ravens.

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

Ben Roethlisberger returned for a key Monday Night Football matchup against the 2005 undefeated Indianapolis Colts. While the Steelers kept it closer than the score indicates, the Colts won, 26-7.

That was perhaps to be expected. Ben Roethlisberger has typically struggled his first game back after an injury, and this was one of the games that set this trend. But the following week the Steelers came up short 38-31 to the Bengals, leaving Pittsburgh at 7-5 with a three-game distant second in the AFC North.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Bengals

  • A Post-Gazette photo caption went so far as to suggest that Jerome Bettis questioned his decision to return.

With his back to the wall, Bill Cowher called full pads for practice, something that was unheard of in mid-December. He did something equally meaningful in the meeting room. Cowher had always kept a white board filled with stats, facts and figures that he’d chart progress by updating throughout the season.

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

I had been there for 10 years and it’s something he did for a long time. It was always there. We come into the team meeting room and he erased all of it. We’re like, ‘Whoa, the season’s not over. We have four games left.’ And all he said was ‘Chicago. This is it. We’re not looking at all of it, just one game: Chicago.’

With 4 games left in the regular season, Bill Cowher had installed a playoff mindset in his team.
Cowher’s gambit worked.

The next week a 9-4 Chicago Bears team came to Heinz Field, and with Jerome Bettis leading the way in the snow, the Steelers dispatched the Bears 18-6. Next, the Steelers knocked off the Vikings on the road, then clobbered the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

Even though the Steelers still needed to win – and needed help going into the final game of the season, Bob Labriola concluded, “The playoffs are coming, and so are the Steelers.”

So there was no panic on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the Lions went up 14-7 in the final week of the season. The Steelers responded with 3 Jerome Bettis touchdowns and stopped a Lion’s comeback attempt with another touchdown to win 35-21.

The Steelers got the help they needed and were in the playoffs, but as the last seed in the AFC. No last seeded team had ever won a Super Bowl.

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

This suited Bill Cowher perfectly. Bill Cowher was a motivator, yet his repertoire of stories was limited. Veterans could often finish his speeches for him. .

When the playoffs arrived , Bill Cowher shocked his veterans by reminding them that people had told Christopher Columbus that he would sail off of the edge of the earth. Columbus persisted, discovering the New World.

As Bettis recounted to Ed Bouchette, “’My point is, don’t let history dictate your future, let your future make history.’”

  • History remembers the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals as a 31-17 blowout.

What it forgets is that, even after Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently knocked Carson Plamer from the game, Cincinnati managed to build up a 17-7 2nd quarter lead. The Steelers made it 17-14 before half time, but in the third quarter the Bengals marched directly toto the Steelers 15.

There punter Kyle Larson tried to run bumbled field goal attempt, fumbled and lost 20 yards in the process. As Mike Pruista of the Tribune-Review observed, at this point Cincinnati’s playoff inexperience grabbed them by the throat and never let go.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting with Cedrick Wilson on a flea flicker to go up 28-17, the Pittsburgh was playing with Cincinnati.

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

The only thing missing from the legend of Steelers-Colts 2005 AFC Divisional is narration by the late John Facenda.

The 2005 Colts had been perfect, only losing because they rested starters. The tragic suicide of Tony Dungy’s son had the rest of the league pulling for them. The 2005 Steelers, in contrast, had been anything but perfect.

  • Yet, for the first 3 quarters the Steelers had been absolutely perfect in this game.

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Colts, 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs

Troy Polamalu’s should have been interception. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Tory Polamalu had a game-sealing interception overturned, which to Colts used to narrow the score to 21-18. Two series later, Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Peyton Manning on 4th and 6, giving the Steelers the ball on the Colt’s 2. Gary Brackett ended Jerome Bettis’ touchdown attempt with a fumble, and only Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle saved the day.

  • What everyone remembers after that was Mike Vanderjet’s missed 46-yard field goal.

But Steelers rookie Bryant McFadden authored the critical play on that series. Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone and delivered the ball perfectly. McFadden squared his shoulders, and deflected the pass in what was the best play of his 7 year NFL career.

Perfection fought with imperfection in Indianapolis, and it was an unheralded rookie who swing the balance to the Steelers, sending them to the AFC Championship.

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

By the time he traveled to Denver on January 22nd 2006, Bill Cowher had coached in 5 AFC Championships with Jerome Bettis playing in three of those. All of those had been at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Cowher had lost 5 of 6 and Bettis all three.

  • If playing at home wasn’t the problem, perhaps getting away from Pittsburgh was part of the solution.

Jerome Bettis grew up in Detroit and he’d never won a championship. The night before the game, he implored his teammates: “Take me home! Take me home.”
The Broncos never had a chance.

Sure, rookie wide receiver Nate Washington turned into a defensive back to make a heads up play to stop a would have been game-changing interception. But that’s precisely the point. Championship teams find ways to make those plays.

When all was said and done, Joey Porter logged a sack, backup lineman Brett Keisel made 2, Larry Foote had an interception, and the Steelers completely neutered the Broncos “Zone Rushing” attack.

On offense, Cedric Wilson, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis all found the end zone, while Jeff Reed kicked 2 field goals. By the time Ben Roethlisberger rushed for the final score, it really was an insurance touchdown.

  • But the most telling moment of the game came on the sideline.

As Bill Cowher faced Dan and Art Rooney II, shaking hands, his left-hand index finger was raised to form the numeral 1 and he was clearly mouthing, “We’ve still got 1 more game to play!”

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

You can win Super Bowls several ways. You can dominate out of the gate as the Steelers did to the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Two fantastic franchises can go toe-to-toe with the best one eking out a win as the Steelers and the Cowboys did in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. You can make up for inferior talent by outfoxing your opened with better coaching as the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.

Every coach plans to dominate, probably expects to go toe-to-toe and likely falls back on outfoxing his opponent. But of none of those work one other option remains:

  • Create your own opportunities.

And that’s the route the Steelers took in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XL, but their offense was stuck in 2nd gear for most of the first half. In fact, Seattle held a 3-0 lead for most of the first 30 minutes.

So the Steelers did what they’d done so well all year long – improvise.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger was nervous and not playing well. After trying, and failing to connect with Hines Ward through the air, Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him in a reverse. Ward picked up 18 yards. The Steelers didn’t score on that drive, but on the next one they darted around the backfield buying time as Ward made a 37 yard catch that brought the Steelers to the Seahawks 3.

  • When two Jerome Betis runs didn’t get it done, Roethlisberger ran it in himself.

Save the whining Seahawks fans. Sure, the replay is hardly “indisputable,” but the referee who was standing right there had a far better view than the camera angle and he called it a touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt I
If the Steelers offense had been stalled in the first half, their play calling had forced the Seahawks to adjust their formations, just as Pittsburgh’s coaches expected, as recounted by Alan Faneca in Jim Wexell’s:

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

That wasn’t “just” a 75 yard run for a touchdown, it was an remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

Ike Taylor
Ben Roethlsiberger would turn over the ball on the Steelers next possession with Kelly Herndon returning it 76 yards. The Seahawks took 4 plays to score. Four series later, Seattle was at it again, driving to Pittsburgh’s 27 yard line, threating to score.

Ike Taylor was a great cornerback who couldn’t hold on to the ball. He had 17 interceptions, regular season and playoffs combined, in his entire 12-year career. Dwayne Woodruff also played 12 years and had 37 in the regular season alone.

  • Matt Hasselbeck thought he had Darrell Jackson open at the five.

Ike Taylor thought better of it, intercepted the ball and returned it 24 yards. Ike didn’t pick off too many passes in his career. But he sure made this one count.

Ken Whisenhunt II
The Steelers got the ball at midfield. A mix and match of runs and short passes earned a first down. Then Ken Whisenhunt went for the knockout punch. Ben Roethlisberger handed to Willie Parker. Parker tossed it to Antwaan Randle El. Randle El kept running his reverse. Ben Roethlisberger threw a block. Hines Ward got open. Randle El released.

The Steelers went up 21-10

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

Dicky LeBeau
Seattle still had time. They got the ball back. They advanced to midfield. The Steelers held them, forcing a third down with 8 yards to go. Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass. Deshea Townsend came out of nowhere sacking Hasselbeck and forcing a punt.

  • Dick LeBeau’s blitz was a new one, one he’d improvised and installed the night before.

The Steelers fed the ball to Jerome Bettis 7 times on their next 8 plays. Seattle got the ball back but it was too little too late – they turned over on downs.

  • With 3 seconds separating the Steelers from One for the Thumb, Ben Roethlisberger took a final knee.

Minutes later Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher took tie dais together. Bettis declared “The Bus stops here.”

Bill Cowher finally did what he returned to Pittsburgh to do: He handed Dan Rooney his 5th Lombardi Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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1993 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time

You should expect to win on Sunday.” – Billy Cowher prior to the 1992 season.

In the blink of an eye in 1992 Bill Cowher catapulted the Pittsburgh Steelers from an NFL afterthought to a contender. His secret? Cowher believed in his roster when no one else did. More importantly, Bill Cowher convinced his players to believe in themselves and to “expect to win on Sunday.”

Confidence is critical to championships, yet the story of the 1993 Steelers shows that Cowher’s players took his words a little too closely to heart.

Mark Royals, Keith Cash, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs 1993 AFC Wild Card

Former Steeler Keith Cash gets revenge, blocking Mark Royal’s punt in the playoffs. Photo Credit: John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

Zen Arrives in Pittsburgh with the 1993 Steelers Yin and Yang

The 1993 Steelers either played Super Bowl Championship-caliber football or football worthy of a team contending for draft position. There were no in betweens.

Hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview, the Steelers opened at home against the San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh promptly lost.  The 24 to 13 final was never as close as the score suggests. But Mike Tomczak played most of the game for Neil O’Donnell who was fighting tendonitis, so no one sounded the alarm.

  • No such excuses existed a week later however when the lowly Los Angeles Rams delivered Steelers their first shutout since 1989.

The Steelers rebounded by winning its next two games, and then authored what appeared to be statements victories over San Diego and New Orleans.

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

The Steelers defense dominated the San Diego Chargers so thoroughly that future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene declared:  “This is like the WWF or something.” Even though the final score read 16-3, San Diego never had a chance.

Next New Orleans brought a 5-0 record to Pittsburgh, but left only making 3 first downs in the first 3 quarters. Rod Woodson played a career game that day, waiting just 90 seconds to take Wade Wilson’s opening pass 63 yard for a touchdown.  He then intercepted Wilson two series later. The Steelers sacked Wade Wilson 5 times, held him to 6 of 23 passing.

In keeping with the season’s character, the Steelers traveled to the cursed confines of Cleveland Stadium and dominated in every statistical category possible, only to lose due to an inability to stop Eric Metcalf on not one, but two punt returns.

On Monday November 15th, 1993 the reigning AFC Alpha Male, the Buffalo Bills brought their 7-1 record to Three Rivers Stadium. One play tells the story (video courtesy of Steel City Star):

Gary Jones’ hit on Don Beebe, which would be illegal today, and it only marks the tip of the iceberg. The Steelers defense also knocked Jim Kelly out of the game with a concussion and broke Andre Reed’s wrist in a 23-0 shutout.

The Monday Night Football ass-kicking the Steelers delivered to the Bills seemingly signaled the passing of the torch for AFC dominance.

Instead, the win proved Bill Cowher’s young Steelers couldn’t handle success. Six days later the Broncos smashed the Steelers 37 to 14 in Denver. Unfortunately, the manic-depressive character of the 1993 Steelers wasn’t the only problem Pittsburgh faced.

Losing Foster Orphans 1993 Steelers Offense

For reasons unknown, Chuck Noll had played Foster sparingly despite his elite talent. Bill Cowher did the opposite. In 1992 Bill Cowher had unleashed Barry Foster as the focal point of the Steelers offense, and Foster delivered, smashing Franco Harris’ single season rushing record.

Leroy Thompson, Dermontti Dawson, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills MNF 1993

Leroy Thompson runs for over 100 yards vs the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When in doubt, he fed Foster the ball. The formula of “Get Foster his 100 and get a win” while fallible, worked well.

Unfortunately, Foster had torn ligaments in his left ankle during the Bills’ game and was done for the season. As he’d done against New Orleans, back up Leroy Thompson stepped up to the plate and rushed for 100 yards.

  • Those were the only and final 100 yard games of Thompson’s career.

Thompson was a quality backup, but the starting role was too big for him. Worse yet, for long stretches, coaches would seem to “forget” that Merril Hoge ran the ball very well.

In Washington, WMAL’s Ken Beatrice reminded Steelers fans, “Leroy Thompson isn’t going to make anyone forget he’s not Barry Foster.” Yet Thompson was vocal about trying to do just that, signaling another problem….

Enter the Locker Room Lawyers

In the third week of September 1993 the Steelers did something they haven’t done since: they signed  Rod Woodson and Barry Foster to new contracts during the season.

  • Locking up their best offensive and defensive player made sense.

But the rest of the Steelers locker room wanted theirs too.

Starting defensive ends like Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson vocally criticized management, with tight end Adrian Cooper even suggested his contract situation impacted his performance. Even players like Hoge, whose work ethic remained beyond question, admitted that contract squabbles were a distraction. The Steelers broke off all contract negotiations during the middle of the season, but the damage had been done.

Buddy Ryan, Waiting in the Weeds

Buddy Ryan had arrived as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator in 1993 and that posed a problem for Pittsburgh. While few noted it in the Steel City, during the 1980’s Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles defense had enjoyed a pretty good run of success against Bill Parcell’s offenses. And those offenses had been  coached by Ron Erhardt who was now coaching the Steelers offense….

After entering 1993 as division favorites, the Oilers started 1-4. By the time the Steelers first faced them on Sunday Night Football after Thanksgiving, the Oilers had clawed back to 6-4.

  • The Steelers-Oilers series would decide the AFC Central and for one night, the Houston Astrodome was again the House of Pain.

Houston defenders sacked Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak 6 times, with Pittsburgh coaches pulling O’Donnell, admitting that they feared injury. They were wise, as one melee saw Michael Barrow rip off Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him with relish.

In a play that painfully symbolizes the season, a pass hit Jeff Graham’s hands, bounced off his face mask, and then went  through his hands again, all while he was untouched in the end zone. The final score read 23-3 Oilers. The Steeler response was, “We’ll see you 3 weeks.”

In the intervening two weeks the Steelers notched narrow, escape-variety victories against the Patriots and the Dolphins. (Note, Merril Hoge logged 16 carries in those wins – coincidence? I think not.)

Gary Brown, Levon Kirkland, Warren Moon, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers 1993 Pittsburgh

Gary Brown runs over Steelers. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images, via Houston Sports

Perhaps Gary Anderson’s deep opening kickoff was Pittsburgh’s highlight in the Three Rivers Stadium rematch with Houston. Garbage time glory provided window dressing to 26-17 contest where the Oilers simply spanked the Steelers.

Again, the Oilers sacked O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow the one-season wonder.

Buddy Ryan bragged, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”

Greg Lloyd Wills 1993 Steelers to Playoffs

The next week, a wounded, flu-stricken Steelers team played Seattle on the day after Christmas where, a running back named Jon Vaughn, who’d never done anything before or since, ran for 138 yards.

Going into the season finale, an 8-7 Steelers team needed a win over Bill Belichick’s 7-8, playing for pride, the Cleveland Browns held  Pittsburgh to 9-3 at half time.

  • Greg Lloyd exploded at halftime, challenging the offense to do its part.

He led by example, forcing  two fumbles and racing down field for an open-field tackle – all on a bum hamstring.  With Lloyd leading the way, the Steelers shut out the Browns in the 2nd half scoring 13 unanswered points. The 1993 Steelers finished 9-7 and got the help they needed.

Pittsburgh was headed to the playoffs!

1993 Playoffs: Coming Up Short in Kansas City

The Steelers traveled to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the 1993 AFC Wild Card in a fever-pitched back-and-forth battle. Thing started badly for Pittsburgh when cornerback D.J. Johnson got ejected during the first series, but the Steelers struck first on a Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper touchdown.

From there, the lead would change five times, with the game’s pivotal moment coming after Neil O’Donnell’s go-ahead touchdown to Eric Green late in the 4th quarter. The Steelers defense stoned the Chiefs to force a 3 and out, giving Pittsburgh a chance to kill the clock inside the 2 minute warning.

  • Unfortunately, Chief’s defense turned the tables, forcing a punt after just 3 plays.

Keith Cash, a player Bill Cowher had cut in training camp, blocked Mark Royal’s punt and the Chief’s returned it to Pittsburgh’s nine-yard line. Two plays later Joe Montana connected with Tim Barnett to tie the score.

The Steelers offense suffered another three and out, and Pittsburgh braced as a Nick Lowery field goal sailed wide right. After trading punts in overtime, Joe Montana hit Keith Cash to bring Kansas City to the Steelers 32-yard line.  Six plays later Nick Lowery was kicking the game winning field goal.

After their Monday Night shut out of the Bills the Pittsburgh had gone 3-4 and now Bill Cowher was 0-2 in the playoffs. The 1993 season and proven that Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers simply weren’t ready for Prime Time.

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