Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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Former Steelers Kevin Green and Tony Dungy Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame, Alan Faneca Must Wait

While it might not evoke cheers of “Here We Go Steelers Here We Go!” the way it did for Jerome Bettis last summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2016 class has been announced and this year’s class as a Black and Gold tinge.

  • Former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene was elected along side former Steelers defensive back and defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy.

Kevin Greene Shined in Black and Gold

In the spring of 1993 NFL teams literally tripped over themselves to land free agents such as Reggie White. Ticker tape parades were thrown, keys to cities were bestowed, and there was much pomp and circumstance. The Steelers took a low key approach, and one of the signings they made was that of Kevin Greene.

By the time the Steelers signed Greene, he was over 30 years old and had amassed 72.5 sacks. Yet he was little known outside of the NFC West, where he’d played for 8 years for the Los Angeles Rams. That changed in a hurry, as Bill Cowher pared him with Greg Lloyd, and together the tandem terrorized opposing quarterbacks for the next three seasons.

  • Greene played for the Steelers from 1993 to 1995, with his last game being Super Bowl XXX.

During that time Kevin Greene amassed 35.5 sacks, but the Steelers opted to let him depart via free agency, thinking his best days were behind him. That conclusion was very, very wrong, as Greene would go on to play for 4 more years and register another 52 sacks in the process.

As it was, Greg Lloyd’s next two seasons would be shortened by injury, the Steelers would lose Chad Brown in another year, Jason Gildon would show he was good but not great, and Carlos Emmons provided average play until the Steelers could draft and develop Joey Porter.

Dungy’s Roots Trace Back to Pittsburgh

The Steelers drafted Tony Dungy in 1977, and he played as a back up defensive back. His most notable feats were subbing as emergency quarterback as a rookie in 1977 when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek both got hurt. Dungy’s performance was a disaster, but he did complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Dungy also become one of the few modern era players to both record and throw and interception in the same game.

[Editors note, the orginal version of this article had an error, which has been redacted and corrected below.]

  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced a fumble after the Dallas Cowboy’s final on-sides kick which Rocky Bleier recovered.
  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced Randy White fumble which Dennis Winston recovered. One play later, Bradshaw hooked up with Swann in the end zone

Despite that, the Steelers traded Dungy after the 1978 season, and he played another year in San Francisco.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

George Gojkovich, Getty Images – In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator

Dungy spent 1980 coaching defensive backs for the University of Minnesota, but a year later Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh, first as a defensive assistant, then as a defensive backs coach. In 1984, Noll promoted Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator at age 29, making him one of the first, if not the first, African American defensive coordinators.

Dungy’s first two years as defensive coordinator were so successful that he was touted as possibly being the NFL’s first African American head coach. The Steelers defense declined in 1986 and 1987, as the full impact of the Steelers mediocre drafting of the early and mid 1980’s was felt. Nonetheless, in 1987 the Steelers defensive touchodowns, and were 5th in take aways.

  • The Steelers defense fell on hard times in 1988, finishing dead last.

Indeed, the 1988 Steelers finished 5-11, but saw 4th quarter leads evaporate in at least 3 games. Dan Rooney decided to order changes, and in the ensuring scuffle, Tony Dungy opted to resign rather than accept demotion.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Dungy with Kanas City’s Rod Rust, while Dungy took a position under new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher’s staff….

Dungy of course, never did succeed Chuck Noll as many once expected him to, but he did go on to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he hired and mentored Mike Tomlin has his defensive backs coach.

Tony Dungy rightly wins Hall of Fame induction for his work as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and for becoming the first African American to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he made important contributions while a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in many ways, his influence lives on in the organization.

Faneca Must Wait

The Hall of Fame candidate with the strongest ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization will have to wait another year. Former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca was a candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame, but did not receive the necessary votes.

  • This was Faneca’s first year of eligibility, and it is not unusual for offensive lineman, who lack statistics and other high-profile measures of success, to wait several years to get induction.

Joining Greene on the Hall of Fame dias are Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.

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Rod Woodson Returns to NFL as Raiders Secondary Coach

The Steelers have not announced who will replace departed secondary coach Ray Horton yet. But we know for sure that former Pittsburgh Steeler and NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson will not be under consideration.

Not any source had associated Woodson’s name with the vacancy.

Six years ago, things were different, however.

After he retired from the Radiers, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher tried to entice Rod Woodson into the coaching booth, but number 26 declined, instead opting for the press box.

The Oakland Raiders announced today that Rod Woodson had joined Hue Jackson’s staff as the team’s cornerbacks coach.

As a general rule of thumb, great players do not make great coaches – look at Mike Singletary’s stint in San Francisco for proof.

Woodson however, offers potential to be an exception. Rod Woodson matched his athletic gifts with a cerebral approach to the game. At any number of points both during and after his career, Woodson went at great pains to single out coaches who’d improved his understanding of the game.

Acknowledged defensive geniuses like Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers have toped his lists, but so have men like Tony Dungy and Rod Rust, two mentors whose time with Woodson was far more limited.

Because he’s a Steelers great, Steel Curtain Rising wishes Woodson all the best in his new coaching endeavor – last long he fails to find success at the Steelers expense.

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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.

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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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’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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Splish, Splash, ’89 Steelers Give Miami a 34-14 Bath

1988 Steelers had closed out their season by defeating Don Shula’s 6-10 Miami Dolphins. While Chuck Noll’s 5-11 season prompted all sorts of “has the game passed him by” speculation, few pundits asked the same question of Shula, despite the fact that Shula had been in the game longer than Noll.

And by week 12 of the 1989 season, it would seem that the pundits had vindicated themselves. At 7-4 Miami was contending for playoff position, whereas, their victory over San Diego notwithstanding, the Steelers appeared to be jockeying for drafting order.

Prior to the game Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook even speculated at the prospect that Noll might be about to deliver Shula, Noll’s mentor, his 285th victory.

Appearances, however, can deceive.

1989 Steelers Dolphins, Merril Hoge, Tim Worley,

3 Merril Hoge touchdowns led the 1989 Steelers over the Dolphins, but Tim Worley got the call on this play.

Dolphins Keep Up Appearances… for a Quarter

The Dolphins opened up the game just as you would expect a 7-4 home team to do against a 5-6 vistor.

  • They scored touchdowns in both opening possessions, including a 66 yard pass to Mark Clayton.

But Marino’s bomb to Clayton coincided with the arrival of a dark rain cloud over Joe Robbie Stadium.

  • You’d think that a team that lives in Miami wouldn’t be bothered by a little rain.
  • You’d think it would be a distinct part of home field advantage, much the way cold is in the Northeast.
  • You’d think this would especially be the case when the visiting team had an 0-6 six record playing on your home field.

All logical assumptions. All wrong on this day.

Splish, Splash, Steelers Give Miami a Bath

The rain came. And came, and came. 2 and a half inches in 15 minutes, to be exact.

According to Merril Hoge, the rain was like “a bucket in the face.” Rod Woodson chimed in, sharing that the rain was a “blessing from Mother Nature.”

The Steelers offense responded first, moving the ball down field on a 72 yard drive that included a key third and 2 conversion to Mike Mularkey and one which Merril Hoge cap stoned with a one yard touchdown drive.

Then Rod Rust’s defense struck, and struck with a vengeance just three plays after Hoge’s score when Dolphins running back Sammy Smith fumbled the ball at Miami’s 23 yard line, and Carnell Lake scooped it up, ran three years, and then latereled to Dwayne Woodruff who took it the remaining 21 yards to even the score at 14-14.

Before the half was over, Gary Anderson gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead by booting a 27 yard field goal, and the Steelers kept on rolling out of the locker room, as Bubby Brister nailed rookie Derrick Hill for a 53 yard pass that ended at the Miami 5. Merril Hoge did the honors with a 5 yard touchdown on the next play to make it 24-14.

  • But the Steelers weren’t done. Miami fumbled the ensuing kick off and Gary Anderson knocked in 42 yard field goal, bringing the total to 27-14.

On the very next series, Scott Secules had a pass bounce off of Jim Jensen but Greg Lloyd was kind enough to catch it for him, returning the ball to the one. Merril Hoge closed out the score by punching in another touchdown from the one, to make it 34-14.

Dan Marino is on the sidelines with bruised ribs, as the Steelers are holding a 20 point lead over Miami going into the fourth Irve, and it looks like Pittsburgh is going to pull this one out folks.– CBS Sports Anchor, Brent Musberger

The 1989 Steelers-Dophins game of course was not broadcast in the DC area, but I remember Brent Musberger’s game break as if it was yesterday.

I must confess, that when I heard the news, I was ecstatic. I supposed I was old enough to know not to celebrate an injury, but 3 months away from my own first serious sports injury, I can say I didn’t really understand.

Marino was actually out of the game because of a shoulder injury, only the second game he had to leave because of injury, due to a hellacious hit that Carnell Lake had delivered in the first half, making that Lake’s second “splash” play of the game.

Lake wasn’t the only member of the Steelers 1989 draft class to step up. Derrick Hill play key roles in two scoring drives, and ended the day with three catches for 3-93 yards – phenomenal considering the conditions.

Tim Worley, who’d been flashing in recent games, ran 22 times for 95 yards, coming in just shy of his first 100 yard game.

Reflecting on the Rain

Miami refused to use the rain as an excuse, but the Steelers were proud of their ability to perform. Merril Hoge argued that “I don’t think Miami is used to playing in those conditions…. We accepted the weather conditions and overcame them.”

Dwayne Woodruff offered, “Its just normal conditions for us.”

Noll, however epitomized Pittsburghness when asked about the weather:

I guess that’s one of the problems you have when you have lovely weather all of the time. You pay the price.

Do You Believe?

It’s great that the Post-Gazette’s 11/27/89 edition provides us with these quotes via Google Newspapers.

After the Steelers had recovered from their horrendous 92-10 start, much of the NFL ignored Pittsburgh, save for offering them in passing as a living example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon.

But the most lasting quote comes from my memory, and was supplied by the following Monday by Troop 757 Assistant Scout Master Rick Legger, a Canadian émigré and devout Redskins fan. Reflecting on the Miami game told me:

“Those Pittsburgh Steelers are starting to create some believers – and I am one of them.” Finally, I had some company.

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’89 Steelers Blanked in the House of Pain, 27-0

On their first trip to the Houston Astrodome the 1989 Steelers arrived with their .500 record and a hope that opportunistic defense could compensate for back up quarterback Todd Blackledge’s deficiencies.

They left Houston with a renewed understanding of why Oilers fans dubbed their palace “The House of Pain.”

The final score was 27 to 0, but the game really wasn’t even that close.

Ineptitude on Offense Reaches New Lows

The Steelers rushing total was 32 yards on 17 carries. Their leading rusher? Todd Blackladge, who ran 3 times for 13 yards. As for the running backs?

  • Merrill Hoge 2-8
  • Tim Worley 11-6
  • Ray Wallace 1-5

The Oilers did far more than shut down the Steelers running game. Bubby McDowell picked off two Blackledge passes on a day when completed 41% of them for 105 yards.

Rusted Away

The resilience that Rod Rust’s defense had shown since week 3? Gone, instead the Steel Curtain was simply, er um, rusty, as Warren Moon completed his first eight passes. By the time Moon threw an incompletion, he’d thrown for two touchdowns and seven more yards than Blackledge would throw for during the entire game.

Alonzo Highsmith, Alan Pinkett, Lorenzo White, and former Pittsburgh Mauler Mike Rozier ran for 132 yards.

Unimpressive? Perhaps, but their 3.2 yards per carry average helped Houston mass a 19 minute advantage in the time of possession category.

Not that it really mattered, as the Steelers did not convert a third down until the after the two minute warning in the fourth quarter. (They actually completed two after the two minute warning, for those taking notes at home.)

Through and through, the 1989 Steelers first visit to the Astrodome was rotten to the bone.

The Steelers now had an identical record (3-4) to their next opponent, Kansas City.

But their second shut out to a division rival under their belt, the possibility of beating Marty Schottenhiemer’s Chiefs seemed remote, but not nearly as remote as the idea that these Steelers would live return to the Astrodome again that year.

Thanks for visting. For the latest on the 2009 Steelers click here. To read the entire recap on the 1989 Steelers click here (and remember to scroll down to the beginning.)

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’89 Steelers Defeat Detroit Lions 23-3 in Even Record to 2-2

Fresh off their startling upset of the Minnesota Vikings, rest of the NFL wondered if there the 1989 Steelers really had “something” or if the Vikings game was just another example of “on any given Sunday.”

  • The 1989 Steelers dominated almost every phase of the game during week four against the Detroit Lions.

Rod Rust’s defense proved to more than a match for Wayne Fontes “Silver Stretch” Run’n Shoot offense, as Dwayne Woodruff and Larry Griffin hauled in interceptions of 8 and fifteen yards, and the defense forced and recovered two fumbles. They also collected three sacks, including one more by rookie stand-in Jerrol Williams.

No one yet knew that Barry Sanders was a Future Hall of Famer only four games into his rookie season, but Sanders had already shown some solid explosiveness as a runner.

  • Rod Rust’s Steelers defense held Barry Sanders to 1 yard of five carries.

The Steelers offense took full advantage of the opportunities created on defense. Louis Lipps recorded his sixth 100 yard game and the second of the 1989 season. In addition to Lipps, Bubby Brister hit six different receivers including stand out third down running back Rodney Carter, who pulled down six passes, bringing his season total to 17.

bubby brister, 1989 Steelers road games, 1989 Steelers vs Lions,

Pittsburgh uaterback Bubby Brister on the road during the 1989 Steelers season. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the way to a 78% completion percentage, Bubby Brister completed 15 consecutive passes, a record that Ben Roethlisberger only tied in 2007.

  • The fact that Brister accomplished in spite of suffering another 6 sack game makes this feat all the more impressive.

By the end of week 4 the Steelers had improved their record to 2-2. Two straight wins and a .500 record may be nothing to write home about, but it sure beats losing 92-10.

Yet, one of those wins came against an 0-3 Detroit Lions team. So questions remained. Was Steelers Nation witnessing the galvanizing the Steel Curtain under Rod Rust? Could this seemingly no-name offense play consistently?

  • And what about Bubby Brister?

In two weeks he’d posted completion percentages of 73 and 78%, and had not thrown a pick since week one. Was Number 6 a star in the making?

The Steelers would find a far more difficult test awaiting them, as week five brought a return bout with the division rival defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium.

You can follow Steel Curtain Rising’s season long tribute to the ’89 Steelers by clicking here.

 

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1989 Steelers Shock NFL, Vikings 27-14

Either we just played the two best teams in football, or it is going to be a long season.”
– Chuck Noll, reflecting on his team’s 92-10 start to the 1989 season.
The third week of the Steelers 1989 season brought the Minnesota Vikings to Three Rivers Stadium.

I can still [almost] quote from memory an article I read the Monday article on the game:

This game went exactly as it was scripted. A disgruntled teammate getting revenge against his former team. Dominating defense matched with effective, if not explosive offense….

The Steelers had lost their first two contests by a score of 92-10. If possible, the numbers behind that lopsided score were worse.

  • Collectively their rushers were averaging less than three yards a carry
  • Opponents had sacked Bubby Brister 12 times
  • Greg Lloyd owned the entire Steelers sack total, which stood at one
  • Injuries forced John Rienstra, a life long guard, to switch to tackle, while rookie Tom Ricketts, a life long tackle, sifted to guard
  • Starting linebacker Bryan Hinkle was out. Unable to reclaim no-name linebacker Darren Jordan from the waiver wire, the Steelers would start a rookie in his place.

And the Vikings, although 1-1, still stood as Super Bowl contenders. They’d also brought Mike Merriweather with them, the Steelers 1987 team MVP, whose bitter contract dispute with Dan Rooney resulted in a hold out that spanned the entire 1988 season.

The game unfolded as scripted. Except, as the Washington Post pointed the next day out, this script had a surprise ending.

Bubby Brister, Merril Hoge, Steelers vs Vikings, 1989 Steelers upset vikings

Bubby Brister and Merril Hoge led the 1989 Steelers over the Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota, Myron and Mularkey in Route to Maryland on the PA Turnpike

Yours truly was actually in Pittsburgh the weekend of the game, and listened to the game’s first half on WTAE driving home on the turnpike. During the early going Mike Mularkey and a Viking, I believe it was Mike Merriweather, got into a scuffle… you KNOW Myron Cope couldn’t, wouldn’t and of course didn’t resist.

“And there’s Mularkey saying, ‘now don’t you give me any of that Mularkey’” boomed through the speakers in the backseat. One more classic Myron memory to cherish.

Scuffles are one thing, but scoring wins games, and quickly thereafter Mulakery drew first blood on a 15 yard pass from Bubby Brister. Minnesota scored on its next drive, but the Steelers answered with an eight yard touchdown run by Tim Worley.

On the next series, it looked like things took a turn for the worse, when a Vikings defender sacked-stripped Brister and returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. For the third time in just six quarters at Three Rivers Stadium, an opposing defending was advancing a fumble into the end zone.

Faced with a perfect opportunity to fold… the Steelers marched straight down the field and just as WTAE’s signal began to fade, Jack Flemming’s voice boomed, “Merrill Hoge scores the go ahead touchdown.”

My folks tried to pick up the second half but the signals of the Altoona and Johnstown stations simply weren’t strong enough. An unfortunate occurrence.

The Steel Curtain is Robust with Rust

Entering the second half protecting a 21-14 lead to start the second half, Steelers unleashed the defense.
Revitalized by new defensive coordinator Rod Rust, the Steel Curtain decimated the Vikings. Hardy Nickerson, Tim Johnson, and yes, Jeroll Williams, that rookie standing in for Bryan Hinkle, collected four of their five sacks. Steelers also picked off Wade Wilson twice, and held Anthony Carter to 5 catches.

When the dust cleared, the Steelers had completely shut out the Vikings in the second half.
Significant?

You bet.

Some Players You Remember, Some Players You Forget

It might seem strange now, but in 1989 many regarded Minnesota’s offense as second only to the 49ers in terms fire power.

Although not an elite quarterback, Wade Wilson was nonetheless a Pro Bowler, as was tight end Steve Jordan. Hassan Jones was likewise considered a top number 2 receiver, and Anthony Carter was seen as on the verge of greatness.

Save for Wade Wilson, few remember their names now, and that’s in part because they couldn’t get the better of players like of Lloyd, Nickerson, Lake, and Woodson. Names the NFL remembers 20 years later.

The NFL noted the Steelers upset, but generally waited to see if it meant something or if it was just another case of On Any Given Sunday. Time would prove those league pundits wise, as the roller coster ride that was the Steelers 1989 season was just getting revved up…

You can read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire season-long tribute to the 1989 Steelers by clicking here.

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