1978: BEST TEAM OF ALL TIME?
The Pittsburgh Steelers roared back to the top of the NFL in 1978, and in so doing submitted its candidacy as the greatest team of all time. In fact, an ESPN-televised computer-driven tournament to determine the “best ever” matched the ’78 Steelers vs. the ’72 Dolphins in the championship tilt. The Steelers won, 21-20, drawing the ire of the Fins, most notably Larry Csonka.
These Steelers were aided by a rule change that their defensive prominence had yielded, that being a further restriction on contact with a receiver. Whereas the 1977 rule change, made it illegal to contact the receiver more than once, the new area of legal contact was now limited to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The result? For the first time in his career, Terry Bradshaw put up truly prolific numbers.
There was additional player transition in 1978, as some Steelers, starters, with a pair of Super Bowl rings, never saw their third.
The Steelers hit it big with their first draft choice, choosing corner Ron Johnson of Eastern Michigan. When J.T. Thomas was lost for the season with a blood disorder, the rookie immediately stepped into the void and acquitted himself well throughout the season. He would play 7 seasons with the Black & Gold. The most recognizable draft choice was 2nd round pick, defensive end Willie Fry of Notre Dame. The Golden Domer though, suffered a training camp injury and never suited up in a Steelers uniform. For those who believe the Steelers chose a punter unnecessarily high in 2007 when selecting Daniel Sepulveda, the 1978 draft brought Tennessee punter Craig Colquitt in the 3rd round, replacing Bobby Walden. Walden, born in Climax, Georgia and married to a woman named Scarlett was referred to in About Three Bricks Shy of a Load as “the most resolutely crackerish Steeler. ” In drafting Colquitt, the Steelers had replaced Walden with essentially another of the same ilk. The 4th round brought corner Larry Anderson of Louisiana Tech, who contributed some big kick returns during his 4 year Steelers tenure, particularly during Super Bowl XIV. Local favorite, Pitt wide receiver Randy Reutershan was picked in the sixth round, and in his brief, one year NFL career, returned 20 punts for the Steelers. Picks 7 through 12, with the exception of Rhode Island running back Rick Moser, who provided some backup help for a few years, didn’t amount to the proverbial “hill of beans.” This included two picks acquired from Tampa Bay for Fats Holmes.
Ernie Holmes weight got the best of him. He was traded to Tampa Bay, cut, and then surfaced in New England for a few games prior to calling it quits after the ’78 season. Glen Edwards, the two-time Pro Bowler, having lost his starting spot to Donnie Shell, was dealt to San Diego for a 6th round choice, and went on to have 4 more productive seasons with the Chargers. After 7 seasons with the Steelers, former #1 choice Frank Lewis shuffled off to Buffalo. While he earned no more Super Bowl rings, his 6 years in Buffalo were more productive than his Pittsburgh stint, making 259 of his 397 career receptions in a Bills uniform as well as 24 of his 40 TDs. His lone Pro Bowl appearance came in 1981. Jim Clack moved onto the New York Giants where he toiled in relative obscurity for the next 4 seasons, known infamously for his ill-fated snap to QB Joe Pisarcik, resulting in the “Miracle of the Meadowlands,” an improbable Giants loss to the Eagles. Curiously, the other principal on that play was another re-treaded two-time Super Bowl, the Miami Dolphin fullback, Csonka, back to the NFL after a stint with the WFL’s Memphis Southmen.
The depth chart as the Nollmen headed to Latrobe revealed this starting lineup:
John Banaszak would start nearly every game, filling in more than half the season for Steve Furness who was injured in pre-game warmups before the opener against Buffalo, and then split time with Dwight White once Furness returned. Banaszak would start the Super Bowl in place of White at right end. Tom Beasley also logged a couple of defensive line starts due to injury. Robin Cole started eight games at the two outside linebacker positions due to injury.
Offensively, Larry Brown was injured in the season's 5th game, missed the next 8 contests and backed up Ray Pinney after he returned. Bennie Cunningham was lost for the season in the season's 6th game, but the Steelers could not have asked for more from his replacement, the tight end from Temple, signed as an undrafted rookie in '74, Randy Grossman.
Still based in the Shenandoah Valley, Redskins country, I wasn’t able to watch much Steelers football with the exception of prime time events. The Steelers dispatched of the Buffalo Bills in workmanlike fashion, scoring on consecutive 2nd quarter drives on a TD pass to Stallworth and a short run by Franco, to take a 14-0 halftime lead. The Steelers extended the margin to 21-0 on a Thornton 4th quarter run. The Bills, who had gained 59 total yards through 3 quarters, replaced Joe Ferguson with Bill Munson, who promptly threw a TD to old friend Frank Lewis. Steelers won the opener, at Buffalo, 28-17.
Bradshaw threw for a pair of TDs, this time to Swann and Thornton, for the second consecutive week, and a 4th quarter TD run by Franco put the home opener out of reach against the visiting Seahags. Steelers, 21-10.
The Steelers traveled to Riverfront for an early-season divisional matchup again the Bengals. This game was being televised locally, but I was scheduled to work. Through sheer force of will, I got myself assigned to the “TV cottage,” opting out of other assignments, such as taking the youth apple-picking, or for a jaunt down Skyline Drive. There was one problem though. The boys had voted to watch some STUPID movie that afternoon. I don’t know what the movie was, but any movie, matched up against Pittsburgh Steelers football, would be a STUPID movie. I told the group that this wasn’t a freakin' democracy, and despite their protests, I turned on the NBC affiliate out of DC, and watched the Steelers make short work of the Bengals. Scoring on runs by Franco and Rocky on their first two possessions, the Steelers rang up 314 first half yards, and after a Bradshaw pass to Cunningham, led the Bungals, 21-3 at the half. Bradshaw threw to Swannie for a 3rd quarter TD, and the Bengals, playing without Ken Anderson, managed a single Chris Bahr field goal. The Steelers won, 28-3, and were undefeated after 3 games. I was reprimanded by my boss the next day, but like my dad kicking me in the ass and telling me to get the hell outta the kitchen when I was dawdling watching the dishes, this tradeoff was well worth it. I visited this place in Cross Junction, Va. a couple years ago. The boss who reprimanded me, a little chain-smoking dago from Buffalo, married to a Jewish girl from Pittsburgh, now runs the place. A picture of Franco hangs in his office.
The Browns visited Pittsburgh next, and led 9-3 after three quarters on 3 Don Cockroft field goals. Roy Gerela, though came through with a pair of 4th quarter field goals, the last from 36 yards with 2:35 remaining, to send the game into overtime. In OT, the Steelers ran a double reverse, flipped it back to Bradshaw, who hit Bennie Cunningham, open behind the Browns secondary, for 37 yards, and the game’s lone TD. Steelers go to 4-0 with a 15-9 victory.
The Steelers visited New York the following week, and Bradshaw threw 3 TDs, a pair to Swann and one to Stallworth. The Steelers defense registered 5 sacks and were sitting at 5-0 for the first time in their history, winners by a score of 28-17.
Atlanta QBs were sacked 5 more times the following week, and the D added 4 turnovers as the Steelers built a 17-0 halftime lead, and led 31-0 before a late Atlanta TD.
The Steelers traveled to Cleveland for a rematch with the Brownies the following week, holding a 2-game division lead. After the Browns went ahead, 7-6, in the second quarter, Larry Anderson took the kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers were never headed. Bradshaw threw TDs to both Swann and Stallworth, and the D came up with 4 turnovers in a 34-14 win.
The 7-0 Steelers were now back home for a Monday nighter against the Oi-lerz. I was looking forward to watching the Steelers go 8-0, and extend their lead to 4 games against this divisional rival. Tied at halftime though, Houston added a pair of second half Earl Campbell TDs, and were never headed. The Oilers gained 169 rushing yards, while holding the Steelers to 113. Trailing 24-17, Steelers drives stalled twice inside the Houston 20 in the game’s final 5 minutes. The AFC Central remained a battle.
A flurry of close games followed. The Steelers led the Chiefs, 20-3 at halftime, at TRS, on two Franco scoring runs, and a Stallworth TD catch (Gerela missed an extra point). Kansas City though, scored two TDs within 2 minutes in the 3rd quarter, before Donnie Shell returned a fumble for a TD to extend the lead back to 10. The Chiefs added a 4th quarter TD, but the Steelers, with Mike Kruczek at the helm due to a Bradshaw elbow, recovered a late onside kick, and won 27-24.
The Steelers needed to come from behind in the 4th quarter to beat the Saints the following week at Three Rivers. Terry Bradshaw hit Rocky Bleier with a 24-yard scoring pass, with 1:51 to play for a 20-14 win. TB had hit Swannie with an earlier TD score, giving Bradshaw 18 scoring strikes on the season, and the Steelers improved to 9-1.
I watched the following Sunday nighter against the Rams from Los Angeles at The Plantation, an establishment in Berkeley Springs, W. Va. The proprietor of the plantation, no lie, was a gentleman named Pete Moss. Accompanying me was my ‘ol college buddy, Sam, who was now working at the same youth-serving agency, and whose wife had just flown the coop with a doctor from Martinsburg. Sandy was a hot chick, and nice, too, and we had always said, “What the hell is Sandy doing with Sam?” I guess Sandy eventually asked herself what the hell she was doing with him, and not having an answer, ditched him fora Mountaineer Medic. More on Sam later.
The Steelers offense sputtered on this night. They twice drove to the Rams 13 in the first half, but a Bradshaw pick, and a missed Gerela 31-yard FG, left them with no points at halftime. Fortunately, the Rams had no points either. The Steelers drove 70 yards on their first 2nd half possession, Bradshaw hitting Swann from 14 yards out for a 7-0 lead. On their final 6 possessions though, the Steelers netted minus 13 yards, and when Pat Haden hit Willie Miller with a 10-yard scoring strike with 5 minutes left, the Rams, who had held the Steelers to 59 yards rushing, and picked Terry Bradshaw 3 times, had a 10-7 victory.
Returning to Pittsburgh, the Steelers had an unexpectedly tough challenge from the Bengals. The offense scored only one touchdown again, but held the Bengals to a pair of Chris Bahr field goals. The Steelers 7-6 halftime lead held up, as the D forced 5 Bengal turnovers. Of course, the Steelers turned the ball over 5 times as well, 4 of those being interceptions by Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers offensive output of 154 yards was their lowest since 1974.
A Monday nighter in San Francisco followed. The defense came through with 5 interceptions, four sacks, while surrendering only 141 yards and a scoring drive of 5 yards as the Steelers took a 17-0 halftime lead on a pair of Bradshaw to Swann TDs. TB threw his 3rd, this time to Stallworth in the 4th quarter, and the Steelers were 24-7 winners.
The Steelers took their 11-2 record, and 2-game conference lead into the Astrodome the following week. Dubbed “The House of Pain,” the dome was just that for Steelers-Oilers games of the ‘70s, and this afternoon was no exception. Donnie Shell sent Earl Campbell to the sidelines with a helmet to the ribs in the first quarter. The Steelers picked Dan Pastrorini 3 times and recovered 3 Oilers fumbles, setting up a pair of Gerela field goals. Bradshaw hit Stallworth with a 5 yard 4th quarter scoring pass. The Steelers had a 13-3 victory, and the Division Championship.
The season would close with a pair of Saturday appearances by the Steelers. Facing Baltimore at Three Rivers in a snowstorm, the Steelers offense came alive, ringing up 3 first half touchdowns on a Stallworth catch and a pair of Franco runs. Bradshaw hit Randy Grossman and Jim Smith with second half scoring tosses. One of the two Baltimore TDs was a fumble return, and the Steelers clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 35-13 victory.
The Steelers closed the season in Denver, and built a 21-0 halftime lead, as Bradshaw threw his 27th and 28th TD passes of the season. The Steelers, for the 5th straight game, held the opposition to under 100 yards rushing and sacked Denver QBs a half-dozen times. Norris Weese came in late for the Broncos and rallied his troops to a 21-17 deficit. On the game’s final play, the Steelers were called for pass interference in the end zone, and topped this with a personal foul. Denver would have one shot from 18 inches to win the game. The middle of the Steelers line though, rose up and stopped Lonnie Perrin. They had finished 14-2 and would open the playoffs two weeks hence.
The Divsional Playoff: Denver…again
I traveled to the Burgh on Friday, December 29th to attend the next day's Divisional Playoff, with an unkempt Virginia farm boy named House (short for his last name, Whitehouse), who lived with a guy named Hoss, among others. House and I, of course, dined at Vincent’s Pizza, Ardmore Boulevard (271-9181) on this Friday night, where we watched Clemson beat The Ohio State University, while Woody Hayes slugged a Clemson player, closing the book on his coaching career.
The next day, we saw the Steelers take on the Broncos for the 2nd straight game, and for the 2nd straight year in the playoffs. Franco scored on TD runs on consecutive possessions late in the first, and early in the second quarter, and the Steelers lead was never seriously threatened. Just to let us know he was still around with his gifts, Roy Gerela missed the PAT in his first attempt of the ’78 post-season. Denver did close the gap to 19-10 by halftime, with that score standing until the 4th quarter. At that point, Bradshaw hit Stallworth with a 45-yard bomb, Stallworth taking the ball away from the defender. After Rick Upchurch fumbled away the kickoff, Bradshaw hit Swann this time, from 37 yards away, in a seeming replay of the Stallworth TD. One of the Denver defenders tried to carry Swann out of the end zone. Too bad, TD counted. Steelers won, 33-14, amassing 425 yards.
The next day, on New Year’s Eve, Houston beat the favored Patriots in Foxboro, and the Steelers and Oilers would play their ’78 rubber match, at Three Rivers, in the AFC Championship Game.
Day before the AFC Championship Game, I’m on a…uh…overnight visit up in Berkeley Springs, when my LVC buddy and co-worker, Bill Weinshenk, aka Wino, shows up as requested. I shared a house with Wino, along with some chick with a big nose named Lauren, in Millwood, Virginia. The address was Red School House, as the place was red, and was formerly a schoolhouse. Wino arrived in Berkeley Springs, and it was already icy, and cold, and in a decision that I would never, ever, ever make nowadays, and would forever regret, I begged out of traveling across the Turnpike to Pittsburgh. My ticket went to the Mobile guy in Pittsburgh, and I watched the game in Winchester, Va., at Mike Sweet’s house, on a TV that was all fucked-up and alternated between a green, and red, background. Sweet, nicknamed "Sweetie Pie," was a Burgh native, and a solid Steelers fan.
The Steelers, in the ice storm, plain and simple kicked the shit out of the Houston Oilers. Franco and Rocky each ran for first quarter TDs. They then scored 17 points in the final minute of the second quarter, aided by Houston fumbles (they lost 4), with Bradshaw throwing TD passes to both Swann and Stallworth. Houston, trailing 31-3 at halftime, could do nothing offensively. The Steelers had outgained the Oilers at the half, 287 to 54. Earl Campbell, in the first half, had gained just 26 yards on 15 carries, and would finish with 62 on the day. Dan Pastorini was picked off 5 times, and sacked 4 more. The Steelers won, 34-5, and were off to the Super Bowl, once again to face the Dallas Cowgirls.
Super Bowl XIII
Berkeley Springs came to Millwood on Super Bowl Eve, and I damn near stayed in that Red School House to watch the Steelers go for their 3rd Lombardi Trophy on a 13-inch black & white. In a way, I wish I had. I was off to Winchester, again to Sweetie Pie’s place, with the same jacked up TV.
The Steelers scored quickly with Bradshaw hitting Stallworth inside the flag with a 28-yarder on the Steelers first possession. The Cowboys answered with two TDs, the result of Steelers’ turnovers. The Steelers surrendered their only first quarter TD of the season on the guarter’s final play, a 39 yard catch & run by Tony Hill. Those holding 7-0 Super Bowl squares were going ape-shit. Then, Mike Hegman stole the ball from Bradshaw, who was being sacked, and ran 37 yards for the TD. Bradshaw was shaken up on the play, and it looked as though the Steelers might need to call on Mike Kruczek. TB recovered quickly, however, and on 3rd & 5, following the kickoff, hit John Stallworth with a short out. Stallworth turned inside and didn’t stop until he had reached the end zone, completing a 75-yard scoring play, and tying the game. The Steelers drove as halftime neared, and with 26 tics remaining, Bradshaw lobbed one to a leaping Rocky Bleier, who made the catch for a 7-yard TD, and a 21-14 halftime lead.
In the 3rd quarter, Cowgirls tight end Jackie Smith had a drop for the ages, letting one hit him in the chest, and fall harmlessly to the ground while wide open in the end zone. The Girls settled for a Rafael Septien field goal that cut the deficit to 21-17 entering the final frame.
In the 4th quarter, Benny Barnes was covering Lynn Swann deep, their feet became entangled...or something like that... and the official’s yellow flag flew, costing the Cowgirls 33 yards. The Steelers entered the red zone, and on second down, Bradshaw was roughed up, and the normally pensive Franco Harris became uncharacteristically enraged. On the next play, 3rd & long, Franco’s number was called on a draw. The Girls actually had the perfect defense for this play, but on his way to make the tackle, Cowgirls safety Charlie Waters was impeded by the official. It may have been the best block of the day to the Steelers benefit. Franco scampered for a 22 yard touchdown, and the lead was 11. Roy Gerela continued to make his most significant contributions to this teammates while messing up. In Super Bowl X, his miss, and the subsequent tossing to the ground of Cliff Harris by Jack Lambert after Harris patted Gerela’s helmet had ignited the Steelers. This time, Gerela slipped, and fell on his ass while approaching the ball. The resulting kick was more a squib than a kickoff. Randy White, the Manster (half-man, half-monster) attempted to handle the bouncing ball, couldn’t secure it, and Dirt Winston secured it for the Steelers. On the first play, Bradshaw threw his 4th scoring pass of the day, hitting Swannie sliding across the back of the end zone, and victory, with a 35-17 lead, seemed secure.
The Cowgirls though, drive 89 yards in 8 plays (sound familiar? Cardinals first 4th quarter TD in SB XLIII was 87 yards in 8 plays), with Staubach hitting Billy Joe DuPree for a 7-yard TD. Two minutes, twenty-three seconds remain, and the Steelers still led by 11. The Steelers couldn’t cover the onside kick though, and Staubach and mates were on the move again. It took Roger the Dodger 9 plays to traverse the 52 yards, but he scored again, this time with a short toss to Butch Johnson.
About 30 seconds remain, Steelers up 35-31. There’s another onside kick. This time, Rocky Bleier covers it for the Steelers, and the victory, and the Lombardi Trophy, their 3rd, belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers.