The 50th anniversary Pittsburgh Steelers team started to use the 3/4 defense (according to Wikipedia) in 1982 and made the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. Led by future Hall Of Fame and already legendary QB Terry Bradshaw the Steelers breezed to 6-3 in a season shortened by a labor strike. As had come to pass in the aftermath of 4 World titles, the once “Blonde Bomber” Terry Bradshaw was unstoppable. He was the Tom Brady of his day without illegal game film. Calling his own plays (like Manning) and throwing to Stallworth and Swann the offense was among the best in football. Though aging the defense still sported Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell. In what would be the last home playoff game for a decade Dan Fouts and the Chargers out shot Terry and the Steelers 31-28.
Something wasn’t right with Terry Bradshaw’s right elbow during the 1982 season. Bradshaw gutted it out. Rumor says that the Steelers organization told Bradshaw that surgery wasn’t prudent as it was still 1982 and they knew he would miss at least a year if he ever came back. Bradshaw left Pittsburgh for an off-season in Louisiana. It was there Bradshaw went under the knife. Come 1983, Bradshaw was not ready to play.
The 1983 season started out quite brightly for the Black & Gold. With their new and sometimes 3/4-defense scheme and young contributors like Mike Merriweather, Gary Anderson and rookie Gabe Rivera the Steelers steam rolled to a 9-2 record. Cliff Stoudt was at the controls and the attacking defense created the turnovers in bunches. The season turned when Rivera was tragically removed from the team and the defense got winded. It was week 12 at Pittsburgh when the Minnesota Vikings decided not to let the Steelers defense beat them. The Vikings went conservative and protected the football. They gave Cliff Stoudt just enough rope to hang himself and came up with a 17-14 upset win. On Thanksgiving in week 13 Cliff again was a stiff and the Steelers went down 45-3. This along with a 51-0 drubbing at the hands of Cleveland in 1989 were the two worst defeats I have ever seen the Steelers suffer. On this 1983 Thanksgiving the hapless Steelers were the turkeys. Bradshaw had the ill-advised surgery and wasn’t yet ready to play. The Steelers QB was still Cliff Stoudt. The Steelers offense was in a stiff drought. When Cincinnati pounded the Steelers at Pittsburgh 23-10 in a game that wasn’t that close, the Steelers appeared to have hit rock bottom. At 9-5 the Steelers were in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in four years. The city was enraged with their current QB and engaging their former QB. “When was Bradshaw going to ride in on his white stallion and save us like he had done so many times before?”
On December 10, 1983 a now savvy hero named Terry Bradshaw took the field to save the Steelers season. The Steelers won the toss and took the ball. From the first snap Bradshaw was perfect. He led the Steelers straight down the field as if he hadn’t missed a snap since his 4 TD performance against San Diego in the 1982 playoffs. His passing was crisp and smooth. The 17-yard spiral to Greg Garrity ended the first drive. The rejuvenated, reinvigorated and newly motivated Steelers defense forced the Jets into a 3 and out. Bradshaw broke huddle and promptly marched the Steelers straight down the field again. Pass after pass crisp and complete. A 10-yard strike to Calvin Sweeney put the Steelers up 14-0 early. But after the second strike in the jubilation of another Steelers TD and the season saved many missed our hero Bradshaw running off the field holding his elbow and grimacing. Number 12 stood on the sideline in obvious pain surrounded by trainers. Cliff the stiff came in and mopped up the Bradshaw gained W. The Steelers promptly went out and lost behind Stoudt in the week’s final game before a 38-10 blow out at Oakland in the playoffs. Stoudt was on a 0-5 streak.
When Bradshaw ran off the field there went the Steelers championship window. While it takes 53 men to win a championship, with equal coaching it takes a Lombardi level QB (9 times out of 10) to make one group of 52 better than an equal group of 52. The Steelers without Bradshaw and the decade old Steelers Nation were the Israelites wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land. For 26 years we wandered without our wounded captain. None for the thumb! Wonderful team players like Hinkle, Little, Dawson, Anderson, Lloyd, Woodson, Kirkland and Lake languished so close to the coveted Lombardi only to see equal teams Quarterbacked with names like Marino, Elway, Kelly, Aikman and Brady bathe in Lombardi rapture. Those days when Terry Bradshaw led the Steelers became the “good old days.” When Joe Montana had the same surgery as Bradshaw years later Bradshaw was quoted in the 10/21/91 to the Milwaukee Journal as saying “ I panicked myself out of a career. I think Montana can play again and be as good as he ever was. I’d just say “Joe, give it time. Don’t panic, don’t feel the pressure.” To think that the 1984 Steelers who played Marino and the Fish in the 84 AFC Championship game could have been quarterbacked by Bradshaw instead of Mark Malone (Stoudt was run out of town after 83 for not being Bradshaw) the Steelers may have played for another Lombardi in 1984 season and well beyond.
In 2004 the Pittsburgh Steelers stopped wandering through the NFL desert and saw the Promised Land on the horizon. On the way to one for the thumb, the Steelers drafted QB Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is a QB that can make your 52 better than their 52. In Super Bowl XL and again in XLIII Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh franchise to their fifth and sixth NFL world titles. This is an unprecedented feat in the annals of NFL history for the Pittsburgh organization. With a contributing cast, which includes names like Polamalu, Holmes, Harrison, Woodley, Reed and Wallace the window remains open to add a seventh and maybe more. I have been vocal in my criticism of “Big Stupid” and continue to believe what I have stated. But I also remember the first QB of the Steeler Nation and his last days. As I think about them and those hot, dry arid and empty Sunday’s that followed for 26 years I look forward to the heat and humidity and the smell of the grass at Latrobe in July. Savor these times. No matter what goes on outside the lines, let me remind my fellow Nation that inside the lines the Steelers will be adding some top notch athletic talent to their 52 in April. And with who we have in that 53rd roster spot, until what goes around comes around, 50 is telling you Nation the window is wide open. Enjoy the breeze!