Trying to pick your favorite Steelers team of all time is a daunting task. There are 6 to choose from. Is it the young up and coming upstarts of 1974 and IX or perhaps the greatest Steelers squad of all time circa 1978 and XIII? Maybe you are a big fan of The Bus, Whiz, Counter 34 Pike and Flea Flickers? Trying to pick your favorite Steelers team of all time is quite the conundrum.
For me, it’s easy to pick my favorite Steelers team of all time, THAT DIDN’T WIN A SUPER BOWL. That would be the 1989 Chuck Noll led Pittsburgh Steelers. This group of underdog’s tremendously overachieved through guts, determination and strong coaching and leadership. From 1985 until 1992 the Pittsburgh Steelers treated the Nation to only one shot at “One for the Thumb.” Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson would lead the charge.
It started in Latrobe in the summer of 89. Bubby Brister was coming off his first season that he established himself as the starting QB. After telling reporters in the 1988 preseason “I’m the man at QB. Write it down” Bubby went out and eventually won Noll’s trust and the job. That the Steelers finished 5-11 in 1988 with a combination of QBs didn’t concern the brash Bubby. “Playoffs 89” he scribbled on the chalk board at the first official team meeting. The Steelers promptly went out and lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10. Even worse the two losses were to Cleveland on opening day in Pittsburgh 51-0 and then to division rival Cincinnati 42-10 in week 2. The Steelers were reeling. The local rags called out “Chuck Must Go!” The city braced for the worst Steeler season in decades.
It was then that the players in the locker room say that Chuck Noll delivered one of the strongest speeches of his tenure. “I believe in you” Noll told them. “I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up” Merril Hoge has said recounting the speech. Noll mapped out the changes in how the Steelers would play their remaining games and hold their remaining practices for the season. He showed the team how they would turn it around. And eventually they would.
Still playing inconsistently the Steelers season had stabilized at 6-7. Merril Hoge and his 3 TD game in a driving Miami rain storm that featured a Dwayne Woodruff TD off a Carnell Lake lateral had been the season highlight performance. Bubby Brister stepped up and gutted the Steelers to 3 final victories to end the season at 9-7. The humiliation of being swept by Houston and Cincinnati did not matter as the Steelers finished in the playoffs. Houston had pounded the Steelers twice during the regular season. Coach Jerry Glanville had especially irritated Steelers Head Coach Chuck Noll by inciting his players to injure and maim. The Steelers would be ready.
At the Astrodome the Steelers gave the Oilers everything they could handle and more. Behind the tenacious defense led by Keith Willis, Woodson and Lake the Steelers held Warren Moon and the high powered Oiler offense at bay. Merril Hoge was barreling over and through the Oiler defense for over 100 yards on the ground and more through the air. Bubby Brister calmly led the Steelers to a 16-9 lead into the 4th quarter. It was there that Warren Moon awoke and hit Ernest Givens for 2 TD passes and a 23-16 lead with only minutes to go. Bubby Brister captained the Steelers down the field. And while they settled for field goals most of the day, here at crunch time Brister made the key plays and Hoge bulled his way in from 2 yards out and the Steelers tied the game late sending it to OT. A botched OT punt gave the Oilers prime position near mid field. It was here that the Steelers defense stepped up and saved the day. Rod Woodson torpedoed Lorenzo White who appeared to be breaking a big run outside. Woodson’s “Heavenly Hit” separated the ball from White. Woodson then recovered the fumble he had just caused and advanced it into Oiler territory. Hoge hit inside for a couple runs and onto the field trotted Mr. Automatic, Gary Anderson. La Machine clicked from 50 and the Steelers had a stunning upset victory at Houston in the playoffs. For an added bonus it cost Jerry Glanville his job. The 1989 Steelers were on a remarkable ride for the ages. A game in Denver stood between them and their first AFC Championship game since Marino outdueled Malone in 1984.
At Denver it seemed like groundhogs day. The Denver defense was sucking wind and trying for dear life to hold onto Merril Hoge who was off to his second consecutive 100 yard game. Hoge says “We were doing things they just couldn’t stop. And then there were things they knew we were going to do that they just couldn’t stop.” Pittsburgh repeatedly failed to stick it in the end zone. The Steelers were playing good solid defense against John Elway and held a 23-17 lead in the 4th quarter. With a trip to Cleveland in their sites for the AFC Championship the defense flinched. John Elway led the Bronco’s on his earliest come from behind playoff victory. A late Bratton TD run put the Bronco’s in the lead at 24-23. At that point the stadium was rocking. The ground beneath the Steelers feet was shaking. In the huddle no one could hear. Everyone was reading lips. In the trenches Steelers starting Center Dermontti Dawson is concussed. The last series see’s seldom used Chuck Lanza inserted at Center. Now Brister is calling for the ball from the shotgun trying to rally the Steelers from behind. Lanza is hesitant. Finally the snap is off but off target. Brister can’t handle the snap. Hoge fails to corral the fumbling pigskin. Denver recovers. The Steelers ride for the ages is knocked asunder. Denver is jubilant off to Cleveland for another drive.
While disappointed at the time in retrospect that 1989 Steelers team was the epitome of Steelers football. Underdog’s and overlooked for almost a decade Chuck Noll did perhaps his finest coaching job in getting the most out of this rough, rugged and determined group. This team was inspirational in their comeback from 92-10. Later in 1990 I saved a black lab puppy from the pound. Inspired by the Steelers play of 1989, I named that black lab Brister. She lived 14 years and was my best friend in the world. She is buried under 3 palm trees on the compound. I will never forget my best friend Brister the dog. Just as I will never forget that dog of a Steelers team in 1989 that lifted the spirits of the Steelers Nation and delivered Chuck Noll’s last playoff victory.