A few years ago, as part of my re-emergent interest in NFL football, I decided to learn as much as I could about Steelers history. Don't know if anyone will be reading, but I've really wanted to do this kind of historical thing, so please indulge me while I try it out.
This post is an unauthorized, unofficial supplement to the "Greatest Wins" series currently being presented by maryrose. In narrowing his list down to only twelve wins, there had to be some great games that didn't make the cut. Since he's confirmed that this is not one of his twelve, allow me to be the one to take us back to 1954...
Week 5: October 23, 1954,
Forbes Field, Pittsburgh PA
1954 was yet another football season that opened with promise. The NFL was not the juggernaut that it is today either in the country or in the city. There wasn't a Steeler Nation to speak of yet. And there wasn't the kind of burning passion for the team that we see today.
The Steelers did achieve some level of local interest and success after their unfortunately brief flirtation with being a Champonship contender in 1947. Since then, year after year, a hard hitting, hard playing, workmanlike team took the field and played workmanlike football. As if to further embody their blue-collar image, the Steelers were an ordinary, middling team, year after year after year. They'd start the season strong and then collapse. They'd take awhile to get going. They'd alternate wins and losses. Either way, fans could be pretty sure that the Steelers would finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, probably ending the season with a 5-7 record, or maybe 6-6. Naturally, they still hoped that this year might be different. This year they might put things together. This might be the year that they'd finally win that one for the... ring finger, I guess. (Thought this was before rings.)
By the standards of the time, though, the 1954 season must have engendered a high degree of (guarded) optimism. Uncharacteristic of Steelers teams of that era, the 1954 Steelers started the year racking up points in high scoring games. After a 2-0 start, the Steelers lost a game in Philadelphia by just two points. During that game, Eagles linemen laid in some controversial hits to Pittsburgh QB Jim Finks - hard enough to break his jaw and force him to wear a special mask afterward. But Finks and the Steelers rebounded from that loss in a big way, defeating Cleveland 55-27 the following week. This was a big deal because it was their first win ever against the Browns - the team who had won the Eastern Conference every year since entering the NFL in 1950. The Steelers had arrived. Now, just two weeks after their first meeting, the 3-1 team was anxious for a rematch with the Conference leaders, the 4-0 Eagles.
Wikipedia lists the attendance of the PHI-PIT game as 39,075. Some estimates have it over 40,000. In any case, it's generally agreed that this was the biggest crowd Forbes Field had ever seen to that point for a football game. We can assume that the Pittsburgh crowd wanted to see blood after what the Eagles had done to Finks. But hopefully they were in the mood to watch some defensive football and a battle of field position. At halftime, the Steelers held a 3-0 lead after a second quarter field goal from Ed Kissell.
Late in the third quarter, a Steelers drive had gotten them to their own 40 before stalling. On 4th down and 1, coach Walt Kiesling decided to go for it. But the biggest play call came not from the coach, but on the field from end Elbie Nickel. Nickel was an "end," as the position was called in those days, but he played like a modern-day Steeler tight end, catching passes on underneath routes and blocking with the best of them.
To hear how Nickel contributed to this 4th-and-short situation, let's crack open our copies of My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL and let Dan Rooney take it away.
The Eagles expected we'd run the ball. Coach Kiesling figured we'd run the ball. But in the huddle, Nickel said "Finks, I think I can beat this guy deep." Finks looked at him, nodded, and called the play. On the snap, Finks dropped back two steps and faked the handoff to Jim "Popcorn" Brandt. As the Eagle line crowded the line of scrimmage and closed in on Brandt, Nickel slipped behind their secondary, while Finks faded into the pocket. Just when the Eagles figured out Brandt didn't have the ball, Finks aired it long to Nickel, who was streaking down the sideline. No one ever laid a hand on him. He ran in for the touchdown to give us a 10-0 lead... You never heard such wild cheering, not until 1972.
From that play on, it was clear which way the momentum was going. When the Eagles finally scored in the fourth quarter to make it 10-7, Pittsburgh stuck back, scoring the game's final touchdown on a 5-yard run by Lynn Chandnois. The Steelers won 17-7, getting their revenge on the Eagles, tying them for the lead in the Eastern Conference, and igniting the city with the kind of thrill that too rarely went together with Steelers football. On that day, one might have been able to make the case that it was the team's biggest win ever.
But that was the end for the 1954 Steelers, not the beginning. After starting 4-1, Pittsburgh only won one more game all year, finishing with a 5-7 record. The Browns won the NFL Championship. Life went on much as it had been, leaving Pittsburgh fans to savor their minor triumphs.
That moment of passion got savored plenty. Nickel's catch was talked about for years. Although it's not so well remembered in the post-Noll era, it was the most famous individual play in Steelers history until a certain playoff game in 1972. In 1970, upon the opening of Three Rivers Stadium, the team received a gift: a tapestry, woven by Sally Anderson, depicting the Xs and Os of the play. The tapestry can be seen today in the South Side Training Facility.
Nickel, who died in 2007, retired as the Steelers' all time leader in receptions, with 329 career catches. He's #5 today (behind Ward, Stallworth, Lipps, and Swann), and #1 among tight ends.