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Throwback Thursday: Controversy in the Steelers’ quest for the conference crown

BTSC travels back in time to the Steelers’ fourth AFC Championship that resparked the instant replay debate.

With the fact that I’m not getting used to the weather finally getting better, I’m dialing the time circuits on my mind’s Delorean back to the time when the forecast was frigid, but the mental thermometer in the City of Champions read downright tropical. So it’s fitting that you join me as we head back to a time when the top song on the radio was still Escape (The Piña Colada Song), television viewers were watching Three’s Company still and coming off of a grain embargo against the USSR, Jimmy Carter authorized $1.5 billion in loans to bail out the Chrysler corporation. Meanwhile, the Steelers were gearing up for their sixth AFC Championsip appearance in eight seasons, as they welcomed the Houston Oilers once again.

Welcome to January 7, 1980.

Houston came in to the title game with the seventh-ranked defense and the most takeaways in the NFL. That seemed to potentially bode well for the Oilers against the team that gave the ball away a league leading 52 times. Leading the takeaway charge for Houston was Safety Mike Reinfeldt with twelve interceptions to lead the NFL in 1979 and Vernon Perry, who was the defensive star the week before in San Diego with four interceptions and a field goal block that he returned 57 yards before being tackled by the holder. But the defending champs still had three Lombardi Trophys on their resumé and were hosting a dome team on a frozen field in 22 degree weather. Even Pirate World Series MVP Willie Stargell was on hand for this one.

The Steelers won the opening kickoff and elected to receive. The black-and-gold were in Oiler territory almost immediately, courtesy of Terry Bradshaw passes to John Stallworth and runs by Franco Harris. However, Vernon Perry wasn’t done yet and intercepted a Bradshaw pass to Bennie Cunningham from the Oiler 36 and returned it 75 yards for the touchdown. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Bum Phillips’ team led 7-0.

After the Steelers punted, Dan Pastorini and the Oilers took the field for their first drive of the game. However, the league’s leading rusher, Earl Campbell, was stopped for 2 yards on two carries and LC Greenwood sacked Pastorini to force a punt. Behind a timely pass to Swann and a scramble on third and 14 from Bradshaw for 25 yards, Pittsburgh was threatening deep in Oiler territory. The drive stalled at the Houston four. Matt Bahr hits from 21 and the Steelers cut the lead to 7-3.

The Oilers began to storm back with a 72 yard drive though. Behind a 45-yard screen pass reception for Tim Wilson and Pastorini connecting with Ronnie Coleman for 32 yards, Houston was driving at the Steeler 16 at quarter’s end. The Steel Curtain stiffened once again and Austrian Tony Fritsch added a 27 yard field goal to extend the Houston lead to 10 to 3.

Bradshaw and the top-scoring offense of 1979 got back to business on the next drive at their own 33. The “Blonde Bomber” tore up the Houston defense with swift passes to Bleier, Harris and twice to Swann with 9:55 remaining in the first half. Bennie Cunningham caught a pass from No. 12 over Vernon Perry for a 16-yard touchdown and a 10-10 tie.

On their next possession, Houston was driving despite Earl Campbell‘s (15 yards on 17 carries the entire game) inability to get going. Pastorini was connecting with Mike Renfro. But No. 82 was changing hands and fumbled at his own 49 after being hit by Donnie Shell with Mel Blount recovering.

To follow, great running by Bleier and Harris on trap blocks by Gerry Mullins (subbing for Steve Courson) set up a Bradshaw touchdown pass to John Stallworth from 20 out with 2:35 remaining in the half.

Houston tried to answer, but rookie Dwayne Woodruff intercepted Pastorini at the Pittsburgh 45, and Matt Bahr missed a 46-yard field goal to close out the half.

Down 17-10, The Oilers got the football to start the second half and an opportunity to tie the score. The problem though was that George Perles’ defense was a picture of absolute dominance, as they forced a Cliff Parsley punt. This was temporarily good news for both squads as Theo Bell slipped trying to field the ball at his own 38 and the pigskin squirted into Houston’s hands at the Steeler 42. But once again, Houston squandered their best field position of the day.

For a short time in this game, Houston lost communication in their head sets. So the Steelers had their’s disconnected and both teams had to use hand signals temporarily.

After another Steeler punt, Pastorini lined up under center with good field position again in an attempt to tie. He was walloped by LC Greenwood and left for a play and came back less than 100%. The Three Rivers crowd then came in to play on 4th and two from the Steeler 37 and what appeared to be a first down was nullified when Houston failed to get the snap off in time. Cue Parsley to punt again.

On a drive in which Mike Renfro recovered a fumble in the vicinity of five Pittsburgh defenders, drew Mel Blount into a chuck penalty and caught a key first down...the second-year man from TCU was involved in one of the most controversial calls in Title Game history. With 1:30 left in the third, Pastorini threw a six-yard rainbow to Renfro for an apparent touchdown in the corner of the end zone over Ron Johnson. The replay showed that Renfro had clear control of the ball with his left foot down and his right foot hitting the pylon. NFL Films much later showed some movement in Renfro’s hands. If instant replay was in effect, the call on the field very well could have been reversed and Pittsburgh fans would have been hard pressed to argue it. (It was much more borderline than what first appeared on NBC television.) The officials conferred and referee Jim Tunney ruled it out if bounds. Houston was livid. Steeler fans accepted the gift. It was now second down and goal from the six and the Steeler defense held the Oilers to a field goal. It was 17-13 at the end of the third.

The Renfro play was unfortunate, but Pastorini claimed after the game that it was not the sole reason that his team lost. What a lot of people forget is that Houston had other opportunities to reclaim the four points list and failed to do so.

In the fourth quarter, the Steelers iced it. It started on third and 20 when Bradshaw found a sliding Swann for a first down. After a five minute, clock-draining drive, Matt Bahr kicked a 39-yard field goal. It was still only a touchdown lead. Pittsburgh 20 and Houston 13.

With Houston nearing desperation mode, the impressive Pastorini began to engineer a gane-tying drive at his own 11 with 9:42 remaining. But after No. 7 in white found Guido Merkens over the middle, disaster struck. Mel Blount jarred Merkens and Donnie Shell recovered at the Houston 45 with 5:46 left.

Bradshaw, only needing to get his team in field goal range for the victory, went for the kill shot. Rocky Bleier caught and ran for two first downs while the precious seconds ticked away. Then, on third and goal from the five, Bleier took the hand off and burst into the end zone with less than a minute remaining.

The rest is history as the Steelers went on to Pasadena and won a tough game 31-19 over the Los Angeles Rams for their fourth title in six years. This was the first AFC Championship Game I so vividly remember. In fact, the game started with an eight-year-old me actually hoping the Steelers would lose. My parents had just learned a day before that they could get Super Bowl tickets if the Steelers should prevail. I was scared of them going on a plane to California and never coming back, plus the little a-hole in me was pissed that I wasn’t invited. It took me about a minute into the game to revert back to my Steeler fanhood and get over it and root for my team. About a month ago, my dad and I got to meet Terry Bradshaw and briefly told him this story. Bradshaw told me that he wouldn’t have taken me either. I joked that I was still pissed, which I’m not at all. He looked at me and said, “Just be glad that you still have him” and shook my hand.

Terry Bradshaw...even more of an MVP in my mind after all of these years.