It’s time once again to hop into the only time machine they ever would entertain to budget at BTSC...my brain’s Delorean. Today, our trip into Steelers yesteryear takes us back to the day when a crash of a Spantax charter-flight from Madrid to New York claimed 50 people and injured 110 more, Chicago had the country’s top single with “Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry”, movie-goers were falling for Richard Gere and Debra Winger (currently excellent as Maggie in The Ranch) in An Officer and a Gentleman, and the football world was bracing for a long work stoppage that was two weeks away.
But while football was still happening for the time being, there was hope once again in the Steel City that the glory years of the 1970s could return after two playoff-free seasons. The Steelers only had 27 players returning from their Super Bowl 14 champion team, but younger players like David Little, Frank Pollard, Walter Abercrombie, Rick Woods, Calvin Sweeney and Mike Merriweather — combined with legendary holdovers Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell, Mel Blount and Jack Ham — excited fans in Pittsburgh. Chuck Noll still held the reins, but big changes were made as the defense switched for the first time to a 3-4 alignment and the offense was adapting to Bradshaw’s age with more of a West Coast approach.
Their opponent was a familiar Super Bowl rival and a team that went to the previous two NFC Title Games. Tom Landry was looking to his so-called “America’s Team” to get back to the big game. Going in, the Cowboys had won 18 straight games at Texas Stadium. However, the Steelers had won the last six matchups between the two. One streak among the two legendary clubs was about to end that night on Monday Night Football.
Both of Bradshaw’s backups (Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone) were hurt and unavailable. The Steelers had the inexperienced Jeff Quinn from Nebraska on the roster, but they seemed intent on not playing him and were pretty much working without a net. Things have really changed in that regard over the years.
Rafeal Septién boomed the opening kickoff, but rookie Fred Bohannon deemed it returnable and he was right when he found a seam and crossed midfield. At that point, the rookie who spurned the CFL because of homesickness and joined the Steelers, inexplicably coughed-up the ball to Marty Hunter of the Cowboys. The rookie from West Virginia’s Salem College put the home team in good position to start the game at their own 40.
Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White engineered an efficient drive via passes to Drew Pearson and the running combo of Tony Dorsett/Ron Springs. But fortune turned back Pittsburgh’s way when Center Tom Rafferty stepped on White’s foot causing him to bobble the handoff which never safely got into Dorsett’s hands. David Little, subbing for the injured Jack Lambert, recovered to thwart the Cowboys’ threat.
A lot had been said about the Steelers going more towards the San Francisco/West Coast offense using the short passing game, and Bradshaw did just that. But TB12 also found John Stallworth deep for a long gain. A mere two plays later, Terry and No. 82 connected again on a 6-yard scoring pass, as the visitors put up the first points in the game. Alas, it would remain only 6-0, as rookie Rick Woods mishandled Mike Webster’s snap for the point-after. With that, Gary Anderson never got a chance to convert his very first extra-point attempt.
Danny White took over at his own 34 and got tripped again by another one of his linemen. But this time, he got up and threw a first down to Doug Cosbie. After runs by Dorsett and a catch-and-run by Springs, the Cowboys were in a goal-to-go situation. The Steelers looked to have held when Billie Joe Dupree (reminiscent of Jackie Harris in SB XIII) dropped the ball as he was standing all alone in the end zone, but a Jon Goodman (no, he wasn’t the guy from Roseanne) penalty for roughing gave the drive new life. This time, White completed a third down pass for the TD to Drew Pearson for a 7-6 lead, near the end of the first quarter.
The lack of defense continued in the second quarter. Bradshaw hooked up with No. 86, their third WR Jim Smith, for a seven-yard score. But then Cosbie continued his productive night with a scoring catch from the Steelers 12.
After Bennie Cunningham dropped a pass while surrounded by the ghost of nobody on the next series, the Steelers brought in a bare-footed punter by the name of John Goodson. With 6:57 left in the half, it was the game’s first punt. The ensuing Cowboy drive ended with a Septién miss.
Pittsburgh dodged a major bullet on the next series when a botched flea-flicker between Franco and TB12 should have been recovered by Ed “Too Tall” Jones inside the Steeler 25. But Jones opted to try to pick up the ball with an eye towards scoring. He mishandled it, though, and Steve Courson recovered for the Steelers, averting sure disaster.
The Steelers would punt again and the Cowboys were marching towards field goal range, when Donnie Shell (like he was shot out of a cannon) pummeled White on the safety blitz and Thom Beasley fell on the ball. The Steelers were in business and looking to score now, but Gary Anderson made fans wonder why the Steelers cut David Trout when his 35-yarder was blocked. The score at the half was Dallas 14 and Pittsburgh 13.
In the third quarter, the Steelers forced Dallas’ first punt of the game. Danny White, who doubled as Landry’s punter, had his punt blocked by a diving Keith Willis. It got a little weird here, as Dallas recovered for a first down. But since the ball was recovered past the line-of-scrimmage instead of behind, the Steelers were awarded possession and set up inside the 20. A few plays later, Frank Pollard rumbled in for a one-yard score. With the Anderson conversion, the Steelers took a 20-14 lead. But there were some uneasy moments, as John Stallworth was injured on a hit late by Dennis Thurman on the play before the Pollard touchdown.
The Cowboys looked to answer, but White was intercepted by Rick Woods, the rookie from Boise State. With the ball at the Dallas 35, the Steelers pounded with Pollard and Franco. But then on third down, Bradshaw took to the air and located Jim Smith again for a 15-yard score. All of a sudden, the Steelers led 27-13.
White, who was spectacular in the first half, continued to implode in the second. The record-company owner inadvertently collaborated with Jack Ham at the Dallas 32 for Ham’s 32nd career pick. Bradshaw then targeted Stallworth — back in the game after the injury — but the drive stalled. Anderson then came on and drilled the first FG of his career with a 26-yarder. At 30-14, the scoring for the third quarter was complete.
There was plenty of scoreboard movement in the fourth quarter. After a Loren Toews sack, Anderson beautifully converted again from 43, but Dallas wouldn’t go away. White perfectly threw deep to a tightly-covered Tony Hill by Shell for a 45-yard score to cut the margin to 12 points at 33-21. After Bradshaw and the Men of Steel failed to convert, Goodson punted again. Another Cosbie catch and a trick-play involving Pearson passing to Hill got the ball deep inside Steeler territory. Then Dupree held on to the pigskin this time, snagging a White pass in the back of the end zone. All of a sudden, the Steelers’ lead was merely five at 33-28.
With less than six minutes remaining, Bradshaw masterfully drained the clock with crisp passes and called on his RBs for second-draining runs. A highlight was a 20-yard pass to Greg Hawthorne, the converted RB. Hawthorne was in because Lynn Swann’s hamstring had rendered him out in pre-game.
With less than a minute left, the drive stalled at the 23. Needing one and a half yards, the MNF crew wondered aloud whether or not Noll would trust a rookie kicker in the situation. The offense stayed on the field during the time out and it looked like they were going for it — but doing that and failing would have given Dallas a chance to win — just like missing the kick would have. At the very end of the timeout, Noll sent out the rookie from Syracuse. Anderson sent the kick 40 yards, high and straight up the middle to seal the victory. The Steelers, as they would do so many times from that game until 1995, jubilantly celebrated a late-game clutch boot by No. 1 from South Africa.
Beating the Cowboys back then was like beating a division rival. This game was pretty much the final chapter between most of the main characters from that amazing 1970’s rivalry. Listening to the broadcast with Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and the incomparable Howard Cosell made the game even more fun to watch.
The season was interrupted because of the strike that followed Week 2 and both teams made the 16-team tournament. The Cowboys would fall in the NFC Championship Game, while the Steelers would fall to San Diego in the first round. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been, had the labor strife not reduced the season to a mere nine games. Some teams might have suffered season-damning injuries, and the whole season could have shifted had there been seven more contests. These two franchises could possibly have met in Pasadena for a third Super Bowl, but history gave us what we got and we’ll never know. But on this night, Bradshaw, Stallworth, Harris and Ham gave Steelers Nation another Super Bowl-caliber performance.
As for the 10-year-old me, I was all jacked-up with cake and pop from my sister’s 14th birthday celebration. My parents let me stay up for the first half of the game and made me go to bed at halftime. My dad, already down on the new kicker, went to his room to watch the rest of the game. That night marked the first time I sneaked out of bed against orders. The next morning, I was talking to my dad before the bus came and marveled about how great the Steelers new kicker was with three field goals in the second half. My dad smiled and asked, “And just how do you know?”. In a complete panic, I started to babble some nonsense that was getting me nowhere. My dad just interrupted and said, “I wasn’t born yesterday. Just don’t tell your mom”.
Twelve years later, I was working radio at Power 92 in Johnstown, PA. I walked in and my radio partner that went by “Just Jim” couldn’t wait to tell me that a Steeler would be on our morning show. When I learned it was Gary Anderson, I went nuts. I relayed this exact story to Gary, who was an awesome guest and an even nicer person. But the greatest kicker in Pittsburgh Steeler history told me I was making him feel old and sighed when I concluded my anecdote with, “Then I got on the bus to go to sixth grade.”