All quotes come from the book “Lost Sundays” by Sam Toperoff unless otherwise noted.
1988 was the worst of times for a generation of Yinzers. The Steelers had 1 playoff win since the 1979 season and no playoff appearances since the 1984 season. Midway through the ‘88 campaign, the Steelers’ record since the dynasty years was exactly 65-65. Although fans and media had been predicting the end of the Steelers dynasty as early as August 1981, by ‘88, they were calling for Chuck Noll’s job. Looking back 35 years later, a lot of the offensive critiques of today may give you some late 80s nostaglia.
Playcalling was Considered a Disaster
In week 1 with a 4th & goal, Bubby Brister somehow convinces Noll to go for it. It’s a hand off to Warren Williams, and it’s not even close. Cope was in disbelief in the booth: “That is not Chuck Noll. I can’t believe that. That is a classic dummkopf call, Noll.”
In week 5, Pittsburgh’s own ground crew begins heckling as they pull up the field goal net. “These f***** play calls! Chuck’s so g****** conservative. You always tell just what he’s gonna do.”
In week 7, after losing at home to Houston, a fan yelled at the team as they headed to the locker room, “Hey Noll, news flash - forward pass legalized!”
Even Noll’s own QB1 piled on. Brister was caught saying Noll’s offense was so predictable, “we might as well punt on first down.”
When Noll changed it up a week later, incorporating end arounds and halfback options, he was roasted by reporters with one saying, “it’s only a matter of time before we see the shotgun!” (Noll never used shotgun that season: “more can go wrong with it than can go right.”)
It wasn’t a jet sweep, but once Noll discovered the end around, he used it often. That season, end arounds led to Louis Lipps running, blocking, handing off and even throwing.
Media Treated Him like a Punchline
After the Steelers’ week 5 loss, questions in the post-game press conference attempted to compare ‘88 to ‘69, when Pittsburgh went 1-13. Media reports were already saying the season was dead.
By week 8, local insiders weren’t beating around the bush. Gene Collier’s column read, “This mess carries Noll’s name on it.” The Pittsburgh Press said, “It’s as if the Steelers are being coached by Charles Chaplin, not Charles Noll.”
Decades before twitter hashtags, the local stations starting considering running a “Dump Noll” poll.
During the NBC broadcast of the Steelers/Broncos game, Paul Maguire said, “Will the lady who left her 11 kids at Three Rivers Stadium please pick up her children? They’re beating the Steelers 21 to nothing.”
After week 9, some were predicting that Noll would resign or even be fired mid-season. Even Noll’s biggest defenders, like Jim Kriek of the Herald Standard were doubting him. “There’s something else missing - character. A Chuck Noll team always has character. Noll hasn’t put his stamp on this team. You’ve got to wonder if he’s lost his touch. Maybe the game has passed him by.”
System wasn’t considered High-Powered
Even though this was a different era from the offenses of today, Noll’s system was still considered second rate. Just point to the fact that Pittsburgh was the only team not using a shotgun formation at that time.
Lynn Swann had an anecdote to explain this. “Back in 1975, we drafted a terrific tight end, Walter White, from Maryland. Outstanding pass catcher. Chuck cut the guy in training camp. KC picked him up, and he played in the Pro Bowl. In Chuck’s system, the tight end blocks. Period”
Terry Bradshaw was a little more frank. “Let’s face it, (Noll) won because he had superior players at almost every position. He can’t do it without that edge. Yes, Chuck Noll was a good coach once upon a time. When he had the players. But the game has passed him by.”
Today, the mid to late 80s era is rarely mentioned when discussing Noll’s legacy. Perhaps in another 35 years, Matt Canada’s early ‘20s resume will also be out-shadowed by larger accomplishments.
Kyle Chrise is the host of “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.” New episodes air each Thursday.