The Pittsburgh Steelers least-successful decade of the past 48 years was definitely the 1980s. There was a definite fallout from the four championships in six seasons that came to a stop after the super 70s run. But it still happens to be a favorite decade of mine that sparks plenty of pleasant memories.
I was eight when the 80s began, and I just unwittingly expected the run to continue. Guys like Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were still larger than life to me, but Chuck Noll’s dynasty was showing their age and the Steelers only reached the playoffs four times in the decade as guys like Rocky Bleier, Jack Ham and Joe Greene were hanging up their cleats.
From 1982-1984, Pittsburgh made the postseason three straight years. This was due to still having a handful of 70s legends mixing with new blood, and playing in a sub-par division. But the run of picking late in the first round through all of the trophy years, helped aid the decline.
Before the season that was 1984, the Steelers saw Terry Bradshaw retire and Franco Harris hold out and end up in Seattle. Times were changing and the dynasty days were seeming further and further away.
But there were still some memorable days. So let’s set the time circuits of the Delorean to October 14, 1984. Stevie Wonder was topping the charts with I Just Called To Say I Love You, Bill Cosby was (allegedly) roofy-ing women on the set of his hit freshman sitcom, Miami Vice was making white linen suits and owning an alligator for a pet popular, the Detroit Tigers defeated the San Diego Padres in the 81st edition of the World Series and Ronald Reagan was in the final stages of campaigning for his landslide victory over Walter Mondale a few weeks later.
The 6-0 49ers were the hottest team in football and they were already being talked about as a historic team that could go 19-0. That week, 15 49ers, a year before the Bears released The Super Bowl Shuffle, recorded a song on vinyl called We’re the 49ers. Coach Bill Walsh was beginning to worry that his team was getting distracted. The Steelers, on the other hand, were just destroyed 31-7 against Dan Marino's Dolphins.
After the Osmond siblings of Donny and Marie performed the National Anthem, the Steelers adventure that day at famed Candlestick Park began with the eight-point underdogs coming out to an shocking ten-point lead courtesy of Frank Pollard’s grinding runs. That led to a Rich Erenberg score from two yards out on the very first drive and a Gary Anderson field goal from 48 in the second quarter, but before halftime Joe Montana finally solved the Steeler defense and ran the ball himself from the seven, right before the half. But still, the .500 visitors were up by three on Bill Walsh’s undefeated club.
In the second half, Montana and the 49ers came alive. A field goal by Ray Wersching and another seven-yard jaunt, this time by Wendell Tyler, made the score 17-10 Niners in the fourth. It looked like the typical story with the favorite getting down early and putting the game away late, but the young Steelers wouldn’t go down easy.
John Stallworth, who was injured all of 1983, had a career resurgence in 1984 and it continued in San Francisco. After a controversial pass interference call on a pass to him gave the Steelers new life, No. 82 hauled in a six-yard pass from QB Mark Malone to tie the score late in the fourth. The play completed a 15-play, 83-yard drive against a devestating defense.
There was a rub though. The man they called “Joe Cool” was famous for late-game wins. He had 3:21 remaining on the clock and we’ve all seen that movie before. Defeat seemed inevitable for Pittsburgh. But with SF driving, LB Brian Hinkle made a leaping interception and returned the ball 43 yards to halt the drive and set up shop deep in Niner territory. The drive stalled and the Steelers settled for a 21-yard field goal by their Pro Bowler Anderson.
But remember that comment about seeing this movie before? With 1:42 left on the Candlestick clock, No. 16 drove his scarlet-clad warriors down the field. Dwight Clark and mostly TE Earl Cooper dominated the drive that saw Montana go six of seven with one drop. The reliable Ray Wersching came on for the game winning kick from 37 out. My twelve-year-old self, watching on an old tv in the back of my parent’s place of business, hung my head. I, myself, had just experienced defeat as my Pee Wee Football Team (The American Outfitter Eagles) were vanquished earlier in the day. Standing there still wearing my football pants, I remember telling my dad, Wersching never misses. I was wrong. The kick failed and the Steelers were victorious, as I jumped and screamed in delight.
At 3-3, the Steelers had renewed life, as the 49ers actually blamed Donny and Marie (not the singers on their own team) for squashing their mojo. The win helped propel the Steelers to the AFCCG, where they lost to Marino and Miami. Had they won, they would have had a rematch with San Fran, once again in NoCal. That may have not ended as well as this one did, as the 49ers beat Miami 38-16 for the title. But those Steelers, and their fans, took great pride in spoiling a perfect season. They’ll always be remembered for that distinction.