Surely now the vile precedent is shattered. Tiresome, wretched history has veered off on a bright new course and, at the tender age of 40 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers inexorably are headed for their first pro-football championship. You sane folks outside of Western Pennsylvania may argue with that conjecture, even more vehemently than did the Cleveland Browns last Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium before they were methodically sentenced and destroyed 30-0, but your opposition includes the certain NFL Rookie of the Year, a defense that has improved from dead last to deadly and some of the most wild-eyed, fanatic, adrenaline-charged zealots ever witnessed outside a burning tent meeting. With a style that has been their gleeful custom in this, The Year of Glory at Long Last, each of these elements played a critical part in the Steelers' lopsided rout of the Browns—a result that demands conclusion before explanation.
First of all, with a 9-3 record now, the Steelers are in first place, a solid game ahead of Cleveland in the Central Division of the AFC. With two games left that they ought to win—against Houston and San Diego—the Steelers should be the division champion and therefore the home team for the playoff game of Dec. 23—against Oakland, a team they have already beaten. If Pittsburgh repeats its earlier victory over the Raiders, then the Steelers would also be the home team for the AFC championship—and they are unbeaten in Three Rivers Stadium. Would you believe the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl?
The Steelers' pitiful NFL history belies the notion that they could qualify for any sort of competition more testing than a regional Punt, Pass and Kick final. Of their 39 previous seasons, 26 have been losers and five others leveled off at .500. But that sordid story belongs in the lamentable past, before Coach Chuck Noll, a soft-spoken ex-Brown with a talent for gourmet cooking, wound up with the biggest plum out of the last NFL player draft.
That would be Franco Harris, a 6'2", 230-pound running back whose duties at Penn State often consisted of blocking for his All-America teammate, Lydell Mitchell, who is now doing idle time with the Baltimore Colts. It also has been suggested that Harris did not overly exert himself in college, but that may have been simply a rumor perpetrated by the Steelers to ensure his availability when they finally got around to their first draft choice, No. 13 in the entire league.
Harris did not establish himself in the starting lineup until the sixth game of the season, but he has run wild since then. Against the Browns, he scored two touchdowns and carried for 102 yards on 20 carries. That was the sixth consecutive game in which Harris has exceeded 100 yards, which ties Jim Brown's record for such work. Harris is now but 40 yards short of a 1,000-yard season, and 145 behind the rookie rushing record that Green Bay's John Brockington set a year ago.
"I had the confidence and I knew I had the ability," Harris said two days before the Cleveland showdown, "but I wondered how long it would take before it all came out. What really surprised me is that I adjusted so soon. In the NFL there's a style you have to learn. Seeing how Larry Brown runs has really helped me. When there's a little opening, he flies through the hole and he can run over people and he knows when to put it on. Concentrating on that has helped me, and it's coming more natural now."
Says Noll: "We were looking for someone with size, speed and the ability to catch the ball, and Franco had all that, but the thing you're never sure of is the emotional makeup—and that's what's done it for him. He wants to excel. He wants to be the best there is."
Harris is the third in a family of nine children—Daniella, Mario, Franco, Marisa, Alvara, Luana, Piero, Giuseppe and Michele. His father is Cad Harris, a black soldier who brought an Italian war bride home from World War II. This helps to explain why Harris' most vocal supporters are "Franco's Italian Army," an exuberant ethnic group bedecked with khaki-colored helmet liners who wave Italian flags as they imbibe their wine and cheese. The Army was mobilized this season after Harris ran over the face mask of a Cincinnati defender and several black waiters in the stadium's Allegheny Club yelled, "Thata way, Soul Brother, get it on!"
Rocky LoCascio, a stadium security guard, replied: "He may be a Soul Brother but his legs are Italian." Then "Generalissimo" Tony Stagno, who runs one of Pittsburgh's biggest Italian bakeries, got the idea snowballing when he had several women make Italian flags for the rooting section. But the Army is only one segment of the madness prevailing in Three Rivers. Kicker Roy Gerela is idolized by "Gerela's Gorillas," who have shown a penchant for psyching other placekickers into the kind of wide shot that the Browns' Don Cockroft suffered Sunday. There is also a loose-knit group of Slovaks yelling "Dobra Shunka" for Linebacker Jack Ham. Dobra Shunka: the great Ham.
Along with Harris, an improved Steeler pass defense has played the most significant role in the team's rise. A year ago the Steeler pass defense ranked 26th in the NFL after allowing its opposition more first downs, more completions and more net yards than any other team in the league. Pittsburgh intercepted only 17 passes all year as its rivals gained more than 65% of their total offense by passing. "But this year," says Noll, "our defense has given the offense its opportunity." The Steelers lead the AFC in turnovers with 24 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries.
Against the Browns, they intercepted Mike Phipps once, tackled him four times for 32 yards in losses and recovered a pair of fumbles by Linebacker Andy Russell—all of which gave Pittsburgh its first shutout victory since 1963. Phipps, whose wife Carole was expecting a baby at any moment, labored through a day as grim as his effigy, which hung near the scoreboard. He completed but nine of 20 passes for 59 yards, as the Browns never crossed the 50-yard line after the first quarter, when Cockroft missed a 37-yarder.
As decisive, however, as the defeat was for Cleveland, the Browns' chances of making the playoffs remain very real. Their record is now 8-4, and their two closest contenders for the wild-card vacancy, Cincinnati and the New York Jets (both 7-5), are precisely the two teams left on the Cleveland schedule. The Browns must play both of these games on the road, though. And if they should make it to the playoffs they will face the additional hardship of then having to meet Miami in the Orange Bowl in the opening round.
The Browns upset Pittsburgh 26-24 when they met a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland, and last Sunday's game did not become a rout until the second half. The Steelers opened the scoring with a Gerela field goal in the first quarter—and then only because Russell recovered a fumble by Cleveland's Bo Scott. Harris scored his first touchdown in the second quarter, bulling over from a yard out after a 57-yard drive, but that meant it was still only 10-0 at the half, and as much as Franco's Italian Army kept cheering for him to run up another 100-yard game, the wild crowd kept a wary eye out for a Cleveland comeback. "Dee-fense, dee-fense!" the fans kept chanting, in their best, and most misplaced, basketball fashion.
Harris pretty much settled things in the third quarter when he slashed 11 yards for his second touchdown—and 10th of the season—to put the Steelers up 17-0, and he was later rewarded with a standing ovation when he reached 100 yards. Pittsburgh poured it on in the last quarter, Gerela booting two long field goals for his gorillas, and Quarterback Terry Bradshaw throwing a 78-yard touchdown pass to Tight End John McMakin.
In the whole game, Bradshaw only passed 17 times, while the Steeler runners rushed on 43 plays. Bradshaw not only has Harris to hand off to, but also Frenchy Fuqua, who has accumulated 564 yards so far this season himself. "I never thought I'd like playing for a running team, but I really do," Bradshaw says. "I didn't have a very good understanding of the running game since I'd been a passing quarterback all through college and my two seasons here, but with Franco and Frenchy to set up the pass, I have more time to throw."
And, more to the point, after all the bleak years the fans at last have more occasion to cheer. "These people have just been too much. They have been a definite factor in our success," says Linebacker Russell. "It will be that much more disappointing if we don't make it after finally coming so close."
In fact, almost everybody in Pittsburgh is talking about the team now. Last Thursday night at Buddies, one of the better watering holes and body shops in the city, a blonde young thing began to rave on about the beloved Steelers. "And that Irishman, Frank O'Harris," she cooed. "I just love him."
By any name, it's a sweeter season in Pittsburgh.