It had been billed as the Battle of the Forearms and When Mouths Collide and even, with a certain amount of romance, as Super Bowl XI½. It was the Oakland Raiders, led by Machine Gun Atkinson and Baby Face Stabler, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Pretty Boy Lambert and Public Enemy No. 1 Franco Harris. Bonnie coaching one side, Clyde the other. Everybody knew what to expect, of course. Lynn Swann would undoubtedly come away from Three Rivers Stadium with a lobotomy, helmet and all. However, when the game finally got around to being played, it wasn't any more violent than a slumber party, except for the 16-7 bruise that Oakland put on the Steelers.
Actually, the Steelers had an awful lot to do with their own embarrassment, at a time when they were supposed to be up to the business of getting even with the Raiders for last season's two painful losses, and for the part of Swann's head that was still stuck to George Atkinson's forearm. Trouble was, when it seemed to count the most, Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to as many Raiders as he did Steelers. Three interceptions and two fumbles is not how you go about beating Oakland. And when it was all over, the way the Raiders had calmly and almost routinely taken advantage of Pittsburgh's mistakes made them look like a team that can hardly get much better than it already is.
The Steelers' inability to move the football from their own 20-yard line contributed to two of Errol Mann's three field goals, while a fumble and an interception put the Raiders in splendid position for Mann's other three-pointer and Mark van Eeghen's touchdown. In fact, thanks to the disappearance of Pittsburgh's offense. Oakland began its scoring drives at the Steelers' 38-, 43-, 30- and 34-yard lines, putting the game out of reach when van Eeghen's touchdown made it 16-0 early in the fourth quarter. Sure, Pittsburgh was charitable to Oakland, but the manner in which Kenny Stabler and the Raiders did not blow their opportunities was certainly impressive.
On the first occasion, Stabler quickly hit Tight End Dave Casper for a 27-yard beauty, and right away the Raiders were close enough to come away with at least a field goal. When Pittsburgh's defense rose up, Mann kicked it from 21 yards out. The next time, Stabler chose to prove to the Steelers that Oakland could run on them. Van Eeghen carried four times for a total of 19 yards, and Mann kicked a 40-yarder for a 6-0 lead. That didn't wake up the Steelers, either. When they needed to move the ball, all the Steelers did was clip or let the Raiders sack Bradshaw. Then they got a weak punt from Bobby Walden, and Oakland was back again.
October 2, 1977
It is always pleasant to be able to congratulate a coach for doing something intellectual. Oakland's John Madden did it right here. After one play, a seven-yard burst through the middle by Clarence Davis, Oakland was on the Pittsburgh 23. There were still 25 seconds left before the half—an eternity, at times, in the NFL—but the Raiders had no timeouts left. Madden knew that a completed pass might well use up the clock. So on second down he sent Mann in to kick his third field goal in slightly more than six minutes, a 41-yarder. A smart call. And suddenly that 9-0 lead looked far larger than nine-point leads usually do, because the Raiders held it.
In the third quarter Stabler simply seemed content to rest on that 9-0 margin, but then he stuck the knife into the Steelers and twisted it after Bradshaw threw his most killing interception, with Willie Brown gathering in the ball on Pittsburgh's 34 at the start of the last period. In three plays Stabler had a touchdown. Van Eeghen made four yards, Stabler hit Fred Biletnikoff crossing over the middle for 22, then van Eeghen rammed eight tough yards into the end zone, knocking tacklers down as if he were some kind of Bronko Nagurski instead of a Colgate alumnus.
Midway through the final quarter the Steelers were spared the humiliation of being shut out before the home folks, scoring on one of those plays that combines talent with good fortune. Bradshaw shot a pass to Bennie Cunningham from midfield. Surrounded by all sorts of white-jerseyed Raiders at the 38, Cunningham somehow caught the ball. Then, strangely enough, the Raiders began glancing off the big tight end and bumping into each other, so Cunningham loped in for a touchdown.
There were those who thought Cunningham's catch might signal a Steeler revival, but Bradshaw broke their hearts. Slowly. He threw a 40-yard pass to John Stallworth, the same Stallworth whose fumble after a reception had set up Oakland's first field goal, then he ran for 13 yards to pick up a first down at the Raiders' 27. But just when people were beginning to think miracle, Bradshaw threw a pass to Charles Phillips, who plays for Oakland. Phillips had no recourse but to intercept it at the 11.
Stabler said later, "Turnovers and field position really killed Pittsburgh. Are we better than last year? Well, our defense definitely is. But I don't think this game proves Pittsburgh won't make the playoffs. I wouldn't be surprised if we played them again."
As you might imagine, the happiest man in the Oakland dressing room was none other than Atkinson. He had not been very visible during the game, so now he was making up for it.
"They talked all week about how they wanted George Atkinson," he said. "They think they can scare people with that crap. Their biggest problem is talk. Tell them to keep talking. I love it."
Ah, yes. The game was back where it started in the first place. In the mouth. Which brings up Pete Rozelle.
On behalf of the NFL, Rozelle could naturally be expected to strongly oppose Nazis, Communists, cocaine, Hustler magazine and child molesting, but a couple of weeks ago, with Oakland and Pittsburgh in mind, he added violence. An edict from his office stated: "Violence, as Webster defines it and as the public perceives it, is conduct characterized by extreme and sudden...unjust or improper force. It has no proper place in professional football."
Swell. But not a word about immaculate receptions, mysteriously split tarpaulins, Vaseline on jerseys, fans attacking tight ends and all of the varying forms of intimidation that have been a part of the Oakland-Pittsburgh series.
Touching briefly on some of the more fascinating incidents in the rivalry, we begin with Franco Harris' reception in the 1972 playoff game at Pittsburgh. Bradshaw threw this pass, you see, that was intended for Frenchy Fuqua. It either hit Fuqua or didn't, but officially the ruling was that Oakland's Jack Tatum knocked it down, only Harris caught it and ran for the touchdown that won the game. Films proved to be inconclusive, but Oakland still feels it was an illegal reception.
Next came the great grease scandal at Oakland in 1973. That was when the losing Steelers accused the Raiders of smearing Vaseline on their shirts and pants in order to make themselves harder to tackle. Rot, said Oakland boss Al Davis. However, a couple of Raiders, once they were ex-Raiders, whispered to some newsmen that it was true. And you know how journalists are. They wrote it. At the same time, the Steelers also suggested that the footballs supplied for the Raiders in Oakland—and only the Raiders—were not properly inflated, making them easier for Stabler to throw and for Biletnikoff to catch.
In 1974 Oakland Tight End Bob Moore encountered a hostile mob the night before the game near the Hilton Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. In their inimitable way, the Steeler fans put a gash in Moore's head, and he was unable to play. Now the Raiders stay at a suburban motel when they are forced to visit Pittsburgh.
The Ice Age playoff took place the following year. As they began the battle for the AFC championship, the Raiders were shocked to discover that Pittsburgh's tarpaulin had mysteriously split the night before, leaving the artificial turf as slippery as a hockey rink, which, in turn, took away Oakland's fanciest pass routes. Pittsburgh won.
And, finally, last season there was the Atkinson forearm on Swann's headgear, isolated, slow-motioned and rerun more often than Lucy in the kitchen.
With this background, it was anticipated that all of the pregame comments would be filled with anger and promises to maim everyone's grandmother. Instead, there was a good deal of chatting about mutual respect. Pittsburgh Linebacker Jack Lambert summed it up best for both teams.
"The two things to remember." he said, "is that Atkinson isn't the only one who likes to intimidate people. I've done a few things in my career that I'm not exactly proud of. Two years ago in the Super Bowl against Dallas I tackled Preston Pearson, and then as I was getting up I kneed him in the chest. It's just one of those things you do because you get carried away with the emotion of the game. I'm sure George Atkinson didn't say to himself before our game with them last year, 'Well, today I'm going to go out there and hit Lynn Swann in the head.' The thing is, we don't have 45 angels, either. If you hate a team it's because they beat you on the scoreboard."
For most of the first half it was volleyball in the secondary as both Stabler's and Bradshaw's passes bounced off assorted shoulder pads. A near-catch would instantly become a near-interception and then a near-catch again as a couple of bodies went hurtling through the air.
Oakland might well have scored two touchdowns if the gods of deflection had treated the Raiders more kindly. Once, Mike Siani, taking over at wide receiver for Cliff Branch, who had turned his ankle in the game's early moments, was racing into the Pittsburgh end zone along with Steeler Cornerback Mel Blount. Blount went up and appeared to have intercepted Stabler's bomb. No, what he had done was tip it into Siani's hands. But what Siani did, as he went sprawling, was lose control of the ball. High drama for several seconds, but ultimately just another incompletion.
Much funnier was the deep sideline pass that Stabler lofted toward a wonderfully wide open Casper on the Steeler 15. Here came the ball, there was Casper and the play had six points engraved on it. Then along came Biletnikoff at the last second to stretch out an arm and wiggle his fingers and tip the ball away from Casper. It was a brilliant defensive maneuver, and Casper, who caught five other passes from Stabler, finally came up empty. The only thing wrong, of course, is that Biletnikoff and Casper are on the same side.
Actually, the most astonishing play of the first half came very early—on Pittsburgh's first possession, in fact. And, if you care to be cruel about it, it wound up being Pittsburgh's only hint of an offense in the first 30 minutes. It was right out of Jock Sutherland or Pop Warner—a fake punt. Not only that, the Steelers used it on fourth down at their own 36-yard line. From punt formation, Reggie Harrison, ostensibly in to block for Kicker Bobby Walden, took the short snap, darted off to his left and sprinted 33 yards. In the pros, you see this sort of gamble about as often as you see a general manager smile during a contract negotiation.
The Steelers moved to Oakland's 15 in that drive, but then they tried to run wide. Rocky Bleier did not get much in two carries, and on third down Tatum made Franco Harris look as if he had run into a wall. No gain. Roy Gerela, with a chance to give the Steelers a 3-0 lead, then missed a field goal attempt from 29 yards.
When Tatum hit Harris, it brought about the game's first display of emotion, the type of act that was supposed to be routine in this contest. Tatum got up after the tackle and slammed Franco's feet to the rug. A rumble of disapproval rose from the stadium. Disapproval from Pittsburgh's fans has the same sound as a skyscraper crumbling. Tatum appeared to speak harshly to Harris at the time, but after the game he insisted he had said nothing. "He shoved me and I shoved back," Tatum said. "I'm not a bad guy, like people say."
The best chance for both squads to erupt from the bench and do unkind things to each other's face masks came in the second quarter. The occasion was a nonfight between the Steelers' Walden and Oakland rookie Lester Hayes, who had rushed him on a fourth-down punt. All Hayes did after Walden got the kick away was reverse his role and block Walden, who didn't like it, for some reason, and went after Hayes. Had Hayes defended himself more earnestly, a gang war might have resulted. But the rookie did a nice job of keeping his temper, and the incident passed.
In the end, the most prophetic of all the players was the Raiders' Warren Bankston, a reserve tight end who once played for the Steelers. "Yeah, it's pretty frightening in this stadium when all those people start hollering," he said before the game. "But you know how we'll cure that? We'll score. It's amazing how quiet the Pittsburgh crowd gets when you score on 'em."
And Three Rivers Stadium was indeed a rather quiet place last Sunday night when the Oakland Raiders departed for home, looking very much as though they could play their next 12 games waist-deep in the Monongahela and still get to the playoffs.