The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns have been playing these Blue Collar Bowls for almost 30 years now, but there had never been one that went into overtime, and there certainly had never been one where somebody diagrammed the winning play with a stick on artificial turf. Obviously, that must have been what happened, because the Steelers beat the Browns 15-9 last Sunday before 50,000 hard hats in Three Rivers Stadium when Terry Bradshaw handed the football off to Rocky Bleier, who handed it off to Lynn Swann, who pitched it back to Bradshaw, who then hurled it some 40,000 yards in the air to Bennie Cunningham for a touchdown. Elapsed time on the vacant-lot play: about a day and a half, breaking the record set by Amos Alonzo Stagg.
In truth, nobody deserved to win the game by 15-9, or any other score, except possibly the officials. They had a wonderful afternoon throwing their flags and making their "judgment calls" on all of the midair collisions which mark this rivalry. Early in the day, the predictable holding call erased a Cleveland touchdown. And very late in the day, like on the overtime kickoff, a bad call likely cost the nervy and gutsy Browns a victory.
Moving right along past all of the field goals—three apiece by Pittsburgh's Roy Gerela and Cleveland's Don Cockroft—that brought about the 9-9 tie at the end of regulation play, we take you now to that overtime kickoff going into the arms of the Steelers' Larry Anderson at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Along about his own 21-yard line, Anderson slips down all by himself, and then he gets up and continues running for three more yards. Whereupon Anderson is tackled and fumbles the ball into the grateful arms of Cleveland's Ricky Feacher on about the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. Cleveland's ball, right? For, as the rules say, a man is not down if he stumbles or slips on his own, as Anderson clearly did, until he is touched by an opponent. He can get up and run, as Anderson did.
Well, the officials ruled that Anderson was down at the 21-yard line, even though he had not been touched by a Cleveland player. So the Steelers retained possession, and nine plays and 3:43 later, Bradshaw threw his 37-yard touchdown bomb to Cunningham, which meant that once again the Steelers had prevented the Browns from winning their first game ever in Three Rivers. Thus, the Steelers are 4-0 in the AFC Central, and, with a schedule that is not altogether fierce, they already have the look of a playoff team even if they don't strike you as being as efficient as those Pittsburgh outfits that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1975 and 1976.
One of the reasons the Steelers did not appear particularly magnificent probably was Cleveland, which lost for the first time after beating San Francisco, Cincinnati and Atlanta the first three weeks of the season. The Browns are mainly a no-name bunch, but they have verve and they are physical. They might easily have won the game against the Steelers, too, because they led by 9-3 with only a quarter to go. By then Quarterback Brian Sipe had been denied not one, but two touchdown passes on penalties, and a couple of other sure sixes had been dropped. There was not much to say for Cleveland's running game, but Greg Pruitt was injured and did not play, and Cleveland without Greg Pruitt is a little bit like Mother Nature without lightning.
It is tempting to say that even in defeat Cleveland was more surprising—and perhaps more impressive—than the Steelers, for the simple reason that the Browns were expected to be swept out of the stadium and onto a water taxi cruising the Allegheny. This did not come close to happening. If anything, it was Pittsburgh that was close to prayers as the game wore on. The fact is, Cleveland is off to a fine start under new Coach Sam Rutigliano, a capable and likable chap who has the wit, charm and apparent know-how to become a star in the X-and-O fraternity after waiting half a lifetime for the opportunity.
Rutigliano and Sipe are hardly what you would call marketable names in the NFL. But Rutigliano gives Sipe confidence, and his blockers give him time to throw, and the Cleveland play selection—from wherever it comes—has many elements of surprise.
In appearance, Rutigliano is sort of a road company Ara Parseghian. He is a fellow of such taste that he has dressed up his coaching staff in chocolate slacks, beige sweaters and white shoes, ensembles that made them look as if they were headed for the first tee at Oakmont Sunday instead of the stadium. This says nothing of Rutigliano's humor, but it does speak of the relaxed atmosphere he has brought to the Browns, which Sipe maintains is partly responsible for their success so far.
Rutigliano humor goes like this:
"I don't have bed checks. Why get caught up in the color of doorknobs?"
"Football teams don't have to eat steak and eggs for breakfast on game days. Some guys like spaghetti, and I like lox and a bagel."
"I've had so many assistant jobs, my wife has developed a good relationship with United Van Lines."
"The game should be fun. The cemetery is full of indispensable people."
As for Sipe, the Browns' 13th-round draft choice from San Diego State in 1972, he doesn't particularly look like a quarterback, but his arm is plenty strong enough, as evidenced by the two touchdown passes which didn't count that he threw against the Steelers. On one of them, he wandered around for a while and finally tossed a 51-yarder to Reggie Rucker. Problem was, Sipe had wandered one step past the line of scrimmage before he released the ball.
On the other occasion, Sipe got one of his backs, Tom Sullivan, isolated on a Steeler linebacker, Loren Toews, and hit him with a beautiful 17-yard spiral in the Pittsburgh end zone. Problem was, the officials called Cleveland Guard Robert E. Jackson for holding. This was in the second quarter, at a time when the Steelers led 3-0. The holding call killed not only the touchdown but also the drive, and the Browns settled for the first of Cockroft's field goals, which tied the score 3-3.
Very quickly, the Browns got another field goal. On the kickoff Pittsburgh's Anderson indisputably fumbled—even the officials agreed—and Cleveland recovered on the Steelers' 14. Anderson fumbled because the Browns' Larry Collins, a rookie from Texas A&I who already has been represented by about seven agents, hit him so hard the crash could be heard in Aliquippa. Sipe failed on two passes, and he also failed to read the Steelers' blitz on third down, so Cockroft added another three-pointer—this time from 30 yards.
It was 6-3 for Cleveland at halftime, but the zebras were really in the lead, having called 14 penalties. Still another Pittsburgh turnover was responsible for Cockroft's third field goal. This was brought about by one of Free Safety Thorn Darden's two interceptions, giving him five this season. Darden stole Bradshaw's pass as it was headed toward Swann and he ran it back to near mid-field. An interference call against the Steelers later accounted for 24 yards, and Cockroft subsequently booted a 41-yard field goal to make it 9-3.
Then Bradshaw and Franco Harris and all of those heroes of years past realized they had better get something going. Bradshaw called mostly quick openers for Franco, mixed in one of his six dazzling completions to Swann, and swiftly moved the Steelers to the Cleveland 15, from where Gerela kicked his second field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter. Now it was 9-6 Cleveland.
Two big plays by Bradshaw midway through the period put the Steelers into position for a 36-yard Gerela field goal that tied the game at 9-9 and forced the overtime. On one play Bradshaw scrambled for 17 yards, and on the other he shot a 23-yard pass to John Stallworth.
Bradshaw was surely relieved. As he said later, "We were somewhere milking cows out there. We were squeezing and not getting anything out." He added, "This wasn't the same offense we had the first three weeks, but maybe the Browns had something to do with it."
True enough, because Pittsburgh Linebacker Jack Lambert had said earlier, talking about the Blue Collar Bowl, "We bring out the ornery in each other."
These Blue Collar Bowls have a lusty history, not all of it having to do with what happens on the field. It is a game where either 10,000 Cleveland fans or 10,000 Pittsburgh fans load up on shots and beer, then load up on buses or campers and go 135 miles in one direction or the other for an Archie Bunker tailgate party. One year the Cleveland police chief called Pittsburgh Owner Art Rooney and said he didn't mind Art's fans falling off the buses when they arrived, but he sort of hated to see the drivers doing the same thing.
In the beginning, Cleveland always won the game with its Otto Grahams and Marion Motleys and Lou Grozas. It was four years and eight games before Pittsburgh won for the first time in 1954. Jim Finks, who now is the Chicago Bears' general manager, was the Steeler quarterback in those pre-Bobby Layne, pre-Bradshaw days, and he threw four touchdown passes to a group of people Rooney called his "No College" receivers as the Steelers won 55-27. Late in that game Finks said in the huddle, "I'm in ecstasy," and some Steeler offensive tackle, obviously from "No College," blinked and said, "On what count?"
Such is the lore of the series, a war that matches NFL teams that don't even have cheerleaders—half naked or otherwise. If they did, of course, they would probably look more like Ward Bond than the Embraceable Cowgirls. It is also a series matching teams that can't even afford helmet decals. The Browns wear none, and the Steelers have them on only one side. Ed Kiely, the Steelers' longtime director of public relations, says, "It's the most-often-asked question by our fans. Why the decal on only one side? You want the true answer? The equipment man's lazy."
The Blue Collars aside, after the Steelers were fortunate enough to keep possession on the non-fumble of the overtime kickoff, one had to assume they would then find a way to go ahead and win the game. Another Bradshaw-to-Stallworth pass got them moving for 17 yards to their 41, and when they were confronted with a fourth-and-one on the 50, they took the gamble and sent Harris pounding into the middle for the first down. Then again, maybe it isn't much of a gamble when you have a Harris at your disposal. Still, it was risky. After that, Bradshaw hit Swann for 11 yards. Bleier made a yard, and now it was second down and nine at the Cleveland 37. It was looking very much like Roy Gerela time again for the Steelers.
But that was when Bradshaw spoke the following words in the Pittsburgh huddle: "This is it. Fake 84 reverse, gadget pass."
The play unfolded with Bleier taking a hand-off from Bradshaw and starting to his right. It continued with Bleier handing the ball off to Swann, who had set to the right but now was running back across the field to his left. For a moment it seemed as though it was going to be some kind of an end-around play, something terribly in vogue around the NFL these days.
Suddenly, though, Swann pitched the ball back to Bradshaw, who was retreating. All the while Bradshaw had been watching Cunningham, his tight end, churning toward the right corner of the Cleveland end zone, and he saw that Cunningham was open. The pass was perfect. So was the catch on the three by Cunningham, who then loped alone across the goal line. But why not let Swann describe it in the words of a poet.
"After I finished my fake," he said, "I saw Terry standing as tall as a redwood. The ball was a mile in the air, and Bennie was towering over the secondary. It was the prettiest thing I ever saw."
It was just about the only perfectly executed play of the whole day, but even a Blue Collar Bowl deserves a touch of beauty.