The ball hung in the late afternoon sunshine over Three Rivers Stadium, fluttering and quacking. Two Beaver County duck hunters fired at it and missed. When it finally came down, the Steelers' John Stallworth had maneuvered himself into position to jump for it, and momentarily the man on the P.A. system was saying, "Bradshaw to Stallworth, 50 yards for a touchdown."
These are the Pittsburgh Steelers, vintage 1980, a team that can escape from the strangest situations with one big play. That's two straight games now in which Bradshaw-to-Stallworth has bailed out the Steelers when things looked nasty. Remember those two big touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV? They came at the end of picture plays, the kind you draw on the blackboard. But this last one against Houston?
Well, with the extra point, it closed out the scoring—Pittsburgh 31, Houston 17—in the first Super Bowl ever played in September, a game for which the Oilers had been preparing ever since the NFL schedule told them that they would begin the 1980 season against the same rival that had beaten them for the 1979 AFC Championship. The Oilers had even imported Ken Stabler and Jack Tatum from the Oakland Raiders, a team that has beaten the Steelers the last three times it faced them. Brain and muscle to tame the giant from the north.
The season opener Sunday was either of Super Bowl magnitude or just another date on the 16-game schedule, depending on the age and emotional makeup of the Oiler you talked to. Now, midway in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were ahead by a touchdown, 24-17, after blowing a 17-0 first-quarter lead. They had a third-and-15 at the 50. One more play and they would punt, and the Snake would work his magic, and maybe, just maybe.... But here was Terry Bradshaw scampering to his left, throwing that fluttering pass, and Stallworth timing his leap. So how do you figure a play like that?
September 14, 1980
It could have been a sack. Mike Stensrud, the Oilers' 280-pound defensive end, was tugging on Bradshaw's shirt, but Bradshaw tugged harder and broke away for the scramble around his left side that ended when he flung the ball as hard as he could toward that disappearing target near the end zone. A quick referee's whistle and, who knows, they might still be playing.
"Oh no, not this time they couldn't," Bradshaw said. "No way they could whistle it dead. We weren't stalemated. I was moving and fighting him off. Actually, though, I was scared to death that they might blow the whistle. That quick-sack rule, that's a lousy, stinking rule. Quarterbacks can't be athletes anymore. Now you've got to be a sissy."
According to Houston Coach Bum Phillips, it could have been a penalty. "Andy Dorris, our left end, broke in and [Steeler Tackle] Larry Brown just grabbed him by the shirt," Phillips said. "They should have thrown the flag. But I'll give that Bradshaw credit for breaking out of the tackler's grasp. Dan Pastorini couldn't have done it. Ken Stabler couldn't have done it. Terry's a big, strong boy."
According to Stallworth, the play could have been almost anything. He said it started as 60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go, the same play that crushed the Rams in the Super Bowl. Only this time Stallworth was supposed to break it outside to the flag. "When I saw Terry was in trouble I moved inside," he said. "Then I broke it outside again. Then I drifted about 20 yards farther downfield and circled around the cornerback [Greg Stemrick] and waved my hand at Terry. Then I saw the ball wobbling toward me and I knew I was going to have to jump. I tipped it myself, then I caught it."
According to Houston Free Safety Mike Reinfeldt, who led the NFL in interceptions last year, the pass could have been an interception, or an incompletion—anything except the touchdown. "Stemrick didn't even try to make the interception," Reinfeldt said. "He made the right play, trying to deflect the ball. They would have been forced to punt. You don't want to take over on your own two-yard line. But when the ball was tipped, it came down right in Stallworth's hands. I was on one side of him, Gregg Bingham was on the other. If it goes off to either side.... Well, all I can say is that the Steelers had some luck going for them today."
Always in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers need the luck, or the big play, or the jump ball, or whatever you want to call it, that's when they get it. They were outscored only once in the fourth quarter in the 19 games they played last year. But they shouldn't have needed the fourth quarter against the Oilers.
They controlled Earl Campbell—13 carries, 57 yards—just as they had both times in Three Rivers last season. Of course, Houston made things easier by lining up in a formation that was geared to Stabler's short passing rather than Campbell's running—two tight ends, two wide receivers, no Tim Wilson, the 220-pound fullback who's so effective as Campbell's blocking back. In all, the Oilers threw the ball 44 times and ran it only 15.
Houston noodled around with the run for a while early but got nowhere. Then Stabler went to the air 11 straight times, and the Steelers had the Snake on the ropes. In the first period they picked off three Stabler passes, and in the second quarter they grabbed the fourth of their five for the day. They opened up the 17-0 lead and they made it look easy—so easy that their own failings were hidden.
Going for their third touchdown, Bradshaw underthrew Sidney Thornton near the goal line, and the Steelers settled for a chippie field goal instead. Twice Bradshaw was intercepted in Oiler territory when he threw to a receiver who was covered. Another drive died in Houston's end of the field when the Pittsburgh running game was stuffed. The Steelers' defense was playing great, diving for interceptions on tipped balls, but there were ominous signs, too. Stabler was getting time to pass. When the Steelers would load up and throw a blitz at him, he'd slide the ball to an inside receiver and beat it. Even so, the score could have been 30-0 at the half, but, hey, 17-0 is good, too. Why worry?
Give Stabler credit. He could have taken the pipe after that horrendous first half, but didn't. The Oilers came back and tied the score at 17-17 in the third quarter, and even after the Steelers ran it up to 31-17, Houston was threatening, until Donnie Shell popped up from a blind area, picked off a Stabler pass on the Steeler 15 and ran it back 67 yards.
As for Tatum, who didn't start but played occasionally as a nickel back on passing downs, he cut off a Steeler threat in the second quarter with an interception and later took a ferocious shot from 260-pound Tackle Steve Courson near the sideline; Tatum flung the ball at Courson, who showed a very slow set of reactions as it struck his face mask. The rest of the time Tatum was almost invisible.
The game didn't fit the old Steeler-Oiler stereotype, a vicious battle in the trenches. Pittsburgh won it with an Alley-Oop and then a long interception. The Steelers didn't run the ball very well. Their defensive front four played the gaps, to cut off the threat of Campbell, and this didn't provide much of a pass rush. They relied on the tremendous speed and reactions of their linebackers and secondary, and Stabler helped out by trying to force the ball through tiny openings in the middle. A quarterback with a howitzer for an arm might make it work, but Stabler's soft passes—hanging in the air, waiting for someone to grab them—were too often tipped or dropped. The Oiler receivers had seven drops.
"Pastorini threw the ball so damn hard that no one could catch the ricochets," said Steeler Coach Chuck Noll. "These deflections hung there nicely."
It was a game of trickery, too: a 57-yard touchdown on an option pass by Campbell, his first in the NFL, and a 29-yard Bradshaw-to-Thornton touchdown pass in the first quarter on third-and-one. "If you punch the computers on us," Noll said, "you'll find an extra high percentage of runs when we bring in our short-yardage people. Today we screwed up the computers."
"We haven't shown any passing on short yardage in the 10 years I've been here," Bradshaw said. "This one, though—yum, yum."
The Steelers weren't smooth on offense and they weren't overpowering, but they got extraordinary catches from Stallworth, a couple of tough receptions by Lynn Swann and one terrific grab in traffic by their third wide receiver, Jim Smith, to set up the touchdown that gave them the 24-17 lead.
It hadn't been a happy preseason for Bradshaw. His wife, skater Jo Jo Star-buck, filed divorce papers a month ago, but on Friday Bradshaw was hoping that he could still figure out a way to patch up his marriage. He had lost 23 pounds during training camp, thanks to a lingering virus. His upper body looked thin; his short-sleeved practice jersey flapped around his arms. A few of the Steelers said they were worried about him. Bradshaw was on a downer before the last Super Bowl, too, but when it came to the fourth quarter, he and Stallworth still put together the big plays.
In contrast, Stabler's preseason had been very happy. He looked younger than he had in his last couple of years in Oakland; his face less lined, his body more firm. There were whispers that he'd actually done some working out in the off-season. And the receivers were looking forward to his nice, soft passes.
Oh, there was an occasional slip. He stiffed a charity golf tournament in Port Arthur, clean forgot about it, and didn't that annoy the guy who had paid $12,000 for the privilege of being his partner? "I understand it and I forgive him," said Phillips, who lent his name to the tournament, "but I'll never invite him again." And Stabler missed the last practice before the Oilers broke camp. "I didn't even know what to fine him," Phillips said. "I had to look it up in the book. Nobody had ever done it before."
But going into the game at Pittsburgh, Stabler had a winning streak of three against the Steelers, and John Madden, the Snake's old Raider coach, said that if there was one man who knew how to beat the Steelers, it was Kenny.
"The number one thing about him is that he's not afraid to throw the ball on any down," Madden said. "That's what it takes to beat Pittsburgh. If you get into a pattern offense against them, you're dead. They can defense the pattern game better than any team that's ever played. To beat them, you've got to pass when you're supposed to run, and vice versa. Of course, it's easy to say but hard to do. Not many quarterbacks have the confidence to do that, but Kenny does."
And on Sunday, Phillips provided Stabler with a one-back alignment that would be best suited to his short-passing game. "It made sense," Noll said. "You can't expect a back like Campbell, even that great a back, to carry the load over a 16-game season."
After the game, Phillips was second-guessed for gearing his attack to Stabler's arm rather than Campbell's legs, but Campbell's history at Three Rivers was on Phillips' side; Campbell rushed 17 times for 15 yards against the Steelers in that AFC title game, and 16 times for 38 yards against them last September.
"I don't think the idea was wrong," Phillips said. "What was wrong was that we were dropping the damn ball. There's nothing I can tell them. They're grown men and they can catch. What good does it do to tell a 25-year-old man 'You're not looking the ball in.' "
That was only part of the trouble. The other was Stabler's persistence in trying to force the ball to receivers. "I think he was surprised at how quickly we reacted to the ball," said Pittsburgh Safety Mike Wagner, who had one of the interceptions. "I think he misread a few coverages, too. The one Shell intercepted at the end was like that."
"Maybe two or three interceptions were on tips," Stabler said, "and the others were on bad throws, as simple as that."
"How about the drops?"
"You know, you play a game, you win together, you lose together," he said. "It doesn't matter if they're drops or tips or whatever. We're all in it together."
Only four of the 43 passes Stabler threw (he completed 24 for 196 yards) were longer than 15 yards. One was a completion, three were misses, including a long one, a perfect throw, that was dropped. Bradshaw had the luxury of being able to go long when the mood seized him, knowing that Swann and Stallworth were waiting on the other end.
"Everyone thinks that Stallworth out-jumping the guy was such a fluke," Bradshaw said, "but I learned three things about football a long time ago. No. 1: if defensive backs were great receivers, then they'd be playing on offense. No. 2: when your receiver sticks his hand up, he wants you to throw the ball to him. No. 3: never worry about it, just throw it. Nobody's going to outjump John Stallworth."
The world learned about this a long time ago, too. It happened in San Francisco and was called Alley-Oop—Y.A. Tittle throwing, R.C. Owens catching. Someone asked Stallworth if he'd ever heard of that combination.
"I never heard of Archie Owens," he said, "but I vaguely remember Y.A. Tittle. He was that bald-headed guy, right?"
Right. And last Sunday he must have been smiling.