& HERE IS MY ALLTIME FAvorite football statistic. For the 1972-79
seasons, when the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs every year
and won four Super Bowls, do you know what their record was against
teams that finished the regular season below .500? It was 50-1.
Let it sink in for a moment. Eight years of steadily beating up on
the bad teams. Consistency, unmatched consistency. There's never been
a team like those Steelers. Oh, sure, they had some rough moments in
that time span. They were still finding themselves in '72 and '73. In
1976 and '77 -- the years between their first two and last two Super
Bowl triumphs -- they had dissension and more than their share of
injuries. But when they took the field against teams they were
supposed to beat, they beat 'em.
That statistic was foremost in my mind as I got set to cover my
first Super Bowl for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The Steelers were 11-point
favorites over the Los Angeles Rams, the largest spread for any
Pittsburgh team in a Super Bowl. No one could figure out the Rams.
Their owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, had died in April, leaving his
widow, Georgia, in control. In August she had fired her stepson,
Steve, as executive vice-president.
The quarterback, Pat Haden, broke a finger in the 10th game of the
season and was lost for the rest of the year. His backup, Vince
Ferragamo, had broken his hand earlier. Third-string quarterback Jeff
Rutledge started game 11 (with recently acquired Bob Lee standing by
should Rutledge go down). Ferragamo returned the next game and led
the Rams to four straight wins. The Rams lost the final game of the
year but won the NFC West -- a division known in those days as L.A.
and the Three Stooges -- with a 9-7 record, which stands as the
worst regular-season record ever of any team to make it all the way
to the Super Bowl. Ferragamo had finished the season with a passing
rating of 48.8, putting him 50th among NFL quarterbacks. And this was
what the NFC was going to send into the Super Bowl against a
three-time champ, one of the mightiest teams in history?
Early in the week it became apparent to longtime Steeler watchers
that something was wrong. The team squawked about everything. They
were annoyed that the Rams had the luxury of practicing in friendly
environs (the game was in Pasadena that year), while they had to work
out on a soggy field, which sapped the strength from their legs. I
began to wonder.
Terry Bradshaw wasn't right, either. Ray Mansfield, the Old
Ranger, who had played center on the first two Steeler Super Bowl
teams, dropped by his old team's press headquarters and, together, we
watched Bradshaw go through an interview for a local television
station. It was downbeat. Not just the usual pre-Super Bowl modesty
number, but truly downbeat.
''I'm worried about Terry,'' Mansfield said. ''He doesn't look
right. None of these guys do. I don't know what's wrong.''
I tried to figure it out. Maybe the season had been too long for
them. They hadn't clinched the AFC Central title until the last game.
They could have very easily lost the AFC Championship Game to
Houston. In the fourth quarter Houston was driving for the touchdown
that could have tied it, but Guido Merkens fumbled, and the Steelers
scored again to put the game away. I'm reading something I wrote down
in my notebook after the game. I can't remember who told me . . .
maybe Bum Phillips:
Never buy diamonds in the street.
Never play poker with a guy named Doc.
Never eat at a place called Mom's.
Never carry a package by the string.
Never play Pittsburgh at Three Rivers in January.
Super Sunday broke sunny and clear. I was always happy to cover a
game in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, for the simple reason that I could
wait until the last minute before heading downstairs to the interview
area. I had covered the Rose Bowl; I knew the escape routes from the
press box. Usually you're trapped up there, like a pea in a pod, and
then the press box announcer says, ''We will escort the press
downstairs to the locker rooms with 10 minutes remaining.'' Ten
minutes, for cripes sake! A lifetime of football can be played in 10
minutes. The announcement almost made you hope for a blowout.
Once this type of press drive had almost proved disastrous, in
Super Bowl X, the first Cowboy-Steeler one. There we were, stuck in
an interview area with no TV monitors, while the game was going on
outside. It was only because I sneaked back out to the sidelines,
despite the security guards -- ''No, no, you can't go out there!'' --
that I saw Roger Staubach's desperation passing.
I had a feeling I would need to watch those last 10 minutes of the
Ram- Steeler game, because it was going to be close.
The game, to me, was the best-played Super Bowl ever -- the way
all of them should be, but aren't. The lead changed hands seven
times. The Steelers seemed to be in a trance in the first half.
L.A. led 13-10, but then Pittsburgh scored quickly, with Lynn Swann
making one of those trademark acrobatic, leaping catches. We settled
down in the press box. O.K., now the Steelers would be certain to put
We had underestimated the toughness of that Ram team. Jack
Youngblood, their All-Pro defensive end, was playing on a fractured
fibula. He'd done it throughout the playoffs. Ferragamo was hanging
in against the teeth of a ferocious Steeler blitz, virtually unaided
by a terrible pickup scheme that had 188-pound halfback Wendell Tyler
often trying to block linebacker Robin Cole.
L.A. came back and scored in four plays and was on top, 19-17.
Then the Rams intercepted Bradshaw on two straight possessions. Early
in the fourth quarter the Steelers had a third-and-eight on their own
27. Chuck Noll sent in the Stallworth Special, the deep post pattern
to split end John Stallworth, which Bradshaw had refused to call
earlier in the game. Eddie Brown, the Ram nickel back, blew the
coverage, and Stallworth had a 73-yard TD. Steelers, 24-19.
That play has been described as the turning point in the game. It
wasn't. It just gave Pittsburgh the lead. The Rams came back and
drove to the Pittsburgh 32. L.A. was going to win. That's when the
game turned. That's when Steeler middle linebacker Jack Lambert,
dropping into a deep zone, intercepted a pass intended for Ron Smith
on the Steeler 14 and ran it back to the 30. Pittsburgh drove for an
insurance TD and won 31-19.
In the Steeler locker room Joe Greene talked about getting a fifth
Super Bowl ring the next season. ''One for the thumb in '81,'' he
said; not much of a rhyme, but a catchy idea. It was not to be. The
dynasty was through. The Steelers failed to make the playoffs the
next year, and I was at the game that knocked them out of it, a 6-0
loss to the Oilers in the Astrodome.
I was standing at the narrow stairway leading to the dressing room
after the game, watching the Steeler players file in, heads held high
while some of those Luv Ya Blue yahoos leaned over the railing and
heaped abuse on them. Not one player let those tormentors know how
much it hurt. They looked like kings abdicating the throne. The only
sign of emotion was from linebacker Dennis Winston, who slowly peeled
the tape off his wrist and tossed the wadded ball over his shoulder.
I felt very sad that day.