By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were ‘super’ teams in 1974-75, 1978-79. They were Super Bowl Champions and they’d seen a string of success that increased the fan-base, helped make the business of professional football easier, and created a dynasty. The Pittsburgh Steelers of today are in a very similar place. They have won two Super Bowls (Super Bowl XL, Super Bowl XLIII) and gone to another (Super Bowl XLV). They have stars who have been with the team for quite some time. They have players that are injured. Art Rooney Jr., ‘The Chief’, if he were alive might have some recommendations for the 2012 Steelers team that applied long before many of today’s players were even born.
Out of the Super Bowl teams of the 1970′s, ‘The Chief’ didn’t love them as much as he loved his 1976 team. That seems preposterous, but it’s true. The ’76 Steelers lost four of its first five games. The fourth loss was to the Cleveland Browns – an away game. During that game, the Steelers lost star quarterback Terry Bradshaw after being driven into the turf by defensive end Turkey Jones. Bradshaw would miss the next six games. Rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek stepped up. They had a winning streak that coasted them to a win-loss record of 10-4. The defense didn’t allow a touchdown in twenty-three consecutive quarters. Franco Harris had injured his ribs in the Baltimore (Colts) game and wouldn’t be able to participate. Rocky Bleier was hurt, unable to play and kicker Roy Gerela was gimpy.
The 1976 Steelers went into the AFC championship game against the Oakland Raiders, a hated rival, missing the biggest part of their offense. The Steelers of that era were mainly a running team, and without Harris and Bleier, things weren’t optimistic. In fact, their condition was less than ideal. Running back Reggie Harrison had come in as Harris’ backup and told the team he would step up. Ray Mansfield came in as the kicker. Oakland easily shut down the rushing game and the Steelers were forced to pass. The result was a disastrous 24-7 loss.
Why did so many people, including ‘The Chief’ believe that the 1976 team was better than the Super Bowl winning teams? One, despite the injuries, there was a little luck involved. They couldn’t have predicted their condition, and they couldn’t have predicted how their team would end the season. They counted on guys to step up and play the best they could. And, they needed a bit of luck to pull them through. The ’76 Steelers couldn’t overcome their injury situation, and they didn’t have enough luck to go to the Super Bowl, but, they were still able to get as far as the AFC championship game and post a winning season. They showed heart and didn’t give up. Who wouldn’t love a team that was so unified?
The 2012 Steelers are sitting in a very similar position. They lost two of their first three games. They’ve lost to three statistically inferior teams. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was having a career season until he was driven into the ground and came away with an SC joint sprain and a broken rib. Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich is still dealing with rib injuries. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery are down ad Cotchery may miss the rest of the season. The running backs corps has had injury after injury and then spent the night in Cleveland fumbling any chance for a win away. Once the run was taken away from the offense, Charlie Batch, like the 1976 team, was forced to go to the pass – it didn’t work. The team is at a critical point in their hunt for a Division championship let alone the AFC championship. At 6-5 for the season, the 2012 Steelers could very well match the 1976 Steelers’ win-loss record at 10-4, except that the season is two games longer now. Prediction experts are saying the Steelers will be 10-6 at the end of the regular season.
‘The Chief’ would have put his confidence in the coaching staff to make the correct adjustments. He might tell the players to pull their chin straps on a little tighter and to go out there and give it everything they’ve got. He would expect results, but he would respect the men who put it all on the line out there on the field. Despite adversity, ‘The Chief’ always supported his teams, even those that were never going to make it to the Super Bowl.
Today’s Steelers could use a bit of that kind of attitude. After all, their condition isn’t determined by fate. It is determined by the heart of the team. A return to fundamentals, a unifying event that gets every single player involved and fully engaged in success despite obstacles, coaching staff that pushes everyone to communicate and play their position – that is how the Steelers can physically and mentally improve and finish their season. A little luck might not hurt.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.