Was it really only five weeks ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers were vying for no worse than the second seed come AFC playoff time? Steelers Nation couldn’t have been happier. The season-opening ‘sister kiss’ tie with Cleveland, the ‘Daddy-like’ butt-whipping by the Kansas City Chiefs and the gut-wrenching loss to Baltimore were just afterthoughts as the Steelers rebounded with a sixth consecutive win.
The sweet aroma of winning waned over Thanksgiving weekend. It turned out Pittsburgh was the ‘turkey’ the Denver Broncos ordered and served a few days late. It was far worse the following week at Heinz Field — being staked a 23–7 first half lead over the Los Angeles Chargers only to fold quicker than a lawn chair occupying a parking spot in front of the uncle’s house in Carrick. The Steelers and their fans didn’t need to think about a situation getting any worse…because it DID! Boy, did it! The ‘Ghost of Chuckie,’ aka Oakland head coach Jon Gruden, waited patiently until the Steelers once again imploded.
During the slide the resurgent Ravens started circling the overhead of the AFC North leaders. The upset win by the Steelers over New England halted the losing, but with Baltimore’s winning streak the cards have been dealt for the divisional stakes. All the Ravens need is a win over Cleveland and the Steelers will have their season crashing to an end.
This year’s collapse conjures memories for those old enough to remember 1983. Unlike the 2018 Steelers, the Steelers of ’83 were a team in transition. There were several Super Bowl champion holdovers from the 1970s — including Mike Webster, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert and Larry Brown— but Father Time and the ‘injury bug’ were at the gates of Three Rivers Stadium. Bradshaw had surgery to repair the elbow of his throwing arm. Stallworth had chronic hamstring problems, followed by a bum ankle throughout the season. Brown, the Pro Bowl right tackle, was bothered continually with leg problems. During a span of the first 11 games, Webster and tackle Ted Peterson were the only constants on the offensive line.
Then, there was the USFL, an upstart spring professional football league which had a lot of influential owners (including a young New Yorker by the name of Trump). Wide receiver Jim Smith, seen as the long-term replacement to the retired Lynn Swann, signed with the Birmingham Stallions. Starting offensive tackle Ray Pinney signed with the Michigan Panthers.
After starting out with a 2–2 record, head coach Chuck Noll had his ragtag mixture of ’70s Super Bowl holdovers and younger players form a squad which ripped off seven consecutive wins. The national media was taking notice. An article appearing in a late November issue of Sports Illustrated alluded to the fact the four-time Super Bowl winning coach had never won a Coach of the Year award. Writer Paul Zimmerman noted such an award was usually reserved for the ‘rags to riches’ coaching performances. 1983, though, was different due Noll’s response to the injuries, USFL losses, etc. While Sports Illustrated may have felt that way Noll certainly didn’t. Asked about his coaching performance, Noll was quoted in the article, “I think there are still five games to play.” How prophetic!
Due to Bradshaw’s recovery setbacks the Steelers offense would be led by quarterback Cliff Stoudt, a six-year back-up. Stoudt would have spurts of success as well as glimpses of gloom. Perennial Pro Bowler Harris, who managed to finish with 1,007 rushing yards for he season, was sharing the backfield with youngsters Walter Abercrombie (446 total yards)and Frank Pollard (608 total yards). Stoudt was also a strong contributor to the run game as he ran for a total of 479 yards.
The departure off Smith and the oft-injured Stallworth meant the receiving corps consisted of Calvin Sweeney, rookie Greg Garrity and tight end Bennie Cunningham. Cunningham led all receivers with 39 catches.
Pittsburgh has always prided itself on the defensive side of the ball and 1983 was no different. Rated the top defense for several weeks, the Steelers managed to finish a respective 7th overall for the season. The defense also put points on the board, recording seven touchdowns. Of a tragic note, the team’s №1 draft pick, defensive tackle Gabe Rivera, suffered a paralyzing injury from an automobile injury.
The prophetic fall started with a 17–14 loss at Three Rivers Stadium to the Minnesota Vikings. It wouldn’t get any better, as the Steelers traveled to Detroit for the Thanksgiving Day game. In what was dubbed by many as the ‘Thanksgiving Day Massacre,’ the Lions mauled the Steelers, 45–3. Home wasn’t advantageous the next week, losing to Cincinnati, 23–10.
Times grew desperate for the Steelers. In a three-game span Stoudt had completed only 40 percent of his passes which led to defenses stacking the box to defend the run game. Throughout the season Bradshaw had been working toward getting back onto the field. It would come in the next game against the Jets at New York’s Shea Stadium.
Disdaining the game plan of running the ball against the Jets, the four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback decided to do what he did best — throw the ball. The return was successful at first with Bradshaw leading the Steelers on two touchdown drives and throwing for both TDs. Those would end up being the last two touchdown passes Bradshaw ever threw. His elbow was injured again and he left the game. Behind Bradshaw’s early heroics, the Steelers defense was able to contribute heavily to the 34–7 win over the Jets.
Noll would start Stoudt once again at quarterback for the last game of the season against Cleveland. Third-year backup Mark Malone replaced Stoudt in the second half. Despite losing to the Browns, 30–17, the Steelers topped Cleveland by one win for the AFC Central Division title and a trip to Los Angeles to face the Raiders in a first round playoff game. The Steelers lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, 38–10.
Of the two meltdowns, the most shocking may belong to the 2018 Steelers. The 1983 Steelers collapse was a case of a strong defense overcompensating for a below average offense which played above its natural abilities for a portion of the season. Some could say it’s a role reversal for the current Steelers as the high powered offense makes up for defensive deficiencies. It’s difficult to compare teams of decades past with those of present day but the personnel of the 2018 Steelers should not be facing such a ‘crash.’ There is still a chance at redemption. All it takes is a Steelers win and a Ravens loss.