It is a fortunate quirk of history that has the Steelers celebrating their 80th season in the NFL with games against three of their oldest rivals – the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and New York Giants. This is a look at some of the history between the Steelers and the Redskins.
There have been 59 meetings between the franchises founded by Art Rooney Sr. and George Preston Marshall – with the 60th today at Heinz Field – but for all of the history both of the teams have authored individually, the most significant on-field collaboration between them had more to do with the venue for the game than the significance of the game itself.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins each dominated different eras of the NFL, but never were they competitors for championships. The Steelers and the Redskins played a home-and-home series from the time Rooney’s team entered the league through 1966 and then once in each of the next three seasons leading up to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, but those games typically pitted two of the Eastern Division’s also-rans instead of teams vying for a spot in the NFL Championship Game.
In fact, during the 24 seasons between the end of World War II until the merger (1946-69), the Steelers had six winning seasons and the Redskins had four. Yes, the Steelers were the NFL’s dominant team of the 1970s and then played in three Super Bowls and won two from 2005-10, and the Redskins won three Super Bowls in four trips over the 10-season span of 1982-91, but never did these franchises line up in a game ending with a trophy presentation. That they hooked up for an event as significant as the final game at Three Rivers Stadium was happenstance, and even then it matched a couple of teams hovering about the .500 level, neither of which had enough to make the playoffs that year.
When Art Rooney Sr. joined the National Football League for the 1933 season, the team that George Preston Marshall owned was headquartered in Boston and had just completed its inaugural season. Marshall was awarded the inactive Boston franchise in July 1932, and he originally named the team “Braves” because it used Braves Field, home of the National League baseball team. When the team moved to Fenway Park in July 1933, the name was changed to Redskins.
Neither Rooney nor Marshall had the means to identify and sign enough good players to compete with the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers for championships on a consistent basis, and so during the 1933-35 seasons these teams played six times with Marshall besting Rooney, 4-2, but neither club managed to finish any of those three seasons with a winning record.
In an attempt to organize the player acquisition process and to create a mechanism for the bad teams to improve, the NFL went to a draft in 1936. It was also in 1936 that Marshall decided the fans in Boston were unwilling to support his team because attendance still lagged even though the Redskins won the Eastern Division with a 7-5 record. So unhappy was Marshall with the fan support in Boston that he moved the 1936 NFL Championship Game against Green Bay to the Polo Grounds in New York City. Their home field advantage taken away by their owner, the Redskins lost, 21-6.
In the 1937 version of the NFL Annual Selection Meeting, which is still the league’s official name for the draft, the Steelers were picking fifth overall and Marshall’s newly-minted Washington Redskins were picking sixth.
Always a showman, Marshall had created an official marching band and fight song, both firsts in the National Football League, shortly after the Redskins moved to Washington, D.C. Games were played in Griffith Stadium, with the opener on Sept. 16, 1937, to be played under flood lights in an effort to attract as much attention to it as possible. That year, there also was a quarterback from Texas Christian available to be drafted into the NFL, but some of the teams were wary of a guy carrying the nickname, “Slinging Sammy.”
Football at the professional level back then was predominately a game of running the ball and stopping the run. Plus, Rooney had brought Johnny “Blood” McNally in to be his player-coach, and Blood was going to be the guy to take the snaps in Pittsburgh’s single-wing offense.
Rooney also believed it helped sell tickets if the guys on the city’s professional team were familiar to fans by having played at one of the local colleges. Because Pitt, Carnegie Tech and Duquesne all competed at a high level during the 1930s, the strategy seemed to be a sound one.
That was the scenario as the 1937 draft began. Rooney’s team did what it typically did and selected Mike Basrak, a center from Duquesne. Marshall did what he typically did and went for the entertainment factor. He picked “Slinging Sammy.”
Baugh became the first to play the quarterback position the way it’s played today, while Basrak was a decent center for two seasons who then went on to serve as an officer in the United States Navy before becoming a long-time high school coach in Skokie, Illinois.
By the time Baugh’s career ended, he owned 13 NFL records in the three positions he played – quarterback punter, and defensive back – and he had quarterbacked the Redskins to five appearances in the NFL Championship Game and two wins in it. But even after Baugh had retired back to his home in West Texas, Marshall remained a showman, first and foremost, even if his team no longer was challenging for championships.
In his book, “Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” the Steelers Chairman Emeritus wrote of one of his first, and enduring, memories of George Preston Marshall:
“My father and I recognized we were in the football business, but there was an entertainment side of the game we couldn’t ignore. I remember sitting in George Preston Marshall’s office on a rainy day just before the Steelers took the field against the Redskins. Marshall’s band director came marching into the office, red-faced and upset. ‘Mr. Marshall, should we wear our new feathered headdresses? It’s raining cats and dogs out there!”’
“Without missing a beat, Marshall shot back, ‘We’re in the entertainment business! You put those feathers on and get out there!”’
“So 100 marching band members slogged across the field, soggy feathers matted to their tubas, but the show went on as the delighted fans sang Hail to the Redskins. Marshall understood the value of entertainment. The Steelers would have to learn to be competitive in this arena as well.”
In 1961, Marshall became incapacitated by a stroke, and he sold a 25 percent interest in the Redskins to Jack Kent Cooke, who became the majority owner of the franchise in 1974 and its sole owner in 1985. In 1997, Cooke completed a stadium deal near Landover, Maryland, for a new home for his Redskins, about the same time Dan Rooney was trying to secure a new stadium for the Steelers.
Locally, the initiative came to be known as Plan B, and it provided for, among other things, a new ballpark for the Pirates and a new stadium for the Steelers. This meant that 2000 would be the Steelers’ final season in Three Rivers Stadium, a building that housed the renaissance of the franchise from perennial losers into a team that became one to be feared.
By the start of the 2000 NFL season, the construction of Heinz Field was well underway, which meant Three Rivers Stadium was just a few months away from a date with a demolitions crew. A few months earlier, the NFL had announced its 2000 regular season schedule, and on Dec. 16 it brought the Washington Redskins to Pittsburgh for the final game inside a facility Joe Greene once called “the place where we kick a lot of ass on Sundays.”
It was fitting George Preston Marshall’s team was involved in a game that was more about the event itself than the competitive significance of what transpired on the carpet.
Both teams came into the game with 7-7 records, and the play of the teams reflected that mediocrity. Kordell Stewart started at quarterback for the Steelers and completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, but his performance was better than Redskins’ starter Jeff George’s, because he threw two interceptions as part of the Redskins’ five turnovers on the day.
In terms of big-play excitement for the capacity crowd, Hank Poteat’s 53-yard punt return came the closest to that, and it gave the Steelers a 10-3 lead on their way to a 24-3 victory. And then it was time for the real show, one that would have made Marshall proud.
“Afterward, the Steelers celebrated as if they had just won a championship,” read the account of the game in The New York Times. “They hugged, snapped pictures of each other, then took a victory lap during a postgame ceremony. Fifty former Steelers – the Hall of Famer Franco Harris stood a few yards away from where he made his famed Immaculate Reception in 1972 – looked on, giving the team an emotional lift in a game that had little significance other than the stadium closing.”
Said linebacker Levon Kirkland, “To be here for that part of Steelers history is great. I’m just glad I got an opportunity to play for a very special team, a very special owner. When I woke up (the day of the game), I realized that I was going to be a part of history. I wanted to make it good history.”
The season closed for the Steelers the following weekend – on Christmas Eve in San Diego – and even though they won to finish 9-7, they would not qualify for the playoffs, nor would the 8-8 Redskins. That made the 2000 season just another in a long history in this series when both teams were relegated to also-ran status.
But still, as George Preston Marshall would have said, “We’re in the entertainment business!”
“What an atmosphere,” said Coach Bill Cowher about Dec. 16, 2000. “Last night at the hotel, you could see all of the former Steelers players, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, Hank Williams Jr. coming in to sing the national anthem. When we came out of the locker room, to see all of the black-and-gold in the stands, it had a special feel about it. It’s a special day.”