1977 ruined before it began



Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**

Now, THIS was an offseason chock full of distractions.

There were holdouts, walkouts, lawsuits and counter-suits. Players demanded trades. Players and coaches faced off in court. Players were disciplined publicly and fined heavily by Commissioner Pete Rozelle. A rookie died in a car accident during training camp. Things started poorly and ended badly, and when it was time for the epilogue the 1977 Pittsburgh Steelers were written off as a bunch of washed-up malcontents who made the trip from greatness to mediocrity in a few short months.

Here's a partial timeline of their tribulations:

Feb. 21, 1977: Ernie Holmes' trial for possession of 250 milligrams of cocaine ended in acquittal 75 minutes after it went to the jury in Amarillo, Texas.

April 1977: Chuck Noll was summoned to Oakland for depositions in the defamation suit filed by George Atkinson over the famous "criminal element" remarks Noll made the day after the 1976 NFL season opener.

July 11, 1977: During cross-examination on the witness stand, Chuck Noll was forced to include Joe Greene, Mel Blount and Glen Edwards as players who also were part of the "criminal element" because of their own dirty play.

July 16, 1977: Mel Blount reacted to this by threatening to quit the Steelers, and he also said he planned to sue Noll for $5 million.

July 21, 1977: Jack Lambert decided not to report to training camp, because he was unhappy with the salary he was to be paid in the option year of the contract he originally signed in 1974 as a rookie from Kent State.

July 22, 1977: Chuck Noll was cleared of the charges filed by George Atkinson, but the day was ruined by Glen Edwards' announcement that he also was unhappy with his contract.

July 28, 1977: Jack Lambert's agent upped the ante a little bit, and this was the headline on the lead sports story in the Pittsburgh Press: "Agent tells Rooney: Jack wants traded."

The Steelers' 1977 preseason progressed the way one would expect of a team in this much turmoil. There were some outings when the Steelers got by on their talent alone, but other times the lack of focus, the distractions, the carnival atmosphere that seemed to have engulfed the entire organization was too much to overcome. Six preseason games were common in the 1970s, and the Steelers were a respectable 3-3, but one of those losses was to a Kansas City team that would go on to finish 2-12, and the other was a 30-0 blowout at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys.

Late in August, Noll named the team's captains for the upcoming season, and even this seemingly innocuous event became controversial. When word got to Lambert that he had been bypassed as a defensive captain, he voiced his disappointment publicly. Noll fired back in the media that Lambert didn't deserve to be a captain because he held out all through training camp.

The 1977 regular season was at hand, and the chaos simply did not abate. After much détente from both camps, Mel Blount dropped his lawsuit against Noll and rejoined the team after missing 56 days, and Lambert finally reported on Sept. 1. But neither of those arrivals had much of an immediate effect on the on-field performance, as evidenced by that 30-0 debacle in Dallas in the preseason finale, the worst loss for a Noll-coached team since 1969 when the Steelers finished 1-13.

Through most of the offseason, it had been Team President Dan Rooney at the center of most every controversy, because he was the team's voice in contract negotiations. But three days before the start of the regular season, it was the Steelers' founder who decided to speak. His words served as a warning to all parties.

"This isn't like baseball," said Art Rooney Sr. "Baseball is an individual game. You can have eight players who dislike each other and the management, and they can still go up to the plate and hit. But this is a team game. Everybody has to work together."

The regular season opened with a 27-0 Monday night win over San Francisco, but everyone understood the Steelers would find out much more about themselves in six days when they were to host the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders. That was the first meeting since the "criminal element" trial, the first meeting since the 1976 AFC Championship Game in which the Steelers had to face the Raiders without their starting backfield of Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris.

Call it revenge, or maybe it was redemption that was on the minds of Steelers fans as they packed Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 25, but they would not get what they wanted so desperately. The Raiders were dominant in a 16-7 win in which they forced five turnovers and physically controlled the game throughout. When it was over, there was no longer any doubt about the direction the AFC was going, and the Steelers woke up the following morning to this headline: "The End of a Dynasty."

And still there were more distractions, too. Backup cornerback Jimmy Allen quit the team in October, but changed his mind the next day and came back. A couple of days before the game in Denver, Edwards left the team because he was unhappy with the new contract he had just signed, but then he returned after the Steelers lost the game to drop to 4-4. Noll slipped on a patch of ice in Cincinnati and broke his arm on the night before a game against the Bengals that the Steelers lost to go into the regular season's final weekend with an 8-5 record.

Even though the Steelers regrouped somewhat with a 10-9 victory in San Diego to win the AFC Central Division with a 9-5 record, the team also lived down to the prediction that it had slipped back into the pack. The AFC's best records in 1977 belonged to Denver (12-2), Oakland (11-3), Baltimore (10-4) and Miami (10-4). The Steelers played the Broncos, Raiders and Colts and lost all three games by a combined 68-35.

The Steelers' playoff assignment was a return trip to Denver, and it turned out to be a reflection of their season. The Steelers led the NFL in turnovers in 1977, and mistakes proved to be their undoing in this AFC Divisional Playoff Game as well.

Three times the Broncos took the lead and three times the Steelers came back, before they finally cracked in the final 10 minutes of the game. The Steelers had out-gained the Broncos, 183-44, at halftime and yet the score was just 14-14, largely because of a blocked punt and a lost fumble by Franco Harris. In the third quarter, a fair catch of a punt by Jim Smith at the 4-yard line put the Steelers in the hole, and the Broncos then were rewarded with a short field and put together a 41-yard touchdown drive to take a 21-14 lead. Despite their erratic performances over the course of the season, the Steelers still were a team of championship players, and Terry Bradshaw answered with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Larry Brown that tied the score again, 21-21.

But then came two interceptions by Bradshaw in the fourth quarter – both by linebacker Tom Jackson – and the flurry of Broncos points that resulted eliminated the Steelers, 34-21.

Steve Furness seemed to sum up the whole season after the game when he said, "You have to look back to camp. We started off on the wrong foot. You can't look back and say those are the reasons, but they're sure contributing factors."


















Lytle 7 run (Turner kick)



Bradshaw 1 run (Gerela kick)



Armstrong 10 run (Turner kick)



Harris 1 run (Gerela kick)



Odoms 30 pass from Morton (Turner kick)



Brown 4 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)



Turner 44 FG



Turner 35 FG



Dolbin 34 pass from Morton (Turner kick)




First Downs



Third Downs



Total Net Yds






Rushing Yds






Passing Yds















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