Magical season ends in one-point loss
By BOB LABRIOLA
Anyone looking for an example of why football is the ultimate team sport should consider the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers.
They didn't have a running back on the team with even a 4.0-yard average. Both of the quarterbacks who had started games finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes. Their leading receiver caught only 50; their top interceptor managed four. They were out-rushed, out-passed and out-scored.
And they were in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Denver Broncos.
The 1989 Steelers had overcome so much to get to this point. There was the 0-2, 92-10, start against the Browns and the Bengals. They had been shut out three times, and they didn't get over .500 until the regular season's penultimate weekend. They had needed the NFL version of a Pick-6 lottery just to get into the playoffs, and then they had to go to Houston to face a 9-7 Oilers team that had gotten two of those wins against the Steelers.
But these Steelers found a way to overcome all of that, and if there was an epiphany, it may have come in mid-October. At 2-3 the Steelers were looking at a trip to Cleveland for a game they knew they would be playing without their starting quarterback, and there waiting for them would be a Browns team that shellacked them, 51-0, in the opener. When the Steelers reported to Three Rivers Stadium to begin preparing for the Browns, this is what they found on the bulletin board in their locker room:
When geese fly in formation, they travel 70 percent faster than when they fly alone.*
Geese share leadership. When the lead goose tires, he goes back into the "V" and another flies forward to become the leader.*
Geese keep company with the fallen. When a sick or weak goose drops out of flight formation, at least one other goose joins to help and protect.*
By being part of a team, we too can accomplish much more, much faster. Words of encouragement and support (honking from behind) help energize and inspire those on the front lines, helping them to keep pace in spite of the day-to-day pressures and fatigue.*
The next time you see a formation of geese, remember that it is a reward, a challenge and a privilege to be a contributing member of a team.*
The Steelers beat the Browns that day, and then they closed the regular season with five wins in their final six games to squeeze into the playoffs as the last Wild Card team in the AFC.
And so, the Steelers team arriving in Denver for the Divisional round of the playoffs was a much different version than the one that had opened with a 51-0 loss to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, a much different one that had lost to the Broncos, 34-7, on Nov. 5 on this same piece of Mile High Stadium.
By the end of the regular season, the Steelers had become confident in their running attack. In a four-game stretch over the final five weeks of the regular season, Tim Worley had rushed for 95, 103, 64 and 104 yards and did it by averaging 5.3 a carry. In the Wild Card win over the Oilers the previous weekend, Merril Hoge gained 100 yards on 17 carries. Their defense was solid against the run, as usual, but it was thin and didn't really have enough of the dynamic pass-rushers and coverage people to deal with the high-powered offenses of the league's elite teams.
Nothing came easy for the 1989 Steelers, and everything they accomplished was because they had learned to work together as a team.
This day in Denver, with a berth in the AFC Championship Game at stake, would be no different for them.
Gary Anderson's 32-yard field goal gave them a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, and by halftime the Steelers had built it to 17-10. Teams weren't supposed to be able to run the ball against the Broncos, but the Steelers were carving out big gashes in the defense for Worley, and especially Hoge, to run through.
Hoge had a 100-yard game by the two-minute warning of the first half on his way to finishing with 120 on 16 carries with another 60 coming on eight swing/screen passes, and Worley finished with 14 touches for 83 yards from scrimmage. The Steelers would average 5.5 yards per carry on the day.
"The myth of the Denver defense is that it can stop the run," said Coach Chuck Noll, who had once referred to the Broncos as a will-of-the-wisp team. "That's the thing. They said it couldn't be done. The only trouble is that winning the stats doesn't win the game."
And as they had against the Oilers in the previous round of the playoffs, the Steelers began to tire as the second half wore on, but they refused to quit.
John Elway engineered a touchdown drive to open the second half, and that tied the game, 17-17, but the Steelers kept finding answers of their own behind their running attack and the efficiency of quarterback Bubby Brister, who completed 65.5 percent of his passes to help the offense convert 60 percent on third downs.
Twice the Steelers put together 10-play drives, but twice they had to settle for field goals by Anderson, from 35 and 32 yards, to take a 23-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But then, Elway pulled off one of those drives for which he was famous, and nine plays and 71 yards later, the Broncos led, 24-23.
Still, the Steelers wouldn't go away quietly. Starting at their own 20-yard line, Brister moved the Steelers out of the hole. Then came a critical moment: Brister found rookie receiver Mark Stock all alone on a post pattern over the middle, and he put the ball right on the numbers. If Stock caught the ball, he easily could've gotten close to the Broncos 40-yard line and then out of bounds before the two-minute warning. The Steelers then would have had that timeout and two of their own to use the running attack the Broncos couldn't stop to get Anderson into position for another playoff-game-winner.
But Stock dropped the ball. Two plays later, Brister couldn't handle Chuck Lanza's low snap from the shotgun formation, and the Broncos recovered to seal the win and earn a trip to Cleveland for the AFC Championship Game.
"One play didn't beat us," said Brister. "The (bad) snap didn't beat us. The dropped pass didn't beat us. When you play a team like this, you have the opportunity to do some things and you better get it done. I thought we played pretty well, but we didn't play well enough to win. You have to take your hat off to Denver. They came back and made a pretty good drive when they needed it."
What had turned into a magical season had ended suddenly and in a disappointing fashion for the Steelers, and even though the NFL is no place for moral victories, Noll couldn't help but take a moment to recognize what this team had accomplished.
"There's not a helluva lot to say, except that I'm proud of our football team," said Noll in the game's immediate aftermath. "This group has all the heart and all the good stuff to be a champ. I'm just proud as hell of them."
Anderson 32 FG
Hoge 7 run (Anderson kick)
Bratton 1 run (Treadwell kick)
Lipps 9 pass from Brister (Anderson kick)
Treadwell 43 FG
Johnson 37 pass from Elway (Treadwell kick)
Anderson 35 FG
Anderson 32 FG
Bratton 1 run (Treadwell kick)
Total Net Yds