Brister's prediction comes true
By BOB LABRIOLA
It began in the glorified boiler room that passed for an NFL weight room the Steelers used during their days at Three Rivers Stadium. It was the start of the offseason program leading up to the 1989 season, and if there was one thing about their young quarterback, Bubby Brister, he knew how to make an entrance.
The previous summer, Brister had arrived at St. Vincent College for what was going to be a camp-long battle for the starting quarterback job with Todd Blackledge and proclaimed to the media, "I'm the man, write it down."
This time, Brister walked up to the old-school green slate board, picked up a piece of chalk and scrawled, "PLAYOFFS!"
As predictions go, it was beyond brash, because the previous season, 1988, had been the worst of the Chuck Noll era since that 1-13 beginning in 1969. The Steelers were 2-10 at Thanksgiving, but then they rallied to win three of their final four games to finish 5-11.
That 5-11 season had been preceded by three in which they were a combined 21-26, and so even if there were other players in the weight room that day who believed the Steelers could contend for the playoffs in 1989, only Brister was brash enough to go public with it.
The 1989 Steelers had a lot of things to figure out before they would be ready for a playoff chase.
On offense, they needed to find a center to replace Mike Webster, who retired after the 1988 season to become, albeit briefly, an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs; they needed to integrate rookie Tim Worley – the seventh overall pick of the 1989 draft – into a backfield that also contained third-year pro Merril Hoge and Brister, about to enter his second season as the starting quarterback; and they needed to find another offensive tackle to pair with Tunch Ilkin.
On defense, their line was thin, their secondary was young and their linebackers needed Greg Lloyd to come back from a 1988 ruined by knee surgery.
Oh, and then there was the coaching staff that had a new defensive coordinator in Rod Rust, a new secondary coach in John Fox and a new special teams coach in George Stewart.
"The big thing is, do you cower in a corner?" said Noll. "Do you put your tail between your legs and run away? Or do you face up to it and be a man about it? Last year we had guys who wouldn't face a challenge … and they aren't here anymore. The one thing about this football team I'm happy about is it has shown some tough-mindedness, and that's an important element. If it carries through, which it should, we should be able to get things done."
They would get some things done, but it was a struggle. Said veteran linebacker Bryan Hinkle about the defense, ""It has been basically the same for eight years for me. Now, nothing's the same. We don't call formations, routes, anything the same. I can't think of a word that's the same. The concept is different, drastically different. We used to play zone and drop back, watch the quarterback's eyes and breaking where you think he's going to play the ball. Now, we're matching receivers, even though we have zone coverage."
The Steelers went through a preseason that included a lot of growing pains and the holdout of wide receiver Louis Lipps, but on the eve of the regular season opener, Noll was optimistic. "We've learned some things. We've made some progress at times, and other times we've faltered. We've got a lot more to learn, but we're going to be all right eventually. We've got a lot of young people who want it, and that's a big part of it."
The key word there evidently was "eventually," because the season's first two weeks were brutal for this young team and its veteran coach.
In the opener against the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers committed eight turnovers, allowed six sacks and generally did nothing right in what still is the biggest defeat in franchise history, 51-0. Three of the turnovers were returned directly for touchdowns and two more set up an easy 10 points. The Browns led, 30-0, at halftime and only attempted one pass in the entire second half so as to keep the clock running, which reflected the deep respect Cleveland coach Bud Carson had for Noll.
The next week, the Steelers traveled to Cincinnati and quickly fell behind, 20-3. Brister threw a touchdown pass to rookie Derek Hill to make it, 20-10, and on the ensuing possession Thomas Everett intercepted Boomer Esiason and returned the ball to the Bengals 22-yard line. But Dwayne Woodruff was flagged for pass interference to nullify the play, and the Bengals drove for a touchdown to make it, 27-10. The Steelers were penalized 12 times for 144 yards and lost, 41-10.
For the mathematically impaired, that's two games, two losses, 92-10 aggregate score.
"Either the Super Bowl champion comes out of the AFC Central," said Noll, "or we're in for a long season."
All of a sudden, the Steelers were besieged by the national media, but this time the questions being asked were about Noll's competence. NBC, the network the that televised the AFC, sent O.J. Simpson to Pittsburgh for a few days to see what he could unearth. The Minnesota Vikings, a playoff team in each of the previous two seasons and a favorite to make it three in a row, were next on the Steelers' schedule, and this seemed to guarantee that 0-2 would become 0-3.
But this was Noll, and he wasn't about to cower in a corner, or put his tail between his legs and run away. An argument can be made that 1989 proved to be Noll's best season, and the first big piece of evidence to support that was the Steelers' 27-14 win over the Vikings. "This wasn't a mirage. We did it," said Noll. "Now we have to do it consistently."
They took a step in that direction the following Sunday by going to Detroit and handling the Lions, 23-3. Brister completed 21-of-27 for 267 yards, with a 48-yard touchdown to Lipps, who finished with seven catches for 126 yards. The defense had four takeaways and allowed 18 yards rushing to a team starting a rookie running back named Barry Sanders.
But just as the train started to pick up speed, it was derailed by a second loss to the Bengals, 26-16, and knee injuries to Brister and starting guard Terry Long that would sideline both for the rematch against the Browns, in Cleveland.
The Steelers rushed for only 93 yards, and Blackledge was 9-for-28 passing for an offense that converted 1-of-14 third downs, but the defense harassed Bernie Kosar into a 14-for-41, four interception performance that translated into a 17-7 win.
Back on the roller-coaster. Lose to the Oilers, 27-0; beat Kansas City, 23-17, with Brister back and going 17-of-27 for 253 yards with two touchdowns; lose back-to-back to Denver, 34-7, and Chicago, 20-0. After the loss to the Bears, Worley said, "There was no cheering on the sideline, everyone was walking around with their heads down. It seems as though as soon as anybody scores on us, we just drop our heads. I don't think we were ready for this game."
Ready or not, the Chargers were coming to town, and the Steelers found a way to stop the losing. Rod Woodson returned a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown, Dwight Stone blocked a punt and Carnell Lake recovered two fumbles in a 20-16 win.
The following weekend, it figured to take an act of God for the Steelers to defeat the Dolphins on the road, and they got it. After Dan Marino directed the Dolphins' first two possessions into the end zone, it started to rain in South Florida, the kind of rain that once inspired Noah to start building an ark. With the Dolphins acting as though they were afraid of the water, the Steelers scored the next 34 points and evened their record at 6-6.
With a two-game winning streak, the Steelers prepared to host the Oilers in a rematch of one of those earlier shutouts, but seven days after getting a hand from Mother Nature they got a kick in the butt from the zebras. Referee Ben Dreith lost count of Houston's timeouts in the first half, and the extra one he awarded the Oilers allowed them to score a touchdown in what turned out to be a 23-16 Steelers loss.
Rebounding the next week to shut out the Jets, the Steelers found themselves in the thick of an AFC race in which only one of the conference's teams would finish with double-digit wins. "On Saturday (before the Jets game), Chuck said, 'I don't know what everybody's thinking, but we're still in the hunt for the playoffs,'" said Hoge. "We're still in it and don't anybody believe we're not."
The Steelers were in it, but this is what they needed to happen to make it: They had to win out – vs. New England and at Tampa Bay – and the Browns, Bengals, Dolphins, Colts and Chiefs all had to lose at least one of their two games.
The improbable happened, and the Steelers qualified, but it seemed as though their stay in the postseason would be short. They were being sent to Houston for a third game against the Oilers, and on Friday Rod Woodson was in the hospital with the flu and a concussion.
Woodson's health was such that team doctors initially decided to leave him in Pittsburgh, but that's when Dan Rooney intervened. When he was assured Woodson's condition would get no worse because of a trip to Houston, Rooney refused to approve any plan that left his best player behind for the franchise's first playoff game in five years. Woodson would make the trip, and a decision on his availability would be made prior to kickoff.
This time in the Astrodome, the events of the game favored the Steelers, especially early. Tim Worley's 9-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead, and while the Oilers were moving the ball they continually stalled in the red zone; their only scores through the first three quarters came on Tony Zendejas field goals of 26, 35 and 26 yards.
Eventually, the Steelers defense began to tire, and Warren Moon and Ernest Givins combined on two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to give the Oilers a 23-16 lead. When the Steelers got the ball for their last best chance to tie the game, they were at their 18-yard line with 6:02 to play.
To that point, Brister had been 11-for-28, but then he caught fire. He completed 4-of-5, a reverse to Dwight Stone gained 22 yards, and Hoge capped it off with a 2-yard run with 46 seconds left.
The Steelers won the toss in overtime but were forced to punt, and a poor kick by Harry Newsome found the Oilers offense taking the field with the ball at the 50-yard line. It looked like the game was over.
It was, but not in the way everyone believed.
Moon had completed 29-of-48 for 315 yards; Givens had 11 catches for 136 yards, and Drew Hill had six for 98 more. But for some reason, the Oilers thought it would be a good idea to run Lorenzo White on first down.
Let Woodson take it from there: "I saw it was a run, and I saw Timmy Johnson coming from the left side, and he was pinning White to the sideline. I came up, and the first thing that went through my head was to hit him in the numbers. I lowered my pads and hit him, and I didn't know the ball was out until I felt something on my leg. I turned around, and it was the ball, so I grabbed it and tried to run."
By the way, Woodson's fever had gone down, and he started and played every snap on defense and returned kicks. And what he did in overtime was an incredible play by a great player at a critical moment. To put it in its rightful place in franchise history, this was the defensive version of the Immaculate Reception.
The Steelers offense came on and gained 14 yards to move the ball to the 33-yard line, where it faced a third-and-8. As the play was being sent to Brister, Noll switched his headset over to defense, and told Rust, "If we don't make this, we're going to punt and pin them deep."
Rust answered, "I don't know if we can stop them again."
It was a startling admission by a successful coach in an ultra-competitive business, but it also was right on the money, and he offered it to Noll at a critical stage where a bigger ego might have gotten in the way. But whatever else Rust's admission was, it was something that needed to be said.
It says as much about Noll that he responded to Rust's assessment and sent Anderson onto the field to attempt a 50-yard field goal after that third-down pass fell incomplete. Anderson's kick was down the middle, and into the net. Game over.
"Our guys were tired. Our guys were starting to cramp up," said Lloyd. "It was a situation where we knew if Gary didn't make it, we'd have to go out there and stop them again. I don't know …"
It never came to that, because Chuck Noll listened to some advice, and because Dan Rooney did not.
Worley 9 run (Anderson kick)
Zendejas 26 FG
Zendejas 35 FG
Anderson 25 FG
Zendejas 26 FG
Anderson 30 FG
Anderson 48 FG
Givins 18 pass from Moon (Zendejas kick)
Givins 9 pass from Moon (Zendejas kick)
Hoge 2 run (Anderson kick)
Anderson 50 FG
Total Net Yds