This season marks the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, and to commemorate that team, which was the first in NFL history to win three Super Bowls, and in conjunction with Alumni Weekend, Steelers.com will present a four-part series looking back at the events shaping that historic season. The four parts are titled, The Prelude, The Preseason, The Regular Season, and The Playoffs.
“The Regular Season”
In the first two installments, The Prelude, and The Preseason, the Steelers were tickled their litigious 1977 was over, because the only field where they had any consistent success that season was the courtroom. In addition to all of the lawsuits and countersuits, there was inner turmoil in the form of holdouts, walkouts, and plenty of moaning about money.
In the offseason following 1977, Chuck Noll got out the big broom and got right to work. Not all of those jettisoned were problems, but Noll either cut or traded Jim Clack, Frank Lewis, Reggie Harrison, Ernie Holmes, Jimmy Allen, and Glen Edwards. Twelve Super Bowl rings among them, but Noll was in full-blown “whatever it takes” mode.
Just as significant as those roster moves were to what the Steelers soon would accomplish in the upcoming season was the outcome of the 1978 NFL Owners Meetings, which were held in late March. Offensive linemen were going to be allowed to use their hands to pass block, defensive backs were going to have to break contact with a receiver beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and a side judge was going to be added to each game day crew of officials, in effect to call more pass interference penalties.
While everyone else was looking at how this was going to hinder the Steelers defense, Noll was plotting to see how it was going to help his offense.
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It had been one of the routines that eventually became a tradition under Noll. On the Saturday before the opening of the regular season, the Steelers put on their uniforms and got together to pose for that year’s team picture. Before the photographer packed away his equipment for the day, someone came up with an idea for a photo that would prove to be prophetic.
There were only four players in this photo. Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Bennie Cunningham. The quarterback, his wide receivers, and the tight end.
Once the games began, there was no adjustment period. No easing into things. Noll unleashed his new offense right away, and the results were impressive if not immediately recognized as trendsetting.
The Steelers opened with a 28-17 win over a Buffalo Bills team that would finish 5-11, but in that game Bradshaw completed 14-of-19 for 217 yards, and afterwards, Rocky Bleier summed up the afternoon succinctly, “Our passing attack was the big difference in this game.”
The next week, the Steelers defeated Seattle, 21-10, a game in which Franco Harris rushed for 64 yards and Bradshaw passed for 213 and two touchdowns. What followed was a road win in Cincinnati, where Harris rushed for 73 yards and Bradshaw completed 14-of-19 for 242 yards and two more touchdowns.
The focal point of the offense had shifted from Harris’ legs to Bradshaw’s right arm, and Noll not only recognized that and embraced it, but he also was actively trying to nurture it.
“I think he’s more confident that he’s ever been before,” said Noll about Bradshaw that September. “That makes a difference. And everybody’s helping each other. The quarterbacks are helping the receivers, and the receivers are helping the quarterbacks. He’s getting the ball to Bennie Cunningham and our running backs as well as the wide receivers, which has helped.”
A 28-17 win in New York against the Jets put the Steelers at 5-0, and the recipe for the victory was more of the same. Bradshaw completed 17-of-25 for 189 yards and three touchdowns, and Swann accounted for seven of those catches for 100 yards and two of the scores. After the game, Joe Greene said, “The story was the offense.”
While Bradshaw’s passing numbers through the first five games of 1978 might seem pedestrian by today’s standards, they were cutting edge at that time, especially for the Steelers. Still, the most dramatic change of all, the person who deserved the most credit, was Noll.
In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the day after the win over the Jets: “The Steelers pounded home the lesson once again yesterday at Shea Stadium. Stopping the run is no longer enough to stop the Steelers.” And as Bradshaw said later that same week, “I’ll keep throwing it until they stop it,” but the Steelers passing attack was hardly perfect. It was a dangerous weapon, indeed, but it wasn’t always the opponent that was getting hurt by it.
The Steelers completed their 1978 regular season schedule with 39 turnovers, an astonishing number for a team that would finish 14-2, but Noll never pulled back on the reins, he never inhibited his quarterback from trying to make plays down the field to the wide receivers, he never went back to the style of offense the team had used to win its first two Super Bowl championships. Bradshaw’s 1978 season is remembered as one continuous highlights film, but while he threw 28 touchdown passes, he also threw 20 interceptions. And this incongruity was being noticed even as the Steelers kept piling up the wins.
The Oct. 14, 1978 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried this observation: “The mystery has yet to be unraveled and the clues are difficult to read. Even though the Steelers season is six games old, it isn’t easy to judge where they stand as a team. They’re off to their best start ever, but nobody is claiming this is their best team. It is apparent they’ll win their division and make the playoffs, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the team.”
Swann was leading the AFC in receiving, Bradshaw was among the NFL’s statistical leaders at quarterback, and the Steelers just kept winning. They were 6-0 after beating Atlanta, a game in which Bradshaw completed 13-of-18 for 231 yards and Stallworth caught six for 114 and a touchdown.
For the Steelers, winning in Cleveland had been as rare as a pink diamond, but they climbed to 7-0 after their fourth win in five years on the banks of Lake Erie, and the game was a microcosm of the team they had become. Harris rushed for only 41 yards, and the Steelers defense gave up 360 yards of offense. But four takeaways and touchdown passes of 28 and 32 yards by Bradshaw combined to make it appear to be an easy 34-14 victory.
The winning streak would end the following Monday night at Three Rivers Stadium, courtesy of the Houston Oilers and a rookie running back named Earl Campbell, who scored twice in a game that ended 24-17.
“I hate to lose, but something good may come out of this,” said Jack Lambert. “There’s some possibility that maybe we thought we couldn’t be beaten. Now we know we can. That undefeated stuff is over with.”
Noll was uncharacteristically upbeat after a loss. “Hopefully we can use this as a springboard,” but after sloppy wins over Kansas City and New Orleans, it was Jack Ham who spoke his mind.
“Nobody on our defense is happy with the way we’re playing,” said Ham of a team that was 9-1, with a three-game lead over the Oilers in the AFC Central Division at the time. “You can lull yourself to sleep thinking you’re playing pretty good football. But we’re not, and we’ve got to get better and better.”
The defense would get better, but Bradshaw fell into a slump. In Los Angeles, former Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson was holding the same job with the Rams, and his unit had a big day against the Steelers. The Rams intercepted Bradshaw three times and held the Steelers to 59 yards rushing in a 10-7 win. The next week, the play of the defense was what allowed the team to survive the 1-10 Bengals, 7-6. Three sacks and five takeaways, two of which were interceptions by Mel Blount, nullified another horrible game from Bradshaw, who threw four more interceptions.
Afterward, Greene gave his offensive teammates a gentle nudge. “The load has shifted, but to win, we’re going to have to get better offensively, because there are better offensive teams in the league than Cincinnati.”
Bradshaw may have been in the latter stages of a regular season in which he would be the Associated Press Player of the Year, a first-team All-Pro, and the Steelers MVP for the second straight season, but he just didn’t seem to be comfortable in his own skin.
“I doubt I’ll ever be able to look in the mirror and say I’m the best quarterback in football,” said Bradshaw. “Maybe it’s because of my personality. I think I have charisma, but I don’t think I’ll get the recognition. First mistake I make, I’ll be battered for it. They (the media) make excuses for the other guys; they don’t for me. (Bert) Jones is always great. (Roger) Staubach may have a bad game, but he’s still great … the same thing with (Bob) Griese. I lose my greatness when I have a bad game. I go back to being a dummy.
“It’s just the image people have of me. It’s tough to shake that ‘dumb’ image. I’m a country boy. I talk country, act country, do a lot of crazy things. I think that’s a drawback to getting recognition as the best. And I’m not the stereotypical quarterback. I don’t wear glasses, and I’m not super intelligent, and I don’t make brash statements. I don’t stir up trouble.
“I’m kind of an ordinary guy playing on a great football team. In my mind, I compete with every other quarterback in the NFL. I want to be right up there with any of them … because if I am my team will be right up there. That’s the motivation for me now … to be the best.”
With the playoffs at hand, and with homefield advantage secured, Bradshaw and the Steelers were primed to show the rest of the NFL that they indeed were the best.
Appearing on Sunday, Dec. 2 -- Part IV, The Playoffs. The Steelers make history.