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.
In the first three installments, The Prelude, The Preseason, and The Regular Season, the Steelers had re-made their team after a 1977 season that included lawsuits, holdouts, walkouts, and plenty of moaning about money.
In the offseason following 1977, Chuck Noll either cut or traded Jim Clack, Frank Lewis, Reggie Harrison, Ernie Holmes, Jimmy Allen and Glen Edwards. Twelve Super Bowl rings were gone. Then came the rules changes, the ones that opened up the passing game, and 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.
In finishing 14-2 during the regular season, the Steelers did to their competition what Genghis Khan did to his. Nine of their 14 wins were by double-digit margins; Terry Bradshaw tied for the AFC lead in passing yards, and the offense also averaged 143.6 yards rushing per game while converting 48 percent on third downs. The defense contributed to this marauding persona by recording 44 sacks and 48 takeaways.
It was just the second season in which the NFL used records to determine homefield advantage for the playoffs, and that allowed the Steelers to sleep in their own beds until they had to leave for Miami, which was the site of Super Bowl XIII, and for an appointment with history.
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In the Wild Card games in each conference, Houston, 10-6 in the AFC Central Division, beat Miami, and advanced to the next round against New England. The Steelers and Broncos had the week off and then prepared to face each other, as the mutual dislike bubbled to the surface.
Broncos coach Red Miller bristled at the oft-repeated suggestion that his defending AFC champions were nothing but a fluke, and Jack Lambert seethed over Denver’s Randy Gradishar being selected the All-Pro middle linebacker instead of him. The Steel Curtain was tired of hearing about and reading about and being compared to Denver’s Orange Crush, and a pregame incident brought that into sharp focus.
L.C. Greenwood walked onto the field and strolled past an area where a group of the Broncos defensive players were loosening up. In Greenwood’s hand was an orange, and once the Denver players noticed him, he smashed it against a wall.
The Steelers built a 19-3 lead on a couple of touchdown runs by Franco Harris, but the Broncos closed to 19-10 and seemed to be building some momentum before Joe Greene killed that by blocking a 29-yard field goal attempt by Jim Turner.
Then as they had all season, the Steelers offense took advantage of an opponent’s mistakes with quick strikes that put the game away. Within a 32-second span, Bradshaw passed to John Stallworth for a 48-yard touchdown and to Lynn Swann for a 38-yard touchdown. Game over, 33-10.
“The big play was the key to the whole thing, of course,” said Noll, “and Terry was at the hub of it all. It brings you to the dilemma of which came first: the receivers or the quarterback? We’d like to think you can’t do one without the other.”
In the other AFC Divisional Playoff game, the Oilers kicked the Patriots’ butts, 31-14, in Foxboro. It turned out to be a Steelers-Oilers rubber match for the AFC Championship, and Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado weighed in with a prediction.
“Bradshaw was incredible,” said Alzado. “I can’t believe it. I knew if Terry got hot, we’d be in trouble. He’s got radar on that bleeping ball. If Terry plays that way, they’re going to win the Super Bowl. I know that.”
In the NFC, the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys were hosting the Los Angeles Rams, and the prevailing opinion was that the AFC Championship Game would be more interesting, and definitely more violent.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” said Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, who already had donated some of his to this rivalry. “I just hope we have enough survivors to make it to the Super Bowl if we win.”
Greene was a bit less graphic, bordering on poetic. “I think it’s very appropriate that we play them for the AFC Championship. I was rooting for them. Not because we wanted to play them. It was something natural. I was feeling good for them.”
It was Jan. 3, four days before the game, and the weather in Pittsburgh offered 9-degree temperatures with 16 mile-per-hour winds. Oilers coach Bum Phillips was bringing a dome team into climate, and he didn’t want to make it an issue.
“You can’t practice being miserable,” said Phillips. “It’ll be an emotional game, and it won’t really matter if it’s cold or hot, or whether it rains or snows. I don’t think we’ll use weather as an excuse. I’m not worried about the weather. I’m worried about Pittsburgh. We’ve both got to play in it. It ain’t gonna be colder on our side.”
As usual, Lambert’s perspective was unique. “The only time I mind the cold is at halftime, when you’re wet and cold and you don’t have time to change into anything. I feel a helluva lot worse for the fans. All they’ve got under them is that cold cement.”
Game day arrived, and the outcome was decided before halftime. On their first offensive snap, the Oilers ran the same play that Earl Campbell used to gain 10 yards during the teams’ regular season meeting in the Astrodome one month before. This time, Jack Ham stuffed it for a 2-yard loss, and it was the start of a day when he was the best player in a Steelers uniform.
Ham accounted for three takeaways that led to 17 points, and he finished with four tackles, a forced fumble, a sack, one interception, and two fumble recoveries. The perception today is that the Steelers offense was dominant in what turned out to be a 34-5 win, but Noll’s appraisal at the time was the opposite.
“I’ll tell you one thing – our defense does a helluva job whenever our offense makes a mistake,” said Noll. “This defense has had an attitude over the years that when it goes on the field, no matter where it goes in on the field, it will get the football back. That’s allowed us to do the things we’ve done over the years.
“Our football team wanted an unconditional surrender today … And we got it.”
The Steelers were headed to their third Super Bowl in five seasons, and Dallas was making its fourth appearance overall. The winner of Super Bowl XIII would make NFL history as the first team to win three Lombardi trophies, and the game itself was a rematch of Super Bowl X. Both franchises believed they were the best in the NFL, and this matchup allowed it to be settled on the field.
There were a couple of weeks of hype to really rev the engine, and in Pittsburgh, Lambert was one of the first to weigh in with an opinion. “I think we’re the best team in football. The difference is that we have the confidence back.”
One of the things that made Noll so successful in Super Bowls was the way in which he approached the hype. While so many coaches gritted their teeth at everything they viewed as a distraction, Noll believed the Super Bowl was to be enjoyed.
“It’s a fun week,” said Noll, who always installed his game plan in Pittsburgh before the team left for the site of the game. “No other week in the season is like it. We don’t view this as a distraction. The distractions keep you from being there. Now you’re there. We have some guys who want some exposure, and they should enjoy it.”
One of the guys Noll was talking about was Bradshaw, who craved recognition as a great player and who had a history of playing better when he was enjoying himself.
Bob Adams, a tight end who came to the Steelers in 1969 – Noll’s inaugural season as head coach – and would be waived before the start of 1972, had said about Bradshaw: “Watching Terry Bradshaw play quarterback is like watching a rose bloom in slow motion.” By 1978, the rose was in full bloom.
Bradshaw was voted the NFL Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press, and the way the Cowboys were trying to get into his head simply proved how valuable he was to the Steelers’ cause. This was the Super Bowl where Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson uttered his infamous: “Bradshaw is so stupid he couldn’t spell c-a-t if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’” line. While Henderson was working on Bradshaw, other Cowboys players promised this outcome would be different than Super Bowl X because that Dallas team had been loaded with inexperienced players.
“Some of the Cowboys seem to think they were a young ballclub then,” said Greene. “They’re publicizing the fact they had 14 rookies, but they didn’t play except on special teams.
“I wish I had the courage to talk like that. There’s been a lot of talk about the rookies they had … about how good they are in all areas – scouting, drafting, coaching, management. They are good, but our ballclub is in the same class. We don’t say we’re the best. We do whatever is necessary to get the job done.
“I enjoy this game because it ends all the talk.”
As the game drew closer, everyone tired of the hype.
Groused Lambert about Henderson’s “Hollywood” persona, “Even a chimpanzee can get attention down here.”
The game was a classic, and Bradshaw was at the center of it all. He passed for 317 yards on just 17 completions, and four went for touchdowns. His fumble was returned 37 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter by Dallas linebacker Mike Hegman to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Swann and Stallworth each had 100-yard receiving days, and the Steelers put the game away with a 14-point blitz within a 60-second span midway through the fourth quarter. Dallas scored twice in the final 2:27 to make it close, and the final was 35-31.
But what truly was special was Bradshaw’s command of the game – he called all of his own plays while Roger Staubach executed what was sent in from the sideline – and a prime example of his feel for the game and the emotion of his teammates was his play-calling on the first of those two critical fourth quarter touchdowns.
On a third-and-4 from the Dallas 17-yard line, the Steelers were flagged for delay of game just before the snap, but Henderson took advantage of the situation to take a free shot at Bradshaw. Harris was livid. Bradshaw noticed and called a tackle-trap on third-and-9 with the Cowboys blitzing in anticipation of a pass. Harris exploded for 22 yards and the touchdown.
“I know I’m playing better than I ever did before, but I don’t know why,” said Bradshaw after a game in which he was voted Super Bowl MVP. “I can’t put my finger on it. This has been my luckiest year, I know that. Lynn Swann and those guys are scoring touchdowns with passes that shouldn’t even be caught. They help a guy’s confidence.”
Then came his parting shot: “Go ask Henderson how smart he thinks I am now.”
The Steelers’ performance in the playoffs was representative of their performance throughout the season. They played three games and scored more than 30 points in each; Bradshaw passed for eight touchdowns and had a rating of 104.1; the offense scored 13 touchdowns; and the defense recorded 16 sacks and had 14 takeaways.
Afterward, it was vintage Noll, refusing to appear impressed, when he said during his postgame remarks that the Steelers hadn’t “peaked” yet. Being told of that remark, Ham cracked, “I thought we were coming in for practice on Tuesday.”
But once the team returned to Pittsburgh, Noll reflected on what was accomplished. “In every area, this football team has proved itself. Our victory was manifested through action, not words. A lot of people think they can win football games through legislation. The rules changes helped us offensively, and defensively we got ball reaction in the secondary.”
In Dallas, when the Cowboys got home, there was a lot of complaining about a pass interference penalty called on Bennie Barnes that was a big play on the touchdown drive that gave the Steelers a 28-17 lead. The whining irked Noll because it implied his team’s victory somehow was tainted, and he eventually responded.
When the Steelers were presented with their rings for winning Super Bowl XIII, Noll complimented the design and then added, “And if you push this little button on the side, you can hear Landry bitching.”