Labriola On

There's a lesson in 1989's trip to Cleveland

Take a look at some photos from the game at Cleveland in 1989. A game in which the Steelers won 17-7.

This is the season in which the Pittsburgh Steelers organization is commemorating the coaching career of Chuck Noll, and in 1989 before a trip to Cleveland for a game against the Browns, which just to happened to turn out to be a tipping point for that team that year, Noll took a shot at a motivational ploy.

Understand that Chuck Noll believed strongly in professional football players being self-motivated, but there were occasions when he'd take another tack.

The most well-known of such occasions came on the Monday before the 1974 AFC Championship Game when Noll called out Oakland Coach John Madden in a team meeting for saying the Super Bowl had been played the previous weekend when the Raiders defeated the defending champion Miami Dolphins.

There were other times that Noll chose this path, but his trips down it always were understated, sometimes so much so the players missed the message entirely.

Rocky Bleier tells the story of Noll using another team meeting to tell the story of "the two monks." It was a meandering tale of two monks walking through the forest, with the cautionary message being about the danger of carrying along old baggage on a new journey. Bleier's description of the looks on his teammates' faces when Noll walked out of the room at the end of the story always served as the punch-line.

There are other examples of Noll attempting to deliver a message to his team in a more subtle way than getting "back to basics," which was his code for a three-hour practice in pads on a Wednesday followed by a scrimmage-like session in pads on Friday, and the run-up to the Steelers' trip to Cleveland in 1989 was one of them.

On that occasion, he broke out an inspirational message about geese, which was posted prominently on the bulletin board on the wall next to the door in the locker room:

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TEAMWORK*
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-formation and another goose flies forward to become the leader.

The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Geese keep company with the fallen. When a goose gets sick or wounded, two geese follow it down to the ground to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again, then they catch up with the flock or launch another formation.

By being part of a team, we too can accomplish much more, much faster. Words of encouragement and support (honking from behind) help inspire and energize 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.

And just to make sure every player had a fighting chance to decipher the message, Noll posted it on the bulletin board directly under the permanent placard that read, "Whatever It Takes."

As for the 1989 game in Cleveland itself, the way it unfolded indicated the Steelers took the geese story to heart, even if they didn't understand it or even read it.

Already playing without two starters on offense – quarterback Bubby Brister and right guard Terry Long – the Steelers would lose three more offensive starters – halfback Tim Worley, tight end Mike Mularkey, and wide receiver Louis Lipps – plus two defensive starters – cornerback Rod Woodson and defensive end Tim Johnson.

A Steelers defense that had been embarrassed by the Browns, 51-0, at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1989 opener and then the following week by the Bengals, 42-10, in Cincinnati rose up with the kind of performance befitting its Steelers Curtain predecessors.

Even without Woodson, the Steelers finished with four interceptions – the first time Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar ever had been picked off that many times in a game – three fumble recoveries and two sacks, and Kosar ended up completing only 37 percent of his passes and converting 2-of-13 on third downs.

"There's no question the last game (against Cleveland) was an embarrassment to everybody," said Noll after the victory. "It snowballed, and we allowed some touchdowns we shouldn't have allowed. Hopefully this is going to be a growing experience for us. We've got some good, young people, and if we get this whole thing going, we'll be fine. It'll help us believe."

The Steelers will be boarding buses on Saturday and making another trip west to Cleveland for a game on Sunday that promises to be different than any this current group of players ever has experienced there.

Competitively, this series that began in 1950 hasn't been a rivalry for a generation, but for residents of Cleveland their hatred for Pittsburgh and the Steelers is in their DNA. The Steelers should expect a frenzied atmosphere, maybe one that rivals what they usually get in Baltimore, and a game in which they'll be forced to overcome some adversity if they're to emerge victorious.

The details of the performance they're going to need to win in Cleveland will be revealed over the course of Sunday afternoon, but they can be certain that every goose, I mean, every player will be required to contribute, because it's going to take a total team effort for them to get out of town with a win.

Just like 1989.

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