At the midway point of the 1947 season when the Steelers were atop the Eastern division, their fans were hoping they would not witness another collapse as they had done in 1936. Three consecutive losses at the end of that season saw the team slump from 6-3 to 6-6 and miss their first opportunity to play postseason football.
Coach Jock Sutherland knew what was required from his players. He was drawing on his experience from his Pitt Panthers days when he told his students at the start of a new season, “This is going to be hard work and we’re not going to enjoy all of it. A lot of it will seem like drudgery to you. We’ll try to have as much fun as we can.”
After a pause, Sutherland emphasized one point, “Losing a game isn’t fun. Winning one is fun. If we work hard enough through the week, we’ll have our fun on Saturday afternoons when it counts.” Replace Saturday with Sunday and Sutherland’s philosophy still stood in pro football. Hard work pays off and is rewarding.
An injury to Bob Sullivan saw the insertion of Bobby Cifers into the backfield with Johnny Clement and the dynamic combination helped the team to three straight wins.
On November 2, the Steelers traveled to Green Bay to face the (4-1) Packers who were tied with the Chicago Cardinals at the top of the Western division. Both teams were desperate for a win and the Packers began with a 63-yard touchdown pass that gave them an early lead.
The teams exchanged field goals before the game moved into the second quarter when the Steelers started to take control as they shut down the Packers ground game. With thirty seconds left in the first half, Clement found Val Jansante in the end zone, but a blocked conversion meant they were still a point behind.
With the Steelers defense dominating, a Tony Compagno interception in the third quarter which he returned 63 yards, saw the Steelers take a 16-10 lead. They extended their advantage with a safety in the final period. A Packers touchdown drive of eighty yards completed the scoring, but it was the Steelers who were celebrating a first regular season victory over the Packers.
With Forbes Field seats sold out for the visit of the Washington Redskins, the Steelers considered installing bleachers to increase capacity, but instead sold standing room tickets.
The Steelers were seeking revenge for their earlier defeat in Washington at the arm of Sammy Baugh and knew the key to a Pittsburgh win was stopping him. Because of Washington’s 2-4 record, Pittsburgh were favored by two touchdowns.
In another bruising contest, Steve Lach put the Steelers ahead in the first quarter before Tony Compagno increased their advantage to 14-0, smashing through the Redskins defense from 2 yards.
Washington reduced their deficit just before the end of the first half when Baugh led a drive of 74 yards that he finished with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Hugh Taylor.
Johnny Clement once again proved his value in the third quarter. He faked a pass before sprinting 17 yards through a big hole opened by his offensive line to increase the Steelers’ lead.
The Redskins pressed hard to close the gap and eventually broke through the Steelers defense when Jim Castiglia’s 1-yard touchdown plunge ended a 61-yard drive.
Washington continued their fight back and the 36,257 fans inside Forbes Field held their breath when the Redskins advanced to Pittsburgh’s 7-yard line. The Steelers defense held firm and the fans heaved a sigh of relief when on a Redskins fourth down, Compagno deflected Baugh’s pass and watched it fall incomplete.
With their 21-14 victory the Steelers made history by notching five consecutive wins for the first time, but with Philadelphia just a half game behind, Sutherland’s focus was not on breaking records, but on the visit of the 0-6-1 Giants.
New York held a surprise 7-3 lead into the final quarter before the Steelers found their touch with just four minutes remaining. Compagno’s 4-yard touchdown run was followed by a Paul White interception leading to a 19-yard touchdown pass from Clement to Jansante. Charlie Seabright completed the Steelers scoring when he returned his interception 30 yards for a touchdown.
Pittsburgh triumphed 24-7 but attention turned to their next game in Chicago where they would meet the 6-2 Bears in the clash of the day. Both teams were on a six-game winning roll. Chicago’s coach George Halas told his players that it was a “must” game as defeat would practically remove them from the western division race.
The Steelers were ten-point underdogs and confirmed that status from when the ball was first kicked as they were overwhelmed by a rampant Chicago team. The Bears were relentless as they swamped the Steelers 49-7 to hand Coach Sutherland his biggest defeat.
The loss of Clement and his understudy Walter Slater to injury made the pain of defeat even worse although the surprise news of the Eagles loss to Boston would have restored some bounce in the Steelers’ gait.
Following an X-ray, Clement’s injury was found not to be a fracture or break, but the Steelers physician declared the player would be unavailable for their next game in Philadelphia. The contest with the Eagles, who were half a game behind, could have a huge effect on the outcome of the Eastern division title. A Steelers loss would see the Eagles take over at the top.
After the Eagles earlier loss in Pittsburgh, their Coach Greasy Neale vowed, “We’ll get even with those Steelers if it’s the only thing we do the rest of the season.” With a division title at stake and revenge a priority for the Eagles, the game would attract a record Shibe Park crowd of 39,814 fans.
Without four of their starters on offense, the Steelers were never in the game. The defense held the Eagles to a single score for three quarters before giving up two late touchdown that saw Philadelphia triumph 21-0 and Steelers playoff chances dip.
The Steelers final regular season game was against the Boston Yankees at Forbes Field. With the return of their injured players except for Clement, the Steelers rolled over the Yanks 17-7.
With the Eagles 45-21 defeat in Chicago, the Steelers went back on top of the division, but Philadelphia still had one game left to play against Green Bay. In their fourteen years in the NFL, the Eagles had never beaten the Packers, but Steve Van Buren ensured that streak was broken. He rushed for 93 yards and three touchdowns as Philadelphia won 28-14 to finish the season with the same 8-4 record as the Steelers.
With no tie breaker in the NFL rules, it set up a playoff game to see which team would progress to the championship final against the Chicago Cardinals. It was only the third time in NFL history that a division title would be decided by a “sudden death” decider.
With the game due to be played in Pittsburgh, the Steelers ticket office was inundated by season ticket holder desperate to ensure they got their tickets. In the build up to the game, the city became the focus of the NFL with all the team owners in town for that year’s draft on the Friday evening.
The phone in Rooney’s office was ringing constantly with people chasing tickets with standing room only left, but he took it in his stride. “There have been years when we ran when the phone rang,” he admitted with a smile. “We were afraid it was the bill collector.”
The Pittsburgh Press noted what the game meant for the Steelers:
“A 15-year dream, nursed and coddled with heartaches and plenty of red ink, becomes a reality today for the owner Art Rooney and his Cinderella Steelers.”
The contest set up two teams who were committed to their ground game. Philadelphia’s Van Buren was the league’s leading rusher and in two league games against the Steelers had rushed for 209 yards on 45 carries.
On a cold winter’s day in Forbes Field, the 35,729 shivering fans found little to warm them as the Steelers failed to fire on offense despite the return of Johnny Clement.
Former Steeler Tommy Thompson completed 10 of his 15 passes for two touchdowns in the first half to give the Eagles a 14-0 lead. In the third quarter, the Eagles Bosh Pritchard returned a punt 79 yards to seal a 21-0 Philadelphia win.
The Eagles dominated in the air, complemented by Van Buren’s hard running, while the Steelers offense struggled to find any form.
Coach Sutherland was honest with his post-game comments, “We lost to a good team today. They deserved to win, and we have no alibis. I’m sorry that we let down Pittsburgh fans for they are certainly are entitled to a winner.”
Johnny Clement promised, “We’ll be back next year and watch us go.”