Just over a week to go and the new NFL season will begin. With a change at quarterback, this season will prove to be another interesting and exciting one for Pittsburgh Steelers fans. It will also see the organization celebrate a unique piece of their history. They will mark fifty years since the pivotal point in their past when they changed from the ‘Same Old Steelers’ into the winners that Steelers Nation now revere.
After Chuck Noll settled in as the Steelers’ new head coach in 1969, he knew the difficult task ahead. In his second season following the merger of the AFL and NFL, his team became part of the AFC with all the additional challenges that this change presented.
In Oakland, the general manager Al Davies and Coach John Madden had been enjoying success in the AFL. Their Raiders were a successful part of the rival league, perennially making the playoffs and this continued into their first season as part of the NFL.
That first season saw the beginning of a rivalry with the Steelers which would turn into a fractious and sometimes bitter contest and will always be remembered for one play.
In the preseason that first year, the Steelers surprisingly left Oakland with a 20-6 win after Terry Bradshaw turned in a first-class performance.
When the two teams met in week six of the regular season, Bradshaw was again the starter. An injury forced the Raiders to replace their starting quarterback with a veteran aged 43 years. George Blanda came on to throw three touchdowns, kick four extra points and a 27-yard field goal to demolish the Steelers 31-14 while Bradshaw threw four interceptions.
The Steelers finished the season 5-9 while the Raiders’ 8-4-2 took them to the playoffs where they lost the conference game to the Baltimore Colts who then went on to win Super Bowl V.
The following season the Steelers improved to 6-8 while the Raiders again finished 8-4-2 and, although leading the AFC in scoring and first downs, it wasn’t enough to take them to the playoffs.
THE SEASON THAT CHANGED THE SAME OLD STEELERS
The 1972 season was a turning point for the Pittsburgh franchise, and it began on the opening weekend with the visit of the Raiders.
Art Rooney was looking forward to the start of the regular season. “We had our best pre-season (4-1-1) in our 38 years,” said Rooney. “What we scored compared to what we gave up turned out to be the best spread in pro football this summer. I feel we now have our best chance to win a title.”
A Pittsburgh defense that began to flourish in the preseason finally blossomed in the September sun when the Steelers took to the field for the opener when they immediately stamped their authority on the game.
A blocked punt, interceptions by Jack Ham and Chuck Beatty saw the Steelers take full advantage and move into a 17-point lead before the Raiders had an opportunity to reply.
John Madden used three quarterbacks in pursuit of the win, but the Steelers held on to triumph 34-28. “We worked hard,” acknowledged Joe Greene. “We won and that’s the only thing that counts.”
During the regular season, the Steelers put together streaks of five and then four victories. After four decades of pro football in Pittsburgh, the Steelers finally celebrated their first division title finishing 11-3. The team set a franchise record of 345 points eclipsing the old mark of 321 from a decade earlier.
They also set five other team records: with wins (11), points (343), rushing touchdowns (22), field goals (28), total rushing yards and points allowed (175). Jack Ham set a franchise record with 7 interceptions.
The Steelers defense allowed just one touchdown in it final four games and finished the season with 25 interceptions.
When the Steelers flew back to Pittsburgh after the final regular season win had assured them of the title, 4,000 fans braved the bitter 14-degree cold and winds of 30 mph to be at the airport to salute their team.
“I’m just so happy I can’t put it in words,” said Joe Greene. “You fans have waited so long and you deserve it.”
The Raiders finished 10-3-1 to win their fifth division title in six years and the scene was set for the Steelers first playoff game since 1947. Oakland was confident they could roll over the Steelers with their powerful offensive line leading the way and with Daryle Lamonica at quarterback
Pittsburgh was alive as it prepared for its first ever playoff game. “The things that enthralls me,” admitted Coach Noll, “is the way the town has reacted. Franco’s Army is everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Market Square witnessed a pep fan rally where Steelers fans cheered on their heroes before moving to the Raiders’ hotel to cheer against their opponents.
As his big moment arrived, Art Rooney talked about Steelers’ history, “We used to have teams that waited to get beat.” Rooney now recognized that under Coach Noll, the team was now one that expected to win.
In Coach Noll’s first season the team finished 1-13, but he had been given time to build a team that would light up the seventies and the Rooney family were now going to be rewarded for their patience.
On gameday, the roads were packed with cars leaving Pittsburgh as fans without tickets sought television screens to watch the game. The NFL rules at the time meant there was a television blackout zone of 75 miles.
The Steelers’ first playoff game will always be celebrated for what would be recognized as the NFL’s greatest play, but it was also a defining moment for the Steelers. They cast aside their Same Old Steelers image and banished it to the history books of pro football.
The Steelers won the game, and the organization will recognize its importance when they celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Immaculate Reception this December against their old rivals in a laudable and impressive piece of NFL scheduling.
Pittsburgh will be enjoying more than the festive season this December 24 when the Raiders come to town.