1972 Pittsburgh Steelers: A Contender Is Born

To our generation, the city of Pittsburgh is renowned for good professional football. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1972, Art Rooney’s Steeler franchise had never so much as even played for a championship. They had not enjoyed a winning season since 1963. The hiring of Chuck Noll in 1969 was showing progress, but it was sub-.500 progress—from 1-13 to 5-9 to 6-8 in the 14-game seasons that were the norm until six years later.

It was the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers who changed all that. They made the postseason, won a historic playoff game, set the stage for a decade of excellence and have never really left the stage since.

A rookie running back was the lynchpin. Franco Harris was drafted out of Penn State and promptly ripped off a 1,000-yard season where he averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry. He was joined in the backfield by John “Frenchy” Fuqua, who chipped in 665 yards at better than a four a pop. The production was even more impressive considering a lackluster offensive line, that wouldn’t really beef up until they drafted Mike Webster two years later.

Terry Bradshaw was the 24-year-old quarterback. Even allowing for a drastic difference in passing game production in this era, Bradshaw’s 48 percent completion rate and 6.1 yards-per-attempt were poor and near the bottom of the league. The 12-12 TD/INT ratio was actually pretty good in context. Bradshaw was picked off on 3.9 percent of his throws. While in today’s game that would put a QB on the unemployment line, in 1972 it was sixth-best in the NFL.

Ron Shanklin was Bradshaw’s top target, catching 38 passes and stretching the field for better than 17 yards a catch. Frank Lewis added 27 more receptions at nearly 15 per reception. John McMakin, the rookie tight end caught 21 balls, as did Harris out of the backfield.

Those numbers don’t sound very good to a modern audience. In 1972, the Steeler offense ranked second in the NFL in points scored.

The defense is what this team would become renowned for by the end of the decade and they were already awfully good by 1972. Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, won the first of two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Dwight White was a Pro Bowler at the defensive end spot. Pittsburgh had reliable veteran linebackers in Henry Davis and Andy Russell, both of whom punched Pro Bowl tickets. The secondary was led by free safety Mike Wagner who picked off six balls.

What really stands out, at least with the knowledge of history, is the young players that were working their way into the lineup. L.C. Greenwood up front, Jack Ham at linebacker and Mel Blount in the secondary. They were already good enough for the Steelers to rank fifth in the league in points allowed. And it wouldn’t be long before this unit collectively become one of the great defenses of all-time.

Pittsburgh opened the season at home against a good Oakland Raiders team. It was the kind of game the Steelers needed to start winning if their recent improvement was going to turn into real contention. They came out blazing, blocking a punt and recovering it for a touchdown. They picked off Raider quarterback Ken Stabler three times, two of them by defensive back Chuck Beatty. A 141-97 edge in rush yardage kept Pittsburgh in control. They led 34-14 by the fourth quarter and hung on to win 34-28.

The Steelers went on the road to face a pretty good Cincinnati Bengals team, coached by Paul Brown, with Bill Walsh on the staff. Even though Pittsburgh led 10-3 at the half, the running game bogged down. Cincinnati controlled the second half. Some good red zone defense from the Steelers kept it close, but the Bengals booted four field goals and won 15-10.

When Pittsburgh went to lowly St. Louis and trailed the Cardinals 19-18 in the fourth quarter, fans could be forgiven if they thought this was looking like the same old Steelers. But Bradshaw found Lewis for a 38-yard touchdown pass and a 25-19 win averted catastrophe.

A road trip to Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champion, didn’t produce a win, but it showed how much progress Pittsburgh was making. The Steelers went toe-to-toe with the champs, each team running the ball well. In an age where there was no real parity in the NFL, close losses, like this 17-13 defeat, still said something about where a team was at.

It set up Pittsburgh for a soft part of the schedule. They went to Houston and beat an awful Oilers team 24-7, keyed by 115 yards from Harris. A home game with lowly New England resulted in an easy 33-3 rout, this time with Fuqua going over the 100-yard mark. And even though Buffalo had the great (and infamous) O.J. Simpson in the backfield, the Bills weren’t very good and it showed. O.J. went for 189 yards, but Harris mitigated the damage with 138 of his own, the defense picked off four passes and the Steelers won 38-21.

They were 5-2 at the halfway point, but it bears noting that the standards for making the playoffs were much higher than they are today. There were only four spots per conference. Pittsburgh shared the AFC Central Division, along with Cincinnati, Houston and the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals and Browns were both in the mix. There was only one wild-card available. Given the Steelers’ history, there was still every reason to have doubts.

A terrific home performance against the Bengals helped ease the doubts. Bradshaw threw a couple early touchdown passes and delivered a solid 10/20 for 190 yards performance, with no mistakes. He added a third touchdown pass in the second half and the final was 40-17. The following week, against a decent Kansas City Chiefs team, Harris ran for 134 yards and the Steeles chiseled out a 13-7 home win.

Cleveland had been this division’s best team in recent years and both games against the Browns were still on tap. The first came on the road on November 19. Pittsburgh dug themselves a 20-3 hole and looked not quite ready for prime time. Harris was having a big day though, with 136 yards. The Steelers came all the way back and took a 24-23 lead…only to have the Browns, who rushed for over 200 yards themselves, rally and win with a late field goal.

There were four games left. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were both 7-3. And they would play again in the Steel City in two weeks.

Before that though, the Steelers had to face Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings. Even though the ’72 Vikings were mediocre, this was the only time in nine years that Minnesota would not win their division. It was a dangerous spot for a young contender.

But Pittsburgh was ready. They dominated the ground game, winning rush yardage 206-95 behind 128 from Harris. They took over a game that was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter and won 23-10. Cleveland answered with a win over their own. It was time for the big showdown.

By any measurement, this was a changing of the guard moment in the AFC Central. The Steel Curtain defense had its first dominant showing in a really big game. They shut down the ground game. They held the Browns to 59 yards passing. Harris carried 20 times for 102 yards. The final was a 30-0 whitewash.

Pittsburgh’s earlier loss to Cincinnati meant they didn’t have the tiebreaker, and each of the last two games were on the road. But they were against bad teams in Houston and San Francisco. And the defense was feeling its oats. The D carried the Steelers to a lackluster 9-3 win in the old Astrodome in Houston. And they forced seven turnovers in San Francisco to key a 24-2 win. At 11-3, Pittsburgh was, at long last, going to the playoffs.

Oakland was coming back into town for the divisional round. The weather in Pittsburgh was inclimate for an early Saturday afternoon kick on December 23. Neither offense could get much of anything going. After a scoreless first half, the Steelers got a couple field goals and held a 6-0 lead going into the fourth quarter.

It looked like it was going to be enough. But the mobile Stabler took off on a winding 30-yard touchdown run in the final minute. Pittsburgh was down 7-6. They had one last play from their own 40-yard line, but it looked like this fine season was going to come to an end.

Bradshaw threw a pass to the middle of the field toward Fuqua. Oakland strong safety Jack Tatum made a play on the ball and batted it away. Harris, who never stopped playing, was coming up the left sideline. The batted ball had gone into the air. Harris grabbed it at his shoetops and raced into the end zone.

It was a stunning turn of events, but did the touchdown count? In today’s game, there would be no dispute. The ball had never hit the ground. But the rules of the time stated that once a ball touched an offensive player, it was dead. Oakland argued ferociously that the pass had hit Fuqua. Officials conferred. They let the touchdown stand. The Steelers won 13-7.

After that stunning turn of events, all Pittsburgh had to do was face the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game. But something big would work in their favor. Prior to 1974, the NFL awarded homefield advantage for playoff games based on a rotation system, rather than W-L record. The rotation came up in favor of the Steelers. Thus, the only team to complete a season with a  perfect record had to come up to Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve afternoon.

And the Steelers were not intimidated, taking a 10-7 lead into the third quarter. But Bradshaw had been knocked out. Terry Hanratty came in and the offense bogged down. The Dolphins pulled ahead 21-10 by the fourth quarter. Bradshaw came back in and played hurt. He led the Steelers to one touchdown, and got a couple more shots at taking the lead. But the final two possessions of the season ended with interceptions and the 21-17 loss stood.

Of course Miami finished the job and won the Super Bowl. But no one in Pittsburgh could be remotely unhappy with the way this season had gone. The Steelers were finally relevant. And they weren’t going away.