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Good Can Grow From a Bad Start
Sunday, October 15, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Talk about Super Bowl hangovers! Safety Mike Wagner's head still throbs 30 years later.
"Not only did we start 1-4, but Bradshaw was hurt," Wagner said the other day.
That was the topper for the 1976 Steelers. Two-time defending Super Bowl champs, they were about to lose for the fourth time in their first five games when the Browns' Turkey Joe Jones corkscrewed quarterback Terry Bradshaw's head into the hated unholy ground in Cleveland Stadium.
You don't get much lower than losing your Pro Bowl quarterback and slumping to 1-4 at the same time. Not unless you consider the 1995 Steelers, who just missed the Super Bowl the previous season. They lost their All-Pro corner-
back, Rod Woodson, and their starting quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, in the first game of the season and staggered into mid-season with a 3-4 record.
"I know it was tough in the beginning of the year," former linebacker Levon Kirkland said. "We were really scrambling at the time. We were really lost at the time and didn't have a whole lot of answers. And you're talking about a team that was really good the year before."
Wagner, Kirkland and others from those two remarkable Steelers comeback teams see a possible similarity to what they went through and what the defending Super Bowl champs of today are experiencing after four games and a 1-3 record.
Fans were frustrated, players and coaches were puzzled, just as they are today. Yet each of those two teams turned it around in remarkable fashion. The '76 Steelers won their next nine games to finish 10-4 and pummeled Baltimore in the playoffs before they lost the AFC championship game in Oakland without their two 1,000-yard runners Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. The late Art Rooney Sr. called it the best Steelers team he ever had.
The '95 Steelers also won their next eight games before losing what was, to them, a meaningless Christmas Eve game in Green Bay to go 11-5. They reached the Super Bowl, where they lost to Dallas.
It can be done.
"The same thing they're going through right now, we went through it," said Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham. "Fans don't understand that, but they lost to some pretty good teams here. We lost our games like these guys are doing, in the fourth quarter."
Fans weren't any more understanding 30 years ago than they are today, Ham said.
"My wife always tells me she'd go to the grocery story and was afraid to write a check because people would see the name and start complaining about the team," Ham said. "The whole town thinks you're going to win every game. Yeah, it got pretty bad when we were 1-4."
The spirit of '76
A look back at the Steelers' memorable finish to the 1976 regular season after starting 1-3:
9-1: Record in final 10 games
250: Points scored
46: Points allowed
15: Consecutive scoreless quarters Oct. 17-Nov. 14
The turnaround: Game by game
Browns 18, Steelers 16
Viscious tackle of Terry Bradshaw by Joe "Turkey" Jones mars game.
Steelers 14, Dolphins 3
Harris and Bleier rush for 100 yards for NFL-record second week in row.
Steelers 23, Bengals 6
With Bradshaw out, Franco Harris carries NFL-record 41 times for 143.
Steelers 32, Oilers 16
Defense gives up first TD in 22 quarters, but forces five turnovers.
Steelers 27, Giants 0
Game scoreless until QB Mike Kruczek engineers 80-yard drive late in first half.
Steelers 7, Bengals 3
Pull within one game of first-place Bengals by keeping them out of end zone again.
Steelers 23, Chargers 0
Defense posts back-to-back shutouts for first time in 42 years.
Steelers 42, Buccaneers 0
Hold Buccaneers to 105 yards and are bolstered by Bradshaw's return.
Steelers 45, Chiefs 0
Harris and Rocky Bleier both rush for 100 as Steelers finish with 330.
Steelers 21, Oilers 0
Clinch fourth AFC Central title in five years, allowing Oilers past midfield just once.
Wagner can relate to what today's Steelers are going through this week. The players probably have a few thoughts that go together.
"One, they're trying as hard as they can. Two, they're probably a little confused why it's not working. Three, they think they'll get it straightened out.
"Once you won the championship and believe you can beat the best, you have that confidence factor. There's also the other issue: the honeymoon's over after you lose a couple of games early. Then, the fans and media take a different approach to analyzing the team."
The Steelers Thursday signed their only link as a player from that 1995 Super Bowl team to the one trying to defend a Super Bowl championship, linebacker Chad Brown. But secondary coach Darren Perry was a safety on that team and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was his coach.
"That was a tough stretch," Perry said about his team's four losses in five games after a 2-0 start. "I still remember that Thursday night game pretty vividly against Cincinnati."
The Bengals won, 27-9, in Three Rivers Stadium to drop the Steelers to 3-4. But as low as the Steelers felt, they were still in first place. But they had one thing this team doesn't -- no competition in the division. No other team in the old AFC Central had a winning record after seven games in '95 and only the Steelers had a winning record at the end.
The Steelers made one very big move in '95 when they switched Carnell Lake from strong safety to cornerback to replace the injured Woodson during the open week that preceded their eighth game. They won eight in a row with him there.
"I called Carnell abut 10:30 at night and said we'd like to move you to corner and you should probably come in here and start working on it," LeBeau recalled. "The next morning, at quarter to 7, the building wasn't even open. I heard someone knocking on the door, I looked around at the door and there was Carnell."
The 1995 team's offense came alive during the second half of the season as O'Donnell returned. The 1976 defense put on one of the great shows in NFL history to save that season, shutting out three consecutive foes, five in eight games and holding two others in the final nine games to 6, 3 and 3 points.
Dick Hoak was an assistant coach on that team, on the '95 team and on this one.
"The thing about the '76 team, we were coming off two Super Bowls, we're 1-4 and the quarterback gets hurt," Hoak said. "Now we have to put [rookie] Mike Kruczek at quarterback and we're playing the next week in Cincinnati, who is 4-1. If Cincinnati beats us, we're done.
"The guys all got together and said we have to do this thing. Mike played against the Bengals and I think he threw nine passes."
He threw 12, completed five. Harris ran 41 times, Bleier six and Frenchy Fuqua five as the Steelers won, 23-6.
It was the kind of game Bill Cowher and his team needs today, the kind the coach meant when he talked the past week about just winning one game.
"It's hard to explain how those things happen," Hoak said. "Just like last year, we're 7-5. If we lose one more game, we're done. We got on a roll, started playing good, cut down on the mistakes and we won eight in a row. People started making plays."
There was no panic, Hoak said. Not in '76, not in '95, not last season and he sees none now. Everyone seems to want changes when a team loses, but that's not what turns it around.
"You have to do the things you've practiced since the first day of training camp and minicamp and back in the spring," Hoak said. "You have to do those things, but you just have to start doing them better. You can't turn the ball over.
"You don't have to change your offense, just don't turn the ball over. You can't blow a coverage. You're playing a certain coverage, you can't make that mistake. You have to do those things that you do well and just keep doing them and don't make mistakes."
Forget the past
Cowher treated the key moments of the 1995 and 2005 seasons the same way he approached this week. He told his players to forget about everything that was done to that point.
"Coach Cowher did a good job of really selling that part of the season, that the first seven games were over with," Kirkland said. "We start a new season. We didn't mention what happened up to 3-4.
"We accepted that and said the season's not over with yet. We won eight games in a row, an incredible run. We took them one at time -- I know that's a cliche, but the more we won, the more we believed in ourselves. It was a team buying into the whole package, as if the 3-4 season didn't exist."
Can the 2006 Steelers follow the paths of those previous teams?
"It's not going to be easy," said Kirkland, who works today as a minority student recruiter for Clemson University, his alma mater. "But we were really down and out at 3-4, almost halfway through the season.
"We bounced back and did some good things. This team can do it too. Just play football and don't put so much pressure on themselves. They have the team to do it."