December 10, 2010

1983: Bradshaw Spurs Steelers to Playoff-Clinching Win in Last Appearance

The Pittsburgh Steelers had gotten off to a 9-2 start in 1983 and appeared to be cruising toward the playoffs. But after winning seven straight games through Week 11, they lost the next three contests. Not only did their record drop to 9-5, but the Steelers were in danger of missing the postseason altogether. Their lead in the AFC Central was down to a game over the Cleveland Browns, and they needed a win to assure a playoff spot.

To start at quarterback against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium on December 10 was Terry Bradshaw, who had led the Steelers to four championships in the 1970s. It would be the 35-year-old veteran’s first start of the season. He had undergone surgery on his right (throwing) elbow in March, which had been considered successful, but aggravated the injury in May and re-injured the elbow in training camp. Placed on injured reserve to start the season, he had been activated the week before, but had not played.

Backup Cliff Stoudt was the starting quarterback while Bradshaw was out, and while the team had been winning, it was primarily because of the running game and defense. The passing offense had not kept pace, and Head Coach Chuck Noll decided that, with the postseason on the line, it was time to turn to the most successful quarterback in the franchise’s history.

The Jets, under first-year Head Coach Joe Walton, were 7-7 and entertaining slim playoff hopes of their own. New York had been in the postseason the previous two years, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship game in ‘82. But Walt Michaels had resigned as head coach and Walton, the highly regarded offensive coordinator, was elevated to the top job. The result had been regression as the Jets played inconsistently.

As a side note, the game against the Steelers would be the last for the Jets at Shea Stadium, their home since 1964. They were moving to Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands for the ’84 season, a venue they would share with New York’s other NFL club.

There were 53,996 fans on hand, with 6314 no-shows on a partly sunny and cool day. The teams traded punts on their first possessions. But when Pittsburgh got the ball back after another punt by the Jets, Bradshaw completed a 24-yard pass to TE Bennie Cunningham, followed by a 22-yard run by RB Frank Pollard to the New York 28 yard line. The drive stalled, but on a third-and-ten play, Bradshaw sprinted to his right and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to WR Gregg Garrity, who was wide open in the middle of the end zone. The eight-play possession had covered 77 yards.

The Jets punted again, and again the Steelers moved down the field. After a three-yard run by RB Franco Harris, another aging veteran of the glory years in the ‘70s, Bradshaw threw a pass to Pollard for a 17-yard gain. Harris carried again on a sweep that picked up 18 yards. After two runs by Pollard, a pass interference penalty on New York made it first down on the Jets’ 14. Three plays later, and now into the second quarter, Bradshaw, being blitzed, fired a bullet to WR Calvin Sweeney who caught the ball at the five and ran into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. The Steelers were ahead by 14-0.

That was the end for Bradshaw, however. He suffered a bruise to the injured elbow when throwing the pass to Sweeney and was through for the game (and ultimately for his career). He had been in for a total of 20 plays covering three series, but it was enough to give the Steelers momentum and a lead they would not relinquish.

Stoudt came in at quarterback and the Pittsburgh offense cooled off. However, Jets QB Richard Todd, who couldn’t get his team across midfield in the first half, was intercepted by safety Ron Johnson, and the return was to the New York nine. The result was a 29-yard Gary Anderson field goal. Following another punt by the Jets, the Steelers drove 42 yards in 10 plays and Anderson kicked another field goal, of 40 yards, just prior to the end of the half. The score at halftime was 20-0, and Pittsburgh was very much in command.

After being intercepted twice and sacked three times, Todd was relieved by backup QB Pat Ryan in the third quarter. Ryan’s first pass was intercepted by CB Mel Blount after bouncing off the hands of WR Wesley Walker, setting up a 13-yard touchdown pass from Stoudt to Cunningham.

New York’s best series of the game followed when Ryan moved the team 75 yards in three plays, with two of them passes to WR Johnny “Lam” Jones of 36 yards and 27 yards for a TD. But it was 27-7 after three quarters. Stoudt threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Sweeney just over four minutes into the fourth quarter, and that provided the final score of 34-7.

Fans tore up the Shea Stadium turf, as well as some of the temporary seating for football, leading to numerous injuries and arrests. It was an ugly end to both the season and the tenure at the stadium in Queens.

But the big story had been Terry Bradshaw, who launched the big win for the Steelers by completing 5 of 8 passes for 77 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“He was a major factor,” said Coach Noll of Bradshaw. “It was a remarkable performance considering what he's gone through. We saw him work during the week and we felt he was ready and I think he showed it today.”

“When you have a guy like Terry coming back, you have to use him,” said Cliff Stoudt. “And I guess his performance shows why. He wasn't 100 percent but he showed a lot of courage. He was the leader out there and when he got us the two quick scores, that was the ballgame.”

Other noteworthy performances were turned in by Franco Harris, who rushed for 103 yards on 26 carries, and Frank Pollard, who added 78 yards on 15 attempts as the Steelers rolled up 242 yards on the ground. Johnny “Lam” Jones was one of the few bright spots for New York, catching 7 passes for 146 yards and the team’s lone TD.

Pittsburgh lost the following week, with Stoudt at quarterback, but won the AFC Central with a 10-6 record. They lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs to the Raiders. The Jets, officially eliminated by the loss to the Steelers, also fell again in the season finale to finish at 7-9, tied with the Colts at the bottom of the AFC East.

While Chuck Noll hoped his veteran quarterback would be ready for further action, it was not to be. No one knew at the time, but the appearance against the Jets was the last of Bradshaw’s distinguished career. The damage to his throwing arm was too much to overcome.

The end for Bradshaw came fittingly enough as part of a clutch performance. While he might not always have received the credit he was due for quarterbacking the team to four championships, especially considering the strong supporting cast on offense and the many stars on defense, Bradshaw was an outstanding athlete and leader who was a key to the club’s success. He was selected to the Pro Bowl on three occasions and was a consensus first-team All-Pro choice in 1978, a year in which he led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes and the Steelers won their third Super Bowl. And Bradshaw did receive the ultimate honor – he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.