Defying the rules changes supposed to provide more scoring in the National Football League, 63 minutes 43 seconds elapsed before the Pittsburgh Steelers managed the only touchdown in Three Rivers Stadium yesterday.
The Cleveland Browns were finally snake-bitten in overtime by a dusty old flea-flicker pass lurking in the Steelers' playbook - as it does in most everyone else's - which won the game by a 15-9 score.
Terry Bradshaw came up to second and nine at the Cleveland 37-yard line and said, "Okay, guys, this is it. This is when we do it - fake 84 reverse."
Bradshaw handed off to running back Rocky Bleier, who handed off to wide receiver Lynn Swann on an apparent reverse, but suddenly Swann pulled and lateraled the ball back to Bradshaw.
Meanwhile, tight end Bennie Cunningham was widening his distance from bamboozled free safety Thom Darden and strong safety Tony Peters. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound Cunningham pulled in the ball at the Cleveland three-yard stripe and scampered over the goal line to the cheers of most of 49,573 fans.
Rookie Coach Sam Rutigliano of the Browns tasted defeat for the first time, the Steelers remained alone atop the American Football Conference Central with a 4-0 record, and the Browns were left to grouse about what might have been if they had gotten possession in the extra period.
The harsh irony was that the Browns thought they had possession on the kickoff for the fifth period, even though they did the kicking off.
Larry Anderson of Pittsburgh accepted Don Cockroft's kickoff and ran 11 yards to the Steeler 21 before he tripped over teammate Rick Moser's legs and leg go of the ball when he hit the ground. Rick Feacher recovered the loose ball but it was ruled that Anderson was down and the referee's whistle had blown before he coughed up the ball.
Anderson said afterward, "The ball popped out of my hands; all I could think of was, 'Well, I've blown it.'"
Did he think it was a fumble?
"At first I thought I had fumbled it because I didn't know whether my knee had touched the ground."
Darden of the Browns said, "The game was stolen from us before that (on several other calls); that was the frosting on the cake. They couldn't beat us man-to-man (an illusion to winning on a trick play). The officials are like God: they have the power to give and take away, and they decided to take away."
Teammate Feacher declared, "He wasn't down: I did'nt hear a whistle. As far as I'm concerned, it was a fumble."
Rutigliano said, "I saw the ball falling on the ground, there was a white-jerseyed (Brown) player on top of it, and I waited for the melodrama." He would not elaborate.
Coach Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh said, "The official blew the whistle; I heard the whistle on the sideline, then the ball came loose."
As if to dispel the tension at the finish, Noll showed a humorous side in talking about the game-winning play: "It was getting so dull around here. I wanted to give everybody something to write about."
But he made it clear it was Bradshaw who called the play.
"When you have to win a game on a gadget play like this," Noll said, "well, I'm just glad we had it in for this game. We practiced it on Wednesday. It's part of a series. You have to get into the right position. It's called 'high school,' right?"
The Steelers made good on a fourth-and-one gamble from the 50-yard line to keep the extra-period thrust going Franco Harris made good by about eight inches for his 84th yard in 26 carries.
Noll, asked if he had any qualms about the call, responded: "Why run on fourth and a yard at midfield? Because it was overtime. We didn't want to give them the ball. Our players wanted to go for it. When they have that kind of commitment, we let them do it."
Roy Gerela kicked a 19-yard field goal in the first quarter for the Steelers and counterpart Cockroft of the Browns connected from 43 and 30 yards in the second period and 41 yards in the third quarter before Gerela kicked two in the fourth period, from 33 and 36 yards.