Instead of falling on his fumbles, Franco Harris tried to pick up on the run. Instead of turning toward the goal line on time, Randy Grossman turned a microsecond too soon. Instead of throwing the ball away, Terry Bradshaw forced it into the end zone. These are silly things Super Bowl champions don't do. The Steelers are mortal now.
They lost to Houston the other night, 6-0. Harris lost two fumbles when he made the schoolboy mistake of bending to scoop them up. On first down at the Oilers' one-yard line in the third quarter, Grossman went into motion to lead a back through the line. The tight end turned too early, though, and the penalty prompted Bradshaw to pass into the end zone. Scrambling, he pitched a wobbler that was intercepted easily, one of his three interceptions.
Bum Phillips had beaten the Steelers befofe, but only three times in 13 tries and never when it meant anything. Frustration owned the Oiler's coach so completely that last winter he brought an Astrodome crowd to a roar by saying, "We've knocked on the door to the Super Bowl two years now, and next year we're going to kick the sumbitch down." With both teams at 8-5, this latest Pittsburgh-Houston game would decide which could keep on kicking.
At game's end, someone asked Joe Greene, "Is this the end of a dynasty?"
"Not the end, just an interruption," said the patriarchal defensive tackle smiling kindly.
Actually, the Steelers aren't out of the playoffs yet. If New England loses to Miami and Buffalo, and if San Diego loses to either the Redskins or Seattle, then the Steeler's season-ending game at San Diego would be for a wild-card spot in the playoffs -- if the Steelers beat Kansas City next Sunday. For the mighty Steelers, all these "ifs" are a new thing. Used to be they went straight to the Super Bowl, beat up on some poor guys and flew home with another planeload of big rings.
Joe Gordon, the Steeler public relations man, explained the possibilities to Jack Lambert, the Steeler fanged linebacker.
"You mean we've still got a chance?" Lambert said right after the 6-0 loss. "Oh, no. I've already blown my brains out."
The Steelers' best chance is for next year. Even if they make the playoffs this time, they are not a Super Bowl team. John Stallworth hasn't played in 11 games and is out for the year, as are Jon Kolb and Jim Smith. Injuries have ruined the offensive line and caused the defense to endure unprecedented humiliation (in successive games, Jim Plunkett and Brian Sipe completed 41 of 67 passes for 596 yards and seven touchdowns, racking up 72 points).
Injuries: 17 Steelers have missed a total of 67 games; 13 of those players were starters. When Lynn Swann and Stallworth were hurt at the same time, the Steelers lost three straight games by a total of 13 points.
"You can make out of it anything you want to make," said Chuck Noll, the Steeler brain. "'End of a dynasty,' whatever you want. What it means to us is that we'll have a long offseason instead of a short one. That's both by the calendar and psychologically. We have to regroup. We have to get more enthusiasm. When things are going well, it's easy to keep that nice feeling going. But when things aren't going so nicely, that's when it's psychologically tough. We have to get that desire back."
There have been no calls for Noll's head. The Steelers won 32 games in the last two seasons, including two straight Super Bowls, but they likely will win only nine games this year and will watch the Super Bowl on television. For a franchise that went 50 years before winning any kind of championship, this season is no calamity. His first year, remember, Chuck Noll turned out a Steeler team that went 1-13.
"The town was conditioned for missing the playoffs," said Vito Stellino, a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "When the Steelers were 4-4, everybody said, 'Hey, this is it, we don't have it this year.' Everybody was sympathetic, considering all the injuries."
Historians see parallels between these Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys of 1974.
In '71, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. The next two years, they lost in the Nfc championship games, only one step from the Super Bowl.
Then came an 8-6 record in 1974. Was this a sign the mighty had fallen? It was, in Joe Greene's phrase, just an interruption. For in '75,the Cowboys were back in the SuperBowl (losing to Pittsburgh).
Noll's job now, as it was Tom Landry's in 1975, is to recreate a championship team.
As Landry did, Noll has a good start already: a great quarterback.
Beginning the '75 season, Roger Staubach was 33.
Beginning next year, Terry Bradshaw will be 33.
Arnold Bradshaw, Noll must bring in new personnel. Rocky Bleier, the inspirational running back, will retire after the season. Defensive tackle Dwight White was waived this season and then brought back. He won't make the cut next time. Greene and defensive end L.C. Greenwood will be 35 next season. Six new men made the Steelers' 45-man roster this year; maybe 10 new ones will make it next year.
The Steelers need help from good rookies now on injured reserve (John Goodman of Oklahoma is expected to press Greenwood for a starting job).
They need the luck/skill of a good draft (they haven't drafted a Pro Bowl player since they picked five in '74).
They need to get healthy (when they lost not only Stallworth but his backup Smith, the Steelers couldn't score; Bradshaw has 15 touchdown passes the first seven games and only seven in the last seven games, a time period that not incidentally began when he injured the thumb on his throwing hand).
What they need most is what they missed most this year.
Chuck Noll: "We have to get that desire back."
Are the Steelers fat cats?They had chances to be fat cats after winning one Super Bowl, or two, or even three. Why should they be fat cats only after winning a fourth? Yet, the two losses to Cincinnati this year were inexplicable, the second loss causing an angry Noll to tell his players, "A malaise has settled on you." With the malaise came injuries. Noll once said injuries are not freak things, that injuries happen if you're distracted.
Have the Steelers been broken up by the distractions of success? Bradshaw skipped a mini-camp for quarterbacks in order to make a movie or do a commerical or go sing. Something. It was a symbol of things to come. The Steelers were trying to take shortcuts.
"It sneaks up on you," Noll said. "When you have a lot of injuries, you lose intensity in practice. Then you can't practice with good habits. It's all done with good intentions. You want to get well and so you take it easy when you get out there. You get away from what football is all about, which is hitting other people very hard."
That will cure a malaise every time.