By Andrew Malkasian
The Ben Roethlisberger era is defined by a sustained success that is hard to come by in the NFL. From 1983-2004 the Steelers sought a franchise quarterback who could help them emerge out of the mire of mundanity. As this twenty-year period exemplifies, there are often many more misses than hits, yet Roethlisberger’s success undergirds the entire Steelers franchise, too. Imagine if the Steelers had missed in 2004? Alternative history is often a fool’s errand, but just for a moment imagine JP Losman trotting onto the field to relieve an injured Tommy Maddox in that early part of 2004. Would he have pushed the Steelers to a 15-1 season? Could he have authored a storybook ending for The Bus the very next season? Are there three Super Bowl appearances and two rings? This narrative is forever part of the collective ether, perpetually unknown. More importantly, the Steelers did not miss, and Roethlisberger’s level of play has defined this era in ways that are incredibly important when placed in the right context.
To be more specific, the success of the last two decades has solidified the Steelers at the top tier of NFL franchises for all time. Without the success of the Big Ben era, there is a chance that the Steelers four Super Bowls in the 1970s is considered an anomaly rather than a general mode of operation, more similar to the Dolphins’ perfect season than the inauguration of a historically great franchise. This is not to diminish the Steel Curtain in any way, but rather to explain that had the mediocrity of the 80s lingered on into the first two decades of the 21st century, there is no telling how the Steelers franchise would appear to football fans writ large. The Steelers of the 1970s would still stack up remarkably well in terms of history, but could the franchise claim themselves as a cornerstone franchise with limited to no success in the subsequent 5 decades? For instance, think of the Philadelphia Flyers…. exactly, you don’t. The Flyers are not the Penguins, or the Blackhawks, or the Lightning. They are a franchise holding onto the 1970s with dear life because they have had no tangible success in over 45 years.
Three Super Bowl appearances in the last 16 seasons have redefined success for the Steelers. Champions are not just a point of retrospective pride, they are an annual expectation. Thanks in large part to Ben Roethlisberger.
Yet, Ben had to work to make that a reality. In some ways, it is hard to imagine what he walked into in 2004. The unspoken pressure to emerge as the next Terry Bradshaw had to have been unnerving, but looking back, there is a good reason for that nervousness. The original TB12 is often not given his due. Whether it is his peculiar role in movies, the caricature of himself that he plays on FOX every Sunday, or the lingering criticism from his playing days, Bradshaw has often been misunderstood, underestimated, and undervalued. But Bradshaw’s role in the dynastic run of the 1970s cannot be understated. For several agonizing years after Bradshaw retired, the Steelers sought a franchise quarterback. If Roethlisberger has brought the Steelers’ success into a modern perspective, of course, Bradshaw set the initial tone.
While the 1970 first overall selection was determined by a coin flip, the player who would become that top selection was all but a forgone conclusion. While sitting on the bench at Louisiana Tech behind Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, Bradshaw watched his Bulldogs finish his first two seasons with a combined 4-16 record. By his Junior and Senior seasons in 1968 and 1969 respectively, he had taken the reigns and proven himself to be the top player in the nation. He was a pure passer, a tough player, and someone who could turn a franchise around. At least, that was the hope.
In his first season with the Steelers, Bradshaw competed with Terry Hanratty for playing time. In a total of 8 appearances, Bradshaw threw for a career-high 25 interceptions. Needless to say, the blond bomber had room to grow. His next three successive years were not nearly as tumultuous nor were they as productive as his talent foretold. While 1972 saw the Immaculate Reception and flashes of promise, Bradshaw lost his starting job during the 1974 season only to return in the Steelers week 7 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Three weeks later in a loss to the Bengals, Bradshaw was benched in favor of Hanratty, whose play left much to be desired and was himself benched for Bradshaw. It was frustratingly a quarterback’s version of musical chairs. From a modern perspective, there is a wonder how this did not plant serious doubts in Bradshaw’s mind and upend his psyche. But for whatever personal feeling he may have had about the situation, Bradshaw orchestrated an AFC Central title and the team’s first Super Bowl appearance and victory. The tenacity to persevere is an undercurrent to Bradshaw’s career, though that concept may not be discussed enough.
After Super Bowl IX, Bradshaw returned as the full-time starter in 1975, playing all 14 games of the regular season and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. The season was capped, of course, by their first pair of back-to-back titles, with a four-point win over the Dallas Cowboys. Their victory ushered in a period of dominance that defined an era and would place the Steelers atop the NFL food chain. Yet, 1976 was not to be a three-peat as the phrase goes. In a week 5 game against Cleveland, Joe Jones grasped Bradshaw around the waist, spun him around, then suplexed him upside down, driving his head directly into the Cleveland Municipal turf. As Bradshaw recalls, he was taken off the field and laid on a stadium door that had taken off the hinges. He remained strapped to the board for the remainder of the game (one in which they lost) in the hallway outside the locker room. He remained on the impromptu board for the plane trip only to be brought to a hospital in Pittsburgh. The spinal contusion that he suffered could have ended his season and the chances of a third title, but he returned after only a four-week absence from the lineup. Despite one of the best statistical defenses of all time, the team came up short in the AFC title game against the hated Raiders. A three-peat was not to be. If 1976 was a disappointment, 1977 was a catastrophe and worthy of forgetting. Yet, if it wasn’t for 1978 and 1979, perhaps 1977 would be a haunting memory more so than it is now.
In 1978, the Pittsburgh Steelers overwhelmed the league with a dominating 14-2 record. Their two losses were by a combined 10 points. One of those losses came at the hands of the Oilers at home which they kindly repaid by beating them in Week 14 and in the AFC championship game. In retrospect, 1978 was a perfect storm. A dominating defense, combined with prodigious offensive production for Bradshaw created a nearly unbeatable team that culminated in a third Lombardi trophy. The first team to win three Super Bowl titles. By 1979, the Steelers franchise was clearly the team of the decade. It was only right they had one more title left in them.
The only loss from the 1978 season they were unable to rectify was a 3-point loss against the Los Angeles Rams in the LA coliseum. Thankfully, the very next season in Super Bowl XIV gave the satisfaction of revenge. While the team was not nearly as dominant as the ’78 team, the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers capped a decade of dominance with a championship. Bradshaw ended the 70s with back-to-back championships, a league MVP, and two Pro Bowl appearances. Yes, the 70s teams were defined by the defense, but Bradshaw’s performances helped define the team’s success as a whole.
Final Curtain Call
If the 1970s exemplified the height of Steelers’ success, the 1980s clarified the historic nature of that dynasty. While the team largely remained the same from the previous year, they began to show their age. In 1980 and 1981 they missed the playoffs, with mediocre play and deteriorating performances by future Hall of Fame players. While 1982 showed signs of renewed progress with a playoff berth, this was perhaps just a last gasp of an incredibly proud and dominating franchise. By 1983, Bradshaw had missed most of the season with a serious elbow injury and only appeared in one game. However, in the late season game, he produced magic once more.
In what was a balmy Sunday afternoon in Queens, New York, Terry Bradshaw walked onto the field of Shea Stadium with a spark and determination to go out on his terms. What Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Press called at the time, a “Triumph of Head and Heart,” Bradshaw took to the field like his younger self and threw two touchdowns and secured a wildcard berth before walking off the field in the second quarter for the last time. He admitted after the game he just could not throw the ball anymore – clearly, a lingering issue from the injury he sustained in the ’82 season. But, before he walked off into the sunset of history, he pushed the Steelers over the hump one last time. Calvin Sweeny, the last Steelers player to ever catch a pass from number 12 claimed very succinctly, “We were lacking a leader. We need someone to step out front. That’s Brad. He did it today.”
Bradshaw did it for 14 seasons. Bradshaw did it for four Super Bowl Titles. Bradshaw took a hapless franchise, one that had missed regularly on top-tier QB talent and launched them into the upper echelon of the NFL. While his legacy is often mixed, his reputation often undermined by jokes, humor, and self-deprecation, Bradshaw defined the toughness, grit, and talent that Steelers fans expect. His legacy remains enormous, and his shoes were incredibly hard to fill.
The 21 years between Ben and Bradshaw provide a glimpse of life without a franchise quarterback. Those years should linger in the back of the minds of anyone quick to dismiss Bradshaw’s legacy or move on from Big Ben. Roethlisberger and Bradshaw do not come along all that often, and quite frankly, the Steelers’ history before Bradshaw’s arrival proves that.