If you started following the Steelers in the early-’80s like yours truly, your perspective of “The Dark Days” might be a little different than someone who remembers the actual bad times.
And when I say “actual bad times,” I mean most seasons from the moment the franchise was founded by the late Art Rooney Sr. in 1933, until Chuck Noll became the head coach in 1969 and slowly began to change the fortunes around for good.
I was eight years old when the Steelers took the field as back-to-back Super Bowl champions in September of 1980. And much like the older fans who grew accustomed to the success of the 1970s which also included back-to-back Lombardi Trophies in 1974 and 1975, I simply assumed that the championship train would continue to roll for years to come.
I was wrong.
Those Super Bowl stars from the ’70s got old really fast, and the Steelers missed the playoffs in ’80 and again in ’81. There was that wonderful 6-3 record in the strike-shortened ’82 season, but along with that came a heartbreaking home playoff loss to the Chargers at old Three Rivers Stadium.
In 1983, the Steelers jumped out to a 9-2 start behind backup quarterback Cliff Stoudt, who was filling in for an injured Terry Bradshaw. But Pittsburgh’s record had more to do with a defense that finished third in total yards and eighth in takeaways with 45 than it did with Stoudt’s quarterbacking ability. Even though he played all but one half for the injured Bradshaw in ’83, Stoudt averaged just under 160 passing yards per game and threw 12 touchdowns to 21 interceptions.
The problems on offense were too much to overcome, as the team lost four of its final five regular season games and was no match for the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs, falling 38-10.
As you may have guessed by the results of the first four seasons of the ’80s, the heroes who were part of maybe the greatest dynasty in professional sports history–names like Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Bradshaw–were retiring at a pretty fast pace.
By 1984, only a handful of stars from those ’70s squads remained, as Pittsburgh struggled to stay above .500 for most of the season and lost games to the 3-13 Oilers and 4-12 Colts. But believe it or not, the Steelers managed to defeat the 49ers (the soon-to-be Super Bowl champions) and the Raiders (the previous Super Bowl champions) and barely inched into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
In the postseason, Pittsburgh actually traveled to Mile High Stadium and knocked off a heavily favored Broncos team–led by second-year quarterback John Elway–in the divisional round before falling to the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game.
By 1985, Mark Malone was the starting quarterback, Jack Lambert joined his fellow legends in retirement, and Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie were starting in a backfield that used to be manned by Rocky Bleier and the legendary Franco Harris, who was cut prior to the ’84 campaign during a bitter contract dispute.
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1985 would be Pittsburgh’s first losing season in 14 years, as Chuck Noll’s squad, with a roster that was a far-cry from the one he coached just six years earlier, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Pittsburgh missed the postseason the next three years and finished with records of 6-10, 8-7 and 5-11, respectively.
The disastrous 5-11 ’88 campaign almost ended with the firing or resignation of Noll, who appeared to be out-of-touch the modern game and was reluctant to fire his assistants.
However, in 1989, Pittsburgh, who was expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL at the start of the year, rebounded from an 0-2 start–including blow-out losses at the hands of the Browns and Bengals–to finish 9-7 and made the playoffs as the fifth and final seed in the AFC.
In the postseason, not only did the Steelers defeat the Oilers in Houston in the AFC Wild Card Game, they lost by a single point to the eventual AFC Champion Broncos in the divisional round.
Sadly, it would be Noll’s last hurrah. While players such as young quarterback Bubby Brister showed promise, the glory days were long gone. And after Noll decided to hire Joe Walton and his complicated system as the new offensive coordinator, things really began to spiral downhill fast.
Pittsburgh missed the playoffs the following two seasons, and Noll retired after his team finished 7-9 in 1991.
So the ’80s were a pretty miserable decade, right? Maybe if you’re in your 40s like me.
If you’re in your 60s and remember, well, the 1960s, you might have a different perspective.
While the Steelers had a record of 77-75 in the ’80s, they finished 45-85-7 two decades earlier; the only claim to fame for the ’60s Steelers was almost making the NFL title game in 1963.
If you want more modern references, what about the Browns? They finished 57-103 in the 2000s–their only full calendar decade since coming back into the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999.
After enjoying a semi-decent run of success in the ’80s–including two Super Bowl appearances–the Bengals were a running-joke in the ’90s and finished with a 52-108 record.
So, yes, the 1980s were comparatively bad for the Steelers, when you factor in the six-straight playoff appearances in the ’90s that included five AFC Central Division titles and a trip to Super Bowl XXX.
The 2000s were even better for the Steelers, as they not only continued their success from the ’90s with six more playoff appearances and five division titles, they placed themselves atop the Super Bowl mountain and now have a record six, after victories in XL and XLIII.
But when you examine the 1980s just by themselves, you realize things weren’t so bad. You know that ’83 season? It included an AFC Central title. That mediocre ’84 team also won the division.
Speaking of the ’84 team, for Noll to get that squad to within one game of the Super Bowl spoke volumes about his true coaching ability. And the ’89 team that was supposed to finish with double-digit losses but managed to come within a whisker of the AFC title game? Maybe Noll wasn’t so out-of-touch after all.
Not only did you get to experience four playoff appearances, two division titles, two postseason victories and a trip to the AFC Championship Game in the ’80s; you got to witness 11 future Hall of Famers suit-up at various points (don’t forget about Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson), and they were all coached by a future Hall of Famer in Noll.
People would have been dancing in the streets if the Steelers had the kind of success in the ’40, 50’s and ’60s that they enjoyed in the ’80s.
Not a bad decade, when all is said and done.