Three yards short… just 3 yards short of the 1994 AFC Championship. That loss to the San Diego Chargers haunted the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly a full year. They had fought to unseat the Bills and Oilers in an AFC ruled by open offenses during the early 90s. In 1994 with each foe not making the playoffs, Pittsburgh would coast to Super Bowl XXIX, right?? After all Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Rod Woodson and the rest of the Blitzburgh defense would be back intact.

sbxxxpLOL Uh huh that’s exactly what everyone thought when on a rainy, gray, dreary, ominous day in Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers welcomed the San Diego Chargers in what was going to be a Steelers coronation and they’d be off to win that elusive “one for the thumb”, fifth Super Bowl title. However trailing late in the 4th quarter 13-10, on a 3rd and short, Stan Humphries play faked and went up top for Tony Martin for a 43yd touchdown with a few minutes to go in the game.

The Steelers weren’t known for their passing offense or good at a two minute drill. Frantically the Steelers raced down field when they were caught 3 yards away from the goal line facing a 4th down. The season rested on one play… Neil O’Donnell threw for Barry Foster yet Dennis Gibson knocked the ball down to preserve a 17-13 upset. Prozac prescriptions skyrocketed in western Pennsylvania.

So the mantra going into the ’95 season was to get those “3 more yards”. It was emblazoned on banners, t-shirts, terrible towels, you name it. They were determined not to be denied again.

In the offseason the Steelers said goodbye to free agent TE Eric Green and farewell to Barry Foster. Foster who had led the AFC with 1,690yds rushing in 1992 was the heart of the offense since Coach Bill Cowher had come to the Steel City. Yet unlike when the team lost Hardy Nickerson and Thomas Everett in recent years, Green and Foster represented the offenses identity and personality. So when they lost their most decorated player, cornerback Rod Woodson in week one, staggered to a 3-4 start, it looked like 1995 would become a lost season.

nfl_woodson-rings_600x600Enter Kordell Stewart. The mid-round draftee QB from Colorado made famous for his hail mary pass that beat Michigan in 1994, was languishing on the Steelers bench. Several receivers were injured and he was pressed into duty as a receiver in practice where he proved to be more athletic than the regular receivers. Stewart electrified in practice. Cowher started to insert Stewart into the lineup in several packages and a now wide open Steelers offense was born.

The big play along with 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets were run with regularity, for the first time. Teams did not have any film to study they’re new approach nor ANY film to recognize where or how they would use Stewart.

With this new weapon, “Slash” helped the Steelers break their predictable play calling and a bolder offense went from scoring 21 to 27 points per game. They went on an 8 game winning streak and for 6 straight games scored in the last two minutes before the half. Stewart scored 4 of those touchdowns. They took the momentum into the half with them in the process. Retooled with new enthusiasm the ’95 Steelers screamed into the playoffs.

Yet make no mistake about it… this team was still identified by it’s defense which ranked 3rd in the NFL. Led by one of the decade’s best quartet of linebackers, Greg Lloyd (6 1/2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles/ 3ints) & future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene (9 sacks /2 forced fumbles) led the pass rush along with DE Ray Seals. ILB Levon Kirkland (88 tackes 2 ff) and Joel Steed suffocated inside rushing attacks and former SS Carnell Lake joined Greene and Lloyd in the Pro Bowl. This unit was 2nd against the run, 3rd overall whicle sacking QBs 42 times forcing 18 fumbles and pirated 22 enemy passes.

super-bowl-logo-1995How different was this team? In their first playoff win over Buffalo, the Steelers scored the most points ever in a home playoff game winning 40-21. The AFC Championship against the upstart Indianapolis Colts was a slugfest that echoed the 1994 championship in many ways. The most eery was when Harbaugh duplicated the exact same scenario, throwing a late 4th qtr bomb to Floyd Turner to take a 16-13 lead. You want to talk about a hush falling over a stadium, my goodness you would have thought you were at a funeral…lol and we were. After all they had overcome to get back to the championship game and they were in the same position again?? Are you kidding me??

So what had changed?? The season long development of their passing game is what had.  Not only were they able to initiate a march, they actually faced the team’s motto during the drive. Facing a 4th and 3 near midfield with their season on the line, O’Donnell hit Andre Hastings to keep the drive alive. “To hell with a tie!”

Nearing field goal range for a game tying kick, this bolder Steeler offense went for it all when O’Donnell found a streaking Ernie Mills down to the 2. They scored a few plays later to take a 20-16 lead. Now it was up to the defense to hold off the Colts who had come from behind many times that season. Harbaugh brought them to within a failed hail mary of pulling off the upset.

So with a collective sigh of relief they were off to Super Bowl XXX. They literally got those three more yards. Although they lost to Dallas, they thoroughly outplayed them from the middle of the second quarter on. They held Dallas to 61 total yards in the second half, fewest ever for a Super Bowl winner.

They were the first to kick an onside kick without being under 5 minutes to go. Something the Saints copied in Super Bowl XLIV. A couple errant interceptions by O’Donnell robbed this team of its rightful place in history as a Super Bowl champion. Yet the magnificence of their effort in trying to achieve their goal was to be celebrated. Tremendous lesson to be learned from these men is a simple one. To achieve what you want, you may have to change how you do things to get there.

A look back at the ’95 AFC Championship Game:


Sigh…. Neil!!! This was the crowning jewel for becoming AFC Champions in 1995. They should have won it all…

Dedicated to the memories of LB Kevin Greene, T Justin Strelzyk, and Offensive Coordinator Ron Erhardt.



The Immaculate Reception: Before There Were Hail Marys

Franco Harris going in for a touchdown with the Immaculate Reception

NFL Films had a video of the 100 greatest touchdowns in NFL history that came out in the 1990s which labeled Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs, as the greatest ever. It was a completely fair assessment.

It launched a Hall of Fame career for Franco,  launched the greatest NFL playoff rivalry of the Super Bowl era, and was the birth of one of the greatest dynasties sports has ever seen. Although the Raiders did get revenge in the 1973 playoffs, Al Davis and the Oakland faithful vehemently disagree with the referee’s ruling that day.

Coach John Madden has said on numerous occasions how he disagreed with the officials not signaling touchdown when the play was over. the refs had a conference first before ruling the touchdown stood that gave Pittsburgh a 13-6 lead with 5 seconds left. So what led to the animosity and fame of this touchdown??

Before the rule changes of 1978, a deflected forward pass could only be caught by an offensive player unless it was touched first by a defensive player. It couldn’t bounce from one offensive player to another like we have now with a Hail Mary. By the way, The Hail Mary is also a nickname for a famous last second touchdown in the 1975 playoff win by Dallas over Minnesota and not the creation of Tom Landry…yet I digress.  The Immaculate Reception had everything: drama, controversy, and extreme importance.  What started the controversy is the lingering question: Did the ball hit Oakland Raider Jack Tatum or Pittsburgh’s John “Frenchy” Fuqua before deflecting to Franco Harris?

Alright lets set it up for you: The Pittsburgh Steelers were experiencing their first real winning season in 39 years in 1972. They were powered on offense by a rookie running back from Penn St., Franco Harris. He had powered for 1,055 yards and 10 TDs to give the Steelers their first breakaway runner. He seemed to be the centerpiece for a team Chuck Noll had been building through the draft over the last 4 years. Pittsburgh had made the playoffs for the first time ever and on December 23, 1972 would host the Oakland Raiders in a AFC Divisional Playoff Game.

Meanwhile the Raiders had been mainstays in the postseason over the 6 previous seasons. They had made it to Super Bowl II before the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, and the 1968 and 1969 AFL Championship Games. After losing the first ever AFC Championship Game in 1970 to the Baltimore Colts, they were a team in transition and missed the playoffs in 1971. However with an infusion of new Raiders to put the team in the winner’s circle again, they won the AFC West and were back in ’72 and after that elusive first Super Bowl championship. First they had to go to Pittsburgh….

On a cold, dark and dreary day these two teams met and slugged it out in one of the most physical games of the era. We had two smothering defenses pounding the offenses into the ground and late in the 4th quarter the Steelers had a 6-0 lead. Desperate for some offense, John Madden inserted a young, mobile Kenny Stabler in for an anemic Darryle Lamonica which produced immediate results. On a last second desperation drive, the Raiders came scrambling downfield with their young QB in his first significant action in an NFL playoff game.

At the Steelers 30 with less than 1:30 to go, Stabler avoided the Steel Curtain, took off and scored on a 30 yard TD run to give the Raiders their first lead of the game 7-6.  “The Snake” had done it!! A hero was born!! There was bedlam on the Oakland sideline and with 1:13 to go began to make reservations for they would host the AFC Championship Game against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

A confident Raider defense took the field expecting to thwart the Steelers final offensive attempt. After three failed passing attempts the Steelers were faced with a 4th and 10 from their own 40 yard line with :22 left in the game. The Raider defense had played a defensive masterpiece on the road. One more play and it was on to face the Dolphins. They hadn’t given up a touchdown all day…what could possibly happen?? Terry Bradshaw dropped back, this was the Steelers last chance, he scrambled to the right to avoid the rush and as two Raiders converged…Bradshaw stood his ground and heaved one down the middle to an open “Frenchy” Fuqua. However the late Jack Tatum was closing on the spot where Frenchy reached up to make the catch and….

A bloody playoff rivalry was born and from 1972-1976 these teams met every year in the playoffs. The Raiders gained some revenge in 1973 with a 33-14 thrashing. Then Pittsburgh turned the tables winning the 1974 and ’75 AFC Championships over Oakland before winning Super Bowls IX and X. Then when the Steelers were going for a three-peat, ran into a 13-1 Oakland team that defeated them 24-7, on their way to their first Super Bowl win in the 11th edition over the Vikings. It all started with the ’72 playoffs and The Immaculate Reception.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

In Columbus Ohio in Winter 1991, I had the good fortune of running into Franco Harris and James Lofton who were there for the Archie Griffin Tennis Classic I believe. Anyway, sitting at the bar and prying him with beer I could not get Franco to admit the ball had bounced off Frenchy Fuqua and therefore should have been incomplete. “Come on, its just us sitting in a bar. Who would know?” I kept prodding him. Lofton was just laughing his ass off because Franco would just grin and shake his head every time I asked him.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

It was cool talking football with him and for the record… I believe the ball bounced off of the back of Fuqua’s helmet.  Follow the replay and you’ll see Fuqua flash in front of Tatum who the ball was headed for. If Tatum was in front of Fuqua, he would have put out his hands to knock the ball down, not brace for impact.  When was the last time you saw a football hit someone on the shoulder pads and bounce 15 yards (45 feet) away??  Lets have it ….What say you?? Did the ball bounce off of Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum??

Epilogue: My initial thought of the ball bouncing off Fuqua, maintained for decades, I have changed my mind. After blowing it up and slowing the footage down, you can see the ball move past Fuqua and hit somewhere on Jack Tatum’s right shoulder / chest. I magnified the footage and slowed it frame by frame. It’s still the greatest play in the history of the NFL and I know the debate will rage on.

frenchyThanks for reading and please share the article.