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Sunday September 29, 1968, week three of the NFLâ€™s 49th season. The 0-2 Pittsburgh Steelers were hosting the 2-0 Baltimore Colts. The Steelers were coming off a 45-10 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams, the Colts had a much tougher game than expected the week before in Atlanta, but they beat the Falcons 28-20.
These were teams traveling in different directions. The Colts were 11-1-2 the year before and missed the playoffs by losing a tie breaker. The Colts were favored to win the NFL championship in 1968 even though 1967â€™s MVP Johns Unitas was limited with an injured elbow, veteran Earl Morrall was filling in capably so far for Unitas.
The Steelers were the doormats of the NFL. Formed in 1933 and owned by the likeable Art Rooney they had lost more games than any other team in NFL history as these 2 teams took the field that day. This was the Steelers 36th season with a record during those years of 164-243-18. They had posted just 8 winning seasons and had played in only one post season game which they lost 21-0 to the Eagles in a playoff game to decide the winner of the Eastern Division in 1947. To make their plight even worse was the fact they cut Pittsburgh native John Unitas in 1955 who would of course lead the Colts to three championship game appearances, winning 2 over the next decade.
The man that headed the Steelers that day was Bill Austin, hired in 1966 as the Steelers 16th head coach with a record of 9-17-2 his first two seasons to his credit. Austin was a respected player as a lineman for the Giants and later as an assistant coach under Vince Lombardi with the champion Packers.
Art Rooney and his son Dan who assisted his father in running the day to day operations of the Steelers knew that while Austin was a respected player and coach he was not the man to redirect the Steeler fortunes. Another change was needed.
The Steelers seemed destined for another dismal season. They had already begun contemplating Austinâ€™s replacement. They had 2 candidates in mind, third year Penn State coach Joe Paterno who had turned around the Nittany Lions in just a couple of seasons and was in the midst of leading them to an undefeated season and an Orange Bowl win. They also were considering a former Steeler quarterback (more on that later) who was the offensive coordinator under George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams. Since taking over the Rams offense in 1965 this coordinator had taken the Los Angeles offense from close to the bottom of the league and made them the highest scoring team in football in just two seasons. The Rooneyâ€™s had 2 good choices.
The Colts were led by Don Shula who was supported by the best defense in football. Shulaâ€™s defensive coordinator (more on this later too) also served as secondary coach and had created the best pass defense in football. In 1967 the Colts intercepted a league leading 32 passes, safety Rick Volk and cornerback Bobby Boyd were tops on the Colts that year with six interceptions each. Their coverage schemes based on the new zone pass defense was ahead of its time and was the most respected in the NFL.
Now for the gameâ€¦
There were few surprises for the 44,480 patrons in Pitt Stadium that sunny Sunday afternoon. The Steelers only drew about 35,000 a game. That day was different. The Coltsâ€™ fan club â€“ the Colts Corrals, had many of their faithful members make the trip to Pittsburgh swelling the crowd to the Steelers largest since their home game against the Browns the year before.
The Colts dominated. By the middle of the second period the Colts had a 17-0 lead. Rookie TE Tom Mitchell caught a 4 yard touchdown pass from Morrall then back up running back Tim Brown scored on a 2 yard run. Lou Michaels had begun the scoring with a 38 yard field goal. Close to the end of the first half, Boyd intercepted Pittsburgh quarterback Dick Shiner and ran it back 25 yards for a touchdown. At the half the Colts led 24-0 as the Steelersâ€™ fans began to clear the stadium.
The third quarter saw a Michaelsâ€™19 yard field goal as the only points of the period, Colts 27 Steelers 0. Then the Colts tied an NFL record. On the Steelers next two possessions the Colts intercepted and both were run back for scores. Charlie Stukes intercepted the first and raced 60 yards for a touchdown, then defensive end Roy Hilton grabbed one and scored from thirteen yards out. The Colts led 41-0 and they had tied the NFL record for most interceptions run back for touchdowns in a game with three (since broken by the Seahawks who ran back 4 interceptions for touchdowns against the Chiefs in 1984).
Shiner did throw a late touchdown pass to running back Earl Gros to avoid the shut out as the Colts won 41-7. The Rooneys were beaten again and their feelings of another lost season were validated. While they had to be disappointed at the outcome of the game they were impressed by how the Colts defense, especially their secondary had dominated their offense. Although the Steelers did have All Pro wide receiver Roy Jefferson on their team (Jefferson would go over 1,000 yards receiving in 1968 and score 11 touchdowns) he could not get open this day. The Steelersâ€™ receivers had no chance.
The impressive Colts defensive display influenced the Rooneys to add the Baltimore defensive coordinator to their list of possible head coaches with Paterno and the Rams offensive coordinator.
1968 ended as predicted for the Steelers as they finished with a record of 2-11-1, good for last place. The Colts on the other hand went 13-1 and won the NFL championship. However the Colts good fortunes that year were erased by the shocking loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. For some old Baltimore Colts, that disappointment still lingers.
The Colts pass defense was picked apart by Joe Namath in that contest as he completed 19 of 28 passes and won the gameâ€™s MVP award.
The Steelers let Austin go after their season was over and they offered their head coaching job to Paterno a couple of weeks after his Orange Bowl victory. Paternoâ€™s answer is pretty obvious.
The Steelers then narrowed their choice to the coordinator of the best offense in football, the Rams and the coordinator of the best defense in football the Colts.
After 37 years of losing the Rooneys decided the best way to build a winner was through the draft. The coordinator of the Rams worked under George Allen and Allen was known for trading his draft picks for proven veterans. While this worked for the Rams, the Rooneys felt Pittsburgh would be served better by a head coach who would build with collegiate talent.
Shula rebuilt the Colt defense in just a couple of years when he took over an aging Baltimore team in 1963. By drafting key defensive players such as Bubba Smith and Rick Volk and drafting and converting fullback Mike Curtis to linebacker he built the Colts back into champions.
The Rooneys had decided on their 17th head coach, hoping he would be the one to finally make the Steelers a winner. By now you know I am talking about Chuck Noll who was hired on January 27, 1969, 2 weeks and a day after coaching the Colts defense in Super Bowl III.
Noll, implementing what Shula had taught him, began by drafting on defense. He used his first pick in the 1969, the second overall in that draft (the first was OJ Simpson) to select a defensive tackle from North Texas State, Joe Greene. The Steelers finished even worse in 1969 going 1-13, but they were better statistically. They picked first the next year and selected Louisiana Techâ€™s Terry Bradshaw.
Four seasons later the Rooneys were holding the Vince Lombardi trophy after winning Super Bowl IX.
The Steelers made the right choice. History has proven that.
The Rams offensive coordinator who did not get the Steelers job would eventually get his chance to be a head coach. Early in 1975 the Baltimore Colts hired Ted Marchibroda, who by then was the Redskins offensive coordinator, having followed George Allen from Los Angeles to Washington.
On that September day back in 1968, the Steelers had one of their worst games in their history and in retrospect, Steelers fans should be grateful. If not for a dominating performance by the Baltimore defense, Chuck Noll probably would not have been hired by the Steelers in 1969. Had Noll stayed in Baltimore, he would have been offered the Colts head coaching job after Shula left for the money in Miami after 1969.
You have to wonder what may have been if the Colts had not been that good on September 29, 1968.
Letâ€™s hope the Ravens are half as good this coming Monday on center stage.