The Ultimate Thriller, Bahr None, For Steelers
By Jim O'Brien, The Pittsburgh Press
The rest would've been too tired to move off their chairs. Most of them were numb from the physically demanding battle they had been through.
They had come from behind yesterday to beat the Cleveland Browns, 33-30, in overtime to keep their hopes for another Super Bowl title intact. It may have been the best National Football League game ever played at Three Rivers Stadium.
It was the 10th year they had turned back the Browns there.
Playing five full periods of hard-hitting football, and getting frustrated throughout by the Browns' fine quarterback Brian Sipe, had obviously taken its toll on them.
They were as happy as the crowd of 48,773, which helped rally them from deficits of 20-6 and 30-20, but were unable to show it.
Franco Harris, who scored all three of the Steelers' touchdowns, could hardly move: "I'm whipped, man," he said in a near whisper. The marvelous running back who is en route to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was out of moves, for a change.
Mel Brooks' "2,001-year-old man" could have caught him from behind.
"It was a very demanding game," said Harris. "We had no big plays. It was nothing but long drives. That takes a lot out of you."
Jack Lambert looked beat. He spent his last ounce of energy hoisting Matt Bahr overhead after he kicked the game-winng field goal. "I'm really happy for him," said Lambert. "I had so much confidence in him. He thrives on that sort of thing."
Lambert and Harris and the other Steelers moved, almost in a trance, from their dressing stalls to the showers and back. Some were gone so long, it was feared they might have drowned. Seeing them in transit, one would have thought there was broken glass all over the floor, they moved so gingerly. Some had to be reminded to smile.
Bahr was bright-eyed and certainly had the freshest face amongst those who figured the most in the Steelers' dramatic victory.
Bahr's 4th field goal of the game -- a 37-yarder with nine seconds remaining in overtime -- provided the difference in beating the Browns. His 21-yard field goal with 24 seconds left in regulation tied the contest.
"There wasn't any one guy who won this game," said Bahr, on the mark once more in the somewhat subdued Steeler clubhouse, where the dominant feeling was one of relief rather than euphoria. "You could call this game a true team effort. That's why it's so important."
The victory boosted the Steelers' record to 10-3, tying them with the Houston Oilers for first place in the Central Division of the American Football Conference, as the Browns, 8-5, fell two games back. The Cincinnati Bengals, who are 4th in the AFC Central and coming here next Sunday, beat the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, 34-28.
The Steelers escaped with their playoff hopes intact in this thriller, but their work is still cut out for them in the three remaining games. "It's always hard, it's never easy," offered Franco.
"Today's victory did a lot for us emotionally," defensive back Ron Johnson said. "It's gonna set the tone for us for the rest of the season. It's gonna do a lot for us for the next three weeks. I think the Cincinnati Bengals are in trouble."
Bahr asked about the Cincinnati score after the game because his older brother, Chris, in the Bengals' place kicker. Chris came through with two second-half field goals, so it was a big day for the Bahrs.
At 5'9", 165 pounds, Matt Bahr is by far the smallest Steeler. Jon Kolb calls him "the little guy." Others refer to Bahr by the nickname "Radar," after TV's M*A*S*H character and because he has been on target twice before this season with game-winning field goals. He won the opening game in New England with a three-pointer in overtime and another comeback victory in St. Louis. This was, however, his biggest clutch effort because the Steelerswould have been in a heap of trouble had they lost this one.
Bahr had more bounce to the ounce than any of his teammates in the aftermath of a triumph many labeled "the most satisfying" so far this season.
"I'm really happy," said Bahr, the baby-faced rookie from Penn State, who hardly looks 23. "It's a great win for everybody."
By contrast, Sam Davis, the elder statesman of the Steelers at 35 and in his 13th season, said, "I'm so tired, I feel like a zombie."
Altogether, Bahr kicked 4 field goals in 5 attempts, tying a team mark set by Lou Michaels and Roy Gerela, and was good for 3 extra points following touchdowns by Harris. That's a personal high for Harris as he scored from 2 yards out on a flip from Terry Bradshaw, and from 1 and 3 yards out on marches into the line.
Harris was the workhorse who, along with Bradshaw, Rocky Blier, and John Stallworth, did the most to make Bahr's boots possible. Harris carried the ball 32 times for 151 yards -- the amazing aspect of his production was that his longest run was only 11 yards -- and he caught a career-high nine passes for 81 yards.
So Harris had the ball a total of 41 times, and his body was well aware of the punishment it absorbed for the afternoon. "I'm just so tired," offered Franco afterward. "Some of us are going out to dinner, then I'm going home and go to bed."
He had earned his rest. "The way he ran, Franco oughta be tired," Lambert said in admiration.
Harris hobbled about the clubhouse. So did Bradshaw. Lambert might still be there, sitting in front of his dressing stall.
"I'm too tired to move," allowed Lambert. "I'm drained mentally as well as physically."
Besides Lambert, Jack Ham, Harris, and L.C. Greenwood were still there as it neared 7 o'clock, almost two hours after the game was completed.
To win, the Steelers had to overcome an inspired effort by the Browns, especially Sipe, and none of them stopped Sipe as well as Greenwood in the late going.
Greenwood was in on 5 of the 7 sacksof Sipe, as 3 of those came in the 4th period. Steve Furness also got in on the fun twice. Two sacks occurred in the extra period, one with Lambert's help.
"I'm so exhausted, I can barely move," said Greenwood. "I can hardly stand up. It was one of the most physical games I've played in the 11 years I've played football. The reason why it's more physical is that I played 5 quarters, 5 complete quarters.
"I guess for you guys, the sports writers, it was a very dramatic game. For us, it was a hard-fought game. We had to fight to win the game. Cleveland played great football."
Sipe and Bradshaw put on quite a passing show. Sipe completed 23 of 38 passes for 333 yards and 3 touchdowns -- one each to Ozzie Newsome, Dave Logan, and Calvin Hill -- to go with field goals of 32 and 40 yards by Don Cockroft. Bradshaw set personal highs by hitting 30 of 44 passes for 364 yards. Each quarterback was intercepted only once.
In the end, however, it came down to Bahr, and his right foot, and the soccer-style swipe swipe he takes at the ball. "You try not to think about what it means," said Bahr. "You just try to do your best."
The kick to put the game in overtime was just as important. Both of them were heart-stoppers, for sure. There was a pregnant pause at the end of the regulation game. Everybody seemed to take a deep breath.
"It seemed like our team was more relaxed in overtime," said Bahr. "And everybody was telling me to relax."
Franco Harris was unbelievable. In my mind, this stands out as maybe his greatest performance ever (at least in the regular season). It was Franco who repeatedly gave the frustrated Bradshaw a reliable outlet when the Browns (who were in near-CONSTANT double coverage of Swann) had things sealed off downfield. It was Franco who, defying his trademark "sliding" style of running, often put his head down and simply bulldozed Browns defenders in crucial points of the game. Franco did these things in what was without question the defining moment of the '79 regular season for the Steelers. Coming off the 35-7 humiliation in San Diego the week before, the Steelers could ill afford to drop back-to-back games, not only because of the playoff implications, but from a team morale standpoint as well. A loss might've sent them in the tank. The win revitalized the team, who as we all know went on to win their 4th and final Super Bowl. This game, spearheaded by the efforts of Franco Harris, was the crossroads of the '79 season.
My most vivid personal memory of this game, however, is getting into one of the biggest fights I ever had with my older Browns-loving brother (topped only by our epic brawl after the Steelers' 16-13 win in '80) that night after the game. By '79, our mom had forbidden us to watch ANY games together (let alone Steelers/Browns games), so I watched the game at my friend Todd Bolin's house. When I got home that night, the usual taunting began (guilty as charged, Your Honor) and all hell broke loose. My brother is 3 years older than me, so our fights customarily ended with him finally pinning me down with his knees on my arms while he inflicted small injuries to my face in various unpleasant ways. Score one for the 11-year old over the 14-year old that night. I shoved him into his desk and he took the corner in the small his back... game over! Yes, that was a glorious, victory filled Sunday back in '79.
For the record, my brother and I get along marvelously now... but we still don't watch Steelers/Browns games together. :-)