The 1983 Pittsburgh Steelers won an AFC Central title and even though they weren’t one of the great playoff teams in franchise history, they provided memorable moments and marked the swan song of a legend, as quarterback Terry Bradshaw played his last game.
Following 1979’s Super Bowl win, the fourth in six years for the Steel Curtain Dynasty, Pittsburgh had slipped. They went 17-15 over the next two years, missing the playoffs both times. They went 6-3 in the strike-shortened year of 1982, but lost in the first round of a 16-team postseason.
When the 1983 NFL season began, Bradshaw was dealing with a bad elbow that required surgery. Cliff Stoudt had the starting job indefinitely, and the drop-off was significant. Stout’s 52% completion rate could have been lived with, giving the standards of the time, but his 12/21 TD-INT ratio was a problem.
The subpar play at quarterback meant that receivers weren’t putting up big numbers. Calvin Sweeney’s 577 yards led the team and the two leading pass-catchers were at tight end and running back. Bennie Cunningham and Franco Harris caught the most balls, and while there was nothing unusual—even in 1983—about a back playing that big of a role in the passing game, Harris wasn’t a natural pass-catcher.
It was the running game that stabilized the offense and ensured the team was still in the middle of the league in points scored. Center Mike Webster was a 1st-team All-Pro and led the way in blocking for the reliable 33-year-old Harris.
Harris rushed over 1,000 yards, while younger backs in Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie combined for over a thousand more. The strong running game combined with a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL, led by 1st-team All-Pro linebacker Jack Lambert, to give the Steelers a cohesive identity. They were going to control the clock and if the game was close, there was a Pro Bowl kicker on hand in Gary Anderson.
The talent wasn’t imposing—Webster, Lambert and Anderson were the only Pro Bowlers and the Steelers would often be a vulnerable favorite in 1983. But there was enough on hand for head coach Chuck Noll to piece together a winner.
Pittsburgh opened the season at home as a (-7) favorite against Denver, who was breaking in a rookie quarterback named John Elway. The Steeler defense got seven sacks and Elway looked every bit a rookie. But Pittsburgh turned the ball over seven times and lost 14-10.
The ground game got them in track at Green Bay the following week against a mediocre Packer team. Harris bulldozed for 118 yards, while Pollard added 90 more. Pittsburgh led 23-21 late in the game when defensive lineman Bob Kohn sacked Lynn Dickey in the end zone for the clinching points of the 25-21 win.
Four years earlier, a visit from the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) would have been a big rivalry battle from a good divisional foe. But this year’s Oilers were on their way to a miserable 2-14 season. Even with Pittsburgh allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown, the Steelers still scored the next 33 points, intercepted four passes and got 115 yards from Harris. The final was 40-28.
Another letdown as a big home favorite came against New England, as the Steelers gave (-8.5) and lost 28-23. Much like the Green Bay game, the Steelers led 23-21, but this time they surrendered a 76-yard touchdown pass to lose. Stout’s three interceptions kept the Patriots in the game up until the end. Pittsburgh then slogged through an unimpressive 17-10 win at Houston, with Stout’s 51-yard touchdown pass to Abercrombie being the decisive score.
A road trip to mediocre Cincinnati was next, and Pittsburgh again took a long time to get started, trailing 14-10 after three quarters. It was the defense that bailed the team out in this one. Ron Johnson’s 34-yard interception return for a TD gave the Steelers the lead and when the Bengals were driving at the end, Harvey Clayton picked off a pass and took it 70 yards to the house.
Pittsburgh now faced two teams that would each finish 9-7 in division rival Cleveland and then a road trip at Seattle. The Steelers jumped out of the gate quickly against the Browns. They led 20-3 and got another Pick-6, this one from Mike Meriweather. Stoudt played efficient football, 14/18 for 194 yards and no interceptions, while Pittsburgh forced seven turnovers in a 44-17 rout. At Seattle, the Steelers jumped out to a 24-0 lead and held on 27-21, thanks to 132 yards from Harris.
The schedule was friendly to Pittsburgh—and everyone in the AFC Central—as they not only drew Houston twice, but the NFL’s other 2-14 team in Tampa Bay, who came into old Three Rivers Stadium.
The Steelers appeared ready to look the gift horse in the mouth, when they committed seven turnovers and trailed the Bucs 12-0 at home. But three of those forced field goals had come in the red zone, it kept Pittsburgh alive and they eventually won 17-12. It was followed by an excellent defensive outing against San Diego, going through a tough season, where the Steelers got a touchdown from corner Mel Blount and won 263.
Today, Pittsburgh and Baltimore is one of the league’s hottest rivalries, a divisional grudge match with bad blood. Back in the days when the Colts were Baltimore’s team, it wasn’t a division game and the rivalry didn’t burn quite as bright. The Steelers went to Charm City and pounded the Colts for 214 rush yards in a 24-13 win.
Pittsburgh was now riding high at 9-2 and Cleveland was the only AFC Central team even in shouting distance at 6-5. The issue seemed to be not whether the Steelers would win the division, but whether they would grab the AFC’s #1 playoff seed.
Then things started to unravel, as the rush defense faltered and Stoudt was exposed. Pittsburgh lost their third home game as a touchdown-plus favorite to Minnesota, giving up 150 yards on the ground. Harris was shut down, Stoudt was erratic and the final was 17-14. Then came a Thanksgiving Day humiliation at Detroit, where Stoudt threw four interceptions and the defense allowed 199 yards rushing in a 45-3 loss.
The pattern continued in a home game against Cincinnati, allowing 195 rush yards, committing four turnovers and being unable to dig out of an early 14-0 hole. Pittsburgh’s 23-10 loss to the Cincy dropped the Steelers to 9-5 and with the Browns at 8-6, the race was still alive for the AFC Central. The season finale would be Pittsburgh-Cleveland at the Dawg Pound.
Pittsburgh still held the tiebreaker, so if they could win at the New York Jets, the race would be over. The Jets came in at 7-7 and were fighting for their own lives and this would be the last NFL game played at old Shea Stadium. It was a nationally televised game, played in the early afternoon on Saturday and it seemed like so much was trending against the Steelers.
It was time for the old warrior to enter. Bradshaw got the start at quarterback. He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Greg Garrity, and then followed it up with a 10-yard scoring pass to Sweeney. Bradshaw was 5-for-8 for 77 yards and the Steelers had a passing attack.
Then he grabbed his elbow. It had popped. Bradshaw was not only out of the game, but his career was over. He never threw another NFL pass, but his parting gift to the Steelers was an early lead that stood up for a 34-7 division-clinching win.
Pittsburgh was locked into the #3 seed regardless of what happened at Cleveland, while the Browns still had hopes (ultimately unrealized) for a wild-card, and the Steelers’ 30-17 loss was no surprise.
The playoff format of 1978-89 had two wild-cards and three division champs (the MLB format of today), so Pittsburgh got a week off before traveling to Los Angeles to face the Raiders. Their New Year’s Day game, late Sunday afternoon, was no contest.
The Steelers drove to the goal-line in the first quarter, but settled for a field goal. They got the ball back, but Stoudt threw a Pick-6 and the rout was on. Pittsburgh trailed 17-3 by halftime and ultimately lost 38-10 to the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl and blow everyone else out in the process.
They might have had to drag their way to the finish line, but the 1983 Pittsburgh Steelers still won a division crown and in Bradshaw’s courageous finale, provided a memorable moment in franchise lore.