The 1980 Pittsburgh Steelers marked the end of one of the great dynasties in NFL history. The Steelers had won the Super Bowl in four of the previous six years, including both 1978 and 1979. Pittsburgh won the old AFC Central division each year from 1972-79 and at least reached the AFC Championship Game six times. In 1980, age caught up with the Steelers and the era came to an end.
Eleven starters were age 30 or older coming into the 1980 NFL season. Two important defensive lineman, L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene, were 34, as was running back Rocky Bleier. Injuries didn’t help either—John Stallworth, the talented young wide receiver who should have been the MVP of the prior year’s Super Bowl, missed all but three games.
Pittsburgh’s offense had two Pro Bowlers, running back Franco Harris and 1st-team All-Pro center Mike Webster and still finished 10th in the NFL in points scored. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw for over 3,300 yards and wide receiver Jim Smith stepped into the void left by Stallworth’s injury, and paired up with veteran wideout Lynn Swann.
Defensively is where the slippages was most notable. Jack Ham and Jack Lambert were each Pro Bowl linebackers, the latter a 1st-team All-Pro. But the age factor was most noticeable on defense and they finished 15th in what was then a 28-team NFL in points allowed. The famed “Steel Curtain” was in the lower half of the league in giving up points.
The season opener was an anticipated battle with the Houston Oilers, a division rival in the old alignment (the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns were the other two teams in the AFC Central). Pittsburgh had beaten Houston in each of the previous two AFC Championship Games. Houston had made a big trade for Oakland Raider quarterback Ken Stabler and was talking openly about this being their year.
In today’s NFL, this would have been a prime-time Thursday night battle to start the season. In 1980, it was just a 1 PM ET kickoff in the Steel City, and there was no sign of an imminent Steeler decline. Bradshaw threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to running back Sidney Thornton and Pittsburgh jumped out to a 17-0 lead.
Houston rallied to tie it 17-17, but the Steelers took over the fourth quarter. Their early lead had taken the great Oiler running back, Earl Campbell, out of the offensive rhythm and Pittsburgh picked off Stabler five times, twice apiece by corner Mel Blount and safety Donnie Shell. Bradshaw scored on a quarterback sneak and threw a 50-yard scoring strike to Stallworth to seal a 31-17 win.
The Steelers were a little sluggish at the mediocre Baltimore Colts the next week and trailed 7-6 after Bradshaw threw an early Pick-6. But then he hit Smith on a 24-yard touchdown pass to get the lead and Pittsburgh overcame self-inflicted wounds—they committed eleven penalties—to win 30-28.
Pittsburgh continued to beat themselves the following week at lowly Cincinnati, and this time the Steelers couldn’t escape. Bradshaw again had an interception returned for a touchdown and the team lost four fumbles. The defensive problems began to be exposed, as they couldn’t hold a 28-20 lead in the fourth quarter and lost 30-28.
Bradshaw got rolling the following week at home against the Chicago Bears, going 12/19 for 217 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Smith who had a big game with six catches overall. The result was an easy 38-3 win. Pittsburgh beat another NFC opponent the next week, at the Minnesota Vikings. Harris ran for 102 yards, Shell led a defense that intercepted five passes and the Steelers led 23-3 and won 23-17.
Pittsburgh wasn’t dominating anyone, but if you dug into their previous championship runs, that had been the case before. With a record of 4-1, there was no reason for anyone in west-central Pennsylvania to back off on the “One For The Thumb” motto that was driving the franchise’s push for a then-unprecedented fifth Super Bowl title (no one else had more than two championships in 1980).
No one could have expected that a revenge game at home with the Bengals would go awry. The Steelers dug themselves a 17-0 hole and though they rallied, a missed PAT was the difference in a 17-16 loss. Then they lost at home on Monday Night to the Raiders. Pittsburgh allowed repeated big plays in the passing game to Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett (who was replacing the injured Dan Pastorini, who replaced the traded Stabler).
Even though Oakland would eventually win the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh still came into the game a (-10) favorite and ended up losing 45-34. Even worse, Bradshaw was injured and missed the next week in Cleveland. His own backup, Cliff Stoudt, played well, going 18/37 for 310 yards and putting the Steelers in position to win with a 26-14 lead. But the pass defense again came apart, giving up 349 passing yards to future league MVP Brian Sipe, and two fourth quarter touchdown passes to lose it.
Unbelievably, the Steeler Dynasty was 4-4 at the halfway point. Bradshaw returned at home against the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh won 22-20 behind the running of Thornton and Harris. Then they won 24-21 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bleier had his best game of the year, with a 135-75 rushing yardage edge making up for another poor display of pass defense.
The two wins kept Pittsburgh in playoff contention, although they were unimpressive games against bad teams. The Steelers were a game back of both the Browns and Oilers, but they had games ahead against both rivals and the first was coming up next—a November 16 home date with Cleveland.
It would be a stretch to say that Bradshaw rose to the occasion. He threw four interceptions and the Steelers trailed 13-7 in the fourth quarter before the defense got a safety and cut the lead to four points. With the late afternoon shadows shrouding Three Rivers Stadium and seeming like an apt metaphor for the dynasty, Bradshaw finally stepped up. He led a drive that concluded with a three-yard touchdown pass to Swann with 11 seconds left. The 16-13 win kept Pittsburgh alive.
But a tough game at Buffalo the following week didn’t go well. The Bills were on their way to an 11-5 season and playoff appearance and they ran over the Steelers with 178 rush yards and dominated the second half. Pittsburgh lost 28-13, but they were able to reverse their fortunes on the ground and on the scoreboard a week later at home with the Miami Dolphins. A 168-81 rushing edge, with a big day from Harris, produced a 23-10 win.
Pittsburgh’s 8-5 record had them a game back of Cleveland and tied with Houston. Now a Thursday Night game—a special occasion in 1980—matched up the Steelers and Oilers in the Astrodome.
It would be an offensive embarrassment of breathtaking proportions. Even though the Pittsburgh defense held Campbell to 81 yards rushing and did run for 160 yards of their own, they also turned the ball over five times. The ugly result was a 6-0 loss that tainted the TV sets of the national audience.
Pittsburgh’s back was to the wall in a home game with the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. The champs still fell behind 16-7, but by holding KC to just 84 yards passing, there was time to come back and that’s what Bradshaw did, leading a 21-16 win. The Steelers were 9-6 and hoping their season finale—on a Monday Night with the high-powered San Diego Chargers—would mean something.
The problem was that Pittsburgh’s play against AFC opponents had been poor. They swept their four games with NFC teams, but the conference record of 5-6 and the division record of 2-4—driven by the losses to the Bengals—was looming over them.
Pittsburgh was losing tiebreakers against every contender, be it head-to-head or otherwise—Cleveland, Houston, Oakland, San Diego, Buffalo and New England (the latter who ended up missing the playoffs at 10-6) were all in better shape than Pittsburgh.
Consequently, the Steelers were eliminated by the time they took the field in San Diego. The Chargers were playing for a division title and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, but after nearly a decade of unparalleled excellence, Pittsburgh wasn’t going to get excited about playing spoiler. The season ended with a lifeless 26-17 loss.
The 9-7 finish was not something that would be reversed. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 1981, and while they returned to the postseason from 1982-84, they were never a serious championship contender. Bradshaw was moved out during this timeframe and the rebuilding of the proud franchise had to begin.