The ball hung in the late afternoon sunshine over Three Rivers Stadium, fluttering and quacking. Two Beaver County duck hunters fired at it and missed. When it finally came down, the Steelers' John Stallworth had maneuvered himself into position to jump for it, and momentarily the man on the P.A. system was saying, "Bradshaw to Stallworth, 50 yards for a touchdown."
These are the Pittsburgh Steelers, vintage 1980, a team that can escape from the strangest situations with one big play. That's two straight games now in which Bradshaw-to-Stallworth has bailed out the Steelers when things looked nasty. Remember those two big touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV? They came at the end of picture plays, the kind you draw on the blackboard. But this last one against Houston?
Well, with the extra point, it closed out the scoring—Pittsburgh 31, Houston 17—in the first Super Bowl ever played in September, a game for which the Oilers had been preparing ever since the NFL schedule told them that they would begin the 1980 season against the same rival that had beaten them for the 1979 AFC Championship. The Oilers had even imported Ken Stabler and Jack Tatum from the Oakland Raiders, a team that has beaten the Steelers the last three times it faced them. Brain and muscle to tame the giant from the north.
The season opener Sunday was either of Super Bowl magnitude or just another date on the 16-game schedule, depending on the age and emotional makeup of the Oiler you talked to. Now, midway in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were ahead by a touchdown, 24-17, after blowing a 17-0 first-quarter lead. They had a third-and-15 at the 50. One more play and they would punt, and the Snake would work his magic, and maybe, just maybe.... But here was Terry Bradshaw scampering to his left, throwing that fluttering pass, and Stallworth timing his leap. So how do you figure a play like that?
It could have been a sack. Mike Stensrud, the Oilers' 280-pound defensive end, was tugging on Bradshaw's shirt, but Bradshaw tugged harder and broke away for the scramble around his left side that ended when he flung the ball as hard as he could toward that disappearing target near the end zone. A quick referee's whistle and, who knows, they might still be playing.
"Oh no, not this time they couldn't," Bradshaw said. "No way they could whistle it dead. We weren't stalemated. I was moving and fighting him off. Actually, though, I was scared to death that they might blow the whistle. That quick-sack rule, that's a lousy, stinking rule. Quarterbacks can't be athletes anymore. Now you've got to be a sissy."
According to Houston Coach Bum Phillips, it could have been a penalty. "Andy Dorris, our left end, broke in and [Steeler Tackle] Larry Brown just grabbed him by the shirt," Phillips said. "They should have thrown the flag. But I'll give that Bradshaw credit for breaking out of the tackler's grasp. Dan Pastorini couldn't have done it. Ken Stabler couldn't have done it. Terry's a big, strong boy."
According to Stallworth, the play could have been almost anything. He said it started as 60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go, the same play that crushed the Rams in the Super Bowl. Only this time Stallworth was supposed to break it outside to the flag. "When I saw Terry was in trouble I moved inside," he said. "Then I broke it outside again. Then I drifted about 20 yards farther downfield and circled around the cornerback [Greg Stemrick] and waved my hand at Terry. Then I saw the ball wobbling toward me and I knew I was going to have to jump. I tipped it myself, then I caught it."
According to Houston Free Safety Mike Reinfeldt, who led the NFL in interceptions last year, the pass could have been an interception, or an incompletion—anything except the touchdown. "Stemrick didn't even try to make the interception," Reinfeldt said. "He made the right play, trying to deflect the ball. They would have been forced to punt. You don't want to take over on your own two-yard line. But when the ball was tipped, it came down right in Stallworth's hands. I was on one side of him, Gregg Bingham was on the other. If it goes off to either side.... Well, all I can say is that the Steelers had some luck going for them today."
Always in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers need the luck, or the big play, or the jump ball, or whatever you want to call it, that's when they get it. They were outscored only once in the fourth quarter in the 19 games they played last year. But they shouldn't have needed the fourth quarter against the Oilers.