Some say a man's best work goes hand in hand with his finest accomplishments. For example, a performance that nets an actor an Academy Award must, the thinking often goes, have been the best of his or her career. But that isn't really always the case, is it?
When I heard about the death of Chuck Noll -- the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers leader who I feel is the most underrated head coach of all time -- the following thought came to mind: When did Chuck Noll do his best coaching job? Well, I can tell you this: It didn't come during the Super Bowl years of the 1970s.
What constitutes a job well done? How about performing at near-peak level when no one expects it, when everybody thinks you're washed up, when your starting quarterback's name is "Bubby"?
Twenty-five seasons ago, Pittsburgh was thought to be nowheresville when it came to prognostications for the AFC Central. Any and every magazine that made predictions had the Steelers finishing dead last. And, somewhat predictably, the 57-year-old Noll, who had by that point been on the job for 20 years, was being hit with the dreaded "the game has passed him by" knock.
That knock became more of a siren after the Steelers were pasted 51-zip by the Cleveland Browns in -- yes -- the home opener in Pittsburgh. That siren became a bullhorn when Noll's group fell to the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals by the score of 41-10 the following week. Two games, two losses to two divisional opponents -- with an abysmal combined score of 92-10.
"Then (former Noll assistant) Bud Carson comes in coaching the Cleveland Browns ... and it wasn't like, 'Wow the good times are over.' It was 51-nothin'."
The season was shaping up to be the ugly end of an era for a once-proud franchise and a head coach who had lifted the Steelers to regal heights, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the 1974, '75, '78 and '79 seasons. In 1989, Pittsburgh's roster was devoid of elite veterans; there were no John Stallworths, Donnie Shells or Jack Lamberts to be found.
Noll's quarterback, Bubby Brister, was a fourth-year pro with no skins on the wall and a passer rating lower than his resting heart rate. Noll's running game featured a plodding tailback and a rookie who fumbled at inopportune times. As for the aerial attack, well, Pittsburgh hadn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 1985, and there were no tight ends to speak of. Other than that, uh ... the offense was pretty good. Basically, this was a five- or six-win team at best.
And yet, something funny happened along the way, starting in Week 3, when the heavily favored Vikings came to town with Keith Millard and Chris Doleman, who were terrorizing the league. On that September day, Noll's troops rallied and thumped Minnesota, 27-14. After Pittsburgh dominated the Detroit Lions 23-3 the following week, the attitude surrounding the club began to change.
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Classic Noll. Never one to get too high or too low, he didn't panic after the Week 2 debacle in Cincy. And per the usual, he leaned on quality assistants in offensive coordinator Tom Moore, defensive coordinator Rod Rust and a young defensive backs coach named John Fox. More importantly, Noll was, as he had patiently done 20 years prior, developing young talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Considering how badly the Steelers had been whacked in the first two weeks of the season, and considering the fact that the offense was chock full of no-names like Brister and Merril Hoge, some fans in the Steel City would have been pleased with their squad merely hanging in games. Optimism would grow further in Week 6, when the Steelers beat the Browns -- the very team that had put up a 50-burger in Pittsburgh a month prior -- by the score of 17-7 in Cleveland.
It was precisely at this moment that the man who had been "passed up by the game" became Coach of the Year (an honor that he was later awarded by the Maxwell Football Club), because the next four weeks were hell. The Steelers had their butts handed to them in three of their next four games, including a 34-7 blowout at Denver that "proved" Pittsburgh couldn't play with the AFC's elite. Once again, though, there was no place for panic in Noll's locker room, with the venerable coach showing that championship seasons are not the sole mark of a Hall of Fame leader.
After losing 20-0 to the Chicago Bears in Week 10, the Steelers went on a run -- one of the greatest in their history under Noll, considering the parts he had to work with -- that saw them win five of their last six regular-season contests and squeeze into the fifth and final playoff spot as a wild-card team. The young defense Noll was building -- no surprise there, given his background as a defensive assistant -- allowed Pittsburgh's opponents during that stretch to score just 14 points per game. Guys whom the national media were not yet familiar with (like Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake and Hardy Nickerson) were making plays all over the field, and not a damn one of 'em was even 25 years old at the time. The only loss in the streak came against the AFC's most talented club, the Houston Oilers ...
... which is precisely the team Noll wound up having to face -- in Houston, no less -- in the first round of the playoffs. Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville and Noll had had a well-publicized postgame confrontation in 1987, following Pittsburgh's second loss of that season to Houston, about the alleged dirty play of the Oilers. And thus, in the opening weekend of the 1989 playoffs, the squads of Noll and Glanville faced off in a seriously hard-hitting affair.
Down 23-16 late, the Pittsburgh offense put together a clutch, 82-yard drive, fueled by consistent running and a 22-yard reverse to Dwight Stone, to tie the game at 23. In overtime, Woodson rocked Houston running back Lorenzo White, forcing a fumble and ultimately setting up a 50-yard game-winning kick by Gary Anderson. The sad-sack Steelers of '89 had just sacked the Oilers. Even the normally reserved Noll participated in the celebration.
Next up: Denver.
In the late '80s, the playoff path generally went through John Elway and the Denver Broncos, one way or another. Denver, which had gone to the Super Bowl in 1986 and '87, was favored to do so again in '89, with Cleveland awaiting as the opponent for the AFC title match. All Dan Reeves' team had to do was get by Pittsburgh.
As had been his way for two decades, Noll had his club stick to the basics: Run the rock, exploit the defense off play-action, block effectively, tackle with purpose. If the Steel Curtain was like the "Bad Boys" of Detroit Pistons fame, this Steelers squad was like Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs, outdoing opponents on fundamentals time and again.
This is what happened in Denver, as the Steelers, who outgained the favored Broncos, went up 23-17 midway through the fourth quarter. Noll's team rushed for 175 yards while Brister made enough plays. The defense didn't exactly suffocate Elway, but it never really allowed the Broncos to get going. Ball control was as big a factor as anything, with the unheralded Hoge, leaned on in both the running and passing attack, accounting for 180 total yards. The Broncos were able to run just 52 plays the whole game.
The Steelers, remember, weren't even supposed to be there. "These guys are amazing," Tom Donahoe, who served as Steelers director of pro personnel at the time, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before the game. "They actually think they're going to the Super Bowl, and at this point, don't put anything past them."
Unfortunately, too much clock and too much Elway squashed any hopes of further glory. The Master of the '80s Comeback led Denver 71 yards down the field to put the Broncos up, 24-23. With a shade more than two minutes remaining, Brister was unable to answer, victimized by a dropped pass and then a low snap that the Broncos got to first. The miracle run was finished.
Noll retired just two years later, and the upset win in Houston would go down as the last postseason victory for "Emperor Chaz," as famous Pittsburgh announcer Myron Cope had dubbed him.
Though Noll would receive accolades for his four Super Bowl wins and 209 overall career victories, the odd truth was that the little-engine-that-could 1989 Steelers squad was as much a part of his legacy as the Super clubs of the '70s. It was also no surprise that the young players Noll developed that season, like Lake, Woodson and Lloyd, would become the foundation of successor Bill Cowher's Super Bowl XXX outfit.
A man's best work is good work, regardless of trophies captured, as Noll proved all the way to the end. Maybe the game never did pass him by.