|CHUCK NOLL Regretted decision|
SAN DIEGO - Try as they might, folks out here who've attached themselves emotionally to the fortunes of the San Diego Chargers could not have found solace yesterday in the proverbial silver lining.
That's because a pulsating blue sky stretched endlessly above, nary a cloud in view.
Consequently, the Chargers and those who root for them will have to have faith in medicinal avenues and the power of rest, brief as it may be. There are sore spots, to be sure, and while that has been true of every football game played since before Pop Warner lugged the pigskin, you can understand the sense of frustration that has crashed into the joy like waves at Mission Beach.
After all, this isn't just any game. It's the AFC Championship.
And these aren't just any injuries - they belong to the heart and soul of the offensive engine, running back LaDainian Tomlinson (hyperextended left knee), quarterback Philip Rivers (strained MCL in his right knee), and tight end Antonio Gates (dislocated left big toe).
The only thing is, the Chargers aren't fixated on what ails them; they're focused on what awaits them. It is the only way they can approach the matter at hand, at least according to a voice who should know.
"Really, it's a team sport, and while one or two guys can make a difference, your team has to dig deep," said Mike Wagner, who in another life was a safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. "If you're a San Diego fan, you might be thinking that life is unfair, but as I recall, a few years ago New England was really banged up, too. Once in a while, [the injuries] go against you."
Double whammyIndeed, while the Chargers are lamenting the fact that Tomlinson, Rivers, and Gates are hobbled, the fact is they very likely could be in action for Sunday's final step to get into the Super Bowl. That's more than New England can say about one of its starting linebackers, Rosevelt Colvin, and one of its featured running backs, Sammy Morris. Those players are among seven Patriots who've been placed on IR (the Chargers have four), though you'll be granted a free mortgage before you hear New England coach Bill Belichick moan about injuries.
Begrudgingly perhaps, Belichick accepts them as part of the game. Just ask Wagner if you need further testimony, because he saw how injuries can derail even a team that boasted one of the greatest defenses ever. The season was 1976 and the Steelers appeared primed for a third consecutive Super Bowl. After a 1-4 start that could be traced to an injury to quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the proud Steelers regrouped.
When Bradshaw returned, "our offense began to take off," said Wagner, and the defense went into an atmosphere rarely visited. During a nine-game winning streak to close out the season, the Steelers' defense pitched an unthinkable five shutouts and allowed just one touchdown. Outscoring the opposition, 234-36, the Steelers appeared primed for a historic happening. But fate interrupted in a manner that should sound familiar to current-day Chargers fans: injuries in a playoff win over the Colts.
Just as Tomlinson and Rivers went down, the Steelers lost their starting backfield, Franco Harris (broken ribs) and Rocky Bleier (broken toe), in Baltimore more than 31 years ago.
"The players pretty much knew the seriousness of the injuries," said Wagner.
They were hurt in a 40-14 drubbing of the Colts and wouldn't be able to play the following week against archrival Oakland. Throw in the fact that reserve running back Jack Deloplaine had broken his leg weeks earlier and that third-stringer Frenchy Fuqua (calf) and kicker Roy Gerela (groin) also would miss the game, and the Steelers had every reason to throw in the towel. But Wagner said that was never an option.
"From a team standpoint, there was a concern, but we took our lead from [head coach Chuck] Noll," said Wagner. "He said, 'The way I look at it is, we have another challenge.' He told us, 'All you can do is take care of what you can take care of.'
"Speaking for the defense, we quite honestly never worried much about the offense. The way we looked at it, we figured if we didn't let them score any points, we'd have a good shot at winning."
Plan B, as in backfireRemember, the Chargers-Patriots rivalry - or what passes as one - is nothing compared with Steelers-Raiders of the 1970s. The 1976 affair was their third straight meeting in the AFC Championship, the Steelers having won in 1974 (24-13) and 1975 (16-10), and bad blood flowed freely to lend plenty of advance hype.
"Oakland has the nastiest defensive backs this side of Attica's all-star intramural team," fumed Pittsburgh star Joe Greene, when asked about Jack Tatum and George Atkinson.
"Greene is trying to become the Muhammad Ali of pro football," said Oakland's feisty owner, Al Davis. "I'm sure we've got many players willing to meet Joe halfway and get it straightened out."
No such sideshow took place, but neither did the Steelers back down from the football challenge - not even with their pair of 1,000-yard runners sidelined. The fact that backup center Ray Mansfield had to stand in for Gerela compounded things, as did an injury to starting center Mike Webster during the game.
In those days, special teams weren't the big deal they are now, so Mansfield took over the long-snap duties, too, and he misfired one to punter Bobby Walden. When the Raiders blocked the punt, it set up a field goal to open the scoring.
But it didn't open a floodgate of excuses on the Pittsburgh sideline.
"No one on our team thought it was unfair," said Wagner. "We had injuries, but we were healthy on defense. We knew that."
Armed with just one legitimate running back, Reggie Harrison, who had carried the ball just 54 times for 234 yards during the regular season, Noll made a drastic decision. Long before spread offenses became the rage, Noll opted to rotate three tight ends (Bennie Cunningham, Randy Grossman, and Larry Brown) so that he could have four ends (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were the wideouts) with just one back set behind Bradshaw.
Given just a few days to implement the new offense, the Steelers failed miserably, and years later Noll conceded that doing something so drastic on short notice was the one regret in his coaching career. The Steelers ran for just 8 yards in the first quarter and just 72 on 21 attempts in the game.
While the Steelers' run defense was superb, Oakland controlled the clock and turned a few turnovers into a 24-7 victory. It was a bitter defeat for the Steelers, and in their locker room, the great linebacker Jack Lambert said, "I'd play 'em again tomorrow. Just give me a few beers, a couple of hours of sleep and I'll be out there."
He never suggested that he'd do so only with a healthy team. To Lambert, the injuries were a non-issue.
On the other hand, Oakland coach John Madden conceded that he took those injuries into account.
"We knew all along that Deloplaine was out," Madden said. "When we kept hearing that the other guys weren't practicing, we started working against a four-end offense.
Fondly rememberedMadden's prep work paid off, because no matter what combination of blockers the Steelers tried, they didn't have the personnel to run the football. That made Bradshaw's work far more difficult, and against a great secondary he could complete only 14 of 35 passes for a paltry 165 yards.
Certainly, the famed Steel Curtain did its job. Oakland ran for 157 yards on 51 attempts and added a mere 63 yards through the air, but it enjoyed a wide edge in time of possession and where it counts, on the scoreboard. Much to the chagrin of the late Art Rooney. The owner of the Steelers saw his team win Super Bowls in 1974 and '75, then again in 1978 and '79, but he told the Globe's Will McDonough that the 1976 team had a special place in his heart.
"I don't think any of those teams was greater than the team in 1976," said Rooney in a 1980 interview. "I never saw any team in pro football so dominant as our team was that year over the span of the last nine games."
Rooney came to a halt right there. He didn't blame the injuries, and never suggested his club was the victim of bad luck. Wagner follows suit and even to this day, he doesn't lament the injuries.
"It's important to remember," said Wagner, "that the Raiders were a great team and the fact is, even if our offense were healthy that day, it would have been a heck of a challenge."
It's a sentiment Wagner feels applies to the AFC Championship game 31 years later.
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.