Connect with us


How John Madden Helped the Steelers Make the 1976 Playoffs



John Madden

John Madden, the late, great Oakland Raiders head coach, did not have any love for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a new NFL Icons documentary that was filmed with the coach before his death, provides some new insight into the respect he had for the Steelers and the game of football, despite his dislike.

The Steelers and Raiders started to become significant rivals in 1972, when Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs and brought Pittsburgh onto the scene as a contender in the fledgling AFC.

After that, the teams met in the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, which remains an NFL record. The Raiders won in 1973, the Steelers won on their way to Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975, and the teams met again 1976.

But that 1976 matchup very nearly didn’t happen. Coming off back-to-back Super Bowl seasons, the Steelers got off to tough start to the season, losing at Oakland in the opener as part of a 1-4 start that saw star quarterback Terry Bradshaw injured by Cleveland Browns defensive end Joe “Turkey” Jones.

But the Steelers defense was still dominant, and rookie Mike Kruczek won his first six games replacing Bradshaw while the Steel Curtain posted five shutouts and didn’t allow a touchdown in eight games.

The Steelers need to win all nine of their final nine games  and get some help to finish in a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals, who had been in first place most of the season. The Steelers beat the Bengals twice, on Oct. 17 and Nov. 28 and seemed well on their way to running the table, but needed one more Cincinnati loss to be able to draw even.

On Dec. 6, the Bengals visited the Raiders, who were 11-1 and had already clinched their playoff berth. Given the history between the teams, the Raiders could have lost to the Bengals intentionally to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. 

“The Steelers had been our nemesis,” Madden said in a preview clip of the documentary provided to Steelers Now. “Against Cincinnati, (the media) said we were going to roll over because we had everything clinched and we didn’t to play Pittsburgh. That really bothered me, that we would go into a game wanting to lose it. I felt there’s only one way to play any game, to win.”

But Madden refused, giving his team a passionate pregame speech about the integrity of the game and respect for their opponent.

“When you’re playing a Super Bowl game or a championship game, you don’t have to get up and give big speeches,” Madden said. “But in this situation, there were some speeches given about the integrity of the game. … I was fired up about that.”

The Raiders went on to thrash the Bengals. The Steelers won out, and tied Cincinnati at 10-4 for a share of the AFC Central crown and, via tie-breaker a playoff spot.

The Steelers beat the Baltimore Colts in the divisional round, and drew who else but the Raiders in the AFC Championship. Perhaps it was karmic energy from the Raiders’ stance against the Bengals, but the Silver and Black played one of their best games, especially on defense, holding a healthy Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and company to just seven points.

The Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings, but it was the December game against Cincinnati that stood out to Madden.

“I don’t know that I was ever more proud of a team and an organization than I was that night,” Madden said.

Narrated by Rich Eisen, season two of NFL Icons on EPIX debuts with the documentary about Madden’s career on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 10 p.m. The series will also profile Walter Payton, Jimmy Johnson, Steve Young, Ray Lewis, Troy Aikman, Cris Carter and Tony Dungy this season.

Steelers Now in your Inbox

Sign up and get all of our posts sent directly to your inbox!

Thank you!