It was halftime, and it wasn’t going to be a typical one. The temporary stage was assembled. The former players who wanted to be there in person to honor their teammate and friend even though it was bitterly cold and Christmas Eve at that, were seated in the black folding chairs adjacent to the stage with their Terrible Towels at the ready. It was time. Time to do what everyone came to see, what was the highlight of the Steelers 2022 regular season schedule, what had been planned for months.
Steelers President Art Rooney II stood on the stage behind the microphone and began. It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Rooney said. “The big man was supposed to be with us tonight.”
“The big man” to whom Rooney referred was Franco Harris, and by the time this game was over it felt like Harris was there with them, doing what he had done so many times for the Steelers – help them win a football game.
Back in early September, the Steelers announced their plans to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and as the cherry on top of that sundae the team was going to retire Harris’ No. 32 to allow him to join Ernie Stautner (No. 70) and Joe Greene (No. 75) as the only men in that exclusive club. And the ceremony was to take place at halftime of the Steelers game against the Raiders on Dec. 24 in Pittsburgh, a re-creation of the game that contained the Immaculate Reception and took the franchise from a life in Loserville to the precipice of a dynasty.
But real life can be cruel, and real life intervened a couple of days before the weekend-long celebration could begin. Franco Harris died on Wednesday, Dec. 21, and the world immediately became a lesser place.
The grief and profound sense of loss tempered a lot of the fun that had been planned to celebrate Harris, to celebrate his starring role in what the league itself labeled the Greatest Play in NFL History. After the fun, the plan was to and put an exclamation point on his stature in franchise history by making him only the third Steelers player to have his jersey retired, all while doing all of that in conjunction with a game against the same franchise that got to experience the Greatest Play in NFL History from the other sideline in 1972.
Like they did on Dec. 23, 1972, the Steelers defeated the Raiders with the deciding points being scored in the final minute of the fourth quarter. This 13-10 Steelers victory cannot compare in significance to what happened 50 years ago, but what is fair is to acknowledge this group of Steelers grew professionally by finding a way to walk off the grass with a victory.
“I’m just so thankful of the effort of the guys,” said Coach Mike Tomlin while sitting behind the mic wearing the No. 32 jersey models the whole team wore to honor the last player who will ever wear it. “We had a chance to be a part of Steelers history tonight and we don’t take that lightly. We’re just so appreciative of the ground that’s been laid by those who have come before us, the men like this man’s jersey that I I’m wearing right here.
“We get to enjoy the fruits of their labor daily just in terms of the standard of the expectation here in Pittsburgh, the relationship we have with our fan base. We just want to honor him, his teammates, and all the men who have come before us, who made the black-and-gold what it is. So, we’re just thankful to get the victory. I think it was a grow-up evening for us. Obviously, this was not an easy game, but we showed resolve, we complemented one another, we stood up and didn’t blink, even when it got thick.”
The Steelers didn’t play a perfect game 50 years ago vs. the Raiders, and they fell well short of that on Christmas Eve at Acrisure Stadium. Like it did at Three Rivers Stadium 50 years ago, the defense carried most of the day.
The Raiders won the coin toss and despite brutal weather conditions – 8 degrees with winds making it feel like minus-10 – they took the ball. They moved right down the field, 72 yards in 14 plays, to take a 7-0 lead. The Raiders scored a touchdown in the game’s first 8 minutes but did not score another in the next 52; they gained 72 yards on their opening possession, but only 129 more combined in their 9 other possessions. Just for the record, those 9 possessions ended this way: punt, punt, field goal, interception, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception. Josh Jacobs came to Pittsburgh as the NFL’s leading rusher, and after gaining 26 yards on 5 carries during that opening drive, he gained 18 yards on his other 10 carries in the game.
But as was the situation in 1972, that one Raiders touchdown would be something the Steelers could not hurdle until the waning moments.
“We continued to punt the ball and support our defense, which was playing well,” said Tomlin, whose decision-making in terms of putting the game in the hands of his defense was the same way Chuck Noll conducted his orchestra, and just like Noll’s there were some groans from the paying customers. “They continued to deliver until we caught fire and finished some drives.
“Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t lack of moving the ball,” continued Tomlin as he switched the spotlight on the offense. “We just didn’t finish drives. We missed a couple of field goals, threw an interception. You know, just got to be better in those areas, and we’ll keep working. But as a collective, particularly some of the young offensive skill guys, I thought it was a grow-up night. (Pickett and Pickens and Najee and Freiermuth and Diontae), all of them. They showed poise and resolve and made the necessary plays, and so we move forward. We move forward with a really good Christmas.”
There were stretches of the game where the unfinished drives, for the reasons Tomlin cited, were annoying to watch even in a climate-controlled environment, which the seats in the Acrisure Stadium bowl certainly were not.
It’s time now for the weekly George Pickens whine, because he again was not targeted enough. Pickens had five passes thrown his way, and he caught them all – one converted a third-and-2; another gained 25 yards, which made it the Steelers longest pass play of the game; another gained 8 on a second-and-16; one was a dump-down on third-and-9; and the last was the game-winning 14-yard touchdown. The Steelers called 40-plus pass plays, and Pickens only being targeted on less than 12 percent of them is difficult to understand.
Credit is due for the play-call that sent Connor Heyward around the end and into the secondary untouched for a 21-yard gain that clinched the victory, but the Steelers waited too long to start throwing the ball to their backs (Harris and Jaylen Warren ) on the move even though the year-to-date statistics showed that to be a weakness of the Raiders defense. Over the previous 6 games, the Steelers averaged 34.2 rushes and 144 yards on the ground, but 27 attempts for 106 vs. the Raiders (26 for 85 without the semi-gadget run by Heyward at the end) seemed a curious approach to the weather conditions when coupled with 40-plus pass attempts for a rookie quarterback coming off his second concussion since Oct. 16.
But as Tomlin pointed out, it was a grow-up day for the young, developing eligible on offense. With 2:55 and 2 timeouts remaining, the Steelers had a first-and-10 at their 24-yard line and needed a touchdown to win. Pickett completed 7-of-9 for 75 yards and the touchdown, and he executed a quarterback sneak to convert a fourth-and-1; Freiermuth caught 2 passes for 14 yards; Harris caught 2 for 24 yards; and Pickens caught the touchdown.
And then when Cam Sutton made a diving catch 37 yards downfield with 19 seconds left for an interception that sealed the deal, the tribute to Franco Harris was complete.
“I think for us it was just a tip of the cap to not only a Steelers legend, but a great man, a person in the community you could always count on, a guy who even when he retired, he still wanted to be your teammate,” said Cam Heyward, who came onto the field carrying a big flag adorned with No. 32 and left with 2 sacks, a tackle for loss, and a pass batted at the line of scrimmage on his stats line.
“I can say from my time being here, Franco was welcoming to me with open arms. With everything building up to this and getting the chance to talk to Franco, you know, there are so many joyous moments we’ve had with him, and it hurts so many in this community to lose a guy like him… Just say that we loved him, we’ll continue to love him, and we appreciate all that he’s done for us.”