Cover story: Steelers vs. Ravens latest in a long tradition of football feuds
Defensive end Aaron Smith stands over top of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco after a sack Dec. 14 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
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No lawsuits have emanated from the series, legal discord being a good barometer of the enmity between two rivals. No tight end has been clubbed over the head by the local police on the eve of this AFC playoff game.
There have been no forearm shivers to the head, no charges of a criminal element, no bull's-eye superimposed on the star receiver in a newspaper, no greased jerseys or claims or deflated footballs with cryptic messages scribbled on them, no accusations of torn, frozen tarps and icy fields, not even a public relations person tackling a TV cameraman at the team hotel.
Heck, the closest thing the series has to the Immaculate Reception is a debatable 4-yard touchdown pass last month that either did or did not break the plane of the goal line, depending on your rooting interest. The Immaculate Perception?
It is not easy to find a rivalry in the National Football League to compare to the combustible one between the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, a modern-day tete-a-tete that could amp to another contentious level when the two teams from the AFC North meet at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field.
"Pure hatred for one another," Hines Ward said earlier this week, describing the feelings.
But, in the next breath, Ward uttered a more succinct clarification of the temperature that, real or imagined, permeates the rivalry.
"It's not like we're going to go outside the stadium and fight each other," said the four-time Pro Bowl receiver who has been involved in 20 of these meetings with the Ravens, only once before in the playoffs. "It's not going to be any of that."
No, they already did that.
Back in 2003, an injured Joey Porter, upset that some of the Ravens' players mocked his trademark "boot kick" while he was on the sideline nursing a gunshot wound, went to the Ravens' team bus and challenged their top dog, Ray Lewis, to get off and fight.
A year earlier, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Ravens cornerback James Trapp were ejected from a game in Baltimore when Burress took exception to an aggressive play by Trapp. The play? Trapp stomped on his head while Burress was on the ground.
Make no mistake, Sarah Palin likes Katie Couric a whole lot more than the Steelers like the Ravens.
"It's the nature of the two football teams," said quarterback Byron Leftwich, a veteran of six NFL seasons but in his first with the Steelers. "You watch the way we play and watch the way they play, and you just say, man if those two teams ever play each other that will be a very violent football game. And that's what you have.
"When you think of the Steelers and you think of Baltimore, the first thing that comes into your head is violence."
Fans or not, Leftwich said, "at 6:30, if they're not at this game, they're going to be watching. I don't care where they are, even Wyoming or North Dakota."
But, even at its nasty epicenter, the tension between the Steelers and Ravens -- "Me and Ray Lewis won't go out to eat after the games, you can count on that," Ward said -- can't even begin to touch the bitterness that framed maybe the most rancorous rivalry of all: The Steelers and Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, a five-year cage match that made Steelers-Ravens look like a neighborhood spat on "Desperate Housewives."
"Not even in the same league," said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, one of the few people to experience both.
The Steelers have had several memorable rivalries in their storied lifetime, maybe none more captivating than the one with Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers.
No matter how hard they tried, the Oilers just couldn't kick down the imaginary door their folksy, southern-fried coach thrust in front of them -- the one that ran through Pittsburgh and led to the Super Bowl.
"We didn't hate them," Phillips said the other day from his Texas ranch. "We respected them and loved them. It was more like, 'If we didn't win, I hope you win.' That's the way we felt about them."
When the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1978 and 1979, they defeated the Oilers, their division rival, each time in the AFC championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. Each time, the Oilers had beaten the Steelers once in the regular season.
"We split with them, but we didn't split with them in the big game when all the marbles were on the table," Phillips said.
Two decades later, along came the New England Patriots, and the roles were reversed. They kicked down the door twice -- both times at Heinz Field -- standing in the way of the Steelers making trips to the Super Bowl in 2001 and again in 2004, despite being heavy favorites.
"I just remember seeing those guys, the captains at the coin toss -- [Patriots linebacker] Bryan Cox and Joey Porter, going back and forth," said former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, who had a monumental role in the outcome of the 2001 AFC championship game, won by New England, 24-17. "It was one of those games, just a lot of talking going on, a lot of hype going on. And we weren't expected to come in there and win."
The Patriots already had a little playoff history with the Steelers, beating them 28-3 in the divisional playoff round in 1996, a game remembered for a heavy fog hovering above the field in Foxborough, Mass. But, to do it in 2001, and then do it again three years later in another conference championship game at Heinz Field, quickly turned the Patriots into the Steelers' kryptonite.
"2001, yeah â€¦ That was probably my favorite one," Brown said. "I hated the Steelers growing up. I was a Cowboys fan. They would beat the heck out of the Cowboys every time they faced 'em."
Not so with the Patriots.
Brown made sure of that in 2001. He returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown, one play after the Steelers were forced to punt again because of a penalty against receiver Troy Edwards. He also picked up a blocked 34-yard field-goal attempt by Kris Brown and lateralled to linebacker Antwaan Harris for a 49-yard touchdown return. On top of that, he caught eight passes for 121 yards.
"A lot of get-back for beating my Cowboys like they did," Brown said.
Still, none of that compared to the Steelers-Raiders.
Beginning with the Immaculate Reception game in 1972 and lasting to 1976, the Steelers and Raiders, non-division opponents, met nine times -- five of those in the playoffs.
And it wasn't even Franco Harris' improbable touchdown that set the tone.
The night before the game, Raiders tight end Bob Moore was trying to work his way through a crowd of people to get back inside the Downtown Hilton, where the Raiders were staying. But, in a case of mistaken identity, Moore got into a dispute and ended up being clubbed over the head by Pittsburgh police.
"That was the beginning of the Steelers-Raiders rivalry," Moore was quoted as saying years later. "That set the tempo."
The Steelers were 5-4, including 3-2 in playoff games, in that five-year period against the Raiders. They beat them back-to-back years in the AFC championship game (1974-75), then lost to the Raiders in the conference championship in 1976, a game in which the Steelers were without both their 1,000-yard running backs, Harris and Rocky Bleier, because of injuries.
But, for all the acridity that hung over the series like a storm cloud, former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell said the team never let the emotion interfere with the task at hand: Beat the Raiders.
"You can't allow your emotion to get you too charged up," Russell said. "Every time I got too emotional I made mistakes. You have to get the emotion out of the game and use your brain. Every time you want to hit someone harder, you miss the tackle, you over-extend."
Nonetheless, when a rivalry can escalate to a lawsuit, that, perhaps, is the ultimate indicator that a series harbors significant resentment.
In 1976, a day following the season-opening game in which Raiders cornerback George Atkinson delivered a forearm to the head of receiver Lynn Swann, giving him a concussion, former coach Chuck Noll referred to a "criminal element" in the league and said players such as Atkinson, who hit Swann while he was running a pattern, should be "kicked out of the league." Rooney even referred to Atkinson's blow to the head as "a cowardly act" and sent film clips to commissioner Pete Rozelle showing how the Raiders committed "premeditated" attacks on Swann. Atkinson sued Noll and the Steelers for defamation, but lost in a jury trial.
"I've never seen anything comparable to the Steelers-Raiders," said former Steelers publicist Joe Gordon, who even got himself involved in the tension of the rivalry. "It was intense as any in the NFL."
So was the PR guy.
Before the 1976 AFC championship game in Oakland, Gordon got into an altercation with a Bay Area TV cameraman who wanted to interview Swann when the Steelers arrived at the team hotel. Even though he was irritated that a local newspaper ran a picture that week of Swann with a bull's-eye superimposed over the wide receiver, Gordon said he would try to arrange the interview.
But, when an exchange of words ensued, Gordon grabbed the cameraman and tackled him to the ground. The next day, Noll was asked at a news conference if his two injured backs, Harris and Bleier, were ready for the game.
"I don't know about Rocky and Franco," Noll said. "But Joe's ready."
"I'd say that [Steelers-Raiders] rivalry might have been nastier because the rules were different," cornerback Bryant McFadden said.
McFadden, 27, was born in 1981, five years after the Steelers-Raiders rivalry reached its zenith. But he is something of an NFL historian, a player who knows, and embraces, much of the league's storied past.
"Those guys used forearms and clothesline tackles and used to hit with their heads and everything like that," he said. "There was a lot more bodily danger then."
Don't tell that to rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall, who suffered a fractured scapula -- an injury more closely associated with car accidents -- after a hit by Lewis Sept. 29 at Heinz Field. Or Ward, whom Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatened to "kill" following a vicious block by Ward in a game at Heinz Field last year. Ward also was the target of a supposed public "bounty" placed on him by linebacker Terrell Suggs.
"You run a little harder, you hit a little harder, you play a little nastier in this game," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "Now, cheap shots, there's nothing like that, nothing dirty. But when you got an opportunity to hit someone, you don't miss it in this game. Other games, you might go, 'Oh, man, I should have de-cleated him.' This game, you don't hear too many guys say Oh-I-should-have. It's good on good."
And sometimes bad on bad.
First Published January 16, 2009 12:00 am