The Pre-Noll Era: Steelers’ Greatest Comeback

The long era before Chuck Noll’s arrival in Pittsburgh is mostly a dark one. At best, a “lovable loser” tone, and at worst, a “doormat” label that countless teams exercised.

But there were bright spots. Great players, games, even the occasional winning season. And that’s what we’ll focus on in this new mini-series. Starting with the greatest statistical comeback in the pre-Noll era. The time when the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame a 21 point deficit to defeat the Chicago Cardinals on October 11th, 1953.

For once, the Steelers entered the game as the favorites. Fresh off a victory against the New York Giants coupled with their recent success against the Cardinals. They hadn’t lost a matchup since 1948. It was a Cardinals team who dropped their first two contests and would go on to win just once in 1953 – the final week of the season against the Chicago Bears.

The ’53 Steelers boasted some talent. Quarterback Jim Finks wasn’t Terry Bradshaw but was coming off a Pro Bowl season and the first real QB the franchise had ever had. Ray Matthews was a speedy end coming into his own. The team had Lynn Chandnois, a versatile threat and feared returner. Defensively, the secondary would lean on future Hall of Famer Jack Butler, picking off nine passes. At punter, Pat Brady had a cannon leg and still sits in second place for best career average in team history.

It seemed likely the Steelers could, perhaps not cruise, but comfortably win. For awhile, the Cardinals had other ideas.

The game started ominously for the home team when Finks was picked off by Bill Svoboda on the Steelers’ 36. A long pass over Butler’s head placed the Cardinals at the two and on third and goal, finally pushed through the Steelers’ defensive front via Pro Bowl running back Johnny Olszewski’s legs. Pat Summerall, referred to his given name “George” in the account, would boot all of the Cardinals’ extra points that day. Just like that, the Cardinals led 7-0.

The Steelers would storm back, giving the feeling of beginner’s luck for the away team. A 17 play drive, something that has only happened to Pittsburgh twice since 1998, resulted in a Fran Rogel rush from one yard out would tie the game.

For the time, the team’s luck would run out.

Sparingly used running back Jim Brandt would muff a punt to set up Chicago’s next score, a touchdown pass from Jim Root to Gern Nagler, one of six the receiver would haul in on the season.

Twice the Steelers moved into enemy territory. Twice they were turned away by Finks’ interceptions. With twenty seconds to go in the half, Root found Nagler again to put the Cardinals ahead 21-7.

A crowd of over 25,000 booed the Steelers as they slumped their way to the locker room.

If this were a Hollywood movie, head coach Joe Bach would have made an impassioned speech in the locker room, leading his team to dominant from the onset. There’s no record of what words were exchanged but whatever they were didn’t, at least initially, work.

This time, it was Chandnois’ turn to muff a punt, recovered by the Cardinals at the Steelers’ 13. A third Cardinals’ touchdown pass of the day increased their lead to 21, 28-7. There were only nine minutes left in the third quarter.

Quickly, the Steelers responded. A healthy return by Matthews gave the Steelers good field position and four plays later, Finks found him on a 19 yard catch and score. 28-14 Chicago.

By the end of the third and the start of the fourth, Pittsburgh was rolling again. Rogel rumbled for four, giving the Steelers 1st and Goal at the three. He got the call on the next play and after nearly being stopped, “fought loose and drove over” to make it a one possession game.

As an aside, for those curious, that is Butler – number 81 – in the picture above.

The Steelers didn’t relent. Unheralded rookie defensive back Art DeCarlo, in his only year with the Steelers, picked off a pass, returning it to the Cardinals’ 18.

After a short drive, the team seemed stuck. Third and goal from the opponent’s four. Finks threw a “long, spot pass” into the corner of the end zone, meeting the hands of Ed Barker as it came down. With the extra point, the comeback was complete. But the Steelers wanted the win.

DeCarlo played the role of hero yet again, stepping in front of a Root pass, returning it 20 yards to the Cardinals’ 28. He would finish the year with five interceptions, move on from the Steel City, and intercept just three passes throughout the rest of his seven year career. The Steelers went three and out but Nick Bolkovac, a 230 pound lineman serving as the kicker, booted the go-ahead field goal.

On the aid of 17 fourth quarter points, the Steelers would lead and go onto win by that score, 31-28. They wouldn’t achieve a comeback of that magnitude for 32 years, defeating the Buffalo Bills in 1985 after trailing 21-0. And in that game, the Steelers were only trailing by seven, not the 14 at the half or the 21 into the third quarter. It still goes down as tying for the largest comeback in franchise history.

1953 would end in largely forgettable fashion. A 6-6 season and without a playoff system, nothing to ever really play for. But for that afternoon, that group of men made a little Steelers’ history.

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