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Robinson: 1968 Steelers team showed depths of futility

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Titans' Zach Brown sacks Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 10:40 p.m.
 

Sometimes a football team gets what it deserves.

The 2013 Steelers are certainly an argument for that, as evidenced by their zero turnovers forced, a dormant-for-a-month running game and a nagging habit of falling behind by double digits every week.

But this unexpectedly bad season isn't common for a franchise that has had only one losing record in 13 years, and despite not winning a game of any kind since December, still has a very confident Ryan Clark predicting a playoffs run.

Flash back 45 years ago to the last time the Steelers started a season 0-4, and real futility reveals itself. Those '68 Steelers lost their first three games by an average of 28 points — and then got worse during what became a laughably bad 2-11-1 season.

Just like these Steelers, that '68 team didn't see it coming.

Following a season-opening 34-20 loss to the Giants at Pitt Stadium, a Pittsburgh newspaper headline proclaimed hopefully: “Defensive Line Almost the Equal of Rams.” The unit of Chuck Hinton, Ken Kortas, Lloyd Voss and Ben McGee was proclaimed as the NFL's new Fearsome Foursome.

The Steel Curtain, it wasn't.

The Rams' line of Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones, near-miss Hall of Famer Roger Brown and Lamar Lundy — none too scared — punished the Steelers in a 45-10 win.

The Steelers, 0-3 after losing 41-7 to the Colts and backup quarterback Earl Morrall, planned to set the tone for their turnaround by all-out blitzing Browns quarterback Bill Nelsen in a Saturday night road. For some reason they chose not to during the 31-24 loss, and tackle Frank Parker explained afterward, “We chickened out.”

Coach Bill Austin, never a fan favorite, probably lost his job during the next two weeks.

First, Austin went for a tie rather than the win during a 16-13 loss to the Redskins. Then, on a day Dick Hoak was pounding the Saints for 166 yards, Austin mystifyingly pulled him so Earl Gros could be stopped on three successive short-yardage runs to seal a 16-12 loss.

The highlight — or lowlight — came in what was billed as “The Futility Bowl” and “The Game of the Year” as the 0-6 Steelers met the 0-6 Eagles. Fans openly rooted for a loss so the Steelers would remain in the running for likely No. 1 draft pick O.J. Simpson.

”We certainly will (draft him) — and we'll sign him,” youngish Steelers exec Dan Rooney said in advance of the game.

One of the most remarkable coaching decisions of all time cost them Simpson — and, for a change, it wasn't by Austin.

With his team backed up to its own 10 as time wound down, Eagles coach Joe Kuharich amazingly went for it on fourth-and-1. His explanation? His punter was so bad, he probably couldn't kick the ball out of field goal range.

The Steelers made the stop, Booth Lusteg converted a 15-yard field goal — one of only eight he made in 20 attempts — and Pittsburgh won 6-3.

“They'll be talking about this game for years,” Kuharich said, reflecting how bad the two teams were.

Forty-five years later, he's right. What these Steelers hope is they're not being talked about similarly in 2058.

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