In 1976, Steelers turned to their backup QB — and he won 6 in a row | TribLIVE.com
Steelers/NFL

In 1976, Steelers turned to their backup QB — and he won 6 in a row

Paul Guggenheimer
1685499_web1_gtr-kruczek-091819
AP
Regular Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who broke his nose in the Baltimore game a week before, gives advice to backup quarterback Mike Kruczek during the Falcons game Aug. 14, 1978, in Pittsburgh. Kruczek sparked a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Falcons, 13-7, for the Steelers’ second victory of the exhibition season.
1685499_web1_gtr-kruczek2-091819
AP
Steelers quarterback Mike Kruczek shows coach Chuck Noll he hasn’t forgotten how to make a hand-off at the start of rookie and free agent training camp in July 17, 1977.

Now that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is officially out for the year, a good portion of Steeler nation and most media members believe the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season is over. The best the Steelers can hope for is an 8-8 record, the pundits say.

But any student of Steelers history knows better. After all, didn’t Big Ben jump-start his career by coming in for an injured Tommy Maddox?

However, an even more inspirational story happened in 1976, when a quarterback named Mike Kruczek was drafted by the Steelers out of Boston College in the second round. Kruczek was a backup to future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, and no one expected him to see the field that season.

The Steelers were two-time defending Super Bowl champions going into that season but got off to a 1-4 start.

To make matters worse, Bradshaw was injured by the Browns’ Joe “Turkey” Jones in the Week 5 loss at Cleveland. After the whistle had blown, Jones picked up Bradshaw and threw him head-first into the ground, knocking him unconscious. Bradshaw suffered a concussion and neck injury that kept him out of most of the rest of the regular season. Hope for an unprecedented three-peat seemed lost.

Veteran second stringer Terry Hanratty had been picked up by the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The next man up was Kruczek, who had yet to take a snap in a regular-season game.

“I didn’t know enough about the game as a rookie,” Kruczek said in a phone interview from Winter Park, Fla. “I just went out and had fun and did what Coach (Chuck) Noll told me to do.”

Kruczek led the Steelers to a score on his first drive, which he capped by rushing for a 22-yard touchdown. Despite losing, Kruczek said that bit of early success gave him confidence assuming a starting role for a team in the midst of a dynasty.

“Taking over at 1-4 was a daunting task. We knew we had to win out. I felt so supported by the rest of my teammates. They were very encouraging, letting me know that I could get this thing done, just saying, ‘You got this. We got your back. We’ll get through this together.’ ”

And Kruczek said he received plenty of positive reinforcement from Bradshaw.

“He was extremely helpful through that whole stretch. He jumped in with both feet to help me, talking about game preparation and how to handle things like mistakes. He related things about the mistakes he made and how to erase them, which is a tough thing with the crowds. He went through a lot in Pittsburgh, which is well documented.

The plan put in by Noll called for Kruczek to “manage the game,” meaning avoid turnovers and mostly hand the ball off to the two-1,000 yard rushers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Kruczek never had more than 19 pass attempts in a game and, though he rushed for two touchdowns, he did not have a TD pass.

More than anything, it was the defense that stepped up.

“The defense is thinking ‘Jeez, Terry’s out, we got this young kid that doesn’t know anything.‘ I think it woke the defense up,” Kruczek said.

Kruczek led the Steelers to wins in six consecutive starts, an NFL rookie record, including two wins over Cincinnati and one against Houston, both division foes at the time. Of those half-dozen victories, three were shutouts.

Bradshaw returned with two games left in the season, and the Steelers won their last nine in a row to win the AFC Central. They reached the AFC championship game but fell short in their quest to return to the Super Bowl, losing to the Raiders in Oakland. Harris and Bleier were injured and didn’t play in the game.

While he said he would have liked to have thrown the ball more, Kruczek looks back on the season with enormous pride.

“Personally, it’s the greatest feeling that I’ve ever had as a player,” Kruczek said. “I got my chance to play and took advantage of it. That was the most gratifying thing for me as I look back on my career, that stretch of games.”

Kruczek said he has fond memories of Pittsburgh.

“I love that town. I love the people, love the ownership,” he said. “There wasn’t a single thing that I didn’t absolutely love about that whole time I was there.”

These days, Kruczek, 66, is coach for Trinity Preparatory School of Florida in Winter Park. His long coaching career has included a stint as coach at Central Florida from 1998 to 2003, where he helped develop future Pro Bowler Daunte Culpepper. Central Florida visits Heinz Field on Saturday to play Pitt.

Kruczek still pulls for the Steelers and says he has confidence in Mason Rudolph.

“I think Mason Rudolph has a lot of talent. Obviously getting game reps is critical, but he got them last week and I’m sure Ben will be very helpful.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].

Categories: Sports | Steelers | Top Stories
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.