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.”
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.
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 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.”