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Bob Smizik

Smizik: Raiders of the lost rivalry

Sunday, October 29, 2006

By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's the Steelers and the Raiders this afternoon in a game between a team desperately trying to stay alive and a team that was dead before the season began. It's a matchup that has interest in Pittsburgh and Oakland but one that's a snoozer across the country. What once was the fiercest and most flamboyant rivalry in the National Football League is officially dead, even if the architect of the bitterness that existed between the franchises is still running the show in Oakland.

The Steelers have had plenty of hot rivals over the years, with Baltimore and Cincinnati being the most recent. Along the way, Dallas, Cleveland, Houston and Jacksonville have filled that role. All of those rivalries pale next to what the Steelers and Raiders once were. This was more feud than rivalry. A rivalry conjures up great moments of sports. The Steelers-Raiders had that, for sure, but the games also were among the low points of the NFL at that time.

These two teams just weren't the best in the AFC, they often were the best in the NFL. That's why Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was correct when he said in the 1970s that the "road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh." Often, though, there was a detour through Oakland.

The Steelers and Raiders met for five consecutive post-seasons from 1972 through 1976 with three of those games being for the AFC championship. The Steelers won two of those title games. Still, in the most famous of those playoff matchups the AFC title game was not on the line. That would be the 1972 game that spawned the Immaculate Reception and gave birth to the bitterness.

What lifted the rivalry above the rest was not just the quality of the teams but that they represented -- to many -- good vs. evil. The Steelers, with the beloved Art Rooney in the owner's chair, were the good guys. The Raiders, with detested Al Davis in the owner's chair, were the bad guys.

Along the way, Oakland tight end Bob Moore missed a playoff game in Pittsburgh when he was beaten by an anonymous fan outside his downtown hotel; the Raiders accused the Steelers of allowing the turf at Three Rivers Stadium to become frozen before an AFC title game, which they felt put their offense at a greater disadvantage; the Steelers charged that the Raiders were putting under-inflated balls into play in games at Oakland.

The rivalry became white hot in a three-game span beginning with the AFC title game in 1975, won by the Steelers, 16-10, at Three Rivers Stadium. Oakland had a defensive back named George Atkinson, who teamed with Jack Tatum to give the Raiders a secondary that more than matched the physical nature of the Steelers' unit, which was led by Mel Blount.

In this game, Atkinson put Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann down with a blow that caused a concussion. There was some doubt that Swann would be ready for the Super Bowl but not only did he play, he was the MVP.

The Steelers opened the following season in a delicious piece of scheduling at Oakland and lost, 31-28. In that game, on a play where Swann was not the intended receiver, Atkinson came up and delivered a forearm to the back of Swann's head. Swann went down with another concussion. Because most eyes were on the actual play, a long gain on a pass to Franco Harris, few, if any, in the media saw the hit on Swann.

When coach Chuck Noll viewed film of the game and saw how flagrant the hit was, he accused Atkinson of being part of the "criminal element" of the NFL.

That's when the fun began. Atkinson filed a defamation lawsuit for $2 million against Noll and the Steelers. It was, of course, the dark genius, Davis, who orchestrated this whole thing.

Conveniently, the case was heard in California shortly after training camp opened in 1977, which meant Noll left the team for two weeks. Both Pittsburgh newspapers, the Press and the Post-Gazette, sent writers to California to cover the trial.

Swann testified that "he [Atkinson] completely, unwarrantedly, violently, maliciously hit me from behind and allowed Franco to run right by him."

While on the stand Noll was forced to admit that the "criminal element" included more than Atkinson and that his own player, Blount, was also a member of this group. That did not sit well with Blount, who briefly filed a lawsuit of his own, while in the midst of a contract holdout.

Although Noll was found innocent, Davis won. The trial, as well as holdouts by Blount and Jack Lambert, were a distraction the Steelers couldn't overcome. They opened the season 2-2 and finished an ordinary, for them, 9-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Noll is long retired, as is Swann, who is running for governor of Pennsylvania. Blount is a civic icon in Pittsburgh. Atkinson is part of the Raiders' radio broadcasting team.

Davis still runs the Raiders in his own special way. Just last week in the Raiders' locker room, he called out San Francisco columnist Scott Ostler, as though something bad shouldn't be written about the terrible Raiders. In the old days, Davis might have wanted to fight. But he's on a walker these days, an old man who the game has passed by, but who wants as badly as ever to beat the Steelers -- inside or outside the rules.

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