NFL Nation: Franco Harris

Franco Harris, Jimmy WarrenAP Photo/Harry Cabluck
We have a winner. And was there even a doubt? The voters picked "Immaculate Reception" as the Pittsburgh Steelers' most memorable play and I applaud their selection.

Score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7

Date: Dec. 23, 1972. Site: Three Rivers Stadium

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Which is the most memorable play in Steelers' history?

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    14%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 41,102)

The irony for a franchise that has so many great plays in its illustrious history is that there is really only one choice for the most memorable one.

Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" won that designation in fan voting on ESPN.com by a landslide over James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and Santonio Holmes' toe-tapping touchdown catch in the same game.

The fans got this right, even though the play that went in the books as a 60-yard touchdown catch did not come in any one of the six seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

First and foremost, it gave a franchise that had never won a playoff game and its long-suffering fans belief. That had been in short supply in the near four decades that followed the Steelers' founding in 1933 by Art Rooney.

Harris changed that when he snatched a pass that had ricocheted back with the Steelers facing certain defeat in an AFC playoff game and then rumbled down the left sideline for the winning touchdown.

The 1974 NFL draft, when the Steelers took four future Pro Football Hall of Famers with their first five picks, ultimately put them over the top and led to four Super Bowl victories in six seasons.

But Harris' miraculous play put the Steelers on the course that transformed them from perennial also-rans to the team of the 1970s.

How much it is still a part of Pittsburgh lore -- and how it transcends sports -- can be seen in Pittsburgh International Airport. There are two life-sized statues in the main concourse. One is of our first president, George Washington, who fought in the French and Indian War in Western Pennsylvania. The other statue is of Harris making the most famous shoestring catch in NFL history.

It remains one of the NFL's most iconic plays and is a timeless reminder of playing to the final whistle -- in life as well as in sports.

In the end, every other Steelers play is still vying for second place when it comes to the most memorable one in franchise history.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers players from multiple eras -- including this one -- attended Chuck Noll's funeral on Tuesday morning in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell, Mel Blount
John Heller/AP PhotoNFL commisioner Roger Goodell and former Steelers CB Mel Blount embrace before Tuesday's funeral service for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh.
Former Steelers greats such as Joe Greene, Franco Harris and John Stallworth were there. So were current players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Ike Taylor.

Commissioner Roger Goodell represented the NFL at the service that lasted just over an hour and turned out to be the simple goodbye that Noll, who passed away Friday at the age of 82, would have wanted.

Make that demanded.

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also attended the funeral with Rooney II, the Steelers' president, joining Greene as one of the pallbearers.

No players spoke at the service but a handful of them talked afterward about what Noll meant to them and his legacy:

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and was Noll's first-ever draft pick.

"I used to be very, very bad-tempered with officials and Chuck said, ‘You know Joe, those guys have families and kids and they probably don't like you talking to them like that,' and I stopped doing it. He just had a way of sharing information with you that was long lasting. There's not many days that go by when I don't think back on something that Charles Henry Noll said. Anytime I was around Chuck it was a learning experience. Just an outstanding person."

Offensive tackle Jon Kolb played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and then coached under Noll with the Steelers from 1982-91.

"I got to coach with him also for 10 years and he made the point to coaches that the game is about the players. We're here to help the players prepare. That was what he wanted to do and I believe just from the talks I had with him, he didn't just want to prepare for the moment and the season but preparation for life, which is not the norm."

[+] EnlargeJohn Banaszak
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoJohn Banaszak recalls the opportunity Chuck Noll provided for him as a Steelers' defensive lineman.
John Banaszak played defensive tackle and defensive end for the Steelers from 1975-81.

"I was an undrafted rookie free agent and there were 17 draft choices in front of me, but Chuck gave me an opportunity and a chance to make that football team and I took advantage of it. I think whether or not I would have played seven years or I would have been (cut) two weeks into (his first) training camp he would have had a very big impact on me anyway. I learned that whether you're in business or you're a football coach or a football player, fundamentals are the essential parts of being successful. He stressed that regularly."

Tight end Mike Mularkey played for the Steelers from 1989-91 and coaches tight ends for the Tennessee Titans.

"You like to be around guys that like playing football and want to do it the right way. That's all he ever asked of his players, and I just told that to my guys in my (meeting) room this past week. He's the best coach I was fortunate to play for but I've gotten more from Chuck off the field about how to do things the right way. Family was important and a balance in life was important, and he showed that every day in his life. I hate to be here under these circumstances but I'm glad I got a chance to be here."

• Read more: A collection of memories from Steelers who played for or coached with Noll.
Barry Sanders and Franco HarrisAP Photo/Ben LiebenbergHall of Fame RBs Barry Sanders and Franco Harris say balance is still key despite the NFL becoming a pass-heavy league.
CLEVELAND -- Some have called it “basketball on turf.”

The NFL is in an age of mobile quarterbacks, no-huddle offenses and high-flying passing attacks. Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris says one position has been lost in the shuffle.

“Wait, wait, wait. Are there still running backs? In the NFL? Is there?” said Harris, feigning bewilderment. “Wow, I thought that was extinct.”

Holding court during the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural fan fest Saturday in Cleveland, Harris lamented what he perceived as a decline of the ground game in today’s NFL.

Just how much of a decline? Check out the 2013 NFL draft as an example.

Last year was the first time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1967 that a running back was not selected in the first round, and ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. is not expecting one to be taken in the first round this year.

“You really don’t see that running game anymore,” Harris said. “I think it really would be interesting if a couple teams would say, ‘You know what? Our game now is a running game. We’re going to totally dominate teams by the running game.’

“That would freak everybody out. That would throw all the defenses -- they wouldn’t know what to do with that if [offenses] had that kind of balance.”

Harris, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1972-83, reflected fondly on those Steel City offenses that helped lead to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s.

“We were so well-balanced, to have the running game and the passing game that we had,” Harris said. “That was something that you really don’t see all the time.”

Yet Harris’ views aren’t entirely shared by another Hall of Fame running back, Barry Sanders.

“I think everything kind of goes in cycles. I think this year we saw a good number of teams that were able to run the ball,” Sanders said Saturday, pointing to the successful ground attacks of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

Sanders was the class of his position when he played in the 1990s and believes there are still quality running backs in the league who shouldn’t be overlooked in any discussion about the decline of the position.

“I think there’s a good crop of eight or nine solid runners who are going to put up that 1,200 to 1,600 yards in a season,” Sanders said, naming Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and the New York Jets’ Chris Johnson. “That’s still a big part of some teams.”

Despite the success of Peterson, Lynch and others, the modern NFL has devalued running backs. Only 11 backs are making at least $5 million per season, and Johnson -- who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons -- received a modest $4 million deal with the Jets last month.

Even Oakland’s Darren McFadden, one of the top running backs on the market this spring, wasn’t able to cash in, returning to the Raiders on a one-year, $4 million deal.

The price tag on the position might be lower, but Sanders believes if there are good running backs out there, teams will find a way to use them.

“I think good offensive coordinators will figure out how to run,” he said. “Those who care to will figure it out.”
PITTSBURGH -- Art Rooney II said it succinctly.

The Steelers president also said it best in regard to Jerome Bettis' fourth bid to gain entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's time.

Amen to that.

It can be argued that the more pertinent question when it comes to Bettis and the Hall of Fame is this: Why hasn't “The Bus” pulled into Canton, Ohio, already?

Bettis retired after the 2005 season as the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history with 13,662 yards. He is now sixth on that list, and all of the players in front of him who are eligible for the Hall of Fame are in it.

This should be the year that Bettis, one of 15 modern-day finalists for the Hall of Fame, joins them in football immortality.

Full disclosure: Bettis, who will be among those voted on Saturday, is an NFL analyst for ESPN. However, I was given the freedom to make a case for or against him getting into the Hall of Fame.

I frankly don't know of a credible argument I could make against Bettis.

He was one of the most productive running backs in NFL history. He was also unique.

Bettis may have been the best big back of all-time, and he was anything but a plodding, pile pusher.

Bettis' quick feet were as critical to his success as his sheer bulk -- his playing weight was listed at 255 pounds -- and power. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry, which is just a tick below what Hall of Famer Curtis Martin averaged during his career.

Bettis' value transcended the six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons he posted after the Steelers heisted him from the Rams in the greatest trade in franchise history. It also went beyond his ability to grind out the clock when the Steelers were protecting a fourth-quarter lead.

Bettis made those around him better because of the respect he garnered for playing through the pain that is a daily companion for a workhorse back -- and doing so with a smile.

Bettis was also so beloved by teammates that they wanted to win for him as much as for themselves, particularly at the end of his career.

The desire to get Bettis to the Super Bowl in 2005 helped fuel a stirring postseason run that the Steelers capped by beating the Seahawks for their first world championship since 1979.

Bettis called it a career after getting the one thing that had eluded him -- in his hometown of Detroit, no less -- and now it's time for him to receive an honor that has been equally as elusive as a Super Bowl title.

There are plenty of other people stating his case -- from Rooney, who is anything but prone to hyperbole, to Bill Cowher, who coached him, and Mike Tomlin, who coached against him.

Typical of the support Bettis' latest Hall of Fame bid has received is what Franco Harris said.

“Why he isn't in there, I have no clue,” Harris told Steelers.com. “Should he be in there this year? Absolutely. You are talking about a great football player. I am hoping that he will be able to join me in the Hall of Fame this year.”

Bettis has been gracious about his omission from the Hall of Fame, and he is at peace with the argument he made for inclusion in it during a career that spanned from 1993-2005.

“The way I look at it is I can't be selfish in that why am I not in now?” Bettis said. “I think when my timing is there I'll be in.”

As Rooney said, it's time.
PITTSBURGH -- No one in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room should be more excited about the addition of offensive line coach Mike Munchak than rookie running back Le'Veon Bell.

Bell will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the improvement that should take place up front with Munchak mentoring a young and promising offensive line. He should also thrive in the zone blocking scheme that Munchak is expected to make a staple of the Steelers'offense.

Bell is a patient yet decisive runner and that blend is perfect for zone blocking, which requires backs to read and react.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsLe'Veon Bell's running style seems well-suited for the zone-blocking scheme the Steelers are expected to adopt.
Bell rushed for 860 yards last season despite missing the first three games with a foot injury and broke Franco Harris' Steelers record for yards from scrimmage for a rookie (1,259).

The 6-foot-1, 244-pounder is one of the biggest reasons the Steelers' offense could really take off next season, and he could get a lot better with Munchak now coaching the Steelers' offensive line.

Bell was the easy choice for the the Joe Greene Performance Award, which goes annually to the top Steelers rookie. While accepting the award Bell talked about how he watched the Steelers while growing up outside of Columbus, Ohio, and that he had always associated the team with cold weather and running the ball.

Bell never got a chance to see Harris play, but he followed Jerome Bettis and admired the way "The Bus" churned out tough yards on the way to a Hall of Fame-caliber career.

Bettis, it turns out, has been following Bell for a while, too.

The Detroit native kept his eye on Bell during the latter's career at Michigan State, and he applauded the Steelers' decision to take Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft.

That pick looked better and better as the season progressed and Bell got more acclimated to the speed of the NFL game.

"I was really impressed at how well he developed," Bettis said. "He's a big, physical guy."

Bettis congratulated Bell via Twitter after the latter rushed for 124 yards in a Dec. 22 game at Green Bay, and he plans on talking to Bell in the near future.

"I'm definitely going to reach out to him at some point," said Bettis, who is an ESPN NFL analyst. "I'm a huge fan."

Le'Veon Bell off and running for Steelers

December, 27, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- The headlines Mike Tomlin generated when he said it was an "easy decision" for him to pick Le'Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy surprised the Pittsburgh Steelers coach.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Mike Roemer/AP PhotoPittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell makes it look easy, leaping over Packers' Morgan Burnett during the second half of their Week 16 game.
"I just told the truth as I saw it," Tomlin said. "It's not a knock against Eddie Lacy. Oftentimes it seems like in this business we're scared to tell the truth for fear of providing bulletin-board material or offending someone. We like Le'Veon Bell. We like his well-balanced skill-set. We thought he was perfect for us."

It certainly looks that way even with Lacy a near lock to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Bell needs only 73 total yards on Sunday to break the record Franco Harris has held since 1972 for most yards from scrimmage for a rookie (1,235).

And the more you see Bell the more he just looks like a Steelers running back -- from his bursting up the middle and hurdling a safety as he did after losing a fumble last Sunday in Green Bay to blending the proper reverence with self-assuredness as he did earlier this week while accepting the honor named after one of the greatest players in franchise history.

Bell was the easy choice for the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which is given annually to the Steelers' top rookie. And he seemed truly humbled to be linked with a second Steelers great just as he is with Harris, who retired nearly a decade before Bell was born.

When asked if there is significance for him to play running back for the Steelers, Bell said, "It means everything in the world. Running backs just come to your head when you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers, running backs and cold weather."

The sturdy Bell is put together for cold weather. His physical running style and ability to handle a heavy workload make the 6-1, 244-pounder the kind of back the Steelers can especially lean on in cold-weather games.

And in the coming seasons.

"This is a guy that's continually been on the rise for us and gaining an understanding of what he's capable of and what we need from him," said Tomlin, who generally isn't very generous when it comes to praising rookies. "In the midst of that, he's staying humble and grounded and that's appropriate as well."

Bell hasn't always stayed so grounded.

Hurdling defenders has become one of his signatures even if it jangles the nerves of those ranging from his mother to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"It looks good on SportsCenter, but I get nervous for him," Roethlisberger said.

Not that Roethlisberger has any real gripes about Bell, who transformed what had been a sickly running game after making his NFL debut in the fourth week of the season.

"To me it looks like he's going stronger than ever and playing great football," Roethlisberger said when asked if Bell has hit the proverbial rookie wall. "Mentally, he's still real sharp because that's one of the first things to go, mentally you start to lag a little bit. He looks as good as ever."

Bell's lack of mental miscues is such that Roethlisberger said, "I have all the faith in the world when a blitz comes he's going to pick it up."

Bell has a lot of faith in himself but that confidence isn't likely to lead to complacency.

"I've still got a lot more things that I know I can get better at," said Bell, who has rushed for 770 yards and seven touchdowns on 224 carries. "I'm always going to find something to get better at."

Bell, who missed the first three games because of a foot injury, wants to become more consistent as a receiver by improving his concentration when catching the ball. He is also finding his way as a runner though he did receive congratulations on Twitter from Jerome Bettis after rushing for a career-high 126 yards in a 38-31 win at Green Bay.

Twenty-five of those yards came on the carry after Bell lost a fumble that led to a Packers touchdown.

Tomlin had enough faith in Bell to call his number after the costly miscue, and Bell rewarded the seventh-year coach by flashing through an opening up the middle and leaping over Packers safety Morgan Burnett on the way to his longest gain of the game.

Bell knowingly smiled later when asked if he had run angry on that play.

"I really wish there was something that can trigger me to get angry like that," Bell said. "If I could trigger that every carry I definitely would."

Call it another gear to work on for the rookie who is already off and running.
The debate over the Immaculate Reception is over who touched the ball first: Steelers halfback Frenchy Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum? But, as the Steelers plan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic play on Sunday, do you know where the ball eventually landed?

Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not in Franco Harris' trophy room. For the past four decades, the ball has been in a safe in the office of a Pittsburgh insurance agency.

Grantland's Kim Gamble tracks the strange journey of the ball that went from the hands of Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris to, eventually, Jim Baker. A 26-year-old fan at the time, Baker had ran onto the field in celebration and then watched the same ball that Harris had when he went into the end zone get used for the extra point. After the ball went through the uprights, it hit a cement wall, bounced into the corner of the end zone and ended up at the bottom of a pile of people. Baker wrestled it away, put it inside his nephew's coat and ran out of the stadium.

It's a must-read piece for anyone who watched the Immaculate Reception, the improbable winning touchdown against the Raiders in a 1972 AFC divisional playoff game. Sunday -- Dec. 23 -- marks 40 years to the day that the play occurred. On Saturday, the Steelers will unveil an Immaculate Reception monument near Heinz Field. The team, though, hasn't invited Baker to participate in any official tributes and has never asked to display the ball.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ben Roethlisberger became the Steelers' all-time leading passer Thursday night, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger
Bradshaw threw for 27,989 yards in 14 seasons. Roethlisberger broke the record before the halfway point of his ninth year and needed only 119 games to do so, 49 fewer than Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger set the record by converting a third down late in the third quarter. He stepped up in the pocket to complete a 17-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller to eclipse Bradshaw by four yards.

On what has been far from his best night to this point, Roethlisberger is still deserving of this record. While Bradshaw put up his numbers in an age where the rules made it tougher to throw the ball, Roethlisberger is the more talented quarterback. He's an accurate passer who can make all the throws and can carry his team.

Bradshaw had the luxury of throwing to two Hall of Fame wide receivers (John Stallworth and Lynn Swann). He had help from the ground game and Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. He was protected by a good line and Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

Roethlisberger passed the ball to Hines Ward, who might end up in the Hall of Fame, and the likes of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who can't be mentioned in the same breath as Stallworth and Swann. Roethlisberger handed the ball off to Jerome Bettis for a couple of seasons, but for most of his career, he's been surrounded by an average running game. And, as far as pass protection, no quarterback has been sacked more often than Roethlisberger since he entered the league.

This was a record that Roethlisberger earned.
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Steelers -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we'll give you our definitive moment on May 18.

When you've won more Super Bowls (six) than any team in NFL history, there are a lot of great moments that can define a franchise. But which moment best defines the rich history of the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Was it the "Immaculate Reception" when Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris took an improbable catch the distance to beat the Oakland Raiders late in a 1972 playoff game? What about Pittsburgh's Super Bowl X victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which capped its first of two back-to-back title runs in the 1970s?

Pittsburgh's 1974 draft class to land linebacker Jack Lambert, center Mike Webster and receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth -- all Hall of Famers -- is often viewed as the best ever and led to four championships. Was that the defining moment in Steelers history? Or was it coach Chuck Noll's hiring in 1969?

There are tons of great moments for the Steelers. But using our SportsNation poll, we ask our community to pick the most defining moment in Pittsburgh history.

If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.

Tatum's death summons Stingley tragedy

July, 27, 2010
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When somebody dies, it's polite to say something nice.

Out of respect, even the reviled are generally granted dispensation when they pass away. A particularly horrible decline elicits extra mercy.

But not when it's Jack Tatum, and not when the man being asked is Steve Grogan.

"I just can't do it," Grogan coldly said Tuesday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Stingley
Ron Riesterer/The Sporting News/ZUMA PressDarryl Stingley, above, never recovered from a collision with Jack Tatum in Aug. 1978, remaining in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.
Tatum, a safety who embodied the Oakland Raiders mystique and was called "The Assassin" for his brutal hits, died of a heart attack at 61. Tatum dealt with a series of problems related to diabetes in recent years. His right leg and all the toes on his left foot were amputated.

That he lived his final years in such condition was sad to some, tragically poetic to others.

Tatum's most infamous collision occurred when he paralyzed New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game. Stingley was 55 when he died three years ago from pneumonia complicated by his paralysis.

"I'm sorry because there was a life lost today," said Darryl Stingley's son, Derek, who was 7 when his father stopped walking. "Jack Tatum had a family. He was somebody's father, somebody's brother, somebody's cousin or uncle. I truly am sad because of that.

"But at the same time that life put my father in a situation that he couldn't feed himself when he wanted to."

Derek Stingley saw a report of Tatum's death on ESPN's news crawl and immediately called his grandmother, Hilda Stingley.

"This brings back all those memories," Derek Stingley said. "I've just been almost in a daze today."

On that fateful night in 1978, Grogan threw to Darryl Stingley on a crossing route in a meaningless game. The ball sailed incomplete. Tatum blasted him head-on anyway. Darryl Stingley didn't get up.

The hit was considered legal at the time, the kind of vicious shot Tatum delivered on a regular basis. No flag was thrown. The NFL didn't discipline Tatum. That Darryl Stingley suffered two broken vertebrae and was paralyzed from the chest down was considered bad luck.

"I've seen the hit over and over," said Derek Stingley, president of the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation, which his father founded. "Tatum was just giving him a hard hit. That was in the cosmos. That was in the stars that day."

What happened in the days, weeks and years after the hit was what Grogan -- and much of the Patriots family -- deemed unforgivable.

"I have a hard time trying to find something nice to say," Grogan said about Tatum. "That bothers me because I'm not like that normally. You may talk to guys that played with him, and they might tell you he was greatest teammate in the world and everybody loved him.

"The circumstance that we were involved with, just the way he handled it, that will never come out of any of our mouths or minds."

Tatum never spoke to Darryl Stingley after the injury -- although he did suggest a televised reconciliation to coincide with the release of a book. Tatum wrote three of them: "They Call Me Assassin" in 1979, "They Still Call Me Assassin" in 1989 and "Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum" in 1996.

"When something like that happens and you can't apologize for it, go out and write a book to make money and try to get famous off the incident, that's just not right," Grogan said. "I thought he handled it very poorly."

In a 2003 Boston Globe story, Darryl Stingley said he still would welcome a visit or a call from Tatum -- without a commercial agenda.

"If he called me today, I'd answer," Darryl Stingley said. "If he came to my house, I'd open my door to him. All I ever wanted was for him to acknowledge me as a human being. I just wanted to hear from him if he felt sorry or not. It's not like I'm unreachable. But it's not a phone call I'll be waiting for anymore."

Darryl Stingley also claimed he harbored no hate for Tatum.

"It's hard to articulate," he said. "It was a test of my faith. The entire story. In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl? In my heart and in my mind I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago."

Tatum's legacy was forever tainted by his callousness. ESPN's John Clayton wrote a remembrance of Tatum and noted the behavior toward Darryl Stingley likely prevented Tatum from garnering consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tatum was a three-time Pro Bowler. He was involved in several memorable hits, knocking off Minnesota Vikings receiver Sammy White's helmet in Super Bowl XI and laying out Frenchy Fuqua to ricochet the ball Franco Harris turned into the Immaculate Reception.

The NFL Network ranked Tatum the sixth-most fearsome tackler in league history, but the program never mentioned his hit on Darryl Stingley.

"He had close to 30 years to apologize," Derek Stingley said. "If that created a burden for him to live with, that's his own doing. There were plenty of opportunities.

"This is a reminder to put things to the side and let bygones be bygones. I wish they had that opportunity to close that chapter in their lives, but it never happened."

Jack Tatum: 'The Assassin'

July, 27, 2010
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Jack Tatum’s playing style was true to his nickname. He was “The Assassin.’’

I was lucky enough to cut my teeth covering the NFL during the 1970s in Pittsburgh. Back then, no matchup was more anticipated than Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders. Part of the reason was Tatum, who made sure receivers venturing into the middle of the field did so at their own risk.

[+] EnlargeTatum
AP Photo/Richard DrewJack Tatum (32), who came from an era of hard running and harder hits, died Tuesday.
What is forgotten is how physical the game was in the 1970s. That was the age of great defense, hard running and harder hits. Situation substitution wasn’t part of 1970s football. Cornerbacks were allowed to mug receivers at the line of scrimmage or downfield.

And safeties? Well, the words safety and receiver simply didn’t match up in those days. Tatum, who died Tuesday at 61, played the position like a linebacker. He hit like no other safety in football.

It was probably fitting that one of his notable hits came against the Steelers. I remember sitting in the auxiliary press box at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1972 playoffs. The Raiders were about to squeak out a come-from-behind victory over an upstart Steelers team. In the final seconds, Terry Bradshaw fired a prayer of a pass toward Frenchy Fuqua.

Tatum saw the ball and Fuqua, so naturally you knew a collision was coming. Tatum’s hit caused the ball to fly backward into the hands of running back Franco Harris. The "Ultimate Hit" led to the "Immaculate Reception" as Harris caught the ball just before it hit the ground and scored the winning touchdown.

After Tatum’s career was over, I saw him at a celebrity flag football game during a Super Bowl. He led a chorus of former Raiders players who blasted eventual Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann of the Steelers for not being tough enough. Tatum and the Raiders made Swann a target back in those days.

What’s a shame is the Darryl Stingley incident during a preseason game in 1978. Tatum delivered his usual "Assassin-style" hit, but Stingley never walked again. Tatum didn’t show compassion for Stingley, opening the door for plenty of criticism.

Tatum’s style might have been outlawed in this new age of football. Research continues into the long-term damage the game inflicts on players. Had he played in the 21st century, Tatum might have had to donate his salary to charity because the league office would be fining him every week.

Is Tatum a Hall of Famer? Well, I am surprised he has not received more attention from voters. The Stingley incident is a huge factor there, so don't count on him making it.

Best Steelers Team Ever: 1975

June, 23, 2010
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Notable players: QB Terry Bradshaw, LB Jack Lambert, RB Franco Harris, DB Mel Blount, LB Jack Ham, WR Lynn Swann, DT Joe Greene, WR John Stallworth.

[+] EnlargeFranco Harris
AP Photo/JJWFranco Harris posted career-high numbers during the 1975 season.
Analysis: The '75 Steelers were the first Pittsburgh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls. It was also the best team from the famed Pittsburgh dynasty of the '70s, which included a bevy of Hall of Famers.

Led by the Bradshaw -- aka the "Blonde Bomber" -- Pittsburgh was able to win through the air and on the ground in an era when most teams were one-dimensional offensively and thrived on ground-and-pound football.

Pittsburgh's famed "Steel Curtain" defense was one of the best of all time and held seven opponents to single-digit scoring during the '75 season. In three playoff games, including the Super Bowl, offenses averaged only 12.3 points per game.

The '78 and '79 Pittsburgh title teams were also tremendous. But the '75 group had several key advantages.

For starters, every key member in '75 was in, or approaching, his prime. Hall of Famers Bradshaw (27), Blount (27), Ham (27), Lambert (23), Harris (25), Swann (23) and Stallworth (23) came into their own during this first run of back-to-back titles. By the time the second run of championships came at the end of the decade, this core group was four years older and some were approaching the end of their storied careers.

Further displaying their dominance, the '75 Steelers won by an astounding average of 15.1 points per game in the regular season, which led the NFL. It was also the highest margin of victory for any of Pittsburgh's championship teams. The '78 team won by an average of 10.1 points per game, while the '79 team won by 9.6 points per game.

Most impressive win: The Steelers' 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X was the team's crowning achievement. The Steelers won the turnover battle 3-0 to pull out a historic and close game. It completed the first of Pittsburgh's two back-to-back championships in the decade.

Research Room: The Steelers allowed 17 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games in '75. In contrast, Pittsburgh scored 46 touchdowns, including two fumble returns for scores and one kickoff return.

Big Franco: Harris is best known for the "Immaculate Reception" in '72 during a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders. But his best season rushing the football came three years later.

Harris recorded a career-high 1,246 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns during Pittsburgh's title run in '75. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and also caught 28 passes out of the backfield. The nine-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer had eight 1,000-yard seasons.

Honorable mentions (in order):

1978: A dominant group that won 14 games in the regular season and a Super Bowl. They scored at least 33 points in all three playoff victories.

1979: The last championship team of the Steelers dynasty of the '70s. This group was No. 1 in total offense and No. 2 in total defense.

1974: This team started the run of four championships in the '70s. But it wasn't until a year later that the core group of Hall Famers all blossomed and came into their own.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Just moments after he walked into One Buccaneer Place (the old dump out on the airport runway) in 1996, Tony Dungy showed Lamar Thomas and Tyji Armstrong the door.

 Vick
 Dungy

Thomas was going through some ugly domestic issues and Armstrong had run up a lengthy rap sheet under former coach Sam Wyche. That was Dungy's way of telling his team he wasn't going to put up with trouble.

He never went out and sought guys with character questions, and he even kept Warren Sapp in check. In the early days of Dungy's regime in Tampa, watching practice often gave you the feel you were at a church league flag football game. I think it stayed that way into his later days in Tampa and on to Indianapolis.

If a player played for Dungy or a coach coached under him, he was almost always a nice, well-behaved guy with no character issues.

So what is Dungy doing now? He's reaching out to Michael Vick.

Dungy and Vick is a mismatch if ever there was one, it seems. But this pairing could turn out to be great.

Dungy is going to work as Vick's mentor as the former Atlanta quarterback tries to get fully reinstated into the league. When Dungy left coaching last year, he said it was partly because he wanted to do something more than coach. The fact is, Dungy always was a mentor while he was a coach, maybe even more of a mentor than a coach.

Here comes his next challenge. I've got no doubt about what Dungy brings to the table. I had the pleasure of covering him for The Tampa Tribune and learned a lot about life just by watching how the man conducts himself. That was from a distance.

Vick's going to get the up-close class and they're going to be cramming. It's actually a wonderful opportunity for Vick. Say what you want about the horrible things he did to put himself in this spot. They were despicable and then some.

But if Vick really is contrite and really wants to straighten out his life, there's no one better to help him than Dungy. I've had a chance to talk with former Atlanta coach Dan Reeves several times and some other people who have been with the Falcons. They're all sour on what Vick did, but they also say he's a young man with some good qualities if he can just make better decisions and stay away from some of his friends who drag him down.

If Vick can just reach out to Dungy, the coach is going to pull him up higher than he's ever been. I've long said Dungy should be in the Hall of Fame when his time comes. If he gets Vick to fly right and resurrect his career, Dungy's got an automatic pass to Canton.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

 
 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
 Kerry Collins threw two touchdowns as the Titans routed the Browns 28-9 Sunday to grab the AFC South title for the first time since 2002.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Stephen Tulloch wanted one. Cortland Finnegan had no use for his.

And so a simple handoff went down in the shadowy Titans locker room, where the same electrical problems that took out a Jumbotron meant only about half the lights were working.

While Tulloch acquired an AFC South Championship hat and Michael Griffin proudly wore his high on his head during interviews, most Tennessee players tucked their hats and shirts into their bags -- treats for family or mementos for later when they hope it's a small marker on the road map of a much bigger season.

"I think I'll put it in the closet with the rest of them, I think that's my fourth or fifth one," said cornerback Nick Harper, who jumped to the Titans in 2007 from the Colts, who won the previous five division titles. "I collect them. I've won so many, I never wore the hats. One day I'm going to have a trophy case and put them all up there for the grandkids to see."

Tight end Alge Crumpler enjoyed watching coach Jeff Fisher get a cooler dumped on him late in Tennessee's 28-9 victory over Cleveland, but said the celebration didn't extend far beyond that.

"We came in, said we've got one goal down, and by the time we said a prayer you guys were in the locker room, so we didn't get a chance to do much celebrating," Crumpler said. "If anybody on this team is satisfied, they're in the wrong place."

Long after the Titans finished their part, the Jets' loss in San Francisco assured Tennessee of a first-round playoff bye.

The last two weeks may have shown us as much or more about how bad the Lions and Browns are than about how good the Titans are.

Still, it's no small feat for the home team to survive a season-high three turnovers and season highs in penalties and yards -- 13 for 131 -- and still win by 19 points.

"It wasn't our cleanest game," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to our defense. We put them into some tough situations with the turnovers, hurt ourselves with the penalties, so a lot of credit has to go to them for stepping it up the way they did."

A game that was sailing early got bogged down with chippy play -- 21 total penalties and 30 incomplete passes. But the Titans took command with a stout run defense, a steady diet of carries for their two running backs and third-down success on both sides of the ball.

The Titans were a bit daring on the play of the game that might best symbolize how things line up for them. Down 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 28-yard line after LenDale White couldn't convert on third-and-1, Collins faked a handoff to White, then threw to fullback Ahmard Hall, who snuck out into the flat. He caught the short throw, raced to the front left corner of the end zone and the Titans were ahead for good.

"Actually it was the best call I think we could have had for the defense they were in, I think they had a 6-2 defense in," Crumpler said. "If we tried to just run it up the gut, we were outmanned. It was a great call at the right time."

Collins said it was a "gutsy" call by offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and that the Titans hadn't imagined Hall would be open, but planned to throw to one of two crossing receivers.

Just like with the penalties and the turnovers, it all worked out for the best.

At the two-minute warning, the Titans' marketing folks were pitching AFC South Championship gear on the one scoreboard that was working. But Finnegan was not at all excited about his keepsakes.

"That's short-lived man, I don't care about that," he said. "The Houston Texans don't care, that's a division rival coming up."

Other things I noticed, heard or asked about after the game at LP Field...

  • Rookie Running back Chris Johnson came into the game averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, and did significant work to boost it to 4.9 with 19 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown.

    His backfield partner, White, got a touchdown too, and landed a yard short of 100 himself. He actually had it until he took a late fourth-down carry wide left for a loss of two yards.

    Had he stayed in triple figures, it would have been the Titans' third game with two 100-yard running backs. No team had seen two backs top 100 yards rushing in three games in the same season since Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris on the 1976 Steelers.

  • An illustration of how Fisher and Collins are hardly the only calm, cool, collected guys leading this team, just the most visible:

    Return man Chris Carr watched the opening kickoff of the third quarter scoot by him and circled behind it. When it touched the goal line he was on a knee in the end zone gathering it to down it. Touchback.

    Undoubtedly, there are some return men in the league who wouldn't have known the rule well enough to make the right play with such confidence and would have tried to bring it out of the end zone for fear of being hit for a safety.

    "I think I played it exactly the way you're supposed to play it," Carr said. "It's tough when the ball bounces like that, but I think I did the right thing."

    A similarly smart play: Collins let go of his second touchdown pass, a 9-yarder to Justin Gage, while defensive back Eric Wright had his back turned. Gage may have gotten away with a slight shove and Wright slid sideways, away from the ball, as it arrived.

    "The defender had his back turned," Collins said. "Sometimes if you throw it high and right at him, the defender doesn't know the ball is coming and at worst it's going to be incomplete."

    Likewise on defense, the Browns' use of Joshua Cribbs in a "flash package" where he took direct snaps and lined up some at quarterback hardly made the Titans flinch. He threw one nice pass that led a receiver out of bounds and ran six times for 24 yards. Ho hum.

  • Three of the Titans' penalties h
    ad side effects that don't show up in the raw numbers:

    Kevin Mawae's personal foul undid a 5-yard gain, Jevon Kearse's defensive offside undid a Nick Harper interception and a 14-yard return, and Jason Jones' defensive offside meant his 18-yard sack of Ken Dorsey didn't count.

  • One spot it doesn't look like this regime or a new one for the Browns will have to address is weakside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson had two picks and nearly had a third, and looked to do very well getting depth covering the deep middle when he had too.

    He was credited with 15 tackles in a game where no one else had more than eight.

    But Jackson can't solve this team's primary issue -- an inability to get into the end zone. The Browns' touchdown-less streak now extends just 13 seconds short of 13 quarters, dating back to the early fourth quarter of their Nov. 17 win at Buffalo.

  • Until late in the second quarter, the scoreboard in the north end zone was completely dark. The play clock at the other end was turned off too to make things fair.

    Collins said he looked only for the 10-second signal from the official. Fisher was complimentary of the crisp pace with which the offense worked to ensure it was a non-issue.

  • Finnegan was kicking himself after the game for two near-misses on field-goal blocks. Twice he streaked in from the right edge, beating Steve Heiden and nearly blocking Phil Dawson's kick.

    "I was real close, great penetration," he said. "I made the same move both times and it worked both times, and the third time he roughed me up. ... I definitely owe us one."

    While we're on the subject of field goals, an odd note from ESPN Research:

    With Dawson hitting from 47 and 41 and missing from 44, opponents are just 5-for-10 on field goal tries from 40 yards and beyond against the Titans. Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas, meanwhile, is 14-of-17 from 40 and beyond. His work was limited to extra points on Sunday.

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