Commentary

Excerpt: '100 Yards of Glory' on Steelers

Originally Published: November 21, 2011
By Joe Garner and Bob Costas | Special to Page 2

From 100 YARDS OF GLORY: The Greatest Moments in NFL History by Joe Garner and Bob Costas. Copyright © 2011 by Joe Garner. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
All rights reserved.

An excerpt from Chapter 1: The Dynasties

No. 4: The 1970s Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s produced what many think is the greatest play in NFL history during the playoffs in 1972 -- Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris (off Jack Tatum), immortalized as "the Immaculate Reception."

They also had the single greatest draft in NFL history in 1974, when they picked up four future Hall of Famers: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Mike Webster. And they assembled the greatest collection of talent ever on one team, with nine eventual Hall of Famers plus an annual assortment of Pro Bowlers. "The Steelers had the best grouping of players in the history of the game," said Bill Walsh, who coached the 49ers dynasty. "No question about it."

They even had the greatest sports-related TV commercial ever, thanks to "Mean Joe" Greene's "Hey, kid, ... catch" ad for Coca-Cola.

Glory
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But none of that would have added up to much if not for the bottom line: the Steelers won it all and then did it again, and again, and again, winning four Super Bowls in six years -- and doing it during an era of great teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, and Miami Dolphins.

Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount credits the man with the keen eye for talent who oversaw those drafts and pushed his players hard. "They talk about the Vince Lombardi Era, but I think the Chuck Noll Era is even greater," he said. Noll was tough on his players but enjoyed the role of teacher. And in the media, he shifted attention and praise away from himself and toward his players.

Defense was the soul of the Steelers, with Greene and Lambert setting the intimidating tone.

"Yes, I get satisfaction out of hitting a guy and seeing him lay there a while," said Lambert, whom some considered the meaner of the two.

"The Steel Curtain" initially referred to the front four of Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes (they made the cover of Time magazine) but eventually encompassed the whole defense, including Lambert, perennial Pro Bowler Andy Russell, Hall of Famer Jack Ham at linebacker, and Blount leading the secondary.

The NFL began to give out a Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1971; in a five-year span starting the following year, Greene won it twice and Lambert and Blount once each. Of Greene, Russell once said, "Joe was like a one-man army. ... I caught myself applauding a couple times."

Jim Otto, a Hall of Fame center for Pittsburgh's rival Oakland Raiders, once said of facing Greene, "You came out hurting all over, and what didn't hurt didn't work."

But the entire defensive unit was ferocious and relentless -- Sports Illustrated called it "the most destructive force in football." In their first Super Bowl win, 16-6 over Minnesota, the Steelers didn't allow a score (the Vikings touchdown came on a blocked punt) and yielded a mere 119 yards of total offense even though Lambert and Russell missed much of the second half with injuries.

The following year, when Pittsburgh repeated as champions, Greenwood sacked Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach on the Cowboys' first play, and safety Glen Edwards intercepted Staubach in the end zone on their last play, preserving a 21-17 win.

But Pittsburgh really did have it all (including "the Terrible Towel," the symbol of their fans' ardent support, which debuted in 1975). As the league changed the rules to allow for more offense -- in large part because of the Steel Curtain -- the Steelers simply scored more, winning their last two Super Bowls, 35-31 and 31-19.

At quarterback, Bradshaw took a while to develop and often seemed at odds with coach Chuck Noll, but he made the big plays when they counted most -- a task made easier by the speed, strength, and athleticism of Swann and Stallworth and a running game powered by the indomitable Harris.

Harris powered past Minnesota for 158 yards in 1975 and became just the second running back to be named Super Bowl MVP. Swann became the first receiver to win a Super Bowl MVP thanks to his four catches (some seemingly impossible) for 161 yards the following year. Bradshaw was the first player to win the award twice. And his second one was due in large part to Stallworth, who caught three passes for 121 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown in the Steelers' comeback over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV for their final ring.

Chuck Noll's motto as a coach was: "Whatever it takes." In the 1970s, the Steelers clearly had that ... and more.

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