Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Pittsburgh Steelers Phenomenal Drafts of the 1970s

In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the top 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  By now most of their approaches and ideas are in some ways standard throughout the NFL.  But understanding the approach of one great coach and matching it are two different things.  In this post, we look at Chuck Noll's phenomenal draft selections with the Steelers.

Normally no one owner, coach, or scout is responsible for success in drafting.  But when Chuck Noll came to Pittsburgh he believed ne knew how to build a championship team through the draft.  Art Rooney Sr. made sure Noll had the authority to manage the Steelers draft in his direction.  That’s not say that Noll did not get plenty of help, but the draft and development of players had to be centered around this head coach.  Noll also believed that the Steelers had not shown enough patience in developing players.  So he was going to pick players he believed would deliver and he was going to give them more time to develop. 
When Noll came to the 1969 Steelers’ draft, he had one player on his candidate list that he insisted the team acquire that year: Joe Greene.  Noll saw Greene as a leader and someone who embodied the kind of team he wanted to build.  The staff agreed.  In many ways Greene gave the Steelers the super-hard defensive edge that came to dominate the NFL in the 1970s. 

Noll’s first year was awful.  After the 1969 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears were tied for dead last in the NFL with identical 1–13 records.  Perhaps the highlight of the season for both teams was the coin toss to determine which team was to select first in the draft.  The Steelers won and picked the much-coveted Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech.  

Bradshaw was a test of Noll’s patient approach.  He was not a superstar right off the blocks, but Noll knew that he had more talent than any other quarterback.  Noll and his staff had to develop Bradshaw’s abilities and skills and it took a few years.  While Noll was patient in retaining Bradshaw, he was no pushover in the development process—he worked his quarterback very hard.  In the 1970 draft, along with Bradshaw came Mel Blount.  Green, Bradshaw, Blount—all Hall of Famers --not a bad start for Noll’s team building!
More great picks followed.  Jack Ham was selected up in 1971 and Franco Harris in 1972.  Harris could give the Steelers offense a punishing back who ran as tough as the defense tackled. And as good as the draft was for the Steelers in Noll’s first few years, it got even better in 1974.

The Steelers had a phenomenal draft in 1974.  Wide receiver Lynn Swann, who would play for nine seasons, was Noll’s first round draft choice.  Linebacker Jack Lambert, who was Noll’s second round choice, would play for 11 seasons.  Another wide receiver, John Stallworth, who would play for 14 seasons, was the third selection.  Center Mike Webster was picked in the fourth round and he would play for the Steelers for 15 seasons.  Remarkably, all of these players would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  With Swan and Stallworth, Bradshaw made tremendous strides in his game, which improved his confidence. 

 It’s hard to imagine a team having a better series of drafts than the Steelers did in the early to mid 70s.  Pittsburgh picked up Pennsylvania and Ohio talent going back to the early days of the franchise.  Other early NFL teams also focused most on local talent especially for teams that resided in areas that were known as fertile areas for football talent.  In time, a local focus could hurt teams when the competition searched larger and larger areas.  When the Steelers got serious about picking the best talent available from any part of the country, they were able to build a winner.  

No one wins them all.

But football like any sport can be a humbling pursuit.  Noll and the Steelers built a dynasty by looking everywhere for players with great potential.  They moved away from the local focus that had in time stymied many a pro team.  Still, a momentary lapse that might favor a local boy might have been helpful in the 1979 draft when a quarterback from Monongahela named Joe Montana was not drafted until the 82nd pick.  The “lapse” did not take place! 

Noll and the Steelers' staff had phenomenal drafts in the early-to-mid 1970s, but at the same time.  They acquired potentially great players, but the players had to work at a super high level for the team.  When players like Greene made those around them better, everyone’s game was taken up a notch or two.  And when the team performed so well, those Hall of Fame performances were delivered. 

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.