Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Noll and Lombardi Had Similar Ideas

Pillars of the NFL
On the surface, Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi were very different coaches.  Lombardi was hard as nails on his players and he motivated his team with emotional talks and take your breath away rants and raves on the practice field.  Noll was direct and a man of few words.  When Noll did elaborate, sometimes he lost the thread of his message and his players lost the meaning.  Mostly, he kept it simple.

But both coaches spent endless amounts of time to reach the same two objectives: 1. Creating the toughest team in  the NFL.  2. Creating the most fundamentally sound team in the NFL. 

Who could argue that Noll's Steelers and Lombardi's Packers were both tough and fundamentally sound.  

Lombardi's catch phrase, "winning is everything,"  has often been misunderstood to mean that winning by any means is acceptable.  But his players would likely tell us that the "any means" had more to do with their training than things they would do to opposing teams.  By sacrificing their bodies and routinely using every ounce of energy in practice, they became a formidable team on the field.  Lombardi sought to have his players better prepared than any other team.

Noll's catchphrase was "whatever it takes." Again, it's easily misunderstood.  Noll expanded on the notion to say that "whatever it takes"  to become the best team  was his meaning.  For Noll, like Lombardi, it was all about sacrifice for the team, work for the team, playing your role for the team.  

For both Lombardi and Noll, their objectives of toughness and fundamentals was demonstrated and forever remembered in two of pro football's greatest highlights.  

Packers' 1967 NFL Championship Game

Ice Bowl Program
The Packers played the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship on the last day of the year in 1967.  The Packers had a secret weapon—Mother Nature.  Few NFL games have been so well celebrated and memorialized.  The Packers had seen plenty of cold weather before this game, but the so-called “Ice Bowl” was the start of much of the lore and legend surrounding Lambeau Field.  From this game forward, Green Bay fans would not just tolerate the cold at Lambeau, they would relish their “frozen tundra.”

The Cowboys were leading, 17–14, on the Packers’ frigid home field in the fourth quarter.  With only 4:50 on the clock, Lombardi’s offense looked 68 yards downfield to the goal and began a 12-play drive for the win.  They would need almost every second.   

A determined Starr completed a pass out in the flat to Donny Anderson for a 6-yard gain.  Chuck Mercein found enough running room outside for a first down.  Starr tossed one down the middle to Dowler over the 50-yard line and Cornell Green who was struggling with his footing was able to grab and throw Dowler down hard on the tackle to the frozen ground.  It was nip and tuck all the way.  Anderson received a handoff from Starr, but was tackled in the backfield.  It was second down and 19 yards to go for a first on a field that was quickly becoming an ice skating rink.  Starr looked around and tossed Anderson an outlet pass that the halfback turned into another 12-yard gain.  Starr followed with another short pass to Anderson who gained the first down.  Chuck Mercein was targeted next and after the catch he ran the ball down to the Dallas 11-yard line.  Mercein had the hot hand and took a handoff from Starr and ran it up the middle to the 2-yard line.  Anderson rushed to within inches of the goal and a first down.  The tough, determined Cowboys’ defense stuffed two Donny Anderson drives.  Starr went to the sideline and told Lombardi since the backs were slipping, he would take the ball himself on a wedge play, which normally goes to the fullback.  Lombardi famously responded, “Then do it and let’s get the hell out of here.”  As Starr jogged back on the field, the tension in the stands was almost unbearable.

Starr stood behind center with 13 seconds remaining at the 1-yard line with no time outs.  He raised his hands to quiet the crowd and the ball was snapped on a quick count.  Jerry Kramer jumped out at Jethro Pugh, hitting him low, followed by Packer center Ken Bowman hitting Pugh high.  Cleats scratched on ice and Pugh was driven backwards.  Starr shadowed Kramer and plunged into the end zone for the score.  Mercein, who thought Starr was going to hand off to him, trailed the play and raised his arms in the air so the officials knew he was not pushing Starr into the end zone—an infraction that might have caused the Packers the game.  Millions watching thought Mercein was signaling a score! The fans realized that Starr had scored and in the midst of an arctic field of dreams came the deafening roar of the crowd.  Chandler kicked the extra point. 

Defining Moment for Noll’s Steelers

Immaculate Reception Commemorative Football
The defining moment that ended the string of frustration and put the Steelers into a new winning way came at the very end of the divisional playoff game on December 23, 1972.  Pittsburgh had the ball on its own 20-yard line with just 1 minute 20 seconds to go trailing the Oakland Raiders 76.  Bradshaw was no miracle worker in those days and five plays later, the Steelers were still 60 yards from pay dirt with only 22 seconds remaining.  Bradshaw threw over the middle to “Frenchy” Fuqua, but Raiders’ defensive back Jack Tatum crashed into Fuqua and the ball with such force that the ball flew backward like it had been redirected by some unknown hand.  Franco Harris grabbed the ball off his shoelaces in stride and eluded tacklers on his way to the end zone for the score and the win.  The play was called the “Immaculate Reception.”  Although the Steelers went on to lose the AFC Championship to the Dolphins, they made an impression with football fans, their competitors, and most importantly, themselves.  They had arrived.  Noll’s Steelers were winners and now with the Immaculate Reception, it seemed like they had fans in high places.

Harris personified what it meant to play fundamentally sound and give it everything he had.  Although he was apparently out of the play, he kept his head in it and when the ball bounced off Tatum  he was able to pick it up and run for the score.  The extra point gave the Steelers a 137 victory.

In the waning moments of both games, the players took stock of themselves and played solid fundamental football as a team. 

Chuck Noll, the great Steelers' coach and one of the greatest coaches in NFL history died this past week. 

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships that is available at select bookstores, Amazon, and the publisher's web site.