Wednesday, February 24, 2016

NFL70: Steelers

Jack and Brenda Zanger's Pro Football 1970 is one of my all-time-favorite books.


It’s so easy to look at the orderly drawing together of the Super Bowl Steelers and become smitten with the stunning meticulousness of Pittsburgh’s drafting: Draft 1969 garners Hall-of-Famers Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood; Draft 1970 brings Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount; Jack Ham comes in 1971, and so on. We’re going to do a good bit of that admiration, in fact, here in just a bit. 

But it’s easy in that sort of retrospective thinking to overestimate the necessity of any of these individual talents to the success of the whole team. Was Bradshaw the precise one-of-a-kind talent that Pittsburgh had to have to quarterback the Steelers to four Super Bowls? Or would Chuck Noll and his staff have forged a championship team had the Steelers’ choice at No. 1 overall in 1970 been Mike Phipps of Purdue (instead allowing Louisiana Tech’s Bradshaw to slide to Cleveland at No. 3)? Or, note how the Steelers got Blount at No. 53 overall—the first choice of the third round—in that same draft, 12 picks after Green Bay got a cornerback, Al Matthews of Texas A&I; had Matthews still been available, would Pittsburgh have taken him instead of Blount and still done just as well?

Well, who knows? What we do know is that, man, the meticulousness of Pittsburgh’s drafting in this era is freaking stunning.

Take a look at the Steelers' 22 offensive and defensive starters in Super Bowl X, and four were on the roster when Noll arrived as head coach in 1969. Pittsburgh drafted the rest:

— with first-, third- and 10th-round selections in ’69;
— with first-, second- and third-round picks in ’70;
— with first-, second-, fourth-, fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-round picks in ’71;
— with first- and second-round picks in ’72;
— with a first-round pick in ’73, and
— with a second-round pick in ’74.

And that ’74 draft? In addition to middle linebacker Jack Lambert in Round 2, it yielded three other eventual Hall-of-Famers who just hadn’t made the starting offensive and defensive lineups yet as rookies in Super Bowl X: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. That’s some drafting right there, baby.

Now, back to 1970, the Steelers were coming off a 1-13 season, and the Zangers looked at the muddle and forecasted another last-place divisional finish. But, for sure, decades later, it’s clear to see now that Noll’s development program was already distinctly underway then. The Zangers’ projected depth chart in Pro Football 1970 (below) doesn’t anticipate how quickly things are changing in Noll’s Pittsburgh. 

Only three 1969 starters on offense—center Ray Mansfield, left guard Bruce Van Dyke and left tackle John Brown—are going to turn out to be the primary starters at their positions in 1970. How often does a team overturn its entire set of offensive skill starters from one season to the next? 

— Quarterback Dick Shiner, traded to the Giants, is out, in favor of Bradshaw, the No. 1 pick.

— Halfback Dick Hoak, the starter for two straight seasons, will play behind Preston Pearson, picked up from Noll’s old club, Baltimore.

— Fullback Earl Gross, another starter for two years, is gone to New Orleans and replaced by John Fuqua, from the Giants.

— One wide receiver, Roy Jefferson, whom Zanger identified as one of the team’s two strengths, has been traded to Baltimore, and the other, J.R. Wilburn, is down to six more games in his professional-football career after two years of being a primary Steeler starter. The new guys both come from the draft: second-rounder Ronnie Shanklin from North Texas and eighth-rounder Dave Smith from Waynesburg.

— John Hilton has been traded to Green Bay to solve its tight-end problem, and Pittsburgh is going to roll instead with an undrafted rookie, Dennis Hughes from Georgia.

The 1970 defense will be more familiar to Pittsburgh fans—Noll is leaving his ’69 defensive line intact—at least until the Steelers drop into pass coverage. Not only is young, good middle linebacker Ray May headed to Baltimore in his prime, to be replaced by old Charger hand Chuck Allen, three of four Steeler 1970 defensive backs are new (or mostly new):

— Blount, the third-round rookie, and John Rowser, picked up from Green Bay for the tight end, Hilton, are going to start 10 and four games, respectively, at cornerback, on the left side previously occupied by Bob Hohn, who is done with pro football.

— Ocie Austin, who Noll would remember as a rookie reserve on the ’68 Colts NFL champions, is the new starter at safety in place of old pro Paul Martha, now with Denver for one last season of action.

— Lee Calland, a starter after being picked up from Chicago during the ’69 season, will be the man at right corner the whole 1970 season, and Jim Shorter is through.

The method to Noll’s madness, however, was not evident to even the closest observers at the time. Check out the tone of Jack Sell’s May 1, 1970, coverage from the Steelers beat in Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette of the Shiner trade to New York. In just a few seasons, Noll’s trade is going to be an obvious fleecing in Pittsburgh’s favor. But look at how this story instead focuses instead on how this trade—a No. 1 quarterback for two former 11th-round draft choices—is notable mostly as a marker of failure of a trade two springs before.

One more thing about the comings and goings of the 1969 and ’70 Steelers, about that trades of wide receiver Jefferson and middle linebacker May to Baltimore. That’s interesting for at least a couple of reasons. One, what are the Pittsburgh fans thinking after the 5-9 1970 regular season, when Jefferson and May end up starting for the Colts in their Super Bowl V victory following that season? And, two, it’s pretty interesting how Noll had a strong hand in helping his old friends in Baltimore get over the hump with the delivery of those two young veterans to the Colts.


  1. Those depth chart drawings were the best.

  2. Totally agree. By the way, what I've written on top of the Zangers' projected 1970 depth chart is the Steelers' actual starters in Super Bowl X, five seasons later.

    Also, I have a piece of original Dick Shiner art that I need to add to this post. I forgot about it.

  3. I like how the Pittsburgh reporter refers to the Steelers as "the local club."