1971: STEELERS…ALMOST THERE
The 1971 campaign brought improvements, but a won-lost record of only 6 wins, with 8 losses. Its pattern mirrored the 1970 campaign, but it would be 14 years until the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans suffered another losing season. The seeds of the emerging Greatest Team of All Time had been sown the previous year, and thanks to a draft class, second only perhaps to the legendary selections of 1974, more pieces of the puzzle were put into place in ’71.
The 1970 yield
Cogs in the machine of the eventual four-time Super Bowl champion were placed into formation in 1970. Though his season was oft-horrific, Quarterback Terry Bradshaw had gained valuable experience as a rookie. Guard Sam Davis had finally won a spot in the starting lineup. Rookie corner Mel Blount had started 9 games, learning some very hard lessons. Defensive end L.C. Greenwood regularly spotted the starting defensive ends, and it was only a matter of time until he earned a starting position. Tackle Jon Kolb had seen some action. Linebacker Andy Russell had earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and Ray Mansfield continued to anchor the offensive line. Jim Clack had nearly made the team, being cut late in training camp for the second consecutive season. And Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier had battled back from his war injuries, and dressed for the season’s final game.
The 1971 draft, though not producing the multiple Hall of Famers as did 1974, exceeded the ’74 class for the sheer quantity of eventual starters selected. The Steelers first pick was Grambling wide receiver Frank Lewis. Jack Ham, a linebacker from Penn State via Johnstown’s Bishop McCort High School fell to the Steelers in the second round. The Steelers hit a veritable jackpot with a pair of fourth round selections in USC offensive lineman Gerry (Moon) Mullins and Dwight White, a defensive end from East Texas State. A training camp phenom, White was asked by a TV reporter to describe his pass rush technique. "Basically, I just try to off the cat," said the baby-faced rookie. The fifth round brought Kansas tight end Larry Brown, eventually moved to tackle by the Steelers, but not before registering the final touchdown of Super Bowl IX. With their 3rd choice in the 8th round, the Steelers took yet another defensive lineman, Ernie Holmes from Texas Southern. And in the 11th round, Mike Wagner, a defensive back from Western Illinois, was selected.
Ham, White and Wagner were in the opening day lineup, having won starting positions in training camp. After battling through early injuries, Lewis would acquit himself well, catching 44 balls in ’71. Mullins started 5 games, and saw action in every contest. Brown played in 13 games, often used in short yardage situations for his blocking prowess. Ernie Holmes didn’t survive training camp, and would need to try again another day.
Another draft pick of note was 6th round pick Craig Hanneman, a guard out of Oregon State, who would play defensive end in the NFL. Hanneman’s pro career was hardly noteworthy. He left training camp his rookie year in an effort to win back the heart of his girlfriend who had broken up with him, driving cross-country from Latrobe to Washington State (it was a futile effort, as I recall). He did earn a roster spot in ’72 and lost contain when rushing the passer in the Divisional Playoff versus Oakland, allowing slow-footed Ken Stabler to run 30 yards for a 7-6 lead with one minute remaining, setting the stage for the greatest play in NFL history. After one more season with the Steelers, Hanneman played for the Patriots in ’74 and ’75 where he made his only 3 NFL starts.
Craig Hanneman though, is best remembered, at least by this writer, for his statement to the author Roy Blount, Jr., who spent the 1973 season with the Steelers. “We’re all crazy f***ers,” Hanneman told Blount, “we’re all about three bricks shy of a load,” thus immortalizing the title of, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest sports book of all time.
The 1971 Pittsburgh Steelers Media Guide provided the team’s depth chart, entering the yearly sojourn to Latrobe:
RG-Bruce Van Dyke
The configuration obviously changed somewhat through the trials & tribulations of St. Vincent’s. On the defensive side, in addition to the trio of rookies (White, Ham, Wagner) who cracked the starting lineup, L.C. Greenwood finally won the job at left defensive end, and right defensive end Ben McGee, moved inside, manning the other tackle position opposite Joe Greene. In the secondary, Mel Blount once again started 9 games at corner, and in place of the injured Charles Beatty at safety, a hard-hitting free agent, Glen (Sticks) Edwards, started a half-dozen games. Prior to Edwards being tagged with the nickname, “Knotty Pine,” his counterpart was reserve safety Ralph “Stones” Anderson. Jon Kolb moved into the left offensive tackle slot, where he would remain for a decade plus. The Steelers made one other change, just prior to the start of the regular season, claiming kicker Roy Gerela, off of waivers from the Houston Oilers.
As my prime resource, the Pittsburgh Steelers Media Guide, included boxscores, but not game summaries early on, my description of individual contests from this era is drawn almost entirely from personal memory. As one would expect, some contests stand out.
The opener was a heartbreaker. The Steelers led 15-3, past the midway point of the 4th quarter against a Bears team in Soldier Field that would gain but 141 yards that day against the 352 yards amassed by the Steelers. The Steelers point production was limited by the 4 interceptions thrown by Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers punted late in that 4th quarter, setting up the Bears inside their 30. However, a penalty on Chicago gave the Steelers possession, and a fresh set of downs, around their own 30 yard line. I said to my brother Tony at the time…true story….that perhaps the Steelers would be better off just letting the Bears have the ball. Twelve-point lead, Bears O was inept, the game was in the bag. No sooner had I uttered these words, than the Bears returned the Steelers third lost fumble of the day (yes….7 turnovers total) for a touchdown. The Bears regained possession very late, and former teammate, Kent Nix, of all people, passed 8 yards to George Farmer for the winning score. Steelers lose, 17-15.
Two home games followed. The Steelers beat the rival Bengals in the first, 21-10, and led the Chargers late, in their first meeting ever, by a 21-17 margin, when Terry Bradshaw took off running for a first down that would seal victory. Rather than being cognizant enough of the situation to simply fall to the Three Rivers turf though, TB struggled for more yardage, fumbled, and the Bolts recovered. The game came down to 4th & goal from the 2 for the Chargers. Rookie Jack Ham broke up a John Hadl pass, and victory was Pittsburgh’s, now sporting a 2-1 record. The Steelers lost in Cleveland the following Sunday though, the long tradition of Saturday night Browns-Steelers games on World Series weekend having been abandoned.
While the Steelers were losing to the Browns, the Pirates were losing their second straight to the Birds of Baltimore, and one scribe wrote, “Like the elephants, the Pirates are going home to die.” But Buccos rallied for 3 straight wins at TRS, the middle of these contests being the first night game in World Series history, where Bruce Kison was the hero with a strong middle relief stint after the Bucs fell behind early.
When the Steelers took the field the following Monday night in Kansas City, while Dave Smith lost a sure touchdown by holding the ball aloft at the 5 and looking aghast as it bounded through the end zone, as the Steelers lost to the Chiefs, 38-16, Steelers fans remained patient.
The previous day, the Pittsburgh Pirates had vanquished the Orioles in Game 7 of the World Series, behind a Roberto Clemente homerun, and a complete game performance by Steve Blass. Who was to know that Clemente would be dead within 15 months, and that the Blass offerings would never again find the plate?
The Steelers evened out their record at home against Houston, lost at Baltimore, then once again put a beatdown on the CleveBrownies to the tune of 26-9 at Three Rivers. The following week, the Steelers led the Miami Dolphins, 21-3 in the second quarter at the Orange Bowl. Terry Bradshaw had thrown three touchdown passes to complement his trio of interceptions. What followed, though, was Chuck Noll suffering a fate for the second time in two months, that Bill Cowher experienced only once over the course of his 15-year tenure. He lost a lead of at least 11 points. Bob Griese threw TD passes of 12, 86 & 60 yards to Paul Warfield, one of the finest receivers that this writer has ever seen, both with the Browns and Fins, and the Steelers had dropped a 24-21 decision.
The following week, the Steelers beat the Giants and Fran Tarkenton, 17-13, and stood with a 5-5 record, unbeaten at home, winless on the road. This streak was broken the following week though, when the Denver Broncos invaded Pittsburgh, and beat the Steelers 22-10. The Steelers late-season swoon, nearly identical to the previous year, had begun. The Steelers were soundly whipped in the Astrodome on the first weekend of December, 29-3, came back to win a road game at their eventual second home, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, by a 21-13 margin, and then dropped the season finale to the Rams, at Three Rivers, 23-14, as TB threw 4 more picks.
The 1971 Pittsburgh Steelers were Terry Bradshaw’s team. Whereas he had started 8 games in his rookie year, finishing only 1 game that he had started, Ozark Ike started every game, limiting Terry #2’s work to 29 passes on the season. Hanratty completed only 7 of these tosses, while throwing 3 into enemy hands, finishing with a passer rating of 33.3. Bradshaw improved on his 6:24 TD/Interception ratio of the previous year, throwing 13 TDs to 22 picks, but completing 54.4% of his throws, a far cry from his sub-40% performance of the previous season. Once again, there was a tie for the team reception lead with Ron Shanklin and Frenchy Fuqua each grabbing 49 balls. Dave Smith was a close 3rd with 47 catches.
Frenchy and Preston Pearson continued to offer solid running back production, each exceeding 600 yards while averaging over 4 yards per carry.
The new kicker was initially a substantial improvement, successfully booting 17 of 27 field goals and earning himself a fan club, Gerela’s Gorillas. The following year though, with the addition of a rookie running back from Penn State, the “missing link” according to his teammates, fan clubs would abound at Three Rivers, which would truly come alive.