The Great Debate -- A Case For the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers as the Greatest Team in NFL History

It's time to step away from the excitement surrounding the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers and their run to the AFC Championship Game to participate in a fun debate sponsored by The Sporting News. TSN has sponsored an open discussion about the best teams in NFL history, and they asked Behind the Steel Curtain to make a case for the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, maryrose, RickVa, or one of BTSC's other esteemed historians is probably more qualified than I am to write this particular piece, but I'm certainly up for giving it my best shot. So let's get to it!

First though, let's see which other teams TSN selected for consideration.

  • 1976 Oakland Raiders
  • 1977 Dallas Cowboys
  • 2004 New England Patriots
  • 1992 Dallas Cowboys
  • 1958 Baltimore Colts
  • 1962 Green Bay Packers
  • 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 1985 Chicago Bears
  • 1984 San Francisco 49ers
  • 1972 Miami Dolphins

The Case for the '78 Steelers

The Back Story:

The Steelers entered the '78 season eager to reclaim their hegemony over the NFL after falling short of Super Bowl glory the previous two seasons. After winning back-to-back Lombardis in '74 and '75, the first two in franchise history, the Steelers fell just short in the '76 and '77 playoffs. 1976 was a magical year for the Steelers, as we've discussed here on BTSC this season in our year-long statistical comparisons of the '76, '08 and '10 defenses. But injuries to key offensive players finally caught up to them in the playoffs and the Steelers were sent home packing by the hated Oakland Raiders. The following season was more of a disappointment for the black and gold, as Pittsburgh went just 9-5. The record was good enough for yet another AFC Central crown, but the defense was not nearly the dominant force it had been the year before, and quarterback Terry Bradshaw reverted back to some of his old tendencies of not protecting the football and making intelligent decisions consistently. In the team's first two losses of the season (Week 2 vs. Oakland, and Week 4 vs. Houston), the Steelers turned the ball over a combined 15 times. That same turnover bug proved deadly in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, as the Steelers turned the ball over four times in a 34-21 loss to the Denver Broncos. After the Steelers scored a touchdown to level the score at 21 early in the fourth quarter, Denver responded with 13 unanswered points to send the stunned Steelers back to Pittsburgh.

The Season:

In the first year that the NFL regular season was expanded to 16 games, the Steelers finished 14-2, the best record in football. Pittsburgh roared out of the gates, winning its first seven outings by a combined score of 185-to-77. The Steelers lone losses came against two of the premiere teams in the league -- the Houston Oilers and the Los Angeles Rams. Both teams would advance to their respective conference title games before bowing out. In the second half of the season, the Steel Curtain tightened the screws in a big way. After forcing a respectable 18 turnovers at the midway point, the Steelers forced 30 in the final eight weeks to finish with 48 on the year, tops in the NFL. After losing to the Rams in Week 11, the Steelers closed out the regular season with five straight wins. During that span, the defense allowed just eight points per game and was so dominant that it didn't much matter that the offense turned it over 16 times during the five-game win streak.

Fittingly, the Steelers' playoff run began with a home tilt against the Denver Broncos, the team that had knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago. The Steelers followed up their victory over Denver in the final week of the regular season with an even more convincing home win. Pittsburgh nearly doubled the Broncos' offensive production (425 to 218 yards) in the 33-10 drubbing of Denver. In the AFC title game, Pittsburgh played one of the most memorable games in franchise history, whitewashing the Oilers, 34-5, thanks largely to the nine turnovers they forced.

The Steelers then finished off the storybook season with a win over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII in what is still considered one of, if not the greatest Super Bowl ever played. Terry Bradshaw stole the show that afternoon in Miami, as he threw for over 300 yards and four TDs, and was named Super Bowl MVP for the first of two times. Though I had not yet been born, I feel like I was at the game that day thanks to the story maryrose once shared with us about his SB experience that year.

The Cast of Characters:

It's important to remember that even though the Steelers has won two Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975, it wasn't until several years later that their star young players really began to peak. The 1974 draft for Pittsburgh is widely regarded the best ever. It yielded four future Hall of Fame players: wide receiver Lynn Swan (1st Round), linebacker Jack Lambert (2nd), wide receiver John Stallworth (4th), and center Mike Webster (5th).  No other draft has produced more than two Hall of Famers.

Don't forget about Donnie Shell, who went undrafted in '74 but quickly became an integral part of the defense. Shell made the first of five straight Pro Bowls in '78, and his five fumble recoveries and three interceptions contributed to the Steel Curtain finishing with the second most turnovers (48). The remarkable year scouting talent didn't stop there. Tight end Randy Grossman, who also went undrafted in '74, set career highs in receptions (37) and receiving yards (448), and contributed in each of the three playoff wins.

Basically, the Steelers had the perfect blend of youth (R. Johnson, B. Cunningham, L. Anderson, et. al), guys in the peak window of their careers physically (the aforementioned '74 acquisitions, F. Harris, T. Bradshaw,) and veteran leadership that could still play at a high level (J. Greene, J. Kolb, R. Bleier, M. Blount, L.C. Greenwood, J. Ham, M. Wagner et. al).

When you realize how young Swann and Stallworth were in the middle years of the decade, it's easier to understand why Terry Bradshaw struggled with his consistency, and didn't really have his break through year until '78. Bradshaw posted career highs (to date) in completions (207), attempts (368), passing yards (2,915), touchdowns (28), and the second best marks in completion percentage (56.3), and quarterback rating (84.7). His 28 TDs led the NFL, and for the second consecutive year, he was tops in yards per attempt (7.9). For his fine season, Bradshaw earned league MVP honors for the first and only time in his career.

Pittsburgh's talented, young wide receivers were the beneficiaries of Bradshaw's marked improvement.  Stallworth set career highs in receiving yards (798) and TDs (9). Swann meanwhile really emerged in '78, setting career highs to date in receptions (61) and receiving yards (880), while matching his career best with 11 TDs ('75). Of course, the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in '78, so the two extra contests help explain the increase in production.

Awards and Final Season Stats:

The Steelers had 12 players named as All Pros at their respective positions. Sure, All Pro selections are not an exact science, and previous performance and overall reputation certainly has helped a guy like Troy Polamalu receive the honor. But it's not like the Pro Bowl which is infinitely more subjective and unfair of a voting process. Interestingly enough, The Sporting News is the outfit responsible for creating the All Pro category. Anyway, Pittsburgh had 12 earn the individual honor in '78! That's incredible. They were (age):

  • Terry Bradshaw (30)
  • Franco Harris (28)
  • Lynn Swann (26)
  • LT Jon Kolb (31)
  • C Mike Webster (26)
  • LDE L.C. Greenwood (32)
  • LDT Joe Greene (32)
  • LLB Jack Ham (30)
  • MLB Jack Lambert (26)
  • RCB Mel Blount (30)
  • SS Donnie Shell (26)
  • FS Mike Wagner (29

As a point of reference, the other historically great teams being considered had the following number of All Pro players 

  • 1976 Oakland Raiders: 7
  • 1977 Dallas Cowboys: 10
  • 2004 New England Patriots: 5
  • 1992 Dallas Cowboys: 6
  • 1958 Baltimore Colts: 12
  • 1962 Green Bay Packers: 14
  • 1985 Chicago Bears: 11
  • 1984 San Francisco 49ers: 9
  • 1972 Miami Dolphins: 10

The '58 Colts and '62 Packers both had an impressive number of All Pros, but it's worth noting that there were only 12 teams in the NFL in '58, and still just 14 in '62. In my opinion, those totals are far less impressive when you consider just how diluted the talent pool was back then. In fact, even though I am in awe of those two great teams and what they accomplished those years, I simply can't consider any single season prior to the 1970 merger as contextually similar enough to consider as 'the greatest ever.'

And a sampling of final team stats that sheds light on how balanced the Steelers were offensively and defensively.

Points: 22.5 (5th)

Yards/Game: 312.25 (9th)

Points Allowed: 12.18 (1st)

Yards Allowed/Game: 260.5 (3rd)

Turnovers Forced: 48 (1st)

Sacks: 44 (7th)

QB Rating Allowed: 51.8 (2nd)

Rushing Yards/Attempt Allowed: 3.5 (2nd)

 

Neither unit was the greatest in franchise history, but with both units being dominant at times, the end result was an unstoppable Steelers team that year that brought home the third of four championships that decade. Had the offense protected the football better (39 turnovers), their final season stats would have been even more impressive -- more points scored, less pressure put on the defense, etc. But even with the high volume of miscues, the Steelers collectively pieced together a dominant regular season with a mere two losses against the cream of the crop. Then like all great teams do, the Steelers elevated their game to an even higher level in the playoffs. Their resounding wins over the Broncos and the rival Oilers set up the Super Bowl matchup with Dallas that the entire country had been hoping for. Two teams that played a different brand of football, from two cities that were heading in the opposite direction. Yet in the end, the Steelers reminded everybody who really was America's team with a win for the ages in one of the NFL's greatest games.

Go Steelers!

Like I said, I'm no historian. Well, actually, I was a history major in college. But not the NFL historian some of you are. So thanks for reading, and any feedback is of course appreciated. Be sure to check out the debate at The Sporting News and vote for the Steelers.

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