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Tribute to Chuck Noll: Why the 1970s Steelers Were Super

Malcolm Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Why the Seventies Steelers Were Super

I am a big fan of the Super Bowl and have determined that some of the games were decided not by the play on the field but by strategy. By strategy, I mean decisions that coaches and players had time to dwell upon before selecting a specific option.

Strategies include, but are not limited to:

Using a specific type of defensive or offensive or special teams play (i.e. onside kick)

Directing players to get out of bounds to save time or to avoid getting out of bounds to use up the clock (also known as time management)

Attempting a field goal or going for the first down or touchdown

Here is a quick review of how Steeler coach Chuck Noll outwitted Cowboy coach Tom Landry in Super Bowl X (January 18, 1976):

Right before Dallas took over on its own 39 yard line with 1:22 remaining in the game, Pittsburgh had run the ball on a 4th down and 9 from the Dallas 41 yard line. To this day, some question the call that Steeler head coach Chuck Noll made because it almost ensured that Dallas would get the ball in good field position. On fourth down, Rocky Bleier took a handoff for two yards, well short of the first down.

Why didn’t Noll order a punt? A smart coach who would end up winning what is still a record four Super Bowls, he undoubtedly considered the option of punting. But earlier in the game, his punter Bob Walden dropped a snap from center, which led to a Dallas touchdown and 7-0 lead. If Walden again dropped the ball, or the Cowboys blocked the punt or made a good return, Dallas would have an excellent opportunity to win the game.

Instead Bleier held on to the ball and the Steelers gave the ball to the Cowboys on the Cowboy 39 yard line. Noll estimated correctly that Staubach and Company could not make the winning score.

A better question has to do with strategy before the Steeler set of downs. With 1:48 to go in the game, Staubach threw deep to Percy Howard in the Steeler end zone for a touchdown. The extra point made the game Steelers 21, Cowboys 17.

Dallas had all three of its time outs left. So, provided that they could hold the Steelers without a first down, they could use the time outs and get the ball back with plenty of time to go. And, given that Steeler starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw had left the game (for good) due to an injury moments earlier, the Steelers chances of making a first down seemed fairly slim. In fact, backup quarterback Terry Hanratty, sent into the game as a replacement, had not thrown a single pass all season!

Landry and the Cowboys should have known that Hanratty would only turn around and hand the ball off to either Franco Harris or Bleier. They could have counted on getting the ball back.

The real strategy decision, then, should have been one that ensured good field position. Instead of an onside kick, which works at best about one time in four when the other team (as in this case) expects it, Dallas should have kicked off deep. A touchback, followed by three carries for one yard, would have put the Steelers on their own 21 with a 4th and 9.

Then the Steelers would have to punt. This is the essence of strategy: make the other side do something they do not wish to do!

Walden punted four times on the day. The first three punts went for 32, 34 and 34 yards and each time the Cowboys took a fair catch. Walden boomed the fourth punt for 59 yards after which Cowboy Golden Richards returned it five yards.

Now the odds are three in four in FAVOR of the Cowboys and even better if there were a problem with the snap or a blocked kick. A 34 yard Walden punt with a fair catch would put the ball on the Dallas 45, which happens to be the same place Dallas would get the ball with a successful onside kick!

In short, the only difference between what the Cowboys tried to accomplish with poor strategy and what they could have accomplished with better strategy was twenty-six seconds, time that they would not need, anyway.

In short, Noll made an unorthodox decision and made it stick. The Steelers won 21-17.

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