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Belief: Noll's greatest lesson

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Noll's Steelers never quit on themselves or their team in the biggest games.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Before you can, you must believe you can.

The Steelers always believed they could do whatever they set out to do under head coach Chuck Noll. That in itself may have been his greatest strength as a coach.

Football is a game that tests many aspects of a man. It tests your stamina, your endurance, and your mental toughness. It also tests your will, and if that wavers, your believe in the cause will as well. When you lose your will, you can either pack it in and say "it's not our day," or you can find that little something deep down inside yourself and find a way to persevere. If you choose that later in that situation, you must have a lot of believe in yourself and your team instilled inside yourself that you can always go to when things get tough.

I think the Steelers belief in themselves during Noll's era was part Noll's teachings as well as his ability to find players that already had that quality prior to their arrival in Pittsburgh. Noll no doubt had that criteria in mind when he drafted all of those talented players; he wanted guys that challenged themselves in the classroom, he wanted guys that were leaders on their team, both on the field and off.

Year after year, Noll drafted highly motivated individuals that had a strong sense of belief in themselves, and eventually, that way of thinking became the philosophy of the entire franchise. The players bought into Noll's moniker of "whatever it takes" because that's what they also believed. It's easy to preach to the choir when they believe the same thing.

That sense of belief was evident in so many situations during Noll's time. Trailing 10-3 heading into the final stanza of the 1974 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers rattled off 21 fourth quarter points against the favored Raiders in a game that symbolized the turning point of the franchise. After the Vikings cut the Steelers lead to three points two weeks later late in Super Bowl IX, the Steelers offense drove through the Purple People Eaters to score the game-clinching touchdown.

Playing in arguably the worst conditions in NFL history in the 1975 AFC Championship (the field that day at Three Rivers Stadium was more suitable to playing a hockey game), the Steelers made enough plays on both sides of the ball to defeat the Raiders again, 15-10. Two weeks later, the Steelers had to shake off three missed field goals by Roy Gerela and a quick striking Dallas offense early in Super Bowl X. After the Cowboys had become the only team to score a touchdown against Pittsburgh's defense all year, the Steelers registered seven sacks and three interceptions. Pittsburgh's offense also took flight (literally), as Lynn Swann overcame a concussion suffered in the Raiders game to haul in the winning score from 64-yards out.

Late in the game, with Bradshaw also concussed following the touchdown pass, the Steelers tried to run out the clock with Terry Hanratty nursing a four point lead. But facing a fourth and nine near midfield, Noll elected to run the ball after having no confidence in his kicking game. Noll knew the Steelers wouldn't make the fourth down conversion, but it didn't matter, he believed in his defense. The Steel Curtain didn't disappoint, holding off the Cowboys as the Steelers won their first of two back-to-back titles.

The Steelers had every reason to throw in the towel the following year. They were 1-4 after five games and down to their third string quarterback. But again, Noll's players summoned the belief in themselves to find a way to back to the top of the mountain. In 1976, "whatever it takes" meant that the defense would have to play at an inhuman level, and that the Steelers running game would have to be as dominant as ever. The result was the most devastating defensive effort in NFL history: 28 points allowed and five shutouts in the final nine games. Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier became the second pair of teammates to each rush for over 1,000 yards.

But after losing Rocky and Franco in the team's 40-14 playoff win over the Colts, the Steelers were simply out-manned the following week in Oakland. But even in defeat, the Steelers still believed that if given a rematch with the Raiders, the outcome would be different. Jack Lambert was quoted after the game to say that all he needed was a six-pack and he would be ready to take on Oakland again.

Three years later in Super Bowl XIII, the Steelers trailed 14-7 early before scoring 28 of the game's next 31 points in their eventual 35-31 victory over Dallas. Despite enduring three turnovers in the first two quarters, the Blonde Bomber rebounded by throwing for the most passing yards and touchdown passes in Super Bowl history to that point.

But perhaps the most challenging moment for the 1970s Steelers came a year later in Super Bowl XIV. The underdog Rams had always played the Steelers tough, and in a game that was supposed to the be the Steelers coronation to immortality, Los Angeles held a 19-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Led by backup quarterback Vince Ferregamo, the Rams had kept the Steelers defense off balance with deep passes and trick plays (a halfback option pass led to the Rams go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter). Pittsburgh's offense was in even worse shape, with the Steelers rushing attack held to a feeble 2.3 yards per carry. Bradshaw had thrown three interceptions through three quarters. Lynn Swann, who had scored on a 47-yard bomb to start the second half, was out with a concussion.

Once again, Noll's words echoed in his players ears. "Whatever it takes" had gotten them to this point, and it would take them home one more time.

Facing a third and long deep in his own territory, Bradshaw put all of his cards on the table. He threw a perfectly thrown ball high into the Pasadena sky and into the arms of a waiting John Stallworth. The Steelers all of a sudden were ahead, 24-19.

But the Rams wouldn't give in that easily. They drove back again, marching into Steelers territory and poised to record the eighth lead change of the game. But Jack Lambert saved the day, picking off Ferregamo's pass inside the Steelers red zone. Bradshaw wasted no time taking advance of the shell shocked Rams, hitting Stallworth again for a 45-yard gainer to set up Franco's game-clinching score. The Steelers and their belief in themselves did it again.

Noll's Steelers continued to overcome the odds even after the final Lombardi Trophy was collected. The Steelers shocked the heavily favored Broncos with a 24-17 win in Denver in the 1984 AFC playoffs. Five years later, after starting 4-6 that included a 51-0 loss to the Browns, Pittsburgh won five of of their last six games that included a 26-23 overtime win over at rival Houston.

For many of Noll's teams, belief was the difference in many of their big moments. Noll's Steelers always believed they would win, and more often than not, they did. You can teach someone how to block, how to tackle, how to catch. But it takes a special person to teach a collection of people how to believe in themselves, their teammates, and the common goal of the unit. No matter how dark or bleak things look, somehow, someway, they were going to win in the end. That's what made those Steelers teams so special, and that's just one of the qualities that made Chuck Noll the greatest teacher that ever coached.