It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers love to build through the draft. They’ve enjoyed unparalleled success in team building through this tried-and-true method. It all started in 1969 when they drafted a little-known defensive lineman from the University of North Texas named Mean Joe Greene with their first-round selection. This laid the foundation for the Steel Curtain Dynasty and remains the single most important development in Steelers history. But the pick seemed uneventful at the time and, quite frankly, left a lot of people questioning “who?” Can you imagine the chaos after such a pick in today’s modern age of social media? I feel certain there would be an angry mob of inconsolable fans descending on Steelers headquarters with torches and pitchforks.
The next year, when the Steelers had the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft, they selected a strong-armed quarterback from Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw. This pick was met with far less criticism, but the fans had no idea what the next four years held in store. While Bradshaw had one of the strongest arms the league had ever seen at the time, he was far from a finished product coming into the league. To say Bradshaw struggled during his first four years is an understatement. I dare say there has never been another first-round QB who struggled so mightily over their initial three or four seasons yet still remained with the team that originally drafted them — much less the first overall pick.
Today’s wall-to-wall coverage and social media impact would never allow for an environment conducive to such a player’s development. Either the player would be gone, or the head coach would be fired — probably both. Bradshaw endured multiple benchings and a whole lot of tough love from Coach Noll. But in the end, he was a four-time Super Bowl champion. Terry’s epic story of perseverance, though, could never happen in today’s NFL.
The 1970 draft also netted the team a future Hall of Famer and revolutionary, game-changing player when they selected cornerback Mel Blount from Southern University in the third round. Blount appeared to have been sculpted from granite and possessed world-class athleticism. He also had a mean streak a mile wide. He would so demoralize most opponents that he broke their will to compete. The NFL tried to level the playing field by implementing the appropriately named “Mel Blount Rule” which prohibited contact with a receiver after five yards down the field. Blount adjusted his game accordingly and remained a great player, but the game was changed forever. I’m glad I got to witness him at the height of his powers.
The Steelers continued to build through the draft and struck gold with the 13th selection of the 1972 draft when they selected Franco Harris, a running back from nearby Penn State. Franco was an immediate success and a fan favorite. He was the freight train that drove the Steelers’ power running attack that controlled the clock and wore down the opposition. This allowed Noll’s marauding defense to be well rested and ready for destruction. Harris was named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, and he helped lead the team to the playoffs. In the playoffs, Franco Harris made the single biggest play in Steelers history and — in one fell swoop — changed the team’s culture of losing forever. Maybe you’ve heard of it — The Immaculate Reception. But that play probably would never happen in today’s NFL. With the countless camera angles and instant-replay availability we may have gotten a definitive answer to John Madden’s eternal plea of “Who touched the ball first?” or whether the ball ever touched the ground, as many Raider players contest. I, for one, am thankful that the play happened before modern technologies because we might have been robbed of one of the greatest moments in NFL history. I concede I’m not a Raiders fan when making that statement.
The Steelers were now a playoff team and a young team on the rise. They were close to becoming true contenders and they went into the 1974 draft looking to add an explosive element to their offense and also to the middle of their burgeoning defense. That draft was a huge success on all accounts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1974 draft class is unquestionably the greatest in NFL history. Drafting four future Hall of Famers in one year is hard to fathom and the likes thereof will probably never be seen again.
The draft netted the Steelers two explosive playmakers on offense — wide receiver Lynn Swann from USC in the first round and wide receiver John Stallworth from Alabama A&M in the fourth round. While neither player set the league on fire right out of the gate, their enormous potential was evident every time they took the field. Eventually, they formed the greatest receiver tandem in league history and lifted the Steelers’ offense to a lofty status worthy of their league-best defense.
The 1974 draft also added the final missing piece that finished tempering the Steel Curtain defense. The team drafted linebacker Jack Lambert from Kent State in the second round and he enjoyed immediate success in the middle of the defense, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year that season. If Mean Joe Greene represented the foundation of the dynasty, then Lambert was the heart and soul of the defense. His fiery disposition permeated throughout the defense and had an infectious effect on his teammates.
The team was now loaded and would go on to win four of the next six Super Bowls. Eventually the 70s Steelers would succumb to injuries and Father Time. Incredibly, most of those Steelers greats would go on to retire having played only for the Steelers during their careers. Obviously, this was before the age of free agency.
Those of us old enough to have watched the Steel Curtain Dynasty of the 70s had no idea the magnitude of what we were witnessing. Who could have predicted free agency and the corresponding movement of players from team to team? Or the financial prosperity enjoyed by the league and the explosion in player salaries, resulting in today’s salary-cap issues?
No team will ever again approach the talent levels of those Steelers teams from the 70s. Free agency and the salary cap would never allow it.
It truly had to be seen to be believed.