While it would be fair to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers have dominated the world of sports media with negative headlines over the past few seasons, nothing that has happened recently comes even close to being the most drama filled season the team has had to deal with.
As highlighted by Bob Labriola of Steelers.com in an asked and answered column. No team in franchise history has ever faced the level of distraction the Steelers attempted to cope with in 1977. A year full of so many problems that it almost derailed the postseason chances of one of the most talented rosters Pittsburgh has ever had.
Coming off back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 1974 and 1975 and arguably their greatest regular season ever in 1976 given the play of their defense and the names lost to injury, the 1977 season was a disaster. Beset by problems from the outset, some of which had carried over from the year before, the list of issues that plagued Pittsburgh that year would be unimaginable in a single season today.
Off-field legal troubles would dog the team almost as soon as the 1976 season had ended. Defensive tackle Ernie Holmes was charged with cocaine possession after he was arrested for purchasing the drug in a hotel restroom while attending a wedding in Amarillo, Texas. A charge he would defeat in court, but not without the expense of $28,000 in legal fees, money loaned to him by the Steelers. Holmes would also stage a brief walk out later in the year, telling Dan Rooney “I can’t hack it.” With Rooney reportedly unconcerned by his absence.
“He said he had too much to think about, that his problems were overbearing on him.” Believing the player would return to practice, Rooney added, “This was not a major thing.”
Sadly for Pittsburgh, Holmes was not the only one forced to go before a judge that season, with Chuck Noll the center of a well-publicized defamation lawsuit brought against him by Oakland Raiders safety George Atkinson. Faced with a civil suit seeking damages of $2 million for libel after Noll had label Atkinson part of the NFL’s “criminal element” in a postgame press conference the year before, Noll would miss significant time during training camp because of the trial.
The Steelers coach would ultimately be found not guilty, but not before he had been forced to identify Mel Blount as another player in the league who could be considered part of the NFL’s criminal element.
In response this characterization by his head coach, Blount would file a defamation lawsuit of his own against Noll, seeking damages of $6 million and begin a holdout that would last 56 days. When asked by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if he would be a training camp on time, Blount replied.
“I still don’t have any intention of playing in Pittsburgh.”
Eventually he would return after the last game of the preseason, having agreed to drop the lawsuit, and was fined $25,000 for his absence. However, the cornerback was just one of a number of holdouts that season.
Jack Lambert and Glen Edwards would both miss time in Latrobe as they held out for better contracts with Lambert staying away until the day before the final game of the preseason. Fined $500 a day by the team for his absence, Lambert’s agent, Bucky Woy, would tell the local media that his client was “very disturbed” by the fines and wanted out of Pittsburgh.
“It’s his position and our position in view of the facts – trade him.”
He would go on to sign a five-year deal, but not before the front office has dangled the carrot of being named team captain if he arrived at training camp on time. A move that only served to anger the linebacker and lead to a war of words in the press between Lambert’s representatives and the Steelers management.
“Jack is taking this very personally now ... Unfortunately, Jack really wanted the captain’s job. He considered it a tremendous honour. It was very important to him, but he was insulted when they tried to use it as a wedge. He took it as a cheap shot.”
“There’s nothing to negotiate. They can pay him or trade him.”
While Edwards would get a new deal as well, he would later regret agreeing to it, walking out on the team a few days before a Week 8 matchup with the Denver Broncos. He would return in time to play in the game, but if he had missed out, his replacement was set to be Jimmy Allen, a player who had announced his retirement the week before only to return to practice the very next day after a change of heart.
Despite a record breaking season in 1976, the defense would struggle to keep points off the board in 1977, giving up a total of 243 points. A year removed from allowing the lowest amount in team history of just 138 points. The kicking game would struggle at times as well in the early parts of the season, as Roy Gerela would acknowledge to the press.
“I know where the faults lie and I’m going to go after them. I believe in myself. I believe in my own ability. I’ve got confidence in myself. Everything’s going to be fine. It has to be.”
A loss to the Raiders in Week 2 would result in the headline “End of a dynasty” from the Post-Gazette, while the frustration of some questionable calls by officials would begin to get to Joe Greene. He would be fined for remarks he made to the press about the state of refereeing in the league.
“I may not be long for this game, but I’ve had a full career. If I get half a chance, I’ll punch one of them out and it’d give me a whole lot of satisfaction.”
“They’re supposed to call it to the best of their ability, but their ability ain’t worth a bleep. I can’t knock ‘em out, but I’d dearly love to. I wish a bolt of lightning would come down and strike one of their hearts out.”
“If they get in the way, I’ll just cleat ‘em in the spine. I won’t go around them.”
Comments he would later apologize for.
“I explained to Mr. Rozelle that I said what I did for effect. I wanted to call attention to the problem that I think exists regarding the officials. I was upset and frustrated. In the future, I will express myself in a different manner. The Commissioner suggested I pick up the telephone and call him if I have any problems. I might take him up on the offer.”
In the eyes of their opponents, the Steelers were a team in disarray in 1977, with far too much off-field drama to be able to effectively compete in the AFC Central. As per Cleveland running back Greg Pruitt before the Browns Week 9 loss in Pittsburgh.
“I’d be surprised if it didn’t affect them. They’ve had people not in camp, people they haven’t been able to sign. All those things are distractions away from playing football.”
Heading into the final two weeks of the season, the Steelers would guarantee themselves the division crown with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals who were a game back on them in the standings. Winners of their last six in a row against the Bengals, Pittsburgh was confident of victory. As per Greene ahead of the matchup.
“The Bengals simply don’t think they can beat the Steelers in a big game, or some of them don’t. You can hear it in their conversation.”
The Bengals would win by seven points and Noll would leave Cincinnati with a broken arm having slipped on the ice the day before the game. Needing the Houston Oilers to beat the Bengals in the last game of the year to have any chance of winning the division, Pittsburgh were saved by a 21-16 Oilers victory. Appreciative of Houston’s efforts, the Steelers would send all the players and coaches on the Oilers roster leather briefcases as a thank you.
Finishing with a 9-5 record, Pittsburgh would take on the 12-2 Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium and although tied at the start of the fourth quarter, would eventually lose their opening round game 34-21. A disappointing end to a tumultuous season that Noll would later blame on the distractions the team had to deal with over the course of the season.
Thankfully for everyone concerned, all of this happened long before the arrival of the internet and social media and it is hard to imagine quite how extreme the response would have been if a team went through this much drama today. For all of the headlines the Steelers have generated because of their troubles of the last few years, nothing this current roster has done comes close to the drama created by the 1977 team.
Fans and media members alike would have questioned if Noll was losing the locker room and whether he could still lead the team, while some would be calling out Greene for threatening officials. Lambert, Blount and Edwards would be considered disloyal, with many fans likely wanting them to be traded and Holmes would probably have been released by the Steelers and suspended by the league.
Instead, the front office made relatively few changes during the offseason that followed and Pittsburgh would go on to win two more Super Bowl titles in 1978 and 1979 with the virtually the same team. A plan the Steelers might be well served to repeat this year all things considered.