People are always impressed by the shiny new toy. Recency bias is a real thing. New music is just so cool, while your parent’s music is deemed old-fashioned and something to joke about. Nobody wants to watch a black-and-white movie when you can watch a brand-spanking-new Super Hero movie, flush with every special effect you can ever imagine.
So, when having a conversation about sports history, it is often that most people concentrate on the here and now, too. Many now believe that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan. “What a joke to even question such a thing!” If Babe Ruth played today? “Come on, you know that fatso couldn’t round the bases!”
I could go off on a rant defending The Bambino and Jordan, but, with football camps ready to open coming off yet another Patriots Super Bowl victory, it’s a good time to delve into another sports debate.
The Steelers 1970s Dynasty vs. Patriots 2000s Dynasty.
In particular, I will concentrate on which dynasty was more impressive rather than which dynasty was simply better. The reason is that I have heard it said many times in recent years that the Patriots dynasty is the more remarkable achievement since it occurred during the free agency period.
But, first, to briefly touch on the “better” dynasty debate — which is also a hot debate — I have to go with the Steelers dynasty only because I believe that the best team(s) of the Steelers dynasty would defeat the best team of the Patriots dynasty. The Pittsburgh teams of the seventies were so loaded with stars and Hall of Famers compared to the Patriots that it is hard to imagine, leveling out the time period differences, that the Steelers were not the better team talent-wise.
The Steelers sent 9 players from the 1970’s dynasty and their head coach to the Hall of Fame. We know that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski will certainly go to the Hall, as will their coach, Bill Belichick. Ty Law is already enshrined. But, after that? Surely, some may sprinkle in here and there, but it is no comparison. Plus, you could argue that Donnie Shell and LC Greenwood are being held out simply due to the large number of their teammates already inside.
Pound for pound, player for player — the Steelers dynasty was clearly a better team.
The Steelers also had a huge difference in quality of teams they needed to defeat for their Super Bowl victories as compared to the Patriots, especially when the all-important quarterback discussion comes into play.
The Steelers had to play versus Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach twice — both Hall of Famers — with only a weak QB in Vince Ferragamo on their list. Even the later Steelers Super Bowl appearances were versus strong Hall of Fame QB play — Troy Aikman, Kurt Warner, and Aaron Rodgers!
Not a weak one on the list, and all were HOFers given the fact that Aaron Rodgers certainly gets into the Hall upon retiring. Again, for the totality of the Steelers Super Bowl appearances — including their post 2000 games — only Ferragamo was questionable.
Yes, the Patriots had to face HOFer Kurt Warner and an excellent Russell Wilson, but also had the luxury of facing Jake Delhomme, Jared Goff, Nick Foles, Matt Ryan, Donavan McNabb, and the Giants Eli Manning twice.
Jake Delhomme might be considered the weakest QB to ever start a Super Bowl if it wasn’t for Rex Grossman. He’s certainly up there.
Ryan and McNabb certainly weren’t slouches — but this is the Super Bowl we are talking about here. You expect SOME aptitude at the QB position for their team to even make the Super Bowl to face the Patriots in the first place. That said, these were not scary opponents.
And, with Eli Manning, it can be argued that he would never even sniff the HOF if it wasn’t for beating — twice! — the very team, the Patriots, that is in question here! Take away Manning’s two stunning defeats of the Patriots in the Super Bowl and nobody would even THINK Hall of Fame for him.
Also, there is just something about the Steelers being 4-0 versus the 6-3 Patriots that matters. Undefeated is undefeated, and that is what it is — perfection.
Three losses hurts, especially when two were to the aforementioned mediocre Eli Manning led Giants, and one loss was to a pretty weak journeyman QB in Nick Foles.
So, I’d give the edge to the Steelers in strength of their team and strength of their Super Bowl competition. But, then comes the criteria I started this article with in the first place and is my main point: Which was the more impressive feat of dynasty building?
I’ve often heard the statement recently that this must go to the Patriots because the difficulty of the free agency era.
Now, right off the bat I’m shooting down that “difficulty” in terms of competition for the Patriots in comparison to the Steelers. The 1970’s with the near-dynasty Dallas Cowboys, near-dynasty Oakland Raiders, near-dynasty Miami Dolphins, as well as a loaded Houston Oilers team — who many considered perhaps the 2nd best team in the NFL playing in the Steelers very own division — it was tough sledding. Especially when you consider that the Patriots played, mostly, in a god-awful division, almost getting assured victories from all three opponents for over a decade — the sad trio of the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins.
All those teams had their moments, but, come on, this was the best case scenario every year for Patriots divisional dominance year after year, giving the Patriots a slew of easy victories to ride into the playoffs and achieve high conference seeding year after year. This “padding” helped them to byes and good seeds.
As I alluded to, the Steelers and Patriots dynasties played in different eras, mainly demarcated by the salary cap era. The Steelers were pre-salary cap while the Pats were post-salary cap. I know — duh. But, it is within that difference that the teams must be compared. Which era was harder to produce continuity in? I’ve often heard it proclaimed that the salary cap era was much more challenging.
I disagree. The eras were different, for sure, and both had their challenges, but I contend the pre-salary cap era was more difficult. Here’s why.
The Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s was comprised of all homegrown, drafted talent. They drafted these players in a time long before Mel Kiper Jr. first began “acting” like an expert with his finely coifed hair on ESPN. There were not hoards of draft magazines, draft media experts, no 24-hour sports stations, and you had less than about a dozen channels, period, on your TV every week to choose from.
So, you weren’t watching college games all over the country all week long like today because you couldn’t — you probably mainly got stuck with your own local college programs … and Notre Dame, every damn week! Plus, a few other “choices” sprinkled here and there. As for the NFL, you were EXCITED to get Sports Illustrated or Pro Football Weekly once per week (with already outdated content), and you waited all week long to watch NFL films on the weekend to go through, dramatically, last weeks games or for Howard Cosell to whisk through ALL the games in two minutes during his Monday Night Football halftime segment!
Yes, this was exciting because it was all you could get! You loved it! You were so starved for pro (and college) action because it just wasn’t like it is today, which is ubiquitous, wall-to-wall over-coverage of everything sporting related.
So, information was in short supply for fans in that era, but it was also in way shorter supply for the NFL teams, too.
The Steelers put together their dynasty through old time scouting. There was no such thing as a mock draft (let alone 100 of them like today!) or teams of people putting together rankings for the world to see. No Pro Football Focus or college equivalent types existed, and the “metrics” community wouldn’t show up for decades. The gathering of talent at the annual NFL Combine wouldn’t happen until the 1980s, so forget that, too.
A fool sitting at home today could probably draft a semblance of a team by just following the draft boards of a respected evaluation site available today.
Maybe it wouldn’t turn out great, but it wouldn’t have even been possible in the late sixties and seventies! Pro Football Weekly’s Joel Buchsbaum, a draft pioneer pre-Kiper, put out his first draft guide in 1979, when the Steelers dynasty was ending.
So, the Steelers with scouts like the legendary Dick Haley, as a prime example, travelled the country, searching programs high and low, and famously going to smaller colleges (and to many less visited black colleges) to seek out talent. Hitting on talent always takes some luck, but the team that the Steelers assembled for their undefeated 1970s dynasty, with incredible draft after incredible draft, was purely owed to their hard work and willingness to take those draft picks or free agents.
Greene, Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth, Webster, Ham, Lambert, Greenwood, Holmes, Kolb, Harris…really, must I go further? The list is full of HOFers and near HOFers.
Everyone had chances at most of these players, and didn’t make those selections that the Steelers did. The Steelers turned a cavalcade of home-scouted and home-drafted talent into a powerhouse. They dominated with ONLY their own hand-picked product, a product they needed to do actual groundwork to find and assemble.
Let’s compare this to the Patriots in the salary cap era. Yes, the free agency era made it easier to lose players, but it also made it easier to get them! While the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s could only refuel their team through the draft, the Patriots could view film on players already proven and playing in the NFL, and snag them from other NFL teams, many who were cap strapped.
Mike Vrabel is a good case. Drafted by the Steelers, he could barely sniff the field due to the great linebackers who were in front of him.
In the 1970s, you owned Vrabel. The Steelers would have kept a great backup, and maybe an eventual starter. Instead, in the free agency period, the Patriots didn’t have to scout Vrabel in college, they could simply sign him away after they see that he transitioned well from college and was languishing on a deep team.
Vrabel turned out to be an integral part of the Pats early Super Bowl wins.
So, is it harder finding and developing Jack Lambert from Kent State in the 1970s, or stealing Mike Vrabel from an NFL team’s roster in the 2000s?! Kudos to the Patriots for getting Vrabel — but is that more impressive or harder?
Of course not.
So, take that same example and apply it to Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, Aquib Talib, Junior Seau, Darelle Revis, Wes Welker, Antowain Smith, Legarrette Blount, Danny Woodhead, Sammy Morris, Phillip Dorsett, Brandon Cooks, Chris Hogan, Adalius Thomas, Brandon Lloyd, Ted Washington, Stephon Gilmore, etc. etc.
All were players snagged from and playing on NFL rosters.
Again, it is impressive. But more impressive than loading your dynasty by scouting the back alleys of college football in the days before heavy film footage while you slept in dump motels?! Would you rather build your roster from stealing already NFL ready players, all on tape, or guessing that some skinny linebacker from Kent State might become ferocious after you watched his college practice a few times?
Are you kidding?!
The Steelers of the 1970s, too, were penalized for their success and had to draft at the very end of drafts every year. As shown above, the 2000s Patriots often circumvented the draft by stealing stars (Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Darelle Revis, Aquib Talib) or plucking upcoming plums off of other rosters (Mike Vrabel, Wes Welker).
And, while the Steelers dynasty was penalized and only able to build from the back of the draft because of their success, the free agency period Patriots were able to parlay their success into getting vets to sign for reduced wages for the chance to win a Super Bowl!
Junior Seau and the likes flocked to the Patriots in free agency. And, for cheap. This could not happen in the 1970s, period. The Patriots success actually gave them this additional advantage.
Again, that is smart by the Patriots — but is it harder to achieve than the way the Steelers had to build and maintain their dynasty through the draft only?
In fact, the very length of the Patriots dynasty run is further proof of how much easier it was for the Patriots during the free agency era. It is much easier to refuel and replenish your team with help of the system now in place as opposed to what the 1970s Steelers had to deal with.
Faced with an aging roster, the back end draft choices were not enough to keep the Steelers dynasty going. They could not replace their parts like the 2000s Patriots could, and they soon burned out from mediocre talent. The Patriots, meanwhile, were signing players like Darrelle Revis and Randy Moss — top ten talent! — even though they were winning Super Bowls, or drafting near to last every year!
The way the NFL is set up now, it is easier to maintain a long winning streak. The Patriots have largely circumvented the draft while keeping their top two talents for the duration — Brady and Belichick. In a QB-driven league, Belichick and crew could “find” and sign top talent from established NFL rosters to replace pieces around Brady, and get to use the draft to boot!
The 1970s Steelers ONLY had the draft. And, they drafted in a time void of a slew of information and scouting intel that is now available to every team. Yes, they ruled the draft like no other ever has, but no one can consistently win at the draft when you are picking last every year, with no other alternatives, period.
So, spare me the refrain, “Wow, it’s just so impressive what the Patriots have been able to do in the free agency period. It is so much harder today.”
Sure, it is impressive, but take a hard look at what the Steelers of the 1970s had to overcome. It’s not even close.