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All-Time Pittsburgh Steelers ‘What-Ifs’, Part 2

Part 2, the Golden Age (1969-79) of Steelers history.

Super Bowl IX - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Minnesota Vikings - January 12, 1975
Terry Bradshaw glancing in the direction of the first of his four Lombardi trophies
Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

This is the continuation of a series of “What If” articles on Steelers history.

1933-69: The Winter of Our Discontent: HERE.
2010s Heartbreakers, part 1: HERE
2010s Heartbreakers, part 2: HERE.

There will eventually be essays that look at the 80s, the 90s, and the 2000s, as well, but this one asks questions about the golden years of the 1970s — a hard era to interrogate, because the Steelers seemed to do everything right for a decade. But there’s always something you can ask. Here goes...

Part 2: Golden Age (1969-79)

1970: What if Steelers didn’t jump to AFC?
1972: What if the Immaculate Reception failed?
1972: What if Don Shula didn’t bench Earl Morrall in the AFC Title Game?
1976: What if Franco and Rocky didn’t get hurt against the Colts?


1970: What if Steelers didn’t jump to AFC?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears
Dick Butkus and Frenchy Fuqua in a divisional matchup from an alternate universe
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Situation:

When the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the number of teams wasn’t symmetrical. There were sixteen NFL teams, but only ten AFL squads. So the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers swapped conferences.

In the NFL, the Steelers had been perennial bottom-feeders, with zero playoff wins in team history (their only postseason appearance was an unscheduled tie-breaker game in 1947 which they lost 21-0). Since jumping to the AFC Central (now North), they’ve been the most successful team in the NFL.

My guess at what happens:

The most obvious change is that the Steelers likely land in the NFC Central. You can make a case for the East too, but I’d guess league powers separate the Eagles and Steelers, so I’m picking Central. Five-team divisions were once the norm, and the Buccaneeers wouldn’t arrive until 1976, so the Steelers’ new enemies are the Packers, Lions, Bears, and Vikings.

The most natural new rival would probably be Lions (geographically speaking), but I suspect the Steelers would build a celebrated 70s division rivalry with Minnesota — another power with a brick-wall defense and wildcard quarterback. I imagine yearly playoff barn-burners against the Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Rams too, with Super Bowls against the Dolphins, Raiders, Broncos, Oilers, or Chargers.

These aren’t earth-shattering changes, but they shake up some franchise narratives. Does Bum Phillips wind up with a couple conference titles? Does Ken Anderson land in the Hall of Fame? Do the Raiders build a dynasty? Odds imporove on all fronts without Pittsburgh to contend with.

Perhaps a bigger question for us: could the Steelers have dominated the decade from the NFC? I’d give this one a resounding YES.

The NFC crowned only four conference champs from 1969 to 1980. Washington and L.A. won one each (1972 and 1979); every other year it’s either Minnesota (four conference titles) or Dallas (five). The Steelers’ collective record against the Vikings and Cowboys from 1972-80 was 7-2, including 3-0 in the post-season. Pittsburgh was also 2-0 against Washington through these years, and while they stumbled more often against L.A., they managed to take home their fourth Lombardi against the Rams in 1979.

Ludacris as it sounds, it’s not inconceivable that the Steelers could have gone to six or eight consecutive Super Bowls if they’d have been an NFC team in the 70s. Goodness.

Other implications: we’d have gotten to watch Franco Harris and Walter Payton match up twice a year as they chased Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record. (One can imagine Franco getting an advantage since Payton would now play the Steel Curtain twice a year.) Other than that, the post-dynasty 80s would have been a terrible decade (weren’t they anyway?), as the Steelers would get shellacked by the Payton’s Bears over and over. That would abate eventually, leading to fireworks shows against Brett Favre and Barry Sanders twice a year in the 90s, just as the black and gold resurgence began.

Who knows if they’d have stayed in the division after 2002’s realignment, but we can be reasonably sure there would be no rivalry with the Ravens; no annual dominance of the Browns; no bitter hatred of the Bengals. That feels like a net loss. Also Baltimore would probably get to at least one or two more Super Bowls without Pittsburgh to shut them down. So it’s probably best this didn’t happen.


1972: What if the Immaculate Reception failed?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Pittsburgh Steelers
The founder of one of history’s great empires. And George Washington.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Situation:

Do I need to explain this play to literally anyone? Here’s a video. Here’s an explanation. Here’s a documentary. Here’s Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris recreating it as old men. It’s generally regarded as the greatest play in NFL history. You know the Immaculate Reception.

The Raiders want the play to be illegal so badly George Atkinson still fantasizes about it to this day. But I’m not playing around with conspiracies; I just want to imagine that it didn’t happen. Maybe Bradshaw got sacked instead. Maybe Tatum went for the interception. Maybe Frenchy caught the ball and just got tackled. (Ugh.) Whatever the case, no Immaculate Reception. Period. Now what?

My guess at what happens:

For one thing, Pittsburgh International Airport immediately becomes more bland. More importantly, something intangible about the Steeler mystique maybe never develops.

More on that in a moment, but first let’s admit a strange truth: erasing this play — the most celebrated play in NFL history, and one of the great all-time moments in sports — changes practically nothing about the Steelers 1970s success. At least not materially. They chalk up one fewer playoff victory. That’s really it.

Here’s the thing many forget about the Immaculate Reception: it didn’t lead to a Super Bowl. This was still 1972.

The play seems like the beginning of the dynasty, but the Steelers lost the next week, then went one-and-done in the 1973 playoffs. They wouldn’t win their next playoff game (or their first Super Bowl) for two more years. No doubt this was a team on the rise, but they hadn’t arrived yet. If they felt like a team of destiny, it was only for eight days.

What Bradshaw, Frenchy, and Franco (and Tatum!) actually provided was a kind of magic for US — for the city, for the fans, for the lovers of sports, and history, and underdogs, and greatness. It didn’t create the greatest team in the history of the game; but it gave us a way to recognize them, and a moment we can all point to and agree on.

Greatness thrives on iconic moments, but think of how many historic teams don’t have them. What is the moment that defines the 90s Cowboys? Is there one? (I can only picture Jimmy Johnson shouting, “how ‘bout them Cowboys!” or Leon Lett getting caught by Don Beebe.) What launched the Patriots dynasty? The Tuck Rule? (That and the helmet-catch are still their most famous plays, and neither one is a great look.) Even where we have definitive moments, the plays often underwhelm when you take away the hype. Bart Starr sneaking behind Jerry Kramer is pretty unremarkable if it isn’t the end of the Ice Bowl. “The Catch” would look pretty mundane if the 49ers had lost the Super Bowl the next week.

But the Immaculate Reception was different: it was an impossible turn of events, against an outstanding and iconic rival, ignited by hustle, grace, grit, violence, and a little bit of mystery (all the best things in football). The fact it gave the greatest team of all time their first playoff win (and first postseason touchdown in team history) was bonus; it was already everything you could ask for.

So the real question isn’t what would change for the Steelers (answer: very little), but what would change for us?

We’d have a new “most celebrated play in Steelers history.” Would it one of Lynn Swann’s breathtaking leaps in Super Bowl X? Maybe Lambert throwing Cliff Harris to the turf by his face in that same contest? Maybe Dwite White’s safety in Super Bowl IX (the only score of that bizarro 2-0 first half)? Hmm. I’ll go with John Stallworth’s “60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go” — the play that reclaimed the final lead in Super Bowl XIV. If there was no singular play to launch the dynasty, I think we’d remember the one that wrapped it up in style.

Meanwhile, what would NFL Films tell us is the greatest play in league history instead? I suspect (with annoyance) there would be a push for “The Catch” — or, as I think of it “tall guy catches a routine touchdown we’ve retroactively assigned meaning to.” (“The Catch”? Please. I’d take this one ten times out of ten. Hell, Lynn Swann’s outtakes were more impressive…) Just as likely would have been one of those cartoonish 70s Raiders plays — “Ghost to the Post” or the “Sea of Hands.” Among those, I suppose my vote goes for the “Holy Roller,” just because it gave us THIS play-by-play description — surely the greatest announcer’s call in the history of the game.

Whatever the case, the Immaculate Reception is far more deserving. It may not have led to a trophy, but it created a mythology that the future teams fulfilled, even surpassed. And it doesn’t matter how many times you watch it — it’s still absolutely stunning.


1972: What if Don Shula doesn’t pull Earl Morrall at halftime of the AFC Title Game?

Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers
Bob Griese (#12) showing that he was far more effective than Earl Morrall at watching Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka, and Jim Kiick. I mean, look at him back there. That’s a difference maker.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Situation:

Speaking of those 1972 playoffs... The week after the Immaculate Reception, due to an old scheduling quirk, the Steelers hosted to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship game. Miami had one of the NFL’s great coaches, Don Shula, the first backfield with two 1000 yard rushers in NFL history, and a defense good enough for a nickname, but still playing the disrespect card (“The No Name Defense”). When their future-Hall of Fame quarterback, Bob Griese, broke his leg in week 5, former Steeler Earl Morrall, stepped in and won 10 straight contests, including a Divisional Playoff against the Cleveland Browns.

At age 37, Morrall was a Pro Bowler, but he couldn’t get untracked against the young Steel Curtain. With the score tied 7-7 at the half, Shula made a gut-decision, and benched him for Griese, who would be seeing his first game action in nearly three months. Griese only threw five second-half passes, but tight games against strong opponents often hinge on very small changes. The Dolphins won this one 21-17.

My guess at what happens:

If Morrall stays in, I say the Steelers defense wears him down and Pittsburgh pulls away for the win. What then? Do they beat Washington in SB VII? George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” was formidable, but Miami dominated them with Larry Csonka’s running and a brick wall defense. I think the Steelers could have done that too. Let’s say Pittsburgh wins it all in 1972, and takes home their first Lombardi two years early.

If they do, it won’t just be bragging rights they’ll secure. Winning this Super Bowl would rattle the pecking order over the next couple seasons. Immediately the Steelers would find they’re wearing bulls-eyes every week. That might seem like no big deal, but remember: Chuck Noll was still rotating quarterbacks until the middle of 1974, and Terry Bradshaw’s confidence was not fully formed. How does Bradshaw handle the pressure? How does Noll treat him?

But let’s say Noll figures out how to guide that ship and the offense doesn’t collapse. There’s also the problem of draft position.

It’s not until 1974 that the Steelers’ pull the greatest draft haul in the history of sports, with four Hall of Famers drafted and a fifth via UDFA? (Fun fact: Dave Casper is the only HOFer drafted that year that wasn’t picked by the Steelers. Pittsburgh got as many HOFers out of the UDFA pile as the entire rest of the league drafted in seventeen rounds.) How much of that treasure trove was contingent on their draft slot? If they’re not picking 21st in 1974, do they still land Lynn Swann? If not, do they grab Stallworth at #1 like Chuck Noll wanted? Do they get Jack Lambert there, like Lambert thought should’ve happened? Hard to predict, but you don’t miss out on a Hall of Famer without feeling it. Do they win Super Bowls X or XIII without Swann? Would the shy Stallworth have developed into an all-timer without Swann’s star power to pull coverages and headlines?

What if the ripple effect stole two or three of these guys, or even all five? That’s not impossible. A Super Bowl title a little too soon could ultimatley have led to far fewer trophies in the long-run. Yikes. Thanks, Don Shula.


1976: What if Franco and Rocky don’t get hurt against the Colts in the Divisional Playoffs?

Steelers White and Holmes
Pictured: the last thing most 1976 offenses saw before waking up in the hospital
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Situation:

The 1976 Steelers were two-time defending champs, who started the season asleep. Five weeks into a 14-game season, they sat at 1-4, and Terry Bradshaw had suffered a gruesome neck injury that would keep him sidelined for two months.

Rather than collapse, the team regrouped. They called a players-only meeting after their fourth loss, and emerged positively possessed.

You’ll have to indulge me for a second: I’m going to throw some stats at you. I can’t help it; the defensive numbers are barely believable.

  • In the Steelers 9-0 regular season finish, they allowed a total of 28 points (3.1/game).
  • They pitched five(!) shutouts, and held three other teams under seven points.
  • They gave up 183.3 yards/gm (99.4 passing), and 10.4 first downs.
  • They allowed a total of three touchdowns over two-plus months (one every three games).
  • They allowed zero rushing touchdowns total. None.
  • Opponents completed 40.8 percent of passes, for 3.8 YPA, with an INT/TD ratio of better than 7 to 1, and a passer rating of 29.9 (note: if every pass you throw falls incomplete, your rating is 39.6).

Any of these marks would set an NFL record if sustained over a full season, and the Steelers held that pace on all of them for over two months. This was insanity.

On offense, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both rushed for over 1000 yards (only the second time teammates had cracked this barrier in the same season). Rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek posted a 6-0 starting record without throwing a single touchdown. Stunning.

They pushed their win streak to ten with a divisional playoff rout over the Colts. But both Franco and Rocky were injured in that game. Though Bradshaw had returned by then, the offense was not able to control the tempo in the AFC title game, and a powerful Raiders team finally got past their nemeses and won a Super Bowl.

My guess at what happens:

This one is easy. If the Steelers can run, they beat the Raiders, then pitch a shutout over Minnesota for their third straight Super Bowl win. Dan Rooney often called this squad the best team the Steelers ever fielded, and he’s probably right. They’d be not simply the only Super Bowl three-peat (still), but that defense would be remembered, universally, as the greatest of all time. L.C. Greenwood would probably have a bust the Hall of Fame by now, and maybe Andy Russell too.

The 76 Steelers are often cited as one of the best, if not the best defense in history already. If they’d won the title that year, there would be no room for debate. Any fawning we ever heard over a great defenses (the ‘85 Bears, the 2000 Ravens) would start with a qualifier:

“Well, they’re no 76 Steelers, of course, but...”


Alright, onto the 80s. See you there...