clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Steelers of the 70s may have a different legacy if free-agency and a salary cap existed then

The Steelers of the 1970s were a special group, one that may never be duplicated. However, keeping a championship team together in those days was easier because players weren't free to pursue jobs with other organizations. Had the climate been different back then, history may look a bit different today.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have faced some tough times in recent years with regards to aging veterans, the team's on-going troubles with the salary cap--preventing a key player or two from staying--and some under-performing draft classes (to put it mildly) finally coming home to roost.

In this era of free-agency and the aforementioned salary cap, it's not easy to keep a championship team together and also look to the future to try and stay competitive over the long-haul. That's especially the case in Pittsburgh, where the Super Bowl is the desired destination every season and a parade is the only acceptable outcome.

What makes the Steelers of the 1970s so special (other than the fact that they won four Super Bowls in six years and did so with nine future Hall of Famers) is that most significant members of that team were allowed to stay together over the course of that magnificent run. Of course, it was a different era then, and true free agency didn't exist. A salary cap didn't exist either. As wonderful as it's been to celebrate that group over the last 35 years and picture those greats as nothing but Steelers, there is no doubt history would be different had the parameters and structures put into place starting in the early 90s with the advent of free-agency and a salary cap existed in the 70s.

Last fall, as a way to jump on the retirement of Joe Greene's No. 75 jersey with a topical article, I suggested that maybe Rod Woodson, who played 10 of his 17 Hall of Fame years with the Steelers, should have his number retired as a way to honor a truly special player and an era--the 1990s--that didn't include a championship despite all the success of that decade.

Most did not agree with this, and the main point of contention was that Woodson only played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh and had a post-Steelers career that included stints with the Ravens and Raiders. "If any cornerback should have his number retired, it should be Mel Blount," was the opinion of many. However, you don't think Blount would have cashed-in if he was afforded the same free-agent opportunities as Woodson? This was a player who not only is in the Hall of Fame, but is considered by many to be the greatest cornerback who ever lived.

Blount was drafted in 1970, and by 1974, he had already won his first Super Bowl. Blount wasn't a first round pick, so if today's rules existed back then (all rookies not drafted in the first round sign four-year deals), he may not even have been a part of the Super Bowl IX team. Sure, given that his career hadn't quite taken off yet, Blount may have signed a two year deal and been on board for the team's first title. However, in 1975, Blount intercepted 11 passes, was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was in the midst of playing his position so well, the league would soon name a rule change after him. The Steelers also won their second-straight Super Bowl that season. You know how teams love to snatch-up free-agents from championship organizations. There is no doubt Blount would have received an enormous contract by someone--Steelers or otherwise.

It might seem inconceivable that Pittsburgh would allow Blount to walk away or that he would even consider leaving to play for another organization. But we're thinking of  the glory of today and not the business of yesterday. Don't forget, Blount wasn't exactly enamored with Chuck Noll in the late 70s for the head coach being forced to include Blount in with the rest of the NFL's "criminal element" (dirty players of that era) when Noll took the stand as part of the lawsuit filed against him by the Raiders' George Atkinson in 1977.

Speaking of players not exactly enamored with Noll, what about Terry Bradshaw? We all know how much Bradshaw struggled during his first five seasons after being drafted No. 1 overall in 1970. It's no secret the love/hate relationship that existed between Bradshaw and Noll, as well as with Bradshaw and the city of Pittsburgh.

It has been said that Bradshaw would have preferred playing for the Oilers and Bum Phillips in those early years, and that he once begged Al Davis to trade for him. Being a first round pick, Bradshaw would have been a free-agent starting in 1975. Would the Steelers have franchised him, or given that 1974 was still a struggle for him and that he didn't really earn his starting job (and the team's trust) until halfway through that season, would Pittsburgh have decided to go in another direction?

Maybe Joe Gilliam, who actually won the starting quarterback job out of training camp in '74, would have been entrusted with running the ship, a ship that was powered by the defense and a strong running game in the early-to-mid 70s. It seems crazy to suggest, considering Gilliam fell out of favor with Noll for his desire to throw the football all the time. But when it comes to money and cap restrictions, coaches and teams must put up with a lot and hope for the best.

Bradshaw may have been a casualty of the money Joe Greene would have no-doubt commanded. Drafted in the first round in 1969, Greene would have been eligible for free-agency after the 1973 season. Mean Joe may have accrued his share of injuries by the late 70s that slowed him down a bit, but in those early years, to quote Andy Russell, "Nobody could block him."  Do you go with the best defensive lineman who anchors the best defense in football or a struggling quarterback who may or may not put it all together?

Would there have been enough money for both? And if Greene stayed, would Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood have remained? Chances are, they both would have tested the free-agent market and, given their importance to that great defense, one (or both) may have received an offer he couldn't refuse and Pittsburgh wouldn't match. Greenwood actually signed a future contract to play in the short-lived WFL (World Football League). While he never actually left, he was obviously interested in making more money, and given a free-agent avenue, he may have cashed-in with another NFL team.  (Picture Hollywood Bags wearing blue and yellow high-tops as a member of the Los Angeles Rams.)

And what about Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame receivers and Hall of Fame linebackers? Can you imagine having to make a choice between Swann and Stallworth or Lambert and Ham?

At the close of his Hall of Fame induction speech, Jack Lambert said, "If I could start my life all over again, I would be a professional football player, and you damn well better believe I'd be a Pittsburgh Steeler." But Lambert was also opinionated, confrontational, and he obviously cared about money, considering he held-out for more of it in 1977. Being forced to choose between Lambert and Jack Ham, who is often overlooked but may have had the most consistent career of any of the nine Hall of Fame players from the 1970s, what would the organization have done? Lambert was a bit younger and, being the middle linebacker, was entrusted with calling the defensive plays. But up until Lawrence Taylor arrived on the scene in the early 80s, Ham was considered by many to be the greatest outside linebacker of all time. Just a guess, but one of those two Steelers greats may have been forced to play out the remainder of his career somewhere else.

Lynn Swann once said, "Most teams have one go-to guy; we had two." There may not have been a better wide receiver duo in league history than Swann and John Stallworth, who both came into the NFL in 1974 as part of that famed draft class that also included Lambert and Mike Webster. Swann was a first round pick, while Stallworth was drafted in the fourth round. Stallworth would have been eligible for free-agency by the late 70s and, considering his skill-set, may have actually desired to move out from under the shadow of his more charismatic (and higher-paid) teammate.

I could go on and on with this. I haven't even touched on Webster or Franco Harris (imagine the kind of price a highly-decorated franchise running back would fetch in the 1970s).

And those are just the Hall of Famers. In-addition to White and Greenwood, imagine the kind of offers players like Larry Brown, Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell could have received in the free-agent market.

Had free-agency and a salary cap existed in the 1970s, those Steelers teams may have a much different legacy, complete with fewer Super Bowls. And Franco and  Webby may have been joined by several other former Super Bowl heroes who finished their careers wearing colors other than black and gold.

Chris Rock once joked that a man is only as faithful as his options. As the modern NFL has taught us, that certainly holds true for players looking to cash-in and make as much money as they can when they're free to do so.

NFL players--including those legendary Hall of Fame Steelers--spent the 70s and 80s fighting for the free-agency that finally became part of the league in the 1990s, and they did so because they wanted the freedom to play wherever they desired and make as much money as the market would allow.

In the future, when we show a bit of disdain for Rod Woodson's decision to finish out his career with the Ravens and Raiders, we should remember that, given the choice of unrestricted free-agency in the 1970s, Mel Blount may have placed his famous cowboy hat in his locker before putting on a Dallas Cowboys' helmet.