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How the Steelers traded Roy Jefferson and won four Super Bowls

by Chase Stuart on September 28, 2012

in History

Roy Jefferson isn’t well-remembered today, but he was one of the top receivers at the start of the Super Bowl era. Jefferson was a second round pick of both the Steelers and Chargers in 1965, back when the leagues held separate drafts. Jefferson chose to sign with Pittsburgh, and in his second season, he led the NFL with a 24.1 yards per reception average. In 1968, Jefferson led the NFL in receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns, one behind Paul Warfield for the lead. Jefferson matched his production the next year and was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection. But for Jefferson, personal glory was the only success he would see in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers went just 7-33-2 from ’67 to ’69.

Jefferson’s 1969 performance was interesting for another reason. He gained 44% of his team’s receiving yards, and since then, only a few other players have reached that mark:

Player
Year
Team
Rec
Yds
TD
Perc
Ken Burrough1975HOU531063851%
Steve Smith2005CAR10315631245%
Santana Moss2005WAS841483944%
Paul Warfield1971MIA439961144%
Jimmy Smith1999JAX1161636644%
Roy Jefferson1969PIT671079944%
David Boston2001ARI981598844%
Yancey Thigpen1997PIT791398743%
Isaac Bruce1995STL11917811343%
Steve Smith2008CAR781421643%
Harold Carmichael1978PHI551072843%
Michael Irvin1995DAL11116031043%
Cliff Branch1974OAK6010921343%
Isaac Bruce1996STL841338743%
Lee Evans2006BUF821292842%
Dick Gordon1970CHI7110261342%
Anquan Boldin2003ARI1011377842%
Rod Smith2001DEN11313431142%
Sterling Sharpe1992GNB10814611342%
Michael Irvin1991DAL931523842%

As Steelers fans know, 1969 was a key year in the franchise’s history. It was Chuck Noll’s first season, and his first draft selection was Joe Greene. After finishing with the league’s worst record in 1969, Pittsburgh won the rights to draft Terry Bradshaw. On the field, Jefferson was the best player in Noll’s first season. But that doesn’t mean Noll and Jefferson got along.

The start of the 1970 season was in jeopardy because of a players’ strike. After it was resolved quickly and largely in the owners’ favor, Jefferson publicly expressed his dissatisfaction. Jefferson began flouting Noll’s authority in training camp back in the days when such actions weren’t tolerated. Noll responded by shopping the team’s star player. He got a bite with the Baltimore Colts, who agreed to trade their 1971 fourth round pick and wide receiver Willie Richardson for Jefferson.

As Jefferson would say years later:

“I was considered a rebel… I was the team’s player rep, and they thought I was not a good guy to keep around. I think they thought I had too much clout with the players….I did a lot of things in the community…I never was arrested or involved in any kind of illegal activity. I never got into the kind of trouble you hear about guys getting into today. But back then, athletes weren’t supposed to speak out. We were supposed to listen. I was very outspoken, and that made me very unpopular with Chuck Noll.”

Jefferson may not have been the greatest blocking WR in the history of the universe, but he's the only Steeler to lead the league in receiving yards since 1933.

The trade was controversial. Jefferson was clearly Pittsburgh’s best player. And Noll was motivated to make the deal simply to get rid of Jefferson rather than to acquire Willie Richardson. It’s true that Richardson had been a Pro Bowler in ’67 and ’68 but he was past his prime by 1970. And that’s not just revisionist history: just a few weeks after acquiring him, Pittsburgh sent Jefferson Richardson to Miami for a 1971 fifth round pick, stating that Richardson would struggle to see playing time with the Steelers.

With the 4th round pick Pittsburgh received from Baltimore for Jefferson, the Steelers hit gold with Dwight White, a defensive end out of Texas A&M-Commerce who would start for eight seasons in Pittsburgh. White was a two-time Pro Bowler who would contribute to four Super Bowl champions.

But it would be hard to justify the trade based on the success of White. Pittsburgh traded a dominant wide receiver in his prime for, in essence, a fourth and a fifth round pick. That fifth round pick was used to select Ralph Anderson, a safety out of West Texas A&M. Anderson, like most fifth round picks, did not pan out. He was a reserve as a rookie but started in 1972. Then, in training camp before the 1973 season, Noll sent Anderson to New England for a fourth round pick in the ’74 draft. Owning the 82nd pick in that draft from the Patriots, Pittsburgh then selected Alabama A&M’s John Stallworth. And that’s how the Steelers traded a star wide receiver and won four Super Bowls.

Things didn’t turn out too badly for Jefferson, either. In 1970, he led the Colts in receiving yards and earned a Super Bowl ring. Jefferson and management didn’t get along any better in Baltimore, however, and he was traded to the Redskins after his one year with the Colts. Washington sent a 1973 first round pick and Texas rookie Cotton Speyrer to Baltimore for Jefferson, who played well in five seasons in Washington. Jefferson led the team in receiving yards and made the Pro Bowl in 1971 and helped the Skins reach the Super Bowl in 1972.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Norwegian Blue September 28, 2012 at 1:19 am

What a great article. I’m not even a Steelers fan, but this is a neat piece of sports history. You could do a whole series on notable trades/drafts/personnel decisions affecting various franchises. Kind of reminds me of Paul Harvey’s old radio show, “…and now you know the rest of the story.”

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Chase Stuart September 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

Thanks NB. We used to write posts in this vein pretty frequently at the old blog, and I think it’s important to keep doing it. The traffic never moves the needle but that’s not why I started this site. These articles are a lot of fun to write and research. If anyone ever has thoughts for an old article like this, just shoot me an email.

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Richie September 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm

These are the kinds of cool stories that you guys used to discuss on the much-missed and beloved Podcast. I sadly deleted my Pro Football Reference Podcasts subscription link in my iTunes just the other day. I’ve been holding out hope for 2 (3?) years for another episode.

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Shattenjager September 28, 2012 at 4:26 am

Mistake alert: “Pittsburgh sent Jefferson to Miami for a 1971 fifth round pick” should be “Pittsburgh sent Richardson to Miami for a 1971 fifth round pick.”

It seems clear to me that Pittsburgh traded Richardson for being very, very old. That newspaper story says that he caught “four passes for 62 years.” Passes that age the receivers by 15.5 years are a terrifying spectre.

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Chase Stuart September 28, 2012 at 9:44 am

Thanks. I’ve updated the post.

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Danish September 28, 2012 at 5:27 am

In the table, when you sort by percentage, Ken Bourrough is for some reason put at the bottom. At least on android.

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Chase Stuart September 28, 2012 at 9:45 am

If you click on the column again does it then put him on top?

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Richie September 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I consider myself to be pretty familiar with the important names in the history of the NFL, but I don’t think I have ever heard of Roy Jefferson before.

One part of this story caught my attention: The Steelers drafted Ralph Anderson with a 5th round pick in 1971. He didn’t pan out, so they were able to trade him for a FOURTH round pick? That’s crazy.

Although, I look at his PFR page and it looks like he had 3 interceptions in 1972, so I guess on the other hand, it might be worth it to give up a 4th round pick for a guy who you know is at least competent in the NFL.

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Chase Stuart September 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm

To me, the most interesting thing in this post is how Ken Burrough somehow gained over half of his team’s receiving yards one season. And he didn’t do it on a bad team. The ’75 Oilers were 10-4, and while they were much more of a defensive team, it’s not like they were horrible at passing. They ranked 18th in NY/A, which is bad with 26 teams but it’s not totally anemic.

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Richie September 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Yeah, I caught that. 1,869 passing yards, and Burrough had most of it. Was he uncoverable? It was his best year, and he did it for a team that didn’t pass a lot. Is that cause or effect?

In ’77 they only had 1875 passing yards, and it was Burrough’s second-best season of his career.

So this made me curious to see how often teams threw for under 1900 yards in a season. I was shocked to see that it’s happened 82 times since the merger. Most shocking is the ’73 Bills who passed for just 997 yards, an average of 71 per game! Only twice did they pass for over 100 yards in a game.

If I kick out the 1982 strike year, and the pre-1978 rule change seasons, we’re left with 5 teams to pass for fewer than 1,900 yards in a season:

KAN 1979 1,660
TAM 1978 1,703
SEA 1992 1,778
KAN 1978 1,834
SFO 2005 1,898

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Danish September 29, 2012 at 3:36 am

He’s on top in the newly refreshed page. However if you sort by something else, and then resort by %age he goes to the wrong end. All others are fine. His 51 is treated completely like a 41. Resorting multiple times doesnt help.

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Tim Truemper October 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Roy Jefferson is unfortunately not better remembered for and from his time. He was every bit the player Paul Warfield and Charlie Taylor were of the late 60′s to mid 70′s. Hee was fairly big, pretty fast, and had strong hands to make tough catches in traffic. What was really remarkable was the quality of QB’s throwing to him from 1965-69. I wonder if any of the readers could name just one of those QB’s for the Steelers in that time period. As you noted, Jefferson was a huge part in the 70 Colts offense as they were really hurting at the receiving corps (both Jimmy Orr and Willie Richardson were spent in 1969). With Charlie Taylor and Roy Jefferson together in Washington, you had a formidable tandem. Too bad Billy Kilmer was serving up rainbows to them (albeit accurately). Great bit if NFL history, Chase. Thanks again not only for factual research, but an interesting perspective, too.

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Ken C. April 9, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I am a big Roy Jefferson fan who, at age 14 in 1970, was very happy to see him become a Colt in 1970. The Colts were my hometown team. We would not have won Super Bowl V without him. Teamed with a young Eddie Hinton, the Colts’ first round draft choice in 1969 who was learning the craft of wide receiver (he came from Oklahoma, which ran the passer-unfriendly Wishbone offense) and Hall of Fame TE John Mackey, Jefferson was part of the fastest receiving corps John Unitas ever worked with. He made a number of clutch catches during that season, was hard to bring down, blocked, did it all. He was a great wideout who should but most likely will not get Hall of Fame recognition, a fate similar to that of his Colts teammate Mike Curtis and the unheralded former Colt cornerback and All-Pro Bobby Boyd, who retired after the ’68 season as no. 3 on the all-time interception list (57 in NINE seasons, behind Hall of Famers Emlen Tunnell and Night Train Lane).

One of the best trades in Baltimore Colts history turned into one of the worst trades in team history the next year when Jefferson moved 40 miles south to Washington in a trade for Cotton Speyrer. Jefferson got on the wrong side of Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom. At least Jefferson was traded from the Steelers for a two-time All-Pro in Willie Richardson. Speyrer’s greatest accomplishment as a Colt, as I recall, was a 101-yard kickoff return for a TD in 1973.

I happen to know Roy’s former Steeler roomate, Bill Asbury, a Steeler fullback from 1966-68, now a retired vice president of Penn State. Thanks for remembering Roy.

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Chase Stuart April 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for the comment, Ken. Glad you enjoyed.

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PH cheese September 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I think one of the problems between Noll and Jefferson was a premature ball spike that would have been a touchdown in another yard or two. does anyone else remember this?

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j graboski November 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I was talking to someone today about roy jefferson and I said that roy spiked a ball before he scored on a pass play.I believe it was the 69 season. i believe i am right.

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Baltimore Fan November 18, 2013 at 12:39 am

I believe the receiver who spiked the ball before he got to the end-zone occurred in 1970 on a Monday Night Football game. So it couldn’t have been Roy Jefferson. I would like to find out who it was.

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