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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part III

On Tuesday, we looked at three of the best teams on three of the greatest dynasties in football history: the ’53 Browns, the ’87 49ers, and the ’07 Patriots. Yesterday, the focus was on the ’64 Packers, a talent-rich team sandwiched around repeat champions from ’61-’62 and ’65-’67. All four teams were dynasties with Hall of Fame coaches and quarterbacks, and that trend continues today with a look at the ’70s Steelers, and the historic combination  Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

And as with the Packers, we will look at a Steelers team that didn’t win the Super Bowl but was in the middle of the team’s dynastic run.You know that Pittsburgh won four Super Bowl titles in six years, but less understood is how the team evolved over that period.

Four of the Steelers Hall of Famers were drafted in 1974, the year of the team’s first championship. Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster were all green 22 years olds that season, and only Lambert was a major contributor as a rookie; Stallworth, Swann, and Webster combined to start just six other games.

Noll and Bradshaw didn’t always see eye to eye, but they usually won.

A fifth Hall of Famer, QB Terry Bradshaw, was drafted in 1970, but he was far from Terry Bradshaw even five years into his career.  The ’74 Steelers featured one of the worst passing attacks to ever win the Super Bowl, and Bradshaw’s passing numbers were below average in each of the first five seasons of his career.  In fact, it was Joe Gilliam who won the training camp battle for the starting job; Bradshaw didn’t even start the first six games of the 1974 season.  Four years later, he was the AP MVP.

What about the rest of those famous Steelers? RB Franco Harris was drafted in 1972; he was an immediate star, and made his third straight Pro Bowl in ’74.  LB Jack Ham was drafted a year earlier, and he made the first of six straight AP 1st-team All-Pro teams in ’74 (and the second of eight straight Pro Bowls).

In 1970, Pittsburgh drafted not just Bradshaw, but Mel Blount. The famed cornerback was a full-time starter his first five seasons, but he didn’t make his first Pro Bowl or earn any All-Pro recognition until 1975, when he led the league with 11 interceptions.  And in 1969, the Steelers drafted DT Joe Greene and the best Steeler with four rings not in the Hall of Fame, DE L.C. Greenwood.  Both were in their prime by ’74.

So while the ’74 Steelers had the names, only half of them had actually developed into stars by 1974. Stallworth, Swann, Webster were reserves, Bradshaw had been benched and underperformed, and Blount had yet to break out. The ’74 team went 10-3-1 and had an SRS of +6.8; the ’75 version was much, much better: that team went 12-2 and had an SRS of +14.2, and rested starters and lost the final game of the regular season. And the ’76 version? Well, after a very rough start, it finished with an SRS of +15.3, the best in Pittsburgh history.

So when it comes to missing rings, the obvious starting place to look is the ’76 Steelers. The ’73 Steelers were far too young, while the ’80 Steelers were over the hill; the only other choice would be the ’77 squad, but that one was doomed before the season even started, with the team chemistry hindered by lawsuits and holdouts. No, the Steelers team that should have won it all — but didn’t — was perhaps the best Pittsburgh team in franchise history.

The season began with a trip to Oakland to face the rival (and eventual 16-1 Super Bowl champion) Raiders; it started off well, with the Steelers leading 28-14 with less than five minutes remaining. You can see the video here of the collapse that happened next: a 76-yard drive that ended with a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-21 with 2:56 remaining; a blocked punt, a 4th-and-10 conversion, and a game-tying touchdown with 1:05 left; and then an interception followed by a 21-yard field goal with 18 seconds remaining gave the Raiders the win.

Pittsburgh had a hangover the next week, trailing 14-0 at halftime against the Browns, before coming back to win 31-14.

Week 3 saw another AFC powerhouse on the schedule: the Patriots, who would finish 11-3 and be the only team to defeat the Raiders that year. Pittsburgh’s defense again collapsed in the second half, blowing a 20-9 lead and allowing three second-half touchdown passes; the final score was New England 30, Pittsburgh 27. The Steelers were playing sloppy football, losing six fumbles and allowing multiple long drives in the second half.  Things were not about to get better soon.

Next up was a trip to Minnesota to face the eventual NFC Champion Vikings.  Yes, the ’76 Steelers had a brutal early-season schedule, facing both Super Bowl participants on the road and facing the team with the second best record in the AFC, too. This was a game on Monday Night Football, and the Vikings defense got some measure of revenge for what happened in the Super Bowl two years earlier. Minnesota intercepted Bradshaw four times and sacked him five times, limiting Pittsburgh to just 52 net passing yards. The Vikings also blocked an extra point, two field goal attempts, and the Steelers special teams woes also included a botched punt! This was a terribly quarterbacked game, and Pittsburgh lost 17-6.

The next week, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions lost again, this time to the Browns. Pittsburgh’s record dropped to 1-4, and Bradshaw was injured in the process. Here’s what the New York Times had to say the next day:

We’ve had our share of good luck over the last few years, and now it’s going the other way,” said Coach Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers after an 18‐16 loss yesterday to the Browns at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. The defeat was the fourth in five games for the Steelers, the Super Bowl champions in the last two National Football League seasons.

The Steelers, who slid into last place in the American Conference’s Central Division, also may have lost Terry Bradshaw’s services for a while. The quarterback, who was sacked four times for 49 yards, injured his neck in the fourth quarter when he was thrown down by Joe Jones, a defensive end.

Let’s take stock of where the Steelers were through five games. In the 28-team NFL, Pittsburgh was tied for 9th in points scored and tied for 17th in points allowed; despite a 1-4 record, the Steelers had a net points differential of just -2, ranking 16th. Pittsburgh led the NFL with 18 takeaways, but was also tied for last in the league with 19 turnovers. But the passing game looked to be in trouble: Stallworth had been injured since the second game of the year (he would not catch another pass until the season finale), and Bradshaw was now out, leaving Mike Kruczek in charge.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh’s offense, they wouldn’t need a passing game. Or much of anything else for awhile.

The next game was against Pro Bowl QB Ken Anderson and the Bengals.  In 12 games against the rest of the NFL, Cincinnati would finish 10-2 and score at least 17 points in each game; against Pittsburgh, the Bengals would be held to three field goals in two games.  In the first matchup, with Boston College rookie Kruczek getting his first NFL start, Franco Harris rushed 41 times for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns, powering Pittsburgh to a 23-6 win. Six weeks later, Harris and Rocky Bleier rushed 42 times for 184 yards in a 7-3 win played in blizzard conditions.

Pittsburgh’s “Stunt 4-3” defense began the dominate the NFL. In the week 6 win over the Bengals, the Steelers didn’t allow a touchdown. They didn’t allow a point in the week 7 win against the Giants, or the week 8 win against the Chargers, or the week 9 win against the Chiefs.  That’s right: three straight shutouts, where Pittsburgh outscored New York, San Diego, and Kansas City 95-0, recording 13 turnovers and 12 sacks in the process.

The next week, Blier and Harris each rushed fro 110 yards, and the Steelers beat the Dolphins, 14-3.  Bradshaw had returned in week 9, but was re-injured after just two passes against Miami.  It made no difference, as Kruczek only needed to throw 6 passes (though one was a critical 64-yard completion to Frank Lewis).

In week 12, the Steelers streak of not allowing a touchdown reached a remarkable 22 quarters. Pittsburgh easily handled Houston 32-16, though the streak ended after a 2nd quarter 69 yard pass from John Hadl to Ken Burrough.  In week 12, the Steelers beat the Bengals in the blizzard game, setting up the most memorable game of the regular season.

Well, memorable to fans of Las Vegas spreads.  In week 13, the 8-4 Steelers — on a 7-game winning streak — hosted the 0-12 0-12 expansion Bucs, who had just lost by 25, 34, 17, and 33 points in their last four games.  Pittsburgh was favored by 26 points in perhaps the most lopsided matchup in modern history; the Steelers won 42-0.

The Steelers last game of the season was in Houston, where Pittsburgh dominated the Oilers again.  This time, the Steelers rushed 53 times for 258 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Houston punted 11 times.  The final score? Pittsburgh 21, Houston 0.

The final 9 weeks of the season, Pittsburgh went 9-0 and allowed 28 points. Here’s how many points each team allowed over the last 9 weeks of 1976:

Eight Steelers defenders made the Pro Bowl. That includes 30-year old DEs Greene and Greenwood, 28-year-old Ham (also an All-Pro), 24-year-old Lambert (All-Pro), and all four members of the secondary. The other three starting defenders — DT Ernie Holmes, DE Dwight White, and LB Andy Russell — received Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition in ’75.  This was as stacked a defense as there ever was.

In the first round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh faced the Baltimore Colts and arguably the best quarterback in football, AP first-team All-Pro Bert Jones, who had just completed one of the best seasons in passing history.  It didn’t matter, as the Steelers  dominated on both sides of the ball, outgaining Baltimore 526 yards to 170, and winning 40-14. The Steelers passed for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns, and rushed for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns, while holding the Baltimore passing game to just 99 yards.

But the win came at a cost: both Harris and Blier, who each rushed for over 1,000 yards in the regular season, were injured.   The duo combined for over 53% of the Steelers yards from scrimmage during the regular season, but Pittsburgh would be without both players for the AFC Championship Game in Oakland.

Facing the mighty Raiders, Noll installed a three-tight end offense, but that backfired. Pittsburgh rushed for an incredible 2,971 yards during the regular season, topping 200 yards in 10 of the team’s first 15 games. But against Oakland, the Steelers rushed for just 72 yards, and Bradshaw completed only 14 of 35 passes.  The defense eventually cracked, and the Raiders won 24-7.

Had Blier and Harris been healthy, would the Steelers have won?  We will never know.  But we do know is that for a 10-game stretch — in between years of repeat Super Bowl champions, with many Hall of Famers in the primes of their career —  Pittsburgh may have fielded the most dominant team in NFL history.

  • Delevie

    They shouldn’t have even played OAK as OAK was given the game the week before by the refs against the NE Patriots – who were the best of the 3 teams that year.
    And the Pats would have crushed the Steelers in the AFCCG (they beat the Steelers earlier in the year on the road), probably worse than the Raiders did.

    • Tom

      I don’t think the Pats were “the best of the three teams that year”, at least when the teams were at full strength…perhaps they were the best when Harris and Bleier went down.

      “Crushed” the Steelers? Maybe…I suppose if the Steelers D laid another egg, it’s possible. That D allowed only 9 points per game, hard to say if they’d give up 24 like they did to Oakland.

      • Delevie

        The Pats running attack in 1976 was one of the best in NFL history and they beat the SB Champs(?!??) at home 40-17. The AFC Divisional game against them was a total miscarriage of justice that I haven’t gotten over in 41 years and 5 SB wins.

        • Tom

          Is that game on YouTube? I gotta check it out…why was it a miscarriage of justice? What happened? Bad officiating? And yes, their running game that year looks pretty good…

          • Richie

            Previously, I had only heard it as the “Sugar Bear Hamilton Game”, but knew nothing else about it. (This was a little before my time.)

            From Wikipedia:

            “The 1976 AFC Divisional Playoffs. This would become the infamous “Ben Dreith Game” as officiating became a major controversy with numerous questionable penalties. Bill Lenkaitis had not been flagged for holding all season yet was flagged three times in this game. No penalty was called when George Atkinson of the Raiders hammered Russ Francis in the facemask and broke his nose; Steve Zabel popped Francis’ nose back into place. There was also controversy over a Sam Cunningham run in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter where he went out of bounds; John Hannah claimed the sideline official moved the first down marker just before Cunningham went out of bounds, denying him a first down.[6] On the play following this Cunningham run, on 3rd and 1 at the Raiders 28-yard line, Steve Grogan changed the snap count to draw the Raiders offsides, but the Raiders were barking out dummy snap counts themselves[7] and Hannah, Leon Gray, and Pete Brock all jumped offsides (“I should have known better”, Grogan said afterward). On the next play (3rd and 6) Grogan threw to Russ Francis but Francis could not raise his arms because of holding by the Raiders Phil Villapiano,
            holding so blatant that according to Francis, “(he left) bruise marks
            on my arm….when I saw Phil at the Pro Bowl that year, he came right
            out and told me he had done it.”[8] The Patriots missed the ensuing field goal attempt and the Raiders took possession. In the final minute of the fourth quarter Raymond Hamilton of the Patriots was flagged for roughing the passer against Ken Stabler
            of the Raiders on a 3rd-and-18 play, even though replays showed no
            roughing; Dreith said the call was made because Hamilton had hit
            Stabler’s helmet, but replays showed Stabler ducking away from Hamilton.
            Despite Patriot protests (Hamilton was flagged for unsportsmanlike
            conduct for his protests) the call stood. The Patriots stopped the
            Raiders on 3rd and 1 near the goal line but another personal foul
            penalty (this one on Prentice McCray)
            extended the Raiders drive, and on second and goal at the Patriot
            1-yard line Stabler ran in the game-winning touchdown with ten seconds
            left in a 24–21 Raiders win. Patriot protests over Dreith’s call were
            such that Dreith was not assigned to work any games involving the
            Patriots until 1987.”

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1976_New_England_Patriots_season

          • Delevie
            • sacramento gold miners

              Dubious call, but the Patriots did have the tables reversed in 2001 against Oakland.

              • Tom

                I’d say that evened things up.

              • Delevie

                The 2001 call was the right one based on the rules at the time. The 1976 call was based on home field refs.

  • Tom

    Ahhh, so after all my complaining, the 1976 Steelers are part of the “Missing Links” group…apologies for (maybe) ruining the suspense!

  • Mark Growcott

    The 5 Shutouts the Steelers inflicted on their opponents in 1976 matched the total of the 1944 Giants for the most in a season since 1940. For good measure they had another in their opening game of the 1977 season, so including this had two 3-game streaks, matching the longest such streak since 1940 with the 1970 Cardinals. Between Weeks 6 & 10, the Steelers scored 112 unanswered points, 1 shy of the 1970 Cardinals (Weeks 7-9) for the most in a season since the merger at least. Overall an incredible performance by the Steelers and why some regard the 1976 Steelers as being the best Steelers team in franchise history and without the injuries to Harris and Bleier could well have won a 3rd straight SB. Harris and Bleier with 1,000 Rushing Yds each matched the feat of Csonka and Morris with the Dolphins in 1972. The 1976 AFC Championship Game ended a streak of 5 straight seasons in which the Steelers and Raiders played each other in the Playoffs and this remains the longest such streak between 2 Playoff teams.

    • Richie

      I was not aware of the Cardinals’ 3-game shutout streak. Their wins were 44-0 (against a bad Oilers team), 31-0 (against a bad Patriots team) and 38-0 (against the eventual NFC champion Cowboys). Then the following week they tied 6-6 (against a mediocre Chiefs team).

      That was an interesting run. Following the tie, the Cardinals won another game to get to 8-2-1. It looks like they were on track to make the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. But then they lost their final 3 games and missed the playoffs by 1.5 games.

      In one of those losses they were held to just 6 first downs, which sent me down another rabbit hole. It looks like there have been 126 times (since the merger), that a team was held to 6 or fewer first downs. Only one team (out of 12) has been held to 3 or fewer first downs and won. The 2002 expansion Texans beat Pittsburgh 24-6 on 3 first downs (with 3 defensive touchdowns). https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200212080pit.htm

      • Mark Growcott

        I have always wanted to see coverage of that MNF game between the Cardinals and Cowboys in Week 9 of the 1970 season. I have seen the “This Week In Pro Football” highlights for that week but MNF games were never covered in those programmes.

    • Tom

      That’s some good info right there…thanks.

  • Tom

    Regarding the Steelers historic 9-game run, I started a study on this a few years back. I haven’t finished, but so far I don’t think that run will be matched any time soon. Here’s the Top 5 nine-game runs (we can call this the Steel Curtain Index for now):

    1976 PIT 3.1 Pts/G
    1977 ATL 6.1
    1971 MIN 6.2
    1985 CHI 6.8
    1970 MIN 7.2

    Adjusting for era, you get:

    1976 PIT 14.8 Pts/G better than average
    1985 CHI 13.4
    1971 MIN 11.5
    2000 BAL 11.5
    1986 CHI 10.9

    • Richie

      That Miami game in 1985 sure was an outlier for Chicago. From week 4 through the Super Bowl, the most points they gave up (outside of the Miami game) was 19. But they gave up 38 to Miami. In the 15 games sandwiching the Miami game, the Bears allowed an average of 7.4 points.

      • Tom

        Right, that Miami is kind of out there. And yeah, their best 9-game run is from Week 4 to Week 12, just before the Miami game.

  • sacramento gold miners

    The 1976 Bengals really missed a golden opportunity to grab the AFC Central that season, their 10-4 record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs. Cincinnati lost to Pittsburgh minus Bradshaw in the Steel City, then lost again at Cincinnati in a snowstorm when Bradshaw returned. The Raiders helped the Steelers that season by beating the Bengals in a meaningless game for them.

  • Mike G.

    Having not seen these SRS figures before, I was surprised to see the ’78 Steelers so low relative to the other teams, given that they routinely come up in the conversation of best single-season teams of all time. It would be interesting to see if efficiency ratings like ANY/A or DVOA would paint a kinder picture.

    • Good point, Mike.

      The SRS doesn’t like them because of an easy schedule and a 5-2 record in close games. They went 14-2, though, and dominated their opponents in the postseason. Also interesting: they went into Denver for a totally meaningless game in the last game of the regular season and won, then beat Denver at home in the playoff game after both teams had a bye.