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The Steelers 1979 season begins here>>>

Hoak On a Hook: Is it Thornton or Bleier?

Albert M Herrmann Jr Press photoDick Hoak has a difficult decision to make this Sunday. The Steelers offensive backfield coach must choose between Rocky Bleier (pictured left at practice) and Sidney Thornton to start alongside Franco Harris in Super Bowl XIV.

It is a prestigious assignment. There will be more than 100,000 fans in attendance at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and there will be more than 100 million viewers watching it on television, or what figures to be the largest audience ever to watch a sporting event.

So, it’s not like trying to decide whether to have bacon or sausages with your eggs at breakfast.

Both Bleier and Thornton are healthy and eager to go, and Hoak cannot go wrong no matter who gets the nod. But it could be crucial to the Steelers Super Bowl chances too. So, it has given him and Coach Chuck Noll considerable anguish.

“It would even be more difficult if Rocky and Sidney weren’t such great team players,” said Hoak.

Hoak has a way of cocking his head and angling his pitch-black eyebrows that suggests a jeweller appraising diamonds. It’s appropriate in this case – choosing between Bleier and Thornton.

It will probably be Bleier in the lineup come Sunday. Hoak will come to him after the pre-game meal, as is the ritual, and tell him so. Bet your mortgage payment on it.

Bleier might not, but then his mortgage payment on a $400,000 house in Fox Chapel is a little steeper than most of ours. It also provides him with incentive to keep on truckin’ in these big games. The winner’s Super Bowl share is $18,000 per player, while the loser’s share is $9,000.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Hoak. “We’ll see how they practice and if anybody gets nicked up. They both play.”

Bleier believes he will start. “That’s my gut feeling,” he said. “Of course, I felt that way before the first playoff game with the Dolphins and I didn’t start. But I have a stronger gut feeling this time.”

Thornton started against the Dolphins and did well but reinjured a sprained ankle which caused him to miss five games late in the season. Bleier started against the Houston Oilers and was one of the heroes as the Steelers won the AFC Championship.

“Having both of them, we’ve gotten an awful lot out of that halfback spot,” said Hoak. “The two guys combined for over 1,000 yards rushing and caught 50 passes. They average close to 5 yards a carry. You can’t do much better than that.”

The Actual Numbers

Thornton was second to Harris in rushing, gaining 585 yards on 118 carries for a 5-yards-per-carry clip scoring six touchdowns on the ground. Bleier rushed for 434 yards on 92 tries, or 4.7 a crack, and had four touchdowns. Their combined total was 1,019 yards, or 4.9 a try with 10 touchdowns. That compares favourably with Franco Harris’ 1,186 yards on 267 carries for a 4.4 average and eleven touchdowns.

Harris caught a career-high 36 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown while Bleier had his best season with 31 catches for 277 yards and Thornton improved on his pass-catching ability tremendously, snagging 16 for 231 yards and four touchdowns.

“Both would like to start,” said Hoak. “But it’s not a problem because both accept whatever we decide. It’s a team thing. Sidney gives you some things Rocky doesn’t, but that works both ways.
Bleier doesn’t make mistakes. And I’ve seen him come through so many times. On Sunday after Sunday. He’s always prepared, and he’ll make the big play. He’s not the greatest practice player, but he’s a winner.”

And right there, without meaning to tip his hand, Hoak gave the best reason for starting Rocky this Sunday. Sidney will have his day in some other Super Bowl.

“I just wish Rocky would quit talking about retiring,” volunteered Hoak, who put in ten years as a running back with the Steelers before calling it quits. “If he keeps talking about retiring, Chuck will tell him to quit. I wish he would keep quiet about that. He hasn’t talked to me, and he hasn’t talked to Chuck about it.

Even if he didn’t start for us next season, he could be so valuable. Him not having to play all the time has helped him this year. There were times before when he was hurt, and he had to play because we had no one else to turn to.

Even banged up, Rocky was better than anybody else we had. We’re fortunate now to have Sidney. And if Greg Hawthorne was healthy and with Anthony Anderson around, we’re deeper than we’ve ever been in the backfield. If I told Rocky he had to play fullback, he could do that too.”

There are some who believe Bleier is too involved in outside business interests, but he doesn’t meet a beat once he puts on his uniform. “Rocky studies the game,” said Hoak, “and he forgets all those outside interests. This is still his main interest. He’s had a great year all things considered, and I don’t know why he’s even talking about retiring.”

Then Hoak turns his attention to Harris, his prize stallion and one of the greatest big-game players in NFL history. There was concern early in the season about Franco, and Hoak has to admit he was among those who wanted to see Franco find the holes and 15-yard gains instead of going from sideline to sideline.

“Everybody was making a big deal about it,” said Hoak, “and I was a little concerned, yeah you had to be. But he’s gone through that every year. He’ll have four or five bad games. It just stood out so much because it was at the start of the season.”

Jim O’Brien
Pittsburgh Press January 18

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The Steelers 1979 season updated June 14th 2021.

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The Pittsburgh Americans' 1936 season added June 2020.

The Steelers 1978 season in full.
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The first NFL champions the 1902 Pittsburgh Stars added June 2016

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