WEBSTER EAGER FOR 1976 TRAINING CAMP
Mike Webster is tired of working out alone six days a week and can’t wait for training camp to begin. “I’m tired of doing sprints, running and lifting weights,” he told the Pittsburgh Press.
“I want training camp to begin. I know it will be tough, but the last two have gone past quickly, so I’m not dreading it at all.
We won’t be lackadaisical; we will be pushed by the thought of winning three straight Super Bowls. No team has won three straight, and if we can do it, we will have a pretty good case to say we have the best team ever.”
There will be no complacency for the players with two rings as there will be plenty of competition, especially on the offensive line where four of the first five players picked in the draft play.
Webster, who played the second and fourth quarter alternating with veteran Ray Mansfield, will be hoping for more playing time. “Ray and I never got exhausted, and we took pride in how well we played against some pretty good defensive linemen,” he said.
“As a group, the offensive line is very close. We feel we are the most effective offensive line in the game, and we’re relatively young.”
“There will be good competition,” Webster added. “It won’t be easy for draft choices to make the team, but then we will have to fight to keep our positions. And that is what this team is all about.”
With tackle Dave Reavis taken by Tampa in the expansion draft and with the rookies added in the draft, the Steelers offensive line will see some changes in training camp. Webster accepts that he will see action at more than one position and he may end up playing guard where he played two years ago.
STEELERS STINGY DEFENSE
Teams in the AFC gave up an average of 299.3 points last season while the Steelers gave up 162. They also sent eight players to the Pro Bowl.
As that defense returns to training camp, the big question mark is over Joe Greene’s pinched nerve. Although Greene is confident that it won’t present a problem, it won’t be until he starts taking hits that it be tested properly.
The outcome of Ernie Holmes challenge with the law is the additional problem facing the defense, but in Steve Furness, the team has a good backup.
The Steelers rookies expected to shine are Gary Dunn and Bob Barber, who started for the World Football League’s Shreveport Steamers in 1975.
Before the veterans arrived in the Steelers training camp, three of the rookies left for Chicago to play against their team for the All-Stars on July 23rd in the annual charity game. Pittsburgh’s number one draft choice Bennie Cunningham will join Ray Pinney and Mike Kruczek.
VETERANS JOIN TRAINING CAMP
“It’s going to be an interesting camp,” Chuck Noll offered with a smile. “The vets I’ve talked to are fired up and ready to go.”
Running his thumb over his rookies, Noll added, “We’ve got three drafts thrown together,” making a reference hat some draft choices from 1974 and 1975 laboured in other uniforms before joining his ’76 crop.
“Maybe it’s like 1946 when everybody came out of the service,” Noll added and with a smile, “It’s a very good group overall.”
After winning back to back Super Bowls, Noll still held his enthusiasm for the job ahead and for the competition his veterans would face. “It comes down to basic job security. You can’t think in terms of a Super Bowl if you are trying to win a job. And you don’t win if you don’t win your division. I’m not concerned about the mental attitude of the team. They have a good understanding of what it takes to win.”
THE 1976 OKLAHOMA DRILL
The tradition of pitching an offensive lineman going against a defensive lineman or linebacker was affectionately called “the Nutcracker” by the Steeler players and coaches.
The Pittsburgh Press in describing the initial skirmishes of the 1976 training camp projected that after the ball is snapped to the quarterback who then hands off to a running back, any defensive back who wants to make the roster , he better get to the back and put him on the ground.
Dick Haley watched Bob Barber face Mike Webster and offered that it was Barber’s weakest area, “but if Barber can stay in at all against Webster, they should be pleased.”
The season after being drafted by the Steelers, Barber spent learning his professional trade in the WFL. “Last year I was looking forward to coming to Pittsburgh, but really, I felt it was a lack of interest in me,” the defensive end said.
Barber’s agent wanted an immediate contract decision for the player, but the Steelers were not interested in making a hasty commitment on their second round draft selection, so Barber signed with the rival league.
THE ENIGMA OF TOM KEATING
“I’m just a poor struggling ward of the court,” offered the former Steeler defensive tackle Tom Keating (picture left) reflecting on his reinstatement to the Steelers roster. “It might be the most interesting week of my career… or my life… or whatever,” he giggled.
The controversy surrounding the player went back to the players’ strike of 1974 when Keating was the vice-president of the NFL Players Association. When the dispute finished, the Steelers traded Keating to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Keating took his case to court claiming the Steelers did not provide him with the opportunity of making the team. The player won the judge’s decision and the Steelers were now preparing for his arrival in Latrobe.
“He’ll be a player,” Dan Rooney said, confirming the player’s status. “We are complying with the order,” a reference to the judge’s ruling that Keating should be reinstated to his position on the club roster without prejudice to his seniority or other rights and privileges.
RAY MANSFIED NOT READY YET TO RELINGUISH HIS STARTING JOB
For twelve seasons and 168 straight games, Ray Mansfield has been the centre of the Steelers offensive line. The Steelers selected two centers in the draft, but Mansfield doesn’t anticipate a change in his current role that sees him alternating with Mike Webster.
After returning from an overseas business trip to find out about the two new challengers, Mansfield just figured the team had wasted a couple of draft choices. He was of course joking he insisted, but he added, “No college center sitting out there is going to come in and do a better job than Ray Mansfield.
I’m not saying no kid out there isn’t eventually going to be as good as me. But my position is one of learned abilities, you can’t go on your natural instincts, like maybe at running back or defensive lineman.”
The Steelers Oklahoma drill ritual found Mansfield matched against rookie Jim Rosecrans with no holds barred and a few punches thrown. “I’ve always been a personable man,” said Mansfield. “Until I put my football helmet on.”
Rosecrans observed, “I can’t start backing down to guys, I’m trying to win a starting job just like everybody else. If I back down, he might think I’m a punk rookie or something.”
Aged 35, Mansfield reminisced, “I remember when I was a rookie at Philadelphia back in 1963 and I got into a fight with veteran Riley Gunnels and I felt like I harmed a god.”
Mansfield offered his take on the Tom Keating situation. “Tom’s a good guy, but I don’t like the situation with the National Labour Relations Board stepping in and judging a football player. I don’t think Tom would have made the team that year.”
NOLL CONCERNED ABOUT THE CROWDS AT LATROBE
Coach Noll said that players would be unavailable to sign autographs because of the amount of time it takes. He added that if the crowds continue to grow, he may be forced to close the drills to the public.
Linebacker Jack Lambert heard some kids, who were collecting autographs whisper, “Stay away from him, he’s mean.” The image that Lambert has picked up wasn’t hurt by his altercation in the Super Bowl with Cliff Harris.
“I don’t see any sense in trying to disprove the image,” the player told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It doesn’t bother me. I feel I play aggressive, but I don’t play dirty. I’m not going to pick up opposing players or pat them on the back just to prove I’m a nice guy.”
Lambert can’t believe he is in his third year as a pro footballer. “The first year happened so fast that I didn’t realise what happened until the year was over and I could look back on it.”
“I felt more confident last year,” he added. I wasn’t so concerned about making mistakes. The Super Bowl meant more to me this time.
BOB BARBER OF THE WORLD FOOTBALL LEAGUE
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that when Bob Barber signed for the rival WFL league, some NFL teams believed the Steelers had “stashed” the player away for future use.
Head of the Steelers scouting department, Art Rooney Jr., commented, “Imagine that. We didn’t know if the World League was going to last for several years. We were really upset about losing him.”
The Steelers always looked upon Barber as a prospect. In the 1976 draft, Coach Noll’s first thoughts were to use their first round pick on the player. Because Barber, who had a bout of the flu, turned up at the Senior Bowl weighing 214 pounds, several teams dropped him down their rankings.
The Steelers gambled he would still be available in the second round and the risk paid off when he was still waiting to be selected. The Steelers also lost their number one pick, Dave Brown, from that year to the expansion draft, so to finally have Brown in camp was a definite bonus for the team.
Looking on the positive side to Barber’s absence, the team may have lost John Banaszak, who had made the team last season as a long shot free agent. If they had kept Barber, there would have been no room for Banaszak.
With a year’s pro football behind him, the team is hoping Barber will confirm their view that he was always going to be a prospect. Although Barber had a lot of confidence in making the roster, he wasn’t taking anything for granted. “It’s going to be a hard shell to crack,” he accepted.
Barber had no regrets playing in the World League. “I really enjoyed playing in that league,” he offered. “I didn’t think it was a joke. There was some good competition in it.”
GILLIAM BACK ON WAIVERS
Joe Gilliam was put back on waivers by his new team, the New Orleans Saints, after going absent yet again. “Rules and discipline must be adhered to by everyone,” explained Saints coach Hank Stram who added that Gilliam had the potential to be a top NFL quarterback. “A shame. He is a real talent,” Stram said.
TOM KEATING TOO LATE TO ATTEND CAMP
The Steelers other enigma Tom Keating finally contacted the Steelers after failing to arrive in camp, only to be told by Dan Rooney that it was now too late to report. "As far as I am concerned, we did our part," Rooney said. "I really thought that he would come when he told us the originally would come. But if we allow all the players to report when they want to, what kind of football team are we gonna have?"
In an official statement, a Steelers spokesman said Keating was told the team were in the final stages of preparation for the College All-Star game and would have completed their two-a-day practices.
Keating had been invited to training camp by the Steelers after a Labour judge ruled the team had cut the player in 1974 because of his union activities and ruled the Steelers had to take him back.
THE QUIET AMERICAN
The Pittsburgh Press suggested that quarterback John Madeya was less talkative than a water cooler. The Steelers director of player personnel Dick Haley joked, “I had to pinch him the other day to see if he was awake.”
Madeya wasn’t new to the NFL. He had arrived in Pittsburgh via Atlanta, who drafted him in 1973 as their 14th draft choice, Cincinnati, Washington and then Philadelphia with the World League.
With the Steelers second-round draft pick away with the College All-Star squad, Terry Bradshaw aggravated with by a pulled stomach muscle and Terry Hanratty suffering with a dislocated middle finger, Madeya moved to top of the pile.
Madeya had been through a lot during his short career in the NFL, so excitement wasn’t an often used word in his appearance. In Atlanta, the coach had once screamed at him, “And YOU! You’ve been dead for two years.
Madeya never played for the Falcons in his first season, and the following year after the cuts were made, the next day Madeya was shown the door.
The day before his next team Cincinnati played Cleveland, Paul Brown told him, “Don’t even show up,” and told somebody to get rid of the third string quarterback.
When Madeya was at Washington he recollected they had all three veteran quarterbacks there and he just stood around for four days. “I threw two passes the whole time and asked them to cut me so I could maybe latch on with somebody else.”
His experience with the Philadelphia Bell of the World League would have broken any desire to play professional football. The team had a quarterback named King Corcoran, who took his first name literally.
“He called himself the King and he thought he was the best quarterback ever,” Madeya recalled. “He’d throw a ball 10 yards behind a receiver and he’d say, ‘You should’ve dove for that.”
Of Hanratty’s injuries that could put him on the field, Madeya stoically ventured, “It’s nuthin’. He’ll be back in a couple of days.”
MEAN JACK LAMBERT
“A kid asked me the other day after practice, ‘Are you gonna get meaner?’” said Jack Lambert. “Another kid wrote in to the Steelers office and asked how he can be as mean as Jack Lambert,” he told the Pittsburgh Press.
“I don’t like it when I hear kids say that,” Lambert continued shaking his head. “I hate to convey that type of message. “I don’t think they have to play like me to play football.”
Reflecting on the perception fans had of him, Lambert offered, “I’m not particularly worried about it, but I like people to realise that off the field, I’m a person” Lambert has watched the identical thing happen to Joe Greene. The other day a kid yelled to Greene, “Hey, Mean Joe.” Greene’s eyes looked downward.
“I know it bothers Joe and he just isn’t that way,” said Lambert.
COMPETING FOR A ROSTER SPOT
The only one in the Steelers training camp who doesn’t have to compete for a spot on the roster appeared to be kicker Roy Gerela. Regarding the other roster spots, coach Noll observed, “I don’t keep a running count about where we are supposed to be at this stage. We’re not that far along.”
STEELERS FIRST 1976 EXHIBITION GAME AGAINST THE COLLEGE ALL-STARS
Leading up to the game against the Steelers, All-Stars coach Ara Parseghian conceded the chances of beating the pros wasn’t too high. “We all know what the percentages are in this one,” he observed. “The All-Stars haven’t won in thirteen years, so you know the world’s not going to come to an end if you lose. We’re having an awful lot of fun and everybody’s enjoying it.”
Parseghian was impressed with the three Steeler draft choices that would be playing in his All-Star team and confirmed that Mike Kruczek would start at quarterback with Bennie Cunningham at tight end. Ray Pinney will share the center position with Colorado’s Pete Brock, who had been drafted by New England.
Kruczek would be facing the might of the Steelers defense. On hearing that Kruczek would be starting against his team, Chuck Noll said, “We only worry about the guys who have jerseys on. We’ll worry about Kruczek when he has our jersey on.”
If Kruczek has a bad night, the Steelers might begin to think they overestimated the player’s talent. “That could make things a little tough,” said Kruczek. “I hadn’t really thought about that before.”
“A lot of people here seem to think because I’ll be playing for Pittsburgh, they are going to lay off. I say ‘no,’ I think they may go a little extra just to test the rookie. But it’s inevitable. We’re going to take our licks. People expect the Steelers to walk all over us, but I think we will stay with them.
I’m not going to make any predictions because I don’t want to stir up anything in Pittsburgh… but I hope we win.”
Coach Noll will hope that the Steelers get off to a good start against the All-Stars so that he will be then able to field his rookies and use the exhibition game to evaluate them and provide them with experience.
“We’d like everybody to play if we can,” Noll said, “but because it’s been such a short camp it’s been difficult to get things in for the young people.”
We don’t want someone to get hurt because someone makes a mistake,” Noll added. “You can’t gamble on that. Our young people will not be prepared enough, no way, but this is not the last look at them. It is the first look.”
Andy Russell, Sam Davis and Donnie Shell were named captains for the game.
Ernie Holmes believes the game will be more intense that last year’s when the Steelers fell behind before rallying in the final quarter to win 21-14. “Last year we tended to look at them as college kids. We didn’t give them enough credit for being top college kids in the pro draft. They’re out there as pros the same way we are.
We want to redeem ourselves a little bit. We had the best defense in the league and had given up only 29 and 17 yards rushing in the last two playoff games and they scored first and ran over us like a piece of paper.”
1976 exhibition game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs College All-Stars
The annual All-Star game between the Super Bowl winner and college players ended in a washout as torrential rain forced the game’s abandonment. Soldier Field was engulfed in an incredible rainstorm that saw some of the fans using the drenched field as a playground.
The rain affected the ability of both teams although the Steelers managed to show the difference between pro and amateur football by squeezing a 9-0 lead at the half with three field goals from Roy Gerela. The Steelers defense held the all-star squad to 54 yards in those first two periods while they watched their rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek, playing for the opposition, substituted after taking a hit from a helmet on his thigh.
The rain prevented Pittsburgh’s running game from performing effectively so Terry Bradshaw increased his passing ratio, connecting with eleven out of 26 for 174 yards. As the college team continued to struggle in the third quarter, center Ray Pinney snapped a ball out of the end zone to concede a safety that increased the Steelers lead.
The subsequent kickoff set the Steelers up for a scoring opportunity completed by a 22-yard Franco Harris touchdown run aided by a fine block from Lynn Swann. Late in the third period, former World League running back Tommy Reamon entered the game and sparked a 30-yard scoring drive that followed a short All-Star punt.
Reamon plunged over from the two for the score while Gerela missed the point after and with the a 24-0 lead, the combination of the rain and lightning saw the stands empty and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle bring the game to conclusion.
The field then became an ice rink without the ice. Fans descended on the water park to practice their belly flops before deciding to pull the goal posts down. “That was the funniest thing I ever saw,” observed Harris on the fans’ exploits. “I wasn’t scared. That was funny.”
“I thought you guys would be interviewing the fans,” coach Noll chuckled in the comfort of the locker room. “I think they won the ball game.”
The game saw the return of Joe Greene after the previous year’s frustrating injury. “It was like old home week,” said Greene. ”I felt pretty good. I won’t have any problems. I’ve still got six weeks to go.”
With the return of Greene, the Steelers had a plethora of talent with their front four now becoming a strong front five. Steve Furness no longer makes up the numbers.
STEELERS HOLD THE RIGHT FILES
Head of the Steelers scouting department, Art Rooney, recollects with a smile the phone call he received from the Detroit Lions after the Steelers selected Jim Files in the fourth round of the draft.
“You’ve been doing this to us for nine years,” one of the Lions’ officials said. “Every time we’re ready to draft somebody, you seem to grab him first.” Rooney grinned, “It’s always good to hear from other people that they think you’ve made a good choice.”
Unfortunately for Files, because the Steelers first exhibition was called off early, he didn't get on the field. “I think I would have gotten a chance to play in the last period and I was looking forward to it,” he offered. “The coaches said we’d probably play a quarter.”
CHALLENGING TIMES FOR ERNIE HOLMES
Facing the ordeal of a trial for possession of cocaine as the new season approached, Ernie Holmes appeared to be at ease with the unusual situation. “I’m looking forward to this season more than any other previous year,” he offered. “It’s more of a challenge because we’ve got a chance to reach a goal that no one else has done.
To win three straight at anything is fantastic. It’s like going to Vegas three times in a row and busting the house.” Holmes believes he can have a better season than last year when he was affected by a hyperextended knee suffered in training camp.
“I didn’t play up to my usual standard. I didn’t have the full strength in my left leg. I wasn’t able to pivot and turn the way I like to and it hindered my lateral movement.”
The season opener against rivals Oakland is the one Holmes is looking forward to, especially against Gene Upshaw. “I feel I had a good game against Gene in the playoffs last January and controlled the area. A big game against Gene would be a tune-up for the whole season. If I do well against him, I feel no one in the league could block me.”
Holmes was hoping that the Steelers having a big opener would carry them to a third straight Super Bowl, which would be the best one yet. “I didn’t think the second one could compare to the first one,” he said. “It’s like the first taste of honey. The second one can’t compare. But to win a third one would be a super feeling. A super Super Bowl.”
ROD CODER TAKE NOTE
Rod Coder, the rookie from Penn State, wrote a diary about training camp for a newspaper his first week, but coach Noll told him that either Coder or the diary must vanish.
“I had a bad day in practice the first Saturday we reported to camp,” Coder told the Pittsburgh Press. “He knew I was writing the article and he said ‘If you want to be a journalist, go to journalism school. If you want to be a football player, keep your mind on football.’”
“It’s a good point,” confirmed Coder. “When you’re a rookie and you have all these extra things, you’re pushing your luck. George Perles (defensive line coach) keeps teasing me about it. He’ll say ‘there he is the diary of an ex-rookie.’ I think he means ex-diary of a rookie.”
STEELERS TRAVEL FOR THEIR NEXT EXHIBITION GAME
The Steelers will travel to New Orleans for their second exhibition game. The Saints’ new head coach Hank Stram believes his team has progressed from their 2-12 season of last year. “We have an enthusiastic young squad and it’s always invigorating working with young people,” Stram said.
“It’s obvious that the only way we can go is up,” Stram continued. “How long it takes is the question.” And the coach has to do it without ex-Steeler Joe Gilliam, who the Saints waived for disciplinary reasons. “I would, under the right circumstances, consider picking him up again. You always have to consider talent.
The Steelers would be facing Saints’ quarterback Bobby Douglas. After having trials with the Bears and Chargers, Douglas was initially listed as fourth-string in the Saints preseason depth chart, but injuries and the absence of Joe Gilliam had elevated Douglas to the prime position.
Coach Noll described the left-handed passer as a quarterback that had a lot of things going for him. “He’s a quarterback who can run and that can be a problem,” said Noll. “He has surprising accuracy. He throws so hard the receivers have problems catching it. He just needs receivers who can catch him.”
Facing a team with a lowly 2-12 record from last season, Noll didn’t think it would be a romp against New Orleans. “We’re not a Super Bowl champion when we’re playing only the second pre-season game. We’re not the same team we were back last January. We hope to get there and be better, but we’re not there right now.”
Exhibition game 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints
The Steelers dominated the first two quarters to take a 21-0 halftime lead. While the Saints were kept to one first down during the half, Terry Bradshaw completed 15 of 20 passes and threw two touchdown passes. Two fumbles on punt returns by rookies prevented the Steelers from further scores.
With a comfortable lead, Coach Noll had the luxury of fielding his rookies for the second half and their mistakes allowed the Saints to score a couple of touchdowns to reduce the deficit.
While errors from some rookies took the shine off the game for Pittsburgh, one draft pick had the coach glowing. Seventh round choice Jack Deloplaine (picture right) rushed for 83 yards on 11 carries while former World Football League Tommy Reamon managed only 11 yards on 8 carries.
Behind Bradshaw and the first string line, Deloplaine ran for an average 7.5 yards, bringing Noll’s enthusiasm to the fore. “He’s got the ability to run away from folks,” said Noll, while Joe Greene added, “That rookie back looked good. He picked some holes when they were there and he did good on his own.”
Bradshaw was already a fan of Deloplaine from what he had seen in camp. “He didn’t surprise me,” Bradshaw beamed. “Man, he turns that corner so nice and low. He’s fast son. He really showed me a lot tonight.”
The emergence of Deloplaine meant the battle for the running back jobs could be the high spot of training camp. “That’s a nice problem,” said Noll with a grin as he mused over the talent he had in that position.
Reflecting on the game, Bradshaw observed, “Let’s make no bones about it. We got twenty one points in one half. We’ll take that every week.”
“I got my bell rung a couple of times,” said Deloplaine, “but I got through a pro game and I’m still alive.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers 24 at the New Orleans Saints 14
GARY’S NOT DUNN JUST YET
When Gary Dunn (picture left) was drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round, he hoped it was all a mistake. “My initial reaction was, ‘What the hell am I gonna do up there?’” he laughed. Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Steve Furness and John Banaszak were just four reasons Dunn believed he had an impossible task making it with the Steelers as a defensive end.
Eventually Dunn consoled himself by figuring, “Why not start with the best?” While the NFL was still determining what roster size each team would be given, Dunn faced an uncertain future regarding staying in Pittsburgh.
Having displayed his skills for the entire second half of the Saints game, Dunn was hoping he would get another opportunity in the Steelers next game in Philadelphia.
BRADSHAW TO SHARE PUNTING DUTIES?
Chuck Noll told Terry Bradshaw that he would be punting in the second half of their Philadelphia game which brought the quarterback’s anxieties to the fore. “Yeah, I’m concerned,” he told the Pittsburgh Press. “I guess it’s dangerous for the starting quarterback to be punting, but who else is gonna do it if Bobby Walden wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The newspaper suggested that coach Noll had toyed for years with the idea of using Bradshaw to punt to save a spot on the team’s roster.
EAGLES HAVE THEIR WINGS CLIPPED BEFORE THE TURNPIKE BATTLE
Philadelphia’s new coach Dick Vermeils was running a strict regime in the Eagles’ training camp. “Certain teams need discipline for discipline’s sake,” he explained. “We have a tough camp, but we’re preparing these men for a tough game.
As the new coach after a dismal 4-10 season, Vermeils is quick to point out why the team is not performing. “We don’t have enough good players,” he notes before adding that the players they do have are overpaid. Vermeil believes that starters on losing teams tend to overestimate how good they are and management cooperates with that belief.
After losing 20-7 in their opening exhibition game, Vermeil used one word to describe the performance. “Bad.” With the visit of the Steelers next for Monday Night Football, Vermeil was asked who he would bet on if he was a betting man… “I’d bet on Pittsburgh,” he replied. “You’d have to be dumb not to.”
THE STEELERS VIEW OF THEIR RIVALS
“I understand the Eagles are a cross between a boy scout troop and an army drill team,” offered Joe Greene. “They are probably as disorganised as New Orleans was,” he added.
On the prospect of the rookies having plenty of playing time, Greene observed, “Sure, we’ll probably have the good fortune of getting to play all of our new people, but you don’t get any help from the people you’re playing against… unless you are a dreamer. What it makes for… is a raggedy, dull game.”
Noll was more realistic about their next opponents. “I wish I was a soothsayer,” the coach said. “You have no way of knowing what a team with a new coach is trying to do. It’s difficult to make judgments on other teams. They are not fully developed by any stretch of the imagination, but then neither are we. But I’m sure we’re a little further along than they are.”
1976 Exhibition game 3: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Philadelphia Eagles
Monday Night Football in Philadelphia was played in torrential rain that began in the afternoon and continued throughout the game filling field with puddles. The conditions were always going to prove difficult for both teams to play any effective football.
After Andy Russell recovered an Eagles’ fumble in the first quarter, Rocky Bleier sparked a scoring drive of 61 yards with his 25-yard run around left end. Extending the drive on a fourth and two on the Eagles’ 15 with a three-yard run from Franco Harris, Bleier scored with a goal line plunge from the one-yard to put the Steelers ahead.
In the wet conditions, fumbles were prevalent and Frenchy Fuqua’s giveaway in the second period on the Steelers 27 set the Eagles up to tie the game.
Terry Hanratty took over for the Steelers in the second half and the idea of putting rookie Mike Kruczek in for the final quarter didn’t materialise because of the conditions while Bradshaw’s punting was also put on hold.
Late in the third quarter, the Steelers started the drive that produced the winning touchdown. Jack Deloplaine splashed his way to seal the game with a 20-yard touchdown run. Deloplaine finished with 83 yards on 14 carries.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 14 at the Philadelphia Eagles 7
August 9th 1976 Veterans Stadium; 16,823
“It’s just not ideal,” admitted Bradshaw. “Sure you gotta face the elements during the season, but it’s hard for us now because we have so many other things to worry about. Now you have to say to yourself, ‘Don’t fumble, don’t slip.’ You’re just not yourself out there.”
“I think the winner was Belle,” observed coach Noll, a reference to Hurricane Belle that had dumped the monsoon on Veterans Stadium. “The conditions were less than favourable to evaluate our people. We didn’t even have a chance to work our rainy-day offense. You usually don’t have that much rain.”
HANRATTY IN OR OUT?
Terry Hanratty got more playing time in the Eagles game than he had in the previous three years. Hanratty and coach Noll are both in their eighth year with the Steelers, but Hanratty has never been the apple of his coaches’ eye.
After being placed on waivers before the Eagles game, the rumours about the player leaving Pittsburgh to play for another team went the rounds again. Hanratty said, “It’s tough to understand anything around here. You can’t fault anybody, you can’t fault their direction. They’ve won two Super Bowls.”
Hanratty’s agent took a realistic stance on his client’s playing time. “The way they played him so much Monday night, I’ve got to believe the deal, whatever it was, has fallen through. I don’t think they would have taken a chance on him getting hurt if they had the deal set.”
The official reason given by the team for his extended playing time was that Mike Kruczek was scheduled to take over in the fourth quarter, but he wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the offense to run it in a hurricane.
STEELERS TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON
With the NFL owners scheduled to meet to agree on the size of the roster the following Wednesday, the Steelers exhibition game in Washington Friday evening took on more importance for coach Noll. “We may have to get down to 45 just like that,” observed Noll.
For the Pittsburgh Press, the Redskins game brought the question whether Noll would risk playing his rookies to enable him to evaluate them effectively and lose the opportunity for the win. “We don’t want to lose, but those are always tough questions. And I really don’t have a cut and dried answer for it. The answer is: It depends,” Noll told the newspaper.
Washington had a new star running back with a $1.5 million contract in John Riggins from the New York Jet. The Redskins coach George Allen had already said he would start Riggins along with impressive back Mike Thomas in a dual ground threat.
Noll would appreciate Riggins being in good form as the coach felt the Steelers hadn’t been really tested so far in the exhibition season. “We need a good one and a test which the Redskins usually provide,” Noll said.
Exhibition game 4: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Washington Redskins
After a scoreless first quarter, the Steelers took control of the game. Their defense slammed the door on the Redskins running game forcing Billy Kilmer to take to the air where he faced a bigger calamity. Kilmer was intercepted three times allowing the Steelers to score two touchdowns from those turnovers.
The first touchdown was scored by Rocky Bleier on a 2-yard run. The second scoring chance saw the Steelers leave their conservative plays behind when, with a fourth and 18 on the Redskins 24, Terry Bradshaw fired a 22-yard pass to Lynn Swann.
Later, on a third and 1 on the Redskins’ 4-yard line, with Washington expecting a run, Bradshaw faked a handoff to Jack Deloplaine and then threw the touchdown pass to Randy Grossman alone in the end zone for an easy touchdown.
Mike Kruczek came on with 13 minutes remaining and controlled two series handing the ball off eleven times and passing only twice, both to Theo Bell. The second pass was a skilful touchdown throw to cement Pittsburgh’s victory. Roy Gerela missed the extra point.
Joe Theismann completed the scoring with his touchdown run of five yards for Washington to prevent a Steeler shutout.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 27 at the Washington Redskins 7
RFK stadium August 14th 1976; 40,561
The Steelers came away from the game believing they had passed a good test. Deloplaine was again the top rusher, Cunningham confirmed he could contribute and in Kruczek, some felt the Steelers had found a viable backup to Bradshaw.
Coach Noll was pleased with Kruczek’s performance. “He handles himself well,” Noll enthused. “He called plays well, showed poise. He talked to his linemen, showed game presence. “During practice, Kruczek had been seen to throw some errant passes,” but Noll added, “I didn’t see a wobbly pass tonight.”
Mike Kruczek enthused, “I’m happy. Having the opportunity to throw that touchdown pass helps a lot. “
“I was just thrilled to death for him,” said a buoyant Bradshaw on the rookie quarterback. “He’s such a nice kid. We were all pulling for him.”
The Steelers number one draft choice tight end Bennie Cunningham also came in for some praise. He only caught two passes, but the second one in the third quarter saw him trample all over the Redskins defense to gain 49 yards. “Bennie showed some of the stuff that we thought he could do,” observed coach Noll. “We’ll be able to use him more,” Noll added.
STEELERS HOST NEW YORK
For their next exhibition game, the Steelers host the New York Giants. Without their star fullback Larry Csonka, who is injured, coach Noll still expected the Giants to run the ball.
Going into the Giants game, the Steelers were 4-0 for the exhibition season compared to 3-4 the previous year. “Last year was the first time we had the experience of being defending champions,” Terry Bradshaw offered. “Everybody we played was at the top of their game. When Philadelphia beat us in the exhibition season, they went wild on the side-lines. It hurt our pride and made us think maybe we hadn’t gone out and done the things we should have. We want to beat everybody we play.”
1976 Exhibition game 5: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the New York Giants
From the start of the game, the Giants controlled the ball on the ground. Without Csonka, it was a little known running back from Arkansas, Marsh White, who carried the load.
Although they dominated the first half, it wasn’t until late in the second quarter that New York put their first points on the board. Bennie Cunningham’s saw a pass bounce off his hands resulting in an interception giving the Giants the ball. Larry Watkins’ one-yard plunge followed a completion of 49 yards to Craig Morton. The Steelers came right back with a series that took them to their opponents’ one, but a delay of game penalty and two incompletions forced them to attempt a field goal that was blocked.
In the second half, there was no improvement from the Steelers. Bradshaw fumbled the ball away twice and Bennie Cunningham and Jack Deloplaine following suit. New York added a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter and a touchdown in the final period to complete their 17-0 win over Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 0 vs the New York Giants 17
Three Rivers Stadium August 20th 1976; 50,199
It was only the second time that coach Noll had seen his team shutout. The Giants rushed for 240 yards in total with White contributing 100 yards.
“In a nutshell, they kicked our butts,” said Noll. “We fumbled like crazy because we got hit. It wasn’t cold. There wasn’t any ice. They just outhit us”
“If you’re going to have a bad one, you might as well have a ripsnorter and get it out of your system,” said Bradshaw. “I thought we could come back and make a rally. We had looked bad in practice all week and Chuck warned us if we played like that, we’d get ours.”
“It was a mental let down,” added Ernie Holmes. “We were just loafing around.”
BANASZAK MAKING THE GRADE
John Banaszak joined the Steelers as a free agent in 1975 and in training camp sweated every time the roster cuts were made, preparing for his name to come up. He made it though onto the roster as the team’s last defensive lineman and a year later he secured, if that is the correct terminology in the world of professional football, the sixth spot again when the Steelers traded Bob Barber to Green Bay.
“I was happy to see him traded,” said Banaszak. “But I wasn’t that worried if he stayed. They were thinking of carrying seven linemen and I thought if I played well, they’d keep me. There was nothing personal. We got along well. I’m glad to see him get a break. He’ll do well there.”
Banaszak, who had been invited to the camp early, ahead of most veterans, said he felt much more confident this year. “It was a different camp. I knew what to expect,” he explained. “This year I was thinking if I got released or traded, that somebody would want my service because of what I did last year.”
After playing defensive end last year, Banaszak had added the tackle position to his repertoire and felt this versatility will benefit him and the Steelers. Banaszak had spent two years with the marines before going to college and contributed to the Steelers special teams in his first year. “I’m always fired up, even on the sidelines,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I like to be prepared emotionally as well as mentally and physically.”
TOMMY REAMON TRADED
Former World Football League MVP, running back Tommy Reamon, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for a future draft pick. The Steelers have great depth in their ground attack and with the rise in stock of rookie Jack Deloplaine, trading Reamon wasn’t a difficult decision for Pittsburgh.
Coach Dick Hoak said of Reamon, “Everybody knew he could run the football, but of the two, Deloplaine’s the better player right now.”
From Kansas, Reamon commented, “I wanted to help the Steelers win their third Super Bowl. Now that I’m here, all I want to do is help Kansas beat Pittsburgh.”
Quarterback John Madeya, linebackers Larry Kain and defensive lineman Ramsey Simmons were three rookies the Steelers let go as the cuts to their roster began.
NO MEAN JACK LAMBERT
All Pro middle linebacker Jack Lambert told the Pittsburgh Press that to compare him to the great Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears was ridiculous.
Lambert had carved his name in Steelers stone with his impact that helped the team to win two Super Bowls, but he was pragmatic in saying, “There is no way you can compare us,” observed Lambert. “Butkus was a 240-pounder, a man who was used to mopping up the middle. Butkus played a different game than we play today. He did a lot of things I couldn’t do. I do a lot of things he didn’t do.”
As a 205-pound rookie, Lambert was drafted out of Kent State by the Steelers in 1974 expecting to play as an outside linebacker. “Because of my size, that’s the only place I thought they could play me.”
That’s the way it began until linebacker coach Woody Weidenhofer experimented with playing Lambert inside and after an injury to Henry Davis, the Steelers regular linebacker, Lambert stayed inside.
“Middle linebacker is my kind of football,” Lambert enthused. “It’s like being a catcher in baseball – in the middle of everything. Outside, you have to be more restrained. You can’t move too quickly when you see a play developing inside. Before you move, you have to worry about it coming back, a reverse or an end-around. In the middle, you can go for the ball.”
To allegations regarding his intimidating style, Lambert said, “Sure, I’m aggressive. That’s the way I have to play. But as far as being mean or dirty, I don’t think I’m that.”
Growing up as a kid, Lambert was a big Cleveland Browns fan. “I’ve got two books at home filled with their autographs,” he said. “Jimmy Brown, Gary Collins, all those guys who played back when Frank Ryan was their quarterback. The Browns were always heroes to me.”
STEELERS TRAVEL TO DALLAS
With the Cowboys’ still suffering a hangover from their Super Bowl defeat, the exhibition game against the Steelers would prove to be an interesting affair. The Cowboys believed the Steelers had not been penalised for some late hits during the Super Bowl. Dallas coach Tom Landry agreed with his players’ claims that Pittsburgh had gotten away with a few missed calls. “That was the general view,” Landry offered. “It was an unusual game.”
Dallas veteran Lee Roy Jordan noted that the Steelers were not flagged once and the Cowboys only twice. “I think the officials went into the game with the attitude that they were afraid to throw anybody out of a Super Bowl game,” said Jordan. “If it’s controlled at the beginning with a couple of flags, it usually helps to keep the game in check.”
Jordan felt at times the Steelers play “went beyond the bounds of sportsmanlike conduct”, specifically Jack Lambert kicking Preston Pearson (ex Steelers) while he was on the ground and a Steelers defensive back breaking Golden Richard’s ribs by kneeing him while he was on the ground.
Despite his misgivings, Jordan was keen to emphasis there would be no vendetta. He just felt that the Cowboys would be a lot better prepared to defend themselves.
“We’re not a cheap shot team,” responded Andy Russell. “You don’t win that way. You win with good technique and the best techniques are not cheap shots.” Russell acknowledged that tempers flare in a lot of games and that if it had been a regular season game, it would have all been forgotten the next day. “It’s just that everything in the Super Bowl is under such a microscope,” he said.
“In fairness to their criticism, there were perhaps a couple of incidents when we may have hit accidentally,” Russell continued. “It wasn’t by intent. It’s just a result of good, hard play and aggressively moving towards the ball. It’s sometimes particularly difficult for a defensive back who sees a cut-off angle to stop in time. The officials made judgment calls and didn’t throw flags. They wanted to let us play and not over control the game.”
STEELERS AIM TO EMULATE COWBOYS
Despite the rivalry that had developed between the Steelers and the Cowboys, Pittsburgh was keen to achieve the same consistency that Dallas had attained over the past decade. Since first making the playoffs in 1966, the Cowboys had gone back nine seasons out of ten and that was a goal the Steelers would like to set.
“It’s a personnel man’s dream,” enthused the head of the Steelers scouting department, Art Rooney. “They won eight games in their worst season in the last ten years.” The Steelers have followed the same path that Dallas chose by building their team through the draft.
Rooney’s first job after getting out of college was selling tickets. “I found out you couldn’t sell a loser,” he said. He realised that the Steelers needed better players to win and that took him into the scouting department in 1962.
“When I first went on the road, I’d ask advice from other scouts. I guess they look pity on a poor sap and they offered to show me their lists. I told them I didn’t want their lists. I wanted to know how they compiled them”
Shortly after Rooney became a scout, the Steelers formed the scouting combine, BLESTO, in 1964 with the Bears, Lions and Eagles. Rooney then supplemented the Blesto information for the Steelers and was joined in 1968 by Bill Nunn.
1976 Exhibition game 6: The Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) at the Dallas Cowboys (1-3)
Before a sell-out partisan crowd in Texas Stadium, Super Bowl X was played out again, but this time with a different result. Steeler turnovers and the seven sacks give up enabled the Cowboys to turn the outcome around in their favour.
On the first series, Terry Bradshaw guided the Steelers downfield, including a 42-yard completion to John Stallworth that gave Pittsburgh a first and goal at their opponents 7. The Steelers drive ended when coach Noll decided to go for it on a fourth down on the Cowboys 2 and Franco Harris only managed to move the ball a yard.
Both offenses then stalled and the first quarter finished scoreless as the defenses dominated. The Steelers achieved the first break when John Banaszak forced a fumble that Ernie Holmes recovered at the Cowboys 27. The Steelers were kept to a 30-yard field goal that gave them a 3-0 lead.
After tying the game with a 26-yard field goal, Dallas began to edge ahead. When Mike Collier fumbled the subsequent kick return, the Cowboys recovered to give themselves excellent field position and a 16-yard touchdown pass gave them a lead they took into the locker room at halftime.
On the opening series of the third quarter, Roger Staubach directed the Cowboys on a scoring drive of 81 yards, completed by a 5-yard touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree to increase their lead to 17-3.
Quarterback Mike Kruczek came on for Bradshaw, who was suffering from the humid 85-degree Texas heat. Using Rocky Bleier to keep the defense honest, Kruczek was successful with his short passes on a drive of 70 yards that finished with his 3-yard touchdown pass to Theo Bell.
The Cowboys stifled Pittsburgh’s offense for the rest of the game, adding a 17-yard field goal of their own to take a 20-10 victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 10 at the Dallas Cowboys 20
Texas Stadium August 28 1976; 64,264
“It was my fault,” insisted coach Noll accepting responsibility for the Steelers loss. “We weren’t in good enough condition to play this kind of game. We were in a much better condition at this stage last year. When we’re not in condition, it’s my fault.”
“If the coach feels we’re out of shape, we’ll pay the price,” offered Mike Wagner. “We’ll run until he thinks we’re in shape. You can only run until you fall down. It’s hard to put your finger on why we’ve looked so poor the last couple of weeks. I just hope we’re flat now in the bottom of the curve and are ready to move up.”
THE STEELERS FINAL 1976 EXHIBITION GAME
The hero of Super Bowl III, Joe Namath, was returning to Pittsburgh for the Steelers final exhibition game of 1976. The New York Jets quarterback was the glamour boy of the NFL having promised an upset in the Super Bowl and then delivering it. The preseason contest would be the Namath’s first game in the Pittsburgh area since he left Beaver Falls for Alabama in 1961. Injury had prevented him from playing in the Jets previous two visits to the city.
“It does mean something,” Namath confirmed about playing in Pittsburgh. “I’m really looking forward to it. I get a little sentimental. I haven’t been around my people in a long time. It’s exciting. It gives you butterflies.” Then when reality set in, Namath added, “I just wish the Steelers weren’t so darn good.”
The Jets production for eleven seasons was just three winning seasons and they had hired Lou Holtz as their head coach to turn their fortunes around. Looking ahead to the Steelers game, Namath was philosophical, “It’ll be a great test and a way of checking out where we are. I’ll find out where my head is and if I have any guts.”
Exhibition game 7: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the New York Jets
From the opening kickoff, the Steelers offense overwhelmed the Jets while the defense sacked Namath six times and kept him to 100 yards passing on 12 completions from 23 attempts.
While Namath suffered, Terry Bradshaw blossomed. Bradshaw completed touchdown passes to Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann split by a 5-yd touchdown run from Franco Harris to give the Steelers a 17-3 halftime lead.
In the second half, Harris and Belier each added an additional touchdown on the ground before J.T. Thomas returned a fumble he recovered 14 yards to complete the scoring.
Tight end Randy Grossman caught five passes for 90 yards to firm up his place on the roster as Bradshaw passed for 245 yards before Kruczek took over for the final period to add 83 yards to seal his spot as the team’s backup quarterback.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 41 vs the New York Jets 6
Three Rivers Stadium September 4th 1976; 50, 246
“This is the kind of game we needed,” offered coach Noll. “We’ve been floundering. It was one of our better offensive efforts and our defense played well too.”
Looking ahead to the season opener in Oakland, the question of whether the Steelers were ready to take on their big rivals was raised.
“When you play Oakland out there, you better be ready,” said Terry Bradshaw. “We’re always ready for Oakland,” observed Jack Lambert.
“We needed a big game before Oakland,” added Bradshaw. “We came out in the first half determined to show that we were the team that won the world championship.”
“You guys can use my locker to hang your coats,” quipped Terry Hanratty less than an hour after he had been told by Dan Rooney that he had been placed on waivers. “Maybe they’ll wear black arm bands now that I’m gone,” he added as he attempted to put a brave front on the disappointment of being let go.
A second round selection in coach Noll’s first draft of 1969, Hanratty had never appeared to be Noll’s chosen quarterback. “I think there a lot of teams I can help,” he optimistically told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And when you have been around as long as I have, it’s not that difficult to learn a new system.”
As his disappointment sunk in, Hanratty admitted that the idea of coming back some day to quarterback a team to knock the Steelers out of the playoffs was definitely appealing. “That’s happened many times before,” he explained. “I’d love to do it. You dream of everything, but in reality, you have to look and see what happens.”
“I got demoted without getting a chance to play,” offered Hanratty on his downfall before adding he had not discussed it with coach Noll. “He’s a difficult person to talk to,” added Hanratty. “But, I wasn’t that shocked. I could see it coming. It wasn’t only that I wasn’t playing, but I wasn’t even practicing with the offense.”
Hanratty had failed to make an impression on the coach and his departure became more apparent as rookie Mike Kruczek confirmed the promise they Steelers had seen in him when they drafted him. The Steelers would head into the season in which they hoped to be the first team to sweep three straight Super Bowls with just two quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw and Kruczek.
As the final roster adjustments were made, veteran running back Mike Collier was placed on injured reserve while seven rookies made the final list. The number one draft pick tight end Bennie Cunningham, offensive lineman Ray Pinney, running back Jack Deloplaine, defensive lineman Gary Dunn with wide receivers Ernie Pough and Theo Bell all avoided the final cuts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 Regular Season begins here>>>