NFL COMMISSIONER REFLECTS ON THE 1978 SEASON

In March 1979, the Pittsburgh Press published an interview they held with the NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Q: What are your feelings on the 16-game regular season schedule and four-game pre-season format after one year?

Profootball Hall of Fame imageRozelle: Most of the comments on it have been good. Some clubs had real difficulties selling preseason games and particularly for those it has been a big help.

The thing I liked about the 16-game schedule the most was the type of schedule it allows us to implement. So much was made about stacking the schedule, but I think going to 16 enabled us to set up a much fairer format.

You had three quarters of the schedule the same as the other teams in your division, which we’ve never had before. Just through regular cycle changes we’ve had some horrible inequities over the years – like a team winning its division and having a much easier schedule the following year just through rotation than the team which finished last in the division.

This way I think there’s more fairness to it. It helps us have more good games both at the gate and for television with more good games at the end. We had those first-place teams playing other firsts and fourths. But there’s still debate among the league about whether you’d want to play those first and fourths or the second and thirds. There’s not much inequity.

Q: Some critics think that mediocrity rather than parity has been reached and that having a 9-7 teams in the playoffs is not the best thing. Has the NFL’s product been diluted at all in your opinion?

Rozelle: I thought that in the 1978 season Pittsburgh and Dallas pretty well proved their superiority. And, if you were in Atlanta or Philadelphia, it was damn exciting. As it was in Houston. They had those teams performing pretty damn well. I saw the Atlanta-Dallas game and they had Dallas in trouble. No, it doesn’t concern me.

Q: What about the addition of Sunday night and Thursday night telecasts? They weren’t overly successful, were they?

Rozelle: Because our Monday nights were so strong, it was said that they didn’t do too well on Sunday nights. But, actually the combination of the three Sundays and Thursday last year were only one rating point below the Monday night average for the season. It’s just that they didn’t go through the roof. This year, we’ll probably try one Sunday and three Thursdays to reverse it and see how it goes. Under our contract with ABC-TV we have the right to go up to six with some rather sizeable payments, but we’re going to hold it to four.

Q: What is the financial situation of the league? Were there any teams in the red last year?

Rozelle: I would say that there were none in the red last years. We had some teams losing money prior, but television corrected that, at least for this period. The TV contract ensured all of the clubs of making a profit in the four-year period of which we have three more years to go.

Q: You have said that 30 teams would be an ideal number for scheduling purposes. Is there any possibility of expansion in the near future?

Rozelle: Not in the immediate future. For at least two years minimum. We’ve been pretty lucky on expansion since Dallas came in 1960 as the thirteenth team. We’ve been able to space it out where you don’t end up with an inordinate number of struggling teams at the same time.
I’m very much pleased with the progress of Seattle and Tampa Bay because a lot of people felt that with the added number of teams participating in the draft it would make it more difficult than in the old days. But, apparently good management, coaching and scouting can still give a club the tools to do it.

THE STEELERS 1979 SCHEDULE

The Steelers schedule was announced at the beginning of April and revealed they would open the 1979 season on Monday Night Football in New England. The following weekend they would host Houston in a replay of last season’s AFC title game.

The replay of the Super Bowl would be at the end of October when the Cowboys visit Pittsburgh at the halfway point of the season.

Monday September 3 at New England Patriots 2100
Sunday September 9 vs Houston Oilers 1300
Sunday September 16 at St. Louis Cardinals 1600
Sunday September 23 vs Baltimore Colts 1300
Sunday September 30 at Philadelphia Eagles 1300
Sunday October 7 at Cleveland Browns 1300
Sunday October 14 at Cincinnati Bengals 1300
Sunday October 22 vs Denver Broncos 2100
Sunday October 28 vs Dallas Cowboys 1300
Sunday November 4 vs Washington Redskins 1300
Sunday November 11 at Kansas City Chiefs 1300
Sunday November 18 at San Diego Chargers 1600
Sunday November 25 vs Cleveland Browns 1300
Sunday December 2 vs Cincinnati Bengals 1300
Monday December 10 at Houston Oilers2100
Sunday December 16 vs Buffalo Bills 1300

Home opponents in bold.

STEELER NATION CONCEIVED

In the same month, the NFL unveiled the Steelers 1978 highlight film called “the Return of the Champions.” To the the deep tones of John Facenda describing the Steelers as the “Finest football team in its final hour,” the film captures the ambience of the Steelers third Lombardi trophy winning season.

Winston Churchill could not have done a better job of characterising the 1978 Steelers team. The film credited Terry Bradshaw as the focal point of Pittsburgh’s return to glory as he silenced all his critics to lead his team to score the most touchdowns in the NFL that season.

Bradshaw added a third a decisive dimension to the punishing defense which intimidated opponents and a ball control ground game that had taken the Steelers to their first two Super Bowls.

The film also pays homage to “Steeler Nation” and the Terrible Towel with Myron Cope adding his own flavour to the narrative.

To relive that 1978 season, the video can be found on YouTube.


STEELERS LOOK AHEAD TO THE 1979 DRAFT

The idea of Bert Bell in the thirties, the draft was an attempt to keep the teams on an even level. When Chuck Noll became the Steelers head coach, he astutely built a Super Bowl winning team by selecting   

For some members of their front office, draft day is their D-Day, especially for Dick Haley, the Steelers director of player of personnel. In an attempt to put it in perspective, Haley suggested, “You build a whole year to one day. You don’t want to make mistakes in judgment.

Unlike the ball team, when it has an off day and looks bad in a regular season game, you can bounce back next week and make everyone forget what you did the week before. We have to wait a whole year to redeem ourselves.”

“The draft has been the cornerstone of our success,” added Haley. “This is the route we’ve taken to get here. The only way we can stay on top is that we’ve got to get better players. No one will accept us losing. Once you get the people accustomed to that, they won’t settle for a .500 season. And they shouldn’t.”

“Winning the Super Bowl is everything you work for,” acknowledged Art Rooney Jr., “but then you get ticked off when you have to draft last as a result of it. “We should have a good draft. There’s no excuse not to have a good draft. We’re not going into it to blow it. We think we can get help in the draft.”

 “It’s a good year,” suggested Haley. “The talent is deeper at certain positions than it has been in recent years. I think we’ll stick to taking the best football player who is available when it’s our turn. That’s worked well for us in the past.

Everyone on the outside is zeroing in that we’ve got to have a running back. But, in truth, we don’t have any critical needs. As the record shows, we’re pretty good. We’re adequate at say running back, but not as deep there as we are at linebacker. So, we’re looking for running backs for sure.

If a guy we thought could be a great player were available to us at any position, we’d pick him ahead of a running back. But, if it’s close and you only have to slide down three or four notches on your evaluation list to fill a specific need, well you do it. Everyone does it.”

Steelers Scouting Philosophy Leaves No Stone Unturned
Jim O’Brien - Pittsburgh Press May 2 1979

The Shades were drawn tight as the brain trust of the Steelers sequestered itself in a dark room in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium at 7am last Saturday. This was serious stuff and underground movements anywhere in the world couldn’t be any more zealous about their missions.

The projector was turned on, a stream of white light shot through the darkness filling the silver screen in the front of the room with fast-paced black and white images.

To see their eyes bulge, the Steeler coaches appeared to have latched onto the latest blue film from France or some crusty celluloid from the archives of the Art Cinema.

No, the NFL draft of college players will be held tomorrow and the Steelers were studying, cramming wouldn’t be the correct word here considering the scouting department’s year-long efforts for this crucial test.

The Steelers were studying film, looking for flaws as well as strengths in the top-rated prospects, reviewing their notes, updating their ideas about the draft, and settling on their strategy.

Art Rooney Jr., one of the club’s vice presidents and the man who overseas the scouting department wants the most up to date information available on anyone the Steelers might seek in the draft or in a trade, if the team decide to take that route.

He wants to avoid any fiascos such as the deal with the Giants a year ago which brought nothing but excess tonnage in the form of John Hicks, recently retired from the NFL at the age of 28.

“We went with information that was three of four years old in that one,” recalled Rooney, “going back to what our scouts said about him when he came out of Ohio State. You should learn by your mistakes. Now we insist on the latest word.”

With that in mind, the Steelers scouts and coaches have been pooling their information more intensively the last two weeks. “In BLESTO, we have fourteen full time guys and we have five of our own scouts full-time,” related Rooney. “With the draft so late (May rather than January) we sent our scouts all over the place again to check out the players and have them work out for us.

So, we have triple-tier scouting now, whereas in the old days we were lucky to get one line on the college prospects.”

This explains the presence in Boston yesterday of Coach Noll and his assistants Dick Hoak and George Perles. 
Noll’s philosophy on the draft is etched on the walls of the Steelers office and at least on the brains of the team’s officials.

“We have always gone in with the idea of getting the best football player available. We feel that if we can upgrade our team at any spot we’re going to help ourselves. So, we will try to make a judgement on who is the best when it comes our time to pick 28th and last on the first round and we will draft him.

It doesn’t matter whether we need someone at a position or not because you make a mistake in the draft when you panic and say, ‘We haven’t someone at this spot.’ Then you draft someone who is not as good as someone else and that guy makes all-league someplace else. We are interested in drafting the best football player.”

Jim O'Brien has written many books on the Steelers and Pittsburgh sports teams. You can find his website on JimObrienSportsauthor.com.

THE 1979 DRAFT

The Steelers were projected to take a running back with their first pick in the 1979 draft and didn’t disappoint the fans who were looking for some backup to Franco Harris.

“Greg who?” ran the headline in the Post-Gazette as many were surprised with the choice. The Steelers had done their homework though and even produced a handout on the player for the press they prepared well in advance of his selection.

Greg Hawthorne media guide photoBaylor’s Greg Hawthorne was a highly rated running back until he cracked his hip in October 1978 in a game against Ohio State. Many teams decided not to take a chance on him, but the Steelers put him through every strenuous agility drill they could.

“Here was a guy who’d had the injury three or four months ago and he could run 4.5 40s,” said Player Personnel Director Dick Haley. The Steelers’ orthopaedic specialist comprehensively examined Hawthorne’s hip and saw no problem with it.

“Without the injury, he might have been the first back to go,” Dick Hoak, Steelers running back coach suggested. “Physically, he’s so much better than the rest of them.”

Coach Noll was impressed with the player. “He is bigger, he is faster,” Noll said. “We like his size, his speed, how bad he wanted it and the kind of person he was.”

The Steelers selected linebacker Zack Valentine with their second pick and another running back, Russel Davis, with their third pick in the fourth round. Their third-round pick was forfeited after the team broke the rules and played in pads during rookie camp the previous season.

1979 STEELERS DRAFT PICKS

1. Greg Hawthorne, RB, 6-2½, 225 Baylor. Averaged 5.1 yards rushing as a junior. Runs well inside and out and is looked upon to provide blocking in the backfield. Fluid receiver which fits in well with Steelers offense.

2. Zack Valentine, LB, 6-2, 220, East Carolina. Four-year starter as defensive end but was usually in stand-up position in a five-man front. Has outstanding range mobility and pursuit.

3. No pick

4a. Russell Davis, RB, 6-1,215. Michigan. Rushed for over 1,000 yards in junior season. Suffered wrist injurie last season but Coach Noll not concerned about it hampering him.

4b. Calvin Sweeney. WR, 6-0, 180, Southern California. Two-year starter, catching 65 passes in that period. Said to resemble Lynn Swann.

5. Dwaine Board, DE, 6-4½, 241, North Carolina A&T. Rated excellent pass rusher.

6a. Bill Murrell, TE, 6-3, 215, Winston-Salem. Regarded as good all-round athlete and top blocker.

6b. Dwayne Woodruff, CB, 5-11,189, Louisville. Another “athlete” according to scouts. Fast

6c. Matt Bahr, PK, 5-10, 165, Penn State. Holds four NCAA records including most field goals (22).

7. Bruce Kimball, G, 6-1½, 250, Massachusetts. Started for 3½ seasons. Very strong and a hard worker.

8. Tom Graves, LB, 6-3, 228, Michigan State. Started for four years as a defensive back but will be moved to linebacker. Suffered a serious knee injury in his sophomore year.

9. Richard Kirk, DE,6-2,230, Denison. Interesting prospect. Intrigued Steelers scouts with his muscular physique, his speed (4.55), his intelligence and his forwardness in bringing himself to their attention.

10. Todd Thompson, TE, 6-3, 219, Brigham Young. Scouts say he can make the tough catch in traffic. Returns kicks.

11. Charlie Moore, C, 6-2, 225, Wichita State. Has good quickness, strength and speed.

12.a. Ed Smith, LB, 6-1, 216, Vanderbilt. Led team in tackles despite playing most of the season with dislocated shoulders.

12b. Mike Almond, WR, 6-1, 191, Northwest Louisiana. Holds school record for receptions. Has ability to make big catch.

Steelers’ Central Opponents Fare Well in Draft
Pat Livinston Pittsburgh press May 6 1979

The Steelers may have helped themselves handsomely in the draft, as most of the coaches agreed, but they didn’t necessarily make any major gains on their Central Division foes, particularly the Bengals.

“The Bengals may have done the best job of anybody in the draft,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer as he evaluated the twelve rounds of the annual lottery. “The way I see it, the Bengals started out with two starters and a quarterback who’ll be with them for a long time.”

Coach Noll, of course, declined to indulge in such frivolity. A pragmatist from the word go, he said that was a function of the press. “The press can have its fun with evaluating drafts,” he offered. “We’ll make our evaluation next summer when the players show up in camp.”

The quarterback whom Widenhofer referred to is Jack Thompson, the Throwin’ Samoan from Washington State, whom Jackie Sherrill the Pitt Coach had in his sophomore year. According to Widenhofer, Thompson was, “the best quarterback in the draft.”

While Coach Noll may not have been so declarative, he hinted at his own respect for the big, strong-armed passer from the coast in another way. Sitting around batting the breeze after the final choices were made, Noll pointed out that Bob Leahy, a former Steeler quarterback who coached Thompson, was extremely high on the Cougar passer for years.

Widenhofer doesn’t expect Thompson to cause the Steelers any problems next fall. That will come from the second and third Cincinnati choices, Charles Alexander, a superior runner, and Vaughn Lusby, a defensive back from Arkansas. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see both those fellows starting for the Bengals,” admitted Widenhofer.
Widenhofer felt the Oilers and Browns didn’t do as well as the Bengals. Mainly because they didn’t have the prime drafting order the Bengals enjoyed as a result of the calamitous campaign last year.

Does it worry Widenhofer that his division opponents strengthened themselves so much with their success at the drafting table? Widenhofer flashed a wily grin while saying, “If our first rounder makes it, we’ll not worry about anybody. If he makes it like we think he might, we’ll have drafted as well as anybody in this whole league. That’s what I think of our draft.”

1979 Draft Reflections
from Vito Stellino Post-Gazette

The Steelers are likely to keep six running backs this year, but the drafting of Greg Hawthorne and Russell Davis with the return of Laverne Smith from injured reserve leaves Jack Deloplaine in a precarious position. Deloplaine has not been the same since he underwent a pair of knee operations.

The most talked about story in training camp this year will be the Matt Bahr-Roy Gerela kicking duel. There is one curious thing about that battle though, Steeler games rarely come down to a deciding field goal in the last minute.

In fact, Steelers games were not affected that much by field goals last year. They would have still won the Super Bowl if they had not made a single field goal. They were the difference in only two of the Steelers’ 19 games. In the games that field goals made a difference, Roy Gerela kicked three in the 15-9 overtime win against Cleveland and two in the 20-14 victory over New Orleans. The other seven were just topping on the cake.

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