THE EARLY BRADSHAW YEARS
Terry Bradshaw quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in six years. He was the first quarterback in the history of the NFL who could make such a boast. He was a great quarterback and came up big in the big games and led a very good and very talented team to many victories.
But that was later...
The Steelers became the team of the seventies, but what were the early years of that dynasty like? The following paragraphs tell the story of that development as the Steelers finally learnt how to become a winning football team.
Art Rooney had waited a long time to see his team lose their "Same Old Steelers" label.
The 1969 NFL season finished with two teams tied in last place, both with 1-13 records. With no tie breaker in operation, there was a coin toss to determine whether it would be Pittsburgh or Chicago who had first choice in the following year's draft.
One of the aims of the Football League has always been to maintain equality within the teams. The worst team had the first pick of the best eligible players who were coming out of college that year.
In a city that had only seen four winning seasons in the previous 20 years of professional football, Chuck Noll had no difficulty in surviving that first poor season as the Steelers' head coach. When the Steelers won the ceremonial coin toss for the first pick in the 1970 draft they were looking to select talented quarterback Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech.
It wasn't an easy decision. At least a dozen pro clubs wanted to trade for Pittsburgh's leadoff position in the draft. Some threw together packages of eighth-round draft choices, 190-pound linebackers, and one-legged halfbacks recovering from knee surgery. "Everybody was anxious to unload their stiffs on us," Art Rooney, Jr., said.
A few other teams made legitimate offers the Steelers had to consider carefully. The best offer came from the St. Louis Cardinals, who were willing to part with All NFC linebacker Larry Stallings; their previous number one draft pick, cornerback Roger Wehrli; fullback Cid Edwards; and all-pro offensive tackle Ernie McMillan. Pittsburgh executives thought that one over for several days before turning it down.
"The thing that made up our minds was the opinion of one scout who watched Bradshaw more than anybody else," Art Rooney, Jr., explained. "He told us that a prospect like this kid comes along only once every ten or twelve years, so if you give away the rights to Bradshaw, it'll be a ten-year wait until the next one comes along."
Another factor in the decision was Art Rooney, Sr., who actively argued in favour of following Noll's build-with-quality policy, which necessitated signing Bradshaw. "It was the closest I ever came to making a demand on my son Danny and the coaches," Art, Sr. recalled. "I told them I was pretty tired of seeing us give away great players and then have to suffer through fifteen years of those guys coming back to town and beating our brains out. Quarterbacks, especially.
Look at the quarterbacks we gave away: Unitas, Lenny Dawson, Jack Kemp, Bill Nelsen, Earl Morrall. We had the rights to Sid Luckman and lost those. I didn't want to see it happen again. This was one kid I felt we had to go all the way with."
"Terry Bradshaw can be a giant," said Joe Thomas, then head of one NFL scouting combine. "I have never seen a youngster with more poise. He has the knack of taking total command and that is the intangible you seek and seldom find in young quarterbacks. He's one in a million. He can handle a situation."
All those positive vibes meant Terry Paxton Bradshaw became a Pittsburgh Steeler. He wasn't particularly thrilled when they selected him. He had to check a map to see where Pittsburgh was located, and he heard it was a smoky city, an ugly city. Bradshaw would have been happier if he had been picked to play in Atlanta or Miami or Dallas or Houston, some place where the sun shined once in a while, and the people didn't talk so funny.
Bradshaw didn't know how he was going to fit in when he got to Pittsburgh. Of his first meeting with Noll, he remembers Noll's "tight lips" and "seething eyes." It didn't do much to make him feel at home.
"I guess you'd have to say that I have a lot to live up to," Bradshaw said to a cluster of newsmen after one early workout. "The writers and broadcasting people have built 0l' Ter' up pretty good. No matter what you write or say."
Terry Bradshaw seemed to capture the whole new thrust of Chuck Noll. He was, first of all, a great natural athlete with the skills to become a superstar. And he was young and enthusiastic - so enthusiastic, in fact, that after he threw his first touchdown pass, in a preseason game, he sprinted 50 yards to the endzone and embraced his receiver, fellow rookie Ron Shanklin.
"I'm a very emotional player," Bradshaw explained. "If someone's doing great, then I'm liable to hug him and kiss him and just go wild. That's the way I am. I show my feelings. And it seems that I'm exactly what this team needed - somebody who cares and shows it."
Bradshaw's emotional approach to football almost ruined him in his first season. He was the starting quarterback on opening day, when the Steelers played host to the Houston Oilers in their beautiful new Three Rivers Stadium. On the second play from scrimmage, Bradshaw electrified the sellout crowd by whipping a 55-yard rocket downfield toward wide receiver Hubie Bryant.
The rookie quarterback bounced up and down on his toes as he watched the flight of the pass. However, the ball sailed inches beyond Bryant's fingertips, and as the Pittsburgh fans groaned, Bradshaw slapped his hands against the side of his helmet.
Another time, Shanklin broke free behind the Houston secondary for what should have been a touchdown catch, but the ball squirted off the side of Bradshaw's sweaty palm and fluttered lazily downfield. Shanklin caught the ball, but he had to wait for it to arrive, and safety Ken Houston tackled him at the 20.
Three plays later, placekicker Gene Mingo blew the easy field goal. It was a day of frustration for Bradshaw who completed only 4 of 16 pass attempts before Noll lifted him in the third period with the Oilers leading 16-0. Naturally, the reporters cornered Bradshaw in the locker room afterward and wanted some reasons for his clumsy hometown debut.
"The toughest part was sitting out that last quarter," the rookie said softly. "I kept saying to myself, `What now, big shot? Everybody was counting on you, and you blew it. You better hide when you get to that locker room.' But if you really believe in yourself, you've got to take the good with the bad. If I don't shake this off, it'll stay with me all week. And I've got to get ready for thirteen more games. The coach has already told me that I'm his number one quarterback. Look, I lost some games at Tech, I've been down this road before.
The worst part was having veteran linemen like Ray Mansfield and John Brown come over and tell me it wasn't my fault. Hell, it was my fault. Those guys are soaking wet from sweating for me out there, and I'm not even breathing hard, and they're telling me not to feel bad. I owe them an awful lot."
Someone came through the locker room handing out statistics sheets. Bradshaw flipped the pages until he came to the individual breakdowns. He shook his head slowly as he saw his completion figures. "I'm almost glad this happened," he said. "No, that isn't true. I could never be glad we lost. But maybe it was good for me. Everything's been so easy for me, walking right in and taking over. Maybe it's been too much fun. From now on, I'll be a lot more serious. I've got to study and learn - quickly."
Dan Rooney edged his way past the circle of reporters and stuck out his hand. "Don't let it get you down," he said. "You're still learning." Bradshaw saw the concern in Rooney's face. "Don't worry," the rookie quarterback said, firmly shaking the young executive's hand. "You didn't waste your draft choice. You'll see."
But things did not improve much for Terry Bradshaw or the Steelers during the season. The rookie quarterback started the first seven games and threw 12 interceptions and just two touchdown passes. He gave way to Terry Hanratty at midseason and sat on the bench while his backup man led Pittsburgh to a 21-17 win over the New York Jets.
The next week, Bradshaw relieved against Kansas City and threw three interceptions as the Steelers lost. Bradshaw started against Cincinnati and threw three more interceptions as the Steelers lost again. He relieved against Green Bay and threw four interceptions as the Steelers lost once more.
Terry Bradshaw finished his miserable rookie season on the bench in Philadelphia as Pittsburgh lost to the last-place Eagles 30-20. Bradshaw got into the game only because the regular punter, Bobby Walden, pulled a muscle and Chuck Noll needed a substitute. Bradshaw even failed at punting; the Eagles blocked his first punt in the endzone and recovered it for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
"I just hope this first year doesn't ruin Terry," Chuck Noll said as he tried to recap the trying 5-9 season. "It just isn't possible for a rookie quarterback to come into this league and turn it upside-down. I think Terry tried to do too much; he expected too much from himself. He can still be a great quarterback if he doesn't give up on himself."
Bradshaw did not give up on himself. He showed up at training camp the next summer smiling and confident, although slightly more mature. Some of the bayou had worn off and been replaced with the tougher more cynical outlook of one who went to the big city and had the pockets of his britches turned inside-out.
"Last year is last year," Bradshaw said when asked the inevitable questions. "The pressures kept building up - fans, writers, everything. I felt like I had to retaliate. But instead I kept digging myself a bigger hole. I was busy worrying about it all. Then when we lost, I'd get mad - not at the team, but at myself.
I was real hard on myself, but I'll be that way till the day I die.Like the first couple times we lost, I felt real badly. I didn't want to see anybody. I'd go to the car, put my head down, and even cry a little.
I look at it now and I'm glad it happened. I came in with all the hoopla I had, and I don't think I could have done any worse [38 percent completions, six touchdowns, a staggering 24 interceptions].
As one guy said, I came close to being the number one flop. I learned a lot. I still think I'll take over as number one. But I learned you have to be patient. You can't rush it. And you don't panic. For Pete's sake, don't panic. Then you rush. Then you bury yourself. I did it. And when I heard those boos the first time, my knees shook.
You wouldn't believe all I did to try to complete a pass. I never dreamed of a day when I couldn't feel I could complete one. There was a loss of confidence. Now I've got it back. It was a matter of getting away and analyzing all that happened. I have this ice-cold feeling now, like everything is gonna turn out all right."
There was more than just that one year's experience contributing to Bradshaw's healthier attitude. Other good things had happened in Pittsburgh. Chuck Noll's three-year contract had been extended for an additional three years. Dan Rooney made the move in mid-February, "just to establish the sense of permanence we need in the organization."
There was no doubt, therefore that Noll was the right man, and with that firmly established the Steelers were more stable than at any other time in their rocky history. Best of all, the team's personnel was vastly improved.
The 1970 draft had brought not only Bradshaw to town but also Shanklin, a swift, big play wide receiver from Joe Greene's alma mater, North Texas State, and 6-foot 3-inch cornerback Mel Blount. Noll came through with some great trades, too, acquiring Preston Pearson from Baltimore, cornerback John Rowser from Green Bay, and running back Frenchy Fuqua and linebacker Henry Davis from the Giants.
The greatest personnel haul, perhaps of all-time, came in the 1971 draft when the Steelers grabbed 11 rookies who made the team. "Now I know how those old prospectors felt when they struck gold," said Art Rooney, Jr., who directed the Steelers' drafting.
In the first round the Steelers chose Frank Lewis, a 6' 1", 196 lb blur with the potential to be a super wide receiver. In the second round they went against the scouting reports and selected Penn State linebacker Jack Ham, who, according to the computers, was too small (6 feet 2 inches, 211 pounds) to make it in the pros.
They picked Steve Davis, a running back from Delaware State, in the third round. Pittsburgh had two fourth-round choices, Southern Cal's Jerry Mullins and Dwight White, a defensive end from East Texas State.
In later rounds, the Steelers selected guard Mel Holmes and tight end Larry Brown (fifth), defensive end Craig Hanneman (sixth), defensive tackle Ernie Holmes (eighth), safety Mike Wagner (eleventh) and wide receiver Al Young (thirteenth). The personnel office came up with another find in their postdraft scouting sweep when they signed Glen Edwards, a quick defensive back from Florida A&M, as a free agent.
Chuck Noll also solidified another area when he acquired soccer-style placekicker Roy Gerela from Houston on waivers ($100) shortly before the regular season. Gerela, a product of British Columbia, had two good years with the Oilers in 1969 and 1970 but never could get along with rookie head coach Ed Hughes.
"Hughes seldom talked to anyone," said Gerela, "and when he did, he never said anything. He was very uncommunicative. There was no way he could know his players because he never attempted to communicate with them. Look what happened to me. I had a pretty good preseason, and one day in a special after-practice kicking drill, I didn't miss a kick.
Hughes seemed surprised and puzzled. First of all, he couldn't believe I could make every kick because I kick soccer-style, and secondly he seemed puzzled because he couldn't coach me. He misunderstood. He thought I kicked that way to spite him. When I was waived, I was hurt very deeply.
Here was a rookie head coach who didn't know anything about kicking getting rid of me. His answer was that he wanted a straight-on kicker, not a soccer kicker. When Pittsburgh picked me up, I was glad somebody had faith in me. When I got here, I immediately noticed how friendly and well organized the Steeler people were. Coach Noll communicates with his players. What a difference."
Still another plus was the bright atmosphere of new Three Rivers Stadium. It seemed to spread throughout the Steeler organization. The basement living in South Park and the practice field that was once a county fairground was not the kind of setting you'd expect for a championship team.
Three Rivers Stadium was ideal in every respect. There was a spacious, lushly carpeted locker room; convenient meeting rooms, and a durable, all-weather playing field. Cynics may argue that such luxuries do not make a winning football team, but Noll believes it surely helps.
"When we went into the new stadium for the first time," Noll said, "the players couldn't contain themselves. They were looking around, smiling, pointing things out. We went on the field for the pregame warmup, and they were so excited I had to cut it short to take them in and settle them down or we'd have shot our wad right there."
"I think the new stadium represented a big turning point to me," Mansfield agreed. "It gave us a new image. I thought for the first time, `Gee, so this is what it's like to be with a winner.' There used to be a saying around the league, `If you can't make it somewhere else you can make it in Pittsburgh.' It was the last-stop town.
We had that image, like the old joke where a guy says, `I've been to London, Paris, and Pittsburgh.' Another guy asks, `What are you doing in Pittsburgh?' And the first guy says, `Hiding from the people in London and Paris.' Well, it's not like that anymore."
"Now we're going first class," Dan Rooney said. "Before, the Steelers were transients."
The Steelers suddenly had the appearance of a team on the way up. The offense, with Bradshaw taking a firm grasp, and Fuqua and Pearson doing some hard running, was showing promise. The defense, with Joe Greene testifying to his greatness each week and Jack Ham stepping in ably at linebacker next to Andy Russell, was even further advanced.
In the third game of the season, San Diego had first and goal three times in the final five minutes of play and on each occasion the Steelers' defense held, preserving a 21-17 win. The first threat ended with Joe Greene swatting down John Hadl's fourth-down pass attempt; the last two were halted by Ham, who intercepted one Hadl pass and deflected another last-down toss.
"It's a sign that we're coming of age," Russell said. "Two years ago, we would have lost this game. This year, we expect to make the big plays when we have to. We've finally got a bunch of guys on this team who think positive."
It appeared Cleveland would end the AFC's Central Division race early. The Browns won four of their first five games, including a 27-17 win over the Steelers. Pittsburgh was a distant second at 2-3. However, Cleveland lost four straight, including a 26-9 decision at Three Rivers Stadium, and with just four games left in the season, the Steelers were tied with the Browns for first place at 5-5.
The Browns handled the pressure, though, closing with five consecutive victories while the Steelers dropped three of their last four games. Three of those four were played against teams with losing records.
"Our lack of experience showed," Joe Greene confessed. "Look at the games we gave away. We gave away the opener against the Bears with fumbles. We were beating Miami twenty-one to three in the second half, and then we let Warfield catch three straight touchdown passes against us. We were in a position where we could have taken it all, but we blew it. Maybe that Same Old Steelers crap caught up with us."
"I think we just ran out of gas emotionally," Noll theorised. "But the experience should prove valuable for our younger players. I expect our team to come back even stronger next year."
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