This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To update John Facenda’s old line from back in the day…
“There are 31 other NFL teams, and then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Actually, there are 30 NFL teams, then there are the Steelers, and then there are the 49ers.
There was also the first 40 years of Pittsburgh football history and then there are the most recent 40 years. There is quite a difference between the two.
In 1962, when football was just getting around to placing logos on the helmets of most teams, the Steelers were approached with the idea of wearing the hypocycloid Steel logo. It was decided, as an experiment, to place the woodmark on one side of the helmets.
The Steelers would go on to have their best season to date, finishing 9-5 and second place in the division, which earned the team a trip to the ‘Playoff Bowl,’ basically a de-facto NFL version of a bowl game in Miami that determined the third place team in the league.
To other NFL teams, playing in the third-place game was unattractive, but to the Steelers, their first ‘post-season appearance’ was a big deal – and the team decided they had found an effective gimmick wearing the logo on only one side of the helmet.
As one Steelers official says, “We do it so you ask the question.”
It took the Rooney franchise another decade to finally make the real playoffs, and ever since the crazy final seconds of that first playoff game at Three Rivers on December 23, 1972, the normal struggling franchise course would never be the same. Now the Steelers are known as the lone team with six Super Bowl championships, and since ’72, the team has had only seven losing seasons out of 41.
Most of the candidates for Steelers Ultimate Franchise Player obviously comes from the most recent 40+ years, era, especially dominated by the Chuck Noll Era teams.
Time to Flash Dance through the brackets!!!
#1 Mean Joe Greene (DT 1969-81, HOF) v. #8 John Henry Johnson (RB 1960-65, HOF)
The pressure was on for Chuck Noll to produce with the fourth overall pick in his first draft in 1969, and his pick of Joe Greene from unknown North Texas University was met with initial skepticism. More than a decade later Mean Joe would go down as one of the league’s most fearsome but endearing figures, and is our #1 overall top seed.
But his Round 1 opponent is no slouch, John Henry Johnson was Jerome Bettis two generations earlier. JHJ had stints with the 49ers and Lions before arriving in Pittsburgh, where he had his best years in his early 30’s, making three Pro Bowl appearances and twice rushing for over 1,000 yards. His pro career in all lasted 13 seasons (not counting a year in Canada before the NFL), an extremely long shelf life for a runner.
#4 Andy Russell (OLB 1963, 1966-1976) v. #5 Jack Butler (S 1951-1959, HOF)
As it should be, our 4-5 game can go either way. Andy Russell was a prequel from the dark era before the initial 1970’s Steelers dynasty. Russell did a two-year stint in the Army before rejoining the Steelers for good for the next decade-plus, finishing his career with two Super Bowl rings.
Jack Butler intercepted 52 passes in his nine-year career, 19 in the 1957-58 campaigns alone. Was All-Pro his final three seasons, including 1959 when he suffered a career-ending knee injury.
Butler made just as significant a contribution to football post-career, for 46 years he was part of the BLESTO Scouting Combine, evaluating over 75,000 pro prospects that proved to be the start of the annual pre-draft Combine process NFL fans know today.
#3 L.C Greenwood (DE 1969-81) v. #6 Jon Kolb (OT 1969-81)
So Chuck Noll did well selecting Joe Greene at number four overall, but what about the later rounds of that ’69 Draft. Enter lineman Jon Kolb in Round 3 and L.C. Greenwood in Round 10. Like Mean Joe, both players would last 13 years on the team and participate in all four Super Bowl championships.
With the selection of Greenwood, Noll had acquired one-half of the eventual Steel Curtain, Greenwood would lead the team in sacks six times and unofficially recorded five sacks in Super Bowl competition.
I wanted to put Kolb in a play-in game with tight end turned tackle Larry Brown (1971-84). The tie-breaker with the selection committee was Kolb’s two top-five finishes in the World’s Strongest Man competitions in 1978-79.
#2 Ernie Stautner (DT 1950-63, HOF) v. #7 Rocky Bleier (RB 1968, 1971-1980)
Ernie Stautner is easily the best player from the pre-1970 Steelers era. The German-born Stautner earned All-Pro recognition ten times during his career. He is the lone Steelers player to have his number retired, as the franchise has since (much like the Oakland Raiders) done away with formally retiring numbers (though some numbers of legends are not re-issued).
Stautner also had an impressive resume as an NFL assistant coach for three decades and also returned to Germany to coach a NFL Europe franchise in the mid 1990s.
The pride of Xavier High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, Rocky Bleier remains one of the most courageous stories in NFL lore. Badly wounded in combat during a stint in Vietnam, Bleier was supposed to never return to the gridiron, but ultimately had a decade-plus long career mostly serving as a strong #2 back to Franco Harris. Bleier himself would rush for over 1,000 yards in 1976 on just 220 carries.
CHUCK NOLL BRACKET
#1 Jack Lambert (MLB 1974-84, HOF) v. #8 Donnie Shell (S 1974-87)
The Chuck Noll-era bracket in particular is absolutely brutal. In all there are six Steelers on the NFL’s most-recent All-Time team, four are in this bracket, along with Joe Greene from the Rooney Bracket and one more to come in our following bracket.
It was actually a high school basketball incident that cost Lambert four upper front teeth and left him rivaling hockey’s Bobby Clarke as the most menacing toothless look of his time. What you may not know is how undersized Lambert was, especially initially when he topped the scales at just over 200 lbs.
Lambert filled out enough though, and recorded over 1,000 solo tackles while making the NFL’s All-1970’s and All-1980’s teams. Ranked the eighth most feared tackler in history by NFL Films, Jack could run through hell with a smile.
Donnie Shell gets slightly overlooked from the incredible talent on the defensive unit, but had an outstanding career after going undrafted in 1974. Shell picked of 51 passes in his career and was first-team All-Pro on three occasions.
#4 Mike Webster (C 1974-88, HOF) v. #5 Franco Harris (RB 1972-83, HOF)
Wisconsin gets repped yet again with Mike Webster, who became known as the leader of the offensive line and one of the best centers ever while making the Pro Bowl nine times. Unfortunately Webster also became a prime example of the effects of the repeated physical toll of the game, and sadly we seem to come across at least one player in this situation in each edition of UFP lately. Webster was said to be considered ‘disabled’ by repeated head trauma even before retiring from the league in 1990. Webster soon became divorced/homeless and would pass at just age 50.
Franco Harris getting a five-seed in this bracket is absolutely sick, if you watch the original NBC airing of the Immaculate Reception, Curt Gowdy makes note of the 6’2”, 230 lb physical freak from Penn State rumbling towards the end zone. Even before that famous play, Franco’s Italian Army had already quickly become an institution at Three Rivers Stadium.
Harris got way too much grief in the early 1980’s as he made a run towards Jim Brown’s all-time career rushing record. No, Harris (and most other backs) were not nearly as good as Brown. But eight-1,000 yard seasons and nine Pro Bowls?? Franco deserves plenty of run, right to this day.
#3 Jack Ham (OLB 1971-82, HOF) v. #6 Lynn Swann (WR 1974-82, HOF)
The Hammer played his entire career in black and gold and closed out the 1970’s with six consecutive All-Pro nominations. The NFL Network Top 100 show listed him at #60 but his RPI on Pro Football Reference is much lower (#267) for whatever reason.
Lynn Swann initially seemed like an odd fit on the 1970’s Steelers, but he and John Stallworth would add the receiving dynamic to the team by the late-70’s. His Super Bowl X performance remains his own personal highlight reel. Despite playing only nine years and being named to the Pro Bowl just three times, Swann was rightfully inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
#2 Mel Blount (CB 1970-83, HOF) v. #7 Dwight White (DE 1971-80)
The rules of the game were changed because of Mel Blount, because he was so dominant at bump-and-run coverage that opposing receivers did not have a prayer. But Blount remained All-Pro caliber even after the rules change, he was ranked #44 on the NFL Network All-Time 100 list.
Dwight White makes the list just for getting off a hospital bed (pneumonia, lost 20 lbs) to not only play, but star in Super Bowl IX. Defensive tackle Ernie Holmes is the lone member of the Steel Curtain who didn’t quite make my final field of 32.
#1 Rod Woodson (CB 1987-96, HOF) v. #8 Jason Gildon (OLB 1994-2003)
One of the best athletes in team history, Woodson reportedly ran a 4.29, and served on returns for much of his Steelers tenure as well as cornerback. Tore his ACL in the 1995 season opener but persuaded the team not to place him on IR and wound up playing effectively four+ months later in Super Bowl 30. Though remembered as a Steeler over his 17-year career, Woodson was actually a cap casualty after the 1996 season and had a nomadic career late, playing for the Niners, Ravens, and Raiders. Woodson finished with 71 interceptions lifetime.
Jason Gildon was definitely one of my last four in, and just edges Ernie Holmes and Greg Little to make the field. By the end of his career Gildon had made three Pro Bowls and went over double-digits three times in sacks.
#4 Dermontti Dawson (C 1988-2000, HOF) v. #5 Carnell Lake (CB/SS 1989-98)
What I strive for as an internet writer, always make sure I have the guys names spelled right, don’t worry, I’ll make sure with Dermontti. We’re talking an absolute physical specimen for the position, and was more athletic than his predecessor Mike Webster. You can make a strong case for Dawson being the franchises best ever center.
Carnell Lake gets lost in the shuffle, but he was an all-1990’s player and a five-time Pro Bowl selection himself. After his career he went into coaching, first at his alma mater UCLA and now back with the Steelers as a cornerbacks coach.
#3 John Stallworth (WR 1974-87, HOF) v. #6 Greg Lloyd (OLB 1988-97)
John Stallworth, like a distilled Alabama adult beverage, smooth, with a strong finishing kick. Stallworth actually had some of his better seasons late, catching 80 passes for nearly 1,400 yards at age 32.
Greg Lloyd was a menacing force at outside linebacker during the early portion of the 1990’s. After the Steelers exorcised some demons from the following year in barely winning the 1995 AFC Championship, Lloyd infamously said ‘Let’s win the f’n Super Bowl’ in a locker room TV interview with Jim Grey.
#2 Terry Bradshaw (QB 1970-83, HOF) v. #7 Mike Wagner (SS 1971-80)
I’m sure there were some getting ready to drop their Iron City Brews right about now. Did you REALLY think I would omit Bradshaw from the field?? Bradshaw gets nit-picked over his final career numbers (51.9% completion rate, 212 TD v. 210 INT’s), and is ranked #101 on Pro Football Reference, just behind Dan Fouts.
That’s an apples-oranges comparison, but I’m sure Fouts would trade some of his gazillion passing yards with the Chargers for a couple of Bradshaw’s rings.
Mike Wagner is one of the four Super Bowl guys who made the team’s 50th Anniversary team in 1983, but was voted off the island for the 75th Anniversary. Wagner picked off 38 passes in his career and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1975-76.
MIKE TOMLIN BRACKET
#1 Troy Polamalu (SS 2003-present) v. #8 Joey Porter (OLB 1999-2006)
Is it just me, or over the course of his career does it seem like there are at least four or five Polamalu’s on the Pittsburgh defense?? His career may have shown the first signs of winding down in 2012, but his Pro Football Reference ranking is already up to #174 and is a solid bet for Canton at this point.
Joey Porter sure talked a good game during his time with the Steelers, but his career wasn’t the same after he left after the ’06 season. Did make three Pro Bowls in his time with the team.
#4 Jerome Bettis (RB 1996-2005) v. #5 Hines Ward (WR 1998-2011)
The wheels keep going round and round in this dream #4/#5 matchup. The Bus put an incredible amount of miles on his odometer during his 13-year career, with 375 carries for 1,665 yards in 1997 alone, and rolled on another eight years after that. Jerome rode out on top in Super Bowl 40 and goes down as one of the most durable backs ever.
And all that Hines Ward did after leaving the University of Georgia campus?? How about an even 1,000 catches and the Super Bowl XL MVP trophy.
There is a strong chance both will be sporting mustard colored jackets in Canton in the very near future.
#3 Alan Fanceca (OG 1998-2007) v. #6 James Harrison (OLB 2002, 2004-12)
Have I overseeded Faneca, the 26th overall pick of the 1998 Draft. Six All-Pro berths in his final seven seasons in Pittsburgh say not. I say Alan will be living in the Hall of Fame at some point.
As of this writing, it looks the Steelers will part ways with James Harrison, it’s the business side of the game. However, the legacy of his 2008 MVP-like season remains, 16 sacks on the year and one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history at the end of the first half in Tampa. The big fella definitely needed the oxygen kit after that one. Both Harrison and Jack Lambert share Kent State University as alma maters.
#2 Ben Roethlisberger (QB 2004-present) v. Casey Hampton (NT 2003-12)
You could talk about some of his off-field indiscretions, but Big Ben already has his place in Steelers lore etched in stone, three Super Bowl appearances and winning two, one on a last-minute TD to Santonio Holmes. Ben is close to becoming a lock for Canton.
Nose tackles nearly get the love, but Hampton was everything the team hoped for after selecting him first round in ’03. Hampton has made five Pro Bowls, it appears his tenure with the team will come to an end as the team is not expected to re-sign him for 2013.
STEELERS UFP SELECTION
That is quite a field, 14 are already in the Hall and I’m projecting as many as five more out of the most recent crop to eventually be enshrined. 19 out of 32 is not a bad batting average.
I say Joe Greene breezes through his bracket, while Blount and Lambert are a tough call with the Noll Bracket, as many fans have their own personal favorites from the 70’s.
Rod Woodson and Bradshaw will be another heated debate in their bracket, many will give Bradshaw the nod based on four rings and spending every down of his career in Pittsburgh.
Polamalu/Roethlisberger is yet another debate for this era. Again, do you want to go with offense or defense??
I’m going to go Mean Joe/Lambert/Bradshaw/Big Ben as my personal Mount Rushmore. A couple of defensive players and two QB’s.
Out of those, and other numerous defensive legends from the 1970s, one name remains slightly above the rest, and is a consensus on most Greatest Steeler pieces.
Joe Greene was not only a NFL legend, but also showed his softer side in the famous Coke ad that is still talked about today. He was the first piece of Chuck Knoll’s puzzle, and in my opinion the most significant.
My selection for Pittsburgh Steelers Ultimate Franchise Player is…