COMPARING THE two-time NFL-champion Steelers of this decade with Pittsburgh's four-time Super Bowl winners of the 1970s might sound preposterous, but there's no disrespect involved. The question is merely, Can the club that has won two titles in four years approach the accomplishments of the powerhouse that dominated the league over a six-year span?
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue
Yes, the Steelers are young and talented enough at key positions to win a third Super Bowl within the next few years. But unlike the Bradshaw-Greene-Lambert era, when there was little player movement, in today's NFL, free agency and the salary cap can ravage a roster.
Here's how Pittsburgh's two sets of champions measure up where it matters most:
Barring injury, there's no good reason Ben Roethlisberger can't become as prolific as Terry Bradshaw was, or more so. Bradshaw was 27 when the Steelers won their second Super Bowl, after the 1975 season; Roethlisberger is 26. Like Bradshaw, Roethlisberger is big and strong; unlike Bradshaw, Roethlisberger is consistently accurate and able to elude the rush to keep a play alive.
Willie Parker is no match for the Franco Harris--Rocky Bleier backfield tandem that powered through defenses. At wideout, the current receivers are not nearly the equals of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, both Hall of Famers. But Santonio Holmes did win Super Bowl XLIII with a Swann-like end zone catch, and Hines Ward is a tougher possession receiver than Stallworth.
The old guys, easy. Center Mike Webster anchored one of the best lines in NFL history. The current line is a no-name group that allows too much pressure on Roethlisberger.
Operating out of the 3--4, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the league's best pair of outside linebackers, and in three of the last five years the Steelers have had the top-ranked defense. On the other hand the up-the-gut duo of tackle Joe Greene and linebacker Jack Lambert in the 4--3 of the '70s might be the best interior pairing of all time. Stopping the run is the hallmark of both units. And if you think I'm being too complimentary toward the Pittsburgh defenses of the 2000s, consider this: In their two title years they surrendered 15.0 points per game; in the four championship seasons of the '70s the Steelers gave up 13.5.
Edge to the old-timers again, though they would have loved having headhunting free safety Ryan Clark and the range of strong safety Troy Polamalu. Granted, completion percentages track much higher in today's passer-friendly offenses, but in its first two championship seasons Pittsburgh held opposing passers to completion rates of 43.4% and 46.2%, compared with 57.4% and 56.5% in championship seasons five and six.
Finally, there's one more factor that works in favor of the players of 30 years ago: money—or rather, the lack of it. The average salary in the NFL in 1975 was $35,000; now it's almost 53 times that. Riches and contentment did not sap the desire of the Bradshaw-Greene-Lambert teams. The Steelers of the present display the same camaraderie and all-for-one spirit of their predecessors, but with their multimillion-dollar contracts will they continue to play as hard, and for as long?
The legacy of the '70s Steelers appears safe.