The great debate: Super Steelers or Super Patriots
Sunday, January 27, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Resolved: If the New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLII Sunday, would they be the equal of the Super Steelers?
Speaking for the affirmative: The Super Steelers.
New England's 21st century reign would make them a dynasty worthy of being ranked with the one from Pittsburgh in the 1970s if the Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons.
Who says? Many of those Steelers who won four Super Bowls in six seasons from January 1975 through January 1980 -- including four Pro Football Hall of Famers.
"I'll tell you what, four in seven in this era?" former linebacker Jack Ham said in admiration. "They're comparable."
"It's pretty impressive, I think," former cornerback Mel Blount said. "Especially with the way free agency works now and the salary cap, it's pretty impressive what their management and personnel people and coaches all have been able to do."
"I don't think you can compare any of the teams as best of all time because the game has changed," former wide receiver Lynn Swann said. "But certainly it's a tribute to their entire organization from [owner] Bob Kraft all the way down to the last player -- to play on a high level consistently and to be in the position they are today."
And former defensive tackle Joe Greene sees similarities between the Steelers of the 1970s and the Patriots of the young century.
"Our team, when we won the Super Bowls, we were the best, and these guys are the best now if they win. It's as simple as that. In terms of comparing, the best barometer is the approach that teams take, the attitude they have, and I think that's where you'll find it very similar. They are about the team first.
"We had our individuals, and we put them together collectively to have the success we had. I think this is probably true for this ballclub."
Ham, Blount, Swann and Greene are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were part of a group of 22 Steelers players who earned four Super Bowl rings in the 1970s, when there was no free agency and no salary cap.
The Patriots would have just nine players with four Super Bowl rings if they defeat the New York Giants in Arizona next Sunday in the Super Bowl. The Patriots also would become the second undefeated NFL team in the 42-year history of the Super Bowl and the first to go 19-0.
The Steelers still would be the only team to win four Super Bowls in a six-season span, but the Patriots were the first to win three in four seasons. Like the Steelers in 1976 and 1977, New England did not return to the NFL championship game for two seasons until now.
"It's really a remarkable thing what the Patriots have accomplished, under the new rules of free agency," '70s Steelers free safety Mike Wagner said. "They've been able to do it with a number of different players at key positions over seven years. They struggled a couple of years ago with a number of injuries, but came close even then."
That was similar to what happened to the Steelers of 1976, when, going for an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory, they lost their starting backfield of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier to injuries in their first playoff win. Without them, they lost the AFC championship game in Oakland.
"I just think that organization has done a tremendous job; it's obvious to everyone at this point in time," Wagner said of the Patriots. "I've been impressed with that staff and program for five years now."
Some of the '70s Steelers spoke of New England coach Bill Belichick the way they might their own coach, Chuck Noll. Belichick can join Noll as the only head coaches with 4-0 records in Super Bowls.
"When we watch football games," Wagner said, "we watch how disciplined players are -- are they doing what you think they should be doing. I think Belichick has gotten players to do what they're supposed to do without a whole lot of freelancing, and that is unique in that way. That was a large part of our success -- not just having great talent, but having great talent to do what the coaches wanted us to do."
None of the former Steelers displayed any jealousy about the Patriots approaching their accomplishments, nor did any wish them misfortune against the Giants. Another victory and they merely would welcome them to the club, if they're not already there with three Super Bowl victories in four seasons.
"The Steelers of my era, we have our place in history," Wagner said. "I met Ray Nitschke once, and I wasn't going to argue whether his Packers of the 1960s were better or not. If New England wins another Super Bowl, there's nothing in the cards that says they won't win down the road again. That's the thing about that franchise, they seem to have a pretty nice formula for success."
Ham believes part of that formula is how they deal with player turnover in the free-agency era and the two constants on their four Super Bowl teams -- Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
"They adapted [their game], as we adapted," Ham said. "There are a lot of similarities except the personnel. More than half of our team stayed through all four Super Bowls, and he's doing it with different players every year.
"It also seems like players want to come there, guys like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. It seems like guys want to come there because winning championships are important to them. It seems like a lot of guys have bought into what he's selling."
Some thought the Patriots are similar to the San Francisco 49ers when they won four Super Bowls in nine years in the 1980s, then added a fifth in 1994. The Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships in seven seasons in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls. And the Dallas Cowboys, like the Patriots, won three Super Bowls in four years in the 1990s.
Those are the dynasties, one each decade, in the NFL's Super Bowl era.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, also in the Hall of Fame, said there were dynasties throughout NFL history and it would be hard to pick the best.
"I wouldn't rank anybody as 1-2-3-4," Rooney said. "I wouldn't rank them over the Bears of the '40s [with four NFL titles]. I'll say the Patriots belong in the list of dynasties, but I'm not for numbering them because it doesn't mean anything."
Joe Gordon, the Steelers' public relations director in the 1970s and 1980s, believes not only will the Patriots join that list of dynasties with a victory in Super Bowl XLII, but their 19-0 record would raise them to a higher level than the others.
"This would be the greatest season any team ever had, and it would have to be considered one of the greatest teams of all time," said Gordon. "To me, it's a far better team than the Dolphins were, because of free agency. There's greater parity now and they played more good teams.
"What they've done is phenomenal and compares favorably with the great Steelers teams, the 49ers' teams and the 1985 [Chicago] Bears -- they could compete with any of those teams."
Ham tends to agree with Gordon.
"That's a long haul to be able to go 19-0. I played this game and I can't fathom that; there's always one part of your team that loses a game. But this team has pulled out a couple games here, that's impressive. What the Dolphins did was great, but this is even better."
Blount, though, reminded everyone that the Patriots do not wear the crown just yet. They still have to play the Giants.
"I'll be interested to see what happens at the Super Bowl. I'm not ready to hand them the Lombardi Trophy yet. I think it's going to be a good game. I think they'll put up a good fight, and it's really up for grabs."
If they win, the Patriots will be hands-down a dynasty worthy of the '70s Steelers. So say those very same Steelers.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.