Noll versus Tomlin: First Year
Chuck Noll had always been with winners. He was with the glorious Brown teams of the 50’s- only one losing season, 1956. At San Diego, Noll coached the defense behind legendary coach Sid Gellman to six Division crowns in the AFL and two in the NFL. In 1968 as defensive backfield coach with the Colts, Baltimore won the NFL title, but lost to Joe Namath and the Jets in the Super Bowl.
When he took over the hapless Steelers in 1969 it looked like a miracle was about to occur. In his first outing, his teams beat the Lions, a feat that ultimately caused Detroit to finish second in their Division. The Steelers, perhaps over exuberant, went on its longest losing streak (13), breaking the 1944 record of ten set by the merged Cardinal-Steelers (often referred to as the CarPits because everyone walked over them).
Tomlin inherited a winning team and a winning tradition, and his freshman season disappointed the fans only in not going further in the play-offs than the first engagement with a tough Jaguar team.
By contrast, Noll’s first year team, the 1969 Steelers, were so bad that they tied for first pick in the draft with the Bears. A flip of the coin may have been all that separated the Steelers of the 70’s from the Dynasty they enjoined and ignominy (I learned this word from Cosell). The choice of Terry Bradshaw did not work out well in 1970. The highly touted quarterback from a second level Division 1 school (Louisiana Tech), Bradshaw replaced Terry Hanratty in the second half of the first game. Miami led 13-0. While Miami went on to win 16-10, Bradshaw seemed to ignite the otherwise spark-less. Victories over Minnesota, the Giants, Boston and Oakland followed, an exhibition the Steelers’ faithful had not enjoyed for years.
Success went to Terry’s head. He was feted by the Steelers Nation and the bubble burst. The team lost five of the last six games. For the first time in pro football history, a quarterback was thrown for safeties in three games- Houston, Denver and Cleveland. Noll benched Terry who vented his pique at Noll by the ever-present snivel of a prima donna, “Play me or Trade me!!!”
Tomlin inherited Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben also came from a second level NCAA Division 1 school, Miami of Ohio. Unlike Bradshaw, Pittsburgh got this prize as the 11th choice in the first round in what was a year of quarterback picking (Eli Manning was first pick). Like Terry, Ben showed his prowess in the very first game he played, replacing Tommy Maddox who was injured in a very unimpressive start. Unlike Terry, Ben continued to lead the Steelers and had success beyond belief winning fifteen straight games.
In Terry’s case, the ever patient Coach Noll hired a quarterback coach, Babe Parilli, a former teammate of Noll’s in Cleveland. There was a marked improvement in the Steelers’ #1 draft choice of 1969 in 1971, but the team still lost more (8) than it won. (6). At Soldier field in Chicago, the Bears scored twice with four minutes remaining to edge the Steelers in the season opener, 17-15. Bob Griese came off the bench for the Super Bowl bound Dolphins to score three times to please the home field fans after the Steelers led 21-3.
Noll now had his work cut out. He had a maturing offense, but a haphazard defense. When Buddy Parker was coach, he sought to win by bringing together the cast-offs of other teams. Times had changed. Savvy swapping was no longer possible. Player management had become very sophisticated. Finding the diamond in the rough was almost impossible, and paying for that diamond could cripple the pocketbook of most teams. Noll turned to building on youth with a small mixture of seasoned veterans.
Tomlin inherited a balanced offense and defense from Coach Cowher. But the “free agent” had already limited Tomlin’s ability to match Noll. Free agency meant that the Steelers had to constantly seek new blood to replace such all-stars as Plaxico Burress who had a major hand in leading the Giants to Super Bowl XLII. The offensive line play of the 2007 Steelers was inconsistent and Big Ben was sacked more than any other quarterback on a first place team.
With his lifetime contract, Ben will be even more at the mercy of charging defenses without the blocking of Alan Faneca who did not hold back his bitterness at not being re-signed to a multi-year contract by the Steelers. The Steelers front office has been consistent, perhaps the reason for their winning ways. Contracts are parceled out based on prospective play, not past performance. Faneca has been great- for ten years. The Jets are gambling on him for four more. There is no way the Steelers would do this. If you read Jerome Bettis’ book, you will get a savvy player’s understanding of front office decisions. Bettis could have won larger contracts from other clubs based on his proven ability. He chose to stay with the Steelers and take less, even a cut in his agreed upon contract.
In his first year, Coach Tomlin has certainly performed well, certainly better than his most esteemed forerunner, Chuck Noll. For those of us lifelong Steelers fans, our hope and trust is that, like Noll, the team will continue to draft well and coalesce again as a power in the NFL.
(For more on Steelers history, go to my web site: http://www.murraytuckerwriter.com)