What If There Had Been
Free Agency in the '70s?
By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer
The discussion began with an exclamation point, then a question: Nose tackle Joel Steed, the highest-paid Steeler ever at $3.85 million a year! What would Joe Greene have made?
There are more, plenty of them: Several cornerbacks, some you may even have heard of, have gotten $4 million annual deals over the past week! What about Mel Blount? Decent linebackers are getting way over $3 million annually and none of them could carry the chinstraps of Jack Ham or Jack Lambert.
And what about Terry Bradshaw? Mike Webster? Franco Harris? Donnie Shell? Larry Brown?
The Joel Steed-Joe Greene comparison provoked a debate: If you could beam the four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers of the 1970s into 1998 with the NFL's $17.8 billion television deal and free agency, what would they be worth? And how long could the Rooneys have kept that dynasty together? Would they have won four Super Bowls? Two? One?
"They were good people, they were special guys," said Dan Rooney, who believed few would have left. "I can't say we wouldn't have won four."
"They were all good guys, no doubt about that," said Jim Boston, the Steelers' chief negotiator until his retirement several years ago. "But I know John Jackson, and he's not a bad guy. There isn't a team in football that would have been able to keep them together. They would have gotten a cup of coffee as they passed through."
"No way in the world could you have kept it together," said Ham. "Ernie Holmes would have been the first guy out the door."
Jackson, the Steelers' 33-year-old left tackle, received the highest annual average of any lineman in NFL history when he signed last week with San Diego for $4.43 million a year. Jackson is a good tackle who never made the Pro Bowl. Webster, a center, made nine.
Steelers offensive linemen of the 1970s made well under $100,000 annually and the highest paid on the team, Bradshaw, made about $400,000 in his best payday.
So, it's a two-fold debate - would the Steelers of the 1970s still have been a dynasty and how much money would they have commanded today under similar economic conditions?
"This article," moaned Ham, "will make me sick."
To determine their value, the Post-Gazette sought the expertise of attorney Ralph Cindrich of Mt. Lebanon. Not only is Cindrich one of the leading agents for NFL players, but he also became the foremost authority among them on unrestricted free agency when it was first introduced in 1993. He grew up here, wrestled and played football at Pitt and played in the NFL in the 1970s with Houston and New England, so he is an expert not only on active NFL players but also the Super Bowl Steelers of the 1970s.
"What you would do if you were the head of personnel for another club," Cindrich said, "is analyze all the players out there and then throw it away and just look at the Steelers. Lambert, Ham, Blount, Swann, Webby, Stallworth, Franco, Bradshaw. God! All of those guys would be super-blue chippers and then some."
Seven of those players are in the Hall of Fame. No. 1, though, would be Mean Joe Greene. Just as Chuck Noll built his team around Greene, his first draft choice in 1969, so would other teams aim for him in free agency.
"If you're looking from a raider's point of view, you target Mean Joe," Cindrich said. "You build your team around him. He's a leader on the field, off the field and he's a great player.
"Joe would be the man. You'd go on Joe until you choke. If John Randle [Vikings defensive tackle] is at $6.4 million a year, Greene has to be at $8 million plus."
Cindrich noted the caveats about this exercise: Normally, he would put in hours of research on one client and call various teams, but in this case he considered 22 starters and two kickers in less than a day; the overall talent of the teams were better, he said, in the 1970s than now because there were fewer teams, fewer players and it was more difficult to make a club; also, the system wasn't prejudiced against older players as it is today. And who knows which players might have agreed to stay with the Steelers for less money or leave for more?
Considering the 22 starters most closely linked with the Steelers of the mid-1970s and assuming they were in their prime and free to sign anywhere, Cindrich put a value on them. The NFL salary cap stands at $51.5 million for the entire 53-man roster and injured players. The value of just the 22 starters chosen from the 1970s would be $91.8 million on the low end, not counting the rest of the roster. The starting 11 on defense, at $51.2 million, would have taken care of the Steelers' salary cap.
"We would have lost some players, no question," said Dick Hoak, the Steelers' running backs coach since 1972. "Some of them would have left, they would have gone for the big bucks. You would have kept some, I'm sure, but there were a bunch of great players on those teams."
Dan Rooney points out that the World Football League, which operated in 1974 and 1975, was unable to lure one Steeler away. That's only because L.C. Greenwood signed with the fledgling league but it crumbled before his Steelers contract ended. The WFL helped break up the budding Miami Dolphins dynasty when it signed stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield after the 1974 NFL season. That is a small example of what might have happened with those Steelers in free agency, particularly in the latter half of the 1970s.
The Steelers, though, did have the highest payroll in the NFL in the late 1970s.
"Dan has said that he can't pay all these guys [in the 1990s]," Ham noted. "There's no way in the world he would have kept that team together."
And how many Super Bowls might they have won under today's market conditions?
"Two, maybe," Ham said. "Maybe just one."
"We would have won the first one, no doubt about that," Boston said. "It depends on the length of the contracts at that time. You'd be fortunate enough that some of the guys would have been on their second contract. You might have gotten a break, depending on when you started the system."
For Cindrich's purposes, the system was assumed as it is today with each player in his prime. The 22 starters chosen did not all start at the same time, but a consensus was formed. For example, Andy Russell started at outside linebacker for the first two Super Bowls, then retired after the 1976 season. Because he was at the end of his career, Loren Toews was chosen even though Russell was a much better player in his prime. The same for Webster at center instead of Ray Mansfield.
Keep in mind that Lambert held out the entire training camp in 1977 and earned a new contract of $200,000 annually and that Harris earned $250,000.
Here, are some of Cindrich's observations and reasoning:
Bradshaw - "He's the easiest to mark a value on because there are comparables, a Steve Young and Brett Favre. Wherever the market is for those players, plug in Bradshaw and an enhancement for him to leave. $8 million."
Lambert - "You have to love a guy like Lambert. If Bryce Paup is at $4.3 million right now, then you have to put Lambert at $6 million plus."
Ham - "Lambert's leadership and ferociousness motivates everyone and is an enhancement, but for the shorter term. Ham gets a little less on gross dollars, but you guarantee his contract and you sleep like a baby. His contract is one that the structure is more favorable than a Lambert. $5.8 million."
Blount - "The value of a corner that big, strong, quick and a cover guy? $5.8 million."
Greenwood - "Tell me how much more John Randle offers over Greenwood. $6.4 million."
Shell - "A guy like him is invaluable on defense. He intimidates your receivers, punishes your runners and can cover. Put him in a cornerback-type range. $4.5 million."
Franco - "Wooooo! Franco has more versatility than Barry Sanders and he plays in that role so well. But I think teams would be more apt to go for a Sanders; the market's going to be set by him. $5.5 to $6.5 million."
Swann - "Who would argue him vs. Thigpen? If Yancey's at $4.2 million, it would be hard to argue anything less than $5.5 to $6 million for him."
Stallworth - He'd get a little less than Swann because "you think of Swann, you think of that big-time catch, that unbelievable catch and in my opinion that excites NFL people a little more. $4.8 to $5.3 million."
Webster - "If Todd Steussie or Jackson get $4.4 million a year . . . You downgrade a little bit because center is not tackle and you put him over $5 million."
Cindrich also did not think the Steelers could have kept their dynasty together.
"With all due respect, I see a number of these guys on the highway. With the salary cap, there's no way you can keep them all."
Which brings the final question to Ham. Knowing that if there were free agency the Steelers almost surely would not have won four or even three Super Bowls, would he have preferred to make the millions he might have commanded or to have those four Super Bowl rings today?
"There's something to be said that you played on what was considered the best team ever in the NFL," Ham said. "There's a fine line there. But I'm content with what we did. I played on the best football team ever. That's enough right now for me."
I know its an older article and the numbers aren't close but thought it was interesting anywayWhat would the 1970s Steelers be able to get if they played under the free agency system with similar financial conditions in the NFL today? At the request of the Post-Gazette, Ralph Cindrich, one of the top agents in the NFL, placed an estimated worth on each starter with these caveats: He spent little time evaluating, did no investigating and, of course, none of the negotiating on any of the players. It's merely a rough estimate of their worth on today's open market:
DE -- L.C. Greenwood, $6.4 million.
DE -- Dwight White, $3.5 million.
DT -- Joe Greene, $8 million, plus.
DT -- Ernie Holmes, $3.2 million
LB -- Jack Lambert, $6 million, plus.
LB -- Jack Ham, $5.8 million.
LB -- Loren Toews, $2 million.
CB -- Mel Blount, $5.8 million.
CB -- J.T. Thomas, $4 million.
FS -- Mike Wagner, $2 million.
SS -- Donnie Shell, $4.5 million.
QB -- Terry Bradshaw, $8 million.
RB -- Franco Harris, $5.5 million-$6.5 million.
RB -- Rocky Bleier, $2 million.
WR -- Lynn Swann, $5.5 - $6 million.
WR -- John Stallworth, $4.8 - $5.3 million.
TE -- Randy Grossman, $1.7 million.
LT -- on Kolb, $2.5-$3 million.
LG -- Sam Davis, $1.6-$2 million.
C -- Mike Webster, $5 million, plus.
RG -- Moon Mullins, $1.5 million.
RT -- Larry Brown, $2.5 million-$3 million.