1. 1976 Steelers
Lost in Conference Championship Game to Oakland (24-7)
Here it is, the 1976 team takes the cake as being the best team in Steelers history to not win a title. And honestly, this probably is one of the N.F.L.’s best teams to never have won a title. According to my Mom, any older Steelers fan I have talked to, the stats sheets from that season, and any highlights I have had the privilege to watch, there is no comparison. This team was one of just absolute toughness, with an iron-will to win, and because of how dominant they were on the Defensive side of the ball: changed the game forever.
After they came off of two Super Bowl championships in a row, 1976 was not all “sunshine-and-kisses” over the season’s first five games. In fact, the season almost ended for Pittsburgh after they limped to a 1-4 start, saw Terry Bradshaw essentially thrown head-first into the turf in their Week 5 Loss to Cleveland by Defensive Lineman Turkey Jones, and behind the proverbial “8-ball” in a very competitive A.F.C. Central Division. At 1-4, many two-time defending Super Bowl teams would have simply “mailed it in” without their starting Quarterback and on the outside looking in in the Playoff picture. But not the 1976 Steelers. In fact, the terrible start only seemed to awaken something ridiculously awesome inside of them, and they began to just destroy opponents over their final 9 regular season games.
There are so many adjectives which can describe how statistically dominating the Steelers’ Defense was in 1976, but the one which comes to my mind is historic. On the season, the Steelers gave up the fewest points in the League with 138 over the 14 game campaign, a 9.9 Points Per Game clip. Most incredibly however was the fact that Pittsburgh had the highest point disparity in the League at +204. The Defense which gave up the next fewest points was Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters, and the N.F.C. Champs gave up 176 on the season, a full 38 points more than the “Steel Curtain.”
What was even more jaw-dropping about what transpired during 1976 was the fact that the Steelers needed to win their final 9 games of the regular season to win the Division and make the Playoffs, and the Defense just ate teams alive over said stretch. They recorded 5 Shut-Outs over 1976’s final 9 regular season games, and gave up a total of 28 Points overall during said span. There was a stretch in that period where the Defense (and team as a whole) was not scored upon at all for 15 straight Quarters! That’s right ladies and gentlemen, for 15 straight Quarters, or almost 4 full games, the Defense did not allow a single point. The Steelers’ Defense was so awesome that they forced 4 or more Turnovers in 8 of their 14 games, which meant that in over half of their regular season contests, Pittsburgh got four or more extra possessions per game.
The Steelers’ Defense was so dominant that season that they had 8, that’s right EIGHT Pro Bowlers on the Defensive side of the ball. Four of which became Hall of Famers (Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Mel Blount), one that deserves to be and is long overdue for the honor (L.C. Greenwood), and three fantastic contributors in the Secondary who were instrumental to the team’s success during the decade (J.T. Thomas, Mike Wagner, and Glen Edwards). And yes, you read that correctly, the Steelers sent their entire starting Secondary to the Pro Bowl in the forms of Blount, Thomas, Edwards, and Wagner.
Yet as flat-out wonderful as the Defense was in 1976, the Offense however were no slouches themselves and rode on the strength of their running game led by Hall of Fame Fullback Franco Harris and gritty Running Back Rocky Bleier. Pittsburgh statistically “swept the board” in Rushing numbers that season and placed 1st in Rushing Attempts, Yards, and Touchdowns. How good were Harris, Bleier, and the rest of the Offensive Line that season? For only the second time in League history (until that point of course), two teammates rushed for over 1,000 Yards apiece in the same season (Harris: 289 Carries for 1,128 Yards and 14 TD’s, Bleier: 220 Carries for 1,036 Yards and 5 TD’s).
Heck, even 3rd string Running Back Reggie Harrison rushed for 4 Touchdowns in 1976. And to his credit, Rookie QB Mike Kruczek did a fine job managing the Offense in Bradshaw’s absence and relied heavily on the Steelers’ bread-and-butter. It is because of said strategy that Kruczek won all of his 6 starts to set a then-Rookie record for Wins to begin a career (eclipsed by Big Ben in ‘04 coincidentally enough).
Then when Bradshaw came back healthy late in the season, it looked like Pittsburgh with their incredible Defense and 5th ranked scoring Offense would be unstoppable in the postseason if they won the division. During their game in the Divisional Round, the Steelers looked like they had a legitimate shot of “three-peating” as they trounced a Baltimore team which scored the most points in the League during the regular season.
The Colts had the League’s most potent Offense in 1976 and an All-Pro Bowl Quarterback in the form of Bert Jones, and Pro Bowlers in Running Back Lydell Mitchell and Wide Receiver Roger Carr who sported a 25.9 YPC that season. The sad part was the fact that this team did not even have a chance. Pittsburgh put up 529 Yards of Total Offense and trounced Baltimore 40-14 at Memorial Stadium that day. Yet during the absolute butt-whooping in Baltimore, both of the Steelers’ top Running Backs sustained injuries (Frenchy Fuqua did as well), and would be unable to play the following week in Oakland.
Sadly, the Steelers lost the following week to the 13-1 Raiders as Fuqua and Harrison toted the rock for the Steelers instead of Bleier and Harris. We can only speculate as to how the team would have done with “all hands on deck,” but I am sure they would have made the score much closer than 24-7, or even won the game outright. As it stands today however, the 10-game winning streak and closest legitimate shot to a “three-peat” until the 49ers and Cowboys almost did it in the late ’80’s and then early ’90’s came to an end. Despite the fact that the ’76 Steelers came up short, they changed the game forever.
In 1978, The League Competition Committee changed the rules to open up the Offenses more (5 Yard-Chuck Zone only in Pass Coverage, Offensive Linemen could use hands more to block, etc.) and neutralize the Steelers and teams which employed the same tactics as they did. In my mind, this ’76 team was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and forced the change in rules, and the League has tried to favor the Offense’s ever since.
This team was historic on so many levels, and it is a shame that they never got a chance to prove themselves on the ultimate stage. As sad as it is the ’76 team has a “Missing Ring,” it almost adds even further to their mystique. It allows one to ask, “What if Franco and Rocky were available?” “What if Bradshaw was not injured?” “What if the Steelers got to play the game at Three Rivers Stadium and not sustained a 1-4 start?” Alternate versions of history aside, this was a team for the ages, which almost achieved a level of greatness few teams in League history had attained. Sadly, the dreams died on that sunny afternoon in Oakland, yet the memories still remain of a special season which will be passed down from generation to generation.
Now it is time to share your thoughts readers. Is the ’76 squad #1 in your books’? If not, which team do you think is #1? Any special memories from the teams I have ranked? Share them in the “Comments” section.
Statistics Courtesy of http://www.pro-football-reference.com/