Saturday, January 24, 2009

Memories of Super Bowls past

There was an interesting piece on former Steelers coach Chuck Noll on ESPN.com this week.

Since the Steelers are appearing in their seventh Super Bowl in a little more than seven days, it is fitting someone tries to talk with the one coach that has four rings.

Noll was not available, as it indicates in the story. He seemingly has moved on from football and is concentrating on his other interests during his retirement.

I agree Noll is one of the most underrated football coaches of all time. I believe he is overlooked because he had nine Hall of Famers on his teams in the late 1970s, when he won four titles in six years. Noll had to take all that talent and point it in the right direction. It's easy to have a lot of talent and still lose.

But I wonder whether the Steelers of that era could have been better. My father, a long-time Steelers season ticket holder and witness to the Immaculate Reception, second-guesses Noll all the time. He argues the Steelers could have won the Super Bowl in 1976, the year most experts believe the Steel Curtain defense was at its best.

Running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier got injured in the divisional playoffs when the game was over. In the AFC Championship, the Steelers couldn't handle the Raiders with no running game. My dad argues, the team should not have been in a position to loose two starting running backs.

I wonder why Noll could not put together another great team after that six-year stretch. Of course, no one could expect him to draft another nine Hall of Famers. But the Steelers never competed on that high a level again during his tenure, appearing in only one AFC Championship after 1980 -- a loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1984.

I'm really nit-picking what is a great legacy. I could make similar arguments about the legacy of Bill Cowher, Noll's successor. He made only two Super Bowl appearances despite six AFC Championship appearances. And five of those games were at home.

Noll was a great coach, no question. One of the best ever. He was not the offensive genius like Bill Walsh. He also wasn't flamboyant like Bill Parcells or Mike Ditka. Noll was a great judge of talent. And maybe most important, he was exactly what that team needed. He determined how the Steelers could play their best and then got out of the way. He wanted the focus on the players.

2 comments:

T.J. said...

Chuck Noll went to four Super Bowls and threatened to go to at least two others with John Madden's Raiders and Don Shula's Dolphins in the same conference. On the other side, Noll had to beat an NFC that had great Cowboys, Redskins and Vikings teams year-in, year-out.

Noll also had to face some undersung Browns teams in the 1970s and well-coached Bengals teams (Paul Brown was no slouch).

The Steelers' core remained competitive through 1983 or 1984. Without free agency, it became harder to get better in the draft. One reason: other franchises got radically better. The Bears, the 49ers, the Bills, the Broncos, the Browns, the Giants and the Bengals all got better at drafting talent. Even then, the Steelers' ride to the bottom of the league culminated in 1988. The next year (and the year after that, and the year after that), they were in the playoffs as Noll left a little something for Cowher to build on.

One other thing about Noll: his modesty and his reticence to give an interview right now is our loss (and disappointing), but it stands in stark contrast to others that think they're some sage on things other than the 4-3 defense:

Mike Ditka
John Madden
Bill Walsh
Bill Parcells
Bill Belichick
Brian Billick
Jimmy Johnson
Barry Switzer

Noll's style allowed others to get better and get the credit. That's the height of good management.

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