Cook: Tough choices abound on Steelers' all-time team
Saturday, June 23, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Picked up the paper the other day and noticed the ballot for the Steelers' 75th anniversary all-time team. It seemed like a fun way to kill a few minutes and, better still, delay getting around to washing the car and trimming the bushes.
An afternoon later ...
Hey, you have to research these things to do the job right.
It was going to rain, anyway.
Seriously, tell me it didn't take you 45 minutes just to sort through the defensive backs.
Sure, there are some easy choices. Terry Bradshaw has to be the quarterback. It's nice to think Ben Roethlisberger will make the 100th anniversary team, but he needs a few more Super Bowls and a few less 23-interception seasons to do it. John Stallworth and Lynn Swann are the wide receivers. Hines Ward would be the slot receiver, but, according to the rules, we're allowed to pick only two.
At the risk of angering Joey Porter and his dogs, Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and near-Hall of Famer Andy Russell are the linebackers. Ham is the choice here as the greatest player in Steelers' history. The kicker has to be Gary Anderson, the punter Pat Brady.
Young people, who think the Steelers began playing football about the time Antwaan Randle El threw that touchdown pass to Ward in Super Bowl XL, might not understand the choice for tight end. Elbie Nickel played from 1947-57, was a team captain and MVP and made three Pro Bowls. His 329 catches still rank fifth in franchise history and are all the more remarkable because he played a year for Jock Sutherland and four for John Michelosen, two coaches who didn't exactly love the pass. Team historians will tell you each of Nickel's catches should count for two.
This generation-gap business also works the other way. Old-timers are convinced the younger players aren't as good as the stars from their era. They'll argue nose tackle Casey Hampton has no right to be on a defensive front with Hall of Famer and nine-time Pro Bowler Ernie Stautner or taking a spot from a member of the Steel Curtain, the greatest defensive line in NFL history. The old-timers are right about Stautner; he's on the 75th anniversary team. So are Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood from the Steel Curtain. But, sorry, Hampton makes it ahead of Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. Big Snack could play in any era.
Running back is tough. Franco Harris is a lock for one of the two spots. The other is a hard call among John Henry Johnson, Jerome Bettis and Bill Dudley. It's too bad the ballot doesn't have a spot for a return specialist; Bullet Bill would be the easy choice there. When he was the NFL MVP in 1946, after his career was interrupted for two years while he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he led the league in rushing, interceptions and punt returns. It's hard to eliminate him, but the pick here comes down to Johnson, who's in the Hall of Fame, or Bettis, who will be. It goes to Bettis because he's the greatest team leader I've ever seen.
The offensive line isn't as difficult as it is tricky. The rules say to pick five without regard to position. The easy thing is to pick two centers -- Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson -- but I'm a traditionalist, so I'm going with one center, two guards and two tackles. That puts Webster in and, reluctantly, Dawson out. The guards are Sam Davis from the Super '70s teams and Alan Faneca, who might decline recognition in a pout because he's mad at the Rooneys about his contract. One tackle is Larry Brown, whom Chuck Noll, among many others, believes should be in the Hall of Fame. The other is a big name from the past, Frank Varrichione, a four-time Pro Bowler. Faintin' Frank might be best known for helping to change football's rules when he faked an injury to stop the clock during his days at Notre Dame.
That leaves the blasted secondary, where there are five great players for four spots. The first to make my team is another rules-changer, Mel Blount, who forced the NFL to eliminate bump-and-run coverage because of the way he beat up wide receivers. He's the second-greatest player in franchise history. The second spot goes to Jack Butler, who, shamefully, is a Hall of Fame omission despite 52 interceptions in nine seasons. The third choice is Rod Woodson, who made the NFL's 75th anniversary team in 1994.
That leaves the final spot.
Donnie Shell or Troy Polamalu?
It's Polamalu, appropriately enough, by a hair.