The 50 Greatest Pittsburgh Steelers of All Time
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long and storied tradition dating back to 1933—in particular, they have more than just the modern-era success than most people realize. The only teams with more Hall of Fame representatives are from franchises that have been in existence longer, but the Steelers still rank No. 3.
With six Super Bowls, they stand alone in championships in the modern era. They also have eight AFC Championships—tied for the most with Dallas.
Conference championships are considered the equivalent (by the NFL Fact and Record Book) to the AFL and NFL Championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. It makes sense, considering they have more in common with each other than the Super Bowl: They were played with home-field advantage, required fewer wins to achieve and the number of teams in each conference is smaller than the league as a whole.
This list is a compilation of the greatest Steelers, relative to their era, in the team's history. It comprises so many great players and contributors that many legends (like recent Hall of Fame selection Jack Butler) are left off.
There were some very difficult decisions, to be sure. It's harder to come up with a top 50 for them than for many other teams.
No. 50: Dick Hoak (No. 42)
Member of the Steelers from 1961-2007
Position: Running Back and Running Backs Coach
Years with Steelers: 1961-2007
Signature Moment/Achievement: “Steeler Football”—the reputation and success of the best running football team of the modern NFL
Legacy: Chosen by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 1961 NFL draft, Hoak had an impressive career, rushing for 3,965 yards, catching 146 passes and totaling 33 touchdowns. He led the team in rushing three times during the 1960s.
He retired after the 1970 season, ranking second all-time in team rushing yards. He is currently sixth all-time.
He was one of the hardest-working and best players of the terrible Steelers teams of the late 1960s. After retirement he was immediately hired by Chuck Noll as an offensive backfield coach, where he would serve for 20 seasons.
He passed on the head coaching job with the USFL's Pittsburgh Maulers when offered it in 1983. Following Noll's retirement in 1992, his successor Bill Cowher immediately named Hoak running backs coach.
During his tenure the Steelers have rushed for over 30,000 yards (the only team to do so in this time period) and led the league in rushing yards three times.
On January 1, 2007, Hoak announced his retirement after 45 seasons with the team—10 as a player, 35 as a coach. Hoak has the distinction of being the only coach to work for both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
At the time of his retirement, he had been a Steeler for 742 of the franchise’s 1,057 games and had been involved in every title game and playoff victory during its 74 seasons.
No. 49: Jock Sutherland
Led Steelers to first playoff game ever in 1947.
Position: Head Coach and Vice President
Years with Steelers: 1946-1947
Signature Moment/Achievement: In 1947, coached the Steelers to their first playoff game ever.
Legacy: Jock Sutherland was the first great football coach in the city of Pittsburgh, although the majority of his career was spent coaching the University of Pittsburgh. He won four college football national championships while with Pitt from 1924 to 1938, and his overall collegiate record was an astounding 144-28-14.
Sutherland began his professional football career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, but the advent of WWII meant many players and coaches joined the military, leaving several franchises on the brink of collapse.
When Sutherland (who served as a Lt. Commander) returned from the war, the Dodgers suspended operations. So in 1946 he became the head coach and vice president of the Steelers, who managed to survive the WWII years by merging with other teams.
Sutherland brought immediate success to the Steelers, using the single-wing formation (elements of which are used in the Wildcat offenses run by teams of today) to feature “Bullet” Bill Dudley.
The Steelers finished with a 5-5-1 record (second best in team history at that point), and Dudley was the league MVP.
Dudley was mysteriously traded after that season (the reasons for which are conflicting and will be forever unknown), but the Steelers still prospered even further in 1947, going 8-4 and tying for the division championship, resulting in the franchise’s first playoff berth.
The Steelers would lose the tiebreaker playoff game to the Eagles, and Sutherland would never coach for the Steelers again, dying suddenly of a brain tumor in April of 1948.
In an all-too-brief two years, Sutherland coached the Steelers to the most success they would see in their first 40 years of existence.
No. 48: Santonio Holmes (No. 10)
Super Bowl XLIII MVP: His game-winning catch is one of the greatest plays of all time.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years with Steelers: 2006-2009
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XLIII MVP, making the game-winning catch that will last forever in NFL lore.
Legacy: Holmes came to the Steelers in the 2006 draft when the team traded up to acquire him. And after a slow start (in particular struggling as a punt returner), by the end of his rookie season, he had settled into the WR spot alongside Hines Ward.
His 67-yard TD in OT off a slant pattern in the final game of the regular season did two memorable things: It kept the rival Bengals home for the playoffs, and it sent Bill Cowher off the field as a winner in his final game as a Steelers coach.
Holmes' tenure in Pittsburgh had its rocky moments. He had legal problems, and his strained relationship with the team led to his being traded after the 2009 season.
Although he will not finish his career in Pittsburgh and despite the regrettable way he left Pittsburgh, no one can take away his magical 2008 postseason run. He scored a critical TD in each playoff game and capped it off in Super Bowl XLIII by catching four of nine passes on the game's final drive, including his memorable toe-tapping catch to seal the team’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
No. 47: Kevin Greene (No. 91)
First Steeler to lead NFL in sacks
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1993-1995
Signature Moment/Achievement: In 1994, Greene became the first Steeler to lead the league in sacks (14).
Legacy: Kevin Greene was the first “big-name” free agents signed by the Steelers. And though he only stayed for three seasons, he had 13, 14 and nine sacks each year, and his intensity, energy and spirit lifted fellow LB Greg Lloyd to a whole new plateau.
Being one of the league’s best pass-rushers at OLB, the 1994 Steelers began finding ways to blitz more and more often, the result being the origin of “Blitzburgh." The 1994 Steelers tallied 55 sacks, breaking the 1974 team record of 52.
Greene has been quoted as saying his favorite years were in Pittsburgh, and he was a huge part of the team that won the 1995 AFC Championship and reached Super Bowl XXX.
After a nomadic career that saw him star for four different teams, Greene retired with 160 sacks, a NFL record for LBs. If ever he gets the credit he deserves and is inducted into the Hall of Fame, his contributions as a Steeler make him a worthy addition to the Steeler wing.
No. 46: “Bullet” Bill Dudley (No. 35)
First Steeler to win NFL MVP in 1946 (Joe F. Carr Trophy)
Position: Halfback, Defensive Back, Punter, Kicker
Years with Steelers: 1942-1946
Signature Moment/Achievement: Became the first Steeler to win the NFL MVP in 1946.
Legacy: It was a completely different era of NFL football at the time. The NFL was composed of 10 teams, one of which (Boston Yanks) is defunct. Players played both offense and defense. Helmets were made of leather and did not have a face mask. And “Bullet” Bill Dudley was the first superstar player in Steelers history.
As the No. 1 overall pick and rookie in 1942, he became the first, and to date only, Steeler to ever lead the league in rushing (696 yards). The team's ensuing 7-4 record was the best in team history to date.
In a decision that reflects true honor and that has been matched by only one athlete in today’s generation (Pat Tillman), Dudley enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight in WWII. When he was deemed too young for the Navy, he joined the Army.
When he returned to join the Steelers to finish the 1945 season and in the 1946 season, Dudley once again led the league in rushing (604 yards), but also in interceptions (10), lateral pass attempts and punt returns (385 yards), becoming the only player to ever lead the league in four unique statistical categories.
His Steelers career came to a swift end when he was traded the following offseason, with differing accounts as to why. One account tells that Dudley retired at age 25, telling Art Rooney that the physical pounding out of the single-wing formation was too much. Another account was due to friction with hard-nosed coach Jock Sutherland.
That answer will be forever lost in time What matters most is that while the Steelers have their own “Steeler Wing” in the Hall of Fame, the best record in the modern NFL (since the 1970 merger) and six Lombardi Trophies, it was “Bullet” Bill Dudley who was the first Steelers great.
No. 45: “Fast” Willie Parker (No. 39)
Set team records with TDs in season (16) and most rushing yards in game (223)—third-most yards in a season (1,494).
Position: Running Back
Years with Steelers: 2004-2009
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XL, record-breaking 75-yard TD run
Legacy: The impact of FWP as a Steeler was relatively short-lived yet still very significant.
It began inauspiciously when his unexpected 100-yard game in Week 17 against the Bills (who were playing for a playoff spot vs. Steelers reserves) sparked the Steelers to complete the 15-1 season. Then to start the 2005 season, he followed that up with taking over for the injured combo of Bettis and Staley, unexpectedly seizing the starting RB spot for himself with a spectacular Week 1 outing against Tennessee.
The Steelers then rode him to a Super Bowl in 2005 and finished with another Super Bowl in 2008, with Parker carrying the load at RB. Sandwiched in between were three consecutive 1,200+ yard seasons. One of those was the third-best individual rushing season in team history, and another broke a 21-year-old team record for TDs in a single season. He had two of the top four individual performance rushing games (both eclipsing 200 yards).
At times, during the mostly lethargic 2006 season, Parker looked like the only hungry player out there. He was on pace to join Bill Dudley as the NFL’s leading rusher in 2007 before an injury prematurely ended his season. Parker never seemed to be the same after breaking his leg. Still, it was a not too shabby six-year run for a guy who wasn’t even drafted.
No. 44: Joel Steed (No. 93)
The first great NT of the 3-4 Zone Blitz scheme
Position: Nose Tackle
Years with Steelers: 1992-1999
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XXX vs. Cowboys—against the greatest offensive line of the era, Steed dominated Derrick Kennard, Nate Newton and Larry Allen inside, holding the Cowboys to only 56 yards rushing.
Legacy: When Bill Cowher took over the Steelers in 1992 and hired Dick LeBeau as his secondary coach, no one knew that the seeds for a revolutionary type of defense that would change the way the game would be played were planted.
The “Fire-Zone” defense, better known as “Blitzburgh,” would take advantage of the athleticism of its LBs to make the plays. However, in order for it to work effectively, it was discovered that one position must be manned with a capable player who would be selfless and team oriented.
The first NT to assume that mantle was Joel Steed, who slowly took over ownership of the position as a rookie in 1992 to becoming the full-time starter. The success or impact of Steed cannot be measured in sacks (career 9.5) or tackles (career 224), but more in the way that he dominated the line of scrimmage and ate up blockers. On eight different occasions did a Steelers linebacker behind him reach the Pro Bowl, and the team featured its best defense in a generation.
Although Steed was mostly overlooked, his play at NT set the blueprint of success for how to succeed with the 3-4 zone blitz scheme that is still employed in Pittsburgh to this day.
No. 43: Mike Wagner (No. 23)
Led NFL in INTs in 1973 and had fourth-quarter INTs in Super Bowls IX and X.
Position: Free Safety and Strong Safety
Years with Steelers: 1971-1980
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl X—Wagner anticipated the Cowboys preferred pass play and made a critical interception to set up a Steelers score. The ensuing FG gave the Steelers a 15-10 lead and ultimately led the Cowboys to try in vain to score a TD instead of attempt a FG to win in the 21-17 final.
Legacy: When Wagner was drafted in Round 11, he hoped to just make the practice squad. Instead, he was starting in Week 1.
Wagner played the intellectual game that Chuck Noll favored and made a career of anticipating what the QB, RB and WRs would do before they did it.
In Super Bowl X, the Cowboys ran their “bread and butter” play against the Steelers, and Wagner misjudged it. The play resulted in a TD for the Cowboys, but that mistake wouldn’t happen again.
The Cowboys tried it a second time, but this time Wagner saw it coming and didn’t allow for the same mistake. He jumped the route, intercepted the ball and returned it to the 7-yard line, which set up a crucial FG that extended the Steelers lead. The play stunned Roger Staubach, who later said it was the first time all year it didn’t work.
Wagner made a big interception in Super Bowl IX as well. Wagner was a fixture in the Steelers secondary the rest of the decade and even transitioned from SS to FS when Donnie Shell emerged later in the decade. He ended his career with 36 INTs—good for sixth on the team all time.
No. 42: “Mad Dog” Dwight White (No. 78)
Mad Dog was the most intense member of the Steel Curtain.
Position: Defensive End
Years with Steelers: 1971-1980
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl IX—White was the first Steeler to score (safety) in a Super Bowl
Legacy: Dwight White was one of the original front-four that was initially dubbed the “Steel Curtain," along with L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and “Mean” Joe Greene. The group was so dominant, Time put all four on the cover (12/8/1975).
White may have been the least physically gifted of the group, but his intensity, desire and competitive fire made him into an elite pass-rushing DE, twice earning Pro Bowl honors. His teammates nicknamed him “Mad Dog” because he constantly trash talked his opponents, but he backed it up with a motor that went all game.
White is best remembered for his performance in Super Bowl IX, as in the week leading up to the game, he came down with pneumonia, had to spend the week in the hospital and lost 20 pounds. White was barely able to stand, so no one expected him to play. But once the game started, no one could even notice White was even slightly slowed down.
White was a dominant player early in his career. Dan Rooney has been quoted as saying that “Dwight White is one of the best that ever put on a Steeler uniform." White was part of the defense that shut down and dominated from 1974-1976, forever making history as the first Steeler to score in a Super Bowl.
He downed Fran Tarkenton after he chased down a fumbled exchange with RB Chuck Foreman, then he contributed a pair of sacks on Roger Staubach (one each in Super Bowl X and XIII) that helped the Steelers attain victories. Although White was a dominant member of the Steel Curtain early in his career (his 46 sacks rank him No. 7 on the team’s all-time list), he slowed down towards the end, still earning two more Super Bowl rings, albeit as a reserve.
White passed away in 2008, but his Steelers legacy is both secure and special. He was the original trash talker of the Steelers defense, intimidating opponents and rallying teammates by being outspoken and backing it up on the field. Steelers greats like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison, Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley have proudly carried the banner that White started, never hesitating to speak their mind and back it up on the field.
Here's to you Dwight White—the original Steelers trash-talking defensive intimidating force.
No. 41: John Henry Johnson (No. 35)
"Steeler Football"—the NFL's greatest rushing team ever and the tradition of great running backs began with JHJ.
Years with Steelers: 1960-1965
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1964 vs. eventual NFL Champion Cleveland Browns, rushing for 200 yards on 30 carries and outperforming Jim Brown (59 yards) in Cleveland Stadium in a 23-7 Steelers victory.
Legacy: Johnson is not as well known to today’s Steelers fan, pre-dating the dynasty teams and playing for a Steelers team that did not enjoy much success.
The early-'60s Steelers, however, did get close twice. The 1962 Steelers finished in second place and participated in the Playoff Bowl (losing 17-10 to Detroit). The 1963 Steelers went into the final week of the season with the Eastern Division at stake but lost in very ugly fashion 33-17 to the Giants.
Johnson was the bright spot of the offense on those close-but-no-cigar seasons under head coach Buddy Parker, becoming the first Steeler to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Johnson played for four teams in his career, but he was best known as a Steeler. In 1987 he joined “Mean” Joe Greene in laying the foundation of the “Steelers Wing” of the Hall of Fame.
While Steelers fans have probably had more talent to feast on since 1970 and the tradition of “Steeler Football” with the power running game, it should not be forgotten that the first man to play “Steeler Football” and run through and down opponents' throats was John Henry Johnson.
No. 40: Carnell Lake (No. 37)
1997 AFC Defensive Player of the Year; Lake could impact the game in coverage, tackling and blitzing.
Position: Strong Safety and Cornerback
Years with Steelers: 1989-1998
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1995, switching from SS to CB to stabilize the Steeler defense that was traumatized and disoriented by the loss of Rod Woodson, making the Pro Bowl as a CB, and the Steelers won the AFC Championship
Legacy: Carnell Lake was drafted in the second round out of UCLA, where he played LB and transitioned to strong safety, where it took him all of one game to be named the starter. Lake became the third star of the defense, complementing Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd.
He became noted for being able to make big plays with his amazing gift of size and speed. His versatility was amazing, as he even played CB when Woodson went down for the season in Week 1 of the promising 1995 campaign and led the team in sacks in 1998.
Lake is one of the most under-appreciated talents in Steelers history—25 sacks, 16 INTs, 17 fumble recoveries and five TDs. And much like the “Blitzburgh” era defensive players, that failure to get a ring kept them from being immortalized. But with a ring or without, Lake was one of the best Steeler DBs ever.
No. 39: Rocky Bleier (No. 20)
Bleier was the epitome of inspiration for the 1970s Steelers dynasty.
Years with Steelers: 1968-1980
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XIII, jumping as high as he could to catch the TD pass from Terry Bradshaw as time expired in the first half. The Steelers took the lead 21-14 on the play and would never trail again.
Legacy: Bleier’s contributions as a Steeler cannot be measured in statistics. He rushed for only one 1,000-yard season and was the secondary rushing option to Franco Harris. Unlike many of his more celebrated teammates, he never made All-Pro or even a Pro Bowl and has never been in the voting for the Hall of Fame.
However, what Bleier was all about was something that cannot be seen, only felt—that is, heart. Initially part of the team in 1968, he went to fight in Vietnam and was wounded in 1969. It took Bleier two years to come back from the injuries, even being waived twice.
Bleier nearly gave up and was going to quit before fellow long-time Steeler Andy Russell talked him out of it. By 1974, Bleier had worked himself into condition to the point where he would be the starter and lead blocker opposite Franco Harris. Through a series of injuries, Bleier got the chance to play and showed Chuck Noll what he could do. He was put in the starting lineup in a MNF gave versus Atlanta, and he never gave that position up until he retired in 1980.
His greatest impact on the team was not through his play, but through his fierce toughness and determination. The pain they saw him play through inspired his teammates to do the same, as it put things in perspective. Rocky Bleier was not the most talented Steeler to put a uniform on, but he was one of the most special.
No. 38: LaMarr Woodley (No. 56)
Woodley has already established himself in Steelers lore and is the future leader of the Steelers defense.
Years with Steelers: 2007-current
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XLIII—Woodley set an NFL record by recording at least two sacks in each of his first four postseason games.
Against the Cardinals, Woodley had applied pressure to Warner on multiple occasions, twice causing fumbles that were ruled by instant replay as incomplete passes. But on the Cardinals' final play, Woodley beat his man and got to Warner before he could launch a desperation Hail Mary, sacking him and stripping the ball loose to ensure the win and Lombardi No. 6 for Green Bay.
Legacy: Woodley is the star on which the Steelers defense will be built around for the future. As the Steelers defense of the 2000s is transitioning to new players, familiar faces like Farrior, Hoke and Smith are already gone, with Hampton soon to follow, as he is last year of his deal.
Woodley will likely inherit the mantle of leadership in the same fashion that Lloyd, Porter and Farrior did before him. Woodley is already one of the most dominant OLBs in the game and was having a DPOY season in 2011 before a hamstring injury pulled him up lame. However, there will be a long career in the black and gold for Woodley, and he’ll continue with the traditions established by those who came before him just the same.
No. 37: Jason Gildon (No. 92)
Gildon is the Steelers all-time leader in sacks.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1994-2003
Signature Moment/Achievement: 2003 Week 10 vs. Arizona Cardinals, breaking L.C. Greenwood's team record of sacks in Heinz Field. 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff, recovering a late Drew Bledsoe fumble to secure a 7-6 victory
Legacy: Of all the Steelers LB greats, Gildon seems to be the one most easily forgotten. Although a part of the early “Blitzburgh” teams (94/95), he was a reserve. He had the unenviable task of replacing popular LBs Greg Lloyd & Kevin Greene as the playmaking LB, but he had to endure the down years of 1998-2000.
Although he broke out with a dominating 2001 campaign (a season in which the team matched the 1994 team record of 55 sacks), he was still overshadowed by the young and brash new starter Joey Porter. However, the quiet Gildon collected sacks at a faster pace than any player in team history, eventually breaking L.C. Greenwood’s team (unofficial) record of 71 in an otherwise down campaign in 2003.
Gildon was often criticized compared to the other LBs of Steeler tradition for not being as consistent, but he also did not get to play under Dick LeBeau. He was released right before the 15-1 season of 2004, when LeBeau returned with his mastery of defensive schemes that maximized the pass-rushing talents of his OLBs.
If Gildon had the opportunity to play with LeBeau his whole career, its likely he would have been mentioned more among the league’s elite and perhaps would have eclipsed the 77 sacks he still holds as the team record.
No. 36: Donnie Shell (No. 31)
The undrafted member of the famed 1974 rookie class, Shell blossomed in the late 1970s as a fierce hitter and ball-hawker.
Position: Strong Safety
Years with Steelers: 1974-1987
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1979 AFC Championship, putting a clean but thunderous hit on Earl Campbell that knocked him out of the game with sore ribs. The Steelers dominated and blew out Oilers 34-5. 1984 Week 16, intercepting Jim Plunkett twice, including a late game-clinching INT, defeating defending champion Raiders in L.A. and clinching Noll’s final division title.
Legacy: Shell was part of the 1974 rookie class, the greatest draft in history, but he came in as an undrafted rookie free agent. Shell developed over time, becoming a starter for the second pair of Super Bowls at strong safety and was the starter for 11 years.
He retired with 51 career interceptions (No. 3 all-time for Steelers) and the most ever for a strong safety in NFL history. He has been in the top 15 on the Hall of Fame balloting once (2002), as well as being named to the NFL Silver Anniversary Super Bowl team.
Despite his high number of interceptions, Shell was most famous for being a vicious hitter and pounding WRs and RBs alike. He was part of the “Final Three"—the last of the dynasty that played into the 1980s—proving he lasted the test of time and into the beginning of the new era of Steelers football and fans.
Number 35: Mike Tomlin
Two Lamar Hunt Trophies and one Lombardi Trophy; Tomlin is still improving as a coach but is a phenomenal natural leader.
Position: Head Coach
Years with Steelers: 2007-present
Signature Moment/Achievement: Youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLIII)
Legacy: Tomlin’s hiring as head coach came as quite a surprise to many who believed that Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm would be promoted, especially the Steelers players. In a dinner with Tomlin, it was reported that QB Ben Roethlisberger even politely told the young coach that the team wanted one of the former assistants to take over. Tomlin responded by making sure the team knew it was HIS team, not Cowher’s, doing so with brutally hard training camp and practice regimen that wore down his players.
It took its toll, and by the end of the 2007 season, even though the team won the AFC North, they were too beat up and worn out—resulting in a team losing four out of last five games. Critics of Tomlin weren’t happy with this, but those critics were short-sighted and failed to see the bigger purpose.
Having established it was his way, the 2008 season went differently, and the Steelers took on the second-hardest, 16-game schedule the NFL has ever put against a team. Tomlin’s Steelers became the first AFC North team to ever repeat as champions, tied an NFL record for games in a row, holding a team under 300 yards total offense, won the AFC championship at home in his first try and brought back Lombardi Trophy No. 6.
Upon entering the 2010 season, the Steelers faced the loss of Santonio Holmes and the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger—leading many so-called “experts” to list the Steelers as a team in decline. In the two years that followed, the Steelers responded with back-to-back 12-4 seasons and a second AFC championship in 2010, losing the Super Bowl by only six points. Although 2011 ended on a disappointing note, the Steelers were playing with so many injuries, it was impossible to overcome them all, but Tomlin had already begun the transition from the veteran Steelers to a new wave of younger players.
Tomlin is still a young coach and is gaining experience as he goes, and judging from what we have seen from him, he’s taking every experience and learning from it to get better. He’s already shown that despite his being young, he’s displayed wisdom beyond his years, not changing the Steelers familiar 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 because he knew it better, but instead trusting in Dick LeBeau and Tomlin, deciding to learn from the master himself.
Not all coaches are so flexible (see Josh McDaniels in Denver). Tomlin should only continue the winning tradition in Pittsburgh, and when he does, it will make the top of this list even harder to grade.
No. 34: Levon Kirkland (No. 99)
The best player on the field in Super Bowl XXX - there will never be another ILB like Kirkland again
Position: Inside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1992-2000
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XXX; had 10 tackles and a spectacular sack on Troy Aikman in a dominating defensive effort
Legacy: Kirkland replaced long-time starter David Little (who replaced Jack Lambert) in 1993 and was renowned for being so athletic while at the same time being so big (6’1”, 270-300 lbs). He may have received the least notoriety of the Steelers vaunted four linebackers of the Blitzburgh defense, but that was not an indicator of how good he was.
He assumed Greg Lloyd’s mantle of leadership after Lloyd was injured early in 1996 and played in the nickel coverage—amazing opponents with how quick he was in pass coverage despite his size. He would have been a candidate for Super Bowl XXX MVP had O’Donnell not thrown those two devastating INTs, and unlike eventual winner of the award Larry Brown, he would have truly deserved it.
Howard Griffith had to resort to chop-blocking him during the 1997 AFC Championship Game. An incredulous Kirkland asked Griffith, “Why do you have to use cheap tactics like chop-blocking?” Griffith replied by asking, “Why do you have to be a 300-pound linebacker?” Age eventually crept up on Kirkland, and he was released before the 2001 season for salary cap reasons, but Kirkland’s dominant performance at LB in the 1990s kept the high-standing tradition of excellence in Steeler LBs alive.
No. 33: Joey Porter (No. 55)
Porter was the emotional leader and driving force behind the Steelers first Super Bowl win in 25 years.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1999-2006
Legacy: Joey Porter seemed destined for greatness from the preseason as a rookie in 1999, making plays and reminding fans of Greg Lloyd as he wore No. 95. But Porter wanted to make his own legacy, so he changed his number to 55, and like Lloyd, became the emotional and locker room leader for the Steelers.
He was one of the new stars who began the team’s run of dominance in the 2000s. He became a starter in 2000—where the team rallied from a 0-3 start to finish 9-4 and in the two of the three best regular seasons in franchise history (13-3 in 2001 and 15-1 in 2004). Statistically, he was a good to very good linebacker, but his greatest value was in how intimidating and fearless he was.
He was also extremely driven to give the Steelers a championship identity beyond the 1970s teams, knowing it would require winning a championship to do so. After the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship heartbreaks, he rallied the team around him more than once but never more than during the 2005 postseason, when he defiantly challenged the heavily favored Colts and rallied the team around Jerome Bettis (setting up the team to everyone honoring Bettis by wearing his college jersey) and getting in the head of Jeremy Stephens before Super Bowl XL.
No. 32: Andy Russell (No. 34)
The seven-time Pro Bowl OLB rounded out the best LB core in NFL history.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1963-1976
Signature Moment/Achievement: 93-yard fumble return for a TD against the Colts in the 1975 divisional playoffs
Legacy: Russell was one of only five Steelers from the pre-Noll era who survived to the 1974 Super Bowl team. He was part of the greatest trio of linebackers to ever play a 4-3 defense and the veteran captain on the early, young Steel Curtain defenses and the steadying influence inside the huddle and the locker room—he was to the early 70s Steelers what James Farrior is to the late 2000s Steelers—the veteran locker room leader.
It was due to a conversation with Russell that kept Rocky Bleier from quitting. It was with a private hug after winning Super Bowl IX between Andy Russell and Ray Mansfield, two old guards on the Steelers team of the 60s who epitomized the effort of the pre-Noll regime, that there were guys who had the passion and that meant there was something to be proud about for that era.
No. 31: Aaron Smith (No. 91)
Smith is second only to LC Greenwood in ranking defensive ends in Steeler history.
Position: Defensive End
Years with Steelers: 1999-2011
Signature Moment/Achievement: 2008 Week 16 vs. Baltimore; Made six tackles and sacked Joe Flacco once in the game that clinched both the AFC North and the No. 2 seed and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Legacy: Probably the most underrated Steelers player in history, Smith has only been to one Pro Bowl in his career, but that doesn’t begin to quantify what his impact on the Steelers has been.
He took over as the starting LDE in 2000 and has been a staple on the line through the entire decade. His value cannot be measured in stats as in the Steelers 3-4 scheme does a lot of stunting and penetrating, and it’s far more difficult than what 4-3 DEs face because the 3-4 doesn’t get the same angles.
Since the media focuses so much on individual performance, Smith does not receive the acclaim he should, but it's obvious when he’s not in the game—as some of the most dominated performances by other teams on the Steelers, in particular with the running game, happened when Smith was out due to injury.
When Smith is playing on the DL, he simply makes the team around him better—the LBs behind him have been to 13 Pro Bowls and 11 times named All Pro. They can thank the unheralded dominance of No. 91 in helping them.
No. 30: Alan Faneca (No. 66)
A lock for Canton, Fanaca is by far the greatest guard in Steeler history.
Years with Steelers: 1998-2007
Signature Moment/Achievement: Making the key block on Fast Willie Parker’s record-breaking 75-yard TD run in Super Bowl XL. Faneca pulled on the play that sprung Parker who wasn’t even touched.
Legacy: The best guard in history of the team, it only took Faneca four games to take over the LG position and stayed as the starter there until he left in 2007. The Steelers had four different primary rushers during the Faneca era, yet the Steelers finished in the top five for rushing three times between 2001 and 2005.
In the 2003 season, Faneca assumed the most challenging position on the line of LT because of how injuries devastated the line. The only drawback with Faneca, who is a future Hall of Famer, was that “Big Red” left the Steelers with a bitter taste in his mouth. His inappropriate comments when Ben Roethlisberger took over as starter in 2004 due to injury were nothing compared to his poor attitude when Tomlin was made head coach over Russ Grimm.
In addition, his anger over his contract status was unreasonable, as many players’ contracts become outdated in time, but when he signed his initially, he was among the highest-paid players. Faneca loses ranking due to the negative way he left Pittsburgh, but his consistent play over time and significant contribution to winning Lombardi No. 5 make up for some of it, and he will remain one of the best OLs in team history.
No. 29: James Farrior (No. 51)
Farrior was the stabilizing force—on and off the field—for the Steelers dominant run of the 2000s.
Position: Inside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 2002-2011
Signature Moment: 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff game vs. Colts; 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks
Legacy: Farrior is the best free-agent acquisition the Steelers have ever had—not that they go to that area very often. Although originally drafted No. 8 overall by the Jets, Farrior has decidedly a Pittsburgh career. He truly came into his own in 2004, finishing as the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
He assumed the mantle of team leader after Joey Porter left, and the team transitioned from Porter’s emotional style to Farrior’s cerebral and even-tempered style. In the mantle of Steelers defensive legends, though, being underrated as a player—Farrior has been among the best LBs to ever suit up for the Steelers; he unquestionably ranks in the top five as a team leader, with arguably only Joe Greene surpassing him.
During Farrior’s era, the Steelers won two of three Super Bowls, and he was the unquestioned team leader since 2007. Although the final chapter of his playing career is over, Farrior has secured his place in Steelers lore for his all-around contribution to a great team during their second-most prolific period in franchise history.
No. 28: L.C. Greenwood (No. 68)
The greatest DE in franchise history—the only reason he is not a Hall of Famer is due to the politics and jealousy of the voting committee.
Position: Defensive End
Years with Steelers: 1969-1981
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl X; sacking Cowboys QB Roger Staubach four times
Legacy: Greenwood is the most deserving member of the 1970s teams to be inducted into the Hall of Fame but has yet to be. He was selected in Chuck Noll’s first draft along with “Mean” Joe Greene, however, where Greene was taken No. 4 overall, Greenwood was taken in the 10th round, making him one of the best late selections ever.
It took him two seasons to be the left defensive end starter alongside tackle Joe Greene, but once he did, his height (6’6”) and speed defined him as one of the best in the game. The NFL did not officially track the number of individual sacks as a statistic during his career, but Greenwood was the best pass-rusher out of the Steel Curtain front four—owning the team record until 2003 and a career-best 11 in 1974.
His quiet demeanor and more celebrated teammate Greene kept LC from being as recognized as he should have been—to distinguish himself, he actually began wearing gold-colored shoes (would be against the rules in today’s NFL). Greenwood, however, was at his best when they needed him to be.
He hounded Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl IX, while the Steelers didn’t get a sack on the elusive QB, he did bat down three Tarkenton passes. He was dominant in Super Bowl X with an astonishing four sacks by himself on Staubach in the game—a performance that has truly went under the radar with regards to great individual performances in the game.
No. 27: Casey Hampton (No. 98)
Big Snack has dominated the line of scrimmage and the catalyst for the Steelers defensive dominance in the 2000s
Position: Nose Tackle
Years with Steelers: 2001-present
Signature Moment: Sacked Matt Hasselbeck on 1st-and-20 in the fourth quarter for five-yard loss and which set up the Seahawks in a 3rd-and-long two plays later. Hasselbeck threw a crippling interception.
Legacy: “Big Snack’s” contributions cannot be measured in numbers. Unlike the lineman of the Steel Curtain era, his responsibility was to do the dirty work that made other players look better. It took only four games for him to be the starting NT in his rookie season, and since that time: the Steelers defense has finished No. 1 in total defense five times (never worse than No. 9) and No. 1 in scoring defense four times (finishing in top three in an additional three seasons).
Hampton’s domination at the point of attack enabled the LBs who played behind him to achieve 12 Pro Bowls, 10 All Pros, a DRoY in 2001 (Kendrell Bell) and a DPoY in 2008 (James Harrison)—in addition to being named to five Pro Bowls himself.
No. 26: Dermontti Dawson (No. 63)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 2012; Dawson is long overdue for one of the greatest centers ever.
Years with Steelers: 1988-2000
Signature Moment: Reaching Super Bowl XXX
Legacy: Arguably the most athletic center in the history of football, no one could snap the ball and still pull like a guard like Dawson. Playing in 170 consecutive games (second best in franchise history) Dawson made his teammates better, as it didn’t matter if it was Branden Stai, Tom Newburry, Todd Kalis, Duval Love, Justin Strzelczyk, Carlton Haselrig or Tom Mysinski; the Steelers still had one of the most dominant interior rushing games in the league and was a key component of the Steelers 1995 Super Bowl run and AFC championship.
He was named co-AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFLPA, and in 1996, he was named the NFL Alumni’s Offensive Lineman of the Year. No. 63 is no longer in circulation, and after a six-year wait (including three straight years as a finalist), he finally received the credit he deserved and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2012.
No. 25: Ernie Staunter (No. 70)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 1969; Staunter is the only Steeler to offically have his No. retired
Position: Defensive Tackle
Years with Steelers: 1950-1963
Signature Moment: The only Steeler ever to have his No. officially retired, leading the Steelers to their greatest success in franchise history to date
Legacy: He was undersized (6’1”, 235) even for his day but was one of the league’s best defensive tackles. He only missed six games in his whole career and was part of the early 1960s Steelers teams that were better than many people realize.
Ernie Staunter was the best player in the history of the Steelers franchise and the leader of a team that began to contend in the late 1950s under coach Buddy Parker. With teammates Buddy Dial, Eugene Lipscomb and Hall of Famers Jack Butler, John Henry Johnson and Bobby Layne, the 1962 Steelers put together the best season in franchise history (9-5).
The following year, Layne retired, and Lipscomb died of a heroin overdose—but the Steelers still managed to contend. The Steelers needed to win the season finale of 1963, and they would have played for the NFL championship.
Unfortunately, it what was the final game of his career; the Steelers were not able to handle the pressure (in particular QB Ed Brown was horrendous), and the Steelers missed their greatest chance to play for the NFL Championship. Following that loss and Staunter's retirement, the Steelers were the worst team in football the rest of the decade—directly showing how important he was to the Steelers success.
No. 24: Lynn Swann (No. 88)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 2001; The numbers do not tell the story of the greatness of Swann.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years with Steelers: 1974-1982
Signature Moment: Super Bowl X; three of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history
Legacy: Swann is the receiver most associated with the Steelers dynasty years, making the most acrobatic catches the history of the NFL. Of the three greatest WRs in the history of the team, Swann enters the countdown before the others mainly because his career was shortened due to injuries, and his statistical production (career receptions and yardage) were modest even by the standards of the era.
The reality is that when evaluating Swann you measure QUALITY over QUANTITY. The emergence of Swann as a dominant receiver was a major catalyst for the Steelers; Terry Bradshaw finally broke out as an elite NFL QB when Swann became his primary receiving option. Their first major success eliminated the Raiders in the 1974 AFC Championship with a TD pass in the fourth quarter, continued through 1975 as the Steelers became the NFL’s best team (Bradshaw and Swann both made the Pro Bowl, Swann caught 11 of Bradshaw’s 18 TD passes) and into the Super Bowl where Swann put on an unforgettable performance to win the Super Bowl X MVP.
The amazing catches that Swann pulled in during his career more than makes up for his relatively low career totals as no other WR could match the level of what Swann did.
No. 23: Mike Webster (No. 52)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 1997; Webster was a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary Team.
Years with Steelers: 1974-1988
Signature Moment: With Terry Bradshaw, the best and most well-known center-QB in history, seeing Webster snap to Bradshaw and protect—not a single play per se, but his signature.
Legacy: He still holds the consecutive games-played stretch with the Steelers at 150, and for many younger fans, one of the few Dynasty players they’ve ever seen. For an idea of how long he was able to maintain his level of excellence, he was named NFL All Decade team for two different decades.
Joe Greene remarked on how good he became, that by his fourth season, no one on the Steel Curtain front four could beat him. Webster has the most tragic ending of anyone on the list, as poor investments and bad financial advisors stole money from him and forced him to extend his playing career.
Injuries to his head led to neurological issues such as dementia and amnesia later in his life, and Mike’s problems prevented him from accepting help. He died in 2002 at age 50.
No. 22: John Stallworth (No. 82)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 2002; 1984 Comeback Player of the Year
Position: Wide Receiver
Years with Steelers: 1974-1987
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XIV; Spectacular over the shoulder catch for 74-yard TD to take the lead and a second one that put the game away.
Legacy: He was less celebrated than his teammate Lynn Swann, far quieter, but every bit as talented. If Stallworth played in today’s game, he would dominate it like a Randy Moss, except he would have done it with class. While during the early part of his career, Swann was considered the Steelers “main” WR, by the 1978 season, there was no denying that Stallworth was his equal, making them the most dynamic WR tandem the game has, and possibly will, ever see.
Stallworth’s best talent was his ability after the catch, making DBs miss the tackle and then running like greased lightening. He was tall enough to catch over any DB yet agile enough to get open. Stallworth moves ahead of his teammate Swann on the countdown because of his 80s success and helping the Steelers reach the 1984 AFC Championship Game—the last run of an era.
His talents were able to be enjoyed by a younger generation of fans that did not get to see Swann as he played longer, and for a long time, owned every Steeler receiving record.
No. 21: Myron Cope
1929-2008: RIP Myron, wish you could have seen Super Bowl XLIII
Position: Color Commentary
Years with Steelers: 1970-2005
Signature Moment/Achievement: Creating the Terrible Towel
Legacy: It speaks volumes on a list consisting of members of the most dominant franchise of the Modern NFL, going on 45 years, that a color commentator could mean so much to the tradition and history of a franchise.
Myron Cope was more than a color commentator, he brought so much more to the table, including catch phrases, nicknames for players, Yiddish expressions and a reverberating level of excitement to just listen to the games—all done with a nasally Western Pennsylvanian accent that the locals love. But his greatest contribution and invention was the Terrible Towel, which has become the best-known fan symbol of any team (pro or college), has been to the peak of Mt. Everest, on the International Space Station and even Saturday Night Live—all while being a symbol of the Steelers and Pittsburgh.
Opposing fans try to mock the towel, then turn around and try to employ their own embarrassing and cheap imitation of it (Cleveland Browns' The Dirty Brown Towel) and opposing players try to mock it as well, leaving with more than coincidental bad karma.
- In 2005, Cincinnati WR TJ Houshmandzadeh wiped his shoes with it after beating the Steelers—the Bengals were ousted by the Steelers the next time they met in the playoffs and TJH has never been in the playoff since
- In 1994, Browns RB Earnest Byner stepped on the Towel starting an argument between players prior the AFC Divisional playoff game—the Browns were hammered 29-9 and were out of Cleveland a year later
- In 2008, Baltimore WR Derrick Mason stomped on the Towel prior to the MNF game—the Ravens were swept in three games including the AFC Championship Game; in 2008, Tennessee RB and LB Lendale White and Keith Bullock mockingly stomped and danced on the Towel after beating Pittsburgh in Week 16—the Titans proceeded to lose eight consecutive games; the losses included an '08 divisional playoff game and their '09 Week 1 game against the Steelers, 13-10 finishing with losing 59-0 to the Patriots (the two players sent an autographed Towel to the special needs school that the towel supports with an apology, and the team went on to win five straight), but both White and Bullock were released after the '08 season.
The power of the Towel, the tradition of it and its impact on the fans, Steelers and City of Pittsburgh will forever be felt by the great Myron Cope.
No. 20: Bill Nunn
Bill Nunn was the secret to the Steelers' 1970s draft success.
Years with Steelers: 1969-1987; part time in 1967 and since 1987
Signature Moment/Achievement: Outsmarting other scouts and “discovering” John Stallworth.
Legacy: Here comes the question—who?
For those Steelers fans who are young and not familiar with whom Nunn is, it’s time you knew. Perhaps only Chuck Noll had a greater impact on building the Steelers Dynasty in the 1970s. Nunn was a black scout who dealt with a lot of racism in the 60s, and because of Art Rooney’s anti-racial nature, he joined the Steelers full time.
The Steelers joined forces with other NFL teams to form BLESTO (acronym for each of the teams that were a part) that scouted college players in the '60s and '70s. It was a completely different time then when it came to scouting, whereas today due to technology and the money involved, everyone has the same information about every player from which they can make a selection.
But in that era, information was not as readily available and Nunn proved to be a huge asset, in particular when going to the small, black colleges in the south that had phenomenal talent that other teams did not know about due to getting no exposure.
Eleven players from the Super Bowl IX team were from all black colleges that went completely under the radar, including WR John Stallworth, SS Donnie Shell, G Sam Davis, DT Ernie Holmes, FS Glen Edwards, QB Joe Gilliam, CB Mel Blount and DE L.C. Greenwood. When scouting Stallworth, it was a rainy and muddy track that resulted in an unimpressive workout. Nunn feigned being ill to the other BLESTO scouts to secretly stay behind for the sole purpose of seeing Stallworth on a dry track.
He then manipulated the college to send its only reel of his college highlights to come to Pittsburgh (where it was “supposed” to be sent on to other teams). Noll was so impressed with Stallworth that he wanted to take him with No. 1 pick, but Nunn convinced him to take Swann, because he knew that no one else knew about Stallworth and he would be there later. As impressive as that was, it wasn’t even the find that Nunn stated hew was most proud of. As Chuck Noll was hired the day before the draft in 1969, he depended heavily on the opinion of Nunn.
The player with whom Nunn took the most pride in discovering was L.C. Greenwood in Round No. 11. In fact, it was on Nunn’s watch that all four members of the Steel Curtain, the defensive line that originally earned the nickname, were discovered and drafted. It truly was Nunn’s penchant of finding the diamonds in the rough and was such an integral part of building the dynasty that he deserves his rightful place in Steeler history.
No. 19: Greg Lloyd (No. 95)
Llyod brought the intimidation factor back to the Steelers in the 1990s.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1987-1997
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1995 AFC Championship: Lloyd was the team's inspirational leader who drove them to that win. After a 3-4 start, the Steelers rattled off eight wins in a row to finish 11-5 en route to Super Bowl XXX.
Legacy: Lloyd was the man who “wasn’t hired for his disposition” and was the unquestioned leader of the 1990s Steelers Blitzburgh era.
Whereas Jack Ham was a better OLB for his era, Lloyd was the face of the new generation of Steeler Nation and brought back the tradition of nastiness from a linebacker not seen by Steeler fans since Jack Lambert was in his prime. He was the most feared player in the league, even Jim Harbaugh stated he “wasn't afraid of anything until he played against Greg Lloyd.”
Lloyd was a ferocious hitter and a great pass-rusher as well as a team player, deferring the main pass-rushing responsibilities to fellow linebacker Kevin Greene. Although immensely popular with the fans, he had an antagonistic relationship with the media, which cost him votes and kept him from being on the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team—even though fellow Steeler LBs Levon Kirkland and Kevin Greene (and even ex-Steeler Hardy Nickerson) were—while Lloyd was only one of them named first team All Pro five times.
A knee injury in 1996 followed by a Staph infection the following year brought a premature end to Lloyd’s career, and he will likely never receive the national recognition he deserves. Lloyd was absolutely a Hall of Fame LB and ranks with Lambert, Ham and Harrison as best in team history.
His No. 95 is not out of circulation, but when Joey Porter inherited it for the preseason in 1999, he quickly changed it to No. 55—in part to establish his own identity, but also because No. 95 in Pittsburgh IS Greg Lloyd and no one else.
No. 18: James Harrison (No. 92)
Defensive MVP 2008; Harrison set a team record with 16 sacks and is responsible for the greatest defensive play in Steelers history.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 2004-present
Signature Moment: 100-yard Interception return for TD with no time on the clock in Super Bowl XLIII
Legacy: It’s a testament that Harrison makes this countdown, considering he’s had only three years of significantly contributing to the team. He actually began his career on the Steelers in 2002—on the practice squad—and only was picked back up again by the team in 2004 after Clark Haggans injured his hand weightlifting in the offseason.
What James Harrison has done since assuming the position from Joey Porter in 2007 is nothing short of amazing; he had in one game what some would consider a career against the Ravens on MNF in 2007 (nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, one INT, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery), then broke the 23-year team record of sacks in a season (16 in 2008). He was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and back-to-back team MVPs in '07 and '08.
Away from statistics, he is mean, intimidating, silent and fearless. He brings back memories of “Old-School” players and is everything that Steelers linebackers have been about—after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII and the rest of the team was celebrating, Harrison simply sat and watched. In his mind, it was simply “mission accomplished, let’s get started on doing it again.”
No. 17: Kevin Colbert
Colbert is the best drafting GM in the NFL—11/11 on first-round picks.
Position: Director of Football Operations/general manager
Years with Steelers: 2000-present
Signature Moment: 2003 draft day; moving up 11 spots to select Troy Polamalu/winning three AFC championships and two Super Bowls in the 2000s as a result of great first-round drafting
Legacy: Kevin Colbert was brought in to replace Tom Donahoe as Director of Football Operations in 2000 due to the very messy feud that was occurring between then head coach Bill Cowher and Donahoe.
Colbert had some very large shoes to fill given the success that Donahoe had, but Colbert proved to be more than up to the challenge. Colbert immediately changed the Steelers draft-day strategy—being far more active with regards to making trades, some of which included: trading down in 2001 in the first round and down in the second to acquire Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell, trading up in 2006 to acquire Santonio Holmes, and the best move during his tenure, for the first time in team history, moving up in the draft to select Troy Polamalu.
As of May 2012, 10 of his 13 first-round picks are still with the team. Exceptions are Kendall Simmons (retired due to injuries and illness), Santonio Holmes (traded but won Super Bowl XLIII MVP) and Plaxico Burress (caught game winning TD for Giants to beat Patriots in Super Bowl XLII—that’s got to count for something too).
Prior to the 2010 season, many pundits saw the Steelers as a team in decline due to missing the playoffs in 2009, the suspension of Roethlisberger and the trade of Holmes. The Steelers did not decline and instead won the AFC—Colbert used the trade of Holmes to acquire Antonio Brown and drafted Maurkice Pouncey, both of which have been Pro Bowlers.
In 2011, Colbert was officially named the Steelers general manager (previously he was the Director of Football Operations) and the 2012 Steelers draft is being heralded as one of the best (in particular the effort to re-vamp the OL) as the team transitions into a new era.
Those who doubt the Steelers' future should take a longer look at the success of Colbert, who has not only been one of the league’s best, but also is remarkable in having very little ego involved.
No. 16: Rod Woodson (No. 26)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 2009; Woodson was the Defensive MVP in 1993 and named to the 75th Anniversary Team (while still active player).
Years with Steelers: 1987-1996
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1993 Defensive Player of the Year—coming back in the same season from a torn ACL to play in the Super Bowl
Legacy: Woodson was to the Steelers of the 1990s what “Mean” Joe Greene was to the Steelers of the 1970s—the cornerstone of the “Blitzburgh” era that brought a new wave of success to Steeler Nation as he came to the Steelers at the end of an old era and the beginning of the new one.
The game has never seen before, nor seen since, a cornerback with the complete game Woodson had; he was a shutdown corner who was physical enough to play press coverage, athletic enough to play man-to-man and instinctive enough to play zone, had great hands, had the big-play ability to turn an INT into a pick-six, had a safety-like ability to tackle/provide support to stopping the run and he could blitz (finished second on team by a .5 sack in 1992)—doing so while in an era that gave WRs the advantage yet was dominant in all phases of the game.
It was one of Dan Rooney’s greatest regrets that he didn’t get a deal done with Woodson to keep him a Steeler his whole career, despite his incredible talent. It was Tom Donahoe’s refusal to re-sign Woodson in 1999 (when asked about a possible Woodson return, Donahoe remarked “We (Steelers) aren’t the Salvation Army.”
Woodson’s all-time Steelers impact drops him on the list—he would have been top 10 if he played his entire career as a Steeler, and it’s my own opinion that the only better individual Steelers player was Joe Greene; he was that good. He was a bit nomadic at the end of his career, playing with several teams, including two that reached the Super Bowl, winning a ring with the 2000 Ravens as well as several more Pro Bowl honors.
Yet despite that success, Woodson himself considers himself a member of the Black and Gold first and foremost. He will always be a Steeler.
No. 15: Mel Blount (No. 47)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 1989; Blount was named the 1975 Defensive Player of the Year and had 57 career INTs.
Years with Steelers: 1970-1983
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XIII; Intercepting Staubach on a drive late in the first half and Cowboys in scoring position (Bradshaw did a two-minute drive to take the lead) and Super Bowl IX; picking off Tarkenton in the end zone, ending the Vikings' deepest penetration of the day.
Legacy: Mel Blount has a legacy more unique than any player in team history, for even though No. 47 has secured his place in Steelers lore; he is, perhaps, unparalleled in the way he changed the game and unrivaled with his impact on how the game of professional football is played to this day.
Mel Blount was so dominant, the NFL literally changed the rules of the game to adjust to his tactics and how he played. Today, wide receivers push off constantly and get away with it (a fact Seahawk fans still complain about as they feel that their WR should have been allowed to commit offensive P.I.).
In the cases of some WRs (Terrell Owens and Michael Irvin), they make a career out of it. But no WR could manhandle Blount, who was big and physical and fast. Blount was successful both before and after the rules change, was the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain secondary and is the Steelers all-time leader in interceptions.
No. 14: Dick LeBeau
Hall of Fame Inductee in 2010; LeBeau is the inventor of Zone Blitz.
Position: Defensive Coordinator
Years with Steelers: 1992-1996; 2004-present
Signature Moment/Achievement: Reaching four Super Bowls—winning two on the strength of the 3-4 “Zone Blitz” that LeBeau invented.
Legacy: It’s a near impossible task to innovate a completely new design for either an offense or a defense in a league that has been around for over 75 years, but that's exactly what Dick LeBeau accomplished.
When the NFL changed the rules of the passing game, traditional defensive styles began to exposed and ill-equipped to defend against the new offensive strategies that evolved, in particular the “West Coast” offense.
LeBeau and his 3-4 “Zone Blitz” was one of the first defenses that was effective against the new offensive style—the earliest version of it was implemented when the Bengals nearly upset the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.
When LeBeau came to Pittsburgh, he was hired as the defensive backs coach but was the mastermind behind the “Blitzburgh” defense which has defined this generation of Steelers defense with success of the players playing his system:
- three Defensive MVPs: Woodson 1993, Harrison 2008, Polamalu 2010
- 16 players totaling 49 Pro Bowl Pro Bowl selections
- 11 players totaling 21 first team All-Pro selections
- five times No. 1 overall defense in yards, four times No. 1 in points
- four Super Bowl appearances
- two Super Bowl wins
Although he technically went into the Hall of Fame in 2010 as a player, I doubt you’ll find a single HoF voter who did not take into account what LeBeau accomplished as a coach—and he is where he belongs as a result—in Canton with the rest of the legends of Pro Football.
No. 13: Jack Ham (No. 59)
Hall of Fame Inductee in 1988; Ham is the greatest 4-3 OLB in NFL history.
Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1971-1982
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1974 AFC Championship Game; The game was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter when Ham intercepted a Stabler pass and brought it back 19 yards to the 9-yard line. The play set up Bradshaw’s six-yard TD pass which was the go-ahead score in the Steelers 24-13 AFC Championship Game win—the first championship of any kind won by the Steelers.
Legacy: The position of outside linebacker has evolved since Jack Ham played it; this is extremely evident in Pittsburgh where OLBs specialize in rushing the passer. The way that Ham played OLB was different than the 3-4 OLB of the Steelers today.
Ham played a 4-3 defense that was primarily in a Cover 2 scheme, and Ham’s responsibility was in playing the flat, containing the outside run and defending against the pass. Simply put, no one in the history of the game did it as well as Jack Ham.
Although not as outspoken or dynamic as more celebrated teammate Jack Lambert, he was a starter from the first game he played and is one of only four Steelers named first-team All-Pro at least six times.
Chuck Noll stated that he “was the fastest Steeler for the first 10 yards” and was never fooled by an opponent or caught out of position. To sum it up, Ham played the game the way it's “supposed” to be played—at the highest level in both talent and with class.
No. 12: Hines Ward (No. 86)
SB XL MVP; NFL All-Time: No. 8 in receptions, No. 18 in receiving yards, No. 3 for consecutive games with a catch, No. 2 in postseason receptions/yards.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years with Steelers: 1998-2011
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XL MVP; catching the game-clinching TD pass in the fourth quarter.
Legacy: Ward owns virtually every single Steelers receiving record and continues to go strong even as he is entering the twilight of his career. The “Jack Lambert” of WRs, he’s unquestionably the most physical WR of the modern era of the NFL, if not its entire history.
The NFL even put in a rule change because of how hard he hit DBs AND LBs. While it can go on as an endless source of debate as to who is the best WR in team history when comparing Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to Ward, and while there are no “wrong answers” when you argue for who is the best, there is no question that both Swann and Stallworth were physically more gifted.
However, when it comes to what each meant to the team, Ward stands out. He was second only to Jerome Bettis on the offensive side of the ball in terms of leadership, respect and representation of the team in the 2000s, and he did so when Jerome was at the end of his career and Ben Roethlisberger was just beginning.
Prior to Super Bowl XL, Bill Cowher was asked “who was the offensive player he most expected to have a big game” and he immediately responded “Hines Ward.” Ward ranks eighth in NFL history with 1,000 receptions and 18th all time with 12,083 receiving yards.
He also has the third-longest streak in history of consecutive games with a reception (186) and is second only to Jerry Rice in total number of postseason receptions (88) and postseason receiving yards (1,181).
It took Swann and Stallworth over 15 years to finally be inducted into Canton. Although Ward won’t go first ballot, and although there is a debate over Ward’s merits for the Hall of Fame, it’s mostly due to the logjam at WR ahead of him that will eventually sort itself out.
His retirement was the second-most significant retirement of a Steelers player in the last 25 years, with only Jerome Bettis meaning more to the fans. Hines is a very special WR and one that embodied the spirit of the Steelers history—there will never be another one like him.
No. 11: Bill Cowher
From 1992-2006, no team won more games than Cowher's Steelers.
Position: Head Coach
Years with Steelers: 1992-2006
Signature Moment/Achievement: Handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney after winning Super Bowl XL/sharing a hug with his wife and daughters after the win.
Legacy: Bill Cowher was one of the most successful coaches in football, although critics are quick to point out his 1-4 record in the AFC Championship game at home. In Cowher’s defense, no team won more games in the NFL during his tenure and he did most of it without an elite QB.
Look at Bill Belichick before Tom Brady and Mike Shanahan after John Elway and their lack of success. In addition, three of Cowher’s AFC Championship game losses came to teams (Broncos & Patriots) that were caught circumventing the rules.
When Cowher finally landed a franchise QB in 2004 (Ben Roethlisberger), the Steelers went 15-1 and won the Super Bowl the following year.
The post-dynasty years, in particular 1985-1991, saw the Steelers mired in mediocrity and irrelevant in terms of the NFL.
But from the first moment he became head coach, when he declared the 1992 Steelers had no apparent weakness, to the first game against the favored Oilers when he called a fake punt that turned the tide of a 14-3 game and rode the momentum of that game to an AFC Central Championship, calling a daring onside kick to get his team back into the game in Super Bowl XXX...
...to being the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl, Cowher’s infectious energy re-invented and re-vitalized the spirit of Steeler Nation. “Cowher Power” got the old-timers to break their old yellow Terrible Towels out of storage and the young guns to drive to the store to buy their first shiny gold “Myron Copes Official Terrible Towel.”
Perhaps there are those who will never get past the AFC Championship game losses—but imagine if Cowher had a true elite QB with those teams in the 1990s: The Steelers would have more than six Lombardi Trophies.
No. 10: Troy Polamalu (No. 43)
2010 Defensive Player of the Year; a human highlight reel of exceptional plays including the game-winning pick-6 in 2008 AFC Championship/
Years with Steelers: 2003-the present
Signature Moment/Achievement: 2008 AFC Championship: Baltimore had the ball late in the game and the Steelers holding onto a narrow two-point lead; Polamalu picked off a Joe Flacco pass and took it back 43 yards for the TD and the Steelers' seventh AFC Championship.
Legacy: Along with Ed Reed of the Ravens, Polamalu has changed the dynamics of and revolutionized the safety position in the same way that Lawrence Taylor did in the 1980s for the OLB position.
He’s the first player the Steelers ever traded up in the draft to acquire and it has paid off. “The Tasmanian Devil” is constantly making big plays all over the field, has a innate ability to anticipate what is going to happen before it does, can come out of nowhere to make a tackle and can impact the game in almost every way—whether it be a pick-6, a blitz to sack the QB or a strip of the ball carrier flying across the field.
His abilities make the teammates around him better; the very defense itself is elite by adding his presence. When the Steelers struggled in 2009 without Troy, they missed the playoffs by one game. In 2010, Troy made his presence felt immediately, coming up with interceptions that were crucial in the early games without Ben Roethlisberger. Polamalu found ways to make key plays that were the difference in games all year long, earning him the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year.
Although he injured his Achilles during a pick-6 vs. the Bengals and wasn’t the same player the rest of the year (it was very evident during the 2010 playoffs and Super Bowl), he still showed how special and dominant a player he is. He's been the best player on a defense that since 2000 has been in the top 10 every year (12 consecutive years). Troy has been there for nine of them.
No. 9: “The Bus” Jerome Bettis (No. 36)
No. 6 all time in rushing—the greatest.
Position: Running Back
Years with Steelers: 1996-2005
Signature Moment/Achievement: me winning streak that ultimately led to Jerome announcing his retirement holding the Lombardi Trophy—the greatest retirement moment in franchise history.
Legacy: When Bam Morris was coming off an impressive Super Bowl XXX performance, it looked like he was going to fully succeed Barry Foster as the Steelers' primary RB.
However, he would run afoul of the law and Jerome Bettis was brought in via a trade from the Rams when the new coaching staff of the team thought he was finished. Bettis came to the Steelers and it was a match made in heaven.
Undoubtedly the best “big” RB in NFL history, Jerome Bettis was every bit as nimble and fleet afoot as he was able to run someone over—which is one of the reasons he lasted as long as he did. He seldom took major hits as he could side-step defenders, but when it was time to run someone over, he did.
One can only wonder how it would have been different if Bettis played on the 1995 team, and it was on the strength of his legs that he ran the Steelers into three AFC Championship games in '97, '01 and '04—only to be denied the Super Bowl appearances by terrible QB play, injuries, fluke plays and the Patriots cheating not once but twice.
The most surprising of which was the 2004 Steelers, as Duce Staley was brought in to carry the load and was being successful (830 yards) until injuries forced Bettis into the lineup when many thought Bettis was washed up.
Bettis responded with nearly 1,000 yards despite starting only six games. “The Bus” is arguably the best and most popular Steelers player post-dynasty—not just with the fans but with the players, as the team literally rallied their memorable and unprecedented 2005 Super Bowl run around “the Bus.”
Although Franco Harris remained the team’s all-time leader in rushing, because of the three years in St. Louis Bettis finished his career as the No. 5 all-time leading rusher. With his first and add to the Steelers “Wing” in the Hall of Fame.
No. 8: Jack Lambert (No. 58)
Hall of Fame inductee,1990; 1976 Defensive Player of the Year, 75th anniversary team.
Position: Middle Linebacker
Years with Steelers: 1974-1984
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1976 Defensive Player of the Year, inspirational leader of the 1976 defensive run and Super Bowl X for taunting S Cliff Harris.
Legacy: Lambert came into the league at the same size as a current-day WR, 6’4” and 210 lbs, and was quickly thought to be a bust by the local media just because he was too small.
Even Joe Greene stated he “didn’t pass the eye test.” It didn’t take long for the kid they took a chance on to become the meanest LB in the NFL. It’s not as if the Steelers did not have a MLB before him; incumbent starter Henry Davis was a Pro Bowler, but after he was hurt, Lambert took the position over, went on to win the Rookie of the Year and tied the team record with being named All-Pro six times.
When Cowboys safety Cliff Harris tried to mock injured kicker Roy Gerela for missing a FG, Lambert immediately taught him a lesson, throwing him to the ground. From that moment, the Steelers D was inspired by Lambert and dominated the rest of the game. In 1976, after a 1-4 start, Lambert held a players-only meeting and assumed the leadership role of the team in the absence of injured teammate Joe Greene.
He is among the toughest, if not the toughest player of all time, served as the team's enforcer his whole career and one of the most intimidating players of all time. In his first game as a pro, John Elway would be knocked out of the game by Lambert and would later state how intimidated he was.
Lambert has set the standard by which all Steelers linebackers will forever be measured by, both for on-the-field play and intimidation factor. And while the tradition has been upheld by many in both aspects, No. 58 will always be No. 1.
No. 7: Franco Harris (No. 32)
Hall of Fame inductee, 1990; retired No. 3 all-time rushing; the playmaker of the greatest play in NFL history: The Immaculate Reception.
Years with Steelers: 1972-1983
Signature Moment/Achievement: The Immaculate Reception, winning 1972 Rookie of the Year; the Steelers won their first championship of any kind (AFC Central) with the arrival of Franco.
Legacy: Prior to Franco being drafted, the Steelers had one postseason appearance in 38 previous seasons and no postseason victories. It didn’t take long for him to impact the team, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in the Steelers' first playoff game since 1947.
He devastated the still-crying Oakland Raiders by making the Immaculate Reception and giving the Steelers their first-ever playoff win. It would not be the last as the Steelers ran off eight straight playoff appearances and four Super Bowls. Harris had his critics, most notably Jim Brown, who claimed he ran out of bounds to avoid contact whereas Brown would run over or through defensive players during his day.
Brown—fearful of Harris breaking his record and extremely biased, being from the Steelers rival Cleveland Browns—conveniently left out that in his day, that the DLs and LBs he faced were not even remotely as strong or big (DLs often ranged from only 220-240 lbs) as Harris went against. Brown himself quit on his team to fail in movies when his presence could have gotten the Browns into one of the early Super Bowls.
Harris, on the other hand, became synonymous with winning, as he was the cog that ran the Steelers' championship wheel. He set a record with 158 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX, winning the game MVP, and maintains the records for most career rushing yards (354) in Super Bowl history (as well as tied for most rushing TDs with four).
Harris did have a tendency to get injured, which ultimately prevented him from breaking Jim Brown’s record for rushing yards, and in 1976 kept the Steelers from a third consecutive championship—but that really is the only blemish on his stellar career.
Although it did not end in anywhere near the fashion that the career of Jerome Bettis did, as Bettis retired holding his long-sought-after Lombardi Trophy aloft, Harris sat out the beginning of the 1984 season over a contract dispute and was waived by the Steelers…a decision that Dan Rooney would ultimately regret. He even stated that he wished he gave some of his own money to pay Harris simply to have him break Brown’s record and retire a Steeler.
Regardless, the soft-spoken Harris, who came to the team doubting whether or not he could play in the NFL and even early on was questioned if he could by his own teammates, would be the foundation that carried the Steelers offense to its legacy of being the greatest team in history.
No. 6: Ben Roethlisberger (No. 7)
2004 Rookie of the Year, youngest QB to win a Super Bowl, three-time AFC Champion, two-time Super Bowl Champion.
Years with Steelers: 2004-the present
Signature Moment/Achievement: Super Bowl XLIII—leading the Steelers on a 78-yard drive with 2:37 left in the game, capping it off by throwing the game-winning TD pass to Santonio Holmes with 0:34 seconds left.
Legacy: The acquisition of Ben Roethlisberger came about due to a mistake that Dan Rooney did not want to make again. The Steelers were on the verge of selecting Dan Marino in 1983 when Rooney let it slip that he got the idea from sportswriter John Clayton. That statement gave Chuck Noll the leverage to reject that pick and it would haunt Pittsburgh for years.
History almost repeated itself when the QB that Colbert and Cowher wanted (Phillip Rivers) was taken and they began to lean on OT Shawn Andrews. Rooney remembered that mistake and “influenced” it the other way. Roethlisberger became a Steeler.
That decision finally brought in the single element that was missing on five Steelers teams from 1994-2001 that were not only capable of winning a Super Bowl, but becoming a second dynasty. When veteran QB Tommy Maddox was injured in a Week 2 defeat vs. Baltimore, Roethlisberger became the starter (much to the chagrin of some veterans) and the result was a rookie season that will never be duplicated.
He annihilated the previous rookie record of 6-0 to finish the season 13-0 as a starter. He became the fasted QB to start two conference championships, the youngest to win a Super Bowl, the second-youngest to win two Super Bowls and the fastest/youngest QB to win 50 games.
He’s developing a reputation for being at his best in the clutch, with 26 games where he rallied the Steelers to a comeback in the fourth quarter or OT (most famous being the Super Bowl) and one of three QBs in NFL history with three games with a perfect passer rating.
The Steelers made a series of very damaging mistakes in Super Bowl XLV—putting themselves into an early hole too big to dig out of, but the fact that the 2010 Steelers reached the Super Bowl again—when most pundits and experts were putting the team into a decline mode—just lifted Roethlisberger into another category overall.
He has two Super Bowl wins and three appearances, and is entering the best years of his career. The 2011 Steelers were built on the success of Roethlisberger’s passing, and it took a massive amount of injuries to derail them. With the maturity he has shown since the tumultuous 2010 offseason and the talent surrounding him (plus the heavy investment in the OL to protect him), Roethlisberger has a chance to really grow his legacy into something very special.
It’s true that his ranking is coming ahead of many more established Steelers—but make no mistake, without Ben Roethlisberger, there would have been no 15-1 season followed up by three conference championships and two Super Bowls.
It’s highly probable that there are more memorable moments to come.
No. 5: Terry Bradshaw (No. 12)
Hall of Fame inductee, 1989; 1978 NFL MVP; two-time Super Bowl MVP; four-time Super Bowl-winning QB.
Years with Steelers: 1970-1983
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1978 NFL MVP, first player to win back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs and first QB to win four Super Bowls.
Legacy: After 40 years of bad luck, the Steelers caught a huge break when they won a coin toss with the Chicago Bears and with it, the rights to the most coveted No. 1 overall pick at QB the entire decade.
But it didn’t start quickly for Terry Bradshaw, who was erratic and inconsistent to start off his career. The media beat down hard on Terry as did the fans who booed him. He was replaced by Joe Gilliam in 1974 when Gilliam played marvelous through the preseason and Gilliam started the first six games of the season (in fact, he led the team in passing that year).
Bradshaw was sullen and wanted to be traded. But Gilliam wanted to throw more than Noll and he wouldn’t call enough running plays—Gilliam would be benched and Bradshaw got his chance. By the end of the year, it was obvious that Bradshaw was the man to lead the Steelers offense. As he continued to mature as a QB, his amazing talent and extraordinary ability shined through. He had an incredibly strong and accurate arm and there was no throw he couldn’t make.
But what made Terry stand out above all else was how he played big in the biggest games. He threw a clutch TD in the fourth quarter of each Super Bowl and had the best deep-passing arm the NFL has ever seen. By 1978, Bradshaw had matured into the best player in the league, and although he still had a tendency to throw a lot of interceptions, he made far more big plays.
His Steelers career ended ugly with a mishandled elbow injury and a messy divorce from the Steelers and city of Pittsburgh that wouldn’t be reconciled until 2002, but he easily stands as the greatest Steelers QB of all time.
No. 4: “Mean” Joe Greene (Nos. 72, 75)
Hall of Fame inductee, 1987; 1972 & 1974 Defensive Player of the Year; 75th Anniversary team.
Position: Defensive Tackle
Years with Steelers: 1969-1981
Signature Moment/Achievement: 1972 and 1974 NFL Defensive Player of the Year; the cornerstone of not just the Steelers Defense, but the Steelers dynasty. Best player in Steelers history.
Legacy: When Joe Greene was drafted by the Steelers in 1969, to put it mildly, he was angry. He didn’t want to go to Pittsburgh, a team that was always losing while Greene was a competitive winner. What Greene did not know, what no one knew—including the Pittsburgh newspapers who put the headline out of “Who’s Joe Greene?” after he was drafted—was that he would stand as the most important player to ever wear a Steelers uniform.
When he first signed, the veteran offensive linemen were ready to teach the young Greene his place in the NFL, particularly long-time starter Ray Mansfield, but Greene absolutely destroyed him, embarrassed the OL and raised the eyebrows of everyone in the process. Even though he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, the Steelers won only one game in his rookie season, which didn’t sit well with Greene.
In his early years, he was just as uncontrollable as unblockable. In one game vs. Philadelphia he threw the ball into the stands, and on another occasion he intimidated a ref so much that he asked team captain Andy Russell to talk to him, and Russell flatly said “I don’t think so!”
Another story goes that he challenged Dick Butkus to a fight, which Butkus refused. What Greene did was show the veterans and teammates that losing was not acceptable, and Chuck Noll allowed him to roll his emotions with in a positive way. By the time the Steelers started to become dominant, not even double-teaming him stopped him; opponents had to triple-team him. All that accomplished was that the increased attention made his fellow Steel Curtain teammates all the more unstoppable.
By his first time winning the Defensive Player of the Year in 1972, it was the first time L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes flanked him together on the line. By his second Defensive MVP in 1974 where Greene began using the “stunt 4-3” technique that was unstoppable, that foursome would become the best front 4 in NFL history and earned the original nickname for the Steel Curtain.
By the end of the decade, “Mean” Joe had mellowed out and no longer was as vicious and nasty on the field, but he was still earning Pro Bowl honors every year. By the end of his career in 1981, the Steelers never replaced his position, switching to the 3-4 and making him the last player to play DT for the Steelers.
Joe Greene had been the player that would forever be seen as the turning point of the franchise—the one that would become the standard by which all would be judged.
No. 3: Chuck Noll
Hall of Fame inductee, 1993; only coach to win four Super Bowls; 193 wins.
Position: Head Coach
Years with Steelers: 1969-1991
Signature Moment/Achievement: Only coach to win four Super Bowls; built the greatest team and dynasty in NFL history from a franchise that had never won a playoff game.
Legacy: Chuck Noll spent over 20 years learning from Hall of Fame coaches, as a player under Paul Brown and as an assistant coach under Sid Gilman and Don Shula, so it should come as no surprise that he was ready to be a head coach when he was hired by Dan Rooney in 1969.
Noll brought with him an approach that cynical veterans first did not take seriously, but soon learned why Noll would forever become known as “The Emperor.” In his first team meeting, those cynical veterans learned that Noll meant business. He told the team that he had been reviewing the game films for the past several years to find out why they were losing and what the problem was. He told them, “they weren’t good enough, you’re nice guys, you try hard, but I am going to replace most of you.”
And he went to work drafting the type of player that he knew he could build a winning organization around.
For many years, other franchises used the Steelers as leverage with their players, threatening to trade them to Pittsburgh if they did not straighten out. They would do so, taking draft picks from Pittsburgh to solidify their own rosters. That stopped when Noll took charge. After only two years, and four years before the championships started coming, no less than the great Vince Lombardi took notice, stating "Chuck Noll is building one hell of a football team up in Pittsburgh. I look for the Steelers to be the team of the future. Just remember I said that."
Noll worked with Bill Nunn, finding great athletes from small, southern black schools with hidden gems of talent that went unnoticed by the media of the day. He set a culture of winning, of not being satisfied with a single championship, and to that point upon winning Super Bowl IX, he didn’t even need a second interview. He was already saying in the first one that he felt they hadn’t peaked and didn’t even take a moment to celebrate.
No. 2: “The Chief” Art Rooney
Inducted to the Hall of Fame, 1969; founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and one of the most beloved men in football history.
Position: Owner and Founder, Chairman of the Board
Years with Steelers: 1933-1988
Signature Moment/Achievement: Holding the game ball from Super Bowl IX, presented to him by the team and receiving the Vince Lombardi Trophy from Pete Rozelle for the first time.
Legacy: He owned the team for nearly 40 years and never won a thing, but no one who knew the Chief ever called him a loser. He was the boss, and the team knew it, but the team also knew that he cared about him. He was at every practice—it didn’t matter if it was snowing or raining. He was a gentleman that would help pick up in the locker room after practice, and Rod Woodson even commented on how kind he was when he called to welcome him to the Steelers.
The urban legend is that Rooney bought the Steelers with money he won from the track—which was not true (he did have a huge winning day in 1936, three years after the Steelers were founded). What was true was Rooney's first true love was baseball. That was one reason the Steelers struggled for a long time, as Rooney did not focus enough on the Steelers from a business end and often tried to please everybody (with many taking advantage).
In the late 1950s the Steelers began to experience success under Buddy Parker, but at the same time Dan Rooney began having more influence with the running of the team from a business end. The result was a nasty power struggle between Dan, Art and Parker, eventually leading to Parker quitting and Art gradually learning to entrust Dan with the operation of the team completely.
After doing so, Art simply enjoyed the Steelers as Chairman of the Board while Dan ran the business. The players from those '70s teams truly loved Art Rooney, and upon winning Super Bowl IX, team captain Andy Russell gave the game ball to Art Rooney. Through his heavy glasses, one could see the Chief clearly crying as he held the game ball up to salute the team.
After 40 years, he finally was a winner in football—but he was always a winner in life. We lost the Chief in 1988—for those too young to remember him, he was truly what is great about sports and will always be missed.
No. 1: Dan Rooney
Inducted in Hall of Fame, 2000; most successful franchise in the modern era of the NFL.
Position: Team President, Chairman of the Board, Owner
Years with Steelers: 1962-the present
Signature Moment/Achievement: Dan Rooney is simply the greatest owner in NFL history and the leader of the franchise that has been the league’s most successful for over 40 years.
Legacy: Although it was his father that founded the Steelers and was beloved by the city, it was under Dan Rooney that the Steelers transformed not only into the dynasty team, but to the elite franchise in the NFL.
Dan was not “officially” the President of the Steelers until 1975. His “promotion” came in the form of Art walking into his office and telling him he was giving him the title as Art acknowledged Dan had been running the team for more than a decade anyway—resulting in the Steelers being the most successful team of the “modern NFL” (since the merger):
- Won the most regular-season games (396) and postseason games (33)
- Won the most Division Championships (20)
- Won the most Conference Championships (8)—tied with Dallas
- Have the most winning seasons (31)
- Fielded the most All-Pros (67)
- Have the most Hall of Famers: 14
This has all been accomplished amidst a constantly changing cast of players and evolving rules. Other franchises that have been elite—the 49ers, Raiders, Redskins and Cowboys—have all fallen to mediocrity while the Steelers have at least played in a Super Bowl in every decade since the 1970s.
Dan Rooney hired head coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, as well as personnel men Bill Nunn, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert. Dan had to make a difficult and controversial decision between keeping Director of Football Operations Donahoe or Cowher after their relationship deteriorated beyond repair.
The decision to keep Cowher and hire Colbert turn out to be extremely successful—although initially many thought it was the wrong move. In 2002, Dan transitioned the role of team President to his son Art Rooney II and assumed the role of Chairman of the Board—the same structure that existed in the 1970s with his father. They jointly made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2007, and Art has handled the majority of day-to-day decisions since.
The Steelers have won two of three Super Bowls since, and the current players look to Dan Rooney with the affection that the Steelers of the 1970s did with Art. This is evidenced by the way he worked out the Hines Ward holdout in 2005 and how even after their careers have ended, Farrior, Bettis, Ward and Smith all have praised Dan Rooney.
Not every decision that Dan has made has worked out well; he has made mistakes but has owned up to them. Dan Rooney has regretted the fashion that Franco Harris and Rod Woodson’s tenures with the team ended, resulting in a change in how the Steelers have tried to see through player’s careers.
Another major mistake was in passing on Dan Marino in 1983. When the opportunity came that the Steelers were in position to land another franchise QB, Rooney stepped in and overruled Cowher and Colbert to take Big Ben, which he did not do with Noll in 1983.
While it was his father that brought the Steelers to Pittsburgh, the likelihood is that at some point, even if it was not an original NFL team, Pittsburgh would have found its way into the NFL. Not to diminish the significance of that, but it was under Dan Rooney that the Steelers became more than just another NFL franchise
They became the model which all NFL franchises aspire to be.