Ranking the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame Players
The Pittsburgh Steelers proudly welcomed two more members to their Hall of Fame fraternity on Saturday, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson.
Among the most proficient NFL franchises for featuring Hall of Fame talent, many legendary players have traded Black and Gold jerseys for yellow jackets, bestowed with football's highest honor among the NFL's veritable pantheon of immortals.
While it is an impossible task, curiosity makes many fans ask, "Who is the greatest Steelers Hall of Famer of all time?"
And, as the two most newly enshrined Steelers, where do Butler and Dawson rank among their legendary peers? The following ranking recalls those great players who make the Steel City so proud, from great to greater to greatest.
Keep in mind that only players will be ranked. Besides, everyone already knows "The Chief" would have finished atop the list otherwise, right?
No. 16: Bobby Layne
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The quarterback with the golden arm led the Detroit Lions to three NFL championships, playing the majority of his career in Michigan with head coach Buddy Parker.
Incidentally, Layne had requested that the Steelers not draft him as a rookie, citing his non-desire to play in the archaic single-wing offense opposed to the more modern T-formation, which highlighted the passing game.
After Parker left Detroit, he came to Pittsburgh. Incidentally, philosophical differences between Layne and his new coach inspired Buddy toward the Steel City. Bobby Layne, the newest Pittsburgh Steelers, was the toast of the town.
While fans hoped his strong arm and zany style (think of Favre, circa the late 50s) would lead them to a championship, Layne never did get Art Rooney's lovable losers off the schneid, one of his biggest regrets. However, flashes of the championship quarterback's brilliance and leadership was shone throughout every game, and the 'Burgh did play winning football during his stead behind center.
Though his brightest accomplishments came elsewhere, thus justifying his "Steelers ranking" at the bottom amidst this list, Layne still threw pearls in those final years, peaking with 20 touchdowns and continuing to help engineer the ever-growing popularity of the forward passing game.
No. 15: Bill Dudley
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Many fans of the 70s Steelers cite the coming of Franco Harris as a key turning point in the franchise's fortunes. And, among those loyal fanatics, many are old enough to remember John Henry Johnson power running over NFL defenses.
Few, however, know about Bill Dudley. He was, after all, only the man who helped usher in the first winning season in Steelers history.
Drafted in 1942 to help the fledgling franchise, Dudley led the NFL in rushing with 696 yards on 162 carries. The Steelers finished 7-4, clinching their first winning campaign with a 19-3 win over the Chicago Cardinals.
Common for the day, Dudley served his country during World War II, returning to the Steelers at the completion of his military service in 1945. He spent a season acclimating himself once again to the NFL climate.
It proved beneficial. In a campaign that leaves many to wonder how well the Steelers may have done far prior to the 70s if they had not lost their arguably best player to-date.
In '46, he only:
Led the league in rushing yards (604), interceptions (10), defensive return yards (242) and punt return yards (27 returns for 385 yards). As the NFL leader in four statistical categories, Dudley was honored as league MVP.
Then, he left for Detroit, bumping into a future Steelers player named Bobby Layne on championship Lions teams.
No. 14: John Henry Johnson
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Wrapping up the Steelers who achieved only a small portion of their success in the Steel City is a player who actually found much of his glory in Pittsburgh, John Henry Johnson.
While many will argue vehemently against his 15th ranking, it will make more sense after you progress though the list. When ranking Hall of Famers, inevitably, many legendary players will rank low on a list where the bottom is tops in history!
J.H.J. was a beast, a player in the image of the snarling, physical Steelers defense (even in that day, the team fielded intimidating defenders) but on offense.
He retired as the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history.
Though drafted by the Steelers, Johnson played first in Canada before coming back to the U.S. His early playing days came with a superb crew, the San Francisco 49ers, as a member of the "Million Dollar Backfield" that included four Hall of Fame backs: Johnson himself, fellow back Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenn and the legendary Y.A. Tittle.
After two years being an integral part of the team's success, he went to Detroit, where he won a championship, a seeming prerequisite to joining the Steelers in those years. Win gold with the Lions, and then come to Pittsburgh!
Johnson came to Pittsburgh where he enjoyed the finest seasons of his career. In both 1962 and 1964, he broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier, the first Steeler to achieve that lofty level.
In one of his finest career games, which happened to occur at the twilight of his career, he became only the ninth running back to rush for 200 yards in one game. His 30-carry, 200-yard, three-touchdown effort helped Pittsburgh to defeat the eventual NFL champion 1964 Cleveland Browns by a 23-7 margin.
In that game, the great Jim Brown, one of the prior eight backs to eclipse that 200-yard benchmark, was held to 54 yards.
No. 13: Lynn Swann
Nobody could refute the grace and "gift of grab" that Lynn Swann possessed, an jaw-dropping display of body control and sure-handedness that elevated him to the upper-elite at the most crucial moments.
While his receiving peer had his own share of big-game moments, including uncanny Super Bowl catches, there are a trio of championship game snags that elevate Swann from fine receiver to Hall of Famer, in spite of his career numbers. (Cue the hate mail?)
336 catches. 5,462 yards. 51 touchdowns.
His peer, John Stallworth, broke the team receiving records (nay, shattered), putting in a yeoman's work over the course of 14 NFL seasons.
Conversely, Swann's numbers may not be as awe-inspiring as many fans choose to remember, but his greatest plays were so vividly awe-inspiring that nobody could ever forget!
Swann, in his own style, transcended the simple act of catching a football, turning it into a feat of physics mastery!
From levitating to leaping, his style was truly poetry in motion, a visual artform that almost seemed to contrast to the imposing, physical style of those 70s Steelers (not an insult, by the way!). Still, for anyone confusing Swann for a softy, I can assure that any of the defensive backs victimized by Swann view him as nothing less than a force of nature.
In America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions, his teammate Mike Wagner clears the air about "Swanny," noting that while many view him as a finesse receiver, that he was in fact a "prize fighter" willing to stick his nose into the middle of the fight for his football team.
He amassed 336 career receptions, gaining 5,462 yards and 51 touchdowns. Also, many forget his special teams contributions with 739 punt-return yards and a touchdown.
No. 12: Jack Butler
Jack Butler's youthful days were used in reading a quarterback's eyes, picking off opposing passers and heckling the up-and-coming passing age.
Butler was an excellent corner, blanketing receivers and known as one of the first defensive backs to cue in on the eyes of opposing passers. This translated into his becoming one of the most prolific interceptors in NFL history.
By 1953, he recorded nine picks, including four in one game against the Washington Redskins (still tied for the NFL record). Late in his career, he snagged 19 passes in two seasons from 1958-59.
Like Chris Berman says in the video above, "They only played 12 games then."
Yet, beyond the turnovers, Butler was a physically imposing defensive back; as a hitter, think Ryan Clark, Hall of Fame version.
Butler was named to four straight Pro Bowls from 1956–1959. He had 52 interceptions during his career for 865 yards. At the time of his retirement, Jack ranked second in career interceptions, second only to fellow Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell.
A member of the Steelers' 75th anniversary team, Butler's establishment in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was long overdue.
No. 11: Dermontti Dawson
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How spoiled is a franchise that transitions from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson?
Seriously...that's the equivalent of going right from Johnny Unitas and straight to Peyton Manning or leapfrogging from Sayers to Payton.
The Steelers are blessed to have fielded a litany of legends at the center position, and the two most keystone figures of the offensive lines keystone position are Dawson and Webster (later on the list).
Interestingly, Dawson's first start came in a 51-0 home loss to the Cleveland Browns in 1989. One of his final games at the center of the line came in a demolition of the Browns, a sour 43-0 pasting that welcomed them back to NFL play!
In between that first game and hamstring injuries that snapped his streak of 170 straight starts (second-most in Steelers history), Dawson was named to seven straight Pro Bowls and honored as a six-time All-Pro.
Dawson was nicknamed "Dirt" for his ability to mash defenders into mincemeat and, well...into the ground! However, his gentle nature as a human being was on full display during his Hall of Fame speech, giving credit where it was due to the icon he replaced:
"He taught me to be a true professional whether he knew it or not. I still try be like Mike (Webster)."
No. 10: John Stallworth
While Swann gets all of the reverence and acclaim, Stallworth was the quiet workhorse of the receivers, doing it in his own way that was just a little less style and a bit more substance.
Both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were amazing Hall of Fame talents. However, when it came down to down (or, for that matter, touchdown to touchdown), I give the Alabama kid the advantage over the future politician in the 70's receivers battle.
Stallworth: 537 catches, 8,723 yards, 63 touchdowns
Swann: 336 catches, 5,462 yards, 51 touchdowns.
Stallworth's five additional seasons of work put him over the top of his peer. While many think of Swann as the clear victor regarding postseason clutch plays, Stallworth has his own share of big playoff moments.
In Super Bowl XIII, he caught a record-tying 75-yard touchdown pass, a key moment in what would turn out a narrow 35-31 win over Dallas.
One year later, he enjoyed his finest career moment, sharing the sun with his esteemed peer as a Super Bowl hero. With the Steelers trailing the underdog Rams 19-17 early in the fourth quarter, Chuck Noll called for "60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.
It would become the stuff of Steelers legend. Bradshaw dropped back and threw a strong bomb down the middle to Stallworth, who caught it over the shoulder and beat Rod Perry to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown. He would also make another deep catch during the 14-point fourth quarter in which the Steelers buried their overmatched opponents from the West.
Stallworth holds the NFL record for most consecutive playoff games with a touchdown catch, scoring in eight straight postseason games. Likewise, he ranks among leaders in average yards per catch in the NFL playoffs.
Opposed to an inability to let go of the game, the receiver was productive even late in his career. He led the AFC with a career-high 1,395 yards during the 1984 season, earning the honors of NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Stallworth continued to be a force at receiver into the mid-80s, helping keep the team in the playoff hunt during a solid half-decade of decline after their dynastic prime.
No. 9: Ernie Stautner
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The Pittsburgh Steelers bestowed the greatest team honor upon the finest defensive player of their early history, retiring jersey No. 70 on October 25, 1964.
On September 13, 1969, the NFL followed suit in honoring the legendary lineman, and Ernie Stautner was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Stautner was selected to nine Pro Bowls in 14 NFL seasons, a span of time that saw the bullying tackle miss a mere six games. He also made All-NFL in 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959. He retired third in league history with 23 fumble recoveries, a bruising force more than willing to lower his helmet (those were the times, folks!) to bloody a lip and pop loose a pigskin.
Like Jack Lambert some years later, Stautner showcased that size isn't nearly all that matters. Heart is a far greater prerequisite for imposing one's will on an opponent. At 6'1" and 235 lbs, Stautner was small- even during his era—but he was large in force.
No. 8: Terry Bradshaw
Before I get swarmed by the fiery ire of a million heated and conflicting dispositions, let me first clarify that this ranking does not measure the impact of the players listed. If that were the measurement, Terry Bradshaw would lead any list as the quarterback of four championship teams.
I realize that the quarterback is the most important component of a team, generally. Bradshaw's profound impact on the Steelers' winning ways of the 70s warrant higher ranking, a merit I can't refute. Still, this list isn't based on winning impact.
It's based on Hall of Fame credentials, and it ranks players based on their skill at their position, regardless of that particular positions' overall impact in the grand scheme of the game.
It also accounts for the personality of the player, his historic mark on the game and his relationship and identity as it involves "Steelers football."
The Blonde Bomber was a great quarterback. He's a deserving Hall of Famer. He is truly one of the most underrated gems of the position that gets far too little credit, carrying the burden of a person who can't spell "c-a-t" despite spelling "w-i-n" 107 times, four times over in Super Bowls.
So, what justifies his rank at the eighth spot? Simple.
While he played the most important position on the field for the franchise's best teams ever, he wasn't better at his job than his peers were at their own. And, for many years, he refused to forge a relationship with the city that heralded him, while his own peers said lines like, "you'd better believe I'd be a Pittsburgh Steeler." (Jack Lambert)
Surely, many of you will interpret this ranking as an insult, whereas it should truthfully be deemed a compliment to one of the finest quarterbacks to ever play the game. While his big arm and penchant for heroics in key situations earned him the credentials for a bronze bust (see: the fourth quarter of all four Super Bowl wins in the 70s), many forget his raw athleticism and strength.
In fact, Big "Brad" could have possibly given "Big Ben" a run for his money as it regards his "oak tree" reputation or the inability of a defense to bring the quarterback down.
No. 7: Rod Woodson
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Any classic car connoisseur can tell you that a hot rod is built for speed. The description holds for Rod Woodson.
"Hot Rod" was actually built for just about anything on the football field. If you were to surgically engineer the perfect defensive back, the result would easily be comparable to the incomparable No. 26.
Atop of his special teams prowess, Rod Woodson was a great defender in every facet of the game. Able to come up and play the run with great aplomb, Woodson was a hard-hitting corner with coverage skills to match, finishing his career with 71 interceptions.
During his time in Pittsburgh, a banner hung at Three Rivers Stadium that said "Rod is God."
If the phrase is overstating things, it's only a slight foul. His 11 Pro Bowls (seven in Pittsburgh) and placement onto the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team speak to his lofty status.
Arguably his most enduring moment showcased his heart and desire to compete. After a "season-ending" ACL tear cost him the entire 1995 season, Woodson was told by Coach Cowher that a spot would be left open for the corner in hopes that he could return in the case of a Pittsburgh Super Bowl.
Not only did Woodson return to game action, he deflected an intended pass along the left sideline intended from Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin, one of the game's premiere passing combinations of any era. Woodson got up and pointed to his formerly damaged knee, and Irvin's humbled response and lack of reaction were a showing of respect to a man fully dedicated to his craft.
No. 6: Mike Webster
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Center Mike Webster was the anchor along the Steelers' offensive line for four Super Bowl champions, and his brand of physical play intimidated defenders. Take one good look at those tree-trunk arms, and perhaps, you'll understand just what a block from Webster felt like: a solid punch!
Part of the team's illustrious 1974 draft class, Webster played 177 consecutive games through 1985, truly earning his namesake as "Iron Mike." That's right, Tyson, the Steelers had dibs first!
He won an NFL strongman competition in 1980, evidenced by his tree-trunk arms, massive pythons that the illustrious center flaunted during cold and shine.
Just as big as his biceps was another key muscle: his heart. He served his community well, and he also acted as a team leader. He was offensive captain for nine seasons for the Steelers.
"There never has been and never will be another man as committed and totally dedicated to making himself the very best he could possibly be."
Those words, spoken by Terry Bradshaw upon Webster's death, summarized the great Steeler perfectly. During his induction into the Hall of Fame, Bradshaw honored his friend when he ended his speech by having Webster line up and snap him the pigskin one last time.
No. 5: Franco Harris
When Franco Harris came to Pittsburgh, the Steelers became an instant winner, perennial playoff qualifiers, and well...
And, make no mistake that the 1972 Rookie of the Year, who would effectively cap his fine first season with a little play called "The Immaculate Reception," was arguably the key cog in making the team a winner.
Noll changed the culture. Greene changed the attitude, erasing the apathy over losing. The '74 draft class propelled the team into a championship status.
Yet, it was Franco's arrival that propelled them into being a winner. Plain and simple. How?
Did I mention he was a damn good running back? Just to understate it a bit...
While his name doesn't come up in many conversations regarding the best backs of all time, likely due to an unfair criticism about running out of bounds opposed to gaining extra yards along the sidelines, it should.
In his first season, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry in eclipsing the century mark in rushing yards. It was a mark he would reach eight more times, breaking Jim Brown's record for 1,000-yard rushing seasons. That type of output year after year earned him nine straight Pro Bowl selections.
He retired in reach of Jim Brown's all-time rushing record, falling short with an inglorious end to his career. However, even today—some nearly two decades since his retirement—he ranks 12th in rushing with 12,120 yards and 10th with 91 touchdowns (tied with another Hall of Fame hopeful, Jerome Bettis).
His 101 carries for 354 yards and four touchdowns ranks second among running backs in Super Bowl history. His first Super Bowl was his finest hour, rushing for 158 yards (a game record at the time).
No. 4: Mel Blount
He abused receivers, dominating his position like nobody else to such a severe degree that rules changes were implemented to prevent such sheer overmatching to occur from the cornerback position.
Yes, it is true. Mel Blount was so bluntly bad#@$ that the NFL made the game easier for receivers. Early in his career, many wideouts couldn't even get off the line of scrimmage for being so overwhelmed by Blount's sheer physicality and force of will.
Playing receiver across from Mel was a hapless, helpless and hopeless affair. His raw strength and speed made for an impossible matchup.
It this description seems like an exaggeration, there are many former NFL receivers to testify.
When the rules changed, there were no innuendos about the purpose of the amendments. The new changes were to be forever referred to as the "Mel Blount rule."
The rules changed, but the blunt force Blount continued to dominate his position anyway, his natural skills still conducive to excelling at his God-given talent: defense with a fury!
No. 3: Jack Ham
When a consortium of professional sports writers honor you as the greatest outside linebacker of all time, a class that so happens to include a man by the name of Lawrence Taylor, well...
It would seem you did something right!
While his peers are more widely recognized for conveying the "Steelers image" with their frightening appearance and imposing attitudes, Ham was quietly the greatest defender to even play in the Steel City, a stunning combination of aggression and technical prowess, with neither compromising the other.
His ability to both destroy the run at the line of scrimmage with amazing gap discipline and cover the pass made him a fine two-way linebacker who was still rare in his day.
The legendary linebacker was known for his tremendous quickness, discipline and football intelligence, all facets that resulted in his penchant for big plays at key moment.
In the 1974-75 AFC Championship Game, Ham's critical fourth-quarter interception of a pressured Ken Stabler set up the Steelers' winning points. Pittsburgh prevailed 24-13, ousting the overconfident Raiders and earning their first trip to the Super Bowl.
No. 2: Jack Lambert
In his first NFL start, John Elway was knocked out of the game due to injury. The eventual legend recalled the horror of starting across from Jack Lambert, reflecting on his state of mind at the time. Via the Seattle Times:
He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I'm thinking, you can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant. I can't tell you how badly I wanted out of here!
"Count Dracula in Cleats" is the essence of a Pittsburgh guy, arguably the face of the Steelers defense, certainly one of the greatest linebackers to ever live, and the type of man whose daughter you do not want to upset (or make happy, for that matter! In fact, just stay off this man's radar altogether, capice?).
Many are the casual tales from fans, former teammates and coaches alike that recall his grit. One particular story I've heard in numerous retellings involves Lambert, outdoor football in a gravel parking lot, the same fiery tenacity and hard-nosed play that one would expect, and the picking of tiny stones from beneath the skin of his arms afterwards.
Remember: That game didn't count in any standings!
No. 1: Joe Greene
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So, how good was the Steelers defense in the 70s? Our Hall of Fame list concludes at the top with a fourth consecutive member of that fraternity.
With their 1-13 record in 1969, if would have been difficult to discern in that moment that the Pittsburgh Steelers' fortunes had dramatically shifted.
Yet, the building blocks to greatness were emphatically moving, despite the lack of evidence to the naked eye.
One day before drafting the second key piece to a dynastic puzzle, the Steelers hired the first one with coach Chuck Noll. His first major decision was the stuff of legend.
The silence was awkward from Steelers fans when the team selected a little-known defender from North Texas State University. The headline of the Pittsburgh Press on January 28, 1969, said it all: Fans’ Reaction: “Who’s Joe Greene?”
If Steelers fans had questions in the winter of '69, Joe Greene gave them plenty of answers over 13 Hall of Fame seasons in Black and Gold. The defensive stalwart became the face of the defense and the most touted member of the acclaimed Steel Curtain, anchoring the Steelers to levels of ferocity and greatness that mutually led to Super Bowl rings.
The team didn't win right away, causing "Mean" Joe's anger to boil over, often the outlet was when the tackle physically maimed the opposition—before, during or after the play! However, as the roster improved and winning began, so too did Greene instill an increased discipline to his game, though it in no way tempered his ferocity.
So, why is Joe Greene the top Hall of Famer on the list? He was the first critical component of an attitude change that was desperately needed for a franchise far too accustomed to mediocrity. Beyond his desire, Greene's statistics speak of a man who infused greatness into a franchise desperate for a taste:
- 10-time Pro Bowl selection
- Five-time first-team All-Pro selection
- Three-time second-team All-Pro selection
- 11-time first-team All-AFC selection
- Four-time Super Bowl champion
- NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
- NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
- 1969 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
- Two-time Associated Press Defensive MVP