We Build Through the Draft.
You can almost hear these words coming from the late, great Art Rooney Sr., cigar in hand. Art Rooney was the type of owner (for those of you too young to remember) who shunned the spotlight but relished building a football family. He walked to work every day, as does his son Dan.
Community and charity was important. Being on television and building fame were awkward for Mr. Rooney. A man of morals, Art laid foundations for how the Steelers should be built, act, and win. Those philosophies and approaches are ingrained in the Steelers organization today. One of them—we build through the draft—has been a critical, continual key to Steelers success.
Dan Rooney has carried on his father’s approach to building and maintaining the franchise. Coaches, GMs, even the owners, collectively support and participate in the draft. The Steelers turn their back on free agency, rarely signing a notable name during the signing period.
In normal years, the Steelers aren’t afraid to watch two, three, four, or more veterans walk away to big contracts while signing a second- or third-tier tier free agent and rebuild through the draft.
The approach infuriates some, notably younger Steeler fans who’ve watched the Dan Snyders and Jerry Jones' of the world spend hundreds of millions of dollars on high-priced free agents. Their faces and those players are all over ESPN in March. The feeling that these teams have somehow “won the offseason” while the Steelers do “nothing” can be maddening to some.
But the Steelers focus is sure—it’s winning in the fall and in the playoffs that matters. Press conferences and overpaid veterans don’t get you Super Bowl victories. The Steelers understand human motivation, hunger, drive, and teamwork. They realize you’re going to get the most out of players that are looking for that next big contract, and less production out of the player at 30 who just signed a seven-year, $100 million contract.
So they build through the draft…and successfully. Argument can be made that no other team in the NFL has had more success building through the draft than Pittsburgh since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
—Only one team has won more regular season football games since the AFL-NFL merger than the Steelers (363 wins since 1970), and that is Miami (365 wins).—Since 1970, the Steelers have won six Super Bowls, more than any NFL franchise.
—Since 1969, the Steelers have seen 10 players drafted who were later enshrined into the Hall of Fame (the Steelers had 10 players enshrined prior to 1969 plus three coaches). More players await nomination/enshrinement (Dawson, Bettis, Faneca, Ward, etc.).
—In the 1974 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh selected four future Hall of Famers. No other team has ever had more than two in a single draft, and this has happened only 12 times in history.
So let’s take a look at a list of 10 Top Steelers Draft Day Moments that have defined the franchise, in no particular order.
The 1974 Draft
How can you focus on individual players when the 1974 draft had four future Hall of Famers? Instead of giving each player individual due (which they clearly have earned), the focus is on the entire 1974 draft. Each of these players is a story in and of himself.
In Round One, the Steelers selected Lynn Swann, WR. Round Two was followed by Jack Lambert, LB. In round Four the Steelers landed WR John Stallworth, and in Round Five, C Mike Webster. No other draft in NFL History has led to more than two future Hall of Famers. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to hail this draft class as the single best by any NFL team in history.
1996—Trade for Jerome Bettis, RB
The Steelers rarely do more on draft day than trade up or trade down for better draft board position. But in 1996, after Bam Morris had pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and was subsequently cut, the Steelers were in need of a running back. While the Rams coveted drafting Lawrence Phillips, the Steelers made a steal in trading for Bettis (along with a third-round draft pick that year) in exchange for a second-round pick in 1996 and a fourth-round pick in 1997.
In each of his first six seasons, Bettis rushed for 1,000 yards. “The Bus” went on to rush for 10,571 in a Steelers uniform in 10 years with Pittsburgh. He had 80 TDs as a Steeler (78 rushing) and won a Super Bowl ring (Super Bowl XL). Bettis was a Pro Bowler in '96, '97, '01, and '04. He currently ranks second in Steelers history in rushing yards behind Franco Harris.
Terry Bradshaw, QB —1970
With the first overall pick in the 1970 Draft, Pittsburgh selected Terry Bradshaw of Louisiana Tech. Bradshaw became the starter after a season in Pittsburgh. During his career, he won four Super Bowls (the first QB in history to do so), won eight AFC Central Championships, led his team to 6 Conference Championships, and threw for nearly 29,000 passing yards. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
Throughout his career, Terry called his own plays. This point is interesting because the media had an infatuation with insulting Terry’s perceived intelligence because of his southern drawl and country-boy approach to the game. The cornerstone of the franchise for 13 years, selecting Terry Bradshaw in 1970 clearly ranks as one of the Steelers' greatest draft day moments.
Rod Woodson, S/CB—1987
In 1987, Woodson was drafted tenth overall by Pittsburgh. He played for the Steelers until 1996 before leaving the Steelers after being unable to reach agreement on a new contract. Dan Rooney commented that the only free agent he ever regretted letting go was Rod Woodson, beloved to this day in Pittsburgh.
Woodson was elected to 11 Pro Bowls in his 17-year career, and seven times in his 10-year career in Pittsburgh. Woodson was also named to the 75th Anniversary Team in the NFL and eventually enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2009. Rod was a rare blend of size, speed, and power. He was able to both stop the run and cover the pass. He returned 12 interceptions for TDs during his illustrious career.
Alan Faneca, G-T —1998
Alan Faneca was drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1998 draft out of LSU. Faneca was elected to five Pro Bowls during his tenure as a Steeler. He is noted as one of the best pulling guards/tackles in the modern football era. He helped establish Pittsburgh as one the most vaunted running offenses in the late '90s and early part of the 21st century.
Probably his most notable play was the crushing block he delivered in Super Bowl XL that opened the way for Willie Parker’s record 75-yard touchdown run. Faneca is probably the most notable non-center offensive lineman in Steeler history.
Franco Harris, RB—1972
In 1972, Pittsburgh selected Franco Harris with the 13th overall pick. In so doing, Pittsburgh selected what would be the most prolific running back in the team’s vaunted history. Franco Harris went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, four Super Bowls, rush for 11,950 yards, score 100 TDs, and find himself selected to nine straight Pro Bowls from 1972 to 1980. He is the leading rusher in Steelers team history.
Harris was and remains an iconic Pittsburgh “character.” He had a huge following during the 70s that dubbed themselves “Franco’s Italian Army,” a testament to the large Italian population in Pittsburgh and Franco’s mixed African American–Italian heritage. Franco was also the central figure in the famous “Immaculate Reception” that changed the face of the franchise from perennial losers to winners.
Hines Ward, WR—1998
Pittsburgh found a steal in the third round of the 1998 draft in Georgia WR Hines Ward. Hines Ward has been a four-time Pro Bowler, amassing 9,780 receiving yards and 72 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was named the MVP of Super Bowl XL and has won two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers. Ward is the all-time touchdown receptions leader and all-time receptions leader for the team.
His contribution to the Steelers goes well beyond his playmaking abilities. Known by opponents as a fierce blocker, Ward delivers devastating downfield blocks that lead to greater yardage gains by other ball carriers. In 2009, the NFL voted to make the blindside hits Ward has been infamous for illegal (such as the jaw-breaking hit Ward delivered on Cincinnati’s Keith Rivers, ending his season).
It is reputed that this rule change will go down forever as the “Hines Ward” rule.
Dermontti Dawson, C—1988
Few fans outside Pittsburgh understand the value the Steelers have historically placed on the C position, and its impact on the historically strong running game. From 1974 to 2006, Mike Webster (HoF), Dermontti Dawson (future HoF), and Jeff Hartings were the only three men to man this position. Folks, that’s 33 years. During this period, nearly half the time the AFC’s representative center at the Pro Bowl was a Steeler as well.
Dermontti Dawson was drafted in the second round of the 1988 draft out of Kentucky. Dawson anchored the C position from 1988 to 2000 and was elected to seven Pro Bowls during the time. He was noted for his durability, playing in 171 consecutive games during the span. Dawson was notably named to the NFL’s All 1990s Team.
“Mean” Joe Greene, DL—1969
In 1969, with the fourth overall pick, the Steelers selected Joe Greene of North Texas State University. Greene was quick to emerge as a force in the NFL, being named NFL Rookie of the Year in his first season. Through the early and mid 1970s, there was no more dominant defensive lineman in the NFL (at the time, the Steelers ran the 4-3 defense, as compared to today’s 3-4).
The anchor of the “Steel Curtain,” Greene often drew double and even triple teams throughout his career. It’s often been said that the prolific stats other players accumulated (Lambert, Ham, etc.) were attributed to Mean Joe eating up multiple offensive lineman after the snap, leaving other players to prey on the ball carriers.
“Mean” Joe was selected to 10 Pro Bowls and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. And that famous phrase Pittsburghers chanted for 25 years—“One for the Thumb”—came from Greene. After the Super Bowl victory in 1980, it was Joe who said that now it was time for “One for the Thumb in 1981.”
Ben Roethlisberger, QB—2004
With the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh drafted QB Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami of Ohio. In a short five years, Roethlisberger has proven to be both a leader and a winner, and has begun what appears to be an incredibly impressive career. He has amassed more wins in his first five seasons as an NFL QB than any QB in history, winning two Super Bowls.
He was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 2004 and began his career with an unprecedented 15 consecutive wins. He has the NFL record for highest passer rating as a rookie at 98.1, has thrown for three perfect passer rating games in his career, and is the only QB in history to have two perfect passer rating games in a single season. He is currently ranked seventh all-time in NFL history in passer rating.
Ben has already had 19 fourth-quarter comebacks, and has often been compared to John Elway in this regard. He has already surpassed Terry Bradshaw in many Steelers passing records—3,000-yard seasons, 300-yard games, passer rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt. Ben is clearly the current foundation for the Steelers offense and looks to break many more records along the way.
So there you have it. The difficult challenge in making a top 10 list for the Steelers on draft day is that there have been so many talented players drafted throughout the years that made incredible contributions to the organization. Arguments can be made that Santonio Holmes (Super Bowl XLIII MVP) or many notable others should be in the list.
Obviously, key contributors like James Harrison and Willie Parker (both UDFAs) are not included. The fact remains, however, that since 1970, the Steelers have shown an uncanny ability to get tremendous value from the draft and there is no indication this will change in our lifetime.