Did the NFL’s most dominant team in the 1970’s owe four of their Super Bowl titles to the whim of a coin toss?
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most successful franchise of the modern era. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 the Steelers rank first in wins, winning percentage, winning seasons, division titles and All-Pro nominations.
However it is their six Lombardi Trophies that attest to the Steelers’ success more than any other measure.
Four of those Super Bowl titles were won in a six-year period during the 1970’s when the Steelers dominated the NFL. However, it is possible that the Steelers never would have won those trophies had they not been the beneficiary of arguably the most important coin toss in NFL history.
The Steelers of the 50’s and 60’s are remembered for getting rid of a rookie quarterback (and Pittsburgh native) named Johnny Unitas, as well as passing up Jim Brown in the NFL draft. This was a franchise that could have had Unitas handing off to Brown in the backfield. Instead, fans has come to expect that somehow they would foul things up.
The 1969 Steelers finished tied with the Chicago Bears for the league’s worst record at 1-13. That continued a history of failure for the Steelers, who, for most of their existence, were characterized as perennial losers similar to the Detroit Lions of the last decade.
The Bears’ only victory that season was over the Steelers. In today’s NFL that head-to-head victory would have guaranteed the Steelers the first pick in the NFL draft. However in 1970, if teams were tied with identical won-loss records, then a coin flip was used to determine who picked first.
So it came to be that the future of the Steelers would be decided by a coin flip in a New Orleans hotel in 1970. Steeler fans expected the worst. With NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ready to flip the coin, the Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney allowed Bears’ executive Ed McCaskey to make the call. Rooney was following the advice of his father, Steelers’ founder Art Rooney Sr., who always advised deferring the decision to the opponent, apparently for karmic reasons.
McCaskey called heads, and when Rozelle flipped the 1921 silver dollar in the air it came down tails. While Rooney and Noll beamed triumphantly, Chicago Sun-Times writer Jack Griffin bellowed from the back of the room “McCaskey, you bum, you can’t even win a coin toss!”
The reason for Rooney and Noll’s elation had to do with the unanimous consensus No. 1 draft pick that season—a strong-armed quarterback from Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw.
Both the Bears and the Steelers coveted the talented collegian, who they felt was a quarterback that they could build around for a decade or more. So disappointed were the Bears in the turn of events that they traded down in the draft, giving their No. 2 pick to the Green Bay Packers, who drafted a defensive tackle out of Notre Dame named Mike McCoy.
It was clear that Bradshaw was the only sure-fire star quarterback in the draft that year, and Bradshaw had the highest of expectations placed on him. With four Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP awards, Bradshaw exceeded all expectations. In the process he helped redefine that image of the Steelers as loveable losers.
Try, for a minute, to imagine what the future would have held for the Steelers had they lost that coin flip.
The Bears would have taken Bradshaw. The only other quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds were Purdue’s Mike Phipps, selected third overall by the Browns, Dennis Shaw of San Diego Sate and Bill Cappleman of Florida State, who were drafted 30th and 51st respectively. You are forgiven if those last two names are meaningless to you.
Phipps was a relative disappointment for Cleveland, where he ended up starting for four years. He ended his career with 55 touchdowns and 108 interceptions. However, it is unlikely that the Steelers would have selected Phipps with their pick in that first round.
Phipps was not expected to be a potential franchise quarterback, and the Steelers probably would have continued on with Terry Hanratty or Dick Shiner as their starter while they strived to build what would ultimately become the Steel Curtain defense that dominated the 1970’s physically and statistically. Look up the statistics for Hanratty and Shiner and determine for your self whether they were Super Bowl material. Personally I don’t think so.
Having hit the jackpot a year earlier when they drafted Mean Joe Greene at defensive end, the Steelers may have selected a defensive tackle to further solidify that front four. Three tackles were chosen in the first seven picks that year. In the third round of that 1970 draft the Steelers acquired yet another fixture to that defense in cornerback Mel Blount.
In the second round that year the Steelers chose Ronnie Franklin, a wide receiver from North Texas University, who ended up as little more than a journeyman in the NFL. If the Bears had won that coin flip the Steelers may have taken a receiver in the first round, possibly Texas Southern’s Ken Burrough, who had a decent career with the Houston Oilers, where he was a two-time Pro-Bowler.
No matter how you look at it, it is hard to picture any of those players having even remotely close to the kind of career enjoyed by Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw, arguably more than any other individual other than Coach Chuck Noll, was responsible for redefining a losing franchise into the most successful one in the NFL since that draft.
Would Mike Phipps,Terry Hanratty or Dick Shiner have led the Steelers to those Super Bowl titles? We’ll never know, but it seems doubtful. Perhaps they would have drafted a quarterback a year later. But in Bradshaw the team that had used eight different quarterbacks from 1965 to 1969 finally had their man.
A few hours after winning that momentous coin toss, Rooney, Noll and their wives were having a celebratory dinner in New Orleans. Giving the coin to Noll, Rooney remarked: “Here; this is the beginning of good things to come!” I doubt that Rooney knew how prescient that comment came to be.