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Even '74's rookies had to learn

Posted Apr 28, 2014

As good as they would be, the guys in the Class of 1974 needed seasoning before contributing

(Another in a series about the Steelers’ Draft Class of 1974)

Mike Wagner knows a trivia question he suspects might stump even the most enthusiastic of Steelers fanatics:

Who started at wide receiver for the Steelers in Super Bowl IX?

The answer isn’t Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, two of the four players the Steelers drafted 40 years ago that were destined for the Hall of Fame.

The starters at wide receiver on Jan. 12, 1975 against the Minnesota Vikings were Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, just as they’d been for the vast majority of the 1974 season.

The Steelers were a good enough team then that even rookies destined to advance from campus to Canton first had to serve an apprenticeship as professionals.

“In 1973 we had been really disappointed,” said Wagner, a starter at safety on three of the Steelers’ four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s. “We felt as if we had underperformed. The veterans were very confident we were going to play well in 1974. It was a matter of staying healthy and seeing where we were in the playoffs.”

The Steelers had gone 11-3 and to the AFC Championship Game in 1972 (the “Immaculate Reception” season).

They had slipped back to 10-4 and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round at Oakland in 1973 (the season immortalized in Roy Blount Jr.’s “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load”).

In 1974 the Steelers were looking for complementary players rather than saviors, which explains why no one in the personnel department was doing back flips even after the drafting of Swann (first round), linebacker Jack Lambert (second round), Stallworth (fourth round), and center Mike Webster (fifth round).

“Hell no,” confirmed Bill Nunn, the Steelers’ assistant director of player personnel in 1974 and a senior assistant, player personnel today. “The main thing was whether they could come in and make a contribution.”

Swann played in 12 games as a rookie and started two. He caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns, and tied for seventh among Steelers in receptions (with running backs Steve Davis and Preston Pearson, two fewer than tight end Randy Grossman). Swann amassed more than twice as many yards returning punts (577) as he did receiving (208) while leading the NFL in punt return yards and averaging 14.1 yards per attempt (one touchdown).

Stallworth appeared in 13 games (three starts) and finished fifth on the team with 16 catches, for 269 yards (third among Steelers behind Lewis’ 365 and Shanklin’s 324) and one score.

The pair combined for three catches for 24 yards in the Super Bowl, all by Stallworth (Swann had one rush for minus-7 yards and 34 yards on three punt returns).

Webster appeared in 14 games and made one start in the 1974 regular season (Ray Mansfield started at center in Super Bowl IX).

The exception was Lambert.

Initially a backup to Jack Ham an outside linebacker, Lambert stepped into the middle when Henry Davis suffered what turned out to be a career-ending nerve injury in his neck in the next-to-last preseason game. Lambert turned out to be the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“It was just ideal for Jack to step in there,” Wagner said. “He was smart enough not to make mental mistakes, and he obviously proved over time how tough he was. Just looking at him physically (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) you didn’t know he’d have the durability he’d have; he had the heart and the skill-set.”

“One of the reasons he’s in the Hall of Fame is his height and ability to chase receivers down the field. We played a lot of the ‘Tampa 2’ (Cover 2, two deep safeties), and we wanted people to throw the ball underneath. Lambert had the range and the height to where if he had to chase a tight end or get deep in a zone it was a big factor,” in the success of the defense.

As a group the rookies “fit in really well,” Wagner remembered. “They made it easier for the rest of us, that’s for sure.”

Coming next Monday: The historical impact of the 1974 draft class.

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