Labriola On

Labriola on Shula and the Steelers

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Don Shula died on May 4 at the age of 90, and generations of football fans will remember him as the long-time coach of the Miami Dolphins, as the man whose all-time record of 347-173-6 qualifies him as winningest coach in NFL history, as the coach of the 1972 Dolphins that finished 17-0. But Shula also had a significant impact on Steelers history, both in a good way and a sad way.

• In 1963, Shula became the youngest coach in the NFL when Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired Weeb Ewbank. Shula, who had played for the Colts from 1953-56 and was an assistant with the Detroit Lions at the time of Ewbank's firing, was hired by Rosenbloom to be the replacement.

• In 1966, two years after his Colts lost the 1964 NFL Championship Game to the Browns in Cleveland, Shula hired Chuck Noll to be his defensive coordinator/backfield coach. Noll had worked under Sid Gillman in the AFL for six seasons starting in 1960, was part of the Chargers' AFL Championship team in 1963, and became Shula's defensive coordinator/backfield coach starting in 1966.

• Noll held the position for three seasons, and his tenure with the Colts coincided with what still is considered one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets defeated the Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III.

• That game was played in the Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 12, 1969, and on Jan. 27, 1969 the Steelers announced Noll as their new head coach. This hiring process was directed by Dan Rooney, and he had convinced his father, Art Rooney Sr., that it was time the franchise conducted its own search and hired the candidate the Steelers believed was the best man for the job as opposed to hiring someone recommended to them by a "friend" in the league, as had just happened when Vince Lombardi championed the hiring of his faithful assistant coach Bill Austin, who had been fired by Dan Rooney to create this opening in the first place.

• In doing their due diligence on Noll, Shula naturally spoke highly of his assistant, but that wasn't why Noll got the job.

• "No question about it, Noll impressed me, but this time I was determined to go through a thoughtful and systematic hiring process," Dan Rooney wrote in his book. "Though we didn't agree on every issue, I admired his honesty and willingness to stand up for what he believed. We wanted someone who shared our philosophy, but not a yes-man. We needed a coach who could take the team, mold it, and make it his own."

• The Steelers didn't hire Noll because of Shula, but the fact Noll had worked under Shula and was successful were things in his favor, and Dan Rooney also said often that he was very impressed with the way Noll handled himself in that first interview, which came very soon after the Colts' loss to the Jets in the Super Bowl.

• In most accounts of that major upset, Namath gets much of the credit for the victory, but it's also fair to cite Shula for a decision he made that at the very least didn't give his team the best chance to win the game.

• Coming off a 1967 NFL season in which the Colts finished 11-1-2 and starting quarterback John Unitas was voted first-team All-Pro and NFL MVP, Unitas was bothered by an elbow injury and backup Earl Morrall became the team's starter for a 1968 season in which the Colts finished 13-1 and defeated the Browns, 34-0, to win the NFL Championship. At that time, all it did was earn the Colts a spot in the Super Bowl where they were something like 18-point favorites over the AFL's Jets.

• Morrall entered the Super Bowl as a first-team All-Pro after having completed 57.4 percent of his passes for a league-leading 26 touchdowns but also 17 interceptions, and turnovers haunted him and the Colts in the first half against the Jets. In the first half, Morrall completed 5-of-15 for 71 yards, with no touchdowns, three interceptions, and a rating of 10.0. One of his interceptions came on a play that began at the Jets 6-yard line, another on a play that began at the Jets 15-yard line, and the third on the final play of the first half.

• Even then, Shula didn't make a change to Unitas, who was healthy enough to play, and instead stuck with Morrall. In an interview decades after the game, Namath recounted that he and many of his Jets teammates were "scared to death" that Unitas, who had 29 fourth-quarter comebacks to that point in his career, would start the second half. By the time Shula made the switch late in the third quarter, the Jets had a two-score lead, and the Colts' comeback ran out of time.

• In 1972, Shula brought his undefeated Dolphins to Three Rivers Stadium for the AFC Championship Game to face a Steelers team fresh off its first playoff win in franchise history, which happened to be the Immaculate Reception game vs. the Oakland Raiders.

• The 1972 Dolphins were in a similar situation to the 1968 Colts in that their regular starting quarterback (Bob Griese) had been injured and replaced by Morrall, who had done a nice job in keeping the Dolphins undefeated. But on Dec. 31, 1972 Morrall was back to playing like the journeyman he was for most of his NFL career.

• During a first half that ended in a 7-7- tie largely because of a successful fake punt by the Dolphins, Morrall had thrown an interceptions and was averaging only 4.6 yards per attempt. This time Shula didn't wait until late in the third quarter to try to give his team a spark. He pulled Morrall and replaced him with Griese for the Dolphins' opening possession of the second half. Griese wasn't spectacular, but he played a steady and mistake-free brand of football, and Miami went on to post a 21-17 victory.

• It is said the great ones learn from their mistakes, and what Shula learned from Super Bowl III went a long way toward keeping the Steelers out of Super Bowl VII.

• Mike Tomlin is entering his 14th season as coach of the Steelers and he already has put together a fine resume, and as his career continues it's a resume that is drawing him alongside some of the game's most accomplished coaches. With a faction of Steelers fans, though, there often is a "but" attached to any and all of his achievements.

• One statistic recently making the rounds about Tomlin was this: "At a .642 clip, Mike Tomlin has the sixth highest winning percentage of all-time for coaches who have coached more than 200 games. The five ahead of him? Bill Belichick and four Hall of Famers (Don Shula, George Halas, Paul Brown, and Tony Dungy).

• That got me thinking. What if the same yinzer standards were to be applied to the five coaches whose career winning percentage is better than Tomlin's .642?

• Don Shula: Sure, his all-time record is 328-156-6, the most wins in NFL history and good for a winning percentage of .677, and he coached the only undefeated, untied championship team in NFL history, BUT he won a grand total of zero championships with two of the greatest quarterbacks ever (Unitas and Dan Marino). Shula coached Unitas in Baltimore for seven seasons, and Unitas won two NFL Championships before Shula arrived and a Super Bowl after he left; and his only Super Bowl with Marino ended in a decisive loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Clearly, he squandered the careers of two great quarterbacks.

• George Halas: Sure, George Halas was one of the league's founders and was instrumental in laying the foundation for professional football's success in America while serving as a player, coach, and owner of one of the NFL's flagship franchises, BUT in 40 years as a head coach he only made the playoffs eight times despite his franchise having more players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than any other. What a waste of talent.

• Paul Brown: Sure, he just about invented modern pro football, and yes, many of the policies and procedures he implemented 70-plus years ago still are used today, BUT he had a losing record in NFL Championship Games, and didn't win anything during the six seasons he had Jim Brown, the best fullback in NFL history in an era where running the football reigned supreme. Another waste of talent.

• Tony Dungy: Sure, he resurrected the woeful Tampa Bay franchise from one known as the Yuckaneers to one that became a consistent contender, and then he went to Indianapolis and did the same thing with a Colts franchise that had been .500 or better only twice in the five seasons before he got there, BUT the Buccaneers never won anything until he was fired and in seven seasons in Indianapolis with a veteran Peyton Manning he only won one Super Bowl and was 7-6 in the playoffs. Obviously was getting out-coached by Belichick.

• Bill Belichick: Sure, he is the only coach to win six Super Bowls, and his .683 winning percentage is the best among anyone who has coached 200 NFL games, BUT until he lucked into Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, he was just a coach who got fired because he thought Vinny Testaverde was a franchise quarterback, plus he lost twice in the Super Bowl to Tom Coughlin and once to Doug Pederson who was using a backup quarterback named Nick Foles.

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