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Labriola on the impact of an O-line coach

Ready or not, here it comes:

Who was the best offensive line coach in Steelers history?

This wouldn't seem to be a topic worth discussing let alone an issue of any real significance, especially for a franchise that in a few months will be kicking off its 89th season as a member of the National Football League. But within the boundaries of Steelers Nation over the last decade, the offensive line coach has become a high-profile individual, a lightning rod for criticism, and a man seen as having a great influence on whether the team has an effective offense.

The NFL and the AFL merged for the 1970 season, and for the bulk of the next half-century, the Steelers were at or near the top of the list in terms of rushing yards gained as a team. As evidence, consider that in the 51 NFL seasons since that 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Steelers have finished in the top 10 in rushing 29 times, in the top 5 in rushing 17 times, and in the bottom 5 in rushing three times.

If, as the team's current fans seem to believe, the offensive line coach is a highly significant factor in the success of the team's rushing attack, name me some of the Steelers offensive line coaches of the last 50 years.

Two of the names that likely come to mind immediately are a couple of Hall of Fame offensive linemen – Russ Grimm, who held the job for the six seasons from 2001-06, and Mike Munchak, who held the job for the five seasons from 2014-18.

Not to criticize either Grimm or Munchak, both of whom were fine coaches who knew the game and were respected by their players, but each of them were part of a staff that shepherded the Steelers offense to two of the three bottom-5 finishes in rushing the franchise has had since 1970.

During the six seasons Grimm was the offensive line coach, the Steelers ranked first, ninth, 31st, second, fifth, and 10th in rushing, respectively. During the five seasons Munchak was the offensive line coach, the Steelers ranked 16th, 16th, 14th, 20th, and 31st in rushing, respectively.

Pointing to Grimm and Munchak as the culprits for those failures of the Steelers running game is as absurd as labeling them the primary reasons for the successes. During Grimm's tenure, that No. 31 finish in rushing came in 2003 during the height of the Tommy Maddox Mistake, and he wasn't the one who benched Jerome Bettis in favor of Amos Zereoue as the starting running back. As for Munchak, his time in Pittsburgh coincided with a five-season period in franchise history where even though Le'Veon Bell was the starting running back, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averaged 29 touchdown passes a season despite missing seven of the 80 regular season games during that span.

Adrian Klemm is the current offensive line coach, and his hiring back in February 2021 was viewed as yet another of Coach Mike Tomlin's underwhelming staff decisions. To be more accurate, Klemm's hiring was viewed as an underwhelming choice only by those who neither know him, nor work with him, nor are coached by him.

A former second-round draft choice whose playing career with New England lasted long enough for him to own three Super Bowl rings, Klemm has the bonafides that come with having accomplished what the men he coaches are working toward every day of their own careers.

One of Grimm's catchphrases was: "The primary job of an offensive lineman is to move a man from Point A to Point B against his will." Or as former defensive end Aaron Smith said about how to succeed at the line of scrimmage in the NFL: "It's a mind-set, baby."

Klemm seems to bring that mind-set to his job, and based on what some of his players have been saying about him on Zoom calls during this offseason program, that mind-set is a central part of the offseason's curriculum.

"I think people like to say they can teach it, but I think it's inherently in you," said Klemm after the Steelers made Kendrick Green their third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. "Like some people just naturally have that – as a coach you can be demanding of it, but in critical moments of a game when man measures man, whoever you truly are is going to come out. If you have that dog in you, that wolf in you, you're going to continue to do that in critical moments of the game. I love it when I find a guy I don't have to bring that out of."

Whether it was age or an atrophying of the nastiness muscle, the Steelers offensive line didn't have that in 2020, which should not be overlooked when trying to explain how the team ranked last in the NFL in rushing for the first season since Noll was an assistant coach on Don Shula's Baltimore Colts staff.

And the other thing that 2020 group didn't have was a running back the caliber of Najee Harris, a player capable of taking advantage of an offensive line with attitude, a player capable of furthering that mind-set with his own mind-set.

Anyway, back to the original question, the one about the best offensive line coach in franchise history.

Far be it from me to assume I would be capable of making such a judgment, and so I once asked that question of Bill Nunn, because he had worked for the Steelers in some capacity even before Noll was hired.

Nunn didn't hesitate. "Rad," he said.

Dan Radakovich was hired by Noll in 1971, and at that time he worked with the defensive linemen. Nunn gave Radakovich the credit for putting together the original Steel Curtain, the credit for realizing that while L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White might be judged to be too light to man the ends on an NFL defensive line, their quickness and athletic ability could compensate, and then he would teach them the techniques allowing them to put it all together.

The other thing about "Rad" was he was sometimes "overly enthusiastic" in his teachings and in the way he worked with his players, which led to his nickname being extended to "Bad Rad." In 1974, Bad Rad was switched to the offensive side of the ball, and he again worked his magic on the guys who played on the line of scrimmage.

According to Nunn, Bad Rad pioneered the use of some of the offensive line techniques that still are in use today, and the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1974-75 by coupling a great defense with an offense best described as one-dimensional but a perfect complement to that defense.

On offense during those back-to-back championship seasons, the Steelers ran the football. They ran the football even though every opponent they faced knew they were going to run the football, every opponent knew how they wanted to run the football, every opponent knew Franco Harris was going to carry the football. But the Steelers did it anyway, and why they were able to pull it off was because of what Bad Rad taught the offensive linemen, the mind-set he instilled in them along the way, a running back to take advantage of that, and a commitment to doing it come hell or high water.

Those are the same ingredients the Steelers will need in 2021 to improve their running game to a level where it can contribute to an offense capable of competing for a championship.

So the answer to the question, based on Bill Nunn's expert assessment, is Dan "Bad Rad" Radakovich.

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