Memories are like sandpaper. Over time, they completely remove all of the rough edges and leave behind a completely smooth surface.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Steelers first Super Bowl championship season, and today 1974 is remembered as a four-month-long waltz through the regular season followed by complete domination of each opponent in its path during the playoffs. At the end of it all, there was a celebration in Downtown Pittsburgh for the Team-of-the-Decade-in-waiting.
A nice bedtime story with a happy ending for the next generation of Steelers fans, but not so much the truth. In fact, the 1974 season was one of turmoil, of a divided locker room, of such overwhelming frustration that the team's best player at one point felt driven to quit the team.
The issue at the heart of most of this angst was a quarterback controversy that over the course of 14 regular season games threatened to destroy a season and derail a dynasty.
PLAYERS STRIKE HELPS GILLIAM
When the NFL Players Association called for a strike as training camps opened that year, Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty honored the picket line, but third-year pro Joe Gilliam did not. By the time the strike ended, Gilliam had impressed Chuck Noll with his play, and then when Bradshaw was injured late in a preseason on which the Steelers went undefeated, the decision to start Gilliam seemed logical.
Starting Gilliam may have been the logical move, but it wasn't one that resulted in smooth sailing.
In a 30-0 rout of the Baltimore Colts in the opener, Gilliam completed 17-of-31 for 257 yards; the next week he was 31-for-50 for 348 yards in a 35-35 tie with the Broncos in Denver. These were impressive passing statistics for the era, but the Steelers fell to 1-1-1 when they were shut out, 17-0, by the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in a game that had the fans turn ugly.
Take a look at the top 10 photos of Steelers former head coach Chuck Noll.
"WE WANT BRADSHAW …"**
Chanting, "We want Bradshaw … we want Bradshaw," throughout a game in which Gilliam was 8-for-31 with two interceptions, Steelers fans drew a biting rebuke from Noll following this bitter defeat against an intense rival.
"We played in Oakland today," said Noll, coming to the aid of his starting quarterback, but then during the week leading up to the next game, Noll also said, "We have to run the football more and better than we have." His decree signaled the beginning of the end of an offensive emphasis that contradicted the personality of this particular Steelers team, and in trying to get his offense where he wanted it, Noll would perpetuate the quarterback controversy that already had grown roots.
In assessing the Steelers at halftime of the 1974 season, there were plenty of positives, primarily a defense that was AVERAGING four sacks a game and was among the league leaders in takeaways, but the quarterbacks continued to be erratic, and the fans grew more impatient with every incomplete pass. They were not shy about voicing their impatience, either.
"We didn't get a great deal of help (from the fans)," said Noll after one win in Pittsburgh. "We're better off playing on the road, I think."
LET'S TRY HANRATTY
Noll had pulled Gilliam and replaced him with Bradshaw against the Falcons, but a couple of games later, at 6-2-1 and looking at a trip to Cleveland for a crucial AFC Central Division game against the Browns, Noll switched up again and started Hanratty. "I'll be OK as soon as I learn where to put my hands for the snap," cracked Hanratty, who seemed surprised to be chosen to start. Meanwhile, a healthy Bradshaw seethed at the demotion, "Maybe I let the air out of Chuck's tires."
But despite the sniping and the fact Hanratty completed just 2-of-15 with three interceptions, the defense was at its marauding best to help the Steelers get to 7-2-1 by posting their first win in Cleveland since 1964, 26-16. Four sacks and six takeaways – one of which was a Joe Greene fumble recovery/lateral to J.T. Thomas, who ran for the deciding touchdown – propelled the Steelers to a victory almost sweet enough to take the attention away from the quarterbacks.
BACK TO BRADSHAW
Still, the quarterback thing would not die. Noll had seen enough of Hanratty after that one game in Cleveland and went back to Bradshaw, but the offensive emphasis now was on Harris, who had been joined in the lineup by blocking back Rocky Bleier.
A win over the Saints was followed by a loss at home to the Houston Oilers that came extremely close to fracturing the locker room, a loss and an aftermath that nearly moved Joe Greene to end his own career.
The Steelers were defeated by an Oilers team that would finish 7-7 at Three Rivers Stadium, and during the game an injury to Bradshaw that forced him out of the game was cheered by the sellout crowd. It was an ugly moment in what seemed at the time to be a back-breaking defeat.
GREENE CLEANS OUT HIS LOCKER
Joe Greene talked about that more than 30 years later: "I remember when we lost to Houston in late November, and we got beat up pretty good on our home field. I was despondent about it. It was two years removed from the Immaculate Reception and when we lost the 1972 AFC Championship Game, and then we lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1973. I wanted to be like the Miami Dolphins and the people who were winning.
"I'll never forget: on the Monday night game after we lost to the Oilers, it was the Dolphins vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. I watched the whole game. I watched the Dolphins methodically kill them – run the ball, pass the ball, no mistakes, do the things you were coached to do, no penalties. I thought, 'That's what I want us to be like.' I came in for our team meeting on Tuesday, and I didn't really like what I was hearing in the locker room, so I went and cleaned out my locker and walked to my car, which was parked out front.
"As I was walking out of the stadium with all of my stuff, I realized I was doing it, but I really didn't want to do it. (Wide receivers coach) Lionel Taylor saw me. He must have realized what was happening, and he came and just sat in my car with me. We talked, and I got it all off my chest in terms of how I thought we should play and how we were just not doing things the right way, in my mind. It was probably a lot of ranting and raving, but Lionel talked me into coming back.
"I was happy he did that. I knew I was going to leave, but I didn't want to. I didn't tell anybody I was going to leave; I just did it. When I came back in there, my resolve was more entrenched, and what it manifested itself into was a renewed vigor in practice. What I still recall about that time was how we practiced. Then it just flowed over into the ballgames."
The 1974 Steelers finished 10-3-1 before going on to defeat Buffalo and Oakland in the AFC Playoffs, and then it was on to New Orleans for that dominating win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.
Forty years later, the Steelers will celebrate the accomplishments of that 1974 team, and little will be made of its struggles, of its inadequacies, of the sink holes it had to navigate before being able to complete the journey under a shower of confetti at the victory parade.
What those Steelers accomplished is worth remembering, but so is the path they traveled to get there. It's worth remembering that it wasn't a smooth one, but one that included trials and tribulations of the sort that most teams face during most seasons.
Forty years later, as the progress of the 2014 Steelers continues to be chronicled over the next 15 weeks, that's worth remembering as well.