Najee Harris may have been selected with by the Pittsburgh Steelers the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he was widely considered the #1 prospect at running back and was the top running back selected. Since the AFL/NFL began a common draft in 1967, Harris joins 2013 2nd round pick Le’Veon Bell and 1972 1st round pick Franco Harris as the only other Steelers to be the top running back taken.
Both RBs made an immediate impact as rookies and blazed a trail and created a legacy that Najee Harris has the chance to follow.
Simply put, Franco was arguably the final piece that changed the trajectory of the Steelers franchise through this very day, but got off to a surprisingly slow start.
Chuck Noll was initially nonplussed about Harris, who was already behind everyone else as the result of a holdout and combined with his quiet and reserved nature, was appearing to lack confidence. New running backs coach Dick Hoak would recall that “Franco didn’t look very good” in his first few weeks and was a little stumped until Harris gave a glimpse of what he could do with a 75-yard TD run in a preseason game. The play prompted Noll to counsel Hoak to “Not over-coach him”, as he began to understand the self-motivation of Harris.
Noll stuck with his 1971 starters – Preston Pearson and John “Frenchy” Fuqua – to start off the 1972 campaign. The season started off strong with a 34-28 win over the perennial powerhouse Oakland Raiders, and after Terry Bradshaw engineered a Steelers comeback win, the team Noll spent three years building was growing confident they could compete with any team in the league. This would be put to the test with a game vs. the defending Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys. The Steel Curtain dominated the Cowboys offense, but unfortunately even with a 10-point lead, the Steelers offense was just as non-existent. The Cowboys used a gimmick play and RB Calvin Hill to throw a 55-yard TD that fooled the Steelers defense and led to a frustrating 17-14 loss.
The Steelers were on the verge of a 3-1 start with wins over a pair of the NFL’s premier teams but fell to 2-2. The running game was not getting the job done and Bradshaw was outperforming Pearson as a rusher – with 143 yards and 4 TDs to 195 yards and 0 TDs – a trend that could not continue. The date was October 15, 1972, enter Franco Harris into the starting lineup in Week 5 vs the Houston Oilers. He immediately provided the spark to the offense, rushing for 115 yards and a TD, with the team cruising to a 24-7 win. They would go on a 9-1 stretch to close out the season and Harris would tally seven 100-yard games to finish with 1,055 yards, 11 TDs and win Rookie of the Year.
The Steelers entered the final week of the season needing a win vs. the San Diego Chargers or a Cleveland Browns loss to secure the division. Playing later in the day, they saw the Browns won their game, but it didn’t matter. The Steelers crushed the Chargers 24-2 and secured the AFC Central Division, their first championship in 40 years.
The Steelers defeated the Raiders in a game that was the opposite of the wide open season opener, with Harris magically retrieving the Immaculate Reception to win the game. The Steelers fortunes ran out vs. the 15-0 Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship – losing 21-17. However, many believe that the Steelers were the better team on that day and it was a combination of a Bradshaw injury and an ad hoc fake punt that prevented the Steelers from advancing to the Super Bowl.
Bell missed the 1st three games due to injury in 2013 and the Steelers started out 0-4. However, once he was healthy, he immediately integrated into the starting lineup for the final 13 games and was a major contributor. He made an impact immediately with 2 TDs in a Steelers dominated loss vs. the Minnesota Vikings played in London, but it would be the end of the longest losing streak in the career of Mike Tomlin. The Steelers went 8-4 the rest of the way to finish 8-8 but were a team no one wanted to play in the playoffs.
Bell led the Steelers with 244 carries, 860 yards, 8 TDs and tacked on 45 receptions. Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy won NFL Rookie of the Year with 1,178 yards and 11 TDs, but he played the entire season. Bell’s pace had his production on par with Lacy, who quickly fell out of the league.
While as a generalization, there is a legitimate case to be made that an 8-8 team does not deserve to be in the playoffs, I’d argue the 2013 Steelers were an exception. They were potentially 2 plays away from a 10-game winning streak. The Antonio Brown 74-yard lateral for walk-off winning TD vs. the Miami Dolphins and a Ben Roethlisberger 2-TD 4th quarter comeback vs. the Baltimore Ravens were spoiled by a fraction of Brown’s foot being out of bounds and an Emmanuel Sanders drop on a 2-point conversion.
Nonetheless, the Steelers had a chance entering Week 17 to still claim the #6 seed. After beating the Cleveland Browns soundly, the Steelers needed losses by those same Dolphins and Ravens – which happened – plus a Kansas City Chiefs win vs. the San Diego Chargers. But the Chiefs could not hold on to a 10-point 4th quarter lead nor convert a game winning 41-yard FG and the Steelers were left out.
What the 2013 Steelers would have done in the playoffs is anybody’s guess – but a team with a lot of holes (especially on defense) were shaping up to be a playoff opponents worst nightmare as they could win passing and running.
The last two times a Steelers running back was the top one selected, the Steelers may not have won the Super Bowl but were knocking on the door. One can argue this Steelers team is more well rounded than the previous teams mentioned.
What will be the result of Najee Harris’ impact in 2021? Leave a comment below.