Following a 1-13 season in 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the #1 pick in the 1970 NFL Draft and were able to select Terry Bradshaw, who was easily the consensus #1 overall pick in the draft and arguably the top quarterback prospect in the history of the NFL draft to that point. Bradshaw was so clearly the top prospect that the St. Louis Cardinals offered eight draft choices for the #1 overall pick, something Chuck Noll declined.
Chuck Noll, per Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Steelers and the NFL:
“You know, the number of players you’re going to get is not going to help your football team. You have to have quality people. So, if you trade away quality for less than quality, you’re going to be a less-than-quality football team. And what we were after were top-notch players. Terry fell into that category, and that’s what we were trying to get via the draft—top-quality people.”
Bradshaw would go on to guide the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in six years, two Super Bowl MVPs, the 1978 NFL MVP and a first ballot Hall of Fame career. Clearly, the Steelers made the right decision, but it also required a degree of good fortune the Pittsburgh Steelers had not seen in the history of the franchise.
In 1969, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears finished with identical 1-13 records, resulting in a coinflip to determine who would have the rights to the #1 overall pick and to draft Terry Bradshaw. Under the current rules, the Steelers would have been awarded the #1 overall pick as the Bears defeated the Steelers in 1969.
“Tails never fails”
The Bears were historically one of the NFL powerhouses at the time with eight NFL Championships to their credit while the Steelers were historically known as loveable losers. So, when it came to the coin toss of the silver dollar to determine the outcome, Dan Rooney deferred and allowed George Halas to call heads, the fate of two franchises were changed forever. While not one for superstition, there is an old saying that “Tails never fails,” something that perhaps Jerome Bettis can attest to.
At the time, the NFL Draft was nowhere near the spectacle it is today and Bradshaw himself did not put much energy into thinking about it.
Terry Bradshaw, per Steelers.com:
“My father told me it was draft day and he heard from the Bears. I told him I wasn’t going until the third or fourth round. He told me, ‘You get out and you clean up.’ I was mad. I went and put on a jacket and tie for my dad. And then I got drafted number one … It didn’t mean that much. I was coming here to the worst team in the NFL, which wasn’t good.”
But the reality is that the NFL was evolving very quickly, and a franchise quarterback would be at the forefront of any great team. And while Bradshaw would wind up being an all-time great, it did not happen overnight, as he struggled under head coach Chuck Noll. However, both Noll and Dan Rooney always believed in Bradshaw.
Chuck Noll, per Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Steelers and the NFL:
“I knew he had a great deal of talent. He had the ability to throw the football. He had the ability to run with it when he had to. He had all kinds of physical abilities, and it was just a question of being able to use that on the field.”
Dan Rooney, per Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Steelers and the NFL:
“Next to Johnny Unitas, I think Terry Bradshaw is the greatest quarterback in history. They called him the ‘Blond Bomber,’ and his teammates loved his sense of humor and bravado. The press tormented him with stories about his intelligence. Pittsburgh fans were tough on him—I thought maybe too tough. But he got through all this and became a real team leader. There was no quit in him. When he threw an interception, he came right back gunning. Some sportswriters said he had a problem with Chuck Noll, but he didn’t, not really. They were about as different as two people could be, but working together they won four Super Bowls. If you call that having a problem, I’ll take it any day.
Terry was MVP for Super Bowls XIII and XIV, and NFL MVP in 1978. He finished his career with 27,989 yards passing and 212 touchdowns. He retired in 1983 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1989, also in his first year of eligibility. I continue to make the point of these great players entering the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, because this is one real way to measure the best against the best.”
What would have happened if the Steelers lost the coin toss and Bradshaw ?
The legendary scout Bill Nunn, who was key to the Pittsburgh Steelers uncovering so many diamonds in the rough that turned out to be legends, convinced the Steelers brass to draft Joe Gilliam with an 11th round pick in 1972. Gilliam was ahead of his time, with an arm that would have scouts salivating over his abilities today. But in 1972, it was exceedingly challenging for a quarterback to succeed given the nature of the passing game and Gilliam just loved to throw the football. He actually loved it a bit too much.
Gilliam started the Steelers’ 1974 season as the starter after a great preseason when Bradshaw held out on strike. Gilliam approached Dan Rooney when he decided to cross the picket line.
Joe Gilliam, per Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Steelers and the NFL:
“Mr. Rooney, I have to cross. It’s my only chance to make this team. If I don’t cross, I know I’m gone. This is my shot.”
Gilliam looked poised to take advantage of the opportunity and the Steelers started the 1974 season with a dynamic passing attack. The problem is that it did not align with Noll’s philosophy, as he wanted to run the ball. Noll gave control to calling the plays to his quarterback, but by Week 3, the over reliance on passing began to show in a 17-0 loss to the Oakland Raiders. Gilliam would call passing plays on 3rd and inches, despite having Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.
Each week, Gilliam’s impressive performances declined until the 4-1-1 Steelers benched Gilliam, effectively for good. Noll felt like he gave Gilliam every opportunity, but Gilliam continued to defy Noll by resisting Noll’s instruction. Gilliam was a tremendous talent with an arm that many felt was stronger than that of Terry Bradshaw. He worked hard and desperately wanted to succeed, which very well may have been the problem.
Gilliam wanted to stand out and make the position his through his performance. In the wide-open game of today, that probably would have worked. But in the closed game of 1974, it did not. Bradshaw himself did not blossom as a passer until 1978. Gilliam eventually was benched and made very poor decisions that took his life down the wrong path. But one has to wonder, if the Steelers did not have a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Terry Bradshaw on the roster and Gilliam was in a position where he did not have a former #1 overall pick nipping at his heels, could he have made the “What-if the Steelers never drafted Terry Bradshaw” debate moot?
No one can question the ability of Gilliam. Maybe all he needed was the time to mature and not feel the massive amount of pressure he put on himself. The question might not have even been about comparing Bradshaw to Ben Roethlisberger, but Gilliam to Roethlisberger. Or was Bradshaw just that special?