Of course, to all of this the legends say, So what? "It means the NFL draft system works," says Landry. "The timing is about right for all three of us—all of us are a little short on personnel." Shula echoes Landry: "This happens to every franchise. It shows the system works." In other words, Pete's Parity doesn't know from legends. Landry and Shula have a point. Buffalo, New Orleans and Cincinnati were all gutter-dwellers, and now they're riding high.
While the legends may believe they're victims of an inevitable down cycle, their critics cite other factors. One trouble with being a legend is that nobody will say no to you. Before the 1986 season Schramm hired Paul Hackett, one of the NFL's bright young offensive thinkers, away from the San Francisco 49ers, but Landry pays less and less attention to Hackett. The first year, he spoke to Hackett during games via headphones. The next year by telephone. This year seldom if at all.
Shula has taken heat for naming his 29-year-old son, David, assistant head coach. Former Miami offensive tackle Greg Koch, who's now with the Minnesota Vikings, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that Dolphin players resented the young Shula's rank and that "he should understand he wouldn't be where he is if it weren't for who he is." Such statements outrage Don. "I think all that is very unfair," he says. "David helped us get to two Super Bowls."
Another criticism leveled at the legends is that the game has passed them by. Noll, for instance, was the last head coach in the NFL to name a special-teams coach. Until two years ago he was Pittsburgh's special-teams coach. And while the rest of the league is into using human moving vans for offensive linemen, Noll still relies on quick, small men in his famous, sophisticated trap-blocking scheme. Problem is, sophisticated traps worked on those unsophisticated defenses of the 1970s but haven't been so hot since.
"We can all outgrow our usefulness," says former Steeler defensive end Dwight White. "It's possible to get caught up in a time warp. If you're trying to do the same thing you used to do and you don't have the same personnel, maybe you're missing the boat."
Landry finally came around to wall, or area, blocking two years ago, when Walker arrived—"We just haven't perfected it yet," Landry says—but he's still married to the same motion offense he installed in 1961. What's more, he hasn't backed off much from his fossilized flex defense. "Why should I?" he says. "It's one of our best defenses."
The legends' admirers don't buy the game-has-passed-them-by theory. "The game hasn't passed anybody by," former Steeler linebacker Jack Ham told The Pittsburgh Press. "I look at the Redskins in the Super Bowl, and they must have run 'Countergap' 42 times.... It's talent. You have more talent, you're going to win more games."
Schramm: "We don't have Staubach. We don't have Meredith. Neither does Noll. It's pretty damn simple. People like these coaches don't suddenly lose their capabilities."
Let's say the legends can still coach, they just don't have the talent. But take a look: What the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins don't have that such winning franchises as the Saints, the Bills, the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants do is a general manager who has a free hand to decide which players the team signs. "It's simple," says Washington coach Joe Gibbs of his relationship with general manager Bobby Beathard. "Bobby decides who comes to training camp. I decide who leaves training camp."
Acquiring players has become too complicated and too demanding for someone to do as well as to coach, yet each of the three legends maintains final say over personnel decisions. Since 1974, Noll has drafted only three players who've made the Pro Bowl. He has never traded up in a draft. He didn't take a single player from the USFL and rarely signs men off the waiver wire.