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Chapter 3: Staying There
After each of the Steelers' Super Bowl victories, Noll and Dan Rooney arranged to have the players' championship rings delivered by early June. If the manufacturers couldn't promise that, they were told not to bid for the contract. "Chuck wanted all that stuff out of the way before we got to camp," says Rooney.
Did it work?
"Go out in our lobby and look at the trophies," he says.
Those Steeler teams bridged two eras. In the early 1970s, says Russell, "nobody made any money, so forget money. The badge of courage was to play hurt." By the late '70s, says Rooney, "we were into the Me Generation. You immediately heard money when you drafted somebody."
In 1977—"our distraction year," Shell calls it—Lambert, Holmes and cornerback Mel Blount held out during training camp for new contracts, dividing the city and the team. All eventually signed new deals and were back in time for the start of the season, but Noll says the Steelers never recovered their focus that year. Losing to Oakland and Houston in the first four weeks didn't help. Pittsburgh was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, at Denver.
Still, at training camp the following year, Noll didn't change a thing. If anything would help the Steelers get back to the Super Bowl, he believed, it was consistency.
"Words are overplayed," Noll says now. "But words are a beginning. Every year, I just thought that zeroing in on the job at hand was important. When I came here, in 1969, I thought the past was a distraction to this organization. Everybody thought of 40 years of not winning. We had to block that out. That lesson was just as important when we won. Each year, I told them that nothing they did last year mattered."
There was another small bit of good fortune in 1978. NFL owners, prompted by the defensive dominance of the Steelers and Raiders, changed the rules to prevent defensive contact with receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. The changes came at an ideal time for Pittsburgh.
Bradshaw says the team slipped in 1977 because it was putting in a more diverse offense. "I was biting at the bit," he says. "I wanted to open it up." The coaching staff installed more plays to take advantage of Stallworth's skills. Harris, though still a 1,000-yard rusher, no longer carried the offensive burden. At the same time, the defense had stopped dominating opponents the way it had in '75 and '76, although it was probably still the league's best. "We were in a transition period," Bradshaw says. "One unit was going down, one up." The next year, with the rule changes, the transition was complete.