There is probably not another man alive that understands what the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing defensively in the 1970s than Joe Greene. The heart and soul of that Steel Curtain unit, he was by and large the foundation around which the rest of it was built, the ‘Stunt 4-3’ concept being just one example.
So when he goes out of his way to say that one of his teammates deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, I have a tendency to lean toward believing him. That group had some all-time great players, to be sure, but when it comes to Donnie Shell, the primary strong safety of that championship era—especially in the late 70s—his absence from the Pro Football Hall of Fame stands as a glaring omission to those with whom he played.
Joe Rutter got to speak with a number of them for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in an article published yesterday evening, on the eve of the expected official announcement as to whether or not Shell will be among those included in the unique Centennial Slate 2020 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The reason people say Donnie’s not in is that too many of his Steelers buddies are in”, Greene, the first Hall of Famer of that team, told the reporter. “That’s a ridiculous notion that some of your teammates can keep you out. Donnie deserves to be in”.
Already in the Hall from those units, in addition to Greene, are linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, as well as Mel Blount, the cornerback because of whom the rules pertaining to pre-throw contact with wide receiver had to be amended. All four were also included on the NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Shell was not. But that certainly doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to be in Canton. As Rutter points out, he retired as the strong safety with the most career interceptions in NFL history. He intercepted at least five passes in six consecutive seasons, a feat bettered by only one other player: Emlen Tunnell. Nobody else other than Shell has done it since 1972.
“Obviously, he’s overdue. There are a lot of guys that get overlooked. That’s not a legitimate excuse, especially for Donnie”, Greene went on to say. Many will still argue that yet another member of that defense, defensive end L.C. Greenwood, has been wrongfully overlooked for inclusion in Canton. Could you imagine playing against six Hall of Famers on the same field? In their prime? Absurd.
But that’s what the Steelers’ defense of the 1970s was, regardless of what Hall of Fame voters may or may not say (this article was written prior to the official announcements coming out). It’s a feat we may surely never see again, especially not in the salary cap and free agency era.