Steelers Spin: Immaculate Days

There is a shadow of sadness over Steelers Nation as one of the all-time greats has moved onto loftier fields of glory.

The Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris known to most of us merely as “32” passed away this week and it’s all we can think about. At least those of us who have the rare privilege of witnessing his once ghost-like floating on the gridiron.

There is a football game today, the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Las Vegas Raiders, and there is so much history in that matchup there is another novel of thoughts in the works.

As far as the results of the game, the score was rendered meaningless many weeks ago when the Steelers lost all reasonable hope of being a contender this season.

Beat the Raiders in honor of this classic rivalry? Win one for Franco?

Okay fine. That will work if it’s important to you.

I’ve always been a “win the Super Bowl or forgettaboutit” type of guy.

Yet, with so much to discuss let’s get this Saturday show rolling. Let’s give it a Spin.

Franco’s Army

I was one of those Steelers fans, who like many millions of others, never lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’ve been blessed to visit the incredible city of Steel and enjoy games at Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

Haven’t been to Acrisure Stadium quite yet. Is it any different?

My father served in the United State Marine Corps (Semper Fi Pop) and so we never really had a hometown. It was a few years in a new town, barely meet some friends, and we’re uprooted and off to another place in the world.

There was a meager attempt to make an NFL fan out of me when I was a kid when my Dad gifted me a Washington Redskins plastic piggy bank. He was teaching at Annapolis in Maryland at the time (my Dad had actually met George Allen once and we even vacationed at one of his farm facilities) and Pop thought maybe the Redskins would be my team.

But it wasn’t until I was nine years old and invited to a Super Bowl party at a friend’s house where I acquired my proper destiny in the world.

I was an avid Pop Warner player already, but the idea of sitting around a television and watching grownups play hadn’t really mustered much enthusiasm until that day.

We all pitched in a penny to a pool (those parents were promoting gambling, it must be noted) and I voted for the Minnesota Vikings to win. They had these cool purple uniforms and this little quarterback who scrambled all over, kind of like how I played the position at the time.

It would be the last time I ever cheered against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It wasn’t long before my bedrooms were always plastered with Steelers posters until I moved out my house several years later to give growing up a try. I had a Jack Lambert poster and when I played linebacker, I was Jack. Instantly, I was grizzly mean on the field.

There was a Terry Bradshaw poster, and when I threw the football with Dad, I would always scramble, duck down under imaginary 300-pound linemen and then throw the ball with all my might. (Although, I am a leftie.)

Of course, there was a Lynn Swann, or Swanny, poster. There wasn’t a coach in any home I had growing up that didn’t have to cushion my diving catches of a Nerf ball from one of my two reluctant-to-play sisters.

Lastly, there was the Franco Harris photograph. Whenever I was the handed the ball on football fields, or even after an interception, I WAS Franco Harris.

I shifted, I glid, and when I needed to, I would put it in high gear raise out a stiff arm and run to open fields as players dove for my feet hopelessly. And yes, I exercised discretion as the greater part of valor when it came to seeking solace from a sideline here and there rather than taking a hit straight on.

I wasn’t football aware during the time of the Immaculate Reception, nor the Immaculate Conception for that matter, but I have probably seen the video replay at least a thousand times.

It is the greatest play in National Football League history, and Franco Harris will remain as one of the most significant players to have ever had toted the rock.

Harris was surrounded by extraordinary talent, and his offensive line was one for the ages. That being said, he was the Pittsburgh offense during their first years of glory.

Passes to receivers were a mere afterthought, almost an accident in those early Super Bowl years. It was Franco right and Franco left. Every once in a while, Rocky Bleier would get a handoff just make up for all of the lead blocking he endured.

Franco Harris was the Steelers offense through the first couple of Super Bowl victories in the 1970’s and he was all they needed.

Franco. Thank you for the many memories and all those hard-fought yards. Much gratitude to you as well for being such an elite “forever Steeler” long after you retired.

You will be missed terribly. And prayers for your family.

Glory Days

There is probably nothing more irritating to younger Pittsburgh Steelers fans than having to hear over and over again about those teams in the 70’s.

Blah…blah…blah…blah, yeah we get it. Four Super Bowl victories.

Good for you. But that was the time where players wore leather helmets. They barely kept sack statistics. Those games didn’t matter.

Let me tell you, “Oh yes they did!”

They were truly the Glory Days of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise and despite melliferous dancing of words describing today as “the Standard”, the real Standard was established back then.

Until our generations…the Boomers and the Gen X’ers head out to our final resting pastures, please extend some grace and understanding to us as we have the bar set so extremely high when we watch each and every game.

THAT was Pittsburgh Steelers football. Until we’re gone.

And it’s one of the other things about us losing our legends from the past. They aren’t that much older than us. We might be leaving this planet in an instant before we know it as well.

So how about giving us another Super Bowl victory soon, will you?

Oakland Raiders

For those of you who aren’t too deep into football history, here are some Cliff Notes.

The Oakland Raiders were originally in the American Football League in the 1960’s, sharing the Western Division with the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Dallas Texans.

Then the AFL merged with the National Football League, and it wasn’t long before the Oakland Raiders were one of the premiere teams in the NFL with a stormy former lineman by the name of John Madden roaming the sideline. (Yes, the computer programmer who made your video game).

These Raiders had incredible talent in the names of Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Ken Stabler, Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, George Atkinson, Fred Biletnikoff, Lester Hayes, Ted Hendricks, Jack Tatum and Willie Brown.

Wow! What an assortment of extraordinary talent. And wicked the lot of them! My goodness were they a dirty team. But dirty in a highly entertaining way.

They were the Barbary Pirates of the NFL and quarterback Kenny Stabler served quite a bit of time on a barstool before and after games. With Stabler being a lefty quarterback, I admit to having special admiration for how he could toss the football with proper rotation!

Yes, the Raiders had a few spells of “Just win, Baby” in later years, but this was the real team, the truly hated rivals of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 70’s.

The Dallas Cowboys were even a better team, but they were all mostly good guys, lead by the goodest of them all, Roger Staubach.

No…there was nothing like a Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders matchup. It was Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. The forces of good versus evil.

Then years later, the Oakland Raiders ripped out the hearts of their fans by moving to Los Angeles for larger stadiums and greater revenues in a chase for greed by their owner, the notorious Al Davis.

Then, shockingly, like an ex-husband let out of prison, they returned to Oakland and became the Oakland Raiders again…for a while.

As you know, they recently moved again to Las Vegas and it’s probably the place they will remain forever.

But they ain’t the Oakland Raiders no mores. Certainly not that team of the 70’s that lined up against the Super Bowl Steelers.

So…please excuse us if we can’t get too excited about a Steelers Raiders game these days. It’s just a game between two losing teams with no Super Bowl aspirations.

The Three Coaches

Anytime a team like the Steelers play this poorly over a course of a season, and rather mediocrely the past five years, the conversation about “Do we need a change in coaching?” is always going to be relevant.

Now there are many who have fastened themselves to the ankles of Coach Mike Tomlin and are crying out, “Don’t even think about taking away my coach!”

There are also others on the opposite side of the spectrum who are saying silly things like, “Tomlin was never any good…he only benefitted from Bill Cowher’s players”.

Both are rather ludicrous stances from the Spin’s perspective.

Tomlin has enjoyed many excellent years, but his serious Super Bowl runs lately have been as dry as the Quatar desert (outside of that artificial Vegas-like city they’ve built).

If we had a whole new coaching regime, with fresh ideas and energy…it would probably be alright.

Then again, to diminish the incredible career of one of the most prolific winning coaches of all time is complete nonsense. Tomlin’s mastery of the locker room, his love of his players, and his ability to avoid losing seasons is the stuff of legends.

It’s also true, if Tomlin wanted another job as a head coach, he would have it in a heartbeat.

But would he want another NFL head coaching position or would he instead seek to earn a world-changing salary in the booth as one of the most Shakespearean commentators of all time? I think I might enjoy that.

So too may Tomlin. Because folks, I hate to break it to you. Football isn’t as all-important to him as it is to you. He’s a family man and there is a time when seeing your kids’ games is more important than coaching your own players and putting up with fan noise and hubbledockey.

And we know, although Tomlin loves his players more than probably any NFL coach has…as far as the fans…meh. Not so much. Especially not when they have ideas about football players and strategy.

If anyone is thinking Tomlin is getting some unusual and unfair heat about moving on, they only need to look to Bill Cowher’s last years. Prior to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger there were many a fan offering to help pack Bill’s moving van.

His enthusiasm for the game was wavering and his family was becoming much more important than the Steelers as well (and as it should).

His Super Bowl victory with Jerome Bettis was epic, but does anyone remember the year after? Ol’ Bill was burned out. Completely torched. It was probably his worst coaching year.

We loved Bill Cowher, but it was time for new eyes and bold thinking and Mike Tomlin was just what the doctor ordered.

Same too with Coach Chuck Noll in the late 80’s. Imagine winning four Super Bowls and a solid half of the fans are urging you to hang up your spurs?

Many of us were shocked and disappointed when Noll was “forcibly retired”, but it didn’t take long to realize that Bill Cowher was exactly what the franchise needed.

Such is life in the NFL. Someone said that once, and it holds true today.

The Defense Rests

As far as the “Tomlin could only win with Cowher’s players” statement, that is a load of hooey.

Tomlin’s first five years of coaching for the Pittsburgh Steelers was ripe with innovation, energy and a modern approach to the game. He was amazing and his players took to him right away, even those who were Cowher’s veterans.

Yet, there is something indisputably true when it comes to comparing Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin.

Cowher was a much better visionary and head coach for Pittsburgh Steelers defenses. Except for a blip in the radar here and there, Cowher’s defensive squads were always dominant and in the top five during his reign. Many years they were clearly the best and by a wide margin.

They also were always the toughest kid on the block. You’ll never take away from Cowher’s coaching prowess. And as strong as he was of a defensive mind himself, he always had great defensive coaches around him.

Remember when there was all the talk about Tomlin shifting the Steelers away to more of a Tampa Two defense? When there was clamor about how much the game had changed and that players like Casey Hampton would never again be able to play on an NFL field?

Then we started drafting stopwatch awing speedsters rather than tough guys?

Yeah…well some ten years later, I think we can all agree that was a complete sham.

Do you really believe the Steelers defense of 2008 couldn’t compete against the offenses of today? I’d take that squad any day. In fact, I’ll take the Steelers defense of the 90’s with Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, Carnell Lake, Willie Wilson, Darren Perry, Ray Seals and Joel Steed right now.

We’ll time portal them to the field against today’s Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs and they’ll do just fine, thank you very much.

It may be true that Mike Tomlin is the better all around head coach. You can hang onto that if you would like.

But there is no denying that Bill Cowher gave us the defenses of our dreams.

Game On

A Saturday slate of Christmas Eve games in the NFL? How good is that?

The Steelers take on the Raiders in what will surely be a highly emotional event as we take time to honor the greatness of Franco Harris on the field and throughout his lifetime.

The fact that it comes shortly after the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception will make this a day to remember.

It will be both an honoring of the awesomeness of a player that means so much to Pittsburgh and its fans throughout the world, and equally a tribute to greatest era of Steelers football.

We tip our hats.

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