James Lawton: Forget Lombardi's Packers, Noll's 1980 Steelers were the masters of this blue-collar game
Noll built a defence of such power they were christened the Steel Curtain and his offence was a thing of great athletic beauty
Saturday 05 February 2011
It can be no surprise that the Green Bay Packers have been hogging all the Super Bowl hype. They did, after all, take a freight train of American sports lore down to Dallas for tomorrow's big game.
But then maybe we should tick all the Packer boxes as quickly as we can before moving on to the team who for some will always represent the best of the gridiron, the purest adherence to the most insistent demands of the game's core blue-collar audience: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So we give unto the Packers their due ... the pride of small-town America, the heroes who for so long have braved the blizzards sweeping across Wisconsin and gone out to compete, hit for hit, with their big-city rivals, and all the time brandishing the rich if somewhat contentious legacy of their legendary coach Vince Lombardi.
Under Lombardi the Packers were the team of the Sixties and winners of the first two Super Bowls. He defined the hard edge of American sport with his declaration, "winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing" – a statement which created two schools of thought.
One is that Lombardi inspired the highly laudable ambition of sporting excellence. The other is that he also managed to warp whole generations of young Americans.
Slap bang in the middle of the argument was one of his over-achieving players, who reported: "One thing about the coach was that he was scrupulously fair when dealing with us. He treated us all like dogs."
This is all very well but if Green Bay are happy in the belief that they own the memory of the greatest football coach of them all, there is a mighty counter-claim in Pittsburgh. It is on behalf of the most successful of their coaches, Chuck Noll.
Noll was united to Lombardi only in his genius for winning. He won four Super Bowls with his team of the Seventies and if there is a degree of bias here it is perhaps because the first Super Bowl I saw, in 1980, was one of the greatest of them all, a 31-19 Steeler victory over the Los Angeles Rams in front of a record crowd of 103,000 in the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
It was a game which any sports fan could admire, even John Giles who during a stint in the North American Soccer League around that time said: "There are so many things to admire in American football, its power and speed and explosive spectacle – but I'm sorry, I don't see how any game which is shaped all but completely by a coach standing on the touchline can ever call itself truly great."
If there is much merit in such an argument, it was stretched to its limits that day in the Rose Bowl.
The Rams provided unexpectedly spirited opposition but in the end there was nothing so much as confirmation of the brilliance of Noll's recruiting down the years. The Steelers had everything that day, sensational offence and, when it mattered, the fiercest defence.
In every decisive phase of the game there was evidence of how well Noll had used the draft system, one which so surreally for fans of the Premier League continues to be designed to close the gap between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, rather than widen it.
From the annual roll of college stars Noll, who also found time to attend the performances of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and win plaudits as an experimental cook, plucked out men who almost formally made their way to the NFL's Hall of Fame. He composed a defence of such formidable power they were promptly christened the Steel Curtain and his offence was a thing of great athletic beauty.
In 1969, the first year of his 23-year-stint, he picked out "Mean" Joe Greene. In 1970, Arsène Wenger-like, he saw the Hall of Fame potential of quarterback Terry Bradshaw, a laconic, tobacco-chewing product of the Bayou country, and the hard and beautifully balanced cornerback Mel Blount. In '71 and '72 the calls went out to spectacular running back, Franco Harris, and a withering linebacker named Jack Ham.
It was in 1974 that Noll smashed all records with his selection of four men destined, almost from their first performances, to represent the "Steeler Nation" in the Hall of Fame – wide receivers Lynn Swann, a player of nothing less than balletic grace, and John Stallworth, who emerged from his lithe and brilliant team-mate's shadow in that unforgettable game in Pasadena, linebacker Jack Lambert and Mike Webster, who operated superbly at the centre of the offensive line.
Tomorrow the ruling Pittsburgh hand will be not so much head coach Mike Tomlin as his defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, a man who has inspired cultish admiration with his blitzing "Fire Zone".
LeBeau's ferocious, and somewhat complex tactics. are seen as Pittsburgh's best chance of delivering a stunning (when you consider all the efforts to keep a level playing field) seventh Super Bowl.
However, casual admirers of the All-American War game can be forgiven for being a little fuzzy on the nuances of the LeBeau master plan. Indeed, they might be even more sympathetic to the Giles point of view after reviewing an appreciative assessment of the Steeler tactics from a rival NFL coach.
Here is one of the more accessible passages: "So many people are worried about blocking the outside linebackers that they usually try to stop them with offensive linemen. They fan the offensive linemen out to them, which means they take the ends and the tackles take the outside linebackers. That puts the running back and the centre on the two inside linebackers, which takes a lot of co-ordination to do.
"So you will see 'middle dog' cross-hit a lot of times where they send the nose [tackle] one way and the two linebackers come through the same hole on the other side. And the reason it is so effective (if you hadn't already guessed) is that they are blocking the outside guys with big people. That's the idea in a 3-4 if you're going to bring the pressure."
In the old days, before Pittsburgh became a leading centre of America's health industry rather than a smoky old town of steel mills filled with dark bars and patrons who downed their beers and their shots with alarming frequency and never tired of talking of the "Steel Curtain" and its life-expelling properties, there wasn't quite so much technical jargon.
It was enough that the Steelers were the strongest, most beautiful team in the nation – and, in this corner at least, to make them again the sentimental favourites on America's big day.
Wenger should curb the immature side of Fabregas
Arsene Wenger is not performing a service to Cesc Fabregas when he accuses the Everton manager, David Moyes, of confecting a false story about the Arsenal player's otherwise reasonably well-documented verbal attack on a referee.
Fabregas, for all his great qualities as a player, has a shocking record of failing to show basic respect for match officials and managers of rival clubs. Arrogance can be a fine and vital quality on the field. Off it, it can show a degree of arrested development.
Whether or not the teenaged Fabregas hurled a piece of pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson after an appalling display of communal anarchy on the field a few years ago is still a matter of speculation, but if we are looking for circumstantial evidence Fabregas has certainly not kept it in short supply.
At his creative best there is no more heartwarming sight in football. But when his hackles are up the precise opposite can be true. It is a tendency which Wenger, right to the end, seems reluctant to curb.
However, when Fabregas arrives in Barcelona, the question "if" having surely been removed, he will do well to learn something from the demeanour and the style of his new team-mates Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. He will see grown-up players – and grown-up men.
If only we could all believe in Benitez
Now rafa benitez pops up to tell us that the proper evaluation of Fernando Torres is more like £70m. The former Liverpool manager also adds the encouraging news that now he has been discharged by Internazionale he may be free to resume his duties at Anfield when the second coming of Kenny Dalglish is concluded.
Where Rafa finds his self-belief has to be something of a mystery. Solving it would surely brighten our own less encouraging days.
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