The 49ers owned the 1980’s. The Steelers were slightly over .500 during the decade.
Critics argue that the Steelers struggles in the 80’s prove that Noll won in the 70’s “only because he had the players.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Talent deficiencies, not coaching deficiencies, lay at the root of the Steelers woes in the 80’s. If Noll is largely responsibility for that drop in talent, then he wins praise for his ability to coach that talent.
What other coach could win playoff games with the likes of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister?
Dynasty vs. Dynasty
Comparing dynasties from different eras is fun but futile. Think of Steelers of the 70’s vs. the 49er’s of the 80’s debate. The Pittsburgh Steelers were superior, but proving that is impossible.
Players from different eras have training methods and their relative athletic abilities vary too much. Many Steelers from the 70's took off seson jobs just to make ends meet. In the 80's, that was no longer necessary.
Fortunately, hypotheticals are unnecessary when it comes to evaluating pure coaching talent.
Both Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh coached during the 80’s. In fact, the two men squared off on opposing sidelines three times, and the results are revealing:
- 1981 49er’s beat Steelers 17-14
- 1984 Steelers beat 49ers 20-17
- 1987 Steelers beat 49ers 30-17
Chuck Noll's 1981 Steelers team still had loads of Super Bowl veterans. And if many of these men were past their primes, many others were still playing at a pretty high level. The 1981 squad was Walsh's first Super Bowl team, so credit Bill Walsh's coaching for that win.
Fair enough, but Chuck Noll deserves far more credit for the his victories in the next two meetings.
Joe Montana and Bill Walsh vs. Mark Malone and Chuck Noll
When the two teams played in 1984, only a handful of Super Bowl veterans remained. Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie manned the backfield. Greenwood, Holmes, Greene, and White had given way to the likes of Keith Willis, Keith Gray, and Edmund Nelson. David Little and Bryan Hinkle occupied spots once taken by Lambert and Ham. And of course, Mark Malone stood under center.
Despite a vastly inferior roster, Noll and the Steelers carried the day, handing the 15-1 Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49er’s their only loss.
A similar scene repeated itself on opening day 1987, when only Dwayne Woodruff, John Stalworth, and Mike Webster remained from the glory years. This was a 49ers team that not only had Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, but also Michael Carter, Roger Craig, and of course, Jerry Rice.
Malone was still the Steelers signal caller. In fact, he started all 12 non-strike games despite a 46.5 passer rating (no misprint, that’s forty six point five.)
Yet once again, the duo of Noll and Malone prevailed over the tandem of Walsh and Montana.
One Victory Might Equal "On Any Given Sunday," but What About Two...?
The “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon might explain one victory, but winning two out of three? Indeed, the ballyhooed “West Coast Offense” never managed more than 17 points against in three tries against Chuck Noll’s defenses.
When it came facing off on opposing sidelines, the most important measure by far, Noll holds a small, but significant edge over Walsh.
So Who Was Better, Noll or Walsh?
When all is said and done, there’s a compelling case for Chuck Noll. He won more games and more championships. He also vanquished Walsh twice, and with Steeler teams that whose talent was far inferior to their 49er counterparts. There’s a reason why we call him the Emperor.
Ultimately, the answer comes down to what you decide.
But in the spirit of the blogsphere, I’ll close this series of posts with a question.
- Chuck Noll and Mark Malone beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana -- twice.
Does anybody think Bill Walsh could have beaten Chuck Noll with Mark Malone as his quarterback?
* Bill Walsh himself responded to the question on the Sports Reporters once, conceding that Pittsburgh would win if 70’s rules were used, but the 49’ers would prevail if 80’s rules were used. He’s probably right.