´ Steel Curtain Rising: The Steelers 2008 and 1979 Super Bowl Champions Compared

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Steelers 2008 and 1979 Super Bowl Champions Compared

ESPN.com is running a division-by-division “best ever series” at the moment, and their take on the AFC North provided some interesting food for thought.

James Walker, who covers the AFC North for ESPN, selects the Steelers 1975 team as the best ever.

Personally I would lean toward the 1978 team because it was the most complete – Rocky and Franco could still dominate on the ground and Bradshaw struck deep to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth downfield. On the defensive side of the ball, the 1975 version of the Steel Curtain was stronger, but the 1978 Steelers defense was still the best in the game.

But Walker makes strong arguments for the 1975 teams, and I have no reason to quibble.

The bigger issue is the honorable mentions that get tacked on at the end. Each team in the series gets one “Best” plus three honorable mentions. Walker awards honorable mentions (in order) to the Steelers XIII, XIV, and IX, and Super Bowl Squads.

But he mentions nary a word about the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

And that is a mistake.

Ranking the Steelers Super Bowls

Any ranking of the Steelers Super Bowl squads has got to list either Super Bowl X or Super Bowl XIII as one and two. It really is that simple.

And there’s a strong argument for ranking the Super Bowl IX squad number three, if for no other reason that this was a group with a dominate defense, a crushing running game, and this group of Steelers was only broaching the heights of its greatness.

But who comes in fourth is a more difficult question.

Walker ranks the XIV squad 3rd, and while winning the fourth Super Bowl was impressive, why does it get automatic preference over the two more recent Super Bowls?

Most in Steelers Nation will probably rank the 2005 Super Bowl XL team last in the group. If forced to rate them, that is probably the rating I would give them. And perhaps that is a mistake, as that team had a championship caliber defense matched by a balanced offense. It also won 4 straight road playoff games to get its Lombardi.

Rightly or wrongly, even if you ignore all of Mike Holmgren’s sour graping about the officiating, the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad will suffer from the fact that they neither put on a dominate nor dramatic performance in the big game itself.

I invite any reader who wishes to advocate on behalf of the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad to leave a comment stating their arguments.

I’ll concentrate on making the case for the 2008 Steelers.

The 2008 Steelers vs. the 1979 Steelers

First, why rank the 1979 team below the 1974 team?

In addition to the reason cited above, the 1974 Steelers vanquished the Oakland Radiers, a fellow Super Bowl Champion from that era, en route to the title game and then defeated the perennial Super Bowl contender Vikings, and their Purple People Eater defense, in the Super Bowl itself.

The 1979 Steelers squad has no similar victories notching its belt. Certainly, Bum Philips and Earl Campbell were formidable opponents, and the Rams were a good team from that era, but neither could be considered as great.

It is impossible to compare teams from different eras with 100% objectivity, but any analysis must begin with a look at the players.

The 1979 team had nine Hall of Famers. How many potential Hall of Famers did the 2008 team have? Troy Polamalu, hopefully Hines Ward, and perhaps Ben Roethlisberger assuming he keeps his pants on. And on the surface, that should settle the argument right there.

But many of the Steelers future Hall of Famers were already in decline in 1979. Like the 2008 team they finished their regular season with a 12-4 record, and like the 2008 Steelers, they followed up their Super Bowl victory finishing 9-7.

But the 2008 Steelers played one of the toughest schedules in league history. They did so after weathering a blistering series of injuries that ravaged their offensive line and forced them to start their fourth string running back in the season defining week 5 contest against Jacksonville.

And if the 2008 Steelers lacked the dynastic quality of their 1979 forbearers, that is a simple function of the era in which they play. The 2008 Steelers had their backs pressed to the wall so many times during the year, and each and every time they responded.

Vince Ferragamo came off the bench to play a phenomenal game for the LA Rams that day in Pasadena, but no one will ever confuse him with Kurt Warner, and Ferragamo had nothing on the order of a Larry Fitzgerald at his disposal.

The 1979 Steelers were a great team. But the 2008 Steelers deserve to be considered a notch higher when establishing a pecking order among the Steelers Super Bowl Champions.

But this is just the opinion of one voice in Steelers Nation. All who have a different take are welcome to leave a comment and voice their views. Let the debate begin.

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6 comments:

Neal Coolong said...

While there's no way to say the Steelers 2009 campaign was all that close to 2008, it isn't too far off, either. The main difference was the fact the 2008 team beat the tar out of a lot of teams (Houston in the opener, Cincinnati twice, second Cleveland game). However, similarly to 2009, they had good chunk of games with the result in doubt in the fourth quarter - Jacksonville, Baltimore x2, Dallas, San Diego). LIke you said, though, that team responded and won those close games.

2009 will be forever marked as the year the Steelers couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter. Sort of the Anti-2008.

While the 2008 team will be forever my favorite (as of right now), the 2009 team deflates some of its legacy, because it was almost entirely the same personnel. Granted, injuries play a big part of that, but look at the 2004 team (left off all the Greatest Teams list because they didn't win a Super Bowl...or, they were the only one who played against a team taping their signals), they had a bunch of injuries, and it made them stronger. To me, that suggests strength on a team. If injuries break you down, your team isn't that strong.

Long point short, I'm going with 1979 because it was more of a team. The 2008 team gets tarnished because they followed up one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history with one of the most disappointing in franchise history(point of fact: The 2000 Ravens defense wasn't even the best statistically in the league) (another point of fact: The 2008 Steelers defense gave up the least amount of yards per game in the previous 23 years) and you can attribute that to an injury.

To me, that kind of takes the luster off the 2008 team...although it pains me to say it. Maybe I'm just bitter about 2009.

KT said...

Neal,

You make a reasonable arguement.

In a perfect world, you'd only measure a team on its performance on one given year.

But things only work that way sometimes.

Take the '85 Bears. They are regarded as being one of the best teams ever. And they were great.

But they were supposed to be the next NFL dynasty and they never saw another Super Bowl. They were contenders for the rest of the 1980's but never made the big dance again.

And your point about injuries is a good one. The 2004 team shows that brightly.

But if you really want to take how a team did in its title defense into account, the Steelers 1980 season did not go well.

The 2008 team rose to the level of competition. Every time.

The 2009 team played down to the competition.

Does that take some of the luster off of what the 2008 team accomplished?

Personally, I am not 100% sure but I lean more towards saying no, but I certainly respect the arguments of those who disagree.

chas in texas said...

this is a great post - and i had the same thought when i read the james walker top-4. but i'd make a strong argument for the 08 team at number 3, rather than 4 or 5.
the numbers are already here: 12-4 against the toughest schedule in decades; top defense in football in terms of yards, points, passing yards, and number two in rushing yards; two defensive player of the year candidates (harrison who won, and troy p. who was also all-pro), and probably the best 5-man linebacker rotation in the nfl in a decade or more; only 1 game all year where the opponent had 300 yards of total offense (and that opponent was the titans in week 15, not the colts, patriots, giants, cowboys, eagles, texans, or chargers - all of whom were on the steelers schedule that year).
but the real issue with that team was something that the other poster (neal) said was more exemplified by the 79 team - that they were more of a team. i'd say the 08 team is the definition of team. not in a cheaseball patriots "we don't do individual introductions" kind of way, but rather that you never knew who was going to come through that week - it wasn't always the same faces making the game turning plays. one week it might be james harrison with a strip-sack-safety (san diego) or two consecutive strip-sacks (new england); it might be troy making absurd, superhuman interceptions (philly or san diego) or taking one to the house (baltimore afcc); it might be santonio holmes taking a punt to the house (san diego playoffs) or turning a busted play into a touchdown (baltimore, all three games); it might be willie parker scoring three tds (houston) or rolling up 100 yards in a game where the opponent ran 1 play in the entire 3rd quarter (san diego playoffs); it might be deshea townsend taking a pick-6 at the end of a wild 4th quarter (dallas), or mwelde moore hanging 90 yards as a 4th string reliever against really strong run defenses (jacksonville, baltimore), or byron leftwich playing lights-out against the redskins in relief; or it might be big ben converting a 3rd and long on the money with two guys literally pulling him to the turf (jacksonville), or driving for huge game winners over and over (like the superbowl). if you couldn't do it, the guy beside you or behind you stepped up. that's the definition of a team. i'd say the 08 squad was one of the best in that deparment that the steelers ever fielded.

as a quick sidenote too - i think holding the 09 season against the 08 squad is unfair.
equating any one season with the next is problematic anyway (this is why repeating as champs is so rare), but i'd argue that the 09 steelers weren't nearly as bad as everyone remembers either. their offense was actually considerably better - big ben was outstanding, mendenhall played a great second half, and the 1-2-3 receiving punch of ward-holmes-wallace (4 if you count heath miller) is probably the best one the team ever fielded. plus, their seven losses were all one-score games (the biggest loss of the season was 13-6) - meaning that the 09 steelers were literally one play per week from winning every single game that year. (the 08 team can't even say that after they got pounded by the titans in week 15.) and anyone who thinks that troy p's presence (or aaron smith or larry foote) wouldn't have been good enough for one play per game apparently didn't watch troy's first half against the titans in the 09 opener (or tyrone carter's replacement games the rest of the year). do you think bruce gradkowski lights up the 4th quarter if that guy's on the field? or that ray rice takes a desperate 4th down toss into field goal range if troy, smith, and foote are in uniform?
i'd rank the 08 steelers ahead of the 09 model still, but 09 wasn't the meltdown it's sometimes portrayed as.

chas in texas said...

one more thing i thought about when reading the walker post on espn: even though it seems absurd to rank a superbowl winner below a squad that lost in the playoffs, i think a strong case could be made for three other non-champion steeler teams:

the 76 steelers (10-4, lost afc title game)
you had two one-thousand yard rushers in a 14 game season (franco harris and rocky bleir), and arguably the best defense in nfl history - during the 9-game season-closing win streak, they gave up only 28 points and pitched 5 shutouts (nfl network recently called them the best defense ever as well). plus dan rooney has said he always thought the 76 team was the best steelers team of the era.
this squad only missed the three-peat when both franco and rocky got injured and terry bradshaw (who'd missed most of the season with an elbow injury) couldn't carry the team past a strong 13-1 raider team (who had a huuuuge steeler grudge). superbowl would have been rematch of sb-ix, in which steelers manhandled vikings. this one might have been the only superbowl shutout.

the 2001 team (13-3, lost afc title game)
best running team i've ever seen - ran for nearly 2800 yards, and held opponents to under 1200 (ridiculous net of +1600). jerome bettis was leading the league when he got injured in week 10, and somehow they kept plowing people with non-buses amos zereoue and chris fuamatu-ma'afala. plus 55 sacks on pass defense, an excellent d-line and linebacking corps featuring the defensive rookie of the year (kendrell bell) lining up between joey porter and jason gilden. also, two 1000 yard receivers on offense (hines ward and plaxico burress were the first duo in team history for that), and they sent kordell stewart to the pro-bowl as a quarterback somehow. this team missed being 15-1 only because kris brown shanked 4 field goals in one game against baltimore, and bill cowher inexplicably took his foot off the gas against jon kitna's bengals late in the year (cowher's famous 100-1-1 record when leading by 11 or more? the one loss was to kitna in 01).
in the conference title game (after blasting the defending superbowl champ ravens 27-10), these steelers knocked tom brady senseless in the first quarter, and only missed the superbowl because of two freak special teams plays by troy brown (that still kills me). that superbowl (against the martz/warner rams) would have been epic.

the 2004 team (15-1, lost afc championship game)
again, outstanding running game (duce/bettis tandem was probably most talented in team history) and, as per usual, the best defense in football (emergence of troy p, while james farrior nearly wins def-poy). these guys just crushed teams. they pounded both superbowl participants, in successive weeks near midseason, when both were undefeated - snapped patriots' 22 game win streak 34-20 (in a game that wasn't nearly that close, and where brady looked confused and intimidated all game, while rookie big ben lit up the belichik/crenell defense for 2 td passes in the first quarter alone); then took out 7-0 eagles (bettis, in relief, getting 149 yds, and the defense shuts down touchdown-machine terrel owens) 27-3 in a game that (somehow) also wasn't that close. rookie big ben also pulled out a couple of tight games (cowboys, giants).
lost title game to that same pats team they'd previously dominated. in championship game, n.e. always seemed to dial up the perfect play against pitt's superb defense. hard to think of this as a legit loss when new england got caught having stolen defensive signals. steelers/eagles superbowl had to favor pitt.

DK said...

Given i was only 5 so I didn't see the 76 team I have heard and read that they were every bit as formidable as any of the 4 champions in the 70's and that they just were hit hard with injuries but that all their Hall of Famers were at or near their peak. Which brings me back to KT's point that I agree with that the 79 team was shwoing signs of decline and only beat a mediocre Rams team and was trailing going to the 4th quarter wheras the Cardinals team they turned away had been red hot and did have a probable Hall of Famer at Qb (Warner) and certainly an elite WR (Fitzgerald) who started becoming uncoverable in the second half, so my vote for their whole season and SB performance goes to 2008

KT said...

Chas in Texas,

That is a truly great point about the 2008 team, not only did they shine when the game was on the line, there were so many differnet players who could do it. (Eleswhere in the blog, you'll see a post that explains with the 2008 game against Jacksonville was the defining game of the regular season.)
As for your arguments about the other teams, "I hear you." Almost to a man the Super Steelers will tell you that the 1976 squad was the best of the 1970's.

Not to go against the word of legends, but I am of the view that when it comes down to it, championships measure greatness.

As for the argument about the 2001 squad, I'll say now what I said then. Special teams is part of the game (a painful lesson we re-learned last year.) Cowher should have fired his specials teams coach after the 2000 season (See the Giants game from that year, who seemed to return each kick to mid-field.)

The 2004 team might have been the most talented team in (modern) franchise history. Seeing Bettis and Duce pound the Jets into submission was a thing of beauty.

But the simple fact was that Ben was not ready for PrimeTime yet.

One year later he was, and well Super Bowl XL was the result.