Gene Collier: Steelers' 1974 draft won't ever be matched

An outsized portion of the early chatter in Latrobe this week got powered by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier, the 21-year-old linebacker whose explosiveness confounded veteran running back LeGarrette Blount in the rumbly annual rumba called the backs-on-backers drill.

Though such entanglements rarely have lasting import, it soothed the confidence muscles of everyone involved in the Steelers draft, which means everyone on the masthead from team president Art Rooney II to the meticulous soldiers of the inexhaustible scouting department.

“See?” they all think, consciously or not, “he’s not a No. 1 pick for nothin’.”

For long-time students of the organization, seeing a highly-regarded draft pick get a foothold like Shazier’s, fleeting as it might prove to be, you can’t help but imagine the anticipation for the greatest draft ever, by Pittsburgh or anyone else.

It’s hard to get your head around it, but Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster did not arrive at Saint Vincent College with their transport to Canton already arranged. Those four Hall of Famers, or twice as many as any NFL team ever snared in one draft before or since, arrived 40 years ago this month, and with them the finished foundation of a dynasty.

Of course, nobody knew that.

Not really.

“Lambert’s in this drill against another guy, a center, and the center is kicking his ass,” Art Rooney Jr. was remembering Tuesday about the Kent State linebacker he took in the second round, “Four times they did it, and all four times the same thing happened. Well, you didn’t know at the time, but you had a Hall of Fame linebacker in Lambert, and a Hall of Fame center in Mike Webster.”

Art Rooney Jr., the late Chuck Noll, and a scouting department that included Dick Haley (father of contemporary offensive coordinator Todd) and Jack Butler managed to get themselves into and out of the 1974 draft without a lot of head-butting, even though Noll thought so much of Stallworth he wanted to take him in the first round instead of Swann. Rooney and the others were convinced they could get the Alabama A&M sleeper (sorry, antiquated draft term) in the fourth round, and they were right. Webster came in the fifth round.

“In those days,” Rooney recalled in his South Hills office, “the way we rated receivers’ hands was that zero was perfect. If we gave a guy a 0 he had perfect hands, in our opinion. A 1 meant the guy should be a starter, a 2 meant he might make the team, 3 meant you were just a prospect.

“Well, the way [Terry[ Bradshaw threw that ball, you had to have all 0’s and 1’s. He had such zip on it. One time I was up at camp and Bradshaw threw a pass incomplete and it bounced, and I just happened to be standing there, and it hit me on the leg. And it hurt like heck. Later, I was taking a shower and I saw I was black and blue all the way up my leg, just from a bouncer.

“Swann and Stallworth and [free agent] Randy Grossman, they really had no problem with it.”

Rooney remembers warmly the satisfaction he felt watching his four future Cantonites as well as Grossman, free-agent safety Donnie Shell, and defensive back Jimmy Allen, whom he’d taken with a second fourth-round pick, 25 spots before Webster.

The only problem was, all of them reported during a strike by the regular players, so the experts anticipated a leveling off in the opulent play of the rookies once the veterans returned.

“I really did, but. by that time, those guys thought they were regular players. The exhibition season had started, [quarterback] Joe [Gilliam] had come back, and we were beating people up.

“One time, Swann was on a table waiting to get taped before a game, and Joe Greene had to remind him, ‘Hey, kid, rookies are always last! Go out there and wait in line! Just wait until the real guys get taped!”

Soon enough, it was getting hard to tell the real guys from the real guys, and Pittsburgh took to pounding people with their new reality.

A Super Bowl victory had suddenly crept within months, with three more to come before the decade was out. Nobody felt exactly that 40 summers ago, but they certainly had their suspicions.

“It was the greatest draft ever,” Rooney says, as humbly as he can. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be reproduced.”

Well I do.

And it won’t.

Gene Collier:

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