Franco Harris in the metallic silver blue uniform of the Dallas Cowboys? Lynn Swann making acrobatic catches with the state of Texas star on his helmet? Terry Bradshaw throwing touchdowns to Drew Pearson and Golden Richards rather than Swann and John Stallworth?
It could have happened in the 1970s, if Gil Brandt had his druthers. And, oh how history might have changed.
Brandt was the Cowboys vice president of player personnel from 1960-89 and wanted to draft Harris in the first round of the 1972 draft. But the Steelers drafted Harris, a running back from Penn State, with the 14th overall pick and the Cowboys had to settle for running back Bill Thomas of Boston College. History will show that Thomas never authored the greatest play in National Football League history nor had an army with Frank Sinatra as a member named for him.
Two years later, the Steelers had the 21st pick in the draft, one spot ahead of the Cowboys. Brandt said the Cowboys so desperately wanted to draft Swann, a ballerina-like receiver from USC, that he instructed the team official at the draft to be ready to turn in their selection card in case the Steelers let their allotted time expire.
"I told him, 'You take that card up and soon as that clock goes to zero you turn it in,' " Brandt said.
But the Steelers turned in their selection on time and the Cowboys drafted running back Charley Young from North Carolina State with the next pick. History will show that Young never made any highlight-film catches or was named a Super Bowl MVP.
"They turned in their card with five seconds to go and Swann was the guy who killed us," Brandt said.
Swann was the MVP of Super Bowl X, the first of two Super Bowl victories against the Cowboys in the 1970. But he and Harris weren't the only ones who got away from Brandt.
In 1970, Brandt asked Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. about trading the No. 1 overall pick because he wanted to move up and draft Bradshaw. The Cowboys had the 23rd overall pick in the first round.
"I tried extremely hard to trade the first pick and draft Bradshaw," Brandt said. "Mr. Rooney said to me, 'Gil, if you think he's so good, then I think I'll keep him.' "
So alike, so different
History has intertwined the Steelers and Cowboys so often that each franchise considers the other an integral part of its magical and successful fiber.
It goes all the way back to when the Dallas franchise entered the league in 1960 and didn't win its first game until it beat the Steelers, 27-24, in the 1961 season opener.
It includes the Steelers' two Super Bowl victories against the Cowboys -- 21-17 in Super Bowl X and 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII -- games highlighted with big plays and ignominious moments.
It even includes some retribution in another Super Bowl moment: The Cowboys beating the Steelers, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX, the culmination of a dominant era in which the Cowboys won their third Vince Lombardi Trophy in four years.
In a league with storied franchises such as the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, the Steelers and Cowboys remain the NFL's glamour boys -- teams with huge national followings that are the object of desire for television networks. Last week, Ben Roethlisberger called the Cowboys "America's Team" and the Steelers "The World's Team," and he is probably right.
"He plays for a franchise that has had great success over the years and for a long time in the NFL," said Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who has been named to three Pro Bowls and makes more than $8 million annually but has won only one playoff game in seven seasons as a starter. "We have had success over the last 50 years as well. I think you look at a couple of very strong franchises that have been around for a long time and it's just great to play for organizations like this."
The Steelers (7-6) and Cowboys (7-6) will meet again at 4:25 p.m. today at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, site of the Steelers' last Super Bowl appearance. And the game will carry more significance than any of their other three regular-season meetings since Super Bowl XXX.
The Cowboys have won four of their past five and are chasing a possible division title and one of the two wild-card playoff spots in the NFC. The Steelers have lost three of their past four games, but remain in control for one of the two wild-card playoff spots in the AFC.
Despite their similar positions this season, the Steelers and Cowboys have taken different paths in the 17 years since that meeting in Super Bowl XXX in Phoenix.
The Steelers have gone on to win 14 playoff games, appear in six conference championship games and win two of three Super Bowl appearances. They have had two head coaches in that time -- Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have gone 2-7 in the postseason since 1995 and have won just one playoff game since Romo became their quarterback. They have had six head coaches in that time, starting with Barry Switzer and including Dave Campo, Chan Gailey, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett.
"I think the biggest difference it went the way it did was that the teams in Pittsburgh had some really good draft picks and the Willie Parker-like free agents," Brandt said. "Dallas squandered two [No. 1] picks for Joey Galloway, then all those picks for [Roy] Williams and I don't think they made as good a use of their picks as the Steelers."
Brandt's reference was to the 2000 trade they made with the Seattle Seahawks to obtain Galloway, giving up their first-round choices in the 2000 and 2001 drafts. The Cowboys were seeking a receiver to replace the departed Michael Irvin, but Galloway had little impact. He tore his ACL in his first game, missed the remainder of the 2000 season and had 151 catches, 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns in four years with the Cowboys.
In the middle of the 2008 season, the Cowboys gave up four draft choices -- a first-, third- and sixth-round choice in 2009 and a seventh-round pick in 2010 -- to the Detroit Lions to obtain Williams, a former wide receiver at the University of Texas.
The Cowboys immediately signed Williams to a five-year, $45 million extension in what turned out to be probably the worst trade in Cowboys history, Williams had 94 catches and 13 touchdowns in 40 games with the Cowboys, prompting owner Jerry Jones to even say, "I'd love to have that trade back."
Since 1993, the Cowboys have traded away their No. 1 draft choice seven times, robbing them of potential impact players and forcing them to sign free agents such as Terrell Owens, Eddie George, Randall Cunningham, Ryan Leaf and kicker Mike Vanderjagt.
"When you buy a free agent, it's like getting into the used-car business," Brandt said. "You might get something that never gives you a problem or you might have a problem two days after you buy it."
Brandt, an original Cowboy, likes what the Steelers have done.
"The Ike Taylors they draft, the Woodleys, are really good players," he said. "When you're lucky enough to get the guy who has the longest run in Super Bowl history in free agency; when you're picking 30th and you get a guy like the tight end from Virginia [Heath Miller] ... I do think they do a better job of acquiring players."
The Romo factor
At halftime of a Week 6 matchup with the division-rival New York Giants in 2006, the Cowboys decided to make a change at quarterback, even though their starter, Drew Bledsoe, had led them to a 3-2 record and averaged 32 points in their three victories.
And so began the Tony Romo era.
Romo, an undrafted free-agent from Eastern Illinois who was in his fourth season with the Cowboys, won five of his first six starts, including a victory against the previously unbeaten Indianapolis Colts.
But, after getting to 8-4, the Cowboys lost three of their final four games, a stretch in which Romo had six touchdown passes, six interceptions and two lost fumbles. A loss in the season finale to the 2-13 Detroit Lions cost the Cowboys the division title.
The Cowboys still managed to secure their first playoff spot since 2003, but, in a wild-card playoff game with the Seattle Seahawks, Romo botched the hold on the go-ahead field goal in the final two minutes and Dallas lost, 21-20.
And so began the era of frustration with Romo.
"If he doesn't fumble the extra point, I felt we had a chance to do some damage," said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was in his third and final season as the Cowboys wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator. "If we kicked the field goal, we were going to play Chicago and we felt we matched up well with them.
"I thought we were making great progress. We were accumulating talent and we had a nice little roster. Romo was a bit of a surprise to outsiders, but the longer you were around him, watching him do his thing in practice and in the preseason, the kid had a chance to be a player. That was a hard year because we felt we could do some damage. We had some skill and had a chance to go somewhere."
They're still saying the same things about the Cowboys.
Since Romo became the starter, Dallas has won only playoff game -- in 2009 against the Philadelphia Eagles in a wild-card game. That is also the last time the Cowboys have been in the playoffs.
Their recent surge -- two victories in a row and four in the past five games -- has them thinking they might be able to end the drought. But the Cowboys are going to need some help. They are a game behind the Giants in the NFC East race and are behind the Bears (8-5) and Seattle Seahawks (8-5) for one of the two wild-card spots.
"I think we're just putting our heads down and going to work," said Romo, 32, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "By no means have we played our best football, and I know we have a lot of guys out at a lot of different positions. We're playing with a different team than we started the season with. Guys have continued to get better and figure out how to improve. We're getting some new guys in and trying to get them up to date with the offense and defense."
And trying to find the right path back to where the Cowboys once resided 17 years ago -- at the top of the football world.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published December 16, 2012 5:00 AM