Teams are defined as much by their competition as they are by their accomplishments. In Jimmy Johnson’s case, beating Joe Gibbs and the Steve Young/Jerry Rice 49ers added luster to his team’s titles. His predecessor Tom Landry’s career was defined as much by its epic losses as by its wins. Perhaps no coaching opponent stymied Cowboys hopes, in Landry’s and in any era, like the Steelers’ Chuck Noll, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82. Of Cowboys foes, he and Vince Lombardi fill a two-man pantheon.
Vince Lombardi had a better record against Landry, but played half of his battled while Dallas was building from expansion poverty. George Allen and Buddy Ryan got under the skin more with their bravado. Neither, broke Cowboys hearts from the sideline the way Noll could. In the ’70s, when Tom’s Cowboys were at their peak, they went a dismal 1-4 against Pittsburgh, with two being painfully close losses in Super Bowls X and XIII.
Noll brought impeccible football bloodlines to the Steelers job. He played as a messenger guard for Paul Brown’s Browns, playing in five NFL championship games between 1953 and 1958. Noll saw the writing on the wall when he was replaced by eventual Hall of Fame guard Gene Hickerson; Noll retired after the ’59 season at the age of 29. He joined Sid Gillman with the new AFL Los Angeles Chargers. While Gillman build his vertical stretch offense, Noll ran his defense. Their Chargers played in five of the AFL’s first six title contests, thrashing Boston 51-10 in 1963.
In 1966, Noll joined Don Shula’s Colts staff and in 1968 built one of the NFL’s all time defenses, a shifting, blitzing, physical group that allowed just 10.4 points per game. Noll’s boys were embarrassed in Super Bowl III by Joe Namath’s Jets. Weeks later, Noll took over the Steelers, the NFL’s basket case. Noll set about creating a team that used his former mentors’ best ideas. His running game as a quick trapping attack adapted from the ’50s Browns. Every lineman on the unit pulled inside or out, blunting a defense’s aggression. When Noll’s Steelers passed, Terry Bradshaw went vertical, the same way Gillman’s Chargers did.
Pittsburgh built its reputation on defense. Noll kept the zone-heavy attack he used in Baltimore and his personnel man Bill Nunn fortified it, with a host of stars from Texas and Texas-area black colleges. NFL historian Michael McCambridge notes that the Kansas City Chiefs dominated the AFL’s ’60s because they integrated their defense far more than other professional teams. As the Chiefs star dimmed in the early ’70s. the Steelers carried out this practice better than any other club.
While Gil Brandt’s computer reports found the Cowboys quality defenders at tiny colleges like Elizabeth City State (Jethro Pugh) and Tennessee State (Ed Jones) Nunn, who coincidentally died last month, mined schools like Southern, North Texas, Texas A&M Commerce and Texas Southern for Pro Bowlers. Three quarters of the fabled “Steel Curtain” hailed from Texas schools.
Noll also encouraged innovation, and his assistants evolved the 4-3 Landry had created. His line coach George Perles created the slant-nose 1-technique all them -2 defenses now play. Tony Dungy, a D-back and player coach in later years, helped refine cover-2 coverage concepts. The current Dallas defense uses a lot of concepts Noll’s squads pioneered.
Pittsburgh then got the upper hand on Dallas on a couple of off-field events that helped tip the Cowboys rivalry their way. In the ’74 draft, the Steelers picked one spot ahead of Dallas. Nunn and Noll debated the receiver Pittsburgh should choose first. Noll preferred Alabama A&m’s John Stallworth, while Nunn urged the coach to pick USC standout Lynn Swann. Nunn prevailed, and Pittsburgh got their card in just ahead of the Cowboys, who had raced their pick to the podium in the event the Steelers passed their time.
The name on the Cowboys’ card? Lynn Swann. But for a few more seconds, the biggest Cowboys killer of the era would have played for the team. Instead, the Steelers got both of their targets.
Two years prior, the teams had competed for assistant Bud Carson, who installed the first defensive audible system, that allowed players to change fronts and coverages in response to the offense’s movement. Dallas had the first interview, and indelicately asked Carson about his recent divorce. Carson wound up in Pittsburgh, giving the Steelers a scheme that could mirror Landry’s offensive pre-snap movement.
Those small victories helped made Pittsburgh the more adaptive, and trouble free of the two. The history of “red right, 86 x-post” one of Landry’s pet plays, offers a telling case study. It’s a high-lo passing play, of the type every team has in its playbook. It sends the three primary passing targets into the middle of the field at different depths. The tight end runs a shallow crossing route right to left at a depth of five yards. The flanker, or Z receiver, runs a square in from right to left at a depth of twelve yards. The split end, the X receiver, runs a deep post, cutting to the middle after going eighteen yards upfield.
The play is designed to lure the free safety into attacking the shallower routes, while springing the X behind him. Dallas ran the play in the first quarter of Super Bowl X, one play after Steelers punter Bobby Walden fumbled a deep snap. Drew Pearson broke behind the Pittsburgh secondary and scored the games’ first points.
Trailing 12-10 in the 4th quarter, Landry called this play when his Cowboys were deep in their territory. He hoped to get a big pass out of his red zone but this time the Steelers’ Bobby Wagner stayed back and jumped the route. Dallas held the Steelers to a field goal after the turnover, but Pittsburgh gained its firs significant lead of the game on the adjustment.
The memory of this play played perhaps a bigger role in the Super Bowl XIII. With the game tied 14-14 late in the second quarter, the Cowboys were grinding up the field towards a go-ahead score. A 19-yard Tony Dorsett screen pass put Dallas inside the Steelers’ 40 with a minute left in the half. Landry went for the big strike on 1st and 10, calling this same play from a red left formation. This time three Steelers had Drew Pearson surrounded. Mel Blount picked off Staubach’s forced pass, returning into Dallas territory. Instead of taking a lead into the locker room, the Cowboys fell behind on Rocky Bleir’s catch in the final seconds of the half.
Both games turned on this play. The Cowboys never forgot their initial success, even after Pittsburgh showed it could stop it. The Steelers, beaten once, never allowed the same trick to beat them again.
This was the ultimate difference in the clubs. Noll’s teams, while supremely talented, were fundamentally superb. They did not beat themselves. They were 50-2 in the title years in games when they were favorites. The Cowboys, by contrast, were a football version of a Jaguar. They were splendid when the engine was on song, but Landry’s teams had too many parts, and frequently broke down.
Noll understood the football maxim followed by Lombardi. Games can be lost as often as they are won. Cowboys fans would have to wait for the Johnson years to fully appreciate this truth. For older Cowboys fans, Noll was a reminder that the most beautiful, intricate football was not always the best.
Farewell, Mr. Noll. You were the greatest foe.
Rafael Vela is the Senior Analyst at CowboysNation.com