Super seasons started with defense
By Dave Ailes
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW

The 1974 Steelers were in town Monday night for a special celebration, a perfect time for the '99 Steelers to display defensive brillance.

Defense was the cornerstone of a 13-9 victory over the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. And defense was the foundation that led to four Super Bowl titles in a span of six years in the '70s, a time when that team gave this city its identity, coach Bill Cowher said.

I always said our defense won the first two, and the offense the last two, said honoree Jack Lambert, who defined smash-mouth football to fans who cheered his name at Monday's halftime introductions.

Number 58 shared handshakes and memories with special teammates from a quarter-century ago - including lengendary coach Chuck Noll and two other fellow Hall of Fame honorees Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

It was Lambert's rookie year when the lanky second-round pick from Kent took over in the middle of a linebacker corps that terrorized the NFL.

I was just glad to be here. And when we won the Super Bowl my first two years, I thought that's what you did - win championships every year.

The first one, 16-6 over Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings, put an end to more than 40 years of frustration for a franchise that would never again be called Art Rooney's lovable losers.

The phrase, though, was lost on Lambert. Born and raised a Browns fan from upstate Ohio, Lambert had no first-hand knowledge of the Steelers saga. Instead, he helped rewrite history.

Lambert assisted in converting the Steelers into the team of the decade, a period of such unqualified excellence that then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle said that it was time for another team or two to replace the Steelers at the head of the class.

But Super Bowl IX had a sharp twist for Lambert, who left the game with an injury near the end of the first half and didn't return.

Ed Bradley came in for me and played a great second half, he said.

Then Lambert related one of the untold stories from that first ride on that train of triumph.

Lambert and a former roommate at Kent left New Orleans the next day for a vacation in Fort Lauderdale, a playground for a 22-year-old football star. But there was one problem - pain inside his injured leg.

I went to the hospital the next day. They told me I had a fractured ankle. They put a cast on it.

Lambert reported the fracture to team physician Dr. John Best, who happened to be vacationing in Miami.

Dr. Best, rest his soul, told me to run a tub of cold water, put my ankle in it and he'd come over the next day. He took one look at it and cut off the cast.

Dr. Best applied an orthopedic wrap. Lambert smiled: It consisted of about six pieces of tape. You know what? The ankle healed just fine.

Lambert didn't talk about the fracture back then. Neither did the Steelers. No need. Lambert was better than ever in '75. So were the Steelers. They went 12-2 in the regular season before knocking off the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The '74 draft, the best in Steelers history and one of the most formidable in league history, brought these players to the roster: Lynn Swann (1), Lambert (2), John Stallworth (4a), Jim Allen (4b), Mike Webster (5), Jim Wolf (6a), Rick Druschel, current athletic director at Hempfield High School (6b). Also, Donnie Shell, another long-term discovery, signed as a free agent.

This young team could have had the only threepeat in Super Bowl history in '76 until injuries to running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleir derailed the Steelers heading into the AFC title game at Oakland. That (season) haunts me, said Lambert. I think that was our best team. If those guys don't get hurt, we'd have done it all again.

Baltimore had (quarterback) Bert Jones and a really good team. We went in there and killed 'em (40-14).

The Steelers won the last nine in the regular season, five on shutouts, prior to the Baltimore playoff. The Steelers also outscored those last nine opponents in 1976 by a remarkable margin of 234-28.

If 1976 still haunts Lambert, think how many nightmares those teams of the '70s caused the rest of the NFL.

It all began in 1974, a season to remember; a year to celebrate for all time.