Lombardi and Noll meet the press

Posted Jan. 31, 2011 @ 6:19 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

DALLAS — The Promenade ballroom at Turtle Creek accommodates 400; yesterday they crammed in 1,300. Hot lights. Thick air. A pair of surprising luminaries, summoned from back in time, work their way to the microphones in front … grins and clasping hands along the way.

One wears a cream coach's shirt, butterfly collar, and a glossy black windbreaker. The other in worsted wool, dark, some off-shade of green. The only tie in the room; that is, the only tie anyone notices.

They take their chairs. 1,300 take a quick breath. Hushed, like the start of Mass. Then a voice.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi."

Vincent and The Emperor, fine and fit, just how you remembered them. Applause is normally a protocol breach in press conferences; today it is not.

Lombardi begins. "Good afternoon, everyone, and I'd just like to say I'm very enthusiastic about this Super Bowl game, the Packers and the Steelers. I enjoy these types of teams, clubs that go about it the right way in their style of football. Both are fine, strong organizations, and I appreciate being invited here today."

Next, Noll. "Franco and Stallworth say they'll go, but Terry is once again a game-time decision."

Big laughs, and formality falls to pieces. Noll smiles and sips a ginger ale. Then …

"Kruczek had a good week of practice." Even Bradshaw, leaning along the left wall, a media man now, breaks up at that one.

The questioning ensues.

"Vince, you've been away from the game for many years. Has football changed for better or for worse?"

"I'd say both. It used to be a muscle game; now it's a very much a speed game. Which is OK. It means you can do more things in terms of formations on both offense and defense with speed. The innovation … things we never even considered trying are happening out there today.

"Conversely, fundamentals have fallen apart, tackling especially. They have this statistic now — yards after the catch. In reality, it's the backwash of poor tackling techniques. There aren't supposed to be any yards after the catch."

"Chuck, which players from today's Steelers would you like to have had on your teams from the '70s?"

"From the '70s? I remember we could've used a little more help in the '80s, don't you think?" More laughs. Lombardi laughs, too. Noll, the good humor man.

"I'd say Hines Ward comes to mind. A dynamic athlete, especially for being what they call a 'possession receiver.' His blocking would have allowed us to go with more three-receiver setups, yet still be able to run effectively out of them, getting outside with Franco and Rocky Bleier. Wonderful hands around the goal line but, again, almost maniacal as a blocker. That sort of trait was always appreciated.

"The other is Polamalu. I don't think a safety has ever played that way. He thrives on destruction. Speed and destruction; that's a real combination. We could have done some very interesting things with Troy, let me say that."

"Can you compare Terry Bradshaw to Ben Roethlisberger? How are they similar and how are they different?"

"Terry's more emotional. He could get caught up in things, while Ben is maybe more level that way, more relaxed. Roethlisberger doesn't flinch. Both very impressive athletes, their strength. Terry had that wonderful, accurate placement on his deep throws, the mightier arm, where Ben is cleaner on the shorter patterns. Equal in medium-range passing. Champions."

"Coach Lombardi, you won your five titles with a safe, controlled passer, Bart Starr, a thinking man's QB. What would it have been like if you had Brett Favre?"

"In fairness, Mr. Favre isn't playing in this Sunday's game, if that's what you're alluding to. Aaron Rodgers will be playing for Green Bay. We should remember that.

"To answer your question, with Brett Favre it's obvious I would've had to overhaul my entire approach to offensive football … field position, third-down strategy, run/pass balance … everything. I remember somebody asking Bill Walsh a similar thing, how would his playbook have looked with Joe Namath instead of Joe Montana? His answer was: 'What short passing game?' "

"Favre was always the free spirit out there, that schoolyard approach to football. To what degree would you have tolerated that? Would you have gotten along with a player like him?"

The Vincent grin. "Eventually, I got along with everyone. Let's say I'm fairly certain Mr. Favre and I would've reached a common ground."

"What about Roethlisberger?"

"Roethlisberger is enchanting. To me, he's a player who somehow finds order out of disorder. He flows opposite the direction of the game many times. I'm having a hard time finding the word … maybe there's a term in psychology for it.

"How about this? Other than Starr, if I needed another quarterback to take me all the way in against Dallas, in that Ice Bowl condition, I'd probably go with Roethlisberger. Montana or Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger if it's a heavy pass rush."

"Have you seen the Lombardi play in New York?"

"I lived the Lombardi play."

"Chuck, can you ever see them doing a Broadway show on you?"

"It would end up rather boring," Noll said. "A melodrama on fundamentals. The brass tacks. Over and over. They've already done a movie like that. It's called 'Groundhog Day.' "

"You coached against each other only one time, back in 1969, the Redskins at Pittsburgh. It was Chuck's first season and, Vince, your last. What do either of you remember from that game?"

"1969? I remember we weren't very good," Noll laughed. "We had one victory that year, and it wasn't against Vince."

"Larry Brown ran for 200 and we stopped them twice at the goal line and they ran out of frankfurter rolls," smirked Lombardi. "Honestly, I have no idea."

"Vince, does the Packers' ground attack concern you in this Super Bowl, the shortage of real threats at the running back position?"

"Who says the Packers are thin? They seem to be fine there. It's about the up-front blocking, anyway. If the blocking is there, most any professional runner and running play will be successful. In the early days we were winning with Hornung and Taylor, both high-round choices. By '67, we were getting our yards with Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein and Elijah Pitts.

"And Jim Grabowski … and Donnie Anderson — they were top picks," someone reminded him. A few chuckles over that.

"Yes … and Grabowski and Anderson."

"How does emotion factor in these championship games?"

"It's a tired theme," Noll said. "Emotion can be a boost for stretches of time. But a team that runs on emotion can't last. Emotion can cause you to abandon your game plan. When you abandon your game plan, that's called losing your poise."

"It got to a point where every team we played was keyed to emotional heights," Lombardi said. "That's why we played so many close first halves in those days. Then our opponents either lost their emotion … or we knocked it out of them."

"Predictions. Who do you see winning this game — Green Bay or Pittsburgh?"

Noll gave the expected brush-off. "I've never been in the prediction business," he said. "The team that's best prepared will win, whichever team that is."

"The one with the strongest defense," Lombardi declared. "In big games, the pressure games, the defense usually takes command. I've always said defensive players have to be tougher, mentally and physically, than offensive players.

"I don't know why I said that. But I've always believed it."

 

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.