A tough stitch in the Curtain

Posted Feb. 02, 2011 @ 8:40 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

When you get a historical draw like Packer-Steelers, Super XLV, the urge is to reach in the closet and feel around and drag out the old uniforms, to air out the wool and polish up the brass. The regimentals selected today — black with gold trim, Pittsburgh colors, stitched numeral 23.

Battle dress for Mike Wagner, a top safetyman for old Steel Curtain Steelers. Wagner, not one of the big throwback names of the era, like Jack Lambert or Mel Blount or Joe Greene, but one with equal jewelry, a great anticipator with a tomahawk punch that could clobber you silly.

Here's the story. Ankle problems screwed up Wagner's senior year at Western Illinois. The Steelers spies claimed he could still hit and grabbed him in the 11th round of the draft. This was 1971; by the close of training camp Chuck Noll said the ankles looked fine and launched Wagner into the starting lineup.

"Pittsburgh wasn't a powerhouse team at that time," Wagner says. "The Steelers had a long tradition of losing, so I wasn't enthusiastic about going there. But Noll was still cleaning house and making big changes. He was willing to play his young players.

"I got lucky in an unfortunate kind of way. The incumbent safety was Chuck Beatty, who blew out his knee four plays into the first preseason game, so I was thrown in there."

Wagner says it wasn't Noll but a rough, brainy ex-Marine named Bud Carson who really cemented that Steel Curtain defense together.

"Noll hired Bud in '72," remembers Wagner, "and he was the most influential coach I ever had with the Steelers. Bud was willing to let his players improvise and change his schemes at times. He had such confidence in our secondary and linebackers, and it was really exciting to see the packages he would come up with each weekend. The Steelers played a basic defense, but Bud was always adding little tweaks to it."

By December of that year Pittsburgh had reached the AFC title game, against Miami, and that's where the tweaks ran dry. The Dolphins trailed 10-7 in the third when Bob Griese sent a fast man over the middle and the 52-yard connection got the Miami rally in gear.

"Paul Warfield caught it," Wagner says. "Warfield, the only receiver who consistently made me nervous. Sleepless nights. It didn't matter where he lined up. I always felt totally mismatched against him, the way he made his moves at high velocity. His breakaway speed could easily get him past all our defensive backs, especially me.

"Very rarely did I have to cover him one-on-one because the Steelers were basically a zone team. However, the way to attack the two-deep zone is to run a lot of quick posts, pop it in there behind the linebackers, then it's up to the safeties to make a play. Miami was more than willing to run any of their receivers at our safeties."

The '73 march died in a playoff loss at Oakland, but by '74 it was on, a Steelers club fully galvanized and hell-bent on conquering the league.

"There was a period of time — from 1974 through the next four of five years — that no one could really beat us when we were on," Wagner says. "Years later I was at this football clinic, listening to these younger quarterbacks debate how to beat the Steel Curtain defense. They all had the perfect solutions. I laughed. I never saw anybody really clean house on us during that period of time. Ours was a difficult defense to attack because it was so simple; it was hard for us to make any mistakes.

"I talked to [former Redskins QB] Billy Kilmer once about this. Kilmer told me, 'The problem with playing against the Steelers' defense was that we knew exactly what you guys were going to do. We would call the perfect play to attack you, but you guys would just out-execute us."

The first Super Bowl, IX, was a clumsy thing against the Vikings, a day where the Steelers knocked around Fran Tarkenton like a baby seal and the offense did just enough to take the lead and hold it. Then came Super Bowls X and XIII, those glamour duels with the Cowboys and their constant flimflammery.

"All that talent, the way they would attack our defense — the Cowboys were a big challenge," Wagner says. "They always tried to shake us up, but our coaches insisted we wouldn't let their offense dictate what our defense did. The purpose of Dallas' shifting was to determine whether a defense was in man or zone coverage; and a lot of defenses would show their hand.

"But we refused to let that happen. Every time the Cowboys would shift, we would shift our defense into an attack defense and try to screw up (Roger) Staubach's reads. It really involved a tremendous amount of effort and preparation — probably more mental than physical — to get ready for those Dallas teams."

The Steelers team that decked the Rams in Super Bowl XIV was a fading one, grayed, scarred and thinned out by years of low draft numbers and heavy losses in the tutorial department. Pasadena was the last thrust in the engine. Noll would later be accused of keeping his veterans past their prime, clamping too tight a lock on the roster door. No one guessed it would be 15 years before another Steelers club would wage combat in a Super Bowl.

"I don't think that's an accurate analysis about Noll, that he kept his stars around too long," Wagner says. "That wasn't the way Chuck ran a football team. Noll always put the best players he could find at the position. He could make tough decisions. For some of the players, it was just the opposite. They thought they could still play a few more seasons, but Chuck kinda opened the door before they wanted to leave.

"In terms of replacing the old veterans, I don't think there was a lot of great talent waiting in the wings, so in certain circumstances Noll may not have had a choice. One time, late in my career, I was hurt and limping around the field with a hip problem. I said, 'I gotta get out of the game.' Joe Greene said, 'No, I want you out here. You playing hurt is better than what would come out on the field to replace you.'

"Another thing the public didn't really recognize was the number of coaching defections we had in those years. Assistants like George Perles, Bud Carson, Lionel Taylor and Dan Radakovich all left at some point. I think that really affected the team. … Assimilating new assistant coaches into our system was probably harder for Noll than for the team itself, but that was another major factor that contributed to our downfall.

"Anyway, they say all good things (must) come to an end, don't they?" 


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.