Monday, April 21, 2003
Updated: April 22, 4:50 PM ET
Steelers haul in 1974 among best ever
By Greg Garber
The Nutcracker Drill is everything the name suggests -- and more.
In the summer of 1974, rookies Jack Lambert and Mike Webster hooked up in the time-honored drill. Essentially, it is a blitz-pickup exercise, with an offensive blocker attempting to handle a charging linebacker, who tries to elude the blocker and tackle the ball carrier. The collisions sometimes approach seismic proportion.
The advantage usually goes to the defender who, in this drill, is actually the player on the offensive. Lambert, from Kent State, was the Steelers' second-round pick that year. Art Rooney, Jr., the Steelers' vice president of personnel, assumed that Lambert would slice up Webster, the fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin.
Webster snuffed Lambert the first time. Then it happened again. And again. Phil Music, the local scribe, turned to Rooney and said, "What little old lady told you about that linebacker?"
Rooney looked chagrined.
Some 29 years later, he laughed, long and loud.
"It turns out that Lambert wasn't so bad," Rooney said. "He was trying to get past another Hall of Famer. At the time, who knew?"
No one, including the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that's the beauty of the draft. The quality of those war room decisions aren't revealed, in some cases, for years. In the 1970s, the Steelers had great success drafting college players. In 1970, Rooney presided over the drafting of quarterback Terry Bradshaw and cornerback Mel Blount in the first and third rounds. In 1972, running back Franco Harris was the first-round pick. All three are now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1974, however, Pittsburgh put together what might have been, in terms of quality, the best draft ever. Drafting 21st overall, the Steelers selected USC wide receiver Lynn Swan in the first round and followed with Lambert in the second. After the third round, which saw the Steelers' pick going to the Raiders, Alabama A&M wideout John Stallworth was the first fourth-round pick. Webster arrived in the fifth round. That's four Hall of Fame players in five picks.
"Man, I saw all those guys," said personnel wizard Bobby Beathard, who is an advisor to the Atlanta Falcons. "To get all those guys in a single day
Bill Polian, the Colts' president, goes further. "That's the cornerstone of four championships, right there," he said. "It might be the greatest (draft) in modern times."
Rooney, whose father owned the Steelers in those days, pauses when the compliments are passed along.
"Well," he said from his Pittsburgh office, "that sort of makes my day."
Rooney mentions, almost modestly, that strong safety Donnie Shell -- in some minds, a Hall of Fame candidate himself -- was signed as a free agent that year, as was tight end Randy Grossman.
Years later, head coach Chuck Noll said, "We drafted a bunch of exceptions." By that, he meant that the four players far exceeded their potential, based on the typical measuring sticks of size and speed.
Rooney detailed some specifics:
Swann -- "He was a smaller guy, got clocked in the 40 around 4.65. We all thought Swann was a great player, but his speed was suspect. We had some real arguments about him, because we were looking for a weapon. Finally, we got a late time on him a few days before the draft. He ran a 4.58. For me, that broke the tie.
"I have to tell you that Noll had the final say, but my daddy owned the team and I can be obstinate. We took him with the first pick."
Lambert -- "Kent State is not that far from us and we always had a friendly relationship with our scouts and their coaches. I remember Woody Widenhoffer telling us that Lambert would be a good special teams player while he was learning. That was a tie-breaker with him.
"He was a tall, narrow-chested guy, but his intangibles were phenomenal. I scouted him on a day when the fields were muddy. They were practicing on a cinder parking lot. They're out there in their underwear, not going hard, and Lambert launches himself at the running back, takes him down. He's picking cinders out of his arm and I'm thinking 'If he could just gain a little weight, his toughness will put him over the top.' "
Stallworth -- "Actually, we were thinking of him as a first-round pick. We had to maneuver to hold people off on him. Trust me, when John went to the Senior Bowl, they had him as a (defensive back). That was a gift to us.
"There was this one tape of Stallworth where he was just phenomenal. This was in the days when everything was film and there were no copies -- just this one tape. We were supposed to send it to the next NFL team, but it never got there. It was a mystery to me. I think maybe we were a little underhanded."
Webster -- "We were all starting to use computers back then, but he wasn't a guy that popped up out of the computer. He was like 6-foot-1½, maybe 225, 230 pounds. He ran a 5.25, right at the cutoff you're looking for. You'd watch the films, though, and when he went up against the great players in the Big 10, he was knocking all of them on their ass. Guys who were rated as top picks, he's killing them."
As time passed and the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons, people used to kid Rooney that he had been lucky in the 1974 draft.
His father told him not to worry about it.
"I've known a lot of guys who were as smart as can be but could never seem to get to first base," Art, Sr., told his son. "A lot of guys work really, really hard to make a living. I also know lucky guys. Things always seem to work out for them. They're the ones who just make things happen. It's not an accident.
"If you're lucky, son, enjoy it."
Greg Garber is an ESPN.com senior writer.