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Archive: Noll Assesses Bumper Crop of Rookies

Written by Dan Gigler on .

 Gene Collier writes today, eloquently as per usual, about Art Rooney Jr.'s memories of the rookie training camps of the legendary 1974 draft class, widely regarded as the greatest ever, which would go on to yield four Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, and another guy worthy of Canton consideration in Donnie Shell. 

Below is an August 22, 1974 Post-Gazette article by now senior copy desk man David Fink with Noll's thoughts on his rookies after nearly six weeks of training camp, followed by a column from two days later by the Pittsburgh Press's Phil Musick on the same topic. Interesting how Noll was enamored of Stallworth and Lambert, Swann not so much, and saw the clear potential in Webster.  

swanny 1974Lynn Swann on NFL Draft day, 1974. 

Noll Assesses Bumper Crop of Rookies

By David Fink / Post-Gazette Sports Writer

LATROBE – If nothing else, a rookie’s training camp performance is remindful of a firefly. There is a bright glow here and there, but it seldom lasts. And, of course, the rookie usually disappears before the full measure of his talent can be grasped.

As a result, most winning football teams seldom list more than three or at the most, four rookies on the final 47-man roster.

All indications however, point to 1974 being an exceptionally prosperous year for the National Football League rookies. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers’ impressive array, for example.

Over there with the receivers are Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Randy Grossman; down there with the linebackers is mean Jack Lambert; up there with the offensive lineman are Mike Webster and Rick Druschel, and that slippery hulk with the defensive lineman is Charlie Davis.

“The fact is,” noted Steeler coach Chuck Noll yesterday, “the rookies have an opportunity to show they can become consistent and prove their staying power this year because of the Players’ Association strike. Most years, you just don’t have the time to give them this thorough an inspection.

“The biggest single obstacle a rookie must overcome is convincing himself that he belongs here physically. That takes some kids more time than others, but this year they all have had a longer grace period. They’ve gotten more personal attention and live scrimmaging than most years too.”

Noll, of course, would not commit himself on exactly how many would probably survive the final cuts but he offered the following assessments of several spotlighted rookies:

Grossman – “A surprise? No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he is a surprise, but he was a long shot from the start of camp. We look at our tight ends as blockers first, receivers second. All of our tight ends are getting a lot of practice on blacking techniques.”

Swann – “We can’t tell very much about him yet. He’s been hurt too much. First he hurt a heel, then a thumb and we just haevn’t seen enough of him yet. Maybe this week.”

Stallworth – “He has done everything we’ve asked of him so far and been impressive in doing so. His speed and hands you’ve got to like.”

Webster – “He shows a lot of potential as a guard even though he had no experience there because he has played center. He’s a little short, but so is (Miami’s All-Pro) Larry Little. But he’s quick and strong and, when he learns how to pull, he could be a good one.”

Druschel – “There’s a lot of physical ability there, but he’s been hurt. He’s practicing now, but he’s not 100 per cent yet and it just would not be fair to evaluate him yet.”

Lambert – “He’ll hit anything that comes his way. He’s a tough kid and his progress has been sensational.”

But Chuck, how do you fit in all these rookies while, at the same time, trying to get your veterans into proper condition?

“That is the problem we’ll have to cope with from here on. I’d like to keep with the two-a-day workouts when we move back to Pittsburgh next week, but it won’t be possible since we’ll be working out at Pitt Stadium most of the time.

“Right now my vets are in the sore stage that always takes place after about a week of two-a-days. It’s by far the toughest time of the training period for them. But heck, I may have to carry a 75-player roster all season because of the strike conditions, so I can’t stop working with my rookies either.

“But, in all fairness to the young players, we have more competition for more positions now because of the rookies then we’ve had here in my five previous season. That’s a positive situation for everybody if I can find time to get all of them some playing time in each exhibition game.”

In 1970 – the last time there was a players’ strike – 12 rookies made the Steelers’ regular-season roster. Since then, the number has decreased sharply. That won’t be the case this year.

steelers-line-960Steeler rookie Jack Lambert (top right) in the '74 AFC Championship.

The Young Steelers: Bad News For Veterans

By Phil Musick

August 24, 1974    

The following sentence seems so preposterous that it will probably leap from this page, skitter off through the comics and wind up among the classified ads.

But it is possible – possible – that as many as 10 rookies could wind up playing for the Steelers this winter. I know, I know 10 rookies do not make contending teams in the National Football League. It doesn’t happen. Like rookie jewelers don’t get to work on the Hope Diamond, it doesn’t happen.

But it could. Ever since the strike began, Chuck Noll has insisted that the additional exposure and individualized coaching given the rookies could result in many first-year pros displacing veterans.

Strike talk, jeered the cynics. Verbal strategy to entice more vets into camp. Maybe not.

While it must be regarded as the purest speculation, it might be said that five rookies already have the club made. And as many as a half-dozen more could take a further step toward the pension plan tonight when the Steelers host the New York Giants at 8 o’ clock at Three Rivers.

“The big thing is deciding they belong here,” says Noll. “They’ve had the extra work with the coaches because of the strike. Then they do a few things well in the exhibition games and they say, ‘Hell, I can play here’.”

Such a thought should’ve already occurred to at least five young Steelers: Receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, linebacker Jack Lambert, center-guard Mike Webster and tight end surprise Randy Grossman.

No team cuts its No. 1 draft choice – the scouting department would commit mass suicide – and for that reason alone, Swann will stick. How valuable he will be remains questionable.

“We don’t really know a hell of a lot about him,” Noll says, referring to heel and thumb injuries which have cost Swann practice time.

Lambert and Stallworth have played well enough to indicate they could be playing regularly before the regular season gets very far along.

“Stallworth’s played exceptionally well,” says Noll of the leading receiver of the exhibition season. “Lambert hits anything that moves ... he’s been sensational.”

Less observable has been Webster, but there are indications he is quality goods. When he learns to pull, Webster should be a dependable guard as well as a center, and Noll treasures versatility among his offensive lineman.

Grossman started last week in Philly in an offensive lineup dominated by veterans and the next pass he drops will be his first. He is a bit smallish but is diligently working on his blocking, a priority for tight ends who want to play for Noll. “He’ll come along,” Noll predicts.

Beyond the aforementioned five rookies, six other first-year players could make the club: Defensive backs Donnie Shell and Jim Allen, offensive tackle Dave Reavis, guard Rick Druschel and receiver Nate Hawkins. Also in the running is second-year receiver Dave Davis.

Some of the rookies could, of course, play themselves into trouble tonight. They could also play a veteran or three into the World Football League.

donnie shell 1974 12 29Rookie Steelers safety Donnie Shell buries Raiders receiver Cliff Branch in the 1974 AFC Championship game.

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