Would business be ‘boomin’ if Antonio Brown played on the Steelers teams of the 1970’s?

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 02: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts with Maurkice Pouncey #53 after a 28 yard touchdown reception in the second quarter during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field on December 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 02: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts with Maurkice Pouncey #53 after a 28 yard touchdown reception in the second quarter during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field on December 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

In light of the recent news that Antonio Brown will be traded to the Oakland Raiders for two picks in this year’s draft, a third rounder, and a fifth rounder, let’s explore, hypothetically of course, what impact Brown would have begotten on the legendary Steelers teams of the 1970s?

Before we delve into the above-mentioned discussion, let’s acknowledge the transcendent nature with which Antonio Brown has played the game. In 2010, we drafted Antonio in the 6th round; eight seasons later, he would amass  837 receptions covering 11,207 yards, coupled with 74 trips to the end zone.  He also ranks 28th on the all-time receptions list.

Currently, Antonio ranks second on the Steelers all-time receptions list, behind Hines Ward and, barring a scenario where we decide to sign him to one-year “last hurrah” type of contract, second is where he will remain for the foreseeable future – I realize JuJu will assume command of the receiving corps and very well may surpass Antonio in receptions, but, for purposes of this parlance, let’s stick with Antonio.

Admittedly, I am upset about the circumstances under which we have arrived at this juncture-talking about Antonio’s Steelers career before his NFL career has ended-but, as all fans of football have had to come to grips with, players come and go. I have lived through the retirements of Terry, Mean Joe, Jacks Ham and Lambert, Mel, Jon Kolb, Rocky, Heath Miller, et al.

So, now that we have dispensed with the formalities, I think we are ready to do a little hypothesizing. Let’s set the time dial to 1974. Full disclosure, all stats and references courtesy of either my steel trap memory or Pro Football Reference. By 1974, we had drafted Mean Joe, Jon Kolb, LC Greenwood, Terry Bradshaw,  Mel, Jack Ham, Dwight “Mad Dog” White, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, and Franco. In 1974, we all know what happened; we drafted four Hall of Fame players, two of whom were receivers named Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Oh and, by the way, the ’74 draft also bequeathed us Jack Lambert and Mike Webster (my favorite Steelers player).

Let’s assume Antonio had been drafted in the 6th round of the 1974 draft.  His competition at receiver would have been Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis, who were the starting receivers at that time, the aforementioned Lynn Swann, our first-round pick, and John Stallworth, a fourth-round pick.  Those players represent some pretty stiff competition; two entrenched starters and two higher round draft picks. Antonio has his work cut out for him.

My Steelers journey started in 1978.  I was 9-years-old.  Obviously, because of my age and lack of exposure to football prior to that, I did not watch games with the critical eye with which I watch games today; however, one thing was abundantly clear to me, even at nine years of age; we were a “run first” football team. Along with most other teams, we ran a “Pro Set” offense – two backs (one full back and one running back) and either two receivers and one tight end or two TEs and one WR.  I suppose in today’s vernacular that would be a “21” or “22” personnel grouping, but I digress, again; my apologies, I seem to do that a lot.

We certainly passed the ball as well, but, make no mistake, we wanted to run it, run it and run it some more.  To put this into perspective, in Super Bowl X, Swanny had 4 receptions for 161 yards and 1 TD; he was named the MVP.  Terry threw the ball 19 times.  Conversely, we ran the ball 46 times for a net of 149 yards.  What receiver in today’s game would be named the Super Bowl MVP with a paltry 4 receptions?

By 1978, we had begun to pass the ball more frequently thanks to this rule change, which is commonly referred to as the “Mel Blount” rule (from the official NFL website):

"“In 1978, the NFL further freed up receivers with the illegal contact rule, restricting contact beyond 5 yards downfield. And it loosened the interpretations of holding by offensive linemen by giving them permission to extend their arms and open their hands on pass plays. This had the desired effect of opening up the passing game and reducing conservative play calling.”"

Also by 1978, Swanny and John Stallworth were the starting receivers. Where would Antonio have fit into the mix?  Would he have ascended to a starter role over Swanny or Stallworth?  It’s possible that, had he carved out a role as both a kick and a punt returner and, maybe the third receiver by 1978, he would have at least put himself in position to be a starter, but whom would he have supplanted? Let’s revisit that question later.

Now, let this soak in for a minute or ten minutes: The third WR on our 1978 Super Bowl winning team caught six passes in the regular season!  The third leading receiver was Randy Grossman, a TE from Temple, my alma mater.  Why would the third leading receiver be a TE… well, how many three WR sets do you remember seeing the Steelers of the 1970’s deploy?

In 1978, attempted passes were 380, of which 212 were completed; the ball was carried 641 times.  Over a 16 game season, those numbers translate into an average of approximately 24 pass attempts and 40 rushes per game.  Where would Antonio have gotten his touches? With the proclivity of utilizing our tight ends and running backs as receivers, the ball was distributed rather evenly among the skill position players.  The leading receiver in 1978 was Lynn Swann with 61 receptions; Franco ran the ball 310 times.

By AB standards, a 61 reception campaign is awful, but, again, we were a “pound the rock” team that won the Super Bowl, something, unfortunately, we had not been able to accomplish with AB and his 837 receptions. Why we had not been able to win a Super Bowl with AB is a discussion that we will shelve for another time.

To further illustrate the disparity between the predilection of the “run first” offense of the ’70s to that of the “air it out” offenses that exist today, in 2018, we (the Steelers) attempted 689 passes and ran the ball 345 times.  Over a 16 game season, we averaged 43 pass attempts and approximately 22 rushers.  In a 40 year span (1978-2018), average pass attempts per game increased 79% while average carries decreased 45%.

What do all of these numbers and stats mean?  Here’s what it means to me:  Earlier in our discussion, I posed the question about whom Antonio would supplant?  The only receiver he could have “leapfrogged” would have been Lynn Swann (similar size; similar skill set).  In nine seasons, Swanny tallied 336 receptions; in nine seasons, Antonio tallied 837 receptions.  If Antonio played on the Steelers dynasty teams of the 1970s and those of the early ’80s, he would have, at most, nabbed 336 grabs.

Does anyone think a 61 reception campaign, like the one Swanny had in 1978, would have appeased “Mr. Big Chest”?  I think not.  Let’s take this a step further: I would argue that Antonio would not have seen the decade of the ’80s because had he adopted a “me” first attitude rather than a “team” first attitude after a 61 catch season, I firmly believe he would have eventually been traded. I don’t think the organization would have tolerated his antics.

Next. The Steelers are set to trade up in the 2019 NFL Draft. dark

Let’s bring this hypothetical discussion full circle: Would business have been boomin’ for Antonio had he been a member of the dynasty teams of the 1970s?  The answer is no.  His hubris would have prevented him from realizing his potential both as a player and contributor on a perennial Super Bowl contender and as a leader and mentor to the younger players.  As unfortunate as that would have been, it would have been Antonio’s fate.