History would be different if the Steelers didn’t cut Johnny Unitas
If you ask most Steelers historians what the greatest mistake in franchise history was, they’ll likely tell you it was the organization’s decision to cut quarterback Johnny Unitas in training camp just prior to the 1955 regular season.
Unitas then spent a year working in the real world, while also playing semi-pro football for the Bloomfield Rams in his hometown of Pittsburgh–the same hometown of the fully-professional football team that cut him.
Unitas tried out with the Baltimore Colts the following season, was signed to be their backup, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Unitas went on to have arguably the most storied career in the history of the NFL–at least prior to the days of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning–and played 18 years–including 17 in Baltimore.
Unitas was an NFL MVP three times (1959, 1965 and 1967), the league’s passing yards leader four times (1957, 1959, 1960 and 1963), and a First-Team All-Pro five times (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965 and 1967).
Unitas led the Colts to NFL Championships in both 1958 and 1959. He was a part of the Baltimore squad that captured the 1968 NFL Championship before being upset by the Jets in Super Bowl III.
Unitas won another NFL title–and his first Lombardi trophy–as the starting quarterback in the Colts’ 16-13 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V following the 1970 campaign.
OK, we get it, Johnny Unitas was good, and the Steelers screwed up by not recognizing his talents after selecting him in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft. Art Rooney’s kids kept telling him that Unitas, who played his college ball at Louisville, was the best quarterback at camp that summer.
But Dad just didn’t see it. Either that, or he couldn’t convince his head coach to see it.
Damn it, if he just would have seen it…
Things just wouldn’t be the same today. In fact, I might not be sitting here writing this article about the Steelers.
The entire history of the Steelers, who they are and how the fans now view them, may have been different.
I mean, think about it, had Unitas stuck around, he likely would have elevated the Steelers to heights they had never seen before. Would he have turned the Steelers into league champions? It’s hard to say–after all, we are talking about an organization that was capable of cutting Johnny Unitas–but the odds would have obviously increased significantly.
If the Steelers enjoyed consistent success under Unitas, their story as 40-year NFL sad sacks never could have been written. Championships or not, Pittsburgh may have been damn competitive all throughout the 1950s and 1960s—it was all about the quarterback even in those days.
If the Steelers were consistent winners under Unitas, would Dan Rooney have ever succeeded his father, Art, as team president and then owner? Probably, but there may not have been a need to hire a new head coach in 1969, which means there never would have been a Chuck Noll. If the Steelers weren’t bad enough to hire someone named Chuck Noll to be their new head coach, they also wouldn’t have been bad enough to draft Mean Joe Greene. Even if they were, without Noll, the Steelers may have selected quarterback Terry Hanratty, the pride of Butler, Pa. You might think that’s crazy, but that was who the fans wanted in ’69, and we are talking about a team that, again, did things in those days like cut Johnny Unitas.
Those ’70s Steelers teams would have looked nothing like we now know or remember them. No Noll and Greene in ’69 and no Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Furthermore, no Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert…I can go on and on.
Yes, perhaps some of those players may have found their way to Pittsburgh, but the overall collection of talent would have been different, starting with the man with the plan, Noll.
That magical 1972 campaign, spearheaded by Franco’s Italian Army, may not have been a reality (same with Franco’s Italian Army). The Immaculate Reception probably would not have happened.
Myron Cope may never have created the Terrible Towel. In fact, Cope may not have become a media star and a local phenomenon.
I mentioned the organization’s sorry existence prior to the 1970s. That is so much a part of the Steelers’ lore. It plays such a vital role in how the fans view them–the ultimate rags-to-riches story.
Like Franco Harris once said about that aforementioned 1972 season, it was as if the whole city had been waiting for it forever.
Obviously, those four Super Bowl titles the team won in the 1970s helped to create and sustain the passion the fan base has had for the organization since then. But without the collection of coaches and players we now celebrate and revere, would the Steelers have captured even one title in the ’70s?
If not, would a couple of championships won during the Unitas years have created the same love we all now have for the Steelers?
It’s impossible to say, but think about what was going on in the 1970s right when the Steelers’ successes began. The steel industry was dying, and people were moving away. The ones that stuck around looked to the Steelers for hope in dire times. The ones who moved out of Pittsburgh for jobs held onto their love for the Black and Gold and also passed that tradition down to their children.
Furthermore, the Steelers became a national brand–America’s team, if you will–and developed a huge following.
Without that, would there be a Steelers fan named Chris Harris Is Still A Punk (CHISAP)? Maybe not. Sure, the man–K.T. Smith–would still exist, but he might be a Cowboys fan, today.
The Steelers also became dominant right when the NFL was morphing into America’s new national pastime.
Speaking of the popularity of the NFL, the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants at Yankee Stadium has long been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Whether that’s true or not is debatable (doubtful, actually), but it has been credited with taking the NFL to new heights. Super Bowl III elevated the league even more. Unitas was obviously the star of that ’58 championship. Without him in Baltimore, there may not have been a “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
And the NFL may not have reached the heights in popularity we now see today.
I know we like to think of the cutting of Johnny Unitas in 1955 the same way we do the failure to draft Dan Marino in 1983–a lost opportunity to win more titles. Yet, while that may have been true with Marino, also a Pittsburgh native, the cutting of Unitas may have actually led to everything we now know and love about the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, Back to the Future. Doc Brown repeatedly warns Marty not to interfere with events in 1955 (fittingly enough), because it could have serious consequences for the future.
Sure enough, Marty’s mom almost falls for Marty (ewww!), and it puts his very existence–as well as that of his brother and sister–in jeopardy.
Yes, the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas in 1955, but I think everything worked out the way it was supposed to.