State Your Case: Andy Russell
Seven Pro Bowls in 12 season in Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense
(Published April 2016)
The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t invent linebacker play. But they did perfect it.
From 1974-76, there was no better linebacking corps in NFL history than the trio that provided the steel in the Steel Curtain. Jack Ham lined up as the weakside linebacker, Jack Lambert in the middle and Andy Russell on the strong side. Hall-of-Famer Joe Greene was in front of them and Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount behind them.
During the three seasons those three linebackers played together, the Steelers won two Super Bowls, led the NFL in defense twice and in scoring defense, pass defense and run defense once apiece. Ham and Russell went to three Pro Bowls apiece during that stretch and Lambert one.
But Ham and Lambert were just starting their NFL careers then. Russell was finishing his. Ham and Lambert would go on to win two more Super Bowls and earn NFL all-decade acclaim for the 1970s. Both have since been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Russell retired after the 1976 season, ending a 12-year career that included seven Pro Bowl appearances. But those seven Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls apparently aren’t sterling enough credentials for a bust in Canton. Russell has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame, so his career has never been discussed and debated by the full selection committee.
Andy Russell deserves better.
A mere 16th round pick of the Steelers out of Missouri in 1963, Russell became a walk-in starter on a 7-4-3 team and intercepted three passes, earning a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team. But he spent the next two years in the Army as an officer, serving in Germany.
Russell returned to the NFL in 1966 and was named a team captain in 1967 — a position he held for the final 10 years or his career. He was named the team’s defensive MVP in 1968 and 1970 and the team MVP in 1971. Russell also went to his first Pro Bowl in 1969. He collected 30-½ career sacks in a defense that didn’t ask — or need — its linebackers to rush the passer. Russell also intercepted 18 passes, recovered 10 fumbles and scored two touchdowns on an interception and a blocked punt return.
The Russell era was a record-setting one. In 1972, the Steelers allowed a franchise-record-low 1,711 passing yards for a 14-game season. In 1973, they intercepted a franchise-record 37 passes. In 1974, they allowed a franchise-record-low 3,074 yards and in 1976, they allowed a franchise-record-low 138 points for a 14-game season.
In 1974, when Pittsburgh won the first NFL championship in the franchise’s 41-year history, the Steelers led the NFL in both defense and pass defense and finished second in scoring defense. In 1975, when the Steelers went back-to-back, they finished second in the NFL in scoring defense. The Super Bowl streak ended in 1976 – but not the streak of great defense. Russell was a Pro Bowl contributor in one of the best defensive performances in NFL history in his final season.
The Steelers played without Hall-of-Fame quarterback for Terry Bradshaw for six starts and then lost running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier late in the season. So if the injury-riddled Steelers were going anywhere that season, their defense had to take them there. And it did – all the way to the AFC title game.
Over the final nine games of the season, the Steelers held eight opponents without a touchdown, including five shutouts. Two other teams were held to a single field goal. But the absence of both running backs and a sub-par performance by Bradshaw sank the Steelers in the AFC title game as they fell to the Raiders, 24-7.
After appearing in four AFC title games and two Super Bowls in a span of six years, Russell retired. Without him the following season, the Steelers slipped to sixth in defense and 17th in scoring defense. Russell was missed by the Steelers and, sadly, forgotten by football.
Russell was a Pro Bowl player before the Steelers started winning and a Pro Bowl player after they started winning. Maybe it’s the numbers that are keeping him out of Canton. There are nine 1970s’ Steelers enshrined, and both L.C. Greenwood and Donnie Shell have been rebuffed by the selection committee in separate bids to become the 10th. Maybe the Steelers already reached their quota for the 1970s.
But at least Greenwood and Shell have been finalists. There are linebackers in Canton with fewer Pro Bowls and fewer Super Bowls than Russell. He deserves to have his case heard as well.