An Immaculate Steeler: RIP Franco Harris

An Immaculate Steeler: RIP Franco Harris
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An Immaculate Steeler; RIP Franco Harris

The sad news broke today that legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris has passed. In an ironic turn of fate this happened just 2 days before the 50th anniversary of the immaculate reception. Something we referred to as the NFL’s greatest milestone moment of the 1970s.

Harris became part of Pitt folklore with this “Immaculate Reception” at Three Rivers Stadium in the Divisional Round of the 1972 playoffs. A play so memorable that it was voted the greatest play in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020.

Franco was immaculate

But Franco Harris should be remembered for so much more than one play. Because there was so much more to him.

Franco harris was drafted by the Steelers in 1972. That year he ran for 1055 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Steelers finished 11-3 posting their first winning season since 1963. And Franco was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. An immaculate start.

Pittsburgh played in their second ever NFL playoff game. Having last appeared in a 21-0 loss to the Eagles in 1947. They had also lost a (short lived) playoff bowl contest to Detroit 17-10 in 1962.

Then came that playoff game, and that reception. The immaculate reception arguably really kick-started something for Pittsburgh.

From the moment Harris arrived they were a contender. Especially in the coming decade.

From 1972-79 they would go 88-27-1, make 8 consecutive playoff appearances and win 4 Super Bowl contests.

Although the Steelers didn’t take their first title until 1974 and Super Bowl IX, this game was the turning point for their fortunes from a downtrodden NFL team to a dominant franchise.

The key to success

When we talk of the Steelers success in the Seventies we often cite the Steel Curtain. But for a great D to work, it needs a complementary offence. By having Harris keying the ground game the Steelers were able to grind out many wins.

It is surely no conincidence that Harris’ best run was from 1974 to 1979. Over that span he had six consecutive 1000 yard seasons. Totalling 6,810 yards and 59 touchdowns. During that same period the Steelers went 67-20-1. winning six straight division titles, appearing in 5 AFC title games, and winning 4 Super Bowls.

Over that same span Harris was immaculate in the postseason too. 14 playoff games yielded 1319 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Pittsburgh workhorse. Including 24 points and 354 yards rushing in four Super Bowls. The pinnacle of which came in Super Bowl IX. As the Steelers took their first ever NFL title, Harris scampered for 158 yards on 34 carries, adding a touchdown, to be named MVP.

Absence gives a lesson

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Which is surely how the Steelers felt in the 1976 playoffs. The two time defending Super Bowl champs had beaten the Colts 40-14 a week before a Boxing Day game with the Raiders.

Injuries suffered the week before in that playoff win over Baltimore sidelined Steeler backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier for the AFC championship game against the Raiders. The loss was huge as Bleier & Harris had become just the second backfield tandem in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,000 yards, joining the Larry Csonka-Mercury Morris pairing in Miami, who had accomplished the feat in 1972.

Could the Steelers have had the threepeat with Harris and Bleier fit? We will never know. But they were sorely missed in a championship game that Oakland won 24-7.

Which is to say without the immaculate backfield the Steelers were less fearsome. Less imposing. And less immaculate without Harris starting.

Franco Harris was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1990. Harris was also an inaugural member of the Steelers Hall of Honor as a member of the Class of 2017.

He had an immaculate career. But he will always be thought of as a Steeler great. And forever associated with that one great play that arguably launched a Dynasty.

Banner Image: Franco Harris was held to only 46 yards on 20 carries, but he scored 2 touchdowns in the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Image from abcNews

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