Some of the Voice staffers are in a fantasy football league together, and one player’s season quickly went south. He decided to stockpile players from his favorite team, the New York Jets. As he had no hope of qualifying for the playoffs, he figured he may as well see how far his (fantasy and real-life) team could take him. It provided us with comical moments such as the Jets bye week, in which his team, eventually renamed “The New York Jets,” scored a collective zero points and a plethora of jokes about his opponent’s players all scoring negative points and the Jets winning with zero points scored (unfortunately it didn’t happen that way).
The idea of playing players solely from one team was intriguing, and recently, in our league GroupMe, we started reeling off teams that could potentially fit the bill. The Eagles, who have been simply sensational this season, were obviously thrown out as a suggestion, as well as the electrifying offenses in the league: New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Los Angeles (Rams, not the Chargers), Houston when DeShaun Watson could still play football, et cetera. But with the possible exception of Philadelphia, we found that in ESPN’s standard fantasy lineup configuration (1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 FLEX(RB/WR/TE), 1 DEF/ST, 1 K), many of these modern day teams didn’t have enough firmly established options to consistently produce at one of these positions. A true two-running back set is less common in the league these days, especially with offenses putting the ball into the quarterback’s hands more often.
We then tried to find college teams (not based on the player’s college numbers but on their NFL numbers) that could have been good fantasy teams, and our three possibilities were early 2000s USC, Chip Kelly-era Oregon, and the 2001 Miami Hurricanes team that won the national championship (the obvious choice), but that’s not quite the same as only picking one NFL team. The college game rewards good teams by attracting the best players, so big programs get big stars. The NFL does the opposite; the worst team chooses first to promote some semblance of parity, and therefore stockpiling stars becomes much more difficult because signing players to a team is that much different. And that doesn’t even take the salary cap into account. So let’s take a trip all the way back to the 1970s, when clothesline tackles were still kinda legal and astroturf was still concrete, because there, you’ll find the best single-team fantasy football team in history: the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s also worth noting that no team before 1978 would be a good candidate, since 1978 saw the introduction of the illegal contact rule (or as I like to call it the “Mel Blount rule”). Prior to 1978, defensive backs could bump wide receivers off their routes beyond five yards from scrimmage, so the game was more run-reliant as receivers were often blanketed by a DB practically hanging off of their shirt. In ESPN’s PPR (point per reception) format, you can’t win with that. But let’s take a look at the players that would make up the fantasy team, albeit in a world where injuries didn’t exist (stats from Pro Football Reference).
QB: Terry Bradshaw
There’s not much to say about Bradshaw aside from the fact that he was both NFL and Super Bowl MVP that year. With his receivers finally able to get free, Bradshaw was happy to let the ball fly, but knew just when to mix it up to keep the defense honest. He called his own plays, and defenses couldn’t key in on a single facet of Pittsburgh’s offense for fear of being burned by the other. He was somewhat of a high-risk, high-reward quarterback, throwing 20 interceptions along with his 28 touchdowns, but he still threw for nearly 3000 yards in the 1970s. He could effectively use his legs to extend plays, and although he ran less later in his career, Bradshaw still managed 93 rushing yards and a touchdown at the age of 30, a nice bonus for what was already a stellar signal caller. It’s hard to argue with the MVP as your starting fantasy quarterback.
RB1: Franco Harris
Harris, though nominally a fullback, was the feature back in Pittsburgh, amassing 310 carries for 1082 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 1.4 receptions per game, though none of them were for touchdowns. He ground his way to a Pro-Bowl selection in what was just another good year for the man that would retire as the Steelers’ all-time leading rusher.
RB2: Rocky Bleier
Though he played second fiddle to Harris (and was dreadfully slow), Bleier pitched in with 165 carries, 633 yards, and 5 rushing touchdowns at the ripe old age of 32. Bleier was also a reliable option out of the backfield, averaging a reception per game and scoring on a receiving touchdown on the season. He wasn’t the man in Pittsburgh, but he still provided numbers and made sure you got points for the RB2 position instead of simply putting up a 0.
WR1: Lynn Swann
The graceful, ballet-dancer wide receiver was the top pass catching option on the toughest team in the league, but his acrobatic catches showed that ballet paid off. Swann caught 61 passes in 1978 for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns, many of them by simply being better than the defender due to his impeccable body control and safe hands. He made the highlight reel catches that no one else could in the ’70s (to be fair that’s a 1975 highlight but you get the picture).
WR2: John Stallworth
Stallworth, the “overshadowed” half of the Steelers receiver tandem, retired with the most receptions in Steelers history before Hines Ward broke his record in 2005. He only caught 41 passes, but he racked up 798 yards and scored 9 touchdowns. Where Swann was the Steelers’ jump ball man, Stallworth was fast (here are long TDs from Super Bowls XIII and XIV if you don’t believe me). With those two receivers, they were either both going to produce, or at least one was liable to have a big day. You were in good hands with arguably the best two receivers in the league. Swann and Stallworth were both drafted in 1974 and went to the Hall of Fame (of the five Hall of Famers in the 1974 draft class, only Dave Casper, who went to Oakland, wasn’t drafted by the Steelers. Swann, Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert, and center Mike Webster were the other four).
TE: Bennie Cunningham
Here’s where we discount injuries. Cunningham only played six games before suffering a season ending injury. In that time, he caught 16 passes for 321 yards and 2 touchdowns, but most importantly, he was 6-foot-5, 254 pounds. I dare you to find anyone in the league that could cover Cunningham in 1978. He could have finished with numbers similar to Swann and Stallworth if he had stayed healthy.
FLEX: Randy Grossman (TE)
Grossman’s numbers may have been inflated because of the injury to Cunningham, and there’s a case to be made that the undersized tight end wouldn’t have played very much, but the fact remains that he still caught 37 passes for 448 yards and a score on the season. You use your flex because you’re not sure if they warranted enough promise to start and they offer upside. The controversial Cowboys linebacker Hollywood Henderson said that Grossman was nothing more than “a backup…who only plays when someone dies or breaks a leg or something,” (among other disparaging comments he made about Steelers players prior to their Super Bowl XIII matchup), but I hope you wouldn’t listen to Henderson. Grossman provided that upside.
D/ST: PIT D/ST
This is obvious. They had a damn nickname, and even though the new defensive rules were, as cornerback Mel Blount put it in America’s Game, made to “slow down the Steelers,” the “Steel Curtain” still rolled, picking off 27 passes (led by 6 from nickelback Tony Dungy) and recovering 21 fumbles (1 returned for a TD by safety Donnie Shell). Sacks were not recorded in 1978. Six Steelers defenders made the Pro Bowl (two linemen, two linebackers, and two defensive backs), and aside from an Earl Campbell inspired loss to the Oilers on Monday night in Week 8, the defense was dominant. Only Dallas managed to score more than 30 points against the Steelers defense (in the Super Bowl mind you, and two of those TDs were in a late comeback bid. Pittsburgh at one point led the game 35-17).
K: Roy Gerela
Here’s the weak spot in your lineup. Gerela went 12-26 on the season, though he only missed one of 45 extra points. That being said, it’s kicking in the 1970s. Gerela may have cost you a couple nail-biters but with how dominant Pittsburgh was on the year, it wouldn’t have mattered in the end.