1974 NFL Draft helped send Steelers, Browns down different paths
The quantifiable results of an NFL Draft — who truly won and lost — aren't fully known until the careers of the various draft picks play out.
But it took only months for the 1974 draft to create an immediate and long-lasting impact on two of the NFL's biggest rivals.
Landing four future Hall of Famers with their first five picks — and without the benefit of a third-round choice — propelled the Steelers on a run of four Super Bowl wins in six years.
But effectively forfeiting that draft, with ill-conceived trades for unproductive veterans and poor selections with the picks they owned, sank a Browns franchise that, to that point, had won eight league titles (All-America Football Conference and NFL) to the Steelers' zero.
Going into that two-day draft in January 1974, the Browns were 10 years removed from their last NFL title but remained a successful and much-admired franchise with an all-time 35-13 record against the Steelers. Even after the Steelers finally got good by going 11-3 in 1972, the Browns split their season series with Pittsburgh in '72 and '73.
During a time when NFL franchises were understanding the benefits of scouting and player evaluation, which were haphazard and erratic up through the 1960s, the Browns were growing careless.
The Browns sent their first-round pick and a 1975 second-rounder to the Chargers for linebacker Bob Babich, who started the next three seasons but wasn't an impact player. They traded a third-rounder to Denver for backup quarterback Don Horn, who threw only eight passes for them. They dealt a fourth-round selection to the Raiders for wide receiver Gloster Richardson, who caught only 21 passes the next two seasons.
Even worse, they used their lone pick in the first four rounds on little-known tackle Billy Corbett of Johnson C. Smith, which played at one of college football's lowest levels.
Not only was that second-round pick universally panned, Corbett signed with a CFL team and never played an NFL game.
Only a few picks after the Browns chose Corbett, the Raiders (Dave Casper) and the Steelers (Jack Lambert) drafted future Hall of Famers on successive picks. The Browns passed on Lambert, even though he played only 50 miles away at Kent State and was well-known to them.
Among the forgettable Browns picks were Mark Ilgenfritz, Bob Herrick, Dan Scott, Mike Pueston, Tom Gooden, Ron McNeil, Ransom Terrell and Carlton Buchanan; in all, their 15 picks made a combined 40 career starts.
That draft so changed the complexion of the Browns-Steelers rivalry that Mark Gefert, the academic advisor for Cleveland State University athletes and a former Purdue linebacker, doesn't let on he was a member of that '74 Steelers class.
“I never bring it up here,” Gefert said.
With no talent incoming from that eminently forgettable draft and the three terrible trades, the aging Browns immediately spiraled to records of 4-10 in '74 and 3-11 in '75. The Steelers went 22-5-1 and won two Super Bowls.
Since that '74 draft, the Steelers have played in eight Super Bowls and won six; the Browns have played in none. And the series flipped, too; the Steelers have won 52 of the past 74 against the Browns, including 31 of 37 in Pittsburgh.