No. 96: Mel Blount

If you’re even a moderate fan of NFL history, you probably have heard of The Mel Blount Rule. Mel Blount was a big, ferocious and hard-hitting cornerback for the dynasty Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. He was 6-foot-3, certainly weighed more than the 205 pounds that the Steelers listed him at with a straight face,* and he took it as his football mission to not just cover wide receivers but to delete them.

*Tight end Bob Trumpy, whom Blount once knocked out cold with a hit, insisted that Blount had to play at 225, which made him one of the biggest corners to play the game.

Before 1978, the rules essentially gave Mel Blount (and other defensive backs) their own delete button. They were allowed to maul wide receivers more or less without limit. They could tackle receivers, throw them into the stands, shove them into school lockers, take their lunch money, basically do whatever they wanted. It’s actually incredible that any receiver before 1978 ever caught a pass.

But then came the big rule change of 1978 … after the change, defenders could hit the receiver just once within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and that was it. That rule would fundamentally change the game of professional football. Joel Bussert, who worked at the NFL for 40 years and is working on a book on the history of rule changes, says that with the exception of safety regulations, the five-yard rule is the more important rule change in the NFL over the last half-century.

And that rule is now often called, yes, the Mel Blount Rule.

“He was so physical,” Rich Eisen said in introducing Blount for the NFL Films All-Century team, “he had a rule named after him.”

“I know of very few players in the history of the NFL,” Trumpy would say, “where the league changed the rule because one guy was too good at one thing.”

“I think any time a player can have such an effect on the game that they name a rule after you,” Mel Blount himself told the NFL Network, “I think it’s an honor.”

Only, well, here’s the thing … did Mel Blount really singlehandedly inspire the Mel Blount Rule? I have gone back through the archives, and I cannot find a single mention of Mel Blount when the rule was changed in 1978. I cannot find a single reference to the Mel Blount Rule until after he was already in the Hall of Fame. People really didn’t start referring to the Mel Blount Rule with any regularity until the late 2000s, more than 25 years after he retired.

So, what gives?

Well, buckle in. It turns out that The Mel Blount Rule rabbit hole goes pretty deep.

Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll was the first white coach Mel Blount ever had. Blount grew up on a farm in Vidalia, Ga., when that town was fully segregated.

Blount then went to play wide receiver at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge, La. He didn’t remain a wide receiver because, as it turned out, Southern had some pretty good ones already, including a 6-foot-8 sprinter named Harold Carmichael, who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So, Blount was moved to defense, first at safety and then cornerback. It suited his disposition. Blount liked to hit people so much you wondered why he was ever a wide receiver in the first place. Pittsburgh and Noll took Blount in the third round of the 1970 NFL draft, the same draft in which the Steelers took a quarterback from Shreveport, La., by the name of Terry Bradshaw. It was the start of something.

It’s important to know that the Pittsburgh Steelers, at the time, were the NFL’s laughingstock. When the Steelers drafted Blount and Bradshaw, they had never won a playoff game. Never. Not in their entire history. They lost 13 games in a row in 1969, Noll’s first year as coach, and that was a pretty typical Steelers season.

My friend Michael MacCambridge, who is consulting on The Football 101, tells a lovely story about when Blount came to Pittsburgh for the first time. Noll took him up to the head coach’s office on the eighth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

“Tell me,” Noll said, as he pointed out the window, “what do you see out there?”

Blount didn’t see much he liked. He was a country man at heart; even now he wears a cowboy hat wherever he goes. “The North is not the place for black people in my experience,” Mel Blount would tell his namesake, author Roy Blount Jr. “People think you’re freer, but I’m not talking about racial freedom. I’m talking about freedom of mind. Freedom to walk and see the fields and the horses play. Up here, instead of being trees, they’re buildings. Instead of being crossroads, they’re red lights.”

Still, he was a rookie, and he did as told — he looked out the window and described what he saw.

“I’ll tell you what I see,” Chuck Noll said. “I see championships.”

They would go on a championship ride together, Noll and Blount. First, though, they lost. The team got better but only marginally so. Blount, meanwhile, was getting beaten with such regularity that sportswriters started keeping a running tab. The nadir came in 1971 when the Steelers took a 21-3 lead against a dominant Dolphins team that would end going to the Super Bowl.

That’s when the Dolphins seemed to fully realize that Blount was matched up against their peerless receiver, Paul Warfield. Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese connected with Warfield on a 12-yard touchdown pass, an 86-yard touchdown pass, and a 60-yard touchdown pass, the last of them particularly gruesome as Blount seemed to freeze up and just let Warfield run by him.

Noll would later say that the touchdowns were not all Blount’s fault — there was a blown assignment by a safety on one of them — but in the moment, nobody seemed too interested in the subtleties of the game.

“Yesterday,” the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette wrote, “Mel Blount played a pigeon to perfection.”

Noll’s faith in Blount, though, never faltered. And while Blount’s faith in himself did falter briefly — “Wow, my career might not last as long as I thought,” he would remember thinking during his first offseason — he became a different player in 1972. He did not allow a touchdown pass throughout the regular season. The Steelers made it to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the now-famous ’72 Dolphins in a close game.

Then in 1974, the Steelers had the greatest draft in NFL history, getting Hall of Famers Lynn Swann (1st round), Jack Lambert (2nd round), John Stallworth (4th round), and Mike Webster (5th round). The Steelers won the Super Bowl. And Blount became one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL.

In 1975, Blount became the first defensive back to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year after he picked off a league-leading 11 passes.

And in 1976, he was a major part of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history — the ’76 Steel Curtain gave up 28 points total in their last nine games. They had five shutouts, including three in a row.

Then came 1977. And that was one crazy year.

In so many ways, 1977 was a pivotal year in the history of professional football. So much of what professional football would become — and what it is today — came about because of 1977. That was the year that the people who ran the NFL realized that stuff just had to change.

The craziness actually began with Chuck Noll. In 1976. The Steelers played a game against the Oakland Raiders, and if you grew up a football fan around that time, you would remember that Steelers-Raiders games were always bloodbaths. Cheap shots. Head shots. Forearm shivers. It was two small steps from Thunderdome.

And in that ’76 game, Oakland defensive back George Atkinson — one of the most lethal hitters in all of football — knocked Pittsburgh’s Lynn Swann out with a forearm shiver to the head. Noll and the Steelers might have overlooked it (this was simply how the game was played in the mid-70s), except it was the SECOND TIME that Atkinson had knocked Swann out cold. And so Noll couldn’t hold back.

“People like that should be kicked out of the game of football,” Noll said at the press conference. “There is a certain criminal element in every aspect of society. Apparently, we have it in the NFL, too. … We play football. We don’t want to get involved with criminal actions.”

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wasn’t too crazy about a prominent NFL coach calling another team’s player a criminal, and so he fined Noll for the comment as much as he fined Atkinson for the hit. And that might have been the end of it … except the Oakland Raiders were owned by that legendary pirate, Al Davis. And Al Davis was not about to have some punk coach call one of his players a criminal … especially because Davis was convinced that it was actually the Steelers’ players who were criminals.

So not long afterward, George Atkins announced that he was suing Noll for slander … he was asking for $2 million. Davis always insisted that he had nothing to do with the case but, you know, of course, he did. Steelers lawyers recommended to Noll that he settle out of court for $50,000 so that things wouldn’t get even messier. Noll, however, was no more likely to walk away from a fight than Al Davis was … and so the case went to court during training camp in 1977.

So, now you ask: Wait, what does any of this have to do with Mel Blount or how football changed?

Well, see, it’s like this: Atkinson’s lawyers decided their best strategy was to show that Mel Blount and the Steelers players — particularly Blount — were actually more violent and unloaded even more vicious cheap shots than Atkinson. They showed the jury a play where Blount clocked Oakland receiver Cliff Branch in the back of the head for no reason whatsoever — it was a running play on the other side of the field.

That put Noll in a tricky spot. On the one hand, he wanted to defend his own players. On the other, he was a man of integrity; he was not about to lie or feign ignorance when challenged. So when the lawyers challenged him on the Mel Blount hit — along with questionable shots by other Steelers, including Joe Greene and Glen Edwards — he had to admit that, yes, those were not good either.

“That,” he said of the Cliff Branch play, “is an act we do not tolerate.”

“So, wouldn’t you say that Mel Blount is part of the criminal element?” the lawyers asked.

Noll felt obligated to nod in agreement.

And things heated up. Mel Blount, as you might imagine, didn’t like his own coach calling him a criminal. He promptly announced that now he was suing Noll for $5 million (or $6 million, it was reported both ways). Blount said, “There’s no chance at all that I’ll play for the Steelers under Noll.”

The next few weeks were ugly. Blount held out. He demanded a trade. He filed a grievance against the team. He kept his lawsuit active. He insisted that if the Steelers wanted him back, they were going to have to pay a whole lot … this even though Blount had just signed a multi-year contract a few months earlier.

“I don’t want to be paid the going rate,” he told a reporter. “There’s no going rate for me. I don’t want to be classified with other backs. I don’t want to be paid according to what the rest of the cornerbacks are making. There’s no one in the league in my class, and I want to be paid accordingly.”

So how did it end? Well, like most things … it just ended. A couple of days before the Steelers opening game against San Francisco, Blount returned. The lawsuit was dropped. “I’ve always said Chuck Noll is a fine coach and a fine gentleman,” he told reporters. And everything was back to normal.

Except nothing was quite back to normal. The 1977 season was just plain weird. The whole “criminal element” thing just lingered on. Plus, nobody across the NFL could score points. It was the lowest-scoring season in 40 years. Teams ran the ball 60% of the time and not all that effectively. Teams averaged less than 142 passing yards per game; this was lower than in the 1950s. The Gritz Blitz Atlanta Falcons set an NFL record by allowing just 129 points all year.

And the Steelers, after dominating the AFC for years, were kind of a mess. The defense was shockingly average. The offense was mistake-prone. They barely won the division and then were solidly beaten by the Denver Broncos and their 34-year-old-who-seemed-70 quarterback Craig Morton. Blount was hurt and missed that game.

The Dallas Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl.

And the NFL decided that stuff just had to change.

“I personally feel we’re on the horns of a dilemma of what’s fair and what the public wants,” Pete Rozelle announced after the Super Bowl. “And I personally feel the public wants scoring.”

Now, at last, we get to the rule that changed everything, the rule the made it illegal for defensive backs to hit receivers after five yards.

It’s true that defensive backs had always been given free rein when it came to hassling and hounding receivers. But defensive backs definitely began abusing the privilege in the 1970s. They started mugging receivers at the line of scrimmage and just kept on mugging them all the way down the field. Several coaches, but in particular Cincinnati’s Paul Brown, insisted that these new intensified press coverages — featuring physical cornerbacks like Oakland’s Willie Brown, San Francisco’s Jimmy Johnson and, yes, Mel Blount — were the very essence of pass interference.

In 1974, the NFL put in a minor and convoluted rule that stated a defensive player could hit a receiver only once within three yards of the line of scrimmage and then once after three yards. It was useless. Not only did it allow the covering defender to hit the receiver twice, it also allowed other defensive players to swoop in and hit the receiver. It was like the slap line in the movie “Airplane.”

The rule was adjusted slightly in 1977 — now a defensive back had to choose whether to whack a receiver at the line of scrimmage or down the field, but not both. And again, the rule was basically useless since, once again, other defenders could come in and hit the receiver. Anyway, nobody called the penalty anyway.

It might have gone on like this — incremental rule changes signifying nothing — except that teams stopped scoring in 1977. “It was a dire year,” Joel Bussert says. “And there was a perception, ‘OK, enough, we have to fix this.’”

There were actually two major rule changes for the ’78 season — the Mel Blount Rule that we keep talking about and a rule that allowed offensive linemen to fully extend their arms on blocks. Before ’78, they had to keep their elbows at least slightly flexed, which made them vulnerable to being overpowered. The idea was to improve pass blocking, keep quarterbacks healthier and give receivers a better chance to get open. That rule change was big too.

And within three years, teams were averaging a record 197 yards passing yard per game. Points scored climbed for just about every year for a decade. Receiving totals skyrocketed. The NFL was forever changed.

Which, honestly, was the point.

So what role did Mel Blount play in the change? Well, that’s tricky. He goes entirely unmentioned in all the coverage of the rule change in ‘78. In fact, best I can tell, he wasn’t connected to the rule change in a newspaper article for at least a dozen years. Other players like Oakland’s Willie Brown and Dallas’ Charlie Waters were mentioned. But not Blount. So my first inclination is that Blount’s role in the change was minimal at best.

But then, MacCambridge and Bussert point out that Paul Brown was probably the most vocal proponent of changing the rule — so much so that some people inside the league called it The Isaac Curtis Rule. Curtis was a Bengals receiver and one of the great deep threats of the day. Brown’s real issue was that Isaac Curtis was not allowed to run his routes because defensive backs kept assaulting him as he tried to get into his route.

Who was the main defensive back stifling Isaac Curtis?

Right: Mel Blount.

“So I guess it depends on your perspective,” Bussert says. “On the one side, it’s The Isaac Curtis Rule. On the other, it’s The Mel Blount Rule. It obviously wasn’t one player who caused the rule change. But I don’t see anything wrong at all with calling it The Mel Blount Rule. I certainly think he was connected to the change.”

The greatest irony of The Mel Blount Rule is this: The Steelers absolutely loved it. They had seemed on their way down in ’77. But the new rule that was, at least in part, intended to limit the Steelers’ defense just opened up the Steelers offense.

“The defenses are going to have to try new techniques,” Lynn Swann gushed.

“I like it!” Terry Bradshaw said. “It’s five steps and fire.”

And the Steelers won the next two Super Bowls.

In July 1980, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its choices for the All-Decade team of the 1970s. There were nine Pittsburgh Steelers on the list … but Mel Blount was not one of them. Four cornerbacks were chosen — Willie Brown was on there, Jimmy Johnson, Denver’s Louis Wright and St. Louis’ Roger Wehrli — but no Blount.

Looking back, it seems a pretty astonishing omission.

But, it actually fits his career: Mel Blount often went unappreciated in his time. He made just five Pro Bowls — several less than his teammates Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. He was a consensus All-Pro just once. It really wasn’t until years after he retired that he began to be viewed as one of the true all-time greats.

I think this is, in part, because Blount was a distinctive cornerback … not a conventionally great defensive back. He was not fluid like some of the other all-time greats. He did intercept 57 passes, which was good for sixth among corners when he retired, but he also got beat more than the other greats of his day. In the 1974 AFC Championship Game, he had so much trouble with the Raiders’ Cliff Branch that Bud Carson actually pulled him from the game (leading Blount to tell one reporter that Carson was “stupid”).

No, he was not a pure cover man. Instead, his brilliance was in the way he intimidated, the way he blended with those other great Steelers defenders of the 1970s and the way he haunted receivers’ dreams. His role in creating the Mel Blount Rule is interesting but perhaps beside the point. The rule perfectly reflects the man.