Franco Harris is Steelers royalty. The MVP of the franchise's first Super Bowl victory, Harris is also the owner of the most iconic play in NFL history, a play that ushered in a new, glorious era in Pittsburgh. The '70s Steelers won four Super Bowls in a six-year span, a feat that has yet to be matched.
A first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Harris continues to keep a close eye on his former team. Like many Steelers fans, Harris was not particularly thrilled with how Pittsburgh's 2020 season came to an end, with a wild-card playoff loss to the Browns. Harris said the team's promising 11-0 start only added to the disappointment.
"We're all tucked away in our homes, but yet, you had the excitement of the Steelers," Harris said during an appearance on CBS Sports HQ. "[Being] 11-0, things are looking good. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed like we hit this period of time where we had to play three games in 12 days. To me, that really disrupted a lot of things. But I understand with COVID, there had to be some adjustments. But it really put a lot of strain on the Steelers, I feel, and things just didn't click after that."
Harris is right. The three games in 12 days did negatively impact the Steelers. During that span of games, the team lost starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who was on pace to surpasses his 2019 sack total. Compounding the flurry of games in a short amount of time was the fact that the Steelers lost their Week 8 bye when the NFL rescheduled the Steelers' Week 4 game against the Titans. Pittsburgh's bye was rescheduled for Week 4, which meant that the Steelers played 13 straight games heading into the postseason.
Schedule issues aside, Harris accurately pinpointed the main on-field issue that contributed to the Steelers' early playoff exit.
"I hear Ben's coming back, which is great," Harris said, alluding to Ben Roethlisbeger's recent comments about wanting to return for his 18th season. "We have some great, great young receivers that I'm really excited about. But me being a running back, we have to get that running game going. To me, that's the most critical part of the game is the running game. So we need to put some focus on that.
"No, I'm not coming back," Harris added with a chuckle. "I'm retired."
It's no secret that the running game has lost some significance in today's NFL. Only nine running backs rushed for over 1,000 yards during the 2020 regular season. The last running back to be named Super Bowl MVP was former Bronco Terrell Davis, who won the award 23 years ago. That being said, this year's Super Bowl participants employ solid running games. The Buccaneers are led by Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. The Chiefs' rushing duties have been primarily handled by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams. Passing may now be the primary means of transportation, but having a reliable running game is still a necessity in order to be a true Super Bowl contender.
"I think Tennessee has a great balance there," Harris said when asked about the league's premier rushing attacks. "They've done well, so that's pretty impressive. I have to say when Cleveland beat us in that playoff game, which I wasn't very happy and excited about, I think their running game made a difference. [Nick] Chubb made a difference in that one. To me, running backs can make a difference in the running game, because I feel that the running game effects the time of possession, and also wears down the defense. So this is something, to me, that the Steelers really need to focus on."
The Steelers have already made efforts towards improving a rushing attack that finished 32nd in the league in 2020. They've changed coordinators, promoting quarterbacks coach Matt Canada. They've also promoted former assistant offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, a move that has received praise from several former Pittsburgh linemen. The Steelers are also expected to select a running back during the draft.
As far as Super Bowl LV is concerned, Harris believes that football fans are going to witness "a great game." Harris said that the upcoming quarterback matchup between Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady reminds him of his two Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach on opposing sidelines.
"You have to be on the edge of your seat every moment with quarterbacks at that caliber," Harris said. "Things can change in one play. Those are quarterbacks that can make big plays and change the course of a game. And we're looking at that now.
"When you see Brady and Mahomes, how they control the ball and take their team downfield with their passing, it's just incredible. When I look back to when we played, passing wasn't at the scale that it is today. But when they did have some passes, they were big plays, big bombs that changed the course of the game."
While his former team is not playing in this year's Super Bowl, Harris has picked who he is pulling for come Sunday night.
"Both these teams are great, but I'm going for the AFC team," he said. "Kansas City and Mahomie. We know Andy Reid, he's always creative and doing a lot of things. So I'm going for the AFC team. Kansas City all the way."