Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 8 Jack Lambert, originally published on Feb. 7.
He has four Super Bowl rings, a slew of individual awards and a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet Jack Lambert’s fierceness is embodied in one of the most memorable confrontations in Super Bowl history.
Lambert was livid when Dallas Cowboys safety Cliff Harris patted Pittsburgh Steelers’ kicker Roy Gerela on the helmet and thanked him for missing a field goal early in the third quarter of Super Bowl X.
Standing nearby, Lambert grabbed Harris and flung him to the ground. That he wasn’t ejected was surprising. That play seemed to ignite the Steelers’ defense, which held strong as Pittsburgh defeated the Cowboys 21-17.
Lambert was a cornerstone of the Steelers’ great defenses of the 1970s, a blend of speed, power and technique. He was a second-round pick out of Kent State in 1974, part of a watershed Steelers’ draft that produced four future Hall of Famers (Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster). He was considered by some too light to play middle linebacker. He was listed at 6-4 and 220 pounds, but as a rookie he weighed just 203 pounds. Nevertheless, he impressed Steelers coaches from day one and supplanted injured middle linebacker Henry Davis as the starter.
“Because of my size, I have to be intense,” Lambert said in a Pittsburgh Press story in August 1974.
Lambert went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in ’74, and the Steelers won their first Super Bowl 16-6, limiting the Minnesota Vikings to 119 yards and no offensive touchdowns.
The Steelers defeated the Cowboys the following year in the Orange Bowl. Lambert finished with 14 tackles, and his mates sacked Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach seven times.
Two years later, in Super Bowl XIII, the Steelers again defeated the Cowboys 35-31 in one of the most entertaining title games. Pittsburgh closed out the decade by defeating the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 the following year in Super Bowl XIV, with Lambert making a key interception late, the franchise’s fourth championship in six years.
The quintessential tough guy, Lambert was missing his upper front four teeth, the result of a basketball injury in high school. He had a partial denture to replace them, but played without it, so his gap-toothed visage became one of the signature images of the Steelers’ defense.
In 1979, Lambert famously told Howard Cosell, when asked about possible measures to protect quarterbacks: “It might be a good idea to put dresses on all of them. That might help a little bit.”
Lambert was a player of few words and generally avoided the spotlight. Following his introduction, he began his Hall of Fame induction speech in Canton, Ohio, with: “Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, let’s get this done.”
Lambert concluded his career with nine Pro Bowl appearances in 11 years. He averaged 146 tackles per season in his first 10 years. He was first-team All-Pro seven times and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1976, when during a nine-game stretch, the Steelers allowed just 28 total points, two offensive touchdowns and recorded five shutouts.
“Tough, raw-boned, intense — that’s the way he’ll be remembered, but I’ve seen a lot of guys like that come into the league,” ex-teammate Andy Russell said in a 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on the Steelers’ all-time team. “No, Jack’s a whole lot more. The range he has — they put him into coverage 30 yards downfield.
“They gave him assignments the Bears or the Packers never would’ve dreamed of (for Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke). He brought a whole new concept to the position, and that’s why, for me, he’s the greatest there ever has been. His first step is never wrong, his techniques always have been perfect. His greatness has nothing to do with his popular image.”