Top five: the NFL in the 1970s

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Your favourite sports era has a lot to do with when you grow up. Who can match the impact of those childhood heroes, whose exploits combine with the excitement of discovering a game you love to create something larger than life? At least some of the 1970s’ reputation as the NFL’s greatest decade is probably because those were formative years for many who are now at the top of sports journalism. But every decade has its pros and cons.

Still, there are lots of reasons why the 1970s were interesting. The NFL’s status as America’s favourite sport was cemented in those years, following the merger of the NFL and AFL. It was also the last decade of old school, ground-and-pound football being the league’s dominant style. In 1978 the rules were changed to make pass blocking easier and pass defence harder, resulting in a boom in passing football that still hasn’t ended.

And finally, it was a decade of legendary dynasties, full of larger than life characters. The 1970s Super Bowls were dominated by the Steelers (four wins), the Cowboys (two wins, three defeats) and Dolphins (two wins, one defeat). Throw in the Vikings (three defeats) and you have four teams taking 15 of the 20 Super Bowl berths that decade. Not great for variety, but good for building the profile of those teams and their players. The Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, the No-Name Defense and the Purple People Eaters still loom large.

There is no shortage of books about the 1970s NFL, and to pick just five means leaving out some really good ones, but here are five to get you started.

1The NFL, Year Zero (2013) by Brad Schultz

“The 1970 NFL season usually does not merit much attention,” writes Brad Schultz in the introduction to his week-by-week examination of the first season of the newly merged league. Schultz tells the story of a pivotal year in NFL history by highlighting a key game or two from each week of the season, giving him plenty of latitude to cover the broader ramifications of those games.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

2The Super 70s (2005) by Tom Danyluk

Featuring 18 Q&As with a range a coaches, players and broadcasters, (19 in the revised edition) The Super 70s sheds light on the decade through the stories of those who were there. Whether it’s the late Steve Sabol discussing the effect free agency had on the offensive line or Cliff Harris on how defensive players carry their mistakes with them, there’s plenty of thought-provoking material here. The book becomes more of a time capsule with each passing year; these interviews were all conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s and half of Danyluk’s subjects are now dead. This book helps keep their memories alive.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

3The NFL in the 1970s (2016) by Joe Zagorski

Similar in theme to The Super 70s, but more in-depth, Joe Zagorski’s book goes through each year of what the author describes as “pro football’s most important decade”. As you would expect with so much to cover, it’s a substantial book that will bring back memories for those who lived through it and fill in lots of gaps for those who didn’t. Of particular interest to readers of this site will be Zagorski’s bibliographic essay which discusses some of the best books on 70s football.
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4The Last Headbangers (2012) by Kevin Cook

The 1970s wasn’t the last decade with multiple dynasties competing for dominance – that would be the 1980s – but it did feature some of the most colourful characters. The battles of the 1970s where much more trench-based, with the rules yet to unleash the passing game. Cook chronicles that era with relish, bringing to life the crazy characters and epic rivalries for which the 1970s will always be remembered.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

5Their Life’s Work (2014) by Gary M Pomerantz

If you are only going to read about one team from the 1970s – and there’s only room for one on this list – then it has to be the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their record of four Super Bowl wins in six years remains extraordinary. Pomerantz examines that team in a book that is deeply reported and engagingly written. Not only for fans of the Steelers.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

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