10 Most Valuable 1971 Topps Football Cards
To commemorate the AFL and NFL merger of 1970, the 1971 Topps football card set delivered a bright and vivid design that helped collectors easily distinguish between players from each conference.
Red borders surrounded AFC players while NFC players found themselves in a sea of blue.
Oh, and All-Stars had borders that were divided by both red and blue.
While the design was brilliant, Topps had no idea they were creating the most challenging set of the 1970s...
Those red and blue borders are easy on the eye, yes, but they also easily show the slightest dings and wear.
As a result, finding cards in this set in mint condition is extremely tough.
Condition issues aside, though, it's a fantastic set loaded with Hall of Famers and key rookies.
And in this guide, I'll run through the ten most valuable.
Let's jump right in!
1971 Topps #156 Terry Bradshaw Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $20,000
In his second NFL season, Terry Bradshaw graduated to the role of starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers after sharing duties with Terry Hanratty the year before.
Bradshaw’s initial foray as the team’s lone starter was shaky at best.
On the plus side, the 23-year-old Louisiana native led the NFL with three fourth-quarter comebacks.
However, those three comebacks were partially necessitated by erratic play earlier in those games.
Bradshaw threw 22 interceptions in 1971 against just 13 touchdowns, making for a whopping 46 picks in his first two NFL campaigns.
His questionable decision making and inaccuracy made him a favorite target of critics and sportswriters, with jokes about his rural upbringing and intelligence often ringing loudest.
The Blonde Bomber would have his day in the sun in seasons to come, but things were definitely on rocky ground in 1971.
Because he's a four-time Super Bowl winner and Pittsburgh Steelers legend, Bradshaw's rookie card is one of the most iconic football cards in the entire hobby.
1971 Topps #245 Joe Greene Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $9,000
One of the most dominant players of the 1970s or any decade for that matter, “Mean” Joe Greene earned his third-straight Pro Bowl appearance to start his career in 1971.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers went just 6-8 and were yet to fully drop the “Steel Curtain” on the league, the 25-year-old Greene was slowly but surely changing the narrative for a team that had been an NFL laughing stock for years.
Greene was a wrecking ball at left defensive tackle, blowing up running plays at first blush and using sheer force to key the team’s pass rush.
He was nominated as a first-team All-Pro by four of six major sportswriters’ associations and second-team All-Pro by the other two.
And for a good reason.
Greene was an otherworldly force that often looked like the best player on the field, and his standout 1971 campaign portended even greater things to come.
1971 Topps #250 Joe Namath
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $7,000
From 1966-1969, Joe Namath played 56 of a possible 56 regular-season games for the New York Jets.
However, things changed at the turn of the decade for New York’s beloved starting quarterback.
From 1970-1973, an oft-injured Namath played in less than 50% of the team’s games, appearing in just 28 contests out of a possible 58.
In 1971, Namath was out before the season began.
He wrecked his left knee on August 7, attempting a tackle in a preseason contest against the Detroit Lions and requiring a fourth knee operation as a result, the second on his left.
When finally able to return late in the season, Namath was inconsistent. He completed just 47.5% of his passes in four games (three starts), passing for only 537 yards with five touchdowns against six interceptions.
Things would get a bit better the next year, but questions swirled around Broadway Joe’s health and effectiveness as 1971 came to a close.
1971 Topps #260 O.J. Simpson
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $5,000
Entering his third year as a pro, Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson had yet to live up to the lofty expectations that preceded him into the league.
A big part of that was his mismatch of a relationship with head coach John Rauch who balked at the idea of designing an offense around a single running back.
In what would eventually be a big boost for Simpson's career, Rauch resigned in 1971.
Rauch's replacement, Harvey Johnson, catered the offense slightly more to Simpson but still didn't open up the playbook for him entirely.
Simpson played marginally better than the year prior under Rauch, rushing for 742 yards and five touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry.
He showed flashes of the greatness to come, but not enough to save Johnson's job.
The new Bills head coach was fired after the 1971 season and replaced by Lou Saban.
Saban didn't hesitate to make Simpson the focal point of the Bills offense and the rest is NFL history.
1971 Topps #133 Ray Nitschke
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $2,750
In 1971, Ray Nitschke's Hall-of-Fame career with the Green Bay Packers was winding to a close.
After starting all 70 regular-season games for Green Bay in the five seasons prior, the 35-year-old middle linebacker was unceremoniously replaced as a starter by rookie Jim Carter.
Carter struggled in the spotlight, and fans at home games grumbled and chanted, "We Want Nitschke!" to little avail.
Nitschke played in just nine games in 1971, starting only two of them.
The Packers did extend an olive branch to Nitschke and Packers fans at Milwaukee County Stadium, honoring the beloved linebacker on December 12 with a Ray Nitschke Day celebration before the team's showdown with the Chicago Bears.
Nitschke returned in 1972 for his career swan song, playing in 11 games and starting just one.
He retired following the campaign.
1971 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $2,000
The end of the 1970 NFL season was a bittersweet one for Johnny Unitas.
The Baltimore Colts' veteran starting quarterback was electric in the first two games of the team's playoff run.
However, Unitas left the game in the second quarter of the team's 16-13 Super Bowl V victory over the Dallas Cowboys because of a rib injury.
Come 1971, Unitas lost his unquestioned starting job and entered a time-split arrangement with Earl Morrall.
Unitas looked lost at times in this new role, completing just 52.3 percent of his passes in 13 games (5 starts) for 942 yards, three touchdowns, and nine interceptions.
He started for the team in its AFC Divisional Game win over the Cincinnati Bengals, earning the nod for the team's AFC Championship Game tilt with the Miami Dolphins.
Unitas struggled mightily against Miami, throwing three picks as the offense sputtered in a dispiriting 21-0 defeat.
The Colts' run at the top of the league wound towards its end by the next year, as did Unitas' 17-year stint with the team.
1971 Topps #91 Mercury Morris
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $1,700
Mercury Morris was not happy with his on-field role with the Miami Dolphins heading into the 1971 season.
He felt he was too talented to function as the team’s backup halfback, even with the additional responsibility of serving as the team’s primary kick returner.
However, the 24-year-old Pittsburgh native still made the very most of the opportunities he had.
Morris played a crucial role in the Dolphins’ run to Super Bowl VI, leading the AFC with a 28.2 yard average on kickoff returns.
He was also impactful in a limited role as a halfback, rushing for 315 yards and a touchdown on 5.5 yards per carry.
Selected to the AFC Pro Bowl roster as a kick returner, Morris also spent time at halfback during the game.
In 1972, the Dolphins took a historic leap to perfection and Morris was a key contributor with an extended role in the backfield.
Anytime an NFL team gets close to a perfect season these days, Morris is notorious for speaking up and reminding everyone how difficult achieving perfection really is.
1971 Topps #25 Dick Butkus
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $1,400
Dick Butkus’ Hall-of-Fame career with the Chicago Bears was chock full of highlights, but the middle linebacker's personal favorite came unexpectedly during the 1971 season.
On November 14, the Bears were locked in a 15-15 tie with the Washington Redskins in the game’s final seconds.
Chicago looked to take the lead for good on an extra point, but the snap sailed over the head of holder Bobby Douglass.
Douglass scrambled to recover the ball and looked to salvage the play by passing for a conversion.
Butkus was on the field as a blocker and adjusted to the situation, getting open in the end zone for a game-sealing catch.
Butkus told reporters later that the play marked his favorite memory from his legendary nine-year career.
As for his typical on-field role, Butkus was as dominant as ever in 1971, leading the Bears with 117 tackles and four interceptions.
The Bears faded hard down the stretch with five-straight losses, but Butkus still earned Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honors.
1971 Topps #150 Gale Sayers
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $1,300
Gale Sayers' brief yet breathtaking run as a superstar NFL running back came to a depressing close shortly after the 1971 NFL season.
During the 1970 preseason, the Chicago Bears halfback suffered a second major knee injury.
And despite trying to play through it, he was forced to cut his season short and undergo season-ending surgery.
Sayers put all of his energy into a comeback in 1971 after a successful rehab period, but Bears head coach Jim Dooley wanted to be cautious.
The Kansas Comet carried the ball just twice during the preseason and did not play in the team's first three regular-season games.
Sayers later made plans for an extended in-game load against the San Francisco 49ers, but after five carries in the first quarter, he severely injured his ankle and did not play again in 1971.
He attempted a comeback in 1972 despite calls for him to retire, but a two-fumble performance on just three carries in his first and final preseason game of the year was enough to convince him to call it quits.
1971 Topps #3 Marty Schottenheimer Rookie Card
Estimated PSA 9 Mint Value: $1,000
While he’d rise to prominence as a head coach in the NFL in the 1990s and 2000s, Marty Schottenheimer also had a solid six-year pro playing career as a middle linebacker.
Despite starting just 11 of his 79 regular-season games played, the former seventh-round AFL Draft pick was well respected and made an AFL All-Star team as a member of the Buffalo Bills' 1965 AFL Championship squad.
Schottenheimer was traded from the Bills to the Boston Patriots before the 1969 season where he spent two years in a backup role.
He was traded again to the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 1971 campaign and then traded for a final time to the Baltimore Colts.
He did not play a regular-season snap for the Colts, opting to retire from football and begin a career in real estate.
Schottenheimer signed as a player/coach for the World Football League’s Portland Storm in 1974, but he injured his shoulder and served solely as the team’s linebackers coach from then on.
He began his NFL coaching career as a linebackers coach for the New York Giants the following year.
1971 Topps Football Cards In Review
Released in two series, the 1971 Topps football set featured a 263-card checklist loaded with star power and some of the most iconic rookie cards of the vintage era.
The bright colors and fantastic design offered plenty for collectors to enjoy, but if that weren't enough, Topps also included one game card and one poster in each wax pack.
The game card insert set included 52 player cards and one card that helped gamers keep track of downs and field position.
There's just so much to love with this set that keeps it high on the want lists of many vintage football collectors.