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01-29-2011, 07:58 PM
Why the Steelers are the Steelers

Last Updated: January 29, 2011 4:56pm

PITTSBURGH — When arriving passengers first set foot in the Pittsburgh International Airport, they are greeted by a statue of Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris in a depiction of the famous “Immaculate Reception” of Dec. 23, 1972.

Some 38 years after Harris’ miracle last-second touchdown against the Oakland Raiders, travellers here are reminded daily of the most memorable play in NFL history.

It’s the first lesson you learn here: Pittsburgh is about football. And football is about Pittsburgh.

From the high school stadiums that are packed every fall on Friday nights, to the midget at a local watering hole called Casey’s who, wearing a back-and-gold Steelers helmet and jersey, stands on the bar pouring shots directly down the throats of thirsty fans, football is more than a sport here. It is a way of life.

And nothing gets the collective juices flowing like the Steelers, the franchise that has captured more Super Bowl crowns than any other team in NFL history.

With six Vince Lombardi Trophies already gracing the team’s offices, just a short punt from the appropriately named Hot Metal Bridge, the Steelers’ quest to add yet another in Super Bowl XVL against the Green Bay Packers is being called the “Stairway to Seven.”

In a salary-cap era where parity is supposed to reign supreme, the Steelers, Patriots and Colts have represented the AFC in nine of the past 10 Super Bowls.

Understandable. The Pats have Tom Brady. The Colts have Peyton Manning.

The Steelers? With apologies to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the recipe for Pittsburgh’s success cuts much deeper than just the heroics of one player.

Without further ado, here are 10 reasons why the Steelers continue to be arguably the model franchise of the NFL.

10. The expectations

Winning is an attitude that permeates not just in the community, but within the walls of the Steelers offices.

“When you come here, you are expected to win,” defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. “We expected to beat the Ravens and the Jets. And it’s the same attitude heading into the Super Bowl.”

Fifteen years ago, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers to a berth in Super Bowl XXX against the hated Dallas Cowboys. No matter. O’Donnell will always be remembered as the scapegoat whose two interceptions to Larry Brown were the turning points in a 27-17 Cowboys victory, the only Super Bowl loss suffered by the Steelers.

In this city, in this organization, anything short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy simply isn’t good enough.

9. Steeltown bloodlines

Beaver Falls’ Joe Namath. Monogahela’s Joe Montana. East Brady’s Jim Kelly. Pittsburgh’s Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino.

Western Pennylvania indeed has been the cradle of Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks over the years, a trend that has its roots in the region’s rich high school football programs.

For kids here, growing up to be a successful NFL player — and, in an ideal world, a Steeler — is the ultimate dream. Here, it’s not just good enough to make it; you have to be good at it, too.

It’s a thought process embedded in any player who tugs on the Steelers uniform.

After all, an entire region is watching. Always.

8. Team-first mindset

Santonio Holmes scored one of the greatest touchdowns in Super Bowl history, a fingertip, tippy-toe grab that gave the Steelers a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Eighteen months later, the skilled wideout was shipped to the Jets for just a fifth round pick because of his off-field troubles.

For the Steelers, no player is bigger than the team.

Just ask Roethlisberger. Despite winning two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, management explored trading him after his highly-publicized incident with a 19-year-old woman in a Georgia washroom.

He is one of the lucky ones. Because in the world of the Pittsburgh Steelers, second chances are few and far between for those who damage the franchise’s reputation.

7. Smashmouth attitude

It is a mindset instilled in players the moment they walk onto the field into a Steelers uniform.

You beat other team’s by beating them up.

You don’t run around an opponent; you run through him.

In a town that has transformed from steel mills to high-tech industry, the blue-collar heritage continues to be the mantra of the Steelers. From Mean Joe Greene to Jack Lambert to Kevin Greene to Joey Porter to James Harrison, punching opposing teams in their collective mouths has always been a lucrative blueprint for the Steelers. One that the fans demand.

Just ask the Ravens and the Jets, who recently learned that the hard way.

6. The quarterbacks

Along with Montana, Terry Bradshaw leads all quarterbacks in career Super Bowl rings with four.

Heading into next week’s title tilt versus the Packers at Cowboys Stadium, Roethlisberger’s two Super Bowl titles are as many as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have COMBINED.

Break down the warts in their respective games all you want, but these two quarterbacks always rose to the challenge whenever the spotlight of the big game was on them. In Pittsburgh, where Lombardi Trophies are much more important than quarterback ratings, that’s all that matters.

5. The legacy

Every day Steeler players go to team meetings, they are reminded of the rich tradition they are expected to carry on.

On the walls are numerous paintings and photos of past Steeler greats, from Lambert to Mean Joe to Jack Ham to Bradshaw to Mel Blount. In the foyer is a display featuring the franchise’s six Lombardi Trophies.

“You see the photos and trophies, you hear the stories of those great 1970s Steeler teams, and you tell yourself: “I want to be part of that,”” wideout Hines Ward said.

“When you play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the rich history here, you can’t help but feel that way.”

4. Defence, defence

No one here will ever forget the tradition of the famed Steel Curtain.

Remember when the stands at Three Rivers Stadium physically would bounce up and down when the fans would chant “Defence ... defence!”

They had good reason. Consider that in 1976, the Steelers “D” posted shutouts in five of the Steelers final nine games, an astonishing feat.

The Steelers might play at Heinz Field now, but the identity of the franchise hasn’t changed. Just like Mean Joe and Lambert were the faces of those great Steel Curtain teams, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu occupy those roles now.

How good have the Steeler defences been, especially at linebacker? In 33 of the past 39 years, at least one Steeler linebacker has been elected to the Pro Bowl.

Enough said.

3. The philosophy

No big name free agents. Very few ridiculous contracts.

Those are two keys in Pittsburgh’s philosophy of team building.

When the likes of Kevin Greene, Joey Porter or Plaxico Burress were looking for big bucks, they were allowed to leave. In their respective places, thanks primarily to shrewd drafting, management plugs in players specifically selected to pick up the slack.

“They draft guys who fit into their system,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “That’s what happened with me.”

Consider the example of rookie Antonio Brown. Selected after Holmes was traded away, the young wideout immediately stepped in to make huge post-season catches against the Ravens and Jets.

Lose a key component? Put in a young guy in his place who is expected to produce.

2. The coaches

Mike Tomlin doesn’t often get mentioned in the same sentence as Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, even the recently fired Jeff Fisher.

Yet, when all is said and done, the fourth-year Steelers coach is on the cusp of a remarkable achievement.

Already the youngest head coach to ever have captured a Super Bowl, Tomlin is poised to win his second before turning 40. No other coach has even won one by that age.

In reviewing the three coaches the Steelers have employed in the past 42 years, each was decidedly different.

Chuck Noll was a no-nonsense disciplinarian who turned a band of eccentric superstars into a four-time Super Bowl winner.

Bill Cowher was a lock-jawed media darling who brought a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh after a 2-1/2 decade drought.

Mike Tomlin is a players’ coach who is so young, he actually played college ball against his own middle linebacker, James Farrior.

The common thread? Super Bowl rings.

1. The ownership

When Bradshaw was a young quarterback, some critics in Pittsburgh questioned his intelligence, claiming he could not spell the word “dog” if you spotted him the “d” and the “g.”

At that turbulent time of the early 1970s, it was Steelers owner Art (The Chief) Rooney who came to the defence of his quarterback, a heart-felt belief that helped Bradshaw lead the team to four Super Bowl crowns.

No wonder that Bradshaw, during his emotional Hall of Fame acceptance speech, pointed at the heavens and declared: “Art Rooney ... I loved that man!”

Continuously chomping on his omni-present cigar, Art Rooney brought a family atmosphere to the franchise, one that the Rooneys have maintained to this day.

“We are treated so well,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “So many players come here from different organizations and can’t believe how good it is here.”

The key? Continuity.

Consider that, since 1969, the Steelers have had just three coaches: Noll, Cowher and Tomlin. Pick a man. Believe in him. Stick with him.

That has been the Rooney philosophy.

A winning one.