Polamalu: Experience won't help Steelers; past suggests otherwise
One of the most popular and oft-repeated angles to this year's Super Bowl will be the experience factor, namely the idea that the Steelers, with their three trips to this game in the past six seasons, hold a sizable advantage in that regard over the Packers, who last played on this stage 13 years ago.
But Troy Polamalu isn't buying it. The all-world safety is one of 10 current Steelers who were on both the 2005 and 2008 Pittsburgh clubs that won rings, and all told 25 Steelers have played in a Super Bowl, with 14 of the team's 22 starters earning at least one NFL championship in Pittsburgh.
Polamalu doesn't happen to believe any of that will help the Steelers add to their jewelry collection. Pittsburgh's roster may be dotted with Super Bowl champions, while the Packers have none, (and only Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett have even played in the game), but those are just words printed on a page. Super Bowl experience is overrated, said the man with the NFL's most famous hair.
"Given the way the Giants beat the Patriots, or the Saints beat the Colts, or the way the Buffalo Bills lost four straight, you can't put too much into that,'' Polamalu told me late Sunday night in the Steelers' postgame locker room, showing a pretty good grasp of Super Bowl history. "I'll tell you what is a big advantage. It has nothing to do with playing in Super Bowls, but it has everything to do with playing in big games, whether it's rivalry games or whatever.
"I know every game we play with Baltimore is like a playoff atmosphere, and what I mean by playoff atmosphere is that every single play is like a chess match. You know the meaning of what even one play can be. One play can change everything. Tonight [meaning the Steelers' AFC title game win over the Jets] was a great example of that. Every play was a situational football play for us, just like it was last week against Baltimore [in the divisional round]. If you play in enough of those type of games, you learn how to play in big games.''
Polamalu makes a great point, but I can't help but notice that Pittsburgh's Super Bowl track record in particular doesn't exactly support his case. Two years ago, the Steelers beat the first-time Super Bowl qualifying Arizona Cardinals in Tampa. In Super Bowl XL, five years ago in Detroit, Seattle was making its first appearance in the league's showcase game, while the victorious Steelers hadn't been in 10 years and really only had Super Bowl experience on their Bill Cowher-led coaching staff. We'll call it a wash, since the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren had two Super Bowl trips on his head coaching résumé.
But in Super Bowl XXX, which followed the 1995 season, the Steelers were the Super Bowl novices of sorts, and they lost to the vaunted Dallas Cowboys, who already had two recent rings at that point. It was roughly the same story on the experience front when the 1979 Steelers earned their fourth ring by beating the Rams, a club making its first Super Bowl trip in franchise history.
Maybe Polamalu is right, and Pittsburgh's Super Bowl experience won't be a factor in the game's XLV version. But having been there and done that has likely helped some teams in the Super Bowl, while inexperience under the NFL's brightest spotlight has probably hurt others. It's just that no such angle is foolproof, so you can't count on experience making a difference every time. Maybe it'll show up in Pittsburgh's favor down in Texas, and maybe it won't.
Experience aside, every Super Bowl trip is unique, Polamalu said. "It's such a fun process, it really is. But getting there and winning it are two different stories.''
Pittsburgh's path this season has certainly been different. When the Steelers opened 2010 facing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, few in Pittsburgh were thinking the Super Bowl was their inevitable destination. And when the Steelers were dismantled at home by the Patriots, 39-26 in Week 10, their ascension to the top of the AFC heap looked anything but assured.
"This journey has certainly been much different,'' Polamalu said. "But if we're able to win it, we'll see then. As Coach [Mike] Tomlin says, the AFC championship, it's just a piece of the hardware that you pick up along the way. Quite honestly, the Lamar Hunt [trophy] is meaningless when you're going to the Super Bowl. It's all about that trophy [the Lombardi].''
Polamalu, of course, meant no offense to Hunt, his well-respected NFL family, or the trophy that is named in honor of the longtime Kansas City Chiefs owner. He was just saying that in the NFL, the ring's the thing, and the only ring that matters is the one you get as Super Bowl champion. And in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers own a league-record six Super Bowl titles in seven appearances, they know that better than anywhere else.
To get that seventh ring, Polamalu and the Steelers have to get past a team with a hot quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and an aggressive 3-4 defense that looks and plays positively Pittsburgh-like. When the teams met late last season, at Heinz Field, Rodgers was superb in a thrilling 37-36 loss to the Steelers. But Roethlisberger was even better, throwing for a career-best 503 yards and the game-winning 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Mike Wallace as time expired. Polamalu missed that game with the knee injury that cost him much of 2009, but he was on hand and saw Rodgers pick apart the Pittsburgh defense for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
"To be able to put that many points up on our defense, you've got to really play well as a quarterback, because people aren't going to run the ball down our throats,'' Polamalu said. "So we know he's been very hot this postseason and we have a huge challenge ahead of us, especially given that they're a very balanced team.
"They've got a really awesome defense. The fact is you could switch half our players with half their players and we could both run the exact same defense. I guarantee you that we could swap safeties and run the exact same defense. You could definitely swap anyone on our defense and still play.''
With Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau being friends, former co-Pittsburgh coaches in the early '90s and proponents of the same 3-4 scheme, Polamalu is not exaggerating. The soft-spoken eighth-year veteran said while he wouldn't trade the Steelers' set of starting linebackers for anyone else's, facing Green Bay is a little like playing an opponent that's a mirror image of the Steelers.
"Whenever you play teams like that, it's about matching their defense's intensity, and it's about outplaying their defense,'' Polamalu said. "You just know with the nature of these type of games, it's never going to allow for a blowout. We know with the nature of our style of ball, it's always going to come down to the very end.''
That has indeed been the pattern in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' divisional-round comeback win over Baltimore came down to the bitter end. As did last week's AFC title-game conquest of the Jets, when Pittsburgh rolled the dice and risked having Roethlisberger throw the ball on third down to record the game-clinching first down. Polamalu loved the moxie that move showed.
"Conventional wisdom would be to run the ball, to burn the clock and leave it on your defense,'' Polamalu said. "But it depends on if you have a killer mentality or not in this game. It paid off for us, because we do have that mentality.
"I went up and I asked [Tomlin], 'What are we doing, what are we doing?' Then he said, 'We're passing the ball,' so I went to the sidelines and said, 'Guys, we're passing the ball. So get ready, in case it doesn't happen.' But getting that first down is as good as scoring a touchdown. That won the game.''
And with one more win next Sunday night, against a Packers team that hasn't played in a game this big for quite a while, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh will have themselves another parade to plan and execute. After all these years, and all these Super Bowl trips, maybe that's where Pittsburgh's experience pays off most.