Pittsburgh's Super Bowl formula remains true as ever: Build from within, trust tradition—and strike hard
This is an article from the Jan. 24, 2011 issue
The stoop-shouldered 78-year-old in the blue suit took a lap around the winning locker room last Saturday night at Heinz Field, shaking hands with every one of the 45 Steelers who'd suited up for the exhilarating 31--24 AFC divisional playoff victory over the Ravens. When he came to guard Chris Kemoeatu, the player's usually sour, intense face lit up in a smile, and they shook hands. Next was tight end Matt Spaeth, who wiped his hand on a towel and reached out. "Congratulations, Mr. Rooney," Spaeth said with a grin.
Dan Rooney, the Steelers' chairman emeritus and the U.S. ambassador to Ireland for the past year and a half, picked up the handshake tradition from his father, Art, who founded the Steelers in 1933. Dan has passed it to the oldest of his nine children, Art Rooney II, 58, who stood nearby on Saturday night. Dan makes it to just a few games a year now because of his diplomatic duties, and when he's not in the house, Art II greets the men.
Not much changes around the Steelers. The structure of the team is identical to the one Chuck Noll walked into as coach in 1969, followed by Bill Cowher in 1992 and Mike Tomlin in 2007: Owners own, scouts scout, coaches coach and players play. On no other team do the coaches trust the scouting and draft process more. Compare these Steelers to the Jets team that will travel to Heinz Field for the AFC championship this Sunday. From Antonio Cromartie and Braylon Edwards to Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson, New York's roster is loaded with recent big-name imports. "From his dad to him to us," Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert said, nodding to Dan Rooney, standing near Art II and Tomlin after the game.
The Steeler way proved itself yet again versus the Ravens, and it stood in stark contrast to the manner in which Baltimore fine-tuned its 2010 team. Pittsburgh had scored 17 straight points to take a 24--21 lead early in the fourth quarter—if you haven't been in Heinz Field when the Steelers overcome a 14-point playoff deficit against their AFC North archrivals, imagine a magnitude-5.2 earthquake—but the Ravens were threatening.
Third-and-goal from the Steelers' six-yard line, 4:02 to play, season on the line. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco spied wideout Anquan Boldin, the $8 million--a-year free agent snatched from the Cardinals last March, running a short curl a yard into the end zone. Flacco threw the ball perfectly, and it bounced off Boldin's chest. The Ravens should have been up 28--24 with four minutes left, needing one defensive stop to win, but they settled for a 24-yard field goal. Their big-money receiver cost them four crucial points.
On the next drive the Steelers dug themselves into a third-and-19 hole. Overtime loomed. The Steelers put four wideouts across the formation. On the far right: Antonio Brown, a sixth-round rookie from Central Michigan. In training camp this year Brown got a baptism by fire when, stationed to return a punt, he felt linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, roaring down on him as if it were a playoff game and not drills in the dog days of August. Brown fumbled, Tomlin cackled at the sight ("Kid got so nervous his arms wouldn't work!" he yelled), and the we-practice-the-way-we-play point was made. "Rookies here, if they're going to make it, have to undergo a rite of passage," Tomlin said last Friday at the Steelers' offices. "You hear it from the vets all the time: 'He's got to become a Steeler.' Kids do it the right way for long enough, and you hear the vets say, 'He's a Steeler now.' It's a tremendous way to show the young kids how to play Steeler football."
Back to third-and-19. On his presnap read, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saw the Ravens' ball-hawking All-Pro safety, Ed Reed, lurking on the left. Roethlisberger determined to go right. At the snap Brown took off downfield and blew past cornerback Lardarius Webb. Roethlisberger's pass, one of the best and most significant of his seven-year career, hit Brown in perfect stride; the rookie pinned the ball to his helmet √† la David Tyree for a 58-yard completion. Four plays later, on third-and-two, running back Rashard Mendenhall punched in the go-ahead touchdown.
Baltimore's last-gasp drive ended when another imported wideout, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, dropped what would have been a fourth-and-18 conversion at the Steelers' 35 with a minute to play. Game over. So here was the tally: For Baltimore, Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, who had a combined 1,266 receptions entering Saturday, had four catches for 36 yards and two huge drops in the final five minutes; for Pittsburgh, Brown and third-round rookie Emmanuel Sanders, who had combined for 44 career receptions, caught seven passes for 129 yards, and Brown made the biggest play of the night.
Sanders and Brown. First-round center Maurkice Pouncey out of Florida, a starter from the first day of camp. Rookies playing big in January. The Steeler way. "I'm thankful to be part of something so great, something that's bigger than me," Brown said at his locker on Saturday night. "I'll tell my grandkids about being a Steeler someday. I was sitting there in the draft, no idea where I was going. I could have gone to some sorry team. But I get to come here, with all this tradition."
Reminded of the fumbled punt in camp, Brown smiled. "That was important," he said. "Taught me a lot. Even in camp, every play's a big play. With the Steelers you learn to play every play like it's your last."
Against the Ravens, 16 of Pittsburgh's 22 starters had been drafted by the team. Five others, like tackles Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott, were street free agents, low-cost imports or minimum-salary insurance policies who ended up starting because of injuries to others. Of those five, no one more typifies Pittsburgh's genius for diamonds in the rough than Harrison, who arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2002 and was cut three times before finally learning Dick LeBeau's system and sticking in 2004. He earned his fourth Pro Bowl nod this season and had three sacks of Flacco on Saturday.
Then there's the 22nd starter, Ryan Clark, a low-cost 2006 free agent who nearly jumped to the Dolphins this off-season for midlevel money. The Rooneys stretched themselves to retain Clark (four years, a relatively modest $14 million) in March because they valued his leadership on the defense. On Saturday, Clark forced a Ray Rice fumble and intercepted a Flacco pass, leading to short-field third-quarter touchdowns that knotted the game at 21. "Name the last big free agent we got," Clark said. Then he noted three Steelers Super Bowl winners who left the team only to be welcomed back this year: "Larry Foote. Bryant McFadden. Antwaan Randle El. It's not our way to break the bank for guys."
"The reason it works," Tomlin said Friday, "is because the Rooneys have built a climate of consistency and stability in a business that doesn't have a lot of that. It's a business model. It's smart. And everyone here lives by it. It's daily."
It ain't broke. And if making five AFC Championship Games in 10 years is any indication, it doesn't look as if it'll ever need fixing.