Steady Steelers stay on the four-decade plan
Instead of focusing on the eight Super Bowl trips and six Lombardi trophies, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell likes to talk about these numbers: four and nine.
That's four players he's coached on the Pittsburgh roster for nine or more seasons.
Mitchell's veteran linemen - Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke - may not be the Steel Curtain of the 1970s, but they speak to a larger truth. They were brought to the team, given time to develop and never jettisoned when the going got tough. And through it all, they were coached to play a single, specific, hard-nosed style.
In short, that's the ''Steeler Way'' - an unwavering devotion to getting one kind of player and playing one brand of football that has resulted in one outcome more often than any other over the past 40 years: The season ending with the Steelers holding the Super Bowl trophy.
They play Green Bay on Sunday in search of their seventh NFL championship.
''In the '70s, when you had the Steel Curtain, those guys were there for a long time,'' Mitchell said. ''They had continuity with the scheme, the coaches, the ownership, and you look at it, and it's those same reasons we're playing very well today. I don't think there's many teams in this league that can say they've had four players with the same assistant coach for nine years or more. That's the thing. Because the Rooneys, they don't panic.''
The Rooney family, of course, has owned the Steelers since the beginning, back in 1933. They do more than talk the talk about ''family.'' To build a sense of togetherness, they like to eat with the players in the team cafeteria. When it comes to the big picture, they run an organization that loves stability but isn't fond of drama.
One of the most significant tests of the Rooney resolve came when Ben Roethlisberger got in trouble in the offseason, when police investigated allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman at a bar in Georgia. One of the quarterback's loudest critics during that time: the team president, Art Rooney II. No charges were filed against the quarterback. Roethlisberger ended up with a four-game suspension from the NFL and a second chance from the Steelers.
About the same time, though, the team said goodbye to receiver Santonio Holmes, who caught the winning pass in Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl, but whose trouble with drugs, legal problems and untoward Twitter messages became too much for the team to stomach.
''The key to it is, we've always believed in having good people,'' Rooney said.
And for the most part, they have. While other teams dominate headlines with contract holdouts, loudmouth coaches and videotaping scandals, about the most news the Steelers serve up on a regular basis - from the Mean Joe Greene days to the present time - is that they hit too hard.
The biggest flare-up of Super Bowl week so far has been James Harrison's decision to use the big game as his platform to call out the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell for cracking down on violent hits, among other things. Harrison is this season's most-fined player. Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that he finished third in the recent voting for Associated Press defensive player of the year, while his teammate and fellow defender Troy Polamalu won the award.
''It's always about talent and evaluation of talent,'' Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw said. ''It's always about a style. Their style of play is not any different than when we started winning in 1972. It's great defense, ball-control offense, big plays in the passing game.''
What could seem boring to some - the Steelers ran 43 times and passed 19 in their AFC title game win over the Jets - might come off as refreshing to others, especially in cities where changes in offensive and defensive philosophies, to say nothing of overhauls of coaching staffs, hardly raise an eyebrow anymore.
They do in Pittsburgh.
Since Chuck Noll became coach there in 1969, there have been 258 head-coaching changes around the NFL, according to numbers provided to the AP by STATS LLC. The Steelers' contribution to that number: 2. Which happens to be the same number the Denver Broncos have compiled over the past four years and one-third the number Oakland has racked up since 2000.
''It's handed down from one generation of Steelers to the next,'' said the current coach, Mike Tomlin, who took over after Bill Cowher led the team for 15 years. ''It's a philosophy. Young people come in here and learn how we do it. It comes from the Rooney family. They focus on things that really matter, which is winning and doing it in an upright and straightforward manner.''
It wasn't always perfect. The Steelers went 157-253-19 over their first 37 seasons and caught only the slightest whiff of the postseason two times.
It was around that time that Noll, Greene, L.C. Greenwood (1969) and Bradshaw (1970) came in and the Steelers started building something. They built that 1970s dynasty almost exclusively through the draft. All 22 starters on their back-to-back title teams of 1975-76 were either draft picks or undrafted free agents. Not a single one had played for another team.
''You become part of a dynasty, you understand what it meant to the fan base and the community and what they expected and how important it was,'' running back Rocky Bleier said. ''They were your neighbors and loved you and it helped me formulate my relationship with fans and the bond.''
As times changed and free-agency turned more players into strangers in the cities they played in, the Steelers kept doing it their way. They are finicky about free agents and even more reluctant to spend big money on them. Sixteen of the 22 starters in Sunday's game are homegrown.
''When we hired Chuck Noll, they all believed that building through the draft was the right way to do it,'' Rooney said. ''Everybody agreed that was the way to make it work.''
It has worked. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (in which the Steelers agreed to play in the AFC, a move some traditionalists of the day considered risky), Pittsburgh has won the most Super Bowls (6), division titles (20) and games (417).
Bradshaw said a winning formula in football can stand the test of time.
''It's not like the hi-def TV that I bought eight years ago,'' he said. ''A formula in football is one that can last forever, even if you do things a little differently. If it works in the 70s, it'll work in the 80s. The offense has changed a little bit. It's gone from the Steelers trap to a power game but still with the big quarterback and the big plays in the passing game. The defense is still smothering. It's mindboggling.''
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.