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Work of Art

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In Oakland, a head coach that pulled off a clean-sweep of his division was pushed out of town. In Cincinnati, the owner and coach squabble while a talented team struggles to co-exist on and off the field. In Pittsburgh, stability reigns as the hometown Steelers, who some pronounced “dead in the water” before the season, are headed to their third Super Bowl in the last six years.

Pittsburgh stands on the precipice of a seventh ring despite their franchise quarterback missing a fourth of the season with an NFL-mandated suspension; despite losing both of its projected starting offensive tackles by midseason and shuffling bodies in and out of the lineup at an alarming rate; despite featuring no depth behind a trio of defensive linemen that was deemed too old to continue playing at a high level.

The defense controlled the play with the offense short-handed early, the offensive linemen plugged along, peaking in the first half of the AFC Championship game, and those old men on the line were key to a defense that allowed just 62.8 yards per game on the ground, the third lowest total by a team since the AFL-NFL merger. All the while, Steelers owner Art Rooney smiled, knowing that, once again, stability wins in the NFL.

“It always starts at the top,” said ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who played for the Steelers in the late eighties and early nineties. “How the Rooneys have established their leadership trickles down. It goes right down to the coaches and it’s instilled in the players there.”

Flash back to last January: Pittsburgh had just put the finishing touches on a 9-7 season and were watching the playoffs from home thanks to a cataclysmic five-game losing streak that featured special teams disasters, late-game breakdowns by the once-storied defense, and the offense coming up just short in big moments.

Art Rooney and head coach Mike Tomlin remained calm. There were no knee-jerk reactions by the Steelers brass. Pittsburgh made two minor staff changes, replacing its offensive line coach and special teams coordinator. In February, the team went to the free agent market and brought back former-Steelers Antwaan Randle El and Larry Foote as well as some viable special teams players; the type of low-risk, high-character signings the team always makes.

March brought the first true test of the offseason when star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in a Georgia nightclub. He was never formally charged but the incident, the second such accusation in the past two years, resulted in the NFL handing him what turned out to be a four-game suspension to start the season.

April featured another off-the-field incident and another suspension. Former Super-Bowl-MVP Santonio Holmes was tagged for yet another violation of the substance abuse program. With Holmes’ contract expiring after the season and the threat of a year-long suspension looming (the penalty for one further violation), the team decided to part ways with its star receiver, trading him to the New York Jets for a mid-round draft pick.

Art Rooney sent two messages to his team, and especially Roethlisberger, with that trade. First, that his Pittsburgh Steelers will always be character-first; and second, that no one is safe when it comes to disrupting that mindset.

Amid all the turmoil, the team began planting seeds for a Super Bowl run. The draft pick acquired in the Holmes trade was shipped off to Arizona for another former-player, cornerback Bryant McFadden, who jumped right into a starting role from day one. The draft itself brought in highly-regarded center Maurkice Pouncey, a pair of young unknowns at wide receiver, and a handful of linebackers who were perfect for a special teams role.

“Mike Tomlin has done an amazing job since stepping in there and taking over that team,” offered Hoge. “He has a plan. He always has a plan and the thing you must have a plan for is when stuff goes wrong. He has the ability to adjust with the changes.”

Even when the team lost its starting right tackle in the offseason, its starting left tackle by mid-season, and suffered a number of other injuries that had the team down to just five healthy offensive linemen during a game this season, Tomlin never wavered from that plan. It was always about the next man up.

Linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior knows where that philosophy starts. “We have a saying around here that Mike Tomlin has been preaching since he got here: ‘A standard is a standard.’ I think not only does he say that, but I think he has everybody believing it. We all believe that no matter who is in the game, a standard is a standard.”

The standard is that of a winning team – a Super Bowl team.

That standard never changed, even after injuries to defensive end Aaron Smith and superstar safety Troy Polamalu, two players that most deemed irreplaceable. The standard remained the same at wide receiver, where the emergences of second-year wideout Mike Wallace and rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown more than offset the losses felt by the Santonio Holmes trade.

Those three receivers embody the next-man-up philosophy of the team’s long-term design as well. No team builds from within better than the Pittsburgh Steelers, a testament to the relationship between the Rooneys and long-time general manager Kevin Colbert. Colbert slices through the draft, picking up talents like Wallace, Sanders, and Pouncey, who became one of the rare Pittsburgh rookies to start from day one. Tomlin grooms those young players with the help of veterans like Hines Ward, yet another example of the character-driven leaders that the Rooneys love to employ, and turns them into stars. No big name free agents, no massive rebuilds; just stability.

And that stability, coupled with the clearly-defined relationships between owner, GM, coach, and the players themselves, is the reason why, once again, it’s Super Bowl time in Pittsburgh.

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