For Steelers, it was another Super decade
Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, in the first truck in foreground, ride through a sea of fans lining Fifth Avenue during the Steelers Super Bowl XL Victory Parade in 2006.
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Just before the Steelers made Super Bowl history in Florida a year ago, safety Ryan Clark talked about how Pittsburgh's psyche is governed by football.
"The mood of the city is set by what we do. If we lose, Monday's a terrible day," he said.
By extension, if the Steelers lose so often that they miss the playoffs, it makes for a terrible, terrible winter. And was it mere coincidence that a new Ice Age arrived just as the Steelers dropped their fifth consecutive game and failed to score a touchdown in a loss to the Browns?
Like footballs, mood swings can take baffling bounces. One moment, somebody is renaming the place Sixburgh, and the next, a cousin in Cleveland is rubbing it in about sitting out the postseason. Gloom, despair and agony on us.
But fresh cuts aside, a look back at the first decade of a new millennium shows the Aughts were not all for naught. By any measure, it was the second-most super decade for a franchise that came into existence in 1933.
For starters, there were two more Lombardi Trophies under two different coaches for the first franchise to earn a six-pack; Heinz Field replaced Three Rivers Stadium as the epicenter of the Steelers Universe; the Rooneys remain in control of the Steelers after what was at times a painful restructuring. The decade also saw a new franchise record for most wins in a season; the youngest quarterback and youngest coach to win a Super Bowl; a No. 6 seed winning the NFL title; the longest run from scrimmage and the longest play in Super Bowl history; more Steelers in the Hall of Fame; a 75th anniversary season; and the passing of a beloved broadcaster.
On the other hand, there was the double disappointment of failing to make the playoffs after each super season. And there is no way to sugarcoat two bitter losses to the Patriots in AFC title games played at Heinz Field, among other playoff shortcomings.
Daniel M. Rooney, oldest son of founder Art, joined his father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Tim and Wellington Mara of the New York Giants are the only other father/son team so enshrined.
While he retains the title of chairman emeritus, Dan is the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, which his ancestors left to find work in the mines and mills of southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Steelers are run by the oldest of his nine children -- Art Rooney II, a one-time ball boy who has served as team president since 2002.
Art and Dan met NFL guidelines that one owner must have a least a 30 percent stake in the club and that no owners be involved in casino gambling.
The process involved buying out some or all of the shares from four Rooney brothers. The McGinley family also retained some ownership.
When the deal closed Sept. 25, it ensured that a third generation of the Rooney family will serve as stewards.
"In many ways, we always felt the team belonged to the city of Pittsburgh, and we held it in trust for them," Dan Rooney wrote in his autobiography.
Still, there were changes at the top.
For the first time in nearly 57 years, Dan Rooney missed attending a Steelers game. His official duties precluded him from being at a home game with the Bengals the last weekend of September.
While Art II tends to keep a low profile, he already had made significant contributions to the franchise well before he became president. For one thing, he helped break a logjam at the state level to secure public funding for a new stadium. But the team's mission statement remains the same every year -- to win a championship.
The Steelers ended their 31-year reign at Three Rivers Stadium with a 24-3 win Dec. 16, 2000, against the Washington Redskins.
Honorary captain Jack Lambert, brought back to where an NFL dynasty once ruled, inspired the final triumph. After the Steelers lost the coin toss, Lambert said: "All right, defense. Let's kill. Let's go."
Heinz Field was supposed to open Sept. 16, 2001, with a game against the Browns. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 forced some rescheduling.
The inaugural game at the new stadium was a 16-7 win Oct. 7 against the Bengals, the day the bombs starting falling in Afghanistan.
That first season at Heinz Field produced a 13-3 record, but after a win against the Ravens in the playoffs, it ended with a 24-17 loss to New England in the AFC title game.
The Steelers played the 1,000th game in their history Oct. 26, 2003, a 33-21 loss to the St. Louis Rams. The 6-10 record that season was their only losing mark of the decade, but as one big consolation, it delivered a first round draft pick who has more Super Bowl rings than Eli Manning and Philip Rivers combined.
Ben Roethlisberger began his assault on the record book when he started and won 14 consecutive games as a rookie. The team's 15-1 mark was better than anything the Super Steelers had managed during the regular season.
But after an overtime playoff win against the Jets, Roethlisberger threw three interceptions in a 41-27 home loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game. Hines Ward was reduced to tears and Jerome Bettis mulled retirement, but redemption was one year away.
The Steelers barely made the playoffs in 2005, but then became the first No. 6 seed to win it all.
The biggest play Roethlisberger made all year was a tackle. After Bettis fumbled on what could have been his last carry, Roethlisberger tripped up Nick Harper, the Indianapolis defensive back who had been stabbed with a steak knife by his wife the night before the AFC title game. The Steelers hung on to win.
The Bus went home to Detroit, where so many fans made the trip to Ford Field that it seemed like a home game. Ward was the game's MVP. Despite his record-low quarterback rating, Big Ben had his first title. And Bill Cowher, whose teams had lost one Super Bowl and come up short in so many AFC title games, finally had his ring.
A 21-10 win against the Seattle Seahawks produced the first Super Bowl crown in a generation and the fifth one for the franchise. One for the thumb, indeed.
Back in Seattle, coach Mike Holmgren fermented some sour grapes by saying it was tough enough to try to beat the Steelers without having to beat the referees, too. Twenty months later, before a 21-0 loss at Heinz Field, Holmgren conceded: "Pittsburgh won. It's time to move on."
He's now directing football operations in Cleveland.
And how did linebacker James Farrior respond to critics who whined that every close call went against the Seahawks, that Roethlisberger didn't play up to his standards and that The Bus got a ring but wasn't a factor in the game?
"I show them my ring," Farrior snickered.
Cowher Power returned for one more season, but the jut went out of The Jaw. What became an 8-8 season began with Roethlisberger severely injured in a motorcycle accident followed by an emergency appendectomy.
In 15 seasons, Cowher's teams were 161-99-1 with eight division titles, 10 playoff berths and a 1-1 mark in the Super Bowl. Seven of his assistants got head coaching jobs.
At his farewell news conference in January 2007, Cowher said his heart would always be here.
"You can take the people out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take the Pittsburgh out of its people," he said. "I'm one of you. Yinz know what I mean."
A few weeks later, Mike Tomlin was introduced as the 16th man to coach a franchise that prizes stability and continuity. He is just the third coach in the past four decades.
The 75th anniversary was celebrated through the year, and Steve Sabol of NFL Films was the keynote speaker at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which is named after the politician who presented Art Rooney Sr. during The Chief's Hall of Fame induction in 1964.
"The Steelers have had 16 different coaches in 75 years but only one game plan -- plant your knuckles in the dirt and go after the other guy," Sabol said. "Men who take pride in their power. That's the Steelers. They embrace a tradition that goes back to the NFL's Jurassic Period with the same ownership in the same family. Their struggle was epic, but the struggle is part of what makes them great."
Tomlin's first win was against the Browns, and it had historical significance. For the first time in a series that began in 1950, the Steelers had the edge in the all-time series.
The Steelers returned to the playoffs under Tomlin, but it was 2008 that became a magical year for them and the city.
If a line is drawn down the length of Heinz Field, it would align with The Point, the historical birthplace of the city. In 1758, British and Colonial troops ousted the French and built a permanent settlement they named "Pittsbourgh."
Despite the NFL's toughest schedule, Tomlin's Steelers won their division and earned a bye and beat the Chargers and Ravens at home in the playoffs.
Heinz Field had never been louder than it was the night the Ravens were beaten. It was the Steelers' first win at home in an AFC title game in 13 years, and it punched their ticket to their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
Fan support reached an otherworldly level. Lt. Col. Mike Fincke of Emsworth snuck a Terrible Towel aboard a rocket ship and then claimed the International Space Station as part of Steeler Country. (The Towel's creator, Myron Cope, retired from the broadcast booth in 2005 and died Feb. 27, 2008. Although he didn't live to see it in orbit, his terry cloth towel had become the most recognizable fan gimmick in sports. Both he and the Towel are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.)
Super Bowl XLIII pitted the Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals, who were born in Chicago and were once joined at the hip with the Steelers.
In 1944, when NFL players were needed to help fight World War II, the Cardinals and Steelers merged to form a combine called the Card-Pitts. The team was so bad that a fan wrote a letter to the editor calling them the "Carpets," because every other team walked all over them.
That team lost all 10 games and held a lead only twice all season. It was the only time the Steelers competed in the West and the only time they went winless.
Bill Bidwill, the current owner of the Cardinals, said that team operated on a shoestring.
"The league required us to dress 25 players, but we didn't have that many. So when we'd come to Pittsburgh for a game, we rounded up a couple of big bruisers in the bars. We put them in uniform and sat them on the bench during the games, so they got to see the game for free," he laughed.
The modern Steelers and Cardinals played a Super Bowl for the ages, however.
Just before the half, linebacker James Harrison intercepted a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. It is the longest play in Super Bowl history.
But the Cardinals rallied against the league's top defense and took a late lead, which set up a dramatic drive. Barely keeping his feet on the ground, Santonio Holmes caught a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger for a 27-23 victory.
"Steeler football is 60 minutes," said Tomlin, who at 36 became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. "Our guys don't blink."
In the glory days of the Roman Empire, the masses would line the parade route along the Via Sacra as a conquering general brought back the spoils of war. But as a warning to the victor, a slave dressed as the goddess of victory would follow behind and whisper: "You are mortal. You are mortal. You are mortal."
As much fun as it was to cheer a sixth Lombardi Trophy paraded down the Canyon of Champions, the Steelers failed to defend their second title in four years.
A five-game losing streak put them on the outside looking in. Tomlin had promised to "unleash hell," but instead, the fans felt like it.
To keep things in perspective for the past 10 years, however, remember the sign displayed by a jubilant fan on a Monday Night in Denver: Sixburgh! How Many Yinz Got?
First Published February 7, 2010 12:00 am