Sunday, February 01, 2009

Why I'm a Steelers fan

In just a few hours, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take to the field in Tampa Bay to try and win a record sixth Super Bowl title against the Arizona Cardinals. I’ve long been a Steelers fan, and these past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I support the team. There are plenty of great reasons including the history of success, the focus on coaching continuity and smashmouth defence and the tremendous players who have worn the black and gold over the years.

However, sometimes you’re defined as much by what you’re not as what you are. The brilliant Joe Posnanski wrote one of the quintessential pieces on the Steelers for the Kansas City Star after their win over the Ravens. Here’s the first paragraph, which really cuts to the core of this franchise.

Football is violence. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, easy to start believing that football is about other more pleasant things, that it is about coaching and strategy and star quarterbacks and fabulous catches and touchdown dances and defensive schemes and former players and coaches yukking it up back in the studio. Then you come to Pittsburgh. And it’s all made clear.

Posnanski wrote a very interesting follow-up to that piece on his blog later on, talking about the tremendous reaction he received from Steelers fans. He found this curious considering the limited amount of time he spent on it, but rationalized that he understands the Steelers because he grew up hating them as a Cleveland Browns fan, and he learned a lot about the Steelers because they represented much of what the Browns were not. This is a tremendous insight, and one that’s rarely talked about. Sometimes, you need that outsider perspective to be able to properly analyze a team’s strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, like Posnanski found, often you can define a team by what they’re not.

This brings me to the best way I’ve found to define the Steelers and why I love them; the fact that they stand in opposition to a team I hate, the Dallas Cowboys. It’s extremely fitting that the Steelers will pass the Cowboys (and also the San Francisco 49ers) in Super Bowl titles if they win today, as the Steelers and Cowboys have long been polar opposites. They’re joined at the hip, consistently finishing 1-2 in rankings of the greatest NFL franchises, but the franchises themselves couldn’t be more different. Even the team names show the separation between the two; Steelers evokes a feeling of a community of blue-collar workers, while Cowboys is more associated with a group of rugged individualists out for their own gain (or even the Rich Texan from The Simpsons, who seems like a spot-on parody of Jerry Jones.

(Separated at birth?)

That distinction runs throughout both franchises. Look at the owners, for example. On the one side, you have the Rooney family, an exceedingly humble group of fans who grew up with the team and understand what it means to the Pittsburgh community and the larger world. On the other hand, you have the aforementioned Jones, a billionaire who rolled into town on his high horse and started making it rain in a much more grandiose fashion than Pacman Jones ever did. The Rooneys have always been good to their personnel and their fans, whereas Jones has thrown everyone else under the bus repeatedly whenever it serves his whims. Look at the 1992-1993 season, where he fired Jimmy Johnson after he won the Super Bowl, or how he underhandedly dumped Bob Ackles from the player personnel division after Ackles put the pieces in place for the glory years of the Cowboys. (If you want more on these moves, check out the excellent The Waterboy by Ackles or Boys Will Be Boys by Jeff Pearlman).

This continues down to the coaches. Dallas is frequently associated with the hard-partying types like Johnson and Barry Switzer, while Pittsburgh is famous for the humility and work ethic shown by Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. Moreover, Pittsburgh’s shown tremendous patience with their coaches and it’s paid off: they’ve had only three coaches since 1969 and have won five Super Bowls in that era. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have had seven coaches in that time frame, many for only a couple of years.

The player level is probably where the contrast is most pronounced. The Cowboys are famous for their individual abilities, tremendous talent and off-field antics; just look at the likes of Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, “Neon” Deion Saunders, Michael Irwin, Terrell Owens and Adam “Pacman” Jones. Meanwhile, the Steelers are famous for their collective efforts and hard work. Yes, there have been some great Steelers stars, but the most remembered part of the franchise is probably the “Steel Curtain” defence, which exemplified perfect teamwork over individual stat-padding. That focus continues today with defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz system, where different players attack the quarterback on every down. It doesn’t produce the most impressive stats for any individual athlete, but the collective accomplishment is tremendous. The same is true on offense. Where the Cowboys have ego-driven wide receivers like Terrell Owens who complain about the quarterback not throwing them the ball enough, the Steelers’ wideouts do perhaps the best job of downfield blocking in the league. The focus is again on sacrificing your body for the good of the team regardless of the personal recognition gained in the process, and to me, that’s a great thing to see.

Today’s game should be a great one, and I’m looking forward to see how the Steelers perform against the Cardinals. Even more important, though, will be the triumph over the Cowboys in franchise titles if Pittsburgh wins. That would be a victory for ownership and fans committed to long-term success rather than flashes in the pan, for those who love watching hard-hitting defence and players willing to sacrifice for their teammates, and for collective hard work instead of egotistical individualism. That’s why I’ll be cheering for Pittsburgh today.

Note: Mike Woods and myself will have our traditional Point-Counterpoint about who will win up here shortly.

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