TAMPA – So which is the second-best franchise of the Super Bowl era: Dallas or San Francisco?
That’s really the only serious debate to be had if Pittsburgh wins Super Bowl XLIII.
Sorry to rub salt in the gaping wounds created by the Cowboys’ and 49ers’ recent failings. But every team — including others with a history of Super Bowl success — must be considered a pretender to the throne where the Steelers will sit.
A victory over Arizona on Sunday would give Pittsburgh an NFL-record six Super Bowl titles, breaking a tie with the Cowboys and 49ers. Someday, the league may have to create toe rings if the franchise’s fingers get filled with too much championship bling.
Yet it isn’t just jewelry that separates the Steelers from the pack.
Since the first Super Bowl was played in January 1967, NFL history can be split into two periods. Miami and Washington — winners of five titles over a 20-year span — haven’t reached a Super Bowl following the institution of free agency in 1993. No longer able to retain exclusive contractual rights to their players, the Dolphins and Redskins have failed to adequately compensate in the draft or with their own off-season acquisitions.
Conversely, the franchise with the most titles in the past 16 seasons — New England (three) — hadn’t won a Super Bowl before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was adopted.
The Steelers? They have thrived in both eras.
Furthermore, the Rooney family — which presided over a 25-year stretch during which the team didn’t even reach the playoffs — has perfected the business model for how a modern-day franchise should be run.
The Steelers don’t have to spend heavily in free agency because strong drafts and low-level signings have stocked the roster. Pittsburgh rarely loses any player it wants to keep but is also careful not to spend beyond the means of a small-market club. The front office, currently led by Kevin Colbert, astutely identifies the physical skills that will allow a player to fit successfully into its offensive and defensive schemes. Having just three head coaches in a 39-year span has insured those systems don’t change much from year to year.
For example, the Steelers adopted the 3-4 defense in 1983 and have deployed it longer than any other team. Knowing the traits they are seeking, Pittsburgh landed eight of the 11 starters on the NFL’s No. 1 defense through the draft. That includes outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley — another example of a college defensive end that made the successful transition to Steelers pass-rushing demon at outside linebacker.
Dallas still has more overall Super Bowl appearances than Pittsburgh with eight, but the last one came against the Steelers to cap the 1995 season. Since then, Pittsburgh has added its fifth championship and is playing for another. The Cowboys have just one measly playoff win and didn’t even qualify for the postseason in 2008 despite having a roster stocked with well-paid talent.
As for the 49ers, that franchise is the NFL equivalent of The Wrestler’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson: Life nowadays isn’t nearly as good as it was in the 1980s. The 49ers won four Super Bowls that decade and maintained its core players long enough to win another in the 1994 season. But this gold rush gradually dwindled. San Francisco has missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons. Not even during their lean years of 1985 to 1991 did the Steelers fail that badly.
“You know about the past when you see the Lombardi Trophies every day,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It motivates you to try to accomplish something like they did.”
Ten Hall of Fame selections were on Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl winners in the 1970s, including iconic figures like Terry Bradshaw, “Mean” Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. One of the game’s all-time greatest plays came when wide receiver Lynn Swann made a juggling 53-yard catch while falling down in Super Bowl X. The “Steel Curtain” is still a nickname being used today to describe Pittsburgh’s dominating defense. The team’s success during that decade also created a Terrible Towel-waving following that is second to none in offering support, especially when invading opposing stadiums.
This isn’t to say the Steelers are wart-free. Accusations of steroid use have tainted the trophies won during the 1970s. The death of 21 former Steelers players under the age of 60 since 1996 isn’t something to brag about either.
Still, the Steelers have created a tradition of winning they can be proud of.
The term “Six-Pack” is being thrown around by Pittsburgh fans in anticipation of another championship. Should that happen, the Steelers deserve to chug while the rest of the NFL — even begrudgingly — offers a toast of its