Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A 71-Year Streak Ends: In Praise of the Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time since 1937, the Pittsburgh Steelers have opened their training camp without Dan Rooney in attendance.

Usually, it takes poor health to keep a devoted owner like Rooney away. Happily, however, Rooney is missing this camp for a completely different purpose: a sideline job.

Rooney was sworn in last month by Secretary of State Clinton as the new ambassador to Ireland, and it is those duties that are keeping him away from the team as camp begins.

The mere fact that a football team owner was endorsed for an ambassadorship is an indication of the kind of respect that the Rooney family has engendered, and not just in Pittsburgh. The stability that the family ownership has brought to the Steelers contributes mightily to the point of this column.

I preface this by saying that I am not a Steelers fan. I was born a Bears fan and raised with dual loyalty to them and the Colts once the Colts moved to Indianapolis. That said, I still say without any hesitation that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the best-run organization in the National Football League—and it's not close.

The Steelers were the first franchise to reach six Super Bowl championships. They've done so without any of the ownership-generated drama that has plagued the two organizations still tied at five, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.

Since 1970, the Steelers have had only four ten-loss seasons. The Denver Broncos are the only organization with fewer, having only two. The Miami Dolphins have equaled the Steelers' mark with four, and three of those came from 2004 to 2007.

This absence of any long periods of futility may have contributed to the greatest measure of Pittsburgh's stability, their remarkable use of only three head coaches in the last 40 years. Their hiring of Mike Tomlin came at a young enough age that Tomlin himself could conceivably coach for a couple of decades, as well.

Even when the family ownership needed to be "restructured" to bring the team in line with the NFL's policy on owners' gambling interests, the transition from five Rooneys to two was handled with relative smoothness. Certainly, there was none of the acrimony and legal wrangling that seemed to accompany the 49ers' transition from Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to his sister, Denise.

The Rooneys blend into the firmament when there's no negotiations being done, unlike the bombastic, hands-on style of the Cowboys' Jerry Jones.

New England's Robert Kraft is quickly gaining respect for his handling of the Patriots, but his team's involvement in a game-taping investigation still taints him. No such cloud hangs over the day-to-day operations at Heinz Field.

Even though Al Davis may have coined the phrase, "Just win, baby," the Steelers seem to be embodying it much better than any franchise in the NFL. Pittsburgh continues to win without players turning up in hosts of commercials, without harboring long lists of players with legal difficulties (Ben Roethlisberger's current issues notwithstanding), and without players, coaches, or owners behaving in a "look at me" fashion.

They may not always win, but they do "just play, baby." Dan Rooney's 71-year streak of attending training camp is perhaps the most vivid illustration of why the Steelers' consistency has made them the NFL's flagship organization.

Setting aside all residual bitterness from Ben Roethlisberger's shoestring tackle of Nick Harper in 2005 (but don't get me started on Slash's illegal catch 10 years prior), this Colts/Bears fan tips his hat to the Steelers, and the family who has made them what they are.

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