Stability is at center of Steelers' blueprint for NFL success

Hines Ward was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1998 and has remained with the franchise for his entire career. "We're not the flashiest," he says. "We just go about our business and continue to put up wins and see if we can make another run at a Super Bowl."

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By Nate Davis, USA TODAY
The NFL is a copycat league, as teams look to the Super Bowl winner for the answers.

So why are 11 teams entering the season with new head coaches? Why did 128 free agents switch jerseys during the summer? Why are so many clubs installing new looks on both sides of the ball?

And why aren't more teams mimicking the Pittsburgh Steelers?

The Men of Steel begin their unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title defense Thursday against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.

In a league known for secrecy, much of the Steelers' blueprint for success has been on display for years:

•Treat your people right.

•Retain your core players into their prime years. But consider parting with them when they've peaked, and replenish the roster through the draft instead of free agency.

•Stick with the head coach. The Steelers have had three since 1969. The latest, third-year coach Mike Tomlin, who turned 37 in March, is the youngest to win a Super Bowl.

•Don't stray from your identity: an ever-evolving but dominant defense and a methodical ground game.

"We believe that there's value in continuity," Tomlin says. "It's easy to be stable when you win."

Championship rings, eight-figure contracts and high-profile endorsements are draws for players. But don't underestimate the allure of playing for an organization run by the Rooney family for three-quarters of a century.

"Guys want to stay. Guys want to play for the Steelers," says Ben Roethlisberger, who has quarterbacked the team to two titles since being drafted in the first round in 2004. "The coaches do what they can to try and keep the players. The Rooneys do everything they can to keep guys they call Steeler players around. And that's a big deal.

"The family that the Pittsburgh Steelers are is important."

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So are the stability and continuity that are engendered by the Rooneys' approach.

"You never really hear anything about this organization. That's what you love about it," says wide receiver Hines Ward, a third-round pick in 1998 and the MVP of Super Bowl XL. "We're not the flashiest. We just go about our business and continue to put up wins and see if we can make another run at a Super Bowl."

One reason the Steelers always seem to be a Super Bowl factor is their ability to smoothly turn over their roster.

Despite placing right guard Darnell Stapleton on injured reserve last month, Pittsburgh will return 19 of 22 starters from its 2008 title team.

Two of the new starters, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay, are potentially significant upgrades on a defense that ranked No. 1 in most major statistical categories last season.

Timmons, a first-round pick in 2007, illustrates Pittsburgh's propensity to supplant expensive veterans with younger talent. He replaces Larry Foote, who was released after starting every game the last five seasons.

A similar scenario might play out next year as tailback Willie Parker enters a contract year while the team's top pick from 2008, Rashard Mendenhall, waits in the wings.

But the Steelers have let far higher-profile players than Foote depart in recent years — think wide receiver Plaxico Burress and all-pro guard Alan Faneca— yet thrived despite replacing them with lesser-known players.

"You still keep your core guys and mix in new faces here and there," Ward says. "We've never been big on free agency. I can't name you the last free agent we brought in here who really helped contribute.

"We're really confident building through the draft."

Linebacker James Farrior and safety Ryan Clark are the only current starters who bolted other teams to sign with Pittsburgh.

Tomlin, who proved himself a worthy successor to Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, recently told NBC's Bob Costas, "There's a lot of things that go on in Pittsburgh, Pa., or with the Steelers specifically that doesn't subscribe to some of the things that goes on in today's NFL. Free agency for us is signing the guys that we want back on our football team. There's a lot of old school philosophies and things that permeate down from Dan Rooney that make business here a little different than a lot of places."

And those philosophies are handed down from one black-and-gold generation to the next.

"Our job as veteran guys is to come in and teach what we know, because that's how it was done when I got there — guys took us under their wing and did the same thing," Ward says. "We have the most stable coaching staff out of all the NFL."

And then there are cases when the scouting department, intimately familiar with the needs of coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense and the team's typically run-oriented offense, provides undrafted gems such as Parker — who took over for Jerome Bettis in 2005 — and linebacker James Harrison.

"Pittsburgh has one of the best scouting departments I've ever seen," says Titans safety Chris Hope, a former Steeler.

"To go and find guys like Willie Parker, James Harrison — they're guys that every other team had a chance to get but they just didn't find them."

Harrison was asked after the 2006 season to replace Joey Porter, who was a Pro Bowl performer and a locker room elder. All Harrison has done is reach two Pro Bowls, earn defensive player of the year honors in 2008 and make a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

"They're a prototypical organization people want to emulate now from the top down," says NFL Network analyst and former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who battled the Steelers for nine years.

Yet despite the results, few franchises outside of the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts seem to have the wherewithal — or perhaps, the patience — to duplicate the Steelers' success.

"If you bring in a group of players to play one system and then change that after a year or two," Patriots coach Bill Belichick says, "a lot of the time you're looking at different skill sets for the players that you have or that you need and probably you won't have as many of those on your team as if you've been trying to bring them in from the beginning.

"Once you change the system, then your players have to change their techniques, and some of their skills may not fit as well as what you were bringing them in for."

The Steelers rarely tweak their systems, enabling them to target and groom the players they want. Tomlin, a successful practitioner of Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 scheme as an NFL assistant, retained LeBeau and his 3-4 set, which allowed the defense to remain dominant while sparing it a personnel overhaul.

"The Steelers have faith," Billick says. "Some organizations could learn from that, but they don't. ... It's got to be the quick fix.

"They don't throw a bunch of money at their problems."

Titans also stable, successful

Though they have yet to enjoy a championship breakthrough, the Titans are also a model of relative constancy in the NFL.

Fisher, who led Tennessee to a league-best 13-3 regular-season record in 2008, is the league's longest-tenured active coach, entering his 16th season at the franchise's helm.

The man who originally coached the then-Houston Oilers on an interim basis in 1994 oversaw the organization's migration to Tennessee in 1997, led it to its lone Super Bowl berth two years later and has spurred the Titans to the NFL's fifth-best record (96-64, .600) over the last 10 years.

Yet Fisher is quick to point out that he also enjoys unwavering support upstairs.

"It's a credit to Mr. Adams and ownership," Fisher says of K.S. "Bud" Adams, the team's owner since its inception in Houston and one of the founders of the American Football League.

Between 1999 and 2003, Fisher's teams went 56-24 (.700) in the regular season, reached the playoffs four times and endured that heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XXXIV, when wide receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled 1 yard short of a potential tying touchdown on the game's final play.

But when Fisher revamped the roster and lost 31 of 48 games between 2004 and 2006, Adams stuck with him.

"He sees things differently, I think, than most (owners)," Fisher says of Adams. "He's patient and competitive, but he understands there will be lean years.

"It's an honor to work for him."

Adams' faith has been rewarded as Fisher has constructed a team whose win total has improved in each of the last three years, culminating with last season's dethroning of the Colts in the AFC South.

"I have huge respect for Jeff Fisher," says Billick, a longtime adversary of Fisher. "If I were to start up an expansion franchise and have any coach, I'm not sure I wouldn't choose Jeff Fisher. He always finds a way, regardless of talent, to platform it and be successful."

Much like his peers in Pittsburgh, Fisher knows what his players are best-equipped to do and lets them play to their strengths. Only Pittsburgh and the Denver Broncos have outrushed Fisher's teams since he became the head coach in 1995.

"We trust our scouting personnel department," Fisher says. "We've drafted well and taken advantage of the skill types and personality types (we seek) out there."

And even though the Titans didn't retain all-pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in the offseason, Fisher is optimistic when asked if he has a team on the verge of greatness.

"We'd like to think so," he says. "We're returning 20 of 22 starters. We've got a nice blend of veteran players and young players and tied up a lot of key players.

"Stability in the locker room is very important to us."

Familiarity breeds respect

Cast aside last season's infamous incident in which Tennessee's LenDale White and Keith Bulluck stomped on a Steelers souvenir "Terrible Towel" when the Titans beat them in Nashville, and the admiration between these teams is palpable.

"The respect level I have for their organization is off the charts," Fisher says of the Steelers.

Former Titan Justin Hartwig enters his second season as the center for the Steelers.

"It all starts at the top," Hartwig says. "Both teams have really good ownership. They have good coaching staffs and front offices. They know to pick the players. Both places empower the players, and players are allowed to have their own personalities.

"Both teams are really close-knit groups, and from my experiences at both places, players really care about each other, and I think that reflects on the field."

Hope, who joined the Titans in 2006 after four years and one championship in Pittsburgh, sings a similar tune.

"The two organizations are very, very respectful, family-oriented, organized. They always have a solid coach that has respect for the players and respect for the game. They have cities with great fans and great support from the community, and they're built with blue-collar guys.

"The majority of guys on both teams are hard workers who come in ready every day, not showboat guys, who come in and get it done on Sundays."

Despite their respect for the Steelers, the Titans enter today's game looking to atone for their divisional playoff loss to the Ravens.

"To be the champ, you got to beat the champ, so let's get the first shot at them," Tennessee tight end Bo Scaife says. "We want to go out there and shock the world right at the jump."

As for the Steelers, a seventh Lombardi Trophy would further underscore their greatness. The question remains whether they or the Patriots, who have three titles since 2001, would be the team of the decade.

"Sit with a buddy over a beer and have that debate," Billick says.

Adds Fisher: "Clearly, they're built to do it. Ben (Roethlisberger) is really the definition of a franchise quarterback, and they have a defense that is unique."

Whether or not the Steelers are the team of the decade, the franchise with the familiar trio of hypocycloids on its helmet has a secure place in the history of the NFL.

Billick's summation of the Steelers says it all: "They're an icon of an industry."