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Continuity, commitment keeping Steelers on top

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Wallace doesn't remember the first time he met Dan Rooney. He also doesn't remember the first time he met Dan's son Art, who runs the team day-to-day now that his dad is serving as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

And those "first times" came just two springs ago.

"I've seen them so many times," the second-year speed demon Wallace said, "that I can't remember the first time."

Wallace is like every other Steeler, now and for decades, to be part of the Rooney family business. He realizes he's part of something that extends beyond what he accomplishes between the white lines, but is also defined by his group's ability to perform in that arena like those before him.

So the tradition here carries on, and it starts with one word: Commitment

As sports franchises have reached the stratosphere in value, that one word can tie all the dynasties of the decades together. The Steelers in the 1970s had this same family and, as they make a run at duplicating that era's success now, the owners have endured. The 49ers had Eddie DeBartolo in the 1980s, the Cowboys had Jerry Jones in the 1990s and the Patriots had Robert Kraft at the turn of the century.

That one word -- commitment -- is what ties all the owners above together. DeBartolo and Jones had their troubles after winning big, the former off the field and the latter with his team's stability on it, but there was never any question where any of the men above had their priorities. Their football teams aren't a side business or a "toy", and winning is the priority. And if there's anyone who set the tone for that commitment, it was Art Rooney, who passed the Steelers baton to son Dan, who's passing it to Art II now.

Therein is the significance in Wallace's anecdote. The first time he met the Rooneys? Too many times ago to remember.

"This is their livelihood," says 10-year Steeler Chris Hoke. "Their dad gave this to them, they inherited it, and it's a family business, has been since they were kids. They take it very seriously, they're passionate about it, and when you know it's like that, there's a better feeling. They're very family-oriented people. It makes this a very family-oriented place.

"(Dan Rooney) is in Ireland and, coming back and forth, doesn't miss many games. Just last week, he was here for the Ravens game, flew out Monday afternoon, came back Friday for the Jets game. You know they care a lot about this organization."

Steelers players, and coach Mike Tomlin, often reference the Lombardi Trophies they walk by on the way to the meeting rooms and coaches' offices, as a daily reminder of the standard in Pittsburgh. But maybe more powerful is the presence of the family responsible for all six of those.

The legacy here isn't just in some trophy case or on a bookshelf. It's living in the Rooneys, who walk those halls every day, rather than working out of some satellite office.

Nine-year Steeler James Farrior has seen the other side. Over the first five years of his career, he was part of a Jets franchise that was going through the death of an owner, and protracted sale to an NFL newcomer. The coach who drafted him, Bill Parcells, was year-to-year. By the time he was gone, he'd had three different head coaches. It was, in other words, the opposite of what he's got now.

"I definitely think it makes all the difference in the world, having those guys around, seeing them, eating with them, traveling with them, I think you definitely get a better sense of how those guys operate, the job they do building the program," Farrior said. "I definitely think that makes the most difference, having those guys around, having them so much involved.

"Everyone says the same thing about the Rooneys and what a great job they do with the organization. I've never heard anybody say anything bad about anyone in the Rooney family. Those guys, they relate it more to the Chief (Art Sr.), but they say the same things. You can almost picture it, because Dan is the same way he was when he was running the team. It carries on from generation to generation. It's a formula that they have."

It's not complicated, either.

The Steelers might adapt and adjust, but they never change much. The last time the Rooneys fired a coach was in 1968. There was a time when Chuck Noll might have shown his age, and a period where Bill Cowher struggled to get over the hump, but they've stuck with the plan throughout.

Now, it's Mike Tomlin's team, and his marks are there in this group's confidence and swagger.

But the image of a big, physical, defensively oriented team has never changed. It's what the Steelers are, what they were before the current group got there, and probably what they will be long after those folks leave.

And then, there'll probably be another Rooney standing on the sideline at practice, or eating lunch in the cafeteria with some kid on the practice squad, or just showing up to the office every day like all the players and coaches do.

"It's any given time you can see any one of the Rooneys talking to any one of the players, whether it's a first-rounder, starter, backup, free agent, it doesn't matter," said cornerback Bryant McFadden, who started in Pittsburgh, left as a free agent for Arizona, and came back. "And that goes a long way. It tells you they really understand. They know what's going on. They don't care about (how big) your name is, what you're doing. It's about them caring about the players and understanding what's going on."

More often than not, what's been going on in Pittsburgh has been pretty good. And chances are, that won't come to an end any time soon.

Going deep

The idea of a team being in a "win-now" mode comes with an "or else" connotation.

The 2010 Jets spoke freely through the season about that. Antonio Cromartie, in fact, prior to the Patriots game two weeks ago, told me, "I'm here for a reason. Me, (LaDainian Tomlinson), Jason Taylor, Santonio Holmes, Brodney Pool, we're here for a reason, and we want to make sure we lay it on the line for our teammates, our brothers on this team, and definitely for our coaches."

The five above mentioned players now have a combined zero games left on their collective contracts. So does that mean it's "or else" for Rex Ryan and the Jets? Not if you ask them.

"I think the future of the Jets is very bright, because you have Rex at the head," said receiver Jerricho Cotchery. "He knows what type of players he wants, and he knows how to get the most out of his players. As long as he's the coach, this is going to continue every year."

OK, so logistically, it'll be difficult to keep all the team's prospective free agents, a list that includes Cromartie, Holmes, Pool, David Harris and Braylon Edwards.

But say, for instance, they keep Harris (a good bet), Cromartie and Holmes, and shuffle the roster elsewhere. And say young players like Joe McKnight, Kyle Wilson and Vladimir Ducasse ascend.

The fact is, the team's core remains young, with mid-20s players like Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, Nick Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Dustin Keller and Darrelle Revis at the heart of it, and Harris and Holmes also fitting in that dynamic. In that context, this looks like a roster that only needs augmenting, and the Jets, over the last year, have become a very attractive destination for free agents, so plugging holes might be easier for this team than others.

That's not to say the Jets don't have needs. The miss on Vernon Gholston means they're still looking for a consistent edge rusher, and interior of the defensive line could use some youth.

But after a season in which so many predicted that Ryan's act would wear thin, or the composition of the roster would combust, the team sustained losses last year (Thomas Jones, Alan Faneca) and shouldered on. The lesson: Ryan's swaggering bunch probably isn't going anywhere.

"He's changed the atmosphere," Cotchery said of Ryan. "Now, you expect to be in these types of games, as opposed to the past, where we were just hoping to get in the playoffs and make a run from there. He's changed the standards around here. And that's why it's so bad, being here the second year in a row. We put together a special group this year, and we felt like this was our year."

But next year might be, too.

I know this truth ...

Ben Roethlisberger is doing a service to Cam Newton, and any other quarterback prospect who plays in a less conventional way, with this playoff run of his. And perhaps changing the rules on how we should look at the position.

What we're talking about is best exemplified on the game-clinching play on Sunday against New York. One first down stood between the Steelers and an AFC title, a third-and-6, and when the Steelers needed it most, Roethlisberger brought it.

At the snap, the Jets had six defenders at the line, but just four came, and Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito eventually got their blocks and bore down on Roethlisberger to his right side. Without much time to think, Roethlisberger broke toward the right boundary, and each Steelers skill player came off their route toward him.

You can, in fact, see rookie Antonio Brown, on the backside of the play, clear Harris and start to make his way toward Roethlisberger. At that point, it turns into a footrace between Harris and Brown, and that's one Brown's going to win. It then becomes a matter of Roethlisberger buying enough time for Brown to get to him. And Roethlisberger did, keeping Pouha and DeVito, wary that the QB could turn upfield, at bay for long enough. Seconds later, the ball's in Brown's hands and the game's over.

Schoolyard football? Maybe. But there's also design to all of that, even if it's not quite like watching Bill Walsh and Joe Montana make music together.

"You can never give up on a play with Ben in there," said another rookie receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. "He knows how to scramble, he's a big, physical quarterback, and guys seem to bounce off of him. You can never go dead. Anytime you come out of your route, if he's not in the pocket, you have to find where he's at.

"And they continuously preached around here: If you're deep, come back; if you're shallow, go deep. It's definitely backyard football, and thank God I played a lot of that when I was young, because now I can adapt to it a lot easier."

It's not a coincidence that it works as often as it does. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians drills his young players in the spring and summer on the team's "scramble rules." Every team has those, but there's the realization, too, in Pittsburgh, that with this quarterback, it's a pretty relevant part of the offense.

To play in the Steeler offense, players have to have a sense for that part of the game, and it can be developed.

"You realize how long the play's going on, and that he's not getting brought down. As running back, you're just trying to get in his vision sometimes," says tailback Rashard Mendenhall. "If he finds you, it can be a big play. For us, you try and get into his vision, give him an outlet, after you run your route. Just like with anybody's scramble rules, you're trying to get close enough for a dump off."

The frequency with which these rules need to applied is, obviously, higher in Pittsburgh, which is unconventional because the quarterback is unconventional. But obviously, something here is working, and that might force other teams to take a closer look at how the Steelers make it work.

I don't know a thing ...

About whether or not there will be a chunk of the 2011 season bitten off by the labor strife. What I am sure of is that you'll have to hear about the CBA issue throughout Super Bowl week, with each side given a rather prodigious platform to make its case.

Rhetoric has been turned up in the playoffs. Count on more in the coming days. League executive vice president of labor/legal counsel Jeff Pash will have a media briefing Wednesday, the union's annual press conference comes Thursday and the commissioner's state-of-the-NFL press conference will be Friday. Game on.

"I'll start by saying this: It's unfortunate we have to focus on these issues at the pinnacle of the NFL season," NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah told me last night. "I've said it before. It's a real shame we can't promise a season next year. And it's a real shame we're getting ready to have what I'm told is the most anticipated NFLPA press conference ever.

"But we're entering a time when people want to know what's going on, so you have to balance getting the info out on one end, and not being bombastic on the other. ... Given the platform, we can't miss the opportunity to share the facts on the business side of the game."

NFL senior vice president for public relations Greg Aiello insisted, "There is nothing awkward (about this situation). Jeff Pash will be available for a CBA update Wednesday afternoon. The commissioner will have his annual press conference on Friday. And the rest is a normal Super Bowl week, focused on the game, community events, and a general celebration of football and community."

It will be, however, the last time before things really ramp up on the labor front that either side will have a football game to look forward to.

Atallah said the union would welcome a negotiating session, with everyone in one place for a week in Dallas. We'll see if that happens. There's, again, a balance here to navigate with focus intended to be on the game. He did offer one way to end the rhetoric, which is the one way you might imagine.

"Put it this way, if the league promises there won't be a lockout this year, I'll cancel our press conference," Atallah said. "I mean, there's no reason for us to want to go through this, that's how much we want the players to shine this week. We understand people want to focus on the game, and if you're a traditional fan like I am, you couldn't ask for a better matchup from a historical perspective."

And as to the idea that the week will be full of CBA talk, Aiello responded that it's not in his or the league's control. But the fact that Pash and Goodell's appearance buttress the union event means there promises to be some back-and-forth.

"People will discuss what they think is relevant," Aiello said. "It's the American way. We will be in North Texas to play the Super Bowl. The story is the Steelers and Packers."

First ...

Strange day in Tennessee. But here's the final result, Jeff Fisher's departure, might wind up being what's best for both sides, even if the club is losing what I believe to be one heck of a football coach.

Split was right move

Jeff Fisher and the Titans splitting after 16 seasons together is change that will be good for both coach and team moving forward, Michael Lombardi says. **More ...**

There's been a weird vibe around that team, really, since the Vince Young blow-up in November. Initially, the thought in the organization was that, with owner Bud Adams' undying commitment to Young, the football folks wouldn't be able to replace him, but could bring in competition to unseat him.

Then, it became apparent that the Fisher/Young dynamic had become an either/or proposition for the franchise. Adams' summoning of executive vice president Steve Underwood and general manager Mike Reinfeldt to Houston resolved that, with the braintrust convincing the owner to cut ties with Young.

So how in the world did we get here now? A couple factors were at play.

First, a staff shakeup was expected all along, and defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was the obvious fall guy in that scenario. Fisher tried to stick by Cecil, but finally acquiesced, and lost perhaps his best assistant, defensive line coach Jim Washburn, in the process. On the offensive side, running backs coach Craig Johnson bolted for Minnesota and, on top of that, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's health issues could have meant Fisher would be remaking each end of the staff.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, was Fisher's contract status. Not only was the coach in the final year of his deal, it became increasingly apparent to those in the organization he wasn't long for the organization and, with the contract expiring, Adams had an escape hatch coming that allow him to sever the relationship without financial penalty. That create prospects for a lame-duck, and Fisher knew full well of the trouble a coach can have control a team in that spot.

You could also take the situations, and intertwine them. Fisher had to fill staff openings, but do so convincing coaches to come with knowledge that he might be gone next January. Not easy to convince quality coaches (like, say, Eric Mangini) to come aboard under those circumstances.

The bottom line is that this stood to be very much like John Fox's final year in Carolina, where a good coach was in a very bad situation without much support from upstairs and bargain-basement approach to roster building. Fox went 2-14 and landed on his feet in Denver, but that kind of spot isn't a good one for a team or a coach to be.

The good news now is that neither side will have to deal that.

... and 10

1. No time for head games

Concussions have been a hot topic all season, and the subject won't go away when the labor talks really heat up. And that's what made a certain situation last Sunday in Chicago so fascinating, and really explained better than any other one could why these cases are so difficult to navigate. Yup, we're talking about Julius Peppers' helmet-to-helmet bombing of Aaron Rodgers. The stakes, at the time, couldn't have been much higher. The Bears had just cut the Packers' lead to 14-7 with 11 minutes left in a conference title game, and Green Bay needed a way to stem the tide (B.J. Raji eventually did that for the Packers) with Caleb Hanie giving the hosts a spark. So Rodgers stayed in the game, finished out the drive he was in, and the only first down the Packers offense picked up the rest of the way, following the blow, was on a pass-interference penalty drawn by Donald Driver on the next play. Now, this isn't to say Rodgers had a concussion, at all. But the hit looked bad, and Rodgers is a player who had already had two concussions under his belt for the season in question. The trouble with a concussion is, short of getting knocked cold, a player can hide it. And when so much is on the line, it'd stand to reason that guys would. My guess is that Rodgers would do everything in his power to remain in the game. That's where instances arise in which players must be protected from themselves.

2. Super Bowl XLV's 'Mane Event'

One of the funnier storylines of this year's Super Bowl will be the "Mane Event." Clay Matthews seems intent on putting his head of hair up against the Troy Polamalu's, and has been for a few weeks already. Ploy to get a Head & Shoulders deal like Polamalu? Maybe. Polamalu joked, when asked, that his hair is "more expensive." But rather than fight that, it seems Matthews is looking forward to the increased exposure those long locks will get for going head-to-head with Polamalu's. "I imagine it will get some," Matthews said on Monday. "Obviously, two of the best hairs in the game, so there's no doubt about that. It will be fun. I'm sure there will be some good video and print on that. We'll see how it goes and where it goes." It's only starting.

3. A stance on Cutler

It was pretty obvious from the minute Jay Cutler exited the NFC Championship Game that his departure from competition would be a huge storyline. It has been every bit of that. Is Cutler a jerk? A lot of people would say yes, and I can't shake the stories I heard from his time in Denver, including one that had Cutler freezing out his Bronco teammates (not returning phone calls, etc.) for more than three weeks as part of his effort to be traded. Because of that kind of stuff, folks are more willing to jump in and pile on, which is no one's fault but Cutler's own. But when it comes to toughness, it hard to say he doesn't have a track record. That's a very shoddy Chicago line he's playing behind that allowed 56 sacks, six more than any other team in the league. And yet, Cutler accounted for 432 of the 466 passes thrown by Chicago quarterbacks this year, only missing significant time after being concussed against the Giants. My point here is that if there was a pattern of Cutler being unable to sustain a beating, then there'd be some validity to this argument. Since there isn't, I think it's foolish for anyone to examine his gait coming off the field or demeanor on the sideline and make sweeping generalizations about his will.

4. A defensive back as No. 1 overall draft pick?

Only once has a defensive back been taken first overall. That was back in 1956, when the Steelers selected Colorado A&M's Gary Glick, who played quarterback in college and safety in the pros. Glick became the poster boy for the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll ineptitude, having been taken on the advice of a coach, rather than any real evidence that he could, you know, play. And since then, neither a corner, nor a safety, has gone with the top pick in the draft. Could this year be the year that changes? Well, LSU's Patrick Peterson could make one heck of a case. He's wowed scouts who've taken a closer look at him and the X-factor is the game-breaking ability he brings as a return man. The one thing preventing it is the team picking first. The Panthers already have invested big money at corner, in Chris Gamble, and have a big-time need at quarterback and along the defensive line. That would make Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert and Auburn DT Nick Fairley better bets for the first pick.

5. Brees could benefit from Manning's new deal

Should be interesting to watch whether or not the Saints are put on hold in getting Drew Brees locked up long-term. Brees and Manning are both clients of CAA mega-agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra. And even if Manning hits a triple in this negotiation, rather than the home run he's capable of, his leverage is such that he'll easily outdistance the windfall Tom Brady ($18 million per year in new money from 2011-14, and $16.8 million per year total from 2010-14) got last summer. Barring major changes in the league's financial structure, and this deal getting done post-CBA in that climate, Manning should be well beyond the $20 million-per threshold. Condon and Dogra, of course, know that, and they also know who else that will benefit -- Brees. So it would make sense for the CAA folks to have the Brees talks on a slow burn until Manning gets his deal, which should alter the market significantly.

6. The cost of selecting Newton

Our own Jason La Canfora hit earlier in the week on Cecil Newton's looming presence affecting Cam Newton's draft prospects. And it really underscores the larger point you hear louder from teams each year: You're not just drafting the kid. You're drafting everything about him -- the entourage, the family, the lifestyle -- and if the peripheral things are a problem now, chances are it's going to be difficult to change that once the kid gets rich. And it adds a layer to the intrigue with Newton. The real question here is this: Is Newton's off-field decision-making shaky, and does he listen to shaky people in making those decisions? Going to be hard for scouts to cut through all of it on this particular prospect. "It's hard to figure out who he is," said one personnel executive. "You get only bad at Florida, and only positive at Auburn." That's logical, of course. Newton bolted from one place after getting in a heap of trouble, and won a national title at the other. But it does make you wonder whether Newton truly changed after his transfer, or if he simply got his act together for a short period of time.

7. Another positive step for Vick

Good to see Michael Vick taking one of the final steps in his career rehab process, with the signing of a two-year endorsement deal with Unequal Technologies, a company that produces football pads. The end of the 2010 season was difficult on Vick, but it's pretty hard to find anyone who's been around him in the last two years who doesn't have positive things to say about the way he's come out of all his trouble. The next step could well be the league using Vick as person of interest to younger players and those coming out in the draft, on how to and not to handle success. His story would be a powerful one, and because of the kind of popularity he's achieved (both before and after the trouble) and the cache his name brings, he'd have a unique ability to reach the kids of the league.

8. High honors for Suh

Tremendous accomplishment by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in being selected AP first-team All-Pro, becoming the first rookie to make the cut since 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis did in 2007, and just the third non-specialist first-year guy (joining Willis and Jeremy Shockey) to pull the trick since 2000. An interesting fact, passed along by the Detroit PR staff: Suh is the first rookie defensive tackle to be included on the AP's first team since the selections were split by offense and defense in 1951. That's why, in my opinion, Suh was such an easy choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year, even in a year as flush with good rookies as this one has been . The degree of difficulty in what he accomplished was very, very high, and getting 10 sacks is a nearly impossible for any interior linemen, let alone a neophyte. The inclusion of two other rookies, in Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey and New England's Devin McCourty, on the second team gives you an idea what kind of class we had coming into the NFL this year. A very good one.

9. Teams will play tag before CBA expires

The NFL plans to allow franchise tagging to commence as usual during February, even with an uncertain future ahead, and the terms of future tags unknown. If the terms are similar to what they are now, though, expect a record number of players to be tagged, for a couple of reasons. First, there's a backlog of free agents after last year, when fourth- and fifth-year players that would've been unrestricted prior to 2010 were restricted free agents. Second, most teams were far more cautious over the last year about handing extensions, because of that uncertain future, which throws more logs on the fire. Among those who might be getting notice in mid-February: the Colts' Manning, Eagles' Vick, Jets' Holmes or Harris, Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley, Patriots G Logan Mankins, Chargers WR Vincent Jackson, Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali, Buccaneers MLB Barrett Ruud, Broncos CB Champ Bailey, Vikings WR Sidney Rice or LB Chad Greenway, Ravens NT Haloti Ngata, Bengals CB Johnathan Joseph, Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams and Jaguars TE Marcedes Lewis.

10. Being 'there' without actually being 'there'

Finally, with the Super Bowl upon us and estimates holding that 105,000 fans will be crammed on the Cowboys Stadium premises, the example of the 2009 debut of the "Big Yard in Arlington" jumped into my mind immediately. At that game, Jerry Jones' folks were intent on breaking a record and they did just that, setting an NFL attendance record with 105,121 fans there to see it. But remember, "there" is a relative term. I remember looking at the ends of the stadium at that game, and seeing a sea of people spilling into crowded outdoor areas. And after that game, I remember people complaining about buying a ticket without feeling like they were "there." Anyway, I would hope people who bought the $200 "party passes" for the big game know what they're getting into.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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