PITTSBURGH -- Dan Rooney walked down the row of lockers in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room, patting shoulders, whispering words of consolation, telling the team's distraught players there's always a next year.
It's called class, and Rooney and his organization exemplified it Saturday night, especially in the face of a gut-wrenching 31-29 loss to Jacksonville in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
"Mike did a great job," the Steelers' 75-year-old owner said of 35-year-old Mike Tomlin, who took over as head coach for Bill Cowher, who stepped down exactly a year ago after 15 seasons on the job. "We had the right game plan, we did the right things. We had a lot of guys hurt. We just came out on the wrong side."
The most notable thing the Steelers did right was staying in a game that looked over in the third quarter, when Jacksonville jumped ahead 28-10. The team from the small market with few name players was favored entering the game and played like it, forcing three first-half interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger and getting brilliant play from the mercurial Maurice Jones-Drew.
But Roethlisberger came back, the Jaguars started making mistakes and Pittsburgh got three fourth-quarter touchdowns to go up 29-28; the Steelers failed twice on 2-point conversion attempts, one from the 12-yard line after a penalty on what would have been a successful conversion. They finally lost after Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard's 32-yard run set up Josh Scobee's 25-yard field goal to win it.
The Steelers were underdogs for an obvious reason: injuries to star running back Willie Parker, defensive end Aaron Smith, and offensive tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks. Safety Troy Polamalu was at less than full strength. That was enough to make the Jaguars a favorite over a team that is one of the league's most storied franchises, and a strong home team.
David was favored over Goliath, but had to work hard to advance to the next round.
Pittsburgh's sophisticated fans understood that, and so did Rooney.
"We did OK," he said after he finished consoling his players, one by one. "We did the best we could with what we had and we never quit. That counts for a lot."
Rooney wasn't the only one who understood that sometimes things go right and more often they go wrong. It was, after all, just two seasons ago that the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl, doing it as a wild-card entry, getting hot when it counted the most. That year, they won their final four games just to get into the playoffs, then four more in the postseason.
"There are 31 teams that end the season unhappy," said linebacker James Farrior. "They just made a few more plays than we did. You stay disappointed for a while and then you start to get ready for next season. That's all we can do."
Even the fans seemed to understand.
A few grumbled as they were interviewed by local television as they exited Heinz Field. A few questioned why Tomlin tried a 2-point conversion twice: if he'd kicked both times and the game finished as it did, it would have been tied at 31 and headed for overtime.
Many people put it in the same perspective exhibited by Rooney and his son, team president Art Rooney II.
"It's tough to lose," the younger Rooney said. "It always is. But it's the way this league can be. A lot of teams wouldn't have come back the way we did."
And a lot of teams wouldn't have lost with such class.
Almost all of them, in fact.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press