- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

DETROIT — It wasn’t the most memorable season for the NFL — not that it couldn’t have been. The Patriots could have won their third straight title to match Lombardi’s Packers, but injuries interfered. The Colts could have gone undefeated, but rather than embrace their rare opportunity they collectively shrugged … and wound up not even winning a playoff game. Larry Johnson could have rushed for 2,000 yards, maybe even broken Eric Dickerson’s record, but the Chiefs didn’t start him until November.

Looking back, you tend to think more about the stink bomb Terrell Owens set off in Philadelphia and the struggles Brett Favre had in perhaps his final season in Green Bay than you do about Shaun Alexander’s 28 touchdowns or the Redskins’ return to relevance. It was that kind of year.

If there’s one comfort, it’s that the Steelers — a franchise that’s all football, playing in a town that’s all football — took the big prize. They didn’t get high marks for technical proficiency or artistic interpretation in their 21-10 Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks, but they got 6.0s for their approach to the game and the type of team they are.

And what type of team is that, you ask?

“Even when they’re not practicing,” Bill Cowher said yesterday, “they’re bowling on Friday nights together.”

The NFL is going through a weird period. It’s so heavily into merchandising now — gear, CD-ROMs, its own television network — that it seems to forget sometimes that The Game is what matters most. The Super Bowl, in particular, has become more spectacle than sport, 31/2 hours of selling and singing and sensory bombardment.

But the Steelers, heck, they don’t even have cheerleaders. They used to, back in the ‘60s, but the Rooney family did away with them, decided a football game was no place for a bikini. To them, all the wiggling and jiggling detracted from the main product — which is, of course, grown men bleeding on one other.

The Steelers have always been a Glitz-Free Zone — a mirror of their working class/steel mill/coal mine fan base, a black-and-white television in a high-definition world. Let the Bucs have their Cadillac. The Steelers have the Bus.

To watch the introductions before Sunday’s kickoff of past Super Bowl MVPs was to be reminded of all that Pittsburgh and its environs have given to the game. Lynn Swann, the majestic receiver. Franco Harris, the indestructible running back. (Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback behind the Steel Curtain, should have taken a bow, too, but he decided to skip the festivities.)

Those guys were just imports, though — unlike Joe Namath, the Super Bowl III hero from Beaver Falls, Pa., who got a rousing welcome from the largely Steeler crowd. How different would pro football history be without Broadway Joe — and without the many other quarterbacks the region has produced: George Blanda, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly. Pittsburgh, in many ways, is pro football, and has been since Pudge Heffelfinger started it all by getting paid $500 (plus travel expenses) to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892.

The existence of the Steelers and their mom-and-pop ways help keep the NFL grounded — to the extent that’s possible. The community-owned Packers also serve this function, as do the Giants (still run by founder Tim Mara’s descendants) to a lesser extent. I say “lesser extent” because while the Giants may not have cheerleaders, they did for a time have Angie Harmon.

The Steelers have now played in at least one Super Bowl in each of the last four decades — that is, if you fudge it a bit and push their ‘79 championship into the ‘80s, when the Super Bowl that season was technically played. There’s something comforting about that, too. Pittsburgh’s message — and it’s good for the rest of the league to hear it every once in a while — is that less can still be more, that a team can be successful by concentrating mostly on the football end of things, that it doesn’t have be turned into a three-ring circus.

The Steelers, after all, are a five-ring circus; they have a Super Bowl ring for each finger — as many as America’s Team and the Joe Montana/Steve Young 49ers. Like the man said, football is still a game played in the dirt. And once again this season the Rooney AC played it better than anybody.

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