Greatness is learned. There are and have been numerous teams in many sports that have possessed what could be called championship talent. Some fulfill that potential while many others don't. Talent is important, essential even, but it is never in and of itself enough. Ryan Clark discussed this recently:
"He (Tomlin) brought in some of the older guys (from the 2008 Super Bowl team) and talked to us and told us that's the kind of program he wanted run, so we're following suit."
In the mid 1960s the Dallas Cowboys were thought to be the most talented team in the NFL. But they could not win a championship, losing most notably in consecutive seasons to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game. If they had won those two games then perhaps we would be referring to the championship trophy as the Landry as opposed to the Lombardi. In the 70s the Minnesota Vikings made to the Super Bowl on four different occasions losing each time. In the 80s teams like the Bengals and Broncos could not get over the hump. In the 90s the Bills, and yes, our own Steelers were extremely talented squads who couldn't figure out how to win the ultimate game.
There are years when everything is magical, the luck is good and a team hoists a trophy. But Lombardi's teams did not win right away. The 70s Steelers made to the AFCCG in 1972, but it would be another two years before they made it to and won a Super Bowl. The 2004 Steelers squad set a conference record for wins, but it would not be until 2005 that they managed to win a championship.
There is something extra that makes a champion and those who have lived through the process have an edge that those that haven't cannot know. This interview with Ike Taylor last week is interesting insofar as you might be deceived into believing, based upon the casual way that it was spoken of, that playing in three Super Bowls and winning two is a fairly common occurrence in the league. In fact, the number of active players who can claim to have played in as many as three Super Bowls and having won two is, well, quite small. And a large percentage of them are at the same South side practice facility as Taylor.
This may provide an explanation as to why the Steelers may be older than some other teams. Also why they bring back so many of their former players. Regardless of your opinion of Spaeth and Gay, they do have Super Bowl rings meaning they know the drill. The institutional memory goes beyond just current players as well. The front office, scouting department and other areas of management are thick with folk who have this championship pedigree.
It is precisely this element that is not yet present in Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle and Cincinnati. Now that Baltimore has figured it out the Steelers/Ravens rivalry may very well go to a different level. What is interesting when you look over who the two dominant franchises have been in last decade in terms of championship appearances and wins, the Steelers and the Giants, they do not necessarily impress as the juggernauts that are anointed as favorites. In fact, it is noteworthy as to how unimpressive these teams were in three out of their combined four championship appearances; their backs against the wall in December where they had to run to table to even make it into the playoffs. Yet they pulled it together when they absolutely had to and then pulled off feats that were generally believed to be impossible; defeating Peyton Manning's Colts in Indianapolis or the Packers at Lambeau and then managing late game victories in the Super Bowl.
Dwight White, the late Steeler defensive end pointed out that there are two key distinctions in this league. The first is between those teams that win championships and those that don't. The second is between those teams that win one championship and those that win multiple championships. In the case of the latter group you can eliminate luck from the equation that explains their success, they have learned and mastered the science and art of winning pure and simple and have been able to replicate it. When you eliminate from consideration those franchises that may have multiple championships but have accomplished these with basically entirely different casts of players (I'm thinking of the Ravens here where Ray Lewis was the only constant from their two Super Bowl wins) then the number of teams that manage to replicate their success is quite small.
The number of active duty Steelers that have this knowledge and experience is dwindling. The challenge is whether they are capable of indoctrinating an emerging group of young, talented players with the tangible and intangible elements of successful championship play before the knowledge is lost and this new generation will be left to figure it out (or not) on their own. To understand the difficulty involved with this just consider the Patriots. Yes, most are still mesmerized by the three championships that they won a decade ago. Lately their behavior has been more reminiscent of the 90s Bills or 70s Vikings, props that make other teams look good as they move on to bigger, better things. They've won absolutely nothing, but you have to acknowledge that they have looked good doing it.
And here is the caution for those of us who think we know how the season will play out based purely upon how we believe our talent matches up against our rivals, reconsider. Let history be your guide. On the 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl runs many at BTSC had no earthly idea what was coming. In the former instance the schedule was too difficult and in the latter Ben was suspended and Santonio Holmes was gone, so you know, forget it, maybe next year. The point is to be careful to bet against teams that know how to win. They are not bound by the same constraints as other organizations. Most would consider a Steelers/Giants Super Bowl as absolute folly. But are you sure?